Predicting where and when savvy cruise shoppers are most likely to find dirt-cheap seven-night Caribbean cruises, elusive five-category upgrades or the best free-drinks-and-spending-money cruise packages requires a crystal ball. While travel agents can't see into the future of cruise deals, they do have a few tricks up their sleeves when looking for the best cruise prices and overall vacation value.
We asked a couple of knowledgeable cruise sellers for their best tips on finding cheap cruise deals, getting extra freebies and making the best choices for your next sailing. Here's what you need to know.
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Wave Season Is Still a Good Time to Buy
The cruise line promotional period known as wave season is when cruise lines offer a slew of deals between January and March. With an increase in year-round promos, it has been widely debated if this hallmark three-month period of cruise deals is still one of the best times to book a cruise. The answer, according to the agents we asked, is yes.
"This wave season has begun much stronger than previous years," says Greg Coiro, CEO of Direct Line Cruises. "The cruise lines are all offering aggressive promotions and pricing to encourage shoppers to book now and not wait."
What kinds of deals can you expect in early 2017? "This wave season continues to be driven by value-add approaches, which is great news for the consumer," says Scott Koepf, senior vice president of sales for Avoya Travel. "Both luxury and mass-market cruise lines are taking their biggest and most popular deals, and enhancing them for wave season because these are the deals that have the most appeal to loyal cruisers and repeat customers."
Ongoing promotions like Norwegian's Free at Sea, Royal Caribbean's BOGO (buy one-get one) sale and Princess Cruises' free dining and onboard credits are all extended for wave season. Even better, routine cruise line promotions are bolstered by even more perks than usual during wave season, in the form of additional onboard credit or special offers in certain embarkation ports like Norwegian's hotel offer in Hawaii or casino credits from New York. With multiple value-added perks and discounts in play, you will get more bang for your buck with a wave season deal than you might get the rest of the year.
And that's not all. "The best aspect of many of today's offers is the combinability options," says Coiro.
"Let's take Norwegian Cruise Line for example. Often Norwegian will allow consumers to choose multiple perks from their Free at Sea promotion such as free shore excursion credits, a specialty dining package, internet package or beverage package. Best of all, this offer can be combined with other promotions that may be available that offer free onboard spending credits, reduced deposits plus special reduced pricing. Even better, these offers can be combined with our agency promotions, which include travel insurance for all cruises five nights or longer."
In other words, if you can pile offer upon offer, you will get the most value and ultimately save more money by booking during wave season.
Book Early for the Best Prices
The biggest piece of advice we received in regards to getting a good deal this year is booking ahead…way ahead.
"Booking early will be key if you want the best deal on top cruise lines and itineraries -- popular sailings will sell out quickly," says Koepf. "Plus, cruise lines are more willing to incentivize customers with value-adds further out so they can fill up cabin space early. There have been some incredible advance-booking savings this wave season; we expect to see more of these offers available in the next couple of months, but not for long."
So what does it mean to book early? It might be farther in advance of your sailing than you think. "Our agency is seeing that the average consumer is booking much farther out in 2017," says Coiro of Direct Line Cruises. "The current booking window is anywhere from six to eight months in advance of the sailing date. We always recommend that our clients book as early as possible." Other agents say their customers are booking six months to a year out, and even recommend booking one to two years out, when possible.
But perhaps you're uncomfortable booking early because you fear that prices will drop after you book, and you'll over-pay for your cruise. Not to worry. "If the price decreases later, in most cases, your travel agent can honor the lower price," says Karen Malone, a travel agent with Travel Leaders. Plus, if you book too close to your sail date, any cruise fare sailings can be negated by pricy last-minute airfare.
Does that mean last-minute deals are dead? Not exactly (see our section on last-minute deals below), but agents warn against planning your vacation time around a cheap deal. "While, yes, it is true that last-minute cruise deals will be available for specific cruise itineraries, there is no guarantee that the deal fits your interests," says Coiro. "A last-minute cruise deal requires the consumer to be extremely flexible with their vacation time, destination and accommodation interests. By booking far in advance, the consumer is virtually guaranteed to be able to choose their ideal cruise vacation that matches their exact interests."
Book Early for the Best Availability
Not only does booking early get you the best cruise fares and extra-value offers, but agents agree it's the best way to get the exact vacation experience you desire.
"If travelers want the most options available to them, they should already be looking at cruises for this fall or next year," says Sara Butroff, a travel agency owner with the Travel Leaders group. "Booking close in means you do not have many options in stateroom selection, plus you miss out on all the early-booking promotions."
