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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Book now if you want to cruise Alaska, new ships or exotic destinations.
The most popular cruises change from year to year, but one fact remains: You need to book those cruises early because they sell out fast. What's the scoop for 2016? "The hottest of the hot is Alaska," says Willie Fernandez, Vice President of Marketing for World Travel Holdings. "Good cabins (balconies, suites) are now gone."
The Caribbean is a bit of a mixed bag. "The Caribbean is hot on new ships," says Fernandez. "There's a lot of brand-new hardware [ships] in the Caribbean market -- Vista, Harmony, Anthem, Allure -- but more inventory [rooms] in Q3 and Q4." Translation: The Caribbean is nearly always a hot cruise destination, and the newest ships are generally the more sought after, selling out quickly even at higher prices. But with so many huge ships in the region -- Royal Caribbean's new Harmony of the Seas carries 5,479 passengers -- there will be so many available beds for cruise passengers that the cruise lines will have to work hard to fill them all. And that means deals for travelers who can be flexible on ships and sail dates.
"Caribbean deals are better than last year," agrees David Fredericks, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Luxury Cruise Connections. "Luxury Caribbean cruises are also selling quickly."
If you think the Zika virus, which has been making headlines, will lead to fewer bookings and greater discounting on Caribbean cruises, think again. "To date, the Zika virus has been a non-issue for our Cruise Specialists clients. We are continuing to book cruises to the Caribbean and South America," says Annie Scrivanich, Senior Vice President of Cruise Specialists. In fact, according to a Travel Leaders Group survey of more than 1,100 travel agents, conducted in early February 2016, "the vast majority of clients are continuing with their original travel plans to destinations where there have been confirmed cases of the Zika virus." In addition, Travel Leaders reports that nearly 79 percent of agents surveyed stated their Caribbean bookings were equal to or higher than the number of bookings at the same time last year.
Other hot destinations for 2016 include exotic ones like Australia/New Zealand, the South Pacific and Asia. In addition, suites and family cabins (including connecting rooms) tend to sell out first and should be booked early, regardless of destination.
If you want a deal, book a Europe cruise.
After events in Paris and Istanbul, it's no surprise that people are nervous about traveling to Europe, and those fears are impacting cruise bookings. "The Eastern Mediterranean is a hard sell right now due to the geopolitical situation. There's a bargain to be had in the Med," says Deverson. While the cruise lines are trying not to slash prices, she is finding that rates are dropping on certain sailings, especially as sail dates get closer and ships aren't full.
In general, cruise lines are enticing travelers "with richer onboard perks (onboard credit, airfare deals) rather than lower prices," says Fernandez. "It's a good year for cruising to Europe, as it's a great value. With fuel prices down, airfare is also more affordable."
Even luxury lines are feeling the heat. "Luxury lines had to offer more perks in Europe, like free Internet," says Fredericks. "If they were offering free airfare before, now they're offering free premium economy and reduced business-class airfare."
Beyond Europe, there are other tricks of the trade for finding a great deal any year. Agents agree that Caribbean cruises in October, November and December (before Christmas) often have good deals. "If you're really on a budget, an inside cabin is the best bet. Most lines are aggressive on inside prices," says Deverson. Transatlantic sailings also offer more nights for less money.
2016 is the year for a great deal on a river cruise.
The combination of increasing numbers of river ships and falling demand, due to high prices and uncertainty about Europe, has led to some incredible deals for 2016 river cruises.
"Mass-market lines (with the exception of Tauck) are finding it challenging to fill boats," says Rick Kaplan, president of Premier River Cruises. "We've seen dramatic discounting from some lines and good discounts plus value adds from others. There are enormous offers from Viking; for example, they never had solo deals, and now they're asking for only a 25 percent surcharge for solo travelers."
He's not the only one witnessing this phenomenon. "Book river cruises right now, and you'll get free airfare, free upgrades and other discounts not available before. Who knows how long they will last?" says Fredericks.
The advice for people looking to travel in 2016 is to book now because nearly all sailings have availability, and the deals are the best you'll see. June and September tend to be the most popular months, with the absolute best value in July and August. "You'll do better if you have a date range because the broader the window, the more opportunities you have to find the biggest price reductions and air offers," advises Kaplan.
If you're looking to book for 2017, you might want to wait a few months to see if prices come down or additional deals are offered. The exception is if you want a peak September sailing, you should lock in your preferred cabin and sail date now.
