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

How to Find the Best Cruise Bargains in 2018

What's in store for 2018 for cruisers seeking low prices and great value? We asked a panel of eight cruise and travel professional for their tips and insight into finding the absolute best cruise bargains this year -- and when to book them. Find out the destinations that will stay cheap and the ships that won't, as well as the surprising perks of using a travel agent to book your cruise.

Updated May 22, 2018

Shop Early During Wave Season

Wave season, a busy promotional period in the cruise-purchasing world from January (sometimes December) to March, is not only a time to buy for price, but to book for availability. The very beginning of the year can be a great time to put down a deposit on your summer vacation, securing the space you need in the cabins you want months ahead of time.

"Wave season is still by far the best time to book a cruise and not just because of pricing and promotions; guests really should consider their onboard experience, too," says Lea Nielsen, vice president of sales and business development for Cruise Direct/International Voyager. "It can be very disappointing to spend a lot of time researching your perfect cruise and coordinating schedules with family members, only to find out your ideal cabin is gone or connecting cabins are no longer available. Wave actually started earlier for us this year than previous years -- mostly because our cruise line partners came out with some terrific pricing in December."

Nancy Bogert, an award-winning travel agent with Cruise Planners, has seen interest double this January, as compared with last wave season. "It's hard to stay on top of all the promotions, but people want perks," says Bogert.

And that's what the cruise lines have to offer. The emergence of added-value promotions means that cruise fares might only be slightly discounted, if at all, but travelers are receiving amenities like free drink or dining packages or onboard credit; amounts depend on which cabin category they're booked in.

It's value that wave season has to offer. "If we see [cruise fares] below $100 per person, per day, then our agency deems this an incredible value considering the inclusive nature of cruising," says Greg Coiro, CEO of Direct Line Cruises. "Keep in mind that most cruising includes your accommodations, transportation costs to your destination, entertainment, meals plus so much more. All of this is typically included within the price you pay. And now that many cruise lines such as Celebrity and Norwegian are including free beverage packages, prepaid gratuities, internet and more, this further enhances the overall value and inclusiveness of cruising."

So how do buyers benefit from all these promotions? "The best way to take advantage of these value-add deals is by being flexible when it comes to sail dates and travel arrangements or paying slightly more for a higher cabin category to receive additional perks," says Scott Koepf, senior vice president of sales for Avoya Travel. "With so many great deals, itineraries are filling up fast so it's important that travelers book further in advance to secure the cabin and travel dates of their choice."

"Evaluating good deals versus good value can be tricky for most consumers due to the huge shift in the way cruise lines market their product by adding value-add packages to their sailings," Koepf continues. "These are usually not readily distinguishable or easy to determine by shopping online, however working with a travel agent can help discern which cruise line is a great fit and also provide the best value overall for the customer."

Book Even Further Out If You Want to Take a River Cruise

Regarding those shopping for a river cruise, Rick Kaplan, president of Premier River Cruises, reminds buyers that while oceangoing cruise ships traditionally qualify for wave season deals in January, the wave season for river cruising begins in September. That means if you haven't started looking at that Christmas markets cruise, you might be late to the game. To stay ahead for next year, be sure to mark your calendars this fall to begin the hunt (if you haven't already!) for deals on 2019 river cruises.

That's because river cruising isn't a well-kept secret anymore. "Demand is back for the river cruising industry as a whole -- it's up significantly year over year," says Kaplan.

"There is still a good amount of growth occurring within river cruising," adds Drew Daly, general manager of network engagement and performance for Dream Vacations, Cruise One and Cruises, Inc. "More and more ocean cruise passengers are gravitating towards experiencing a river cruise because of the uniqueness of the product."

Because of this growth in interest, there's a significant advantage to booking and planning early in this sector -- more than a year to 14 months out, according to Kaplan. "The best value is in booking early, with a limited supply of beds, but there are always last-minute opportunities (90 days out or less). Most specialists have access to these, but there is little difference with the early-booking promotions. Currently, there are 40 percent fewer available beds than this time last year."

"River cruising is taking off really big this year; lots of new boats and itineraries," says Bogert. "The Danube is still the most popular, and the Christmas markets are also very popular."

