It's the end of a decade, 2019, and a lot has changed in the world of cruising -- race cars, haute cuisine, digital everything -- but some tips on how to save on your next sailing stay tried and true. To uncover the best ways to land a cruise bargain this year, we spoke to travel agent experts and consulted industry surveys. What we found is that cruising shows no signs of slowing down, but getting on the right ship to the right destination might mean taking quick action.
We've narrowed down the who, what, where and when of finding the best cruise deals in 2019 so you can spend less money and more time enjoying the seas.
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Updated October 10, 2019
When Can You Find the Cheapest Cruise Fares in 2019?
According to agents, some of the best pricing comes on sailings at the end of the year, meaning you'll have most of 2019 to look forward to your discounted cruise.
"The best time to get the cheapest cruise fares is usually October through early December with the exception of any holidays," says Drew Daly, general manager of network engagement and performance for World Travel Holdings. "If a consumer is flexible on their travel dates, they definitely are going to find the best prices [for cruises] in mid to late October and early December. Ships are returning to North America for the winter season and the increased capacity causes pricing to go down during this time."
Daly notes that pricing and booking dates are also dependent on the destination. "For Alaska, the best prices will be in April and September; for Europe, the best prices will be offseason … think spring and fall; for the Caribbean, it will be fall into early January (not including Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year's weeks)."
However, Greg Coiro, CEO of Direct Line Cruises, notes that generally, the cheapest cruise fares can be found in destinations such as the Bahamas and the Caribbean. "Many cruise lines are offering last-minute quick getaway fares starting as low as $50 per person, per day."
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Where Is the Best Value in 2019?
Added perks and more inclusive packages are the name of the game in 2019. Coiro notes that agents often include extra perks "valued at up to $300 for early advance bookings." And travel advisers aren't the only ones looking to lock in rates. Cruise lines also dangle enticing offers more frequently for bookers ready to sign off on a cruise months to a year or more away.
For example, Norwegian Cruise Line cycles a list of included perks (depending on cabin category) that could include free drinks, gratuities, internet and even cruise fares for additional passengers in a cabin -- all for booking the right sailing at the right time.
"Consumers are used to purchasing more inclusive experiences," says Daly. "There seems to be a shift for a desire for more luxury products that have more included (drinks, tours, etc.) The more a consumer understands the value of booking a higher category, and when they see the nominal difference in price, it really is a 'no brainer.'"
Coiro also notes that because of these perks and programs that typically kick in at the balcony level, people are tending to book higher-category staterooms, especially across Norwegian and Celebrity.
Best Time to Book a Cruise to Popular Destinations
According to a recent survey of the Avoya Travel Network, top-producing independent agencies cited Alaska, the Caribbean and Europe as the top-selling destinations for 2019.
"Caribbean, Alaska, Bermuda and Europe are all here to stay," says Daly. "They are always popular, and cruisers look to experience the great ports that each has to offer combined with the rich history, cultures and experiences. It is also where the vast majority of the inventory for cruising is."
So how do you get a deal in these regions? The general advice for all cruises applies: Book early. "If someone wants a specific ship, sailing or itinerary, they should try to book as far in advance as possible," says Daly. "This will afford them the luxury of selecting the cabin they want and getting a great value."
"Avoya is noticing that consumers continue to book further out," says Steve Hirshan, senior vice president of sales support for Avoya Travel. "After having such a strong 2018 and with top itineraries selling out fast, we've seen a sense of urgency and interest from travelers to book early and secure their top vacations."
Knowing the ins and outs of your desired cruise region will help you be smarter about vacation planning. Here's what you need to know about the top cruise destinations:
"There has been a great industry push to promote that the Caribbean is back and ready for visitors with the launch of new hardware [ships] and the lack of an impactful hurricane season," says Hirshan. "Several brands, including Celebrity Cruises, Holland America, Royal Caribbean and Silversea have all added new ships and itineraries in the Caribbean, so there will be increased capacity [in the beginning and end of the year]."
Hirshan says new attractions at cruise line private islands are a draw to cruisers heading to the Caribbean, as well as the frigid weather. "Independent agencies in the Avoya Network have seen a recent increase in last-minute Caribbean bookings from travelers wishing to escape the cold and intense winter storms baring down on much of the Midwest and Northeast."
If you're booking a summer vacation, book those cabins way ahead of time as other families will be vying for similar space. Great deals can be found surrounding hurricane season (June through November), but be sure to purchase travel insurance. Because of the sheer number of Caribbean sailings in a given year, agents say this is a region where you might find plenty of last-minute deals, especially outside of the busy summer months, but you'll need to be flexible about ship and cabin choices and not care when or where you go.
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Last year, Avoya saw growth in Europe with new ships and consumer confidence in safer travel, according to Hirshan. "With the addition of Azamara Pursuit and Celebrity Edge [in the region], excitement grows amongst travelers to experience the latest, innovative ships in 2019."
