Monday, December 26, 2011

How to get the cheapest price for a Disney Cruise

So I've always known that Disney cruises existed but up until a few years ago I was never interested in going on one. That's probably because I went on a short cruise when I lived in Los Angeles (a 3-night to Ensenada, Mexico) and I guess it was a little different from the "Love Boat" image I had in my mind. Don't get me wrong, it was cool being out on the ocean and it was beautiful, but this particular weekend cruise was a total party boat and filled with mostly drunk people. Not that there's anything wrong with that...but I don't remember seeing any kids on this cruise and I couldn't imagine bringing my kids on a cruise after I witnessed some of the things I saw.

Anyways...I am a planner and I love to research things, and I just happened to be researching Alaska. Alaska is a place I'd love to visit someday, don't know when, don't know how, but I was looking into it. And lo and behold in the google results for vacationing to Alaska appeared the Disney Cruise Line. I knew that Disney sailed out of Florida, but I had no idea they were going to be sailing out of Alaska (they just started in 2011). So I started looking at their videos and got excited about the ship and the kids programs and the destinations.

And then I got on the Disney Cruise Line website and priced a cruise for a family of 4 (this was before I knew we were becoming a family of 5) and I just about fell out of my chair when I saw the pricetag for a Diney Cruise. And I figured we'd never be able to afford that, or maybe some day in the distant future if we skipped a few years of family vacations to save up for a big one.

Until I started researching on websites and message boards. And I learned some strategies to get the cheapest price available for a Disney Cruise. So if you are thinking about going on a Disney Cruise but think they are priced way too high, read this first:

1. Book your cruise using a travel agent that gives you onboard credit. I know, some of you are thinking, who uses a travel agent anymore when you can just book everything online yourself? So here's the deal: the price of a Disney cruise is the same whether you book it on Disney's website or if you use a travel agent. The difference is, a travel agent will get a commission on your reservation and some of them give you part of that commission back through a gift (like a food basket in your stateroom when you arrive) or onboard credit (money that's already sitting in your account when you arrive that you can use for tips, alcohol, pictures, souvenirs, etc.). I would personally rather have the onboard credit over a food basket gift because there is already so much food available on the ship. We booked with Travel On A Dream and received a $150 onboard credit gift from them. Then we also entered a Facebook contest through the travel agent and won an additional $25 of onboard credit! So $175 total from Travel On A Dream that we will most likely use for tips or professional photos on board.(Note: You can also get an additional $50 onboard credit if you book your cruise using a Disney Visa card, which we did so we have a total of $225 in onboard credit).

If you already booked a Disney cruise and did not use a travel agent, you can still "transfer" your reservation to a travel agent and in some cases get a partial onboard credit.

The only disadvantage for booking through a travel agent is that if you need to make any change to your cruise (change your date, add a person, etc.) you cannot do that through Disney directly. You would have to call your travel agent and have them make the changes for you.

Also, be aware that some travel agents or websites will claim to have cheaper prices on a Disney cruise, but usually they are quoting a price that doesn't include travel insurance or port transfers (both of which are optional).

Using a good travel agent is also crucial because they can alert you when Disney announces its new sail dates to the public. This is important because...well, see #2.

2. Book your cruise on the very day that the new sail dates are announced to the public. Disney Cruise Line uses a tier pricing structure, meaning that the very lowest price is offered when the cruises are first released to the public. Then when they sell a certain percentage of cabins, the price increases. So the closer you get to the cruise date, and the more cabins are already sold out, the higher the price will be. This also means that you will end up booking your cruise 18-24+ months in advance of the sail date. (Yes, that is very far in advance, but don't worry, you can always cancel up until 75 days prior to sailing and get your deposit back).

2013 cruises on Disney's 2 newest ships, The Dream and The Fantasy, were released to the public on October 18, 2011. (2012 cruises were released on a similar date in October 2010). I was on a cruise message board that morning that they were released and watched people's posts about the pricing they received. And the crazy thing is, on some of the more popular cruises, the prices increased by the HOUR that morning. Yes, the prices increased throughout the first day. I noticed this mainly on the cruises that fell over a holiday (Easter Week, Thanksgiving Week).

This is where being hooked up with a travel agent can be really beneficial. Our agent e-mailed us a few days before the new dates were released to tell us that she had a hunch they were about to be released...and on the morning of the big release we got another e-mail. I saw on the message boards that some people who weren't on the message boards earlier in the day had no idea that the cruises were released and they saw they were already too late to get the lower prices.

