There's much debate among cruisers about how far in advance to book a cruise. Many travelers book their cruise vacation within just a few months of sailing, hoping for a last-minute discounted price. Some wait for a value-added promotion before pulling the trigger; many cruise lines use these tactics in order to fill their ships. Still others book as soon as their desired itinerary is announced, hoping for the best cabins and early-booking rates.
Regardless of when you typically purchase a cruise, there are several instances when booking ahead is critically important. If you're considering any of these nine cruise types, you should definitely book at least a year in advance.
Photo: Cruise Critic
Among the most popular cruises each year are those that fall over the holiday season. What's better than spending Hanukkah or Christmas with your loved ones, while someone else does the cooking and cleaning? But if you want to open your presents at sea, countdown to the New Year or enjoy Thanksgiving dinner cooked by professional onboard chefs, you'll need to book ahead. Holiday cruises are popular with families, couples and groups of friends, making it difficult to get your choice of cabin unless you book more than a year out.
Photo: Royal Caribbean
There are pros and cons when it comes to sailing on one of the first cruises on a brand-new cruise ship, but for some people the cachet of being among the first to sail a new ship is all the reason they need -- and there are enough of those people that getting a spot on a new ship usually requires booking ahead. This applies to ships of all sizes, but can be especially true of the smaller ships, like Seabourn Ovation and Scenic Eclipse. For even the biggest new ships you'll want to book pretty close to a year out, especially when the first in a new class debuts, like Celebrity Edge, or a new ship in a popular class like Carnival Horizon and Norwegian Bliss.
Photo: Norwegian Cruise Line
Popular cruise ships
Every year, the same 10 or so cruise ships top our list of most popular cruise ships (except in years when new ships often take over some of the top spots), starting with Royal Caribbean's Oasis-class ships -- Oasis, Allure and Harmony of the Seas. Because these ships -- like Norwegian Escape and Breakaway, and Carnival Vista and Sunshine -- are so popular, the best cabins on the ship sell out fast. It's true you can probably get an inside or obstructed balcony cabin within a year of sailing, but if you want your pick of low-capacity, high-demand cabins (like suites on all ships, Family Harbor cabins on Carnival Vista or studios on Harmony of the Seas), you'll need to get online or on the phone with a travel agent about 365 days ahead of the sailing you want.
Photo: Cruise Critic
Some cruises that require booking ahead have less to do with the ship than with the destination. Short-season itineraries compress demand into a shorter period of time making it more difficult to get a spot on such a cruise. Examples can include New England and Canada, Alaska and Baltic cruises. Note, sailings at the very ends of these destination seasons will have more capacity. Fewer people want to cruise to Alaska in late May and early September as the wildlife sightings are rarer and the weather can be quite iffy. But if you want to cruise Alaska from mid-June to mid-August, you'll need to pick a date and book it well in advance. For September or October New England/Canada trips, and June through August Baltic sailings, the same holds true.
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If you're interested in an expedition cruise to some exotic locale such as the Galapagos, Amazon River or Greenland, you'd better get your hands on next year's calendar. These cruises sell out well in advance of sailing, primarily because space is severely limited due to expedition ships being small (typically fewer than 30 cabins) and capacity constraints often imposed by the destinations. As with the short-season itineraries, you might be able to book an early- or late-season sailing in a destination such as the Galapagos or Baja within less than a year, but you're likely to see less and have hit-or-miss weather.
Photo: Lindblad Expeditions
QM2 with your dog
Looking to cross the pond with Spot in tow? You've only got one cruise ship -- Cunard's Queen Mary 2 -- and the kennels on the ship book up quickly. With just 22 kennels onboard (10 more than there used to be after a massive refurbishment), and lots of doggie-loving cruisers on both sides of the Atlantic hoping to travel with their pampered pooch, you need to get your reservation more than a year ahead of sailing. If you have some flexibility with your schedule you might be able to shave a little time off, but it's almost unheard of to be able to book a kennel on Queen Mary 2 less than a year out.
Like expedition cruises, luxury cruise ships tend to be fairly small and that makes snagging a spot on a sailing more difficult -- especially if you have limited scheduling flexibility. This is particularly true of the best cabins on a luxury ship (highest tier suites, for instance), one-off or high-demand itineraries, and high-season sailings. Crystal's first Northwest Passage sailing, for instance, sold out within three weeks of going on sale, while the Regent Suite on Regent Seven Seas Explorer (the only one of its kind in the Regent fleet) is always booked out one to two years in advance.
Photo: Cruise Critic
Fans of a particular band or musical genre, TV show, lifestyle or hobby can be rabid, and when a company goes out of its way to create a themed cruise around their passion, you can bet the cruise sells out quickly. The Holy Ship, Walking Dead and Star Trek cruises, for instance, sold out in less than two months. Other theme cruises, like the KISS Kruise, K-Love, the Property Brothers and New Kids on the Block, all also sold out. Many times, by the time you hear about a cruise that tugs at your fan heartstrings, it's too late to get a cabin. In those cases, you'll want to get on the email list of the company running the show so you can find out about the next year's sailing as soon as possible. Then, as soon as bookings open, get on the phone and put down a deposit.
Photo: Cruise Critic
Special event sailings
If you're hoping to combine a cruise with a visit to one of the world's most popular events, say the British Open or Monaco's Grand Prix, you'd better call your travel agent at least one rotation of the calendar ahead of time. Cruises that incorporate world events, like Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Carnival in Rio, must be booked well in advance. What events can you sail to? SeaDream, Silversea, Windstar, Azamara, P&O Cruises, Star Clippers and Fred