Christmas market cruises are also gaining in popularity. "Christmas market cruises have attractive price points, so book in the next 60 days [by the end of March]," says Kaplan. "2015 sailings were 95 percent sold out, and we had to turn away people in October and November who were trying to book last minute." He also cautions that for the first time ever last year, cruise lines dropped discounts on Christmas cruises as the ships began to fill up.
One final river cruise tip from Kaplan: "If price is important, compromise on cabin -- not product -- as everything else (dining, tours) is the same." It's better to book a lower-tier cabin on the cruise line or itinerary you want, than a balcony room or suite on a less-ideal sailing. As river cruises are active and social, you'll spend little time in your cabin during your trip anyway.
Book early for the best deals.
All the travel agents agree: Cruise lines offer their best deals (both prices and added-value offers) early, and are not dropping prices as frequently on close-to-departure sailings. For example, sister cruise lines Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Azamara Club Cruises have instituted a policy of not discounting prices on sailings of five nights or longer within 30 days of departure.
"The best rule of thumb is to book your cruise as early as possible," says Scrivanich. "By doing this, you'll have the best selection of staterooms, and you can take advantage of the best possible fare."
An early booking, clarifies Fredericks, would be putting down a deposit by the end of February or March for a 2016 cruise. "Right now the cruise lines are all in during the first three months," he says. "Then the deals will only be on distressed inventory [the least popular sailings] after that. Prices will go up as ships sell; we saw one cruise price go up $800 in 60 days."
Last-minute deals have essentially been replaced with early-booking promotions. "Cruise lines have incentives in place to [get people to] book as far out as possible, with the most aggressive offers farther out," says Ferndandez. "If you know when you want to go, book now. If you book within 30 days of sailing, no bonus offer." Consensus seems to be to book 12 to 18 months out if you can, but definitely no later than 6 to 8 months out.
In 2016, it's all about good value, not low fares.
When it comes to getting the most cruise for your money, you have to look at the whole package. That's because cruise lines are offering extra-value promotions, rather than price discounts, as incentives to book.
"It's a great time to take a cruise vacation because the hardware [ie, the cruise ships] is spectacular, and you're getting the best perks we've ever seen," says Fernandez. These include free beverage packages, gratuities, onboard credit, two-category upgrades, specialty dining and spa treatments. In addition, some lines are offering reduced deposits and third/fourth passenger rates.
Book early enough, and you can access multiple perks. "Celebrity is currently offering your choice of two out of four free amenities for sailings through April 2017," says Deverson. She gives the example of a four-night cruise she saw that came with unlimited beverages and $400 onboard credit -- the perks were valued close to the price of the cruise itself.
The best way to compare offers or decide if you're getting a good deal is to look at the whole vacation (including airfare and how much you'll spend onboard for drinks, shore excursions and other purchases) and then put a dollar amount to the extra-value perks to see how much you're really saving or spending.
Use a travel agent to get a good deal on a great cruise vacation.
If you're after savings -- or the best possible value on a cruise -- you might be surprised to learn that a travel agent can help you find the best deal.
"The common misperception is that prices are hiked up to cover the cost of a travel agent," says Deverson, but it's just not true. "It's to your benefit to use a travel agent because they could have lower rates than the cruise lines."
Still skeptical? It's true. "Agents have unpublished fares that are available by calling, and you can get a lower fare than what you see online," says Fernandez. In addition, agents know which promotions can be combined with others to get you an even better deal; can point you toward the ship, sail date or cabin category with the greatest value; and even know "that a similar sailing costs $25 more but has $100 more in onboard perks."
Plus, travel agents can sweeten the deal even further. "The best way for cruise clients to maximize the value-added amenities is to travel on a group departure [organized by a travel agency]," says Scrivanich. "In addition to a lower fare, you'll receive additional amenities, such as shipboard credits, access to special onboard events (dinners, parties) and exclusive shore tours. [On certain sailings], Cruise Specialists offers suite guests complimentary town car service, roundtrip between the airport and ship, as well as complimentary bottled water or soda. All guests receive a complimentary dinner and an additional $150 shipboard credit per person."
Travel agents are knowledgeable about the different cruise products out there, and they can match you with the best choice for your preferences and budget. "We've trained our staff to interview consumers, especially first timers, and get a sense of their lifestyle, hot buttons, travel background and what's going to make them happy," says Kaplan. His agents then use that information to give customers several cruise options that would be perfect for them.
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--By Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor