Somewhere out there is a seven-night cruise from $299, a luxury sailing at 75 percent off and an empty cabin on the "sold-out" sailing you wish to book. Knowing where and when to search for the best cruise deals could mean the difference between unearthing that low fare or compromising on price and itinerary.
You probably have a tried-and-true method of searching for cheap cruises. Perhaps you wait for missives from your trusty travel agent, or maybe you're a tiger when it comes to prowling the Internet for low fares. You might book your cruise right when the brochure is first published, or you might bide your time until two weeks before sailing. But have you explored all possible ways of nabbing that steal?
Let us share some of our favorite tips for finding cruise deals. While some might be old hat, others may catch you by surprise. Use them all, and you'll be ready to pounce on that cheap cruise when the right promotion comes along.
1. Tweet Your Way to Savings
Tech-savvy shoppers can try Twitter for last-minute cruise bargains. Just about every agent and agency -- including Cruisedeals.com (@cruisedeals), Cruise.com (@cruisecom) and Best Travel Deals (@cruisedealsbtd) -- is tweeting its best cruise deals. Take it a step further by customizing a list of deal tweeters using Twitter's list function, in essence creating your own deals aggregator.
2. Send Deals to Your Inbox
The vast majority of cruise lines and agencies still rely on eletters to help fill cruise ships. Major cruise lines, such as Celebrity, Norwegian, Holland America, Princess and Royal Caribbean, offer deals emails with ongoing promotions in addition to last-minute deals and short sales. For the hardcore deal-seekers who don't want e-deals cluttering up their personal inboxes, we suggest setting up separate accounts just for bargains mailings.
3. Bundle It Up
A number of cruise lines offer booking promotions that include your choice of perks, such as free specialty dining, tips, Wi-Fi and drinks packages. Nearlly every mainstream cruise line (think Carnival, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean) offers special deals that lets you save on the total cost of your cruise vacation.
In addition, bundling multiple vacation elements together can help you save on individual costs. Luxury and river lines sometimes offer promotions that will include economy-class airfare or a pre-cruise hotel stay in the price of your upscale cruise.
4. Book Ahead for High-Season Cruising
For certain dates and destinations, last-minute cruise deals are a tough find, especially if you want your pick of cabins. Summer travel and school holiday periods book up early, particularly for cabins that sleep three or more and are in demand by families traveling together. Fancy an exotic cruise? For some lines and sailings, you can forget it unless you book months -- nearly a year -- in advance. This is particularly true for "bucket-list" voyages to places like Antarctica, the Arctic, and World Cruises -- some of which can sell out in a single day.
If you want what everyone else wants, or at least have a very specific cruise scenario in mind, we recommend booking early. The choicest digs on popular new ships will sell quickly, pushing fares higher the longer you wait.
Luxury cruises also put forth their best prices early. Oceania and Regent Seven Seas usually bump up rates every three months. Crystal's Book Now fares offer early-booking discounts of thousands per couple for a limited time; when the deadline passes, the line dutifully increases the prices. These upscale lines make it clear: The lowest rates will disappear if you wait.
It's also best to book river cruises early. Not only are choice itineraries likely to sell out as the sail date draws closer, but the price is also likely to jump, not drop. Keep in mind that last-minute cruise bookings come with a trade-off, usually an increase in airfare.
5. Monitor Prices
Be your own best-price advocate. Before you've booked a sailing, do some research on typical rates for the cruise you have in mind, and check back frequently (we mean daily, at least) to see if the fare has dropped. See what promotions each cruise line is offering, and contact your preferred travel agent to see what pricing and promotional specials they're running.
Don't have the time to obsessively watch cruise pricing like stockbrokers watch the Wall Street ticker? Check out Cruise Critic's "Price Alerts," a cruise price tracker shopping tool that will notify you when prices change on the cruises you're interested in.
6. Ask for a Price Drop When Fares Change
If the cruise fare changes after you've booked but before you've made your final payment, it's possible to take advantage of the lower rate. Enlist the help of a travel agent who can monitor pricing after you've booked, and who can request a re-fare to the lower rate.
If the fare plummets, you can request a rate change, cancel and rebook at the lower rate or request the difference in onboard credit. What you're entitled to varies by cruise line, but it all leads to more money in your pocket. Note that some lines may have nonrefundable deposit policies; always read the fine print before deciding to pull the trigger and cancel and rebook.
