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!