Regarding the Mediterranean, cruiser interest jumped from 25 percent to 42 percent over the past year, according to the Travel Agent Cruise Industry Outlook report, conducted by Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).
Summer remains the most popular time to travel to Europe, so consider booking shoulder season months like September through November for lower rates. December in the Med can even be warm and sunny.
"River cruising is still an up-and-coming itinerary for cruisers," Daly notes. "Most cruisers have never stepped foot on the rivers in Europe let alone the other magnificent destinations in the world. People desire a more culturally enriched experience and river cruising delivers on that tenfold."
Shoulder seasons in the fall and spring also mean cheaper fares for river cruises, but specialty itineraries, such as the Netherlands for tulip season or Christmas markets (only a few weeks of the year), mean booking select itineraries well in advance, even if they sail during wintertime.
"River cruises are ideal for clients looking for new or different experiences, smaller ships, destination immersion and a relaxed way to see Europe," according to the CLIA report. Europe is seeing an uptick in popularity due to river cruising, with 53 percent year-over-year growth on popular waterways, such as the Rhine, Moselle, Danube and Elbe.
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Agents agree -- Alaska is HOT in 2019. "Alaska is starting off strong for 2019 with many consumers eager to sail The Last Frontier on some of the newer cruise ships in the industry, [including Royal Caribbean's Ovation of the Seas]," says Coiro.
According to the Travel Agent Cruise Industry Outlook report, Alaska has consistently been the top cruise destination for the last three years. More than two-thirds of travel agents (67 percent) reported seeing increased interest in Alaska.
"Alaska has seen a very large increase in capacity with ships like Norwegian Bliss and Norwegian Joy," says Hirshan. "In fact, several cruise brands are replacing older ships with newer ships in Alaska to have a competitive edge and excite travelers with more modern onboard experiences. Other cruise brands such as Azamara, which is the cruise line's first time sailing to Alaska, and Cunard, which hasn't been to Alaska in years, are also both introducing 2019 itineraries that will bring in even more bookings to this region."
Because the interest in Alaska cruises is matching the increase in capacity, families will want to book now -- or even start looking at Alaska cruises in 2020.
"Alaska never gets old, and it is nice to see it back in the top position for cruisers," says Daly. "There is no better way to experience Alaska and cruising is prime for this experience."
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"As consumers look for new and unique destinations to visit, luxury and upper premium cruise lines are adding itineraries and new ships to South America and the Galapagos," says Hirshan. "In 2019, travelers will have an opportunity to sail onboard the highly anticipated Azamara Pursuit in South America and Celebrity Flora in the Galapagos."
According to the CLIA report, South America has seen growth in interest from just 9 percent last year to 20 percent today.
As more remote destinations have more limited space -- especially the Galapagos, which has a cap on the number of ships that can sail at a given time -- it's imperative to book these sailings up to a year in advance or more, particularly if you are set on a specific ship, cabin category or date.
2019's Top Ships Are New Ships -- Book Early or Bide Your Time
"The top ships being booked right now are largely the brand-new ones," says Daly. "The hottest ship for sure is the Celebrity Edge with its impressive 'magic carpet' and all the media hype it brought. … The ship is transforming the cruise industry with its impressive design, openness and creative venues."
"The new Norwegian Bliss really has taken off for us with 2019 Alaska bookings and further out advance sailings from New York City," says Coiro. "Personally, I think Northeast residents will be in for a real treat in late 2019/2020 with new ships sailing from New York City, such as the Norwegian Bliss and Norwegian Encore. In addition, Royal Caribbean enthusiasts will have the opportunity to experience the Oasis Class for the first time ever sailing from Cape Liberty, New Jersey [cruise port]. This is an upcoming, exciting change as passengers will be able to sail on the Oasis of the Seas in 2020 right from Bayonne."
Other top ships include Royal Caribbean's Symphony of the Seas, Carnival Horizon and Holland America's Nieuw Statendam.
"With the new ships that come into the marketplace, demand for all ships increases," Daly notes. That's because the hype around the new ship generates awareness and interest in cruise vacations, in general.
For cruisers, it's the same story: If you want to get on a new ship right away, you'll need to book early and pay a premium. If you want a deal, wait until the ship has cruised its first season to see if rates drop, or discounted repositioning sailings become available.
Of course, a great way to save on your cruise? Don't go after the shiny, new ships at all. There are so many great cruise line refurbishment programs in effect, across fleets of dozens of ships, that the ship you've booked might be 20 years old but feel like new.
Other Tips to Save This Year: Use an Agent
According to the survey conducted by CLIA, travel agents say their most beneficial asset is providing valuable experience and product knowledge to their clients. They also enjoy being able to advocate for their clients and leverage relationships and expertise if something goes wrong.
Travel agents can also save their customers time, provide access to exclusive offers and resources not available online and give round-the-clock support. Better yet, all of these services come free of charge -- a fact that many travelers never realize.
For more Cruise Critic tips on how to pay less for your cruise this year, check out the reasons you might be paying too much for your cruise.