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How to Find the Best Cruise Bargains in 2020

How to Find the Best Cruise Bargains (Photo: Cruise Critic)
How to Find the Best Cruise Bargains (Photo: Cruise Critic)

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A message from Cruise Critic: During this unprecedented time throughout the world and across the cruise industry, it is important to note that article information might be impacted by cruise line hiatuses and port closures due to COVID-19. For the latest information, please visit our regularly updated article on what cruisers need to know about coronavirus.

It's a new year -- in a new decade -- with vacation time to use and cruises to plan. To uncover the best ways to land a cruise bargain in 2020, we spoke to travel agent experts to learn what's hot and where the price is right. What we found is that cheap cruise deals are plentiful, even in the most popular destinations, 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 2020 so you can spend more time enjoying the seas for less money.

Updated February 13, 2020

Where can you find the cheapest cruise fares in 2020?

Aerial shot of a Carnival cruise ship sailing past snow-covered mountains and glaciers
Alaska: Travel agents tell us that in 2020, Alaska has some surprisingly cheap fares. "It's a good year to consider an Alaska cruise because there's been a significant capacity increase in that destination, and newer ships that normally attract higher price points are getting priced aggressively," says Greg Coiro, CEO of Direct Line Cruises. He quoted fares such as $799 per person for a seven-night round trip Seattle cruise aboard Norwegian Joy, one of that line's newer ships.

Jeff Smith, senior vice president of customer care for CheapCruises.com, agrees, adding that "Alaska cruise pricing is 5 to 10 percent cheaper than last year." He pointed out an "insane" deal on a seven-night Princess Glacier Bay cruise -- $83 per person, per night. "Can you find a hotel that's the same quality for the same price, plus food and entertainment?"

Find Alaska cruise deals.

Caribbean: The Caribbean also has some cheap fares this year. "Overall Caribbean pricing is lower than prior years," says Smith. "Additional capacity has come online earlier in 2020 [because of new ships debuting at the end of 2019], and we're even seeing great deals on popular ships that released in the last couple of years like Symphony of the Seas. That ship is less than two years old, and we're seeing prices as low as $85 per night, which is a tremendous value."

Coiro adds that for the best bargains, MSC Cruises is the "price leader in the Caribbean market." He's seen seven-night Caribbean cruise fares starting as low as $309 per person, before taxes.

Find Caribbean cruise deals.

Mexico: Mexico is another destination with great deals, especially on shorter Baja Mexico itineraries, agents say. Coiro points to four-night Baja cruises starting at $179 per person -- less than $45 per night.

Related: Tips for Finding Cheap Cruise Deals

Which cruise lines are offering the best value in 2020?

Anthem of the Seas FlowRider (Photo: Royal Caribbean)
The agents we spoke to disagreed on which cruise line offers the best value, but all agreed that there are many added-value offers out there, especially during wave season.

"Right now, Royal Caribbean is the best value," asserts Coiro. "It is one of the bigger brands that typically shies away from extra-value offers and focuses on price points. The value is in the aggressive pricing and what you're receiving onboard -- service, entertainment, amenities, activities included. You will still have to buy a beverage package or pay for specialty dining, but you'll receive consistently good service and entertainment." It's an especially good line for families, he says.

Find Royal Caribbean cruise deals.

He also points to older ships that have just gotten massive refurbishments, such as Celebrity Summit and Norwegian Spirit. "When you step onboard, you think you're on a new ship," Coiro said of Summit. And yet, these ships are priced like older ships, cheaper than the newest vessels in the same fleet.

On the other hand, Ashley Hunter, senior vice president of strategic operations and partnerships for Avoya Travel, points to the extra-perks promotions from lines such as Norwegian, Celebrity and Princess for the best value a cruise traveler can find.

"Princess' 'Best Sale Ever' is a home run, with beverage packages, Wi-Fi and gratuities included," she says. "There's so much value [with these offers] with not that much increase in price."

Not only can these promotions save you money but they can also give travelers peace of mind. "People want certainty about what they will spend out of pocket," says Smith. "They're attracted by bundled options where you can get gratuities included, Wi-Fi, a drinks package. What people worry about is that they will get a great deal but will clean out their bank account onboard. These perks packages lead to a less stressful vacation."

Find Princess cruise deals.

Related: What's Your Free Cruise Perk Really Worth?

What are 2020's top ships and itineraries?

St. Maarten (Photo: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock)

New ships are always popular and sell out quickly. Agents are reporting lots of demand for Celebrity Apex (debuting 2020) and Norwegian Encore (launched in 2019). Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, fresh from a major refurbishment, is also popular in 2020, especially with East Coast cruisers because it will be sailing to the Bahamas from Cape Liberty in Bayonne, New Jersey -- the first Oasis-class ship to sail from an East Coast homeport.

