3 Ways Cruise Prices Are Misleading

Written by Joel
Posted in: Cruise

When you daydream about your next vacation, hoping for an unforgettable trip that combines history, culture, and fun, what options come to mind? Where can you see sun-kissed shores of ancient civilizations, hear the tales of bygone eras, and gain a new understanding of a different culture? When you dream of the perfect vacation that blends the allure of history, the richness of culture, along with the fun and relaxation you’ve worked so hard to experience, a cruise is an excellent option.

But when the path from vacation daydream to reality begins online, the path becomes long and winding. The promise of saving you time and simplifying the process turns into thousands of options. Each option promises to deliver exactly what you’re looking for and shows you the lowest possible price in order to get your attention. It’s marketing at it’s finest: get your attention, promise you the world, make you forget the price that got your attention in the first place. When it comes to cruise prices, cruise lines and discount websites call it marketing, you may call it frustrating… I call it misleading.

Don’t misunderstand. Even though prices and marketing are misleading, it’s still my preferred way to travel because of the value, experience, and level of service. My clients love cruising because I match them to their ideal cruise line and ship and help them get the best value. I level the playing field for them and I want to do the same for you by explaining the confusing tactics, empowering you to make the best decision possible.

Related: The #1 reason people hate cruises

Thinking about taking a cruise? Click here to schedule your free vacation planning call.

Misleading Cruise Price Tactic #1: Lead in prices

Cruise lines aren’t the only companies who market the lowest possible cruise prices to get your attention. Think about it, we all know we’re not going pay the low price promised in an advertisement for a car and our flights aren’t really going to be $89, and we probably won’t qualify for a $500,000 life insurance policy that costs $9 per month. The difference between those examples and a cruise is we know it’s an unrealistic expectation and expect to pay more; with cruise lines, consumers haven’t been trained to apply the same expectation.

Lead in cruise prices combine two marketing and psychology strategies (because just one isn’t enough, apparently). Not only do they list the price for an inside stateroom, they make it a “guarantee” stateroom, meaning you can’t even choose which room you’ll be in, only that you’ll have an inside room on the ship. And the second strategy is to break that price down by the day.

Don’t even get me started on the fine print and the microscopic print.

Most people are initially drawn in by the low price but as you progress through the buying process, options are presented, and by the time you get to the shopping cart, the price that got your attention is nowhere to be found. But you end up booking because you’ve been masterfully convinced (and re-convinced on every page) that you’ve gotten the best price on a cruise that is exactly what you want. It’s brilliant marketing!

Or, you could avoid all this frustration and confusion. Click here and I’ll help plan your trip.

Joel has a great business relationship with the Norwegian rep
Ila my NCL rep makes sure I have good perks

Misleading Cruise Price Tactic #2: Fine Print

Since I mentioned it above, one of the most frustrating things about cruise prices is all the fine print. Fine print, like lead in prices, are not new strategies to consumers, but the way cruise lines use it puts understanding all the terms, qualifications, and basic understanding of what it all means on you. And, by the way, it’s in “legalese” to make it extra complicated.

If, while shopping for a cruise, an ad pops up (or you get an e-mail) that promises a cruise with an unbelievable price on an amazing cruise, you can guess with 95% certainty there is some serious fine print involved. It probably includes some or all of the following language:

  • for past guests
  • on a specific date or date range
  • in a specific room category
  • double occupancy
  • cruise only fare
  • active or retired military
  • must guarantee x number of rooms

Confused? That’s done on purpose to get you to call or click with the hope that you’ll understand and accept the price being different for you. That is usually true, by the way. Consumers are rational, but presenting cruise prices with an asterisk and putting the qualifiers so far away from the price, in confusing terms is misleading at best.

Let me explain these qualifiers in plain English so you know what you’re looking at. Some of them speak for themselves, so I’ll skip those.

One of the biggest red flags for cruise prices is one tied to a specific date or date range. There are lots of variations of this but usually a low price with this qualifier is going to mean traveling in the off season. For example, if you’re cruising to Europe or Alaska there is portion of the year that cruises don’t sale. Guess what? The dates right before and right after that are less than ideal so to fill a ship, the cruise line lowers the price. Know the three seasons (peak, shoulder, off) of the destination of the cruise.

We briefly covered stateroom categories in the section on lead in prices but I think it’s important to know the advertised rate for a category (inside, ocean view, balcony) that has a “category qualifier” in the fine print is going to end up being a stateroom that isn’t ideal. For example, it could be a “guarantee room” which means the cruise line decides at the last minute to give you the stateroom that hasn’t sold.

