Monday, March 11, 2013

Booking a Group Cruise

Are you thinking about booking a group cruise?  If you don't do your homework, this can be a logistical nightmare.  So this blog, hopefully, will provide a little bit of guidance on this topic.

I have been putting together group trips since 2006, but in the past, always worked with a tour company and simply served as the group coordinator.  Last spring, I took a group of 43 to Italy and Greece, but wanted to give my travelers a less expensive option because this year, so we decided to book a group cruise.  It took a little research.  I take that back, it took A LOT of research on my part to determine where, when, and how much it was going to cost us as a group.  Let me be clear, the monetary rewards are low.  So if you are thinking of booking a group cruise to save money, it is probably not going to be enough to worry about.

You might be wondering what constitutes a group booking.  Most cruise lines defined a "group booking" as a reservation of eight (8) cabins and a minimum of sixteen (16) full price guests.  Take a minute to let this sink in.  That's a lot of cabins and a lot of people.  You will certainly want people to commit
before you make this kind of reservation and put in this much effort.

Decide when and where you want to go.  Decide on a departure port and the duration of the cruise line.  Compare prices by season and confer with your group.  Once you have these decisions settled, shop for a cruiseline that is offering a cruise that meets your group's travel needs and desires.

Before deciding on a cruise line, visit the group sales link on each line's Website.  You will usually have to make a phone call, at which time you will be given a sales pitch (which will include jargen that is familiar only to travel agents).  Ask lots of questions because YOU will actually be treated like a travel agent throughout this process and will be serving as one for the rest of your group. 

Choose your preferred cruiseline (I highly recommend that you call at least three lines).  After checking with three lines, my group decided on Norweigan Cruise Line for three reasons:
  1. We could drive to the Port of New Orleans in a few short hours.
  2. They offered a free "person" after each 8th cabin (16 people) were booked.  What does this mean?  This means that the 17th person in the 9th cabin only had to pay for his/her cruise (minus taxes, port fees, and gratuities).  The "free" person's fare was equal to the fare in the majority of the cabin types booked.  Huh?  In other words, if the majority of the cabins booked were inside cabins, then the "free" passage was also for an inside cabin.
  3. NCL is the least expensive cruiseline for families.  They offer reduced fares for additional occupants after the first two per cabin.  For example, each parent pays full fare, but two additional kids only pay $329.00 each.  Anyway you slice it, that is the best deal out there and that rate is the same for ANY cabin type that you book - including the suites!
What next?  After you have made a decision about a cruise line, call the company and set up the group.  You will give your group a name and will be assigned a group number that you will use as a reference from this point forward.  You will also be assigned a group cruise consultant who will assist you from this point forward.  After the group is established, collect a "mini deposit" from each family who wants to join the group.  This will allow the company to "hold" cabins in the area that you desire (close in proximity to one another or per your specifications).  NCL requested $50.00 to hold each cabin.  I collected $50.00 from each family that wanted to join our group and it was deposited into the group's savings account.  I collected information on each person in each cabin which included their first and last legal names, birthdates, and preferred cabin types.  I then emailed the list to my assigned cruise consultant.  I then emailed everyone in my group with the instructions for booking that were provided by my cruise consultant.  Individual families in the group called in and finalized their reservation.  The $50.00 that they paid upfront to "hold" their cabin was applied to their accounts.

Note: NCL will only hold the cabins for 30 days.  Afterwards, the $50.00 "hold" deposits are non-refundable and lost and the cabins are opened up for other passengers.  I will say that NCL worked with us on this.  We had people who changed their minds and although they lost their $50.00, NCL was willing to apply it to other families who joined the group later. 

After each cabin reservation, you will receive a copy of the booking for your reference (because you are serving as the travel agent).  You will also receive period spreadsheets with all details for the group that you will need to look over and verify from time to time.

Once your departure date grows close (around 90 days prior), someone from the ship will contact you and ask how you would like your "free" person applied.  In our case, we requested that the money be evenly distributed among all the cabins in the form of a cruise credit and NCL was happy to do so.  We ended up getting around $65.00 in cruise credit for each cabin, which was pretty good.  Please keep in mind that there are no discount for booking group cruises, this is the major incentive.

One other advantage of booking a group cruise is that you earn "amenity points" that can be used in a number of ways.  Someone from group sales will email you and ask you to make a choice for your group.  If you have enough cabins in your group, then this could mean discounted or free excursions, bottles of wine, chocolate-dipped strawberries, or a private cocktail party (we took the cocktail party!).  You and your group can decide based on the number of points that you earned.

This was a learning experience for me and I am not sure if I will do it again.  It was a lot of work and then the organizer feels responsible for everyone else's happiness.

We depart for our cruise in 6 days.  Wish me luck.  We have 60 plus travelers and 21 cabins.  I did all the leg work, but they are going to have to pull their own happy wagons once we get to NOLA :)  It WILL be fun and worth it, I'm sure!

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