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 pumped 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.
Look for the best cruise deals in the Caribbean and Europe.
If you're searching for cheap cruise deals in 2015, look to the Caribbean and Europe.
"The cruise lines are hurting in Q1, so you can find great deals in the Caribbean," says David Fredericks, vice president of sales and marketing for Luxury Cruise Connections. "There are also great deals for spring in the Caribbean and Alaska." With so many ships in the Caribbean, including mega-ships like Oasis and Allure of the Seas and hot new ships like Norwegian Breakaway and Getaway, the newest ships are selling out. Older ships are filling up more slowly. While you might not catch Royal Caribbean's new Quantum of the Seas before it heads to Asia, you might find an enticing low rate on ones of its older yet activity-packed ships, such as Freedom of the Seas -- more so if you are in position to cruise in the early part of the year and book just a few weeks out.
While travel agents agree that Caribbean cruise deals will become harder to find as the year goes on, they point to Europe as the spot for great cruise value, regardless of season. "There's a lot of inventory in Europe, and we are seeing more and more deals," says Anthony Hamawy, president of Cruise.com. "There are sales right now and more on the horizon." Plus, the U.S. dollar is much stronger against the euro than it was a year ago, so pre- or post-cruise stays and activities and shopping during port calls will be more affordable. Hamawy cautions to watch out for airfare; wait too long to book flights, and you could erase your savings with pricey last-minute flights.
Book early for summer and peak travel times.
While you can find great cruise deals at the beginning of the year, cruise agents warn they're not going to last. "A transition is happening in the industry, led by Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. Their all-in, or BOGO [buy one get one], promotions are convincing people to book further out," says Fredericks. "Two years ago, 75 percent of people were booking at the last minute (120 days out). Now it's sliding to booking eight months to a year or year and a half out."
When people book early, ships fill up more quickly, and the cruise lines don't have to slash fares close to sailing to sell the last remaining cabins. "We're getting lots of bookings now for July and August. The best prices are seven to eight months out," says Rich Tucker, marketing manager for CruiseDeals.com. The other agents we spoke with agree; if you want to cruise in summer, book during the first months of the year (or earlier) to take advantage of the best prices and promotions because fares are just going to go up.
Other popular cruises you'll want to book early include Caribbean cruises on new ships, summer Alaska sailings, Hawaii cruises, Christmas and New Year's sailings, and exotic cruises like South America, South Pacific and the Panama Canal. Wait to book, and not only will the best cabins be sold out, but the cruise lines will have ended their package promotions (offering free beverage packages, onboard credit, prepaid gratuities and other discounts), and cruise fares will be on the rise. "If you don't book now for summer, you'll be paying 20 to 30 percent more," predicts Hamawy.
Book early for luxury and river cruises.
If you want the best prices and nicest suites on luxury and river cruises, get out your calendars for 2016 -- or maybe even 2017. "Affluent travelers plan a year to a year and a half out for luxury cruises," says Fredericks. "They will plan a premium or upper premium cruise (Azamara, Celebrity, Holland America) six to eight months out." And if it's a unique itinerary or a destination with limited berths, prepare to put down a deposit two years out. "Some people are even booking now for 2017," says Annie Scrivanich, senior vice president of Cruise Specialists. "Some destinations are booking out two years plus, like the Galapagos. Crystal Cruises' Northwest Passage sailings sold out in four or five days [when bookings first opened]." Luxury travelers will also book world cruises as soon as those sailings go on sale, more than a year in advance.
River cruises are another type of sailing that travelers book early. "May, June and September are the most in-demand cruising months in Europe, and they are mostly sold out for 2015," says Rick Kaplan, president of Premier River Cruises. He says it's generally safe to book a river cruise a year in advance, but the earlier you can book, the better.
Look for cruise packages with freebies and value-added perks.
For many bargain hunters, the holy grail of cruise deals is the $50-per-night fare -- or at least upper-category cabins sold for lower-category rates (such as a balcony cabin for the price of an oceanview room). In 2015, you're not going to see so many of those dirt-cheap cruise deals. What you will find is added value... as long as you book in advance.
"People have gotten accustomed to all-inclusive packages," says Tucker. "Those sales do well and are now expected." Celebrity's 123 Go promotion started the trend, and when other lines saw how well it worked, they followed suit. Among the amenities often bundled together in these offers are free beverage packages, prepaid gratuities, onboard credit, Internet packages, shore excursion discounts, reduced deposits or even discounted second-, third- or fourth-passenger rates.
Solo cruise travelers need to be savvy to get the best cruise deals.
