This time last week I was sitting aboard the Carnival Imagination cruise ship, probably sipping a pina colada and wondering whether my daughter would ever actually get out of the hot tub. (For the record, she eventually did, but not without intense negotiation bordering on fisticuffs.)
My wife, daughter and I took a five-day cruise in part to mark the start of my mini-retirement, but mostly because we really like cruises and it had been a year since our last. We decided to see if we could keep the expenses in check but still have loads of fun. I am, after all, not bringing in a steady paycheck anymore.
Here’s a look at what the whole trip cost us, and what we might do differently the next time around. If you’re new to cruising, there are several tips at the end you’ll definitely want to read!
For a 2021 Covid-19 cruise update about what you can expect, and also a price breakdown for a much more expensive cruise, check out my latest cruise post here.
Booking the cruise
The idea to cruise shortly after I left work had been hanging out there, but we didn’t commit until after I gave notice. It was part of my plan to test last-minute (by my standards) travel hacking.
Normally we book cruises many months in advance, with the flights to match. This time I wanted to see what kind of deal I could get if I waited until after the last payments were due. Then the cruise line knew exactly how many rooms were left to fill.
We like Carnival Cruise Lines. Ever since we took the boys — then 9 and 11 — on a Carnival cruise out of Florida a decade ago we’ve felt like it fit our style. It’s kid-friendly, but not kid-centered. It’s got a lively atmosphere but doesn’t feel like a pure booze cruise. And it’s not pretentious by any stretch — for some it probably strays too far in the other direction.
When we’ve looked at cruises online in the past we’ve always gotten a follow-up call from Alex, our assigned sales guy, within a few days. I imagine every time I log on to the Carnival website alarm bells go off in Alex’s office. Honestly, I haven’t used Alex much over the years. That was a mistake.
Alex has said I should call him because he has access to the best deals and he’ll take care of me. That sounds like sales guy speak to me, and I’m perfectly comfortable booking my travel online, thank you very much.
Since the goal of this trip was to get the cheapest price, I did some scouting on the website and then gave Alex a ring. The Inspiration and Imagination are two basically identical ships, running identical itineraries out of Long Beach, California, one day apart. One left on a Sunday and returned Thursday; the other left Monday and returned Friday.
I didn’t care which one I ended up on, and furthermore I was flexible on which week we left. The best price online was $215 per person, before taxes and gratuities. Not bad for a five-day cruise. (A note here: Day 1 is embarkation day and starts between noon and 4 p.m., while Day 5 is get you the hell off the boat day because your Day 5 is the next group’s Day 1.)
I told Alex I was taking him up on his promise to find me the best deal and gave him the four cruise dates. The best option on his end was $149 per person before taxes and gratuities if we let Carnival pick the room for us. For an additional charge we could choose our own room, but since the point was to get the best price, we were willing to roll the dice on the guaranteed room.
For an interior room for three people, the total came to:
Cruise rate – $447
Taxes and fees – $282
Prepaid gratuities – $155
(I have since met some cruise specialists who are awesome at finding deals. If you want me to connect you with one of them, email email@example.com.)
Booking the flight
This was the first flight we would take using the Southwest companion pass we scored with our newfound travel hacking skills.
There were a few options out of Salt Lake City to the Long Beach airport that would get us there in time, but I’d rather be there early than late. You never know when unplanned maintenance could pop up and your one-hour arrival window becomes you waving au revoir to the ship you were supposed to be on. There also were no direct flights.
Unfortunately, that meant an early flight out of SLC with a layover in Denver. For those of you familiar with rudimentary U.S. geography, Denver is in the opposite direction of the California coast from Salt Lake City — a fact that did not go unnoticed by my wife at 4 a.m. when we got up to leave for the airport.
The good news, though, is that the flight was insanely cheap. I only had to buy two tickets because my wife gets a free flight as my companion, and the tickets were only 12,124 points each. All in we got three people there and back for 24,248 points and $33.60 in fees. If I had paid cash and not been travel hacking, the same flight would have cost $630.
Getting aboard the ship
We arrived in Long Beach at 11 a.m. and were supposed to get on the ship between 1 and 1:30 p.m. While most people can just show up and get a Lyft or Uber, I booked a shuttle van because my daughter takes a car seat and I understand it’s not always possible to get one with an app-based driver.
The shuttle was $94 roundtrip, plus $10 gratuities each way, for a total of $114. I suspect we could get this cheaper when the car seat isn’t needed, but it was a good ride and I’m not going to quibble about every dollar.