The price of our cruise has DOUBLED since we first booked it. Yes, doubled, and we are still 5 months before our sail date. If we were to book our same cruise today, we would pay twice as much as we did. Now, part of that is because the lower categories of cabins sell faster than the higher ones, which brings me to point #3.

3. Book the lowest level cabin category. This may seem like a no-brainer, but the lower level categories are almost always cheaper than the higher ones. The lower level cabins are inside cabins with either no windows, or a "virtual" porthole like on the 2 newer ships. Even within the inside staterooms, there are category levels depending on their location on the ship. Then there are rooms with a porthole, then rooms with verandahs, and then suites and concierge suites. So if your goal is to experience a Disney Cruise at the best possible price, book early so that the lowest possible staterooms are available.

***Special instructions for families of 5*** Most staterooms have a maximum capacity of 4 people. Some can only fit 3 people. Disney's newest ships added more staterooms that fit 5 people. The lowest category that sleeps 5 is a Category 8 stateroom with a porthole view. There aren't too many of these, another reason why you'll need to book on the release date. If those are sold out, the only other options are to book a Category 4 with a verandah for 5 (more expensive than a category 8), or book 2 inside staterooms. When booking 2 staterooms, they will always charge you 2 adult rates per room (even if you only have 1 adult and 1 kid in the room). Sometimes on the older ships that don't have the Category 8's that sleep 5, it's cheaper to book 2 inside cabins than it is to book a verandah stateroom for 5. On the newer ships, it's usually cheaper to book the Category 8 stateroom.

4. Cruise during off-peak times. Just like at Disney World, Disney Cruise Line prices are typically cheaper when school is in session. And more expensive when school is out (Summer, Spring Break, Thanksgiving Week, Christmas, etc.). So if you have kids, and they are young enough to miss some days of school, consider booking a cruise in January or October.

5. Book using a last-minute discount code. Disney will try to fill its ships no matter what time of year it is, either through lower initial prices or special promotions. When a cruise is not selling out as fast, Disney will sometimes offer a "Kids Sail Free" promotion or a Florida resident discount or a military discount. For Kids Sail Free, only the adults in the stateroom are charged, so this is a good option if you have kids. I've seen this promotion offered on the Mexican Riviera Cruises out of Los Angeles during the Fall/Winter months (but not when school is out) and on the Alaska cruise during May.

Disney Cruise Line also offers special discounts on certain cruises that are 90 days or less away from sail dates:

Inside Stateroom with Restrictions (GTY IGT)
Oceanview Stateroom with Restrictions (GTY OGT)
Verandah Stateroom with Restrictions (GTY VGT)

With this discount, you will get a lower fare, but the cruise is completely non-refundable and non-transferable. And you do not get to pick your stateroom location or make any requests. So if you are very flexible with your sail dates, this might be an option to consider. I've read that they offered some of these special rates for The Dream cruises this January.

6. Choose a cruise that you can drive to instead of flying to save money on airfare. DCL doesn't just cruise out of Florida anymore, they also cruise out of Los Angeles, Galveston, Seattle, New York City.

7. Re-book your next cruise (a "dummy" cruise) while onboard. If you are already onboard a Disney Cruise and you re-book while on board, you get a 10% discount on the cruise fare and a reduced deposit (10% down instead of 20% down). You also get a shipboard credit on your next cruise through Disney ($100-$200 depending on the length of the cruise) and if you name your travel agent when you re-book you will still get an additional onboard credit from your travel agent. The best thing to do is book a "dummy" cruise onboard, like a 3-day cruise as far out in advance as possible, and then when next October comes around, you can switch that date to any cruise that has just been announced and get the cheapest price on that new cruise (plus your 10% off, 10% deposit discount, Disney onboard credit and your travel agent onboard credit).

Obviously, to get the very very best price, combine all or most of those tactics above (i.e. use a travel agent to get onboard credit, book on opening day, and book a lower-level category cabin during an off-peak time and re-book while on board).

In additional to the base price of the cruise, there are ways to save money onboard:

* Carry your own alcohol onboard. DCL lets you carry alcohol onboard as long as it fits in your carry-on bag.

