Woman booking a cruise on ipad by the pool

The biggest question on every cruiser's minds is, "When should I book my cruise to get the best price?" The cruise lines tell us to book early, announcing itineraries 18 months or more in advance and touting early booking specials. But our friends tell us stories of getting an amazing deal two months before sailing, and we're intrigued by the various last minute specials advertised by cruise sellers. We want a handy formula for determining that sweet spot when cruise fares are at their lowest.

Unfortunately, we haven't been able to find a one-size-fits-all rule for determining the precise day when your cruise fare will be lowest. What we can do is give you some advice about booking early vs. booking late, so you can find a great cruise deal -- if not the absolute lowest price -- on your next sailing.

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Travel agent handing passport and tickets to passenger

Booking a Cruise Early

Many cruise lines come out with their best fares when itineraries first go on sale, and then raise the rates as the ships sell out. This is especially true with luxury cruises, new or popular mainstream ships and Disney cruises. Booking early also gets you your pick of cabins -- especially if you want a suite -- and dining times. In addition to low introductory fares, cruise lines may also offer extra perks for early bookers, such as free airfare, a complimentary upgrade or onboard credit. Even better, most lines only require a refundable deposit to hold your cabin, so if your plans change in the following months, you can cancel without a hassle.

However, the cruise line's plans can also change between when you book and when you cruise. Be flexible when booking early because circumstances change and the cruise line reserves the right to alter the itinerary or bump you off the ship for a charter.

Last minute sign stuck in beach sand

Booking a Cruise Late

For ships that sell out more slowly, or unexpectedly encounter a rash of cancellations before final payment, cruise lines may slash rates at the last minute to fill empty cabins. Look for deals starting 90 days before sailing. That's when you'll find inside cabins for $50 per person, per night, on a weeklong cruise, and great deals on outside and balcony cabins.

What you won't find are low rates on fancy suites or prime cabin locations. You'll also need to be flexible on specific ships, itineraries and sail dates to make the most of booking a cruise late. You need to go where the inventory is; if your dream cruise is filling up, the last minute rates will be higher not lower. Also, beware of booking late when you have to fly to reach your homeport. The last minute airfare could eat up your cruise savings.

Couple with cruise tickets

When to Book a Cruise for the Best Price

Book a cruise early if ... you want to lock in a good rate, your favorite cabin and a specific ship and itinerary -- especially popular ones that tend to sell quickly.

Book a cruise late if ... you want the cheapest possible price and don't mind being flexible about your cruise ship and itinerary. This strategy is best for cruisers who live close to a homeport.
And if you miss out on booking early but a last minute cruise is too dicey, you can find a low price in between. Just look for cruise line promotions -- fare sales and extra-perk offers -- and book when you see a good offer. It might not be the absolute best price, but you will get a deal.