The best deals come to those who are flexible, loyal to a specific line and who have a good relationship with a travel professional. While some people love last-minute deals, booking well ahead of time can give you plenty of opportunities to save. Follow these steps to save big on your next cruise.
Step 1. Book your next cruise while you're on a cruise.
Cruise lines want you to sail on their ships again and again, and they'll reward you for your loyalty. Devoted cruisers and big spenders get perks like free cocktail receptions, complimentary laundry or cabin upgrades, but even first-time cruisers can score big if they book more cruises while still at sea.
Most cruise lines have programs that reward you with onboard credit, reduced deposits or discounts if you book while you're sailing. Generally, the rewards and conditions are better if you book a specific sailing, rather than simply an unspecified "future sailing." Celebrity Cruises, for example, offers up to $500 in onboard credit if you pick your ship and sail date, while you'll get up to $200 if you choose to commit later. Onboard credit can be used for virtually anything, including gratuities, so the savings go straight to your bottom line.
Booking onboard? Find out how to score extras and discounts.
Step 2. Keep an eye out for the big sales.
Your work isn't done just because you've booked. If you've locked up a sailing early and given yourself the luxury of time, you have a lot of built-in flexibility and can take advantage of sales that cruise lines run periodically throughout the year, such as wave season deals. Many cruise lines allow you to combine an onboard booking with at least one other offer, so if you see a great deal, you could be eligible for better pricing and even more perks such as drink packages, additional onboard credit or prepaid gratuities. Cruise lines also have flash sales throughout the year, and those are famously great opportunities to snag cruise add-ons.
Check out Cruise Critic's deals page for the latest cruise line sales.
Step 3. Transfer that booking to your favorite travel agent.
When your chosen cruise line is having a sale with perks you like, transfer your booking to a travel agent you trust. This way, you can keep all the benefits from your original onboard booking, gain access to the current cruise line and agency sale perks, and have someone manage your booking so you don't have to. Yep, you read that right. Not only can you double-dip on some cruise line deals, but travel agencies might even offer further perks -- additional onboard credit, for example -- and work with you to access price drops and cabin upgrades. One caveat: Some cruise lines give you a limited time frame in which to transfer your booking, usually 60 to 90 days after the onboard booking.
Read our tips for finding a travel agent who fits your style.
Step 4. Monitor your cruise pricing daily, or let someone do it for you.
With most lines, if a price drops, you can get the lower price all the way up until you've made your final payment. Cruise fares change a lot more than you probably realize, and sometimes low rates last for only a few hours at a time. Some travel agents will monitor prices for you and alert you to drops, for a fee. There's also power in numbers. After you've booked a specific sailing, sign up for a Cruise Critic Roll Call. Often, Cruise Critic members will share information on when a price falls. If you learn of a price drop, contact your travel agent right away to get the new lower rate. If you've already made your final payment and come across a price drop, it doesn't hurt to contact the cruise line; cruisers have told us they've received upgrades or onboard credit even after that last payment.
Follow these four steps, and you can board your next cruise feeling confident that you got a great deal. Here are a couple of additional ways to save, if relevant to your booking.
Book with a group.
Booking a cruise with a group can lead to some nice savings. While the perks vary from line to line, most companies will reward large groups with discounts and incentives. If you're the leader of a group, you could end up with a free cruise, or you can spread the wealth by sharing the discount with the rest of your party.
Refer a cruiser.
Some travel agents will offer a small onboard credit if you refer a new client to them. Similarly, Crown and Anchor loyalty program members receive onboard credit ($25 per cabin) for referring new-to-Royal Caribbean cruisers.
--By Colleen McDaniel, Managing Editor