* Skip the pricey shore excursions (like the parasailing or swimming with dolphins) and opt to take a taxi to a public beach. One of the reasons we picked our particular cruise was that it has 2 stops at Castaway Cay, Disney's private island. Most everything is free (or included in your cruise fare) on Castaway Cay--the beach, the food, water slides, splash area, kids club, etc. Many of the things that aren't completely free on Castaway Cay are very inexpensive (like renting a bike for $6, renting floats, etc.)

* Know what's included in your cruise price before you get onboard so that there are no surprises. A Disney cruise is mostly all-inclusive for the price, but there are still some extra things not covered. For example, on DCL the soda is free in the dining rooms and at the drink stations, but it will cost you money if you order a soda from room service or order a soda in a bar. Most of the items on room service are free except for the boxed candy and soda.

* Use your own camera to take pictures with the characters.

Despite getting what I think was the best price available for our Disney cruise, I still estimate that our cruise vacation (combined with 2 days at Disney World prior to the cruise) will cost us about 25% more than our typical 1 week vacation at Disney World. That's partly because if we were spending the entire week at Disney World, we'd have more options to make the vacation less costly (i.e. staying at an off-site location, cooking some meals in a condo instead of going out to eat, etc.).

Will the cruise be worth it? I sure hope so!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Surprise!

So after months of asking and begging from our kids (specifically our oldest), today was the day we told our kids about our next vacation!

We started our day with these Mickey Mouse head chocolate chip pancakes:

But the kids didn't make the connection.

Then after breakfast, we started a scavenger hunt around the house. The first clue was in the advent calendar: (excuse the poor grammar)

The first clue sent the kids up to their cardboard clubhouse (see previous blog post). Our oldest son was in charge of reading all the clues out loud:

Here is what it said:

Then they went to their pirate ship toy to find this clue:
The spinning mirror in Mom & Dad's room had a poster hanging on it:

So after reading this, my oldest said "YAY! We're going to Disney World!" And I said, "No, we're going on a Disney Cruise!" And he kept saying, "So...we're going to Disney World?" Excited, but slightly confused!

So then we sent them into the office to the Christmas tree, where a wrapped treasure box was waiting for them.

The treasure box contained 3 Disney Cruise Line sailor caps, Mickey/Minnie sailor plush, Pirates of the Caribbean legos, pictures & maps, the DCL informational DVD, "tickets", and gift cards for each kid.

The gift cards had pictures of each kid on them (a gift from Grandma and Grandpa!)
The tickets! (created by DISigners on the DIS board):

So we were trying to explain to them what a cruise is and how it would be like a hotel and resort on a boat that travels to islands. And our oldest was like, "Where's the rides?" So still a little confused.

So we put in the Disney Cruise Line informational DVD. My 4-year-old kept saying, "Awesome!" My 1-year-old just kept trying to confiscate all the Mickeys and Minnie for herself.

We are going on a 5-night Double-Dip cruise to the Bahamas on the Disney Dream! It's called a double-dip because this cruise makes two stops at Disney's private island in the Bahamas, Castaway Cay. It also spends one day at Nassau on the Grand Bahamas, one day at sea, and one day at Port Canaveral.

While the DVD was still playing, we got a phone call from The Big Cheese himself! That's right, Mickey Mouse called to tell the kids he couldn't wait for them to sail to the Bahamas with them!

Then I told them that there is a Pirate Night on the ship, and that we will get to dress up as pirates. So of course they wanted to get into their pirate costumes (from last Halloween) right away!

I'm so glad this secret is out, because I could hardly stand it anymore. Now we can spend the next several months learning about our destinations and the ship! We didn't tell our son yet that we will also be going to Star Wars Weekend at Disney's Hollywood Studios the day before the cruise. I'm afraid his head would explode at all this news!

After the holidays, I will write a blog post about how to get the cheapest price for a Disney Cruise. Because after researching this for a few years, I've learned there are tricks to get the best price and very specific times when it's best to book.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The $5 house

This cardboard house was on sale at JCPenney this week for $14.99. As soon as I saw it in the store, I immediately thought it would be great for entertaining the kids over winter break. I had a coupon for $10 off, so I got it for $4.99. Score!

It wasn't too hard to assemble.

Then, let the coloring begin!

My kids have been playing with this house almost all day long (and fighting about it, and passing a "stinky sock" in and out of it endlessly). The kids each claimed a side of the house as their own to color. My oldest son is taking his time because he said he wants it to look perfect. The rest of the house is colored quite randomly by my 4-year-old. And I colored it some, because I found it strangely therapeutic.

