Why, suddenly, are we seeing so many deals from so many different purveyors -- just now? January through March is what's known in industry parlance as peak booking, or wave season. It's an annual tradition, always occurring right after the turn of the new year. The psychology runs like this: now that you've survived that first week back at work (and your festive season holiday, alas, is long behind you) it's time to plan the next trip, whether it takes place next month or later this year.
"At this time of year the one thing people have in mind is something to look forward to. It has always been a traditional period of booking summer holidays," says Frances Tuke of the Association of British Travel Agents.
And cruise lines, and by extension travel agencies, too, make it easy. What we're seeing advertised may not be the cheapest deals of the year; but if you're looking for value (otherwise known as getting something for nothing) you'll have the best selection just about now if you want a free balcony upgrade, the aforementioned onboard cruise credit and complementary port parking or coach transfers.
And that's why the U.K. cruise industry, fresh off a fantastic 2007 in which 11 percent more people took to the seas than the year prior, is inundating the airwaves, bandwidths, and printwaves with tantalizing deals.
This definitely is the time, says Andy Harmer, director of business development for the Association of Cruise Experts (ACE), to consider booking a cruise. "You get more for your money by planning ahead. Cruise lines are offering onboard credit and free upgrades -- those kind of sweeteners -- adding value rather than going out with a strong discount message."
So, what, the deals won't be there later in the year? While you may be able to find more rock-bottom pricing closer in to your preferred cruise, there's no guarantee the cabin type or the sailing date will be available. And we can promise you that deep discount close-in fares (about one to two months before departure) don't typically wrap in such extras as free parking, transfers or upgrades. As well, selecting accommodations on a cruise ship -- which has so many more categories of "rooms" than, say a hotel or resort -- is challenging. In an interesting paradox, the most expensive suites and the cheapest inside cabins tend to sell first. Also popular are cabins with connecting doors (families snap them up).
"What makes the cruise business different from the rest of the holiday business in the UK is you book your individual cabin – and in a month or two it might not be there," Harmer says.
And, according to the Passenger Shipping Association, which monitors cruise trends for cruise lines, travelers book cruises an average of six to nine months prior to departure.
So what's on offer during this wave season?
Island Cruises, for one, has a series of what it calls "captain’s specials;" these are available only between now and 13 February (though the included cruises themselves don’t begin until March). The special offers include a seven-night Mediterranean fly-cruise for £679, a kid travel promotion (kids pay only £99 on select Mediterranean sailings, including those during spring holidays) and an Atlantic crossing for next fall. With fares starting at £949, that last voyage may sound pricey -- but it's a 19 nighter and includes flights to Barcelona, the cruise's embarkation port, and back home from Barbados.
Fred. Olsen, which gets the new year off with a bang with the debut of its new (and newly refurbished) Balmoral on 30 January, is trying to lure you into booking a trip out of its Captains' Collection. This is a grouping of 51 cruises that are, according to Lol Nichols, the line’s general sales manager, "lifted from our main programme, mostly departing during the summer period. All selected cruises have bigger discounts than previously available and some of the selected cruises also have an 'onboard credit' offer. We promote discounts of up to 50 percent and there are some cruises where the discount exceeds 50 percent and we brand these as Star Buys."
And if you're anxious for a tropical holiday now, there are some close-in deals; Ocean Village Two is offering a series of seven night deals for the Caribbean in February from £729 (3rd and 4th passengers pay £199 apiece) and that includes flights.
Visit our Deals page to find more wave season savings on cruise holidays!
In some cases, cruise lines are already sold so strongly that the best deal you might get is any deal at all. The notoriously hard-to-book Oceania Cruises -- which has the industry's most devoted group of repeat passengers -- is just trying to let you know they have some availability.
"Since we are 85 percent sold for the summer and 50 percent sold for next winter," says Bernard Carter, Oceania's sales and marketing director for the U.K. and Europe, "we are trying to get the message out that people really do need to book early to avoid disappointment. I handled over 50 calls in December where clients could not even get on their chosen sailing, let alone grade.
"To encourage clients to book early we are highlighting our 'Fully Refundable Deposit'," Carter adds. "Clients can now book with total peace of mind well before flight schedules are released safe in the knowledge that if they need to cancel they can do so at any time prior to the final payment date with no penalty. Now that is what I call a good offer!"
--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief