My wife and I are taking our two children on a six-night Caribbean cruise in a few weeks, and the best part is that it was free. There’s a lot to unpack here, but the short explanation is that the last time I took a cruise with Carnival Cruise Lines, I spent some time playing in the casino, and the cruise line sent me an offer for a free cruise in order to entice me back.Now, I don’t consider myself to be a particularly heavy gambler. But I’ll spend an hour or so playing the slot machines a few times during a cruise, and within a few weeks (or sometimes instantly), offers for casino comps start rolling in.
As you might expect, the offers you get depend on how much you play. Unless you’re a high roller, you shouldn’t anticipate getting a free suite, for example. However, there’s typically an option to pay the difference in price if you want a better room than your free offer includes. The offers also are typically better if you choose an off-peak sailing — we’re going in the middle of February, which is a relatively slow time. And, sometimes your offers come with other perks, such as a few hundred dollars in free play or free drinks. (Tip: You’ll get the best cruise deals at times of year when kids are in school.)
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It isn’t totally freeIn full disclosure, free cruise offers aren’t completely free. You still must pay port taxes and fees, and with most cruise lines, it’s standard to pay gratuities (either prepaid or while on board). For a six-night cruise, this typically will cost about $400-500, although it can vary significantly depending on your particular cruise itinerary, the type of room you book, and other factors.You’ll also typically have to pay for additional guests in your room beyond two people. I’m taking my wife and two kids on the cruise we’re doing, and we had to pay a modest fare for each of the kids, plus port fees, taxes, and gratuities for each of them. Including taxes, gratuities, and the cost of taking our children, the entire bill for our six-night cruise is about $1,500. If we were to pay regular price, a trip like this would likely cost about $4,000 for four people.
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I should also mention that you’re likely to spend at least some money onboard. There are plenty of free dining options, but there are specialty restaurants and bars, as well as shops, spas, photographers, shore excursions, and more. To be sure, you don’t have to buy any of this, but I’ve never been on a cruise where I didn’t spend at least a few hundred dollars on perks that were not included in my cruise fare. (In fact, my wife and I have an agreement where I’m only allowed to gamble with the same amount that I’d be comfortable with her spending on massages, shopping, etc. throughout the trip. It helps manage our spending!)Don’t you have to lose a lot of money to get a free cruise?Not necessarily. For one thing, getting offered a free cruise, dinner, or other perk doesn’t have anything to do with how much you lose. It has to do with how much you play.Each cruise line uses a unique system of tracking play, and the comp algorithms are a closely guarded secret, but comps are based on your expected loss based on your level of play. In fact, in my experience you’re more likely to get freebies on board (such as a free bottle of wine) if you win, as the casino tries to entice you to keep playing.Finally, you might be surprised at what you’re offered. The most I’ve ever lost on a cruise in the casino was far less than what the cruise would have cost had I paid full retail price. My wife will typically play in the casino with me for about an hour or so, one night of the trip, and she will get some offers for free cruises in interior cabins even though she’ll never spend more than $200 or so.The bottom lineTo be perfectly clear, you shouldn’t gamble with more money than you’re comfortable with just to get a free cruise. It’s still important to make wise personal finance decisions. Set a budget before you leave the house, bring cash and leave your credit/debit cards in your room safe, and don’t charge gambling to your room. If you lose, it’s an entertainment expense, and if you win, consider it a bonus. And I’m not encouraging you to gamble if you don’t enjoy it or aren’t comfortable doing so.However, the bottom line is that cruise lines tend to be rather generous when it comes to freebies, especially when you compare it to what you’ll get for a similar level of play from a Las Vegas or other land-based casino. I’m taking my family on a six-night cruise in a balcony room with drinks included this month, and the best I’m typically offered from Las Vegas casinos is two or three free nights in a standard hotel room with maybe $50 in food credits, so it’s really not even close.
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