I'm hoping the kids will remain interested in the house for at least a few more days before Christmas. It's too cold to go outside (too cold for us Texans, anyway!)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Final Clue!

I gave the kids their final vacation clue this morning:

They think we're going to a palace! Nathan said that's what it looks like. They didn't notice a big clue within this picture, a small icon located near the top.

4 more days until the big reveal. I've actually thought about telling them earlier, but since I already have a phone call from "the big cheese" scheduled for Thursday, I guess I'll wait.

As excited as I am about telling them, I'm also preparing myself for them not to be that excited. I'm sure you've seen the youtube videos where kids are told they're going to Disneyland and they are mad or upset they're not going somewhere else. I don't exactly expect that reaction, but I do expect them to possibly be a bit confused. But in the end, I will just be glad to finally be able to talk about this vacation after keeping it a secret for 2 years!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Bonus Clue

The kids got a bonus clue for our next vacation today. I had to take the kids to get their passport photos taken. Since my older son already has a passport, I wanted to take the younger two while he was in school, but the timing didn't work out. So we all went to Walgreens together. The two who were getting their pictures taken didn't have a clue, but of course my oldest was very inquisitive.

"We didn't have to have a passport to go to California, right? Why do we need a passport this time?"

I said, "Maybe we're not going to California."

"What other places need passports?"

I said, "All other countries except the USA."

"Are we going to Russia again?"

Now that one I will answer now. NO!

Getting a passport for a child who was adopted internationally is a little stressful, because we have to send in the original adoption decree and the original certificate of citizenship (both of which there is only one single copy) and trust that it will be sent back and not get lost. We went through this with our oldest son, and I didn't fully rest until we got our documents back in the mail.

So here's hoping for a speedy passport process!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Clue #3: Crab Races

This is the 3rd vacation clue we gave to our kids this morning:

They still have no clue where we're going, but they did have their own pretend crab races this morning!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

How I saved/earned over $1000 for Christmas

When we were a double-income family, I took for granted that I could buy Christmas presents in the last few months of the year (charging them) and just pay them off with our next paychecks. The expense of Christmas was not a huge deal.

My whole outlook on that changed when I quit my job to stay at home with my kids. Now all of our expenditures must be carefully planned and budgeted, and our Christmas budget cannot be easily absorbed into a few months of credit card spending.

So back in August, I set myself a mini-goal of spending the next 4 months (through November) earning and saving what I could for our Christmas budget. I was inspired by Couponing to Disney, who uses this same philosophy to pay for vacations to Disneyworld. I wanted to see how much money out of our Christmas budget I could earn myself or save from unexpected income sources without taking from my husband's paycheck or using our standard monthly budget.

I had some ideas on how I would accomplish this--some things were easy, like our healthcare flex spending fund. That was an easy check in the mail that I could cash in and put in the Christmas fund and it wouldn't affect our monthly budget. Credit card rewards. A garage sale.

Here is what I did by month:

August: $310.22 ($220 gas reimbursement, $66.22 from working on, $22 sold books to Half Price bookstore)

September: $200.56 ($150 credit card cashback reward, $50.26 working on

October: $315.97 ($171 garage sale/Craigs List, $122 healthcare flex spending check, $22.97 working on

November: $243.28 ($40 for doing a mascara study at the local mall, $25 Amex giftcard through a Facebook contest, $80 healthcare flex spending check, $63.15 selling old clothes to a used clothing store, $18.17 from our loose change jar, $6.96, $10 doctor's office refund)

For a grand total of..... $1070.03!

Honestly, when I started all of this I thought I could probably get maybe $500 to go towards Christmas, so I was pleasantly surprised when it all kept adding up. Our budget for Christmas is around $1000 (which sounds like a lot, but we spend about $150 for each of our 3 kids, plus we buy for 7 adult family members and 4 nieces/nephews, and 5 teachers plus stuff for charity so it goes rather quickly).

I want to start saving again in the new year and just keep an ongoing birthday/Christmas fund.

I'd love to hear your ideas on saving for Christmas or making your budget stretch further. Please share!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Have you seen this fish before?

My kids have been a little disappointed for the last few days that there has been candy inside of the advent calendar pockets instead of more vacation clues. So I gave them their next clue this morning.

Have you seen this fish before?