While Virgin Voyages, a new adults-only cruise line, is grabbing headlines ahead of its 2020 debut, the agents we spoke to are not reporting above-average demand to book. They expect to see a bump in consumer interest after Virgin Voyage's inaugural sailing and once more people experience the product.

Popular destinations in 2020 remain consistent with previous years, including the Caribbean, the Bahamas and Alaska.

Caribbean, the Bahamas and private islands: "The Caribbean continues to be a hot destination, especially for families looking for a summer vacation," says Hunter. Smith and Coiro also report a "surge in demand" early in the year. However, more people are looking for itineraries featuring cruise line private islands after lines such as Royal Caribbean and MSC Cruises have spent money refurbishing and developing these exclusive beaches. The water slide on Royal Caribbean's Perfect Day at CocoCay, splashed all over the line's TV ads and marketing materials, is becoming an icon that people recognize and want to experience, says Coiro.

Because cruisers are actively looking for itineraries that include private islands, agents are also seeing increased interest in short three- to five-night cruises to the Bahamas and Caribbean that call on private islands.

When Virgin debuts this spring, its ship will sail short four- and five-night cruises to Key West and Mexico from Miami, including a stop at Virgin's exclusive private beach club in Bimini.

"Plus, in previous years, shorter itineraries got old ships like Majesty of the Seas," says Coiro. "In 2019 and 2020, Royal made the decision to start sending not just their older ships to that market. More ships and newer ships are sailing shorter cruises (Navigator of the Seas is Royal Caribbean's newest in that market)." The increased choice of ships and port attractions is making these sailings more attractive to vacationers.

Alaska: "Alaska is more popular than in prior years, with better and newer ships and better value overall," says Smith. While traveler demand usually pushes cruise fares up, the addition of more ships and bigger ships to the Alaska market means that prices are remaining low, and those who want to go can find excellent value.

Mexico: Mexico cruises from West Coast homeports are seeing a bump in popularity, thanks to Carnival Panorama and some new itineraries in that cruising region. Most cruisers sailing these routes are locals, but Hunter says, "We actually do see customers who want to come over [to the West Coast from other parts of the country.] Maybe they want to combine a cruise with a trip to Disneyland, Los Angeles or San Francisco."

A blonde woman in the background photographing a Wild Galapagos giant tortoise in the foreground
Exotics: Hunter also has advice for cruisers looking to spend a bit more on a small-ship or upscale cruise experience. "River cruises are still popular, and people love those itineraries," says Hunter.

On the luxury side, travelers are attracted to new itineraries. "Lots of luxury lines are changing up itineraries, stopping in different places, giving passengers the ability to check off bucket list destinations on a cruise. Luxury ships are going to places like Turkey, Greenland, Iceland and the Galapagos," she says. Country-intensive cruises that focus on seeing one destination in an in-depth manner are also popular and selling quickly in 2020.

Related: Top Cruise Destinations 2020

When is the best time to book a cruise in 2020?

Individual Booking Cruise on Travel Website (Photo: PKpix/Shutterstock)

All the travel agents we spoke to gave the same advice about the best time to book: Early.

Book as early as you can: "We're seeing the booking window open up further," says Coiro. "In 2019, we saw more last-minute business. But in 2020, people are booking, on average, between six to eight months in advance for the Caribbean and Bahamas." He said that recommendation is for cruisers driving to their homeport; people who need to fly to their cruise (think Europe sailings), are booking closer to eight to 10 months out.

"Overall, the further you book ahead, the better deal you'll get on the broadest range of options," says Smith. "You can still get a great last-minute deal if you're flexible, but you'll have fewer choices. The cruise industry has become more disciplined in making sure that those who plan farther ahead get the very best deal." Plus, the earlier you book, the more choices you'll have with cabin type and location on the exact itinerary and sail date you prefer.

Agents say that cruise lines are worried that the U.S. presidential election in the fall will be a distraction, so they're trying to front-load cruise sales as much as possible. "Lines know that now is the time to go big," says Hunter.

Think a year ahead: During the early months of the year, which the industry refers to as "wave season," travelers are booking both same year and next year cruises. Some are booking in the sweet spot, but others might find they're too late.

"If you were looking to cruise this year, you should have already booked in November/December/January to get best deal," says Hunter. "There are lots of amazing promotions ending mid- to late February." By March, you're gambling on which cabins and sailings are still available.

In addition, many of the wave season promotions, such as Princess Cruises' Best Sale Ever, are valid on next year's sailings, in addition to this year.