Unlike oceangoing cruise ships, river boats only accommodate a few hundred passengers -- if that. Space is limited, so when river itineraries become popular, available beds book up quickly.

"The Christmas market deals are great right now as [those sailings] occur at the end of November through the end of December," says Daly. "These provide just an awesome way to experience the culture of a local town in Europe and to get to interact with a lot of the local people." In general, he says European river cruises are the hottest itineraries in the river industry.

Travel to Europe has slowed in recent years due to fear surrounding terror attacks, but Kaplan sums up the shift back to the region well: "The reality of life has set in with people -- buyer age is higher in river cruising than the usual deep-water cruise buyer, and older passengers are more resilient; their body clock is running and there are things they want to do." Regarding threats of terrorism, Kaplan notes: "People realize there are issues in the States, as well. They overcome the 'oh my gosh.'"

Within Europe, Portugal's Douro River remains the most coveted river cruise destination for 2018, says Kaplan. The best overall value right now is France. "It's a quality experience and less crowded than other rivers, especially in Europe," he says.

Around the world, there's also increased interest in Southeast Asia, especially the Mekong. However, in that region, ships are smaller and there's not as much capacity, so interested travelers should book early to ensure they get the cruise they want.

Some final advice for anyone interested in booking a river cruise: "The biggest single mistake consumers make is booking direct with cruise line," says Kaplan, with all due respect. "It's not a better deal or a better experience. Agents have a checklist of questions to ensure you're booking the right cruise for you. Online can imply certain things but the consumer needs to rely on specialists as well; there's advice only a person could impart. Don't buy on price alone."

Don't Expect a Deal on a New Ship -- But Don't Count It Out

With so much new hardware for 2018, travel professionals are noticing increased interest in new ships across multiple cruise lines. "MSC Seaside [which debuted December 2017] brought about a lot of excitement for cruising," says Daly. "Norwegian Bliss, Royal Caribbean's Symphony of the Seas and Celebrity Edge are all coming out this year and have the entire cruise industry talking about the latest and greatest technology and culinary offerings coming. All of these new ships bring about great demand for consumers who would not normally think of a cruise vacation as the best alternative for them and their families."

And the bells and whistles are in fact drawing cruisers in to try the latest and greatest ships.

"Our agency almost every day is receiving a call from a consumer asking to sail on the cruise ship that has the go-kart racing track, the SkyRide bike attraction or the Magic Carpet venue," says Coiro.

The downside to so much interest is higher pricing that matches high demand with a limited number of cabins. "We continue to see fares increase for new ships such as the Norwegian Bliss, Celebrity Edge and Carnival Horizon due to the tremendous demand in wave season," says Coiro. "My suggestion for anyone that wishes to sail on these new ships for 2018 is that they should book now and not wait. Inventory will be scarce, and pricing will be much higher once these ships begin to sail in a few months."

That's not always a given. MSC Seaside, which debuted at the very end of 2017, began rolling out discounted offerings just one month after its launch in Miami. At the time of publication, you could sail this brand-spanking-new ship for $449 per person, plus reduced deposits, onboard credit offerings and kids under age 11 sail free. Sometimes with new ships there's a lot of buzz, but sales don't match the hype. Give the ship a few months to settle and see which direction the dollar signs are heading.

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The Caribbean Is Open and It's Cheap

Make no mistake: the ports of the Caribbean are not only open and welcoming visitors, but this is where you will find the cheapest deals of 2018, even at the last minute.

"Summer in the Caribbean is absolutely where the deals are right now," says Nielsen. "Hurricane season left bookings a little softer than the cruise lines would like, so both the pricing and the promotions are attractive. If guests are looking for the absolute lowest rates, then Carnival Cruise Line's Caribbean cruises from their many homeports offer some of the lowest per diems in the industry." Bogert noted great deals on other cruise lines, as well, specifically calling out Princess for great fares.

"Since most cruise lines have an abundance of inventory and capacity in the Caribbean islands, they all understand that they need to compete for this business," says Coiro. "We have seen extremely competitive pricing in homeport markets such as New York, New Jersey and Baltimore with per-person fares starting as low as $55 per day."

Coiro adds that many cruise lines are also offering onboard credit as an incentive for Caribbean bookings, and that because of all the investments cruise lines have made in the region, pricing is competitive and bonus amenities make these sailings an incredible value.

