Thursday, April 21, 2016

5 Tips for Getting the Cheapest Price for a Disney Cruise to Alaska

Alaska Trip posts:
Booked at Last! A Cruise to the 49th State

Getting the Cheapest Price for a Disney Cruise to Alaska

Last week, I shared the news that we finally booked my bucket list cruise to Alaska! Now that I've had a week to jump for joy at taking the first step in making this trip a reality, it's time to start a game plan for paying for this vacation. But first, I want to share some tips for getting the best price on a Disney Cruise to Alaska. And would you believe that we did not choose the cheapest price for our cruise???

I've written before about how to get the cheapest price on a Disney Cruise, but Alaska cruises have some nuances that make it a little more difficult to get a cheaper price.

1. Choose to sail in a cheaper peak time. Unlike cruises to the Bahamas and the Caribbean which have much better off-season prices in winter and fall when school is in session, Alaska cruises don't really have an off-season. Cruises only sail to Alaska in the summer from about the last two weeks of May through the first week of September. But based on current prices, there are some weeks that are slightly cheaper than others:

Cheapest: End of May and beginning of September 
Next Cheapest: First two weeks of June and last two weeks of August
Most Expensive: Mid-June until mid-august

Unfortunately, for most families, pulling kids out of school in late May or early September is not ideal because the school year is just ending or just beginning at those times.We chose a cruise in the next cheapest time frame. If we were to move our cruise to the most expensive time frame of summer, it would cost us 12% more. If we could move it to the least expensive time frame, we would save 19%.

2. Forget about the verandah. On our last Caribbean cruise, we could have upgraded from an oceanview porthole room to a verandah room for about 15% more. On Alaska cruises, there is a much bigger jump to get a verandah room. These rooms are priced at a premium due to the fantastic wildlife and glacier viewing on the cruise route. 

On the Disney Wonder, my family of 5 cannot fit in the lowest category inside room, or even in one porthole room. So our options are more limited than the options for a smaller family. 

For our Alaska cruise, we would need to pay about 38% more to switch from two connecting porthole rooms to one verandah room for 5 people. For two people in one room, the jump from porthole to verandah is over 50%, or more than a 75% increase from an inside stateroom (with no porthole window) to a verandah stateroom.

For my family of 5, these are the options we had, from cheapest to most expensive:

Two category 11 inside rooms with no portholes. These are the smallest cabins that do not have a split bathroom like most Disney Cruise Line cabins. There are no category 11 cabins that connect together, so we would have to split our cabins up by gender since my kids are not old enough to have a completely separate room from us.

Two category 10 inside rooms. These cabins are slightly larger than category 11 inside rooms. They have an split bathroom and connecting rooms are available.

Two category 9 porthole rooms. These cabins have two small porthole windows or one large porthole window to see the scenery. The price is cheaper for rooms on lower decks (decks 1 and 2) vs. the higher decks.

Cabin with porthole window

One category 4 verandah room that fits 5 people. The room includes a queen bed, a bunk bed and a pull-down bed.

One category 7 verandah room (fits 4) with an inside category 11 room nearby. This is not ideal for us, since we would still be split in non-connecting rooms.

One concierge verandah room, available in a standard size or a suite. (Dream on!)

My frugal, planner self tends to gravitate to the cheapest option, but my husband is a good counter balance to me. We will enjoy this trip more if we can have connecting rooms with the kids in a room by themselves, so the lowest level inside staterooms are out. While we don't need the verandah since there are a few public decks where we can enjoy the fresh air and scenery, my husband convinced me that we should splurge on porthole window rooms. After all, this entire trip is a splurge and not something that we will repeat year after year.

3. Book a placeholder cruise with on-board booking benefits. Obviously, this will only work if you are a previous DCL guest. If you book a future cruise or a placeholder for a future cruise while you're currently on a cruise, you get 10% off the cruise fare and an on-board credit for your next cruise. The on-board credit from DCL is $200 per cabin on 7+ night cruises and $100 per cabin on cruises less than 7 nights. Since we booked two cabins (cheaper than one verandah room), we have $400 on-board credit from DCL to spend on our Alaska cruise. This is in addition to credit from our travel agent! We also saved about $1000 off the cruise fare by booking two cabin placeholders on our last cruise.

4.  Book on opening day, or soon after. Opening day is when DCL announces and releases new future cruises, and last week it announced summer 2017 cruises. 

