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7 Day Caribbean Cruise for 4 During Peak Season

The Full Time Finance first trip of 2018 is now in the record books. So of course it’s time for the travel hacking post about the trip. This time it was something different, a 7 day cruise to the Western Caribbean, with a net cost so far of 1,940 dollars.

My First Cruise, Free Child Care for the Win

So let me start by saying, I have never been on a cruise before. My wife has. She has been pushing me to go on a cruise since we met. Meanwhile I have been a bit hesitant since I have always been the explore on a whim anti canned vacation type of person. I finally gave in this time thanks to promises of kids club. Days at sea where I could catch up on my reading with free baby sitting sounds positively divine a few years in to parenthood.

Why a Cruise and Why International?

Some of you are probably going to ask, didn’t you say you would only do one international trip in 2018? The active blog readers among  you have probably already seen my comments on other blogs alluding to another international trip we will be taking without kids in June (a topic for another day). Well, we started out planning to do our annual late winter early fall trip domestically. Unfortunately because our child is now in kindergarten we were forced into the Easter spring break week. This of course meant flights everywhere cost an arm and a leg. We literally could not justify the cost of a flight.

So Why Not Drive?

Because of the flight costs we landed on driving somewhere. The point of these vacations is always to go somewhere warm after dealing with the cold soulless Delaware winters. We considered renting a house somewhere in Florida but assumed we would be one of millions doing that. We did a short trip to visit friends in Coastal Georgia at Christmas, so that was also out. This basically ruled out drivable warm choices.

A Drive with a Boat at the End

So we settled on a choice mixing driving and a boat. Ultimately we drove to Tampa Florida and hopped on a Norwegian Cruise destined for Cozumel, Costa Maya, Roatan Honduras, and Harvest Caye Belize. Total cost of the interior stateroom for our family of 4, $2700 + $380 in mandatory service gratuities. I find it a bit shady that they don’t tell you about the mandatory gratuities when you book, but anyway, the initial outlay was $3080. Our driving cost us about 60 dollars and gas. We used Marriott Points I had accrued from work and free stays from the Marriott Rewards Credit Card Annual bonus to stop for sleep on the 16 hour journey. Food was mostly brought in tow for the various Springhill Suites complete with kitchens. So getting there was quite cheap.

First Day at Sea Didn’t go so well

Once on the boat the first day at sea the cruise line threw us for a loop. The kids club was only open if parents attended so they could do some special Easter event. No one seemed happy about this including us. The boat we booked, Norwegian Dawn, was lacking the type entertainment of bigger boats to keep our kids occupied without the kids club.   Consisting only of a tiny adults pool and a small kids pool.  Thankfully the rest of the week the club was open. By the end of the week our kids were begging to go to the kids club and we had our share of time to read books.

Dealing with the Dreaded Stomach Bugs that Go With Cruises

The second day we arrived in Cozumel. Unfortunately I caught a stomach bug so we did not get off the ship. Apparently this is common on a cruise and something to look out for. Thankfully for me most of the problems passed in a day and the rest of the cruise was none the worse for wear.

Costa Maya, Cheap Beer and White Sand

Costa Maya

Day 3 we stopped in Costa Maya, Mexico. Our goal for this cruise was beach hopping, so we headed to the small town of Mahahual just 5 minutes by taxi from the port. Essentially a few mile long beach with restaurants and beach clubs along its length. We found a restaurant that gave free facilities and beach access if you bought food and spent the day. They even had $10 buckets of 10 Coronas. The kids had a blast playing in the water and the white sand. We spent $40 dollars on the day.

Roatan Honduras, Nice Beach and Slightly Higher Prices

Roatan Honduras

Day 4 we stopped in Roatan, Honduras. Again we found a beach, this time the more touristy West Bay. Same concept though, we walked around and found a bar that gave free facilities and lounge chairs if you purchased food. White sand and warm crystal blue water as far as the eyes could see. While more touristy overall the beaches were a bit less cluttered with restaurant furniture due to local laws about how close to the water the bar chairs can be. Our kids and to some extent us played in the water and the sand. Beer was a bit more expensive here, about $3.50 apiece. Including taxi we spent approximately $60 dollars here.

Cruise Islands are an Over Priced Letdown

Harvest Caye

Finally on Day 5 we stopped at Harvest Caye Belize. This is a man made island created by the Cruise lines. Honestly this was the only stop that disappointed me. The beach had giant somewhat sharp grains of sand. The water was covered in seaweed (and unlike elsewhere no one raked it out of the water). Finally costs for alcohol on the island were the same as on the cruise, astronomical. (Note even on the cruise we did not get the drinks package, $80 a day buys a lot of drinks back home or in Costa Maya). We forgo food and the beach and just hung out in their giant pool. The kids enjoyed the change of pace and so did we. Since we bought no food or drinks, just filling our water bottles before leaving the ship, we spent no money.