"In my 20-plus years in the industry, I have never seen such great deals for Caribbean cruises," Coiro tells us. "Don't wait -- the best deals to these warm-weather islands can be found now. Since the Caribbean is offered on a year-round basis … I believe you will continue to see last-minute deals in 2018 for this warm-weather destination." Both Bogert and Paige Barker, vice president of business and product development for Online Vacation Center, agree that the Caribbean is a place to watch for last-minute cruise deals in 2018. But Don Walker, co-president of iCruise.com, notes that bookings are picking up, and while pricing is consumer-friendly through the summer, fares could start to rise if you wait to book.

If you're worried that Caribbean ports aren't ready for tourists or that your onshore experience will be subpar, don't be. "The Caribbean is back and is a solid product for consumers to experience," says Daly. There's another reason to cruise now, and that's to lend your support to rebuilding destinations. "It is crucial that we support these islands by going on a cruise to the Caribbean -- especially sailing out of San Juan," adds Daly. And with some of the best deals available for cruises out of hard-hit Puerto Rico, you can help the island and find an affordable vacation for your family.

Europe Has Rebounded, Alaska Continues to Grow: Book Now

If you're planning a cruise to Alaska or Europe, don't wait to book. "Both Alaska and Europe are off to a very strong start for 2018," says Coiro. "Consumers should not wait for a last-minute deal in these markets as demand is extremely high right now and prices will continue to increase as inventory becomes depleted. Especially considering that flights are necessary for both Alaska and European trips, the best time to book is now."

"With the exception of the Caribbean, where prices are comparable to last year due to the hurricanes and extra capacity this summer, pricing everywhere else is going up," warns Walker.

If you thought Europe was still available at a discount, you might be surprised by how many other people are thinking the same thing. "Europe -- all destinations in Europe -- are the buzz right now," says Barker. "2018 is quite the bounce back year for Europe."

"We still have great packages such as a seven-night Mediterranean cruise with two nights in Barcelona including transfers in a balcony cabin for under $1,500 per person," says Walker. "We have found at iCruise.com that combining a cruise with a couple of hotel nights as well as transfers can save hundreds of dollars. If you're concerned about missing out on the best deals by booking early, don't be. A client can always change their reservation to a better promotion at any time prior to final payment," notes Walker.

As for Alaska, more ships are heading there than ever before, but with a five-month season (May through September) the most in-demand ships and cabins will not only fill quickly but also begin booking up for next year.

"There is a lot of interest for people to experience Alaska largely due to the amazing tours and experiences that unfold while on an Alaska cruise," says Daly. He also mentions that since some cruises sail as early as April, now is the time to book. "As a matter of fact, in some cases you could be too late and should plan for 2019."

"Alaska is in high demand right now, pricing is attractive and promotions are aggressive," says Nielsen. "We warn guests considering Alaska it is key to book early particularly when sailing with family in multiple cabins. The best cabins will sell out quickly."

Early Bookers Get the Cruise

A trend in cruisers booking earlier and earlier means you don't want to be the one left out in the cold (and stuck on land).

"People are booking six to nine months ahead of their travel departure," says Daly, and other travel agents agree with that window. "We have seen an increase in our overall booking window. I strongly recommend people plan early and begin to make arrangements largely to ensure they get the best space and can take advantage of any early booking discounts. Really any cruise itinerary can be booked now, but consumers should be aware that the farther out you secure your spot on any cruise will translate to the best cabin location and usually the best value."

"Many cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Line offer incentives for consumers to book early under a nonrefundable fare in exchange for special pricing and increased value such as onboard credits up to $100," Coiro tells us. "These incentives associated with nonrefundable fares typically are the most aggressive when booking six months or more from the sailing date." His agency, Direct Line Cruises, has seen a tremendous change in its booking window, especially with the increased offering of these nonrefundable fares and savings.

"I would recommend booking when you have decided upon the cruise vacation you want to take," says Barker. "Don't wait or you risk the chance of it selling out or receiving a higher price. The cruise lines are very respectable when it comes to honoring lowering pricing should it happen to the cruise you are booked on, so there is no need to wait. Suites should be booked as early as possible as those are usually the highest in demand and the first to go. Family vacations where specific/adjoining/special cabins are needed should be booked as far in advance as possible."

