(6:57 p.m. EDT) -- We recently heard a rumor about a seven-night cruise to Alaska on Princess for $299 -- an extremely low fare, especially in light of current cruise pricing (most fares on comparable sailings are in the $500's right now). An online search turned up no evidence of such a deal. Finally, we asked a travel agent about the offer, who said that he'd seen the deal. It was an exclusive rate offered only by Princess' best agent partners -- and could not be advertised to the general public.
You've probably seen this kind of deal before -- often when a cruise agency with whom you've done business or have signed up for newsletters sends an e-mail about an amazing bargain with a price too low to publish. But this latest offering got us thinking: How do these "secret" sales work, and how can you buy into the action?
We talked to some more travel agents -- and some cruise lines -- to get the inside scoop. Here are the two types of "secret fares" we found, and how you can take advantage of them.
One-Off, Unpublishable Rates
How It Works:These rates are like the $299 Alaska fare mentioned above. Sometimes cruise lines have cabins left on an upcoming sailing that they can't sell -- maybe it's an unpopular date or airfare to the departure port has gotten really expensive. To sell the cabins, the lines need to discount -- but doing this in a public way could upset cruisers already booked on the sailing at higher rates or undermine their efforts to establish the value of a cruise at a certain rate.
So what do they do?
"Within the travel industry, it is common knowledge that higher volume agencies receive special reduced 'last minute' pricing from time to time on select cruises from popular cruise lines such as Holland America, Princess and others," says Bill Kraus, president of Cruise Club of America. "When this occurs, cruise lines may or may not permit the agencies to advertise these special reduced rates to the general public."
The cruise lines we spoke to didn't deny the practice, but were also short on details in their e-mails to us. Paul Allen, Holland America's vice president of sales, told us that "select agency special rates have been an industry practice over the years. We have minimized them to virtual extinction." Meanwhile, Jan Swartz, Princess Cruises' executive vice president of sales, marketing and customer service, wrote that "Princess offers flash fares that are last-minute deals to help fill any close-in remaining beds we may have available. Travel agents can e-mail these deals to their clients or offer them via phone."
Snagging the Deal: Okay, so they do exist -- but how do you get them, especially if they are in the "not publicly advertised" category? Again, these aren't the kinds of deals you can dig up via a Google search; as a matter of fact, we would have called an agency to find out exactly what it's like to book one -- but we, ourselves, weren't privy to any "call for rates" ads by press time. To be in the know when they are available, you'll want to sign up for the e-mail lists of cruise-focused agencies. Look for agencies that advertise themselves as "preferred" sellers of various cruise lines -- that means, the agencies sell a high volume of those line's cruises and have good relationships with the lines, so the lines are more likely to offer them these deals, knowing they can sell them. And when you see a message to "call for low rates," definitely call. True, sometimes it's just a gimmick, but occasionally you may stumble upon a deal that's so good, it can't be advertised. And if you cruise a lot, establish a relationship with a travel agent. If you're loyal to them and they know your vacation preferences, they'll be more likely to come to you when they see a great deal.
Caveat: These one-off, or unpublishable, fares are often for last-minute cruises and available for a limited amount of time. You'll need to book quickly, especially as only a few cabins are typically available at the lowest rates, and then deal with making travel arrangements at the last minute. And buyer beware: "The reason [lines discount] is that they have inventory left over," explains Brad Anderson, co-president of America's Vacation Center / Avoya Travel. "They may be guarantee cabins, and you may get the outside cabin that's next to the anchor. That $299 cabin [on a seven-night cruise] is likely the one that people have complained about."
How It Works: Travel agencies buy group space on cruises far in advance, when fares for those sailings first become available. Because they're buying in bulk, often paying a deposit on each cabin blocked out, and because these agencies have worked hard to build relationships with the cruise lines, the cruise lines offer them low rates on these cabins. "We're already blocking/depositing group space for 2012," says Anderson. "America's Vacation Center has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars holding space in 2012. The fares we get are 10 to 40 percent less than the price you'd pay from the cruise line directly, and we pass those deals to our customers."
Snagging the Deal: Unlike the one-off, eleventh-hour sales described above, the best group rates can be found more than 90 days prior to sailing. This means these deals are best for people who can book early. Look for deals on popular sailings (peak travel periods, holidays, popular destinations) -- reason being, if agencies are going to put money down in advance, they want to guarantee that they can sell the cabins later. And the deals won't be labeled as group rates (it's not like when you and your 10 best friends book a group cruise) -- so ask your agent or simply look for the low fares.
Caveat: You will need to commit in advance -- but if you work with a trusted travel agent, they should be able to give you a sense of whether you're getting a good deal or if that price is likely to come down closer to departure. As Anderson says, "No line intentionally wants to undermine advance purchase. They want the best deals to go to the early bookers." And if you're hesitant to commit so far in advance, remember that you can always cancel or change your cruise prior to final payment without incurring a large penalty.
Be sure, too, to bookmark Cruise Critic's Cruise Deals page, updated by our editors daily.
--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor
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Secret Agent Deals: How to Find Prices Cruise Lines Don't Offer
June 10, 2010