If you’re thinking you could book an inside guarantee and get a balcony, that’s not the way it works. Book a guarantee inside room, you’ll get an inside room and that could be in a great location or a terrible one. The same is true of a balcony guarantee. You’ll get a balcony, but it could be behind a steel beam which blocks your view. Be cautious about “prices from” statements and leery of guarantee rooms.

Double occupancy may be the least offensive of the shady cruise line price tactics, but it’s still something to be wary of, especially if you’re planning to travel alone or have more than two people in a stateroom. By the way, as confusing cruise price tactics go, also be wary of “kids sail free” and “x percent off” the price.

Cruise only fare is a common tactic used in email campaigns. Some cruise lines (Princess, Holland America, and Celebrity to name a few) have “included” pricing. They include common add-on items such as WiFi, drink packages, and gratuities to the price and there is a savings benefit. They also have a cruise only fare which doesn’t include any of those extras. Guess what? The cruise only price is more attractive, but you’ll quickly find that adding in the extras that most people choose is more expensive than paying the “included” rate. You’re either going to be disappointed or up-sold if you fall for this confusing cruise price tactic.

And finally, at least for this list, cruise prices dependent on booking a block of rooms. To be fair, this is a great way to save money on a cruise, but to offer a low price then be told the only way to get that price is if you book 8 staterooms is a little underhanded.

I’m great at navigating fine print, when you’re ready to book your next cruise we should talk; just click here.

Jen and Joel on Celebrity Apex
Joel and Jen navigate cruise prices on Celebrity
Jen and Joel on Norwegian Prima
Joel and Jen with Norwegian Prima

Misleading Cruise Price Tactic #3: Oops… We Forgot To Mention

Some people think of cruises as “all inclusive” vacations because there are a lot of inclusions. When you pay for a cruise, what’s included? At a minimum, accommodations, food (meals, snacks, etc.), and entertainment. No need to search for and pay for a hotel (unless you’re flying in early or staying extra days after); breakfast, lunch, dinner, or snacks 24 hrs a day; and onboard entertainment includes shows, live music, games, and lots of other activities! It’s no surprise that cruises are the fastest growing vacation type, they deliver a fantastic experience and provide a great value.

I find two things misleading in cruise prices. First, is how “optional” add on items are not mentioned during the booking process, especially online. The inclusions are listed, but consumers are expected to know that there are extra expenses like which is confusing, especially for first time cruisers. Things like WiFi, drink packages, and excursions (the activities you pay for when visiting a port) are optional — although most people pay for them.

Related: Are drink packages worth the money?

When these extras are included in the price you’re shown, it’s a big deal, mentioned everywhere, highlighted, in huge fonts, it’s not a secret, it’s a huge benefit to booking with that cruise line. When they’re not included it’s kept quiet and if you’re a first timer, you’re likely in for a surprise.

If that’s confusing and misleading, the second offense is worse, in my opinion: the extra fees that aren’t optional. It used to be that “taxes and port fees” weren’t mentioned until the checkout screen. Now they’re mentioned, but usually in small print, and do not always include the amount per person.

The biggest offender of this, “we forgot to tell you” cruise price confusion is Norwegian with their Free at Sea promotion. Their advertisements hype free open bar, free WiFi, free excursions, and free specialty dining. What they don’t tell you is extra taxes on the open bar and specialty restaurants are automatically added to your reservation.

To be clear, and fair, I really like Norwegian and the free at sea offers are a tremendous value. But unless you’re aware of these extra fees, it can feel a little sneaky. If you’re interested, there is a series of free at sea articles including about the open bar and specialty dining.

Bottom Line: Cruises are a fantastic value

Now that I’ve spent the last few minutes showing you the most common marketing tactics related to cruise prices (and subtly tricking you into overpaying), I want to remind you that I cruises are one of my favorite ways to travel and there is a way to beat the cruise lines at their own game. You know how to spot the tricks, now you just have to be aware while you’re shopping.

Here are some important things you need to know about booking your next cruise:

  • Price and value aren’t always the same
  • Book your cruise based on perks and level of service
  • Cruise lines set the price. With one exception — strategy, really — everyone (cruise lines, websites that advertise deals, and even travel agents) has the same price.

Cruise lines are masterful at understanding price may get your attention but value wins in the end. They’re right, by the way. Imagine the lowest cost balcony stateroom is $1,000 but when you’re sitting on the balcony the only thing you’ll see is steel beams. Another balcony stateroom is $1200 and you’ll be able to watch beautiful sun rises and sun sets. Which one you choose defines which is more important to you, saving money or having an unblocked view. Neither is wrong, but knowing the trade off is important and marketing does a great job of convincing you the view is more important than the money.