Solo travelers are benefitting from more studio cabins being added to new ships; Quantum of the Seas launched in 2014 with Royal Caribbean's first solo cabins, and Holland America's Koningsdam will debut in early 2016 with that line's first cabins for one. Yet, these types of dedicated solo cabins are still rare in the industry, which means they're in high demand from educated consumers. Book super-early if you want one, especially for peak travel times, like holidays; you can wait a bit if you don't mind sailing during shoulder season.
More accessible than studio cabins are single supplement offers, but Lori Sheller, vice president of Online Vacation Center, says that "single supplements are [mostly] on distressed inventory." That means the cruise lines use single supplements to move hard-to-sell cabins rather than slashing fares. For example, look for them on Caribbean cruises 60 days out or Asia cruises four to five months out.
The same is true for river cruises, Kaplan tells us. Many river cruise lines have solo cabins, but you'll need to plan in advance to get one. River lines will also offer single supplement discounts on regular cabins to fill ships. Don't expect to find these deals during peak months, but if you're flexible and can travel at off-peak times, you can save.
Know when promotions are likely to come out.
You will get better value on your cruise vacation if you can combine a good base fare with a promotional add-on from a cruise line or travel agency. Savvy shoppers have an idea when to look for sales and time their bookings accordingly.
Wave season is the most well known of the sale periods. Historically, it has run January through March to coincide with new year vacation planning and bad winter weather. (A snowstorm always gets people thinking about warm-weather cruises.). However, this year, agents point out that cruise lines came out with aggressive promotions around Black Friday, with wave season deals beginning to come out in December, rather than January. Tucker notes that we saw some of 2014's best sales in March, but Hamawy cautions that with the early start to this year's wave season, cruise lines will start pulling back their promotional offers come late February and March and begin to cherry-pick which sailings continue to offer extra value.
In addition, Tucker points out that we will start to see heavy promotion for 2016 sailings in late August and September, so that's a good time to jump on an early deal.
Flexible travelers who can sail within two to six weeks should look out for Royal Caribbean's weekly sales on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, where you can find "price drops up to $1,000 on balconies and suites." Celebrity has similar weekly sales; Carnival offers its last-minute sales once or twice a month on a Thursday or Friday.
"Heavy booking for river cruises starts in August of the year before," says Kaplan. "River cruise sellers will ramp up sales and marketing in August for the high season." This year, spring bookings are down, and the lines came out with a lot of offers in November for spring 2015 cruises.
Look to off-peak travel times to get a deal.
Flexibility and the ability or desire to travel at off-peak times will always get you a better fare -- and allow you to book closer in. Fredericks points to traditional shoulder seasons, such as Alaska in early May or September, Caribbean during hurricane season and South Pacific in April and May.
For river trips, Kaplan says right now you can find "exceptional values in late March, April and early May river cruises to Europe." Plus, with increased riverboat capacity on nearly all the major rivers, river lines do not seem to be filling ships quite as quickly in 2015 as in previous years. Kaplan says there will be value sailings in the early summer for the first time.
Fall has historically been a cheaper time to cruise Europe's rivers, but holiday market cruises are now seeing increased early demand. With more families and solos choosing holiday market cruises for their winter vacations, Kaplan predicts that, in three to five years, these sailings will be quite popular among new river cruisers and not as value-oriented as in the past.
Use a travel agency for the best cruise value.
Travel agents are quick to note why it's better to book through them than through the cruise lines directly -- and their reasons are quite compelling.
"The biggest mistake travelers make is to only rely on the Internet and buy on price," says Kaplan. His agents will spend 30 to 60 minutes getting to know their customers' needs before they book them a cruise. "One size does not fit all, and while price is important, value is more important."
"A travel agent can compare all the brands," says Sheller. Book direct through a cruise line, and the representatives will only talk about that line's ships, regardless of whether that line is actually best for you.
Tucker points out how travel agents are experts; not only have they been on the cruises and can point you to the right line, but they can read the fine print of the cruise line sales and make sure you're getting what you want. "Lots of agencies add something of value that you won't get through the cruise line," he says, pointing out how CruiseDeals.com will offer prepaid gratuities on many Royal Caribbean and Celebrity sailings, on top of those line's promotions. "We offer special value on every major brand," concurs Hamawy. "You will miss out if you don't use an agent."
Fredericks talks about the power of agency consortiums (like Virtuoso or AAA). When multiple cruise sellers band together, they can leverage their clout with cruise lines to get discounts, packages with air and hotel, and added-value amenities (welcome receptions, onboard credit, private short tours, etc.) to offer to their customers.
Finally, agents can save you time. "We can take care of everything in a couple of phone calls. It's less labor-intensive than booking independently," says Scrivanich. Cruise Specialists even has an in-house tour operation that can build land tours for clients for both pre- and post-cruise stays and ports of call.
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- Cruise Critic's Fare Compare Widget
--By Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor