Somewhere out there is a seven-night cruise from $299, a luxury sailing at 75 percent off and an empty cabin on the soldout sailing you wish to book. Knowing where and when to search for the best fares could mean the difference between unearthing that deal or compromising on price and itinerary.
You probably have a tried-and-true method of searching for cruise deals. 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 may 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 may be old hat, others may catch you by surprise. Use them all, and you'll be ready to pounce when the right promotion comes along.
Tweet Your Way to Savings. Tech-savvy shoppers may want to try Twitter, to find last-minute cruise bargains. Just about every agent and agency -- including Cruisedeals.com (@cruisedeals) and Cruise.com (@cruisecom)-- is tweeting its best cruise offers. The cruise lines have gotten into the game, as well.
Taking it a step further, you can customize a list of deal tweeters by using Twitter's list function, in essence creating your own deal aggregator.
Send Deals to Your Inbox or Phone. E-mail may be passe at this point, but the vast majority of lines and agencies still rely on "e-letters" to help fill cruise ships. Celebrity Cruises, in particular, sends deals e-mails with special one-day sales that you wouldn't know about otherwise. We've seen deals like a seven-night Eastern Caribbean cruise on Celebrity Solstice from $749 for a balcony cabin, or four- and five-night sailings from $249. 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 a separate account just for bargains mailings.
For those who can't stand checking email 24 hours a day, agency Cruisenow.com even has a "Cruise Text" program that sends deals right to your phone.
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 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 serve basis -- may also be worth a look. While the site mostly focuses on shoes and jewelry, Windstar Cruises sailings are occasionally on offer. As sites like Groupon start adding travel sections to their regular deals for local spas, restaurants and services, be on the lookout for the possibility of cruise deals of the day.
Book Ahead for High-Season Cruising. For certain dates and destinations, last-minute bargains are a tough find -- especially if you want your pick of cabins. Summer travel and school holiday periods book up early, especially for cabins that sleep three or more and are in demand by families traveling together. The choicest digs on popular new ships will sell quickly, pushing fares higher the longer you wait.
If you want what everyone else wants, or at least have a very specific cruise scenario in mind, we recommend booking early. 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 cruise price. These upscale lines make it clear -- the lowest rates will disappear if you wait.
Book Last Minute. For those who can be spontaneous, flexibility can really pay. 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 full deposits are due. 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 dramatically reduced last minute. Of course, booking last minute airfare may 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.
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, you may 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.
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 free berth for every 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 for themselves without telling anyone. 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 group perks like onboard credit, free photos and discounts on select group excursions.
Choose Shoulder-Season Sailings. If you've already honed 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 may not be ideal for sightseeing.
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 feature story.
Access Military, Senior or Residency Rates. A number of lines have special programs for seniors, military personnel and even teachers. Norwegian Cruise Line provides discounts to U.S. and Canadian military vets on select sailings. And for AARP members, it offers a 5 percent discount on any cruise booked at least nine months in advance. Holland America even goes so far as to offer discounts on select sailings to teachers, EMTs, firefighters, police officers and active military. Erik Elvejord, Holland America's director of public relations, told us that, while fares vary, they've "typically been $50 to $100 below going rates."
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.
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 quite 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 won'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 about $70 per person on a weeklong sailing.
--by Dan Askin, Cruise Critic Contributor, and Erica Silverstein, Features Editor