We arrived at the cruise port about 12:30 and figured we would have to wait around until our 1 p.m. scheduled time, but to our surprise Carnival has a “too early/too late” line for people who show up off-schedule. We sailed through the line and were aboard the Imagination and taking a photo with Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head by the time I figured we would just be getting in line.
Moments later, we placed our first drink order, went to the lido deck for a lunch buffet, took our first dip in the hot tub and were officially on vacation.
Our room was on the Empress deck, on the seventh floor midship about 150-200 feet from the atrium lobby. This meant we could hear musicians performing and other activities in the busy area, although it generally calmed down by 9:30 or 10 p.m. and wasn’t bothersome in the morning.
The room was small, and my daughter had a trundle bed that was basically a cot on the floor. Here’s the thing, though: You’re probably not going to spend a lot of time in the room. It’s not the best room we’ve been in, but it was a bed and a place to shower. That’s really all we needed.
This isn’t a full-blown cruise review, so I won’t go into exhaustive detail about cruise life. But we love it. The staff are amazing and learn your name and your preferences incredibly quick. Our room steward, Arthur, made sure to talk to us every day and asked my daughter what towel animal she wanted that day.
Food is plentiful and varied, and it’s pretty good for the most part. You won’t go hungry. The daily Indian vegetarian food in the dining room is a hidden gem, and you can try unusual things like alligator fritters or escargot with no concerns about how much it costs or whether you’ll really eat it.
Entertainment is all over the ship at all hours of the day — music, comedy, shows, movies, dances, trivia … hairy chest competitions. Or you can relax in a quietish area, get a massage, play mini-golf, swim, or just hang out and talk with people. The best part is, you’re not driving, so you don’t have to worry about where you’re going or how you’re getting there.
Spending aboard and ashore
Cruises primarily make money in a few ways: gambling, drinking, and photos.
Neither my wife nor I care for gambling, and we already have a number of cruise photos from years past, so we weren’t going to pay our way there. That left drinking, which we do enjoy.
The Imagination itinerary took us out into international waters the first evening (so they can open up the casino and sell stuff tax and duty free) and brought us to Catalina Island, Calif., the next day, then Ensenada, Mexico, the following day, and another “Fun Day at Sea” to close out the trip.
We usually book a shore excursion in each port to have something fun to do while we’re docked. This time, however, we decided the trip was more about the ship experience and less about the ports. We didn’t schedule anything and instead planned to just hop off the boat and see whatever we wanted.
Catalina Island has a nice touristy area right off the pier. You have to take a tender boat from the cruise ship to the island, which means you spend more time than you’d like waiting to get there. But once there it was just a relaxing walk around the town. We stopped at a very small beachfront, visited the local toy store ($5 for a small toy), and had some delightful local drafts at the Catalina Island Brew House ($30 total).
Then we rounded out the day with my daughter playing at a playground right near the queue for the tender back to the ship. We only spent $35 and enjoyed several hours exploring Catalina Island. Pretty frugal, I’d say.
We went to Ensenada on a previous cruise and didn’t really even feel like going into town. Instead, we walked off the ship onto the pier and browsed the trinkets right there. Just a $4 squishy toy frog purchase and 45 minutes later we were back on the Imagination to see what ship life is like when everyone else has gone exploring. Basically, there’s room in the hot tub.
The bulk of our spending was on drinks. Beers range from about $5 to $9 and mixed drinks are usually between $8 and $12. A 15% gratuity is added into the price automatically. Sodas and juices are $2.50 each.
Carnival offers prepaid drink packages for both soda and alcohol.
For $7.50 per day for adults or $5 per day for kids, you can have the Bottomless Bubbles soda package. The breakeven point on that is 3 sodas per day for adults or 2 for kids. For me, that was $35, and as it turns out I was one soda shy of breaking even.
If you pay before you get on the ship, you can have the prepaid bar service for $52 per person per day ($57 pp/pd on board). You can’t share this package, of course, so every person over 21 in your booking has to get it or no one gets it. A friend suggested I just get it so that we wouldn’t be fretting over cost when debating whether to have one more drink.
We thought about it, but decided we wouldn’t get it this time. Instead, we would drink whatever we wanted and then tally it up at the end and see whether we should get the package in the future.
All told, we spent $290 on drinks while on the ship, and we weren’t watching our spending to do it. For us, it makes more sense to pay by the drink than get the package, but I’m sure there are plenty of people who would be better served (in every aspect) with the Cheers drink package.
Our total spending on the ship and shore: About $345.
