Updated August 29, 2018
The "wait for it to go on sale" approach that has saved so many consumers from paying retail prices at malls around the world doesn't always translate to the cruising world. Lots of cruises never go on sale; some even sell out quickly, so if you don't act fast, you can miss out. But that doesn't mean you can't save money on a cruise booking by waiting. You just need to know how long to wait and when waiting is not the right move.
Whereas, in the pre-9/11 days, booking a last minute cruise could mean showing up at the cruise port on sailing day and snagging a cabin that hadn't sold, today last minute cruises are defined, roughly, as sailings booked between several days and three months before departure.
A late booking could save you upwards of several hundred dollars or more, depending on the size of your travel party.
Here are five tips to help you save the most money when booking a last minute cruise.
1. Know when final payment is due.
The best window for getting last minute rates on a particular sailing is 60 to 90 says prior to departure. That's because most cruise lines allow cruisers to cancel existing bookings without a penalty fee up to this time period. (For some cruise lines, or for select itineraries and cabin categories, the number can be as high as 120 days.) At that point, cruise lines know exactly how many cabins they have left to fill. If there are more empty cabins than a cruise line is comfortable with, it will quickly move to reduce fares (or offer other incentives) in order to fill up the ship. Know when the final payment date is for the season you want to sail in, and start monitoring cruise prices a few days before then. This'll give you a view of what prices were before the cut-off so you'll know exactly how much of a discount the line is offering.
2. Embrace repositioning cruises.
Open jaw cruises, wherein you depart from one city but return to another, don't sell as well as roundtrip cruises due to the extra airfare costs usually associated with them. In addition to their open jaw nature, repositioning cruises (those where a cruise ship changes "regions" for the season) tend to be longer -- at least 10 days but usually closer to two weeks -- and include significantly more sea days than port days, something many cruisers don't care for. All this combined can lead to incredible last minute deals. Of course, to make it worthwhile, you'll need to find decently priced airfare, but if you can grab a good deal on air, you'll save big on an eleventh-hour repositioning cruise booking.
3. Drive to the port.
The vast majority of United States residents live within a five-hour drive of a cruise port. And while having to pony up for gas and parking isn't cheap, it almost always beats the cost of airfare. By focusing your deal search on ports within driving distance, saying yes to a last minute offer suddenly gets a lot easier. If you think you'll want to spend an extra night or two in the port city, check for hotels that offer park-sleep-cruise packages to save even more.
4. Don't be picky about cruise choices.
Booking late means you'll get what's left after all the early planners have made their arrangements. You are less likely to get an in-demand suite or balcony cabin, a prime dinner table or seating, or a choice cabin location. If you don't have your heart set on specific details, you'll be more amenable to what's being offered on the cheap.
5. Travel off peak.
Cruises sailing during peak times (think the holidays and most cruises in late June to early August) typically sell out early on, so cruise lines have no incentive to discount them. Conversely, you're more likely to find vacancies -- and therefore cheap cruise deals -- in the Caribbean during peak hurricane season (late August through early November) or during pre-holiday (first week or two of December) and post-holiday (first two weeks of January) lulls. But never rule anything out. Some years, holiday cruises or peak summer sailings don't sell out like they usually do, and there might be surprise bargains out there. Just don't bank your summer vacation on it.
Want to read more about last minute cruises? We've got even more tips for getting a deal.
--By Dori Saltzman and Erica Silverstein, Cruise Critic Editors