Somewhere out there is a seven-night cruise from $299, a luxury sailing at 75 percent off and an empty cabin on the "sold-out" sailing you wish to book. Knowing where and when to search for the best cruise deals could mean the difference between unearthing that low fare or compromising on price and itinerary.
You probably have a tried-and-true method of searching for cheap cruises. Perhaps you wait for missives from your trusty travel agent, or maybe you're a tiger when it comes to prowling the Internet for low fares. You might book your cruise right when the brochure is first published, or you might bide your time until two weeks before sailing. But have you explored all possible ways of nabbing that steal?
Let us share some of our favorite tips for finding cruise deals. While some might be old hat, others may catch you by surprise. Use them all, and you'll be ready to pounce on that cheap cruise when the right promotion comes along.
1. Tweet Your Way to Savings. Tech-savvy shoppers can try Twitter for last-minute cruise bargains. Just about every agent and agency -- including Cruisedeals.com (@cruisedeals), Cruise.com (@cruisecom) and Best Travel Deals (@cruisedealsbtd) -- is tweeting its best cruise deals. The cruise lines have gotten into the game as well, posting about their latest promotional offers on their official feeds. Take it a step further by customizing a list of deal tweeters using Twitter's list function, in essence creating your own deals aggregator.
2. Send Deals to Your Inbox. The vast majority of cruise lines and agencies still rely on eletters to help fill cruise ships. Major cruise lines, such as Celebrity, Norwegian, Carnival and Royal Caribbean, offer deals emails with ongoing promotions in addition to last-minute deals and short sales. And, of course, there's Cruise Critic's own "Cruise Sails," a weekly rundown of inventory, priced to sell, from a variety of our advertisers. For the hardcore deal-seekers who don't want e-deals cluttering up their personal inboxes, we suggest setting up separate accounts just for bargains mailings.
3. Keep an Eye on Boutique and Daily Deal Sites. If you love creative couponing, add cruises to the list of things you can find discounts for at boutique and daily deal sites. Jetsetter -- a TripAdvisor company, like Cruise Critic -- often features exotic cruises to the Galapagos, Antarctica, the Nile or Europe in its flash sales, offering up to 50 percent off; look for expedition and luxury lines. Rue La La, an invitation-only site that offers luxury "boutiques" -- with a set number of upscale items for sale on a first-come, first-served basis -- might also be worth a look. While the site mostly focuses on shoes and jewelry, cruises are occasionally on offer. Sites like Groupon and LivingSocial also have travel sections for deals on bargain inventory, and this includes the occasional bargain-basement-priced cruises. Travelzoo includes plenty of cruises in its top deals roundups, too.
4. Bundle It Up. A number of cruise lines offer package deals that include airfare, hotel and even tours in addition to cruise fares. Search for packages from MSC, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and other major lines. Bundling multiple vacation elements together can help you save on individual costs. Upscale and river lines sometimes offer promotions that will include airfare or a hotel stay in the price of your luxury cruise.
5. Book Ahead for High-Season Cruising. For certain dates and destinations, last-minute cruise deals are a tough find, especially if you want your pick of cabins. Summer travel and school holiday periods book up early, particularly for cabins that sleep three or more and are in demand by families traveling together. Fancy a Christmas markets river cruise? For some lines and sailings, you can forget it unless you book months -- nearly a year -- in advance. If you want what everyone else wants, or at least have a very specific cruise scenario in mind, we recommend booking early. The choicest digs on popular new ships will sell quickly, pushing fares higher the longer you wait. Look for early-bird sales offering added value like onboard credit or free upgrades. And rest assured knowing that most deposits are refundable prior to final payment, so if the price does drop, you can either rebook at the lower rate or request the difference in onboard credit.
Luxury cruises also put forth their best prices early. Oceania and Regent Seven Seas usually bump up rates every three months. Crystal's Book Now fares offer early-booking discounts of thousands per couple for a limited time; when the deadline passes, the line dutifully increases the prices. These upscale lines make it clear: The lowest rates will disappear if you wait.
It's also best to book river cruises early. Not only are choice itineraries likely to sell out as the sail date draws closer, but the price is also likely to jump, not drop.
6. Monitor Price Drops. Be your own best-price advocate. Before you've booked a sailing, do some research on typical rates for the cruise you have in mind, and check back frequently (we mean daily, at least) to see if the fare has dropped. Don't have the time to obsessively watch cruise pricing like stockbrokers watch the Wall Street ticker? Sign up for Cruise Critic's Price Drop alerts, which will let you know when fares are dramatically reduced so you can get the best price for your sailing.
