CRUISE FOR FREE! By Jen Campbell of Escape Destinations Travel
Cruise for free? Yes, it’s possible and it’s not as hard as you might think. Just ask Jessica Shawn of Slippery Rock, Pa. For years, Shawn had wanted to cruise with a group of friends from college. After she talked to her travel agent about her group cruise idea, Shawn decided to take the bold step and reserve a group of cabins on a Carnival Cruise Lines cruise to the Caribbean. Shawn sent fliers with the cruise information to all her friends and posted the information on her face book page. Her primary goal was to get as many people as possible to have a great vacation; her second goal was to entice enough of her friends and family to book so she could earn free passage under Carnivals group policy.
What happened? Shawn was able to cruise for free when 22 people joined her group. As the organizer of the group, Shawn became the designated tour conductor. Tour conductors work with a travel agency to make all the travel and onboard arrangements; their primary jobs are recruitment and communication with all the people in her group. All you really need is a group willing to travel together and an excuse to go: family reunion, birthday, anniversary, wedding, college reunion, church group, or just plain fun. Sign up enough people and you will pay no fare!
What happened? Shawn was able to cruise for free when 22 people joined her group. As the organizer of the group, Shawn became the designated “tour conductor”. Tour conductors work with a travel agency to make all the travel and onboard arrangements; their primary jobs are to simply recruit and offer good communication to all.
Most cruise lines, including Carnival, Celebrity, Disney, Holland America, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean and Princess, ordinarily define a group cruise as a minimum of 16 people occupying eight cabins (third and fourth passengers in a cabin are allowed, but they do not count toward the total). The 16th person (the “tour conductor”) cruises free. However, free passengers must pay taxes and port charges (and, of course, airfare to the port, transfers if needed, etc).
Getting a free fare is one thing; getting a free cabin is something else altogether. For that you need to book twice as many people and cabins. Sixteen is the magic number. Sixteen people means the 16th person cruises free; 16 cabins means the 16th cabin is free (for 2 passengers in the 16th cabin) and they pay their own taxes and port charges only.
Off-peak sailings sometimes offer more generous terms, with some cruise lines offering groups a free fare to every 10th or 14th person. Generally, higher-end cruise lines like Silversea Cruises require fewer paid fares to qualify than do the more mainstream cruise lines.
Sail together, save together!
OK, so the group leader can really win here, but what about the other group travelers? They can benefit, too. For one thing, group rates are many times lower than individual rates. For another, the free cruise fare as an option, can often be divided evenly among the group members, saving everyone money.
Some cruise lines also offer special perks available only to group cruisers. For example, many cruise lines are now awarding “group amenity points” based on the number of people in the group: the more people, the more points, the more perks. Amenities can include such things as private hosted cocktail parties, cabin upgrades and shipboard credits.
The details of group-travel offerings vary quite widely by cruise line, itinerary, time of year, even the nature of the group. Do not be daunted by this. Travel agencies that specialize in group cruises can help find you find the best sailings and negotiate the best possible deal.
What if you’re unable to round up enough friends or family members to get group benefits? So no problem, simply book with an agency that can connect you with a travel consortium like Outside Agents (of which Escape Destinations Travel is a member of). These consortiums book many blocks of cabins and offer special deals that are exclusive to the clients of their member travel agencies. It’s a great way for people to take advantage of a group rate without being in a group.
Warning: Being a tour conductor isn’t a breeze. You’ll have to keep extensive records and have good communication skills to keep the good information flowing between the travel agent and your group members. Yes, the travel agency will do most of the work, including making bookings, tracking payments, making stateroom assignments and setting up special onboard events, but you are the one people will turn to when things situations arise.
Jessica Shawn and her friends had a terrific time on their group cruise. Shawn says it was a lot of work, but the payoff was great: “I cruised for free. How cool is that?” She says she can’t wait to do it again. In fact, she’s thinking of having her very own wedding at sea in the very near future.
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