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How I Turned a Budget Cruise Into a Luxury Experience

Going on a cruise can be luxurious without breaking the bank.

After dozens of sailings around the world, I've learned how to pinch my pennies on a cruise vacation budget. A seven-day sail can range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars, yet I've discovered that the cruise basics don't waver much—and there's just as much fun to be had when cruising on a budget. When a girlfriend and I recently landed on Carnival Panorama—the one ship I always recommend to friends—for our week-long getaway, I shared with her my tips and tricks for elevating our wallet-friendly experience. Read on to discover how I turned a budget cruise into a luxury experience without breaking the bank.

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Interior cabins are a great way to save.

Made Bed in Cruise Ship Cabin
Kittisak Sirichunsuwan/Shutterstock

One of my favorite things about vacationing is slipping into a luxurious bed with high-quality pillows and sheets. Yet, on a cruise ship, it doesn't matter how expensive the cabin is—all guests benefit from deluxe bedding. When my friend and I sought out ways to save on our getaway, I knew an interior cabin would still have the same high-end linens but with a lower price point.

We each selected our own interior rooms for $300–less than half the cost of an oceanview room–and enjoyed quality linens, a full bathroom with a shower, and more closet and drawer space than needed. Bathrobes were available upon request, and the room steward replaced towels daily. Each of our rooms also had a desk with a chair, flat-screen television, and a small refrigerator.

My friend and I could have saved even more money sharing one cabin, but we loved the idea of having our own dedicated, private space. Choosing an interior cabin for each of us was the best way to trim our budget without sacrificing quality or privacy.

Dine at specialty restaurants during lunchtime.

bowls of different kinds of pasta on black table

Carnival Panorama has an amazing assortment of free eateries and specialty restaurants with a modest upcharge. We were able to enjoy Italian, Asian, and barbecue cuisine without paying extra, because three of the specialty restaurants on Panorama have free lunch menus. The Italian eatery, Cucina del Capitano, offers a complimentary lunch featuring house-made pastas, while JiJi Asian Kitchen offers a free Mongolian grill lunch menu with customizable entrees. Dining at these specialty venues in the evening would cost $15 per person, so the no-cost lunches saved us $30 each.

Another popular specialty venue is Guy's Pig & Anchor Smokehouse, of Guy Fieri fame, which has a la carte pricing. On sea days, Pig & Anchor offers a full, free barbecue lunch with several types of meat and sides. We easily saved $30 each by enjoying the spread on two sea days.

In addition to these higher-end eateries, my friend and I dined in the main dining room on lobster night, which offers broiled lobster tails and seared steaks for no upcharge. During the rest of the cruise, we enjoyed grilled salmon and pastas in the dining room and buffet, tacos and burritos at BlueIguana Cantina, and several incredible burgers at Guy's Burger Joint—all included within the cruise fare.

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Discount drinks and specialty coffees are the way to go.

Hand Holding a Pink Cocktail on a Cruise Ship
Nicole Kandi/Shutterstock

My friend wanted the ease of ordering whatever drink she wanted, when she wanted, without worrying about the cost. So, it made sense for her to get the Cheers beverage package, which allows for 15 alcoholic drinks daily, in addition to unlimited specialty coffees and sodas. On our seven-day cruise, my pal saved more than $40 by paying for it in advance, instead of buying it onboard.

Since I prefer coffee over cocktails, I did not purchase the package and instead opted to pay for fruity cocktails as I wanted them. I still cut my costs, as happy hour promotions tend to offer "buy one, get one" selections. And I also saved on specialty coffees at Java Blue Café because they have a punch card where with every six coffees purchased, the seventh is free.

The other nice thing about Carnival is the cruise line allows guests to bring aboard one, 750-milliliter bottle of wine per adult at the start of the cruise. They also permit up to 12 cans of soda per person on boarding day, so I also saved money by bringing a few of my own Cokes with me.

Tour the spa to unlock extra savings.

Towels and Stones Laid Out on a Massage Bed
Africa Studio/Shutterstock

On the first day of a cruise, I always make time to take a brief tour of the onboard spa facilities. After dozens of cruises, I am already familiar with ship spas, but there's a good reason to take a tour: discounts. During the tour, guests are presented with embarkation specials, which greatly appealed to my friend.

But this activity is also budget-friendly because it's free and usually includes a few sampler treatments. On this particular sailing, my friend and I each had complimentary mini-massages at the end of the tour. Additionally, there are also spa raffles where you can win gift cards to put toward a full treatment.

Where we also scored with the spa was in attending a Pamper Party. Essentially, this is a short session where up to 20 guests attend a DIY spa party. Ours included a free, five-step, DIY facial, using all the amazing products the onboard spa has to offer. It cost us nothing, and our faces were glowing with joy after such a lovely treat.

We did opt for one splurge experience on this cruise and that was for a weeklong thermal spa pass. Carnival Panorama has a handful of thermal suites with dry heat, sauna, and steam bath options. There's also an oversized spa tub perfect for relaxation after a long day in port. For one person, the weeklong pass costs $149, while the rate for two people is $249–so it's easier to pay less with friends. Cheaper day passes are also available on most ships, so that's another way to save while splurging.

Plan for self-guided excursions.

Two Bikes Next to a Palm Tree by the Ocean

I have friends who always spend money on guided group excursions, but I prefer to cut my costs and take self-guided walking tours. When we set out for the day in Mazatlán, for example, my friend and I took note of the various landmarks included on an official sightseeing tour and simply navigated through town on foot to find these attractions ourselves.

Before a cruise begins, it's helpful to download a walking map for each port on the itinerary. Then, review the excursion offerings to become familiar with must-see landmarks to find on a self-guided walking tour. We used this very tactic in Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlán, and Cabo San Lucas, and had such an amazing time sampling treats at local cafes, locating oceanfront sculptures, and exploring boutiques.

Plus, with most attractions aboard Carnival Panorama included in the cruise fare, we were also able to swoosh down waterslides, balance our way on the ropes course, and play a round of mini-putt for no extra cost if we desired. Or, we could simply lay out by the pool knowing we turned our budget getaway into a dreamy, luxury vacation thanks to a few smart savings tricks.

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Lori A. May
Lori A. May lives out her suitcase most of the year and her articles have been published in Best Life, Business Insider, Houston Chronicle, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and Time Out. Read more
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