Disney has historically priced its cruises in tiers, with the prices going up as more rooms are booked. Sometimes, it will publish last-minute discounted rates for military personnel and Florida residents. Also, occasionally there are *GT fares offered 30-60 days prior to the cruise that are discounted and must be paid in full at the time of booking. However, in looking at this upcoming 2016 Alaska cruise season, I'm not seeing many of these last-minute discounts. In fact, as of yesterday I only see one *GT discounted fare, and the price is only $42 cheaper per person than opening day prices. Even if a cheaper last-minute discounted fare opened up, it would be very challenging to book flights and schedule excursions late in the game.

The Cruisefish website tracks prices for many cruise lines, and by using the "finder" feature I can see how the prices of the DCL Alaska cruises have risen over time. It's definitely cheaper to book earlier!

5.  Use a travel agent. Many travel agents give back a part of their commission to you in the form of an on-board credit that you can use for tips, souvenirs, excursions, drinks, etc. The on-board credit we will get from our travel agent will cover the cost of the excursion we are eyeing in Ketchikan. But in addition to the on-board credit, our travel agent has provided us with great service during the booking process all the way up to our trip departure! She has done things like talked to a DCL supervisor to get us moved into cabins that were blacked out, changed our dining time and rotation, and booked on-board services like Rainforest Room.

I've always wanted to go on a Duck boat--it goes right from land to the water!
 Next week, I will be blogging about saving strategies to pay off a big trip.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Booked at last! A Cruise to the 49th State

I have been waiting for this day for a long, long time. Over six years, to be exact.

We finally booked a Disney cruise to Alaska!

Photos from Disney Cruise Line News gallery

This has been the #1 trip on my bucket list forever. From the moment I first watched a video about Disney Cruise Line, I have wanted to take that cruise to Alaska. I started planning a date a few years away when my boys would be older, and then along came our 3rd kiddo! So we delayed the Alaska trip for a few more years while we enjoyed some fabulous Caribbean cruises. But I always had in my head that we would sail to Alaska.

Ketchikan, Alaska

This week, DCL released its itineraries for the summer of 2017. We transferred our placeholders that we booked on board our last cruise to get 10% off the prevailing rate and a $200 stateroom credit per cabin. It was cheaper for us to book two lower-level cabins than it was to book one verandah room for five people, so I had booked two placeholders on our last cruise to transfer to two separate (but connecting) cabins on this cruise.

Alaska is a popular place for retirees to visit. But I don't want to wait until we retire. It is important for me to visit Alaska while we're still relatively young. I want to be able to walk, climb and fully enjoy the land before my aging body prevents me. (Also, see this post on Mommy Points).

My kids will be 6 1/2, 9 1/2 and barely 13 years old next summer when we go. I'm not sure those are the magic ages to bring kids to Alaska, but I do hope that they are interested in the nature and history of the places we visit on the cruise. 

I have lots of work to do over the next few months, including:

*  Finalizing our savings plan to pay for the cruise itself

*  Figuring out a strategy to use miles and points to fly to Vancouver, British Columbia and to stay in a hotel for a few days before the cruise

*  Researching land excursions in Alaska

*  Finding a cruise group and planning for the Fish Extender Exchange

and so much more!

But for right now, I'm just going to say:


Monday, April 4, 2016

Jumping on Southwest's Rock-Bottom Unadvertised Prices for a Summer Trip

Southwest Airlines has fare sales ALL THE TIME. You've probably seen commercials, or a web ad, or received an email about current sale prices. The current sale advertises one-way fares from $69.

But did you know that Southwest has unadvertised sale prices that are even lower???

I know this because I stalk the Southwest website. Yes, every few days I'm on there checking to see if the flights I have already booked have gone down in price so that I can get a refund. Every single flight I've booked in the past few years since I started the miles & points hobby has gone down in price at least once. Most of them have gone down twice. And it's super easy to get the points refunded back into my account online.

While I'm on the website I like to check out fares to places to see how low they go. And many flights between Dallas and other cities drop to $36 to $49 (or around 1500ish points) in the time period of 3 to 13 weeks before the flight. Usually, these low prices are for flights on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. If you have the Southwest Chase credit card that came with 50,000 bonus miles, you could afford 4 vacations for a family of 4 at those sale prices (6000 points one-way, 12,000 points round-trip) if you are flexible with your destination and time frame.

Earlier this year while I was browsing the site, I saw fares on Southwest between Dallas and Orlando in April and May for $36 each way. A major unadvertised sale! I think a few of my friends were able to snatch up tickets at this price (Hello, Disney World!). In fact, I still see a few days left in May for $36. But you never know how long those prices will last.