Specifically, families, large groups and anyone looking to book luxury suites, cruises to exotic destinations like the Galapagos and certain river itineraries should always follow a rule of "the earlier, the better" when it comes to booking.
Agents had a lot of advice for families looking to cruise together. "In many cases, cruise lines offer adjoining staterooms for families, but these accommodations are limited and sell extremely fast," says Coiro. According to agents, the busiest times for families are during President's week, Christmas, summer and anytime there might be a Monday holiday. Triple and quad cabins, as well as adjoining staterooms, can become scarce during those times, so it's even more important to book as soon as possible.
Who else should plan in advance for the best availability? "Clients planning a special celebration such as a family reunion, anniversary or who want a very specific accommodation type or a very specific itinerary or date of travel [need to] book early," says Karyn Todd, senior vice president of Cruise.com. She also recommends that travelers who are looking at long-haul destinations like Asia or Australia should book further ahead so they have time to procure necessary visas or inoculations, and arrange long-haul flights, land extensions and customized sightseeing tours.
Certain itineraries need to be booked farther in advance than others, otherwise you'll miss the opportunity to cruise altogether. "Any itinerary that is a one-off should be booked in advance," advises Paige Barker, vice president of business development for Online Vacation Center. "Panama Canal is a destination that is also selling fast and only has a handful of itineraries a year. Iceland, Japan and Australia/New Zealand are all doing very well right now." If you want to cruise to these destinations, call your agent now.
Remember when booking a river cruise, there are only a fraction of the cabins you might find on an oceangoing vessel on a river ship, which means capacity is way more limited.
"Book your river cruise a minimum of nine to 12 months out," says Rick Kaplan, owner of Premier River Cruises -- especially if you're interested in the now-popular Christmas market cruises. "What was once up-and-coming a few years ago with holiday markets is much more known now. With popularity growing, you have to book early, and that way you can save. Very few last-minute values [or availability] with the Christmas market cruises," says Kaplan.
The same strategy applies to high-end cruises. Luxury cruise ships are much smaller than mega-ships, and due to their exotic and desirable itineraries, booking in advance takes on a whole new meaning.
"The luxury market is interested in something different: expedition travel and adventure," says David Fredericks, vice president of sales for Luxury Cruise Connections (part of the Virtuoso Network). "We're seeing a spike in Arctic and Antarctic itineraries, which you need to book two years in advance." Many luxury travelers are choosy about cabin and suite categories, and will lock in their preferred accommodations as soon as itineraries are announced a year or more in advance.
Get Even More Value From a Luxury Cruise
Luxury cruises are expensive, but travelers who can afford them can get amazing value for their money. And in 2017, the stars are aligning to give you even more bang for your luxury cruise buck.
"All-inclusive luxury itineraries remain a popular choice among cruisers because of the overall value they provide," says Koepf. "With select luxury brands, beverages, shore excursions and more are all included, which when sold a la carte can add up to hundreds or even thousands on a cruise that is not luxury or all-inclusive."
Great value is different from a great deal, and luxury cruisers know it. "A good deal is a cheap price on a mass-market ship on a common itinerary with perks," says Barker. "A good value is a reduced price on a premium line or upper category on an itinerary that is not so common or there are not that many of." While you'll pay more for a luxury cruise, the extra inclusions, the levels of food and service you can't get on mega-ships and the unique itineraries all make the splurge a great vacation investment.
The introduction of value-added promotions in the luxury cruise industry also means that your money will get you even more. A mainstay of mainstream cruise deals for the past few years now, value-add promotions offer bonuses like drink packages, free internet or prepaid tips to increase the value of your cruise. With so many perks already rolled into most luxury cruises, it's surprising -- and exciting -- that value-add promos are now popping up for high-end and very-inclusive sailings.
"The Virtuoso consortium has an exclusive $1,000 per-person savings with Crystal Cruises and Silversea has 10 percent off, BOGO and business class air," says Fredericks. "These are somewhat new to the luxury market, as well as the air upgrades, although Regent and Viking have had it." Windstar and Oceania Cruises have pick-your-perk offers -- called Star Perks and OLife Choice, respectively -- that provide cruisers a selection of bonuses like hotel nights, four-digit onboard credit and free internet.
