How to Make the Most of Wave Season Deals

Scoring great cruise deals is possible year-round, but wave season remains a peak time for cruise lines to include free upgrades, onboard credit and other incentives.

The cruise industry's wave season is a sales period that has historically taken place between January and March, but wave season deals may appear as early as the first week of December. The idea is that cruise lines -- mainstream, river and luxury alike -- have an early opportunity to showcase their very best extra-value offers for the year to come. Many offer major sales during this time frame, and if you're a savvy shopper, you can take advantage of these promotions to get a great deal on your next cruise vacation. We'll show you how.

What Is Wave Season?

Wave season was born out of the recognition that a large percentage of cruisers book their sailings in the early months of the year. The combination of a new year with an empty calendar and, for most of us, chilly winter weather gets travelers thinking about sunny island getaways and the vacations to come. So, bookings take off. To capitalize on this cruise-booking state of mind, cruise lines and travel agents offer extra incentives -- typically free perks and reduced cruise fares -- in the hopes that the promotions will be the final push travelers need to book those cruises.

How Do I Get the Best Deal?

Money boat

Wave season is not the be-all and end-all of cruise promotions. If you want a dirt-cheap cruise fare -- perhaps one of those less-than-$75-per-night deals that you can brag about to your friends -- you might be better off waiting for a last-minute sale. Wave season deals are for travelers who want value for money, such as an upgrade to a nicer cabin or free onboard credit for some guilt-free indulgence at the spa or onboard boutiques. Fares are generally discounted, but they don't hit rock-bottom at this time.

If you've been paying attention to cruise pricing, you've likely noticed that choose-your-own-bonus sales now appear year-round from lines that include Celebrity, Holland America, Princess and Royal Caribbean. These sale periods occur in pretty regular intervals, but they may be promoted more during holiday seasons. What's the difference between these promotions and wave season offers? Wave season deals typically include the most bonuses and a longer booking window.

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To get the biggest bang for your buck, follow these three steps:

1. Figure out the ballpark cost of your cruise

Figuring costs

To know if you're getting a deal, you have to know what the average price you'd normally pay is. Do some research on typical fares for the itinerary you have in mind. Remember that a 12-night Mediterranean cruise will have a much higher base price than a five-night Caribbean escape; you'll want to compare apples to apples. And don't just look at fares. If you're interested in free upgrades, you'll need to know the price differential between an outside and a balcony cabin. If it's onboard credit you're after, plan out how much you might typically spend on spa treatments, excursions, drinks and souvenirs. ('s Travel Budget Calculator is great for tallying extra costs.) If you're hoping for free airfare, look up the cost of airfare between your hometown and your homeport city.

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2. Evaluate the sales

Sale sign

As you look for sales through the cruise lines or your favorite travel agency, be an active, rather than a passive, deal-hunter. Read the fine print because sometimes the discount or perk being advertised won't apply to the specific itinerary or cabin category you're interested in. Don't forget to check expiration dates, too. Some lines give you only a few weeks to take advantage of their offers, while others give you a couple of months. These steps let you evaluate what this year's promotions are and how good they are.

Another helpful trick is to always compare cruise line promotions with the same sailings sold through an agent. Often, agencies will offer additional incentives above what the cruise lines are offering. For example, one cruise line might offer two-for-one cruise fares and free airfare on select Europe cruises. But another might throw in perks like prepaid gratuities, onboard credit, spa credits, shore excursion credits and a welcome bottle of Champagne. If you don't see any advertised discounts, call and ask. Sometimes agencies are able to offer better perks and prices than those listed on their websites and in promotional materials.

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3. Compare cost benefits

cost vs. value

Now that you've got all the information, compare the offers. Is the free upgrade on one line still more expensive than a regular balcony cabin on another? Would you prefer one agent's onboard credit or another's extra cruise fare discount? Are the deals good enough to make you want to book now, or do you need prices to drop further before you plunk down a deposit? If the numbers work out, congratulations: You've made an informed decision. Now it's time to book that cruise and start dreaming of sightseeing in Europe, sunbathing in the Caribbean or even dog-sledding in Alaska.

And if the wave season sales aren't tempting enough, or if you're just not ready to book yet, don't fret. Cruise lines will hold plenty of last-minute, three-day or extra-value sales throughout the year for you to find great deals. But, unlike wave season, you just won't know when those sales are coming.

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