Last Day at Sea Delivered All that was Promised

The final day was again at Sea. The kids spent the day in the kids club preparing to deliver a show for us. They had a blast and were sad when it ended. We spent the day doing Sudoku, reading, and other relaxing endeavors.

Overall my wife was a bit disappointed by the trip as she had sky high expectations. I was happy with the trip, but I started with low expectations. The reality was somewhere in the middle, but it was relaxing either way.

Costs of the 7 Day Cruise

So total out of pocket, for those who have paid attention so far, was $3080 for the cruise itself+ $100 for excursions + $60 in gas. Or $3,240. So what about credit card churning? Well our latest card was the American Express Gold Business Card. It contributed a $500 dollar signup bonus and $100 in regular spending cash back to our trip. The card before, the Bank of America Premier Card also contributed. This card gave us a $500 signup bonus and $100 in regular spend cash back. It also gave us $100 dollars in Airline credits, to be used later. Finally it gave us $100 in credit for global entry for our oldest child (between this card and our recent Amexs only my youngest does not have global entry, we have not spent a dime). So if I ignore the still unused $100 credit we’ve knocked off $1200. If I also knock off our $100 a week normal food budget the net cost of the cruise to date has been $1940.

Some thoughts:

  • Without the constraints of our child’s summer vacation this could have been much cheaper. Other times of year or last minute cruise bookings can save you a lot of money. This was our first year dealing with those constraints. For those with younger children I urge you to take advantage of the time you have before grade school.
  • Technically our credit card churning amounts are higher then $1200. We applied some points to our upcoming June trip as well. We are still on track to cover all costs with travel hacking for the year, though it will be tight. Remember we use our cards to hack travel after the fact based on the fungibility of money.
  • We’ve already decided next year we will join the crowds for a beach house in Florida. While everyone had fun, we believe that will be just as entertaining.

Have you ever done a cruise?

7 Comments

  1. Caroline
    Caroline April 16, 2018

    No but I had been seriously looking into it, not sure you made me want to do it:)
    Looks like you didn’t do any of the one day excursions?

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance April 16, 2018

      There is definitely a sort of good, the bad, and the ugly to it.

      We wanted a beach vacation so only the beach excursions were of interest. They went to the same beaches we did, but were 50-60 dollars a person to drive you there. In places like Costa Maya we walked past the excursion booths and spent 9 dollars total for our family of 4 to be shuttled to the beach.

      The key finding I guess I left out is never purchase an excursion directly through the cruise, they charge highway robbery prices. If we had wanted to purchase an excursion to do say zip lining a reputable local company would take you to the same spot or a better one for a quarter of the cost.

      • Matt
        Matt April 17, 2018

        What buying through the cruise line gets you is the assurance that they won’t leave without you. Going on your own puts you at risk that, if something should happen and you don’t make it back to the ship in time, then you have to catch up to the ship at your own expense.
        Whether that sounds ominous or ridiculous is a personal matter. For me, (11 cruises under my belt) there are two keys: knowing the area you are in, either as a repeat visitor or through enough research beforehand, and using public transportation. If one taxi breaks down, there are a lot of other taxis by the beach. But if your Jeep breaks down in the jungle, who knows how you will get back? For something like a zip line or ruins expedition, I would pay the “insurance” to not ruin the vacation. For something in town or where lots of people are, like the beach, I think it’s smart shopping.
        Note that, for those who are actually shopping, the same goes for the stores. We pick up the “recommended store list” for hints on where *not* to go. Or, if there is some place unique we want to go, we are sure not to identify ourselves with the ship.

        • FullTimeFinance
          FullTimeFinance April 17, 2018

          Great advice there it seems. We did a lot of research before we arrived on where we would go. Any other advice for novice cruisers?

          • Matt
            Matt April 18, 2018

            I don’t know if it’s advice, but I do commend you for making peace with / putting days at sea to good use. I think that’s both the joy and the highest hurdle of a cruise, where they have their full marketing machine going for their captive audience, but also have other social activities, too. I admit that my first cruise I was totally caught off guard, and hated them. I quickly came to the same conclusion as you: they are reading time. I try to camp out where the lemonade is, which also usually brings fresh cookies several times through the day. Yum.

            The other general comment, somewhat related, is to make sure you pace yourself with visits. One of the toughest cruises we took (not bad, mind you–exhausting) was a Southern Caribbean itinerary out of Puerto Rico, with 6 ports of call in 7 days. Thank God for the last Day at Sea! But, I would have better enjoyed 4 or 5 ports, with Days at sea interspersed for pacing.

  2. Codrut Turcanu
    Codrut Turcanu April 17, 2018

    Never been on a cruise, however $3k for 7 days for 4 people is rather cheap than expensive I’d say… didn’t see other cruise prices so cannot really compare…

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance April 17, 2018

      Keep in mind I was in the cheapest room they have. That being said the weeks before and after the one we went were a few hundred cheaper.

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