Once upon a time, the period between January and March was when empty calendars and cold winter days motivated would-be travelers to start thinking about -- and booking -- cruises. Since the majority of bookings were made during this time, cruise lines and travel agents began offering low fares and extra-value offers. Because of the wave of bookings, they dubbed these months "Wave Season."
But then the economy tanked, people couldn't commit to expensive vacations far in advance, and the booking window shrank. Last-minute deals ruled the day, and bargain-hunters prowled the Internet for $299 seven-night cruise deals a month prior to sailing.
Now, however, the economy is beginning to stabilize. Good news for Wave, right? You'd think, but the past few years have taught consumers that the best deals come to those who wait. So in 2011, the cruise lines are using Wave Season to re-educate consumers about the benefits of booking early.
How? By offering their best deals now.
"This year the lines are focusing on early bookings," says Jeffrey Anderson, vice president of marketing for Avoya Travel / America's Vacation Center. "The deals they used to offer 30 to 60 days in advance, they're now offering 120 days in advance." And, while Anthony Hamawy, president of Cruise.com, notes that average ticket prices are higher -- especially with Norwegian Epic, Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas commanding high rates -- Anderson counters that value-per-dollar is better than ever as cruise lines enhance their products. (Think free tickets to "Hairspray" or Blue Man Group onboard).
And the deals are working. Both Anderson and CruCon president Sandy Cleary say this is their best January of all time for sales. "November-December cruises are selling now, as well as April and May," says Cleary. "There's been a huge pickup in Europe, and Alaska cruisetours are doing phenomenal." Cabin categories, if not entire sailings, are already selling out. Hamawy says that summer cruises are selling especially fast.
So, what's the expert advice about getting the most for your money during Wave Season?
Cleary says cruise lines and agents will change their deal focus every week or two to keep people interested. One week the deals might be Alaska on Princess and the next Europe on Royal Caribbean. "If you see something, get it," she advises, because rates will go up when the sellers turn their attention to a new destination or line.
Hamawy says to book summer cruises -- particularly Europe cruises -- now because of skyrocketing airfare. "Air prices are 15 to 19 percent higher for all itineraries," he says. "Be conscious of airfare because there's no end to air price increases." A great last-minute deal won't help you if you're paying through the nose for transportation to your homeport.
"Most of the hotter deals year over year are on the luxury end," Anderson tells us, referencing the increasingly inclusive fares of lines like Regent Seven Seas and Crystal. In the past 30 days, he's also seen luxury lines dropping prices, especially on spring cruises, so now could be a great time to book a luxury sailing. On the mainstream side, he says you can get better deals by booking now, when the cruise lines want you to book, than by waiting. "With the demand now, the deals will continue, but the inventory will change," he says. "The best inventory for summer will be gone, so if you want your choice, don't wait." He adds that, as companies like his block out cabins for their exclusive sales and are allowed to promote amenities not on offer by the cruise lines, you'll get a better value by booking with a travel agency than directly with the cruise line.
If you're excited about booking now, here are a few Wave Season deals offered by the cruise lines. Remember to check with your favorite travel agent to see what additional savings and amenities they can offer you.
Celebrity Cruises: Each week in January, discounted fares and up to $150 in onboard credit are being offered for cruises to different destinations. Through January 23, the offer will feature European sailings, and from January 24-30, the offer will be valid on Alaska cruises.
Holland America: During HAL's annual "View & Verandah" sale, which runs through the end of February, outside and balcony cabins can be booked for up to 50 percent off, and free and/or reduced fares for third and fourth passengers are available. Eligible sailings include those to the Caribbean, Alaska, the Panama Canal, Australia/New Zealand and more.
MSC Cruises: Through January 31, MSC is selling select 2011 Caribbean, Mediterranean and Canada/New England sailings from as little as $299 per person for a balcony cabin.
Norwegian Cruise Line: NCL is offering free cabin upgrades on select 2011 sailings when you book by March 27. Plus, the line is featuring such biweekly bonuses as coupon books worth hundreds of dollars in onboard savings.
Princess Cruises: From now through February 28, when you book an outside cabin on select 2011 Europe, Alaska and Middle East sailings, you could be eligible to receive a free upgrade to a balcony cabin. The line is even offering discounts on cruisetours.
Windstar Cruises: Windstar is offering discounted fares and/or onboard credit on select Caribbean and Europe sailings aboard the line's luxury-lite sailing ships, booked by February 28.
-- by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor, and Shayne Rodriguez Thompson, Web Content Producer