There are a few ways to look up rock-bottom unadvertised rates on Southwest. The first way is to use the low fare calendar.  Input a departure city, an arrival city and a month.

From there, you will see the lowest price for each day in the month of May in either dollars or points (you can toggle back and forth). This is the easiest spot to see if you can find low fares that make good timing for the both the arrival and return.

In this example, you could have a long weekend in Chicago from Saturday to Tuesday with the low fare on each end. And, both of those cheap flights happen to be nonstop (although the departure times may not be the most popular):

The other way to find low fares is to use the Getaway Finder map. Input a departure city and a date, and you can mouse over any city to see what the lowest fare is for that day. I find this method more cumbersome since you have to keep switching the dates, but if you have a very specific date to fly, this map can tell you the best deals for that day.

So while I've enjoyed finding these great low prices from January to May of this year, I haven't been able to take advantage of them because I can't pull my kids out of school (I already pulled them out of school for our January vacation). But I've been keeping my eye on the calendar for the summer months because I've been contemplating taking the kids on a solo trip when school is out. I've gone on a trip with 2 of my kids and a trip with 1 of my kids by myself, but never all 3 together. So why would I even want to attempt this?

Several reasons. My husband recently started a new job and will not be able to take much time off this summer (and for the rest of the year). So if I want to take the kids somewhere other than the trips to visit family that we already have planned, I need to do it on my own. Another reason I might attempt a solo trip is that this might be my last summer as a mostly stay-at-home mom. My youngest child will be starting kindergarten in the fall, and I'm not sure where my job search will lead me. I might not have as much time for spontaneous trips next summer if I'm working part-time. And lastly, my Southwest companion pass expires at the end of this year, and due to the stricter rules that Chase is implementing regarding future credit card sign-ups, I'm not sure that I will be able to get another companion pass in the future. So it's now or never!

A few months ago, I started to think about criteria for choosing a destination for a solo trip with the kids. Since I would be on my own, I needed it to be really easy. I wanted the flight to be short (less than 4 hours) and preferably nonstop. I don't want to rent a car and schlep around car seats, so we either needed to go to a destination resort or to a place with convenient public transportation. And of course, I needed to use hotel points for free or almost-free lodging. I narrowed the cities down to a few choices, and watched the fares every day to see if rock-bottom fares would start appearing for the summer months.

And they did! I found tickets to my top choice city, Minneapolis, for $40 each way. The flights are not direct, but we don't have to change planes. We had a $31 credit per person because our flights to Mexico (bought earlier on gift cards) went down in price, so I was able to apply those credits for me and two of my kids and pay the remaining $9 each or $27 total. For the return trip, I booked myself and 2 kids on points for 1392 each or 4176 total points. I will add my daughter as my companion on both flights for just $5.60 in taxes each way. So my grand total for 4 round-trip tickets in June from Dallas to Minneapolis is $55 cash and 4176 Southwest Rapid Reward points. That is really a steal of a deal!! We won't have any airport parking charges (since my husband is dropping us off and picking us up) or rental car charges or pet sitting charges, which will keep down the total cost of this trip.

Why Minneapolis? Three words: Mall Of America. MOA. The huge mall that has over 520 stores and 11,000 employees. If you visited each store for 10 minutes, it would take 86 hours. It's huge! You can read other nifty facts about the mall here. Both my husband and I went there separately, before kids, on business trips. But I remember thinking that it would be a dream destination for kids.

The attraction we can't miss is Nickelodeon Universe, an indoor amusement park with 27 rides and character meet-n-greets from Spongebob, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Bubble Gupplies, Dora and the Fairly Oddparents.

It also has an elevated ropes course, zip line and miniature golf course attached.

The mall also has the Minnesota Children's Museum, Sea Life Aquarium, and the Amazing Mirror Maze. Opening soon is the Crayola Experience and FlyOver America (which is similar to Disney's Soarin' ride, except it goes over the entire USA instead of just California). Just outside the mall is the Water Park of America indoor water park.

MOA is located close to the airport, and many of the nearby hotels have a free shuttle that goes to the aiport and MOA. Minneapolis also has a light rail train that goes from MOA to other destinations on the way to downtown Minneapolis. We could easily visit Minnehaha Falls or take a paddleboat ride on the Mississippi River.

So...who is getting in on these rock-bottom Southwest fares? Where are you going???