7. Ask for Cash Back When Fares Change. If the cruise fare changes after you've booked but before you've made your final payment, it's possible to take advantage of the lower rate. Enlist the help of a travel agent who can monitor pricing after you've booked. If the fare plummets, you can request a rate change, cancel and rebook at the lower rate or request the difference in onboard credit. What you're entitled to varies by cruise line, but it all leads to more money in your pocket.
8. Book at the Last Minute. For those who can be spontaneous, flexibility can pay off. Check out our last minute cruise deals section, which features bargains on a variety of sailings leaving within 90 days -- 90 days out being the typical point at which final cruise payments are due. In general, there are always plenty of Caribbean deals.
Other hard-to-fill cruises -- such as shoulder season cruises and one-way repositioning sailings, where open-jaw airfare is required -- can be deeply discounted at the last minute. Of course, booking last minute airfare might wipe out any savings. Plus, you'll have a limited selection of cabin locations and dinner seatings. But, if you're flexible and can drive to a cruise port, it's a great way to save.
9. Go for the Cabin Guarantee. If cabin location isn't important, you might want to opt for a "cabin guarantee," which basically means you're assured to get a cabin in at least the category specified -- and, if you're lucky, even get an upgrade. However, you can't choose your exact stateroom. Lines like Carnival typically discount guaranteed cabin bookings about $50 to $100 per person off the advertised fares. However, if you're prone to seasickness or sensitive to noise, you might want to reconsider the value of choosing your own cabin location.
10. Bring the WHOLE Family (Plus Friends and Coworkers). If you're willing to book in bulk, most cruise lines will offer free berths, depending on the number of passengers in the group. For instance, Princess Cruises offers a Tour Leader/Conductor credit based on 16 lower berths booked. The ratio is reduced for small-ship and luxury lines, so you might only have to get a group of 10 to earn a free berth. Group leaders can choose to spread the savings across the group or keep it all for themselves. Groups can get other perks, as well. For example, in addition to offering a free berth for every 10 passengers booked, luxury line Crystal throws in extras like onboard credit, free photos and discounts on select group excursions. Throughout the year, many cruise lines offer promotions that include free cruise fare for third and fourth passengers booked in the same cabin. Watch for the deals that also include those passengers in bonus offerings like drink packages or prepaid gratuities.
11. Choose Shoulder Season Sailings. If you've already homed in on a destination, the best way to save is to focus on travel dates just outside the peak season. This might mean picking May as the month to visit Alaska, April as your best bet to sail the Mediterranean and October for your Caribbean cruise -- before or after the summer swell of family vacations. In addition to low prices, you'll encounter fewer crowds; on the flip side, the weather might not be ideal for sightseeing.
12. Make the Most of Past Passenger Discounts. Like frequent fliers, frequent cruisers are able to benefit from brand loyalty. Sticking with one line means earning perks like nightly cocktails in private lounges, access to the spa's thermal suite, complimentary dinners in alternative restaurants and even free cruises once you've earned enough "credits" -- all things you'd typically have to pay for. Past passengers can also take advantage of special discounted sailings throughout the year.
But know this: Past passenger programs are not created equal. For a full list of offerings, check out our guide to cruise line loyalty programs.
13. Access Military, Senior or Residency Rates. A number of cruise lines have special programs for seniors, military personnel and even teachers. Norwegian Cruise Line provides discounts of up to 10 percent to U.S. and Canadian military families on select sailings. And for AARP members, it offers a 5 percent discount on any cruise booked at least nine months in advance. Many lines also offer residential discounts. Here's how it works: In essence, a line's revenue stream is based on a formula that requires a certain number of bookings from various cities, states and regions. So, if it's not getting enough bookings from one particular place, it'll drop the price slightly -- say, in Florida -- to entice more Floridians to book. There's no guarantee you'll get a residential discount, but it can't hurt to mention your home city and state during the booking process, just in case.
14. Leave the Deals Search to the Experts. If you don't have time for Twitter, online cruise research or gathering up a group of 20 friends, nothing beats a good travel agent to help you score a deal. Because agents often book in bulk and work directly with the lines, they have access to deals that normal cruisers don't. Cruise lines will offer their top agencies special discounts that the agents can't promote on their websites, so even if you see a good deal online, it's best to talk to a real person and ask for the best fare.
Even if savings aren't necessarily there for every sailing, agencies often offer deals with value-added perks like onboard credit or prepaid gratuities, which can amount to nearly $90 per person on a weeklong sailing.
--By Dan Askin, Cruise Critic Contributor, and Brittany Chrusciel, Editorial Assistant