In addition to value-adds, Uf Tukel and Don Walker, co-founders and co-presidents of WMPH Vacations, are seeing a lot of growth in the luxury market. An increase in ships means more options and itineraries. And when there's growth, pricing becomes competitive. Crystal Cruises, a brand not typically known for deals in the past, has begun offering thousands in air credits, savings and onboard spending money as part of a promo called Crystal Clear Choices. Offers like these are meant to sway potential cruisers toward one luxury brand over another.
"All luxury lines are experiencing growth right now…which hasn't been the case for a while," they say. "High-end cruise lines (luxury, river and niche) are coming out with new ships in 2017…more so than the traditional big boy ships."
Flexibility Is Key
At the other end of the spectrum, the cruisers saving the absolute most on their next voyage will be flexible about the dates and details of their cruise.
"The secret to finding cheaper cruises is all about flexibility," reveals Coiro. "If you are a flexible traveler and can leave at the drop of a dime, then I would recommend waiting and searching online for those last-minute bargains. The best deals will typically be available in the Caribbean in the fall and winter."
"The best way to maximize value-add deals is to be flexible when it comes to sail dates and travel arrangements," adds Koepf. "If you're willing to pay slightly more for an ocean view or balcony cabin, then value-add amenities are another way travelers can maximize."
If your main goal is to get the lowest price, a travel agent can really help you find the right itinerary with the lowest rates. "If the client is flexible, we can suggest dates with better pricing and availability," Malone tells us. "Agencies routinely block space on ships, which allows them to provide their clients with better prices and onboard amenities like free dining and onboard credits."
If you're not in the know, you might miss out on the best offers, which are not always where you would expect them. "Sometimes you will find a better deal on a 10-night cruise than a seven-night cruise, or maybe there's a better deal out of another drive destination than the one you were originally looking at," says Todd. "Maybe the deals are better on a northbound Inside Passage than a southbound itinerary."
Todd adds that the most flexible clients usually book within 60 to 90 days of departure, and even closer in than that if there is no airfare involved.
One caveat: The cheapest price won't necessarily get you the cruise you want. Sure, a great price can be achieved by being super flexible, but think about whether that's really what you want before basing your entire trip around the dollar amount.
"A good deal is easy to spot if you are just buying on price," says Todd. "If you are truly free-wheeling and willing to travel most anywhere at any time of the year, are happy to eat in the main dining room, content with a cabin that is interior, obstructed, far forward or aft, can navigate most of the time on your own in a new destination, then you are truly one of the lucky ones because you only have to look at the bottom-line pricing and divide that by the number of cruise nights to know if you are getting a great deal."
But in truth, most people don't just want a cheap price. They want a specific cabin type and location, sail date, itinerary and/or value-adds like upgrades, free onboard Wi-Fi and beverage packages.
According to Todd, "The best time to book and buy is when you get the feeling that you've gotten a great deal on the perfect cabin. Decide what matters most to you when it comes to amenities, since that will also help you hone in on great deals where you will actually use all of what is offered."
The Caribbean and Alaska Remain Hot Destinations for 2017
There's no doubt about it. "Caribbean is hot this year," says Fredericks.
The Caribbean remains one of the most popular cruise itineraries year-round. Yet a glut of ships -- about a dozen Caribbean cruises depart just from the two ports of Miami and Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale at any given time -- and intense competition among cruise lines can keep the prices low.
"The deals are absolutely in the Caribbean -- departing from Florida and New York -- and Bermuda," says Coiro. "Many of the most popular cruise lines such as Celebrity Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean have all increased their presence in the Caribbean for 2017 with newer and larger ships that offer more passenger capacity. To stay competitive in this marketplace, all the cruise lines are offering incredible pricing and values for Caribbean itineraries."
Remember, Cuba is part of the Caribbean, meaning the region is getting even more attention in 2017. And cruise lines are announcing additional itineraries each day.
"Cuba right now is generating significant buzz and excitement in the cruise industry due to it being a brand-new cruise itinerary for cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Oceania and Azamara," says Coiro.
"The Caribbean will continue to remain a top vacation destination for cruisers in 2017," continues Koepf. "The demand can be attributed to all the wonderful product offerings and itineraries available to consumers. Royal Caribbean has helped keep the destination buzzworthy with its innovative ships including its newest addition, Harmony of the Seas, which continues to draw loyal and first-time cruisers."
Many agents specifically noted excitement around the return of Celebrity Equinox to sail year-round Caribbean cruises from Miami, beginning in April 2017. Agencies, like WMPH, are offering bonuses, like a pre-cruise hotel stay, included in the price of the cruise (about $949 for 12 nights to the Southern Caribbean).
