Part 2: Dream vacationing on a budget.

Hi friends! Yesterday I started a blog series on making your vacation dreams a reality-- and on your budget, too. I'm sharing with you over the next couple of weeks how we were able to take two very big vacations this year (to the Caribbean and to Europe) on our small budgets, as well as some tips that we have learned along the way to make our travels more wallet-friendly. 

Today I'll be talking about scoring some sweet upgrades pretty much anywhere you go, and also making sure that your travel money is being well-spent. There are tons of freebies along the way as you plan your trip and dozens of money-saving opportunities so that your vacation doesn't have to break the bank. I'll also be talking about our planning steps for our cruise this past March to the Caribbean, while working with a maximum $3,000 budget. 

Enjoying the good life in our own private restaurant while staying in Aqua Class on our cruise. (Hint= major upgrade from what we paid!)


So for Christmas last year, Timothy and I decided to gift each other a spring break trip. We knew we wanted to go somewhere big, and we knew we wanted to get out of the Oregon cold as soon as we could. We LOVE cruising and researched some prices on Christmas Day for an affordable Caribbean cruise during spring break. We had driven to Southern California to do Mexico twice, and wanted to do something different. Our budget for the entire trip was $3,000, which would include the cruise, flights, pre- and post- hotel stay, excursions off the ship, transportation and anything miscellaneous that came up. Staying under $3,000 for that vacation was going to be ambitious, but we were determined to take a Caribbean vacation during spring break and that was our budget to do it with. 

We ended up choosing a Western Caribbean cruise for 7 nights through Celebrity Cruises during spring break, and chose the cheapest room we could find at $799pp for that week. That was for an interior room with no view. That meant that we were already at $1600 for our cruise alone (which did include travel to the islands, tips, beverages, food and lodging). We had $1400 left to spend on flights, transportation, hotels before the cruise and ship excursions. It was ambitious, but we were committed. 

We had quite the time initially in trying to save money on flights to Fort Lauderdale, because spring break trips to Florida are not cheap. Originally the cheapest flights we found were $700pp each for the dates we wanted to travel, and that would have eaten up our entire budget right there. That price was not going to work. 

We waited a few weeks (booking in early February) and found that on Delta airlines, if we were to travel one day before the cruise and one day after, the price went down to $450pp. That was still more than we wanted to spend, but, coupled with a $99 companion fare ticket from an airline rewards credit card that a family member had, we were able to get two tickets to Florida for $550. We had $900 left in our budget for the remainder of the trip. We also learned the value of keeping (balance-free) an airline rewards card because of the many different travel and mileage perks available. Now we have cards with two different airlines and can use those companion fares on our vacations each year to save on airline costs. 

Since we had to leave early and stay late in Fort Lauderdale in order to get a more affordable airline rate, we needed to stay four extra nights. We were going to be arriving on Friday March 22nd and leaving Tuesday, April 2nd. At this point you might be thinking: "Did you even save money on the flights because of what you had to pay in hotels?" Technically, yes. If we were going to be paying an extra $300 to fly in on Sunday the 24th (the day our cruise left), then we might as well have used that $300 to see Fort Lauderdale and explore the Miami area instead of waste it on an airplane seat. 

For our hotel, we decided to "Name our own price" on Priceline for a 3-star hotel in Fort Lauderdale (it's very expensive there). We ended up landing one for $70 a night, so for four nights in Fort Lauderdale we spent $280.

We knew we were going to need a car, so we also Priceline-d that and ended up scoring a rental car in Fort Lauderdale for $9 a day. Our rental car ended up being $18 for the two days we needed it, because we took cabs from our hotel to the ship and back on both cruising days, as well as to and from the airport. 

Pre and post cruise we had a pretty low food budget because we just found Starbucks where we could and shared Chipotle or dinners out wherever we went. We spent roughly $60 for four days on meals pre and post cruise because we got take-out and visited the grocery store in FL one day for snacks. 

One area of cruising that can get kind of spendy is excursions, and since we were in the Caribbean one tip we learned from other travelers was to skip ALL the ship's excursions and either go on a local tour with a guide recommended on Tripadvisor for half the price, or to just research a local area hotel and buy a "day pass" from them to use their pool, eat food at their restaurant, etc. This was what we did for the majority of stops on our cruise, and we saved SO much money by doing so. 