"Last-minute deals will be harder to find as cruise lines are more willing to incentivize customers further out to help fill cabin space early," says Koepf.

Don't Assume Luxury Can't Be a Bargain

For those that can afford it, luxury cruises are a great vacation option because they bundle so many different charges into one generally all-inclusive price. They can also be the only option if you're looking for adventurous and exotic ports in increasingly popular destinations like the Galapagos and Antarctica.

The concept of "deals" in the luxury realm was nearly unheard of a few years ago, but as cruise lines in all sectors grow, luxury lines are finding new ways to compete for passengers. Discounts and even value-adds on top of the typical inclusions have been cropping up for more upscale lines -- don't leave them out of your wave season deals hunt. And bundled experiences -- with most trip components packaged together in one up-front fare -- can be time and money savers for travelers with a larger vacation budget.

Walker touts Regent's cruise package to Alaska. "The trip includes not only the cruise, airfare, gratuities and all shore excursions, but the client also receives one night in Anchorage, all transfers, a $300 onboard credit and a $500 AMEX gift card for the same price as the cruise-only rate," he says. "It's the best luxury value package to Alaska we've seen, starting at $4,199."

"Another great luxury value is on a 16-day Azamara transatlantic cruise from Miami to Portugal, with a price that is $800 less than the cruise line-direct price," says Walker. "The client also receives two nights in Lisbon, tours and transfers, plus $350 in onboard credit -- lead price is at $2,099 per person."

Travel Agent Insider Tips

When asked for top tips, our travel advisory panel stressed the importance of exploring all available discounts, purchasing trip insurance and getting in on group rates -- but above all, trusting that the travel professional is going to provide personalized and qualified advice that is tailored to the individual.

"Would you buy a car directly from the manufacturer or from a dealer?" asks Walker. "Most people would say a dealer because they are the ones able to offer additional incentives on many of their cars. Travel agencies are similar. An agency price will never be higher than the cruise line but most of the time through agency promotions can be less. Agencies can also save clients money on ancillary products such as shore excursions and travel insurance. Most importantly is the unbiased advice that you can't get from one, single cruise line. A good agent wants to match their client with the right cruise line based on the client's unique and individual needs and desires. The priority goes to the client and not booking a specific cruise line."

"By far the biggest value a travel agent provides is that they are personal," says Daly. "They hold your hand and will guide you on the decision-making process so that you can maximize your time and money. They have great relationships with cruise lines that will help negotiate the best cabin location and deal for you."

In addition, travel agencies block promotional group space on select itineraries, which, according to Coiro, "provides consumers with special pricing benefits and increased value add. However, this promotional group inventory is offered on a limited basis and typically must be returned to the cruise line a few months before the sailing date. So, bottom line: to receive the best savings, book at least six months in advance."

"We work with guests to find out what is most important to them on their trip," says Nielsen. "For some guests the absolute lowest cost is what is most important, others want to ensure they have everything included so they walk off the ship without a bill."

Agents can also save you time, a value people often overlook. "Personally, I spend about three to four weeks planning our family cruises and I have been in the industry for 15 years," says Nielsen. "Cruise is an amazing vacation but the choices are staggering; working with a travel professional can take the stress out of the booking process for you."

Coiro makes a point that cruise-only agencies can offer the expertise of specialists. "Our cruise specialists live and breathe cruising. That's all they do. They know all the ins and outs of finding the absolute best deals for every caller."

Agents can also alert you to discounts available to certain types of travelers and not others. "Always remember to ask for senior, military, resident discounts," says Barker. "While they are not always combinable with current promotions like onboard credit, your savings could be far greater."

Koepf sums up the advice best: "Travel during the offseason versus peak travel dates and holidays, and [take] advantage of resident rates, past passenger perks, exclusive promotions, and unpublished rates that may be available when booking through a professional travel agent. There are many ways travelers can benefit from booking with a travel agent because of their extensive knowledge, access to extraordinary deals, and the personal service they provide. [Agents] will do whatever they can to make sure [their customers] receive the best value and provide services that go way beyond the planning stages of a trip. [Because of that, travelers] can enjoy their vacation without a worry in the world knowing that their travel agent is just a phone call away."

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