We usually do excursions in each port of call, but opted not to this time. The prices for those range greatly, from $25 to $110 per person in Ensenada and $20 to $240 per person in Catalina Island. Most are between $50 and $80 per person, in our experience, and are usually very well run and enjoyable. Make sure you look at how much of the time for each excursion is travel to and from the activity. Some have you spend hours on a bus to get to the destination.
Getting home and the unexpected costs
Our flight home didn’t leave until 2 p.m., but the cruise has a “you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here” policy that kicks in at 9:30 a.m. We had some time to kill. (Did I mention how reasonable the flights were?)
We also had a layover in Oakland. Those of you familiar with rudimentary U.S. geography know Oakland is in the wrong direction of travel to get to Salt Lake City from Long Beach — a fact that also did not go unnoticed by my wife. (24,000 points and just $33!)
While we got breakfast on the ship, lunch time came while we were at the Long Beach airport. We spent $50 on food and drinks there.
When we got to Oakland, we learned that Midwest weather had delayed our plane’s arrival by another two hours on top of our two-hour layover. That was now four hours in the Oakland airport, and we wouldn’t arrive back home until 10:30 p.m. More food and drinks in the airport.
Could we have forgone all that? Sure, but why make an already less than ideal situation worse by being hungry and grumpy? Chalk up another $44.
(We repeated this same cruise in 2019 and had a layover both ways in Las Vegas. This time, we used our free airport lounge access from the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card and had a way better time!)
Once back in SLC, we paid $45 for parking in the economy lot for five days and drove home.
Total cost and what we could do differently
Adding up everything, here’s what we spent for three people and five days of lodging, food, drinks, entertainment and souvenirs:
Airfare: $36 and 24,248 points
Shuttle to/from ship: $114
Cruise itself: $884
Drinks/souvenirs/etc. on cruise: $365
Airport food and drink: $128
I went into this ballparking $1,500 based on previous cruises, and I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for
you meddling kids and that dog Nebraska weather.
In the future I’d like to cut down on the airport parking and shuttle costs. If we could get a Lyft instead that might be cheaper.
We confirmed the bar package isn’t a deal for us, so we don’t need to consider that in the future. I may reconsider the prepaid soda package, and I can certainly drink the free water, iced tea, lemonade or coffee instead.
The guaranteed room turned out to be smaller than usual and in a possibly noisier location than we would otherwise choose, but we slept fine and it worked for what we needed it for. I might look more closely at the ship layout in the future before committing to letting Carnival choose the room, though. If we were even closer to the atrium it might not have been tolerable given we turn in earlier than most.
(When we redid this cruise exactly one year later, the price of the room was a bit more, but we did use Lyft and did not get the soda package. The total cost was a few dollars less than what I broke down above.)
My wife would definitely like to reconsider the flight situation, although I’m of the mind that the awkward flight times are not a deal killer because they allow us to take more trips on the same or smaller budget. But I can see that being a more thoughtful discussion in the future.
Tips and tricks for your own cruise
- Call the cruise line and talk to a real person to make sure you’re getting the best deal.
- Unless you plan to spend a lot of time in the room or on the balcony, upgrades aren’t necessary.
- It’s better to be early than late when arriving on cruise day. Carnival even has a special line for people who arrive early!
- You will leave most of your luggage with the crew before embarkation, but you can carry a backpack on board. Put your medications and phone chargers in there, along with anything valuable like jewelry or electronics, so they are never out of your sight.
- Pack a swimsuit in your backpack if you want to get in the water right away. Most people don’t do this, so the pool and hot tub are usually empty for the first three to four hours until people start getting their luggage!
- The drink packages for soda and alcohol can be a good deal depending on how much you plan to drink, but most people should be fine without them.
- You can turn any liquor drink into a double for just $3 more, including high-end liquors. An $11 single-malt Scotch can become a double for just a few bucks more!
- When you book excursions be sure to see how much time is spent in travel to and from the activity. Some four-hour excursions have an hour of bus time each way, while others are a 15-minute drive into the city.
- You don’t have to book an excursion. You can step off the port and go explore the town, or you can find something not offered through the cruise line. A word of warning, though: The cruise line will wait for you if your cruise-purchased excursion is running late. It will not do that if you are off doing your own thing and running late. I’ve seen this policy in action and was very thankful we booked through the ship.
- You will be getting off the ship relatively early on the final day, but try not to cut it too close. There is a debarkation process that takes some time to get started and then a U.S. Customs process. You don’t want to be late for your flight because you were too optimistic on exit times.