I wrote on the back that we will get our pictures taken by this fish on our next vacation.

My older son guessed San Antonio or Austin. My younger son guessed Disney World.

The Walking Minority

When we moved to a new city last year, we were down to the wire deciding between 2 different houses in 2 neighborhoods in the same city, just about 2 miles apart, but in different school districts. We loved both houses, and we loved both neighborhoods, but ultimately it came down to the location of the elementary school as the deciding factor. For one house, the elementary school was about 8 miles away and across a busy highway. For the other house, the elementary school was inside the neighborhood within walking distance. In the end, we chose the house with the nearby elementary school.

And I am so glad we did! Because we live 1/2 mile from the school and I like to walk my oldest son to and from school. It's a mile round trip, X 2 including an afternoon pickup trip, which is 2 miles a day and 10 miles a week for me.

According to this article, Dallas ranks as the 5th city in the nation in regards to heart disease and obesity rates. Only 7% of trips are done by walking or biking. That statistic is actually higher than I would have thought. This area is not very friendly to walking or mass transit. A lot of the roads out here don't even have sidewalks on them. And I could much more easily find a bus or subway to take in New York City or any European city than I could out here. So I get why people don't walk much here.

My son seems to enjoy walking in the mornings. I'm usually able to leave my 2 younger kids home with my husband for the morning walk, so it's just the 2 of us. If he's in the mood, we practice his spelling words and his addition tables during the walk. If it's cold enough that he can see his breath outside, or if it's sprinkling just a tiny bit and he gets to take his Cars umbrella, he is totally thrilled.

He's usually not as thrilled for the afternoon walk home. His younger brother and sister are always along, and there's usually bickering. Or fighting. Or playing and laughing. Most of the time all of those things combined within one afternoon walk home.

My son still asks me sometimes why we have to walk. And I tell him we don't HAVE to. But that we do it because it's a healthy thing to do. Because it's a good form of exercise. And it's better for the environment.

I have gotten some looks and comments from other parents. A few weeks ago, on one of the first days when the temperatures were in the 40s, someone I know in our neighborhood pulled over while we were walking to school and asked if we were ok and if we needed a ride. I think she thought my car broke down or something. And while it was relatively cold out (I say relatively cold because in many areas the 40s is not considered very cold), we were both sufficiently bundled up and I was even warm and sweaty during the walk.

My younger son stopped riding in a stroller last year, shortly after his little sister was born. Totally his choice. And I have to say that he does remarkably well on the 1-mile round-trip every day in the afternoon. And as a 3-year-old on vacation in California earlier this year, he did a great job walking around the zoos and theme parks without tiring out. (We actually brought a double stroller with us, but he declined and insisted on walking--with his own map).

As much as I love the walking, I have my self-imposed limits. I won't make my son walk if it's pouring down rain or snow, or if the temperatures are too extreme (which for me is over 100 degrees for the walk home). So I'm not a total meanie.

We're not the only school walkers in the neighborhood. There's definitely more car riders than walkers, but there are other walkers. And I enjoy chatting with some of the parents before the afternoon bell rings. So we will keep on walking.

My son wants to start riding his bike to school. I think he's almost ready. And then I'll have another in school, and we'll have a walker and a bike rider.

Do you walk your kids to school? Does your neighborhood have a large percentage of walkers? I'm curious to know how this differs by area.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Stocking up for the food bank

My husband and a few of his co-workers decided to contribute food to the North Texas Food Bank for the holidays. We thought this would be a good activity to share with our kids to continue to learn to give to others.

So before we went to the store, we talked to our 2 older kids about what we were doing, where the food is going, how it is for people who cannot afford to buy food for whatever reason.

We decided to shop at Aldi's, because they have the cheapest prices on food staples that were recommended by the North Texas Food Bank (rice, tuna, cereal bars, stew, chili, etc.)

And at first, the kids were really into it. "How about this? Lets put some Cheetos in the cart!" We did edit their food choices somewhat to coincide with the food bank guidelines. But once we went past the toy section at Aldi, we totally lost the kids. They forgot about choosing food for needy people, and instead just couldn't help themselves by tinkering with all the toys. Well, they are still kids.

Before we checked out, my oldest looked at all the food in the cart and said "This is going to cost a fortune!" and when we finished checking out he said "Food is SO expensive!" Yes, yes it is. I think he's starting to get it. Maybe.