Reader Request: Save Money on Mediterranean Cruise Honeymoon

Kim, a reader of the site, emailed me with a request for tips and advice for saving money on a Mediterranean cruise honeymoon.

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Kim, a reader of this site, would like to take a Mediterranean cruise for her honeymoon.

“I got approved in April for the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card to start earning points for travel.  It looks like my fiance and I are going to plan a Mediterranean cruise for our honeymoon, which would be in August 2016.  We saw one that we really liked from Carnival.  It leaves from and returns to Barcelona, Spain.

Do you have any tips for booking cruises or ways we can save money when booking one?  I know with a couple of my credit cards I have points/cash back where I can get Carnival gift cards, but do you know of anything else we could do?  We’d be departing from, and returning to, one of the NYC airports, preferably Newark.”


Well, first of all, Kim, congratulations on your engagement!

Kudos to you and your fiance for planning your honeymoon well in advance of your big day.  It’s challenging to do as wedding planning is hard enough without factoring in the honeymoon but your ambitiousness means that you’ll have a lot of options for making your honeymoon very special without breaking the bank.

Here are some primary thoughts:

  • August is peak tourism season for that area so flights purchased with cash could be as much as half of your trip cost.
  • Cruise cost is a little harder to offset with miles/points/awards than other travel costs.
  • Many a cruise has been ruined or degraded by a flight delay or cancellation so you want to be conservative with arrival time in Europe.

With those thoughts in mind, my strategy for your honeymoon is composed of three elements:

  1. Acquire miles to cover some or all of your flights.
  2. Use some creative approaches to minimize cruise cost.
  3. Acquire some hotel program points or free night hotel awards so that you ensure you arrive in Barcelona in time for your cruise.  This has the added benefit of providing some flexibility for arrival date, and that will improve your chances of redeeming airline miles for award seats.

Flights

Your desire/ability to fly out of Newark International Airport (EWR) means you’ll have some decent flight options.  Because your honeymoon is more than a year away flight schedules aren’t available yet.  However, some brief research on Google Flights shows that United is the only airline offering nonstop service from EWR to Barcelona (BCN).  So in terms of minimizing flight costs, which could be almost as much as the cruise if you’re paying normal prices, I suggest working to acquire United MileagePlus miles or points in a program such as Ultimate Rewards by Chase which can be transferred to United.  Your decision to get the Chase Sapphire Preferred was a great move!

Patty and I were recently able to redeem United MileagePlus miles at the Saver Award level for a nonstop US->Europe flight so availability is often reasonable.  If you can’t get award seats on a nonstop United flight, you’ll almost certainly be able to get award seats on a decent connecting flight as United miles can be used on quite a few partner airlines.

United Availability
United offers nonstop and connecting service between Newark and Barcelona as well as partner airlines’ connecting service. A quick check of availability for a month from now (simply as a test since Kim’s honeymoon is beyond the booking schedule) shows decent availability at the Saver Award level.

A one-way economy award on United between EWR and BCN will require 30k miles if there is Saver Award availability and 65k miles for a Standard Award.

There are a couple ways you and your fiance can acquire additional United MileagePlus miles.  He could apply for a Chase Sapphire Preferred card of his own, separate from yours.  The 40k Ultimate Rewards points he earns from the signup bonus can then be converted to United MileagePlus miles.

An important note: You and he can convert/transfer your Ultimate Rewards points into each other’s United MileagePlus accounts.  I’ll walk through a reasonable example for illustrative purposes.

Let’s say that between the Chase Sapphire Preferred signup bonus and spending you’ve accumulated 46k Ultimate Rewards points, and then your fiance acquires the Chase Sapphire Preferred and meets the minimum spending requirement of $4k.  That would mean he would have at least 44k Ultimate Rewards.  You could each then transfer your Ultimate Rewards points into the same United MileagePlus account – yours or his.

Combined, you would have 90k miles in a single account.  That is much preferred to two separate MileagePlus accounts with 46k and 44k miles, respectively.  This is because award seats, as mentioned above, are available for 30k miles, meaning that in this example, the combined total of 90k points/miles would be enough for 3 award seats at the Saver Award level.  If you each transferred your Ultimate Rewards points to your own separate MileagePlus accounts you would only be able to secure two award seats.

As a supplement to the Chase Sapphire Preferred cards you could acquire the United MileagePlus Explorer card.  The signup bonus for the card is currently at 30k MileagePlus miles and with a simple trick you can also get a $50 statement credit as part of the signup offer.

Signup bonuses are the fastest way to rack up United MileagePlus miles but you can of course also obtain miles for paid flights.  If you or your fiance are traveling between now and your wedding day you’ll want to consider flying on United or a partner which will allow you to credit the flight miles to MileagePlus.

Another way to obtain airline miles is through the use of shopping portals.  United’s portal just started a major promotion today with significantly increased earning rates.  It’s worth a look in general and especially if you think you’ll need a small to moderate amount of miles to get to a redemption threshold.

By the way, Barcelona airport is often deemed the best airport in Europe so it shouldn’t be much of a hassle flying in and out of it.

Of course the last thing you want to deal with is missing the start of your cruise so you’ll want to fly across the Atlantic at least the day before the cruise departs.  If you can take some extra vacation time you may want to stay more than one night in Barcelona.  I’ll cover hotel options later in the post.

