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.
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.
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 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.
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. Norwegian, Celebrity and Princess often offer this type of deal 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 airfare or a hotel stay in the price of your upscale cruise.Related: What's Your Free Cruise Perk Really Worth?
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. 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.Related: Late vs. Early Booking: When to Book a Cruise for the Best Price
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. 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.
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. 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.
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 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, it's a great way to save.Related: Last Minute Cruising: Tips for Getting a Deal
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. Also, not all guarantee fares are eligible for booking perks, so assess the entire value proposition before you commit.Related: The Guarantee Gamble: The Odds of an Upgrade When the Cruise Line Picks Your Cabin
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 gratuitiesRelated: How to Plan a Group Cruise
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 May as the month to visit Alaska, April 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 ideal for sightseeing.Related: Shoulder Season Cruise Deals: 5 Tips to Save
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.Related: Cruise Line Loyalty Programs
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.
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.Related: Secret Agent Deals: How to Find Prices Cruise Lines Don't Offer
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