Alaska is just as popular as the Caribbean, but it's much shorter season (May to September) boosts demand -- and prices. Still, there are plenty of options when it comes to ships, itineraries and even pricing, if you book at the right time.
"Alaska remains hot in 2017," says Koepf. "2016 was a great year for Alaska cruises and we expect another strong year in 2017 due to increased capacity and investments made by major cruise lines to enhance Alaska product offerings." Tukel and Wallace of WMPH predict it will be the cruise region's best year to date.
"Alaska continues to generate high interest among both new and repeat cruisers," agrees Coiro. "Looking further ahead, we have seen an immediate interest in the new Norwegian Bliss for its inaugural Alaska itineraries from June through September 2018. Consumers should start planning their Alaska vacations now as typically this itinerary involves more planning in which you must consider air transportation, land tours and excursions."
"The two itineraries that I would encourage consumers to book now and not wait are both Alaska and Cuba," continues Coiro. "Cuba is only offered for a relatively small amount of sail dates now. Therefore, inventory is quite scarce and demand is extremely high. We have observed since the Cuba itineraries have first been introduced, rates have steadily increased. Alaska just continues to be strong among the cruise industry. We have seen prices steadily increasing for lines such as Celebrity Cruises, Holland America, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean."
Be Strategic About Destination for the Best River Cruise Price
The river cruise industry is in an interesting situation. Due to the terror attacks of the past two years, Europe was largely "soft" in 2016; travelers weren't interested in visiting, and prices went down. Yet, in general, river cruises remain popular, especially for trips along the Rhine and Danube, and river lines continue to add new ships. All of these factors combined mean that there are river deals to be had if you book early and choose your destinations wisely.
"With so many new ships recently added to the fleets, there are more options than ever, which translate into attractive offers for the consumer," says Malone. "I recently found a 15-day river cruise with 12 complimentary shore excursions and free air to Europe for $5,199 per person."
There's a flip side to all the great river cruise promotions on offer. "River sales are starting to pick back up across the board," says Barker, crediting promotional pricing for driving interest in river cruises back up. Agents recommend that river cruisers take advantage of especially good early-booking bonuses before offers disappear and fares increase.
Where should you look for great river cruise deals? "Prime dates for river cruises are 85 percent booked for 2017," explains Kaplan. "The least expensive river cruises are going to be offseason; the demand is lower." If you're unfamiliar with river cruise seasonality, know that popular travel months are May, June and September; look for lower rates in late August and early October.
And don't forget to look for deals by destination. "Europe has been challenged for the last few years, and challenges still exist," Kaplan says. "What we saw for the first time ever is cruise lines paying you to book early. Late fall of 2016, Avalon had a 2017 promo that was up to $2,000 off per couple, plus free air. It was the best promo we've seen, but short-lived (about 60 days and, of course, capacity controlled). Lines are favoring people who book early with thousands per couple in savings."
He adds, "The four least expensive river cruises for 2017 are: Eastern Europe (Budapest to Bucharest), Burgundy & Provence (some of the best values there), Paris & Normandy and Bordeaux." Why? "Diminished demand in the France region."
Yet if you're interested in going, you can have an amazing experience at the right price. "The French have three beautiful wine regions worth exploring in Burgundy, Bordeaux and Provence with river itineraries to match," explains Todd. "Scenic's luxury river cruise vessels offer Rhine and Moselle cruises that will take you into the gorgeous wine region of Alsace for a different kind of wine experience."
Wondering what's hot in river cruising this year? Agents tell us the Douro River of Portugal has become so popular, there isn't much inventory left for 2017.
"The hottest river is the Douro this year without a doubt," says Kaplan. "It's the most demanded. Inventory from all river cruise suppliers is 80 to 85 percent sold out by now. The popularity of the Douro (already getting early requests for travel in 2018) is followed closely by resurgence in the Danube, which has more supply. Book now for the Douro if you can, even if you're looking at 2018."
One final note: Solo cruisers are also seeing an increase in offers and even cabins, on some river ships. However these waived supplements are limited and capacity controlled, meaning it's important to book them early. Still, Kaplan believes solo offers will increase, and cruise lines across the board will do more to accommodate this community of cruisers.
2017 is the Year to Get a Cheap or Free Flight Included
In 2017, don't just settle for any value-add. For many luxury and river cruise lines, we're seeing the introduction of free or reduced flight offers in addition to other inclusions.