Luxury lines, especially, sell out earlier, with only 30 percent of inventory available for same-year sailings by January. If you're looking for a high-end or river cruise, book as soon as possible if you want to cruise in 2020. By Q2, those lines will turn their attention to 2021 sailings.

Short cruises are more flexible: However, not everyone is too late. "Short cruises are booked closer in," says Smith. "Short cruises are hot this time of year for people traveling now through summer." And if you're flexible about cabins and sailings and just want a cheap rate, last-minute fares for Alaska crop up in the second quarter of the year, with Caribbean prices dropping midyear or Q3 to Q4.

Related: Cruise Booking Mistakes to Avoid

All the travel agents we spoke to gave the same advice about the best time to book: Early.

Book as early as you can: "We're seeing the booking window open up further," says Coiro. "In 2019, we saw more last-minute business. But in 2020, people are booking, on average, between six to eight months in advance for the Caribbean and Bahamas." He said that recommendation is for cruisers driving to their homeport; people who need to fly to their cruise (think Europe sailings), are booking closer to eight to 10 months out.

"Overall, the further you book ahead, the better deal you'll get on the broadest range of options," says Smith. "You can still get a great last-minute deal if you're flexible, but you'll have fewer choices. The cruise industry has become more disciplined in making sure that those who plan farther ahead get the very best deal." Plus, the earlier you book, the more choices you'll have with cabin type and location on the exact itinerary and sail date you prefer.

Agents say that cruise lines are worried that the U.S. presidential election in the fall will be a distraction, so they're trying to front-load cruise sales as much as possible. "Lines know that now is the time to go big," says Hunter.

Le Dumont d'Urville (Photo: Ponant)

Think a year ahead: During the early months of the year, which the industry refers to as "wave season," travelers are booking both same year and next year cruises. Some are booking in the sweet spot, but others might find they're too late.

"If you were looking to cruise this year, you should have already booked in November/December/January to get best deal," says Hunter. "There are lots of amazing promotions ending mid- to late February." By March, you're gambling on which cabins and sailings are still available.

In addition, many of the wave season promotions, such as Princess Cruises' Best Sale Ever, are valid on next year's sailings, in addition to this year.

Luxury lines, especially, sell out earlier, with only 30 percent of inventory available for same-year sailings by January. If you're looking for a high-end or river cruise, book as soon as possible if you want to cruise in 2020. By Q2, those lines will turn their attention to 2021 sailings.

Short cruises are more flexible: However, not everyone is too late. "Short cruises are booked closer in," says Smith. "Short cruises are hot this time of year for people traveling now through summer." And if you're flexible about cabins and sailings and just want a cheap rate, last-minute fares for Alaska crop up in the second quarter of the year, with Caribbean prices dropping midyear or Q3 to Q4.

Related: Cruise Booking Mistakes to Avoid

Another tip for saving this year: Use an agent.

Travel Agent Shaking Hands with Customer (Photo: PR Image Factory/Shutterstock)

If you want to get the best value for your vacation dollar on your 2020 cruise, using a travel agent is a great way to get the right cruise at the right price.

To start, a travel agent can help cruisers navigate the complicated world of cabin categories, promotions and fine print to get the most bang for their buck. "It's overwhelming for the average person who goes online and starts shopping -- they end up thoroughly confused," says Smith. "For that person who can just lay out parameters to us, our agents can zero in on the very best value, whether it's the rock-bottom price or the best accommodations or best value adds and free stuff bundled in."

In addition, an agent can help you pick the right cruise ship or line, so you get everything you're looking for in a vacation. "If you call a cruise line, they won't recommend their sister brand or competitor as a better choice," says Hunter. But, a travel agent will listen to what you want and recommend the ship that's best for you -- even if it's not the one you thought you wanted when walking in the door. "Vacation is a precious commodity," she adds. "You don't want to do it wrong."

And, while customers sometimes think a travel agent will cost them money, more often they save by booking through one. "[Direct Line Cruises] does not charge a service fee," says Coiro. "If booking through us, you're not paying more than booking directly through the cruise line. And, we're adding on extra value." The same can be said about most agencies.

"We're always going to give the client more than they'd get booking directly with the cruise line," says Smith. Recent deals have included up to $1,500 in onboard credit or an Amazon gift card.

So whether you're trying to decide between Norwegian and Royal Caribbean, or you want to figure out which booking perk will save you the most money, a knowledgeable travel agent who specializes in cruises can help you answer those questions in a quick and painless manner.

Who can say no to saving time and money -- and getting a fabulous 2020 cruise vacation to boot?

Related: Booking a Cruise Through a Travel Agent

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