Last minute cruises -- defined roughly in industry terms as sailings that depart between several days and three months in the future -- offer savings to those of us who either procrastinate for a living or enjoy the luxury of cruising on a whim. And even better: The Internet has evolved as a terrific resource for deals, and travel agencies regularly receive offers from cruise lines trying to fill ships on close-in voyages.
But, like any deal that comes with a "too good to be true" price tag, buying a last minute cruise has its pros and cons. Read these tips and tricks for cruising on the cheap, and avoiding potential savings pitfalls:
1. Strike while the iron's hot. One of the best times to find last minute rates on a particular sailing is 60 to 90 days prior to departure. The reason? This is the last call (for most cruise lines and itineraries -- for some it's up to 120 days) for travelers to cancel existing reservations without penalty. At that point, the cruise line will know exactly how many cabins are left -- and if there is more space available than the cruise line would like, it will quickly (and often heavily) reduce the fare so that it can sell out the ship.
2. Don't expect "peak" travel. There's a reason why a cruise is being unloaded with little time to spare -- and it's not because it's a hot seller. Calendar-wise, you probably won't find a last minute bargain on Christmas or New Year's sailings, Easter week, or even Thanksgiving. You might -- but don't hold out if you have your heart set on traveling during those times. On the flip side, you're very likely to find plenty of variety in the Caribbean during peak hurricane season (September through early November) or during the pre-holiday (first week or two of December) and the post-holiday (first two weeks of January) travel lulls. But never rule anything out. Some years, holiday cruises or peak summer sailings don't sell out like they usually do, and there are surprise bargains on normally popular itineraries.
3. Embrace repositioning cruises. Odd-duck itineraries don't always sell well, leading to last minute deals. Among them are repositioning cruises, when vessels change "regions" for the season and sail unusual routes to get to their new homeports, often across an ocean or sea. These voyages are usually longer -- maybe two weeks or so instead of seven days -- and include lots of sea days, as well as a mishmash of ports, all at a reasonable price. There is a catch: Because these voyages begin in one port and end in another, passengers are responsible for picking up generally expensive one-way or open-jaw airfares. Still, crunch the numbers; if you can find a good deal on airfare, you'll save big on eleventh-hour repositionings. (Check rates with this meta-search tool, powered by our parent site, TripAdvisor.)
4. Shop around. Though cruise lines have tight restrictions on travel agency discounting, cruise sellers have authorized ways of accessing lower prices or offering different booking bonuses than their competitors. Shop around to look for the best deals. Many agencies have Web pages focusing on last minute deals or weekly bargains e-mails. And if you don't see anything you like, call. Often agencies have low prices that they can only tell customers about over the phone. (And -- shameless plug -- don't forget to check out Cruise Critic's last minute deal pages.
5. Defining value is key. How much of a bargain is a cheap cruise that requires you to spend twice as much on airfare? For instance, you'll typically see more Anchorage-to-Vancouver voyages on last minute lists than the more affordable roundtrip Seattle itineraries. Why? Air is typically cheaper on the latter, which sails into and out of the same city. The former has you flying in and out of different airports, including one in Alaska where fares are often high. Account for that cost before committing.
6. Read the fine print. Read each offer very, very carefully because it will specify exactly what your purchase entitles you to. An inside cabin is no bargain if you suffer from claustrophobia. Outside cabins on sale may have obstructed views. Some last minute deals are for guarantee cabins, for which you cannot request a cabin number or location. Look carefully for information on service fees, government taxes and port charges, which often aren't included in the sale price. And check whether special offers mandate that you pay in full at time of booking or if deposits are nonrefundable.
7. Be flexible. Booking late means you'll get what's left after all the early planners have made their arrangements. You are less likely to get an in-demand suite or balcony cabin, a prime dinner table or seating, or a choice cabin location. If you don't have your heart set on specific details, you'll be more likely to enjoy your discounted cruise.
8. Take the car. It's easier to say yes to an eleventh-hour offer if you don't have to worry about buying airfare. If you live within driving distance of a homeport, focus your deal search on those departures. Find a deal, and you can quickly plan a pre-cruise road trip to get there. Some hotels near major embarkation ports offer park-sleep-cruise packages.
9. Keep your passport up to date. You don't want to book a last minute sailing only to find that a passport is necessary and yours has expired. If you want to plan a getaway at a moment's notice, we recommend making sure there are at least six months left before your passport expires -- and renewing it in advance if not.
--by Erica Silverstein, Features Editor