7. Book at the Last Minute
For those who can be spontaneous, flexibility can pay off. Check out our last minute cruise deals section, which features bargains on a variety of sailings leaving within 90 days -- 90 days out being the typical point at which final cruise payments are due. In general, there are always plenty of Caribbean and Mediterranean cruise deals.
Other hard-to-fill cruises -- such as shoulder season cruises and one-way repositioning sailings, where open-jaw airfare is required -- can be deeply discounted at the last minute. Of course, booking last-minute airfare might wipe out any savings. Plus, you'll have a limited selection of cabin locations and dinner seatings. But, if you're flexible and can drive to a cruise port -- or have plenty of frequent flier airline points to burn -- it's a great way to take a cruise without breaking the bank.
8. Go for the Cabin Guarantee
If cabin location isn't important, you might want to opt for a "cabin guarantee," which basically means you're assured to get a cabin in at least the category specified -- and, if you're lucky, even get an upgrade. However, you can't choose your exact stateroom.
Many lines typically discount guaranteed cabin bookings about $50 to $100 per person off the advertised fares. However, if you're prone to seasickness or sensitive to noise, you might want to reconsider the value of choosing your own cabin location so as to not end up near the elevators or riding the wave near the bow. Also, not all guarantee fares are eligible for booking perks, so ensure the value tradeoff is worth it before you commit.
9. Bring the WHOLE Family (Plus Friends and Coworkers).
If you're willing to book in bulk, most cruise lines will offer free berths, depending on the number of passengers in the group. For instance, book seven or more double-occupancy cabins on Norwegian Cruise Line, and for every 10 passengers booked, one passenger can cruise for free. Each cruise line has its own threshold for groups; some lines consider 10 guests/five cabins to be a group, while others require 16 guests/eight cabins.
Group leaders can choose to spread the savings across the group or keep it all for themselves. Groups can get other perks, as well. Norwegian offers group members a choice of complimentary amenities beyond its Free at Sea promotion, such as extra onboard credit or a cocktail party for the group.
Throughout the year, many cruise lines offer promotions that include free cruise fare for third and fourth passengers booked in the same cabin. Watch for the deals that also include those passengers in bonus offerings like drink packages or prepaid gratuities
Related: How to Plan a Group Cruise
10. Choose Shoulder Season Sailings
If you've already honed in on a destination, the best way to save is to focus on travel dates just outside the peak season. This might mean picking April or late September as the month to visit Alaska, March as your best bet to sail the Mediterranean and October for your Caribbean cruise -- before or after the summer swell of family vacations. In addition to low prices, you'll encounter fewer crowds; on the flip side, the weather might not be as ideal for sightseeing.
11. Make the Most of Past Passenger Discounts
Like frequent fliers, frequent cruisers are able to benefit from brand loyalty. Sticking with one line means earning perks like nightly cocktails in private lounges, free laundry, complimentary dinners in alternative restaurants and even free cruises once you've earned enough "credits" -- all things you'd typically have to pay for. Past passengers can also take advantage of special discounted sailings throughout the year, or be entitled to book new itineraries before the general public can.
Related: Cruise Line Loyalty Programs
12. Access Military, Senior or Residency Rates
A number of cruise lines have special programs for seniors, military personnel and even teachers. For example, MSC Cruises provides discounts of up to 10 percent to active and retired military families on almost all sailings. AARP members can find exclusive senior discounts on multiple lines when booking through the AARP Travel Center Powered by Expedia.
Many lines also offer residential discounts. Here's how it works: In essence, a line's revenue stream is based on a formula that requires a certain number of bookings from various cities, states and regions. So, if it's not getting enough bookings from one particular place, it'll drop the price slightly -- say, in Florida -- to entice more Floridians to book.
There's no guarantee you'll get a residential discount, but it can't hurt to mention your home city and state during the booking process, just in case. Even if it only saves you $50, it's still $50 in your pocket.
13. Leave the Deals Search to the Experts
If you don't have time for Twitter, online cruise research or gathering up a group of 20 friends, nothing beats a good travel agent to help you score a deal.
Because agents often book in bulk and work directly with the lines, they have access to deals that normal cruisers don't. Cruise lines will offer their top agencies special discounts that the agents can't promote on their websites, so even if you see a good deal online, it's best to talk to a real person and ask for the best fare.
Even if savings aren't necessarily there for every sailing, agencies often offer deals with value-added perks like onboard credit or prepaid gratuities, which can amount to nearly $100 per person on a weeklong sailing.