There are a lot of options for booking cruises. Discount clubs, websites that market themselves as the place you’ll find the best prices, travel agents, and the cruise lines themselves who sell direct with call centers and websites. With so many options, how do you know which to use when booking your cruise? Your decision should be made entirely on two things: who will deliver the best customer service and what value adding perk will be added to your reservation?

Ask yourself the following: Which of the places where I could book my cruise…

  • Has my best interests at the top of their priority list?
  • Will be available to answer my questions?
  • Knows every detail of my reservation?
  • Provides unbiased, expert advise?

Here are the answers to these questions for each option.

Discount clubs advertise low prices (with lots of fine print) using a strategy (block or group prices) that I explain in great detail in my book The Complete Guide to Cruise Deals and do sometimes have lower cruise prices but those discounts come at a huge cost. There are no trained representatives to guide you during your purchase or to answer any questions. They have little to know product knowledge or personal experience. You are completely on your own. This may be an option if you’re an experienced cruiser and there are no problems with your reservation or cruise.

Everyone is familiar with travel websites. Their marketing promises the best deals and sell the do-it-yourself dream that booking with them is empowering, wise, and keeps you in control of the process and reservation. “You don’t need salespeople ,” they imply, because technology gives you all the information and best prices. It’s not true, by the way (I’ll explain why, keep reading til the end).

Unfortunately, similar to discount clubs, the fine print regarding cruise prices is excessive and confusing. Good luck getting assistance if you have questions or any issues pop up between shopping for your next cruise, making your reservation and going on the cruise. At best you’ll send an email to a generic department or call an 800 number and wait for a response or wait on hold then wait some more while a representative reads through notes (or transfers you to another department while you wait again) and hopefully end up getting the right information.

Travel agents leverage experience, relationships with cruise lines, and training to make ensure you’re taking a cruise that exceeds your expectations and delivers the best value for your hard earned money. Generally speaking, the service of travel agents comes at no cost to you — they are paid a commission by the cruise lines. Working with an experienced travel agent will save you time, eliminate stress and overwhelm, and some can save you money (if they know the block / group strategy I use to save individual clients hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars — go buy The Complete Guide to Cruise Deals… It’s the best $4 investment you’ll ever make).

The best travel agents also negotiate special perks like pre-paid gratuities, specialty dining, or onboard credit which aren’t available when booking direct with the cruise lines or at discount stores. But beware, like with every industry and profession, not all TA’s are equal. Choose an experienced professional who is a full time travel agent, has certifications from cruise lines, is a member of trade organizations like CLIA and ASTA, and knows the ins and outs of traveling. Following these guidelines, you will have save yourself a lot of frustration and have an exceptional vacation. Travel agents are also great at helping you navigate cruise prices and making sure you get the best value.

Many consumers book direct with the cruise line either by calling a phone number or visiting their website. There are some downsides to doing this, however. For one, don’t forget they’re the reason cruise prices are so confusing in the first place. Beyond that, their website and sales representatives are completely biased. If you’ve never cruised before (or want to try a different brand), all you have to rely on to determine if that brand and ship is a good match for you is their marketing, website, and representatives.

Why is that a negative? If you’re considering an Alaska cruise, there is one company above all it’s competitors that is amazing in Alaska. There is another that provides a fantastic Alaska experience for a specific demographic, and the rest are between really good and pretty good. If you were to call any of the “big 7” cruise lines, and asked them if they’re the best choice for an Alaska cruise, what do you think they would say?

“Oh, well, we sail to Alaska and people enjoy it but you should book with XYZ if you want a truly amazing experience.” Uh. No. They would not, even though it’s true (and all the cruise lines know it). They’re #1 priority, no matter what they say, is making the sale. End of story.

Here are two other reasons booking direct is a less than perfect option: customer service is impersonal (hold times are long, and the quality of the information depends on the representative who answers the phone) and surprisingly the cruise lines do not offer the value added perks a travel agent can.

One Final Note About Cruise Prices: Everyone Has The Same Prices*

This may sound crazy but it’s true. Cruise prices are the same whether you book direct with the cruise line, at a big name travel website, club an discount stores, or a travel agent. How is this possible? Cruise lines set the price and every reseller has to sell for that amount. Other than the one exception (block / group pricing), it’s a completely level playing field. If you see a “deal” that is much lower than the regular price, remember all the ways cruise prices can be manipulated. This is the reason I advise you to choose a reseller who will provide exceptional customer service, use their knowledge and experience to find you the perfect cruise option, and in many cases add a valuable perk to your reservation.

Ready to get started planning your next vacation? I’ll save you time and eliminate your frustration, take the mystery out of cruise prices and make sure you have the vacation of a lifetime.

Click here to schedule your free vacation planning call.

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