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Shopping Guide: Low-Cost Western Caribbean Cruises

Carnival Glory in Belize
Carnival Glory in Belize. Credit: Wikimedia
Finding a cheap western Caribbean cruise is no different in many ways than shopping for a Christmas gift.

Last-minute shopping will result in either a high price because fewer options remain available or a low price because of a great sale.

People who start shopping early, compare prices and wait for the right deal to come along will end up paying the best price. People who buy tickets without putting some time into research and planning may end up paying a lot more.

But the first step in planning a low-cost western cruise is actually not buying the cruise line ticket. It’s buying the airline ticket that gets them from home to the cruise port.

Tip #1: Choose the Right Port of Embarkation


Western Caribbean cruises have a predictable set of ports of call -- usually some combination of Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Cozumel, Belize, Roatan and Panama. The first three are the most popular.

Most of these cruises embark from Miami FL, Fort Lauderdale FL, New Orleans LA or Galveston TX.

Choosing the port of embarkation can have an impact on airline ticket prices because airlines use fuel, longer distances require more fuel and so longer distances cost money. But supply and demand for tickets also impact prices.

So check airline prices for each port and choose the port that will cost the least amount of money to reach, which may not be the most convenient one.

Tip #2: Choose the Right Time of Year


Three important factors go into choosing the time of year -- weather, schools, and supply and demand.

The worst time of year to visit the Caribbean is during the peak months of the hurricane season in September and October. Those months usually receive the highest rainfall.

Some of the best weather for the western Caribbean is from January through March, when rainfall averages the lowest level.

Whether or not schools are in session also impacts pricing. When schools are in session, ticket demand goes down. When they are out of session -- spring break, summers and Christmas -- demand and therefore prices go up.

The chart below uses prices at the time of this writing from the Carnival Cruise Web site. Because the choice of a ship can also make a difference, the search was based on just one ship, Carnival Glory. It also was limited to seven-day, six-night cruises.
DatePriceItinerary
01/03/14$369Cozumel; Belize; Isla Roatan; Grand Cayman
01/17/14$419Cozumel; Belize; Isla Roatan; Costa Maya
01/31/14$319Cozumel; Belize; Isla Roatan; Grand Cayman
02/14/14$409Cozumel; Belize; Isla Roatan; Costa Maya
02/28/14$359Cozumel; Belize; Isla Roatan; Grand Cayman
03/14/14$479Cozumel; Belize; Isla Roatan; Costa Maya
04/11/14$389Cozumel; Belize; Isla Roatan; Grand Cayman
04/25/14$449Cozumel; Belize; Isla Roatan; Grand Cayman
06/20/14$719Cozumel; Belize; Isla Roatan; Grand Cayman
07/04/14$719Cozumel; Belize; Isla Roatan; Grand Cayman
09/12/14$419Cozumel; Belize; Isla Roatan; Grand Cayman
09/26/14$419Cozumel; Belize; Isla Roatan; Grand Cayman
10/10/14$419Cozumel; Belize; Isla Roatan; Grand Cayman
12/05/15$369Cozumel; Belize; Isla Roatan; Grand Cayman
12/19/15$689Cozumel; Belize; Isla Roatan; Grand Cayman

Notice how prices for the summer cruises are much higher than the others. Also notice that the cruise during the week of Christmas is almost as high as summer.

Otherwise, prices stay within a fairly narrow range. But the difference in that range can narrow or widen depending on the availability.

The Jan. 17 date is the low point of $319, but two weeks before it is $419, which adds $400 in cost for a family of four.

Choosing March 14 will cost $479 a ticket or a total of $540 more for four tickets because that week is spring break for many schools.

Families with kids in school will find that cruise prices will be higher for them because of the time of year. Couples going without children will find the best prices.

Tip #3: Keep Watching Prices


Some people who take a cruise without children may find themselves dealing with work or other issues that limit the time of year they go. Maybe they are limited to a handful of weeks or even one week when they can go.

The chart above shows that their options are limited because the majority of western cruises take place during late winter through early spring.

It pays to start watching prices six to 12 months in advance of the trip to see sales or price breaks that could end up saving hundreds of dollars.

Identify five or six e-commerce travel sites that sell cruise tickets and check them on a regular basis.

Tip #4: Plan Excursions in Advance


One reason why western Caribbean cruises are so popular is that they have some of the best shore excursions in the region.

Those excursions include Stingray City in Grand Cayman, Dunn’s River Falls in Jamaica, river cave tubing in Belize and Playa del Carmen across the water from Cozumel.

The most expensive way to go on excursions is by waiting until the trip and buying the tickets from the cruise line, which marks up prices they receive from tour operators.

The cheaper way to do them is by buying tickets directly from the operators. But be sure to arrange transportation options as well. Some operators will provide them, while others may not.

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