Cruise

I see from reviewing the Carnival website that the Mediterranean cruises offered by Carnival will be aboard a new ship – Vista.  It looks incredible!  For the readers – this will be Carnival’s largest ship, complete with Cuban-themed staterooms, an iMAX theater, outdoor spots such as Havana Bar & Pool, SkyRide at SportSquare, mini-bowling, mini-golf and arcade-style basketball, soccer, volleyball and table tennis.

One word of caution: Make sure you do your research and have strong indications that the ship will indeed be in service in time for your honeymoon before you book.  Although hotels and cruise ships are very different, I write this word of caution based on a recent experience with a hotel’s opening being delayed egregiously.

I suggest following the Carnival Vista twitter feed or Facebook page to stay on top of the ship’s construction.  You may get early word of any issues from Carnival or informed insiders via those avenues.

Carnival Vista Tweet
Follow the Carnival Vista Twitter feed for updates on the progress of the ship construction. In addition to commentary from Carnival you may pick up useful info from Twitter users.

You may get some commentary from others that Carnival “isn’t as nice as other cruise lines” or “it’s a little cheesy.”  Well, Patty and I took a Caribbean cruise on Carnival and we had a blast!  It was plenty nice for us and it offered a really fun atmosphere.  Additionally, I believe Mediterranean cruises are higher-end and perhaps feature a bit of an older demographic, so there might be a nice balance there of cruise line and region, for newlyweds.

You mentioned in your email that you can redeem points from your credit card program for gift cards to Carnival.  Such redemptions are often at a 1 cent per point rate, which is not a very good redemption rate for something like Ultimate Rewards.  Also, cruise-branded credit cards do not generally offer good value.

In order to save money on the cruise, you may want to check out sites like CruiseCompete.com.  From their website:

CruiseCompete.com is a free, anonymous way for cruisers all over the world to get the best cruise deal. In just a few moments, you can create your account and request quotes. Independent travel agents will respond with their best cruise values (we’ll let you know by e-mail when new quotes are available). You then choose which agent(s) to phone or e-mail for more information or to book your cruise.

Additionally, I would strongly recommend highlighting that this is your honeymoon, whether you’re speaking to a Carnival agent or a third-party.  It could yield a discount directly or in the form of a free upgrade.

Another option is to obtain a travel credit card that is not aligned to a specific brand but rather allows you to make travel purchases directly using points in their system or covers travel costs via a statement credit.  The two most prominent cards of this type right now are the Citi ThankYou Premier and the BarclayCard Arrival+.  The signup bonus for the ThankYou Premier card is greater than that for the Arrival+ card but the Arrival+ card allows you to pay off travel costs retroactively, meaning your travel costs which count towards the minimum spend are then eligible for redemption.

Lodging

At first it might seem like there’s no need to discuss lodging since the focus of your honeymoon is a cruise.  However, as I mentioned earlier in the post, you’ll want to arrive to Barcelona at least one night before your cruise, to ensure that any flight issues don’t cause you to miss the departure of the ship.

One of my first moves when looking into lodging is to visit Award Mapper.  There are quite a few lodging options in Barcelona which can be had using points or free night awards.  One of my favorite hotel programs is Hyatt’s but there aren’t actually any Hyatts in Barcelona so you’ll have to choose otherwise.

AwardMapper Results 640
Award Mapper is an excellent tool for exploring and understanding the presence of hotels and their point redemption rates.  In this case we see that there are quite a few options for point redemptions in Barcelona.

After reviewing the options I recommend you consider the Intercontinental hotel options, particularly the Hotel Indigo Barcelona – Plaza Catalunya.  The hotel is highly rated on TripAdvisor, earning a Certificate of Excellence and it’s a short 12-minute cab ride from the cruise port.

As an Intercontinental hotel it is part of the IHG Rewards Club and it’s relatively easy right now to acquire IHG Rewards Club points.  The signup bonus for the program credit card is publicly listed at 60k points but with a simple request message to Chase you can probably get that bumped to 80k points and then get an additional 25k points for free!  So a single credit card signup bonus could yield you three nights at the hotel – a $700+ value – with points left over.  The other reason I recommend this option is that the minimum spend requirement for the card – $1,000 in 3 months – is less than some of the alternatives.

I think it would be excellent to head over to Barcelona after the wedding, check out the city for a few days and then board your cruise to check out the other great stops.  By setting up the beginning of your trip that way, you’d eliminate just about any concern/stress related to missing the cruise’s departure.  It also gives you some flexibility on flight award seat redemptions – if you see availability for a flight from EWR to BCN two or three days before your cruise starts you can go ahead and book the flight knowing that you have a place to stay in Barcelona for free.

Summary

Your honeymoon plan sounds great!  Adding a couple nights in Barcelona at the front-end of the trip will allow you to experience that city and eliminate any potential of missing the start of the cruise.

As far as keeping cost down, you’ve made a great first move by getting the Chase Sapphire Preferred.  I recommend you explore getting some combination of another Chase Sapphire Preferred (for your fiance) and/or the United MileagePlus Explorer card to cover your flights to and from Barcelona.  Flights to and from Europe are often expensive so using points/miles for these flights can offer great value.

I also recommend you look into getting one Chase IHG Rewards Club Select card and using the points you get through the card for lodging in Barcelona at the front-end of your trip.

If you’re really ambitious, you could also acquire a card, or cards, such as the Citi ThankYou Premier or BarclayCard Arrival+ to help offset a portion of the cruise costs.


I hope this post helps you get the honeymoon you want without breaking the bank!  Please don’t hesitate to send follow-up comments or questions via the comment section below.

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