"River cruising companies have some fabulous promotions for 2017/2018," says Butroff. "The best part is there are options for free airfare from your U.S. city to the ship! From Minneapolis, I have had clients that were able to take advantage of free airfare or airfare that was merely $395. [Airfare from] $795 has been the highest that my river cruise clients have had to pay for airfare with their river cruise in the last two months. That's fantastic for European fares from the U.S. Typically it is the longer itineraries that are the ones offering more specials."
"One of the top values I'm seeing this year is Viking [River Cruises'] free air to Europe and the added amenities of prepaid gratuities," adds Malone.
On the luxury side, Seabourn and Crystal are offering hundreds of dollars, per person, in air credits as part of their wave season promotions.
"With all of the great air deals to Europe, this could definitely be the year to catch up on a food and wine experience [overseas]," Todd suggests.
Last-Minute Discounts Do Exist (Here's Where to Find Them)
With all of the early-booking bonuses and advance-planning advice, you might start to think it's impossible to find deals close to sail date. But according to the agents we interviewed, that's simply not true.
"Caribbean and Med will see a lot of last-minute deals; there are mega-ships with a lot of beds to fill," says Barker. Fall sailings especially offer the best overall value.
Everything from politics to chilly morning weather affects booking patterns, opening up specific months and itineraries to solid last-minute deals. "Last-minute deals can be found this February and March because there was much uncertainty in September through November before the election," advises Fredericks. "Now, there's inventory to fill on various cruises."
"We are seeing a ton of last-minute availability on spring [river] cruises -- the last week of March and early weeks of April," says Kaplan. "Fall values appear later in the booking cycle (October 15 and beyond). Travelers on a budget who want to experience the value of river cruising have to be flexible with travel dates. They'll see incredible values (every itinerary but Douro)."
But last-minute deals aren't for everyone. If you don't live close enough to drive to a port on a dime, or snag a flight using points, many agents advise that it might not even be worth the hassle because deals come and go quickly and last-minute airfare can eat up any potential cruise savings.
Travel Agents Can Give You Special Rates, Bonuses and Expertise
Some people still believe that consulting a travel professional costs more, or that they don't have access to the best prices, and that is just not true. It's in an agent's own best interest to find their clients the best deal and sometimes the time and research you're saved from doing is worth more than the onboard credit.
"The single biggest tip I can give anyone is to find an expert cruise consultant," says Todd. "These travel professionals are watching hundreds of deals come and go, have the latest information on ships, itineraries and pricing, and have a vested interest in working as hard as they can to give you a perfect vacation."
"Travel agents are privy to all of the sales, before they are released to the general public," says Malone. An experienced agent can alert you to sales about to hit the market, and help you find itineraries with added benefits, like free air or other perks. Plus, they know about senior, resident, military and past-passenger discounts or specials of which you're not aware.
Furthermore, what consumers don't always know is that agencies have access to exclusive offers.
"A travel agent can offer you extras and possible discounts that the supplier may not have access to directly," says Barker. "There may be some kind of special initiative that the travel agent and supplier have agreed upon, giving the agent the ability to offer a customer more. A travel agent may have pricing locked in from months ago that would be far below what the supplier pricing is, offering you unmatchable savings."
Plus, travel agents have access to deals they can't promote, so it's always best to talk to a professional before booking based on what you see online. "Agents receive unpublished offers from marketing partners called 'quiet offers'," says Kaplan. "These are non-public offers. Where the listed offer might give $500 off per person, we might have 40 percent off, but can't advertise that. People think the lines always have the best deals but that's never been true. If I can say one thing in defense of agents it's that they have your best interest in mind and they work for you, not cruise line."
A cruise consultant can also guide new cruisers who are inexperienced in navigating the booking process.
"The one thing we hear most often from consumers planning a river cruise is that they're overwhelmed and they don't know where to start," says Kaplan. "First-time river cruisers make up 70 percent of all river cruisers." It's tricky to figure out the differences among the various river cruise lines, so an agent can help you choose the line that's right for you and assist you with pricing and booking.
They can also help explain the value of your purchase, so you understand when the lowest price might not be the best deal, or how to determine if value-adds will help you save.
"The single most important thing a travel professional can do is help you understand the value proposition," says Todd. "A travel professional can break down the deals and clarify what those offers and perks really mean. And, a travel agent can also do the math and show you that -- sometimes -- by moving up one or two categories for a relatively small price difference -- a client can exponentially increase the number of benefits they will receive."
"While travel is an art, there is an absolute science behind the booking process," says Todd. Partner with an experienced agent, and you will come away confident you have booked the best cruise for you at the right price.