To recap:

Caribbean Cruise Budget: $3,000

Travel dates: Spring break 2013

Airfare to Fort Lauderdale, FL: $550 (for two people/ $225pp)
Cruise rate (lodging/food/travel): $799pp
Pre and post cruise hotel: $280
Rental car / cabs pre and post cruise: $40
Food pre and post cruise: $60
Cruise port visits: $100 (Cabs to beaches, visiting hotel restaurants and their pools, walking around the downtown areas, taking in a time share presentation in exchange for an all-inclusive guest pass, etc.)

So in planning this all in advance, even before our cruise departed, we were pushing $2500 and that was not including anything unexpected such as gas or incidentals. I had a sneaky suspicion, however, that we could do even better than $2500 for this 12-day vacation.

One thing unbenknownst to me at the time is that cruises offer pretty amazing deals in the spring, that tend to coincide with the onset of spring break. There's somewhat of a last-minute push to fill ships during the spring and summer, so they tend to offer crazy promotions. The good news is that guests can cancel and rebook at the better rate, which is exactly what we did. 

Around the first weekend in March, our cruise inevitably dropped in price to $599 per person for the room we booked, but our price we already paid ended up being the same price as a higher-end suite called Aqua Class, where we got additional perks with our room and had a private dining room called Blu that we got to eat in apart from all of the other guests. We also scored a package that included free drinks (alcoholic and non) as well as free gratuities, which typically run about $12/day per person. 

Instead of dropping down to $599 for the interior room, we decided to keep our rate of $799 and upgrade to the private dining experience in Aqua Class. I am SO glad that we did! We definitely could have saved $200 per person overall, but that extra splurge made it so that we could have a balcony room instead of an interior room, and have a quiet and delicious dining experience overall. 

Because we were checking our cruise company's website each week before we departed on our cruise and working with a travel agent (I highly recommend Hollis Davis at Julie's Travel Desk in Lake Oswego, who happens to be FREE!), we were able to save a lot of extra money by getting our drinks included, receiving some on board credit to spend and also receiving free gratuities. 

Getting yourself some sweet upgrades

Timothy and I tend to get upgraded to better rooms and better seats almost every time we travel. The #1 piece of advice I have when it comes to getting a better room is to just ask


The worst the customer service or front desk can say is no, and nine times out of ten we are told yes. We have gone from concrete wall views to ocean views, and from back-of-the-plane seats to exit row seats simply by asking. 

Upgrades are available and they are available for free! I cannot guarantee that you'll get one, but by being friendly and simply asking, the odds are in your favor. 

We also have gotten upgraded on all of our cruises by being savvy with price-watching (the work part I was talking about earlier) and communicating with our travel agent to upgrade us whenever there was a price drop. 

Total 12-night Caribbean Cruise Cost

So overall, when we took our cruise to the Caribbean we got:

*Two round-trip tickets to Fort Lauderdale for $550
*Four nights in Fort Lauderdale for $280
*Private dining and a balcony room for $799pp
*Free gratuities to cruise staff members
*Free drinks (alcoholic and non-alcoholic)
*Free food
*Beach and hotel visits in all port stops for $100 total
*$60 for food pre and post cruise by sharing our meals and getting breakfasts included in our room rates
*$40 for using Priceline to book our rental car for sightseeing and then using cabs to and from the cruise port and airport

Total cost for a 12-night cruise to the Caribbean during one of the busiest travel weeks of the year: Roughly $2700 (about $125 per person, per day-- flights, transportation, food, drinks, lodging and travel).


Can't put a pricetag on this kind of relaxation. Oh wait, I can. And it's cheap! (Views of Falmouth, Jamaica with my free drink & hot sun.)

Next up on this blog series: Day-by-day breakdown of what $2700 got us on our dream vacation to the Caribbean



  1. Nice! What a great series! We did our 11 day Caribbean Cruise (7 night cruise) for $3300 easily which included two full price plane tickets and a total splurge on 2 of the 3 nights we stayed in a hotel-I wanted a specific hotel and it was worth it! :)

  2. Sometimes those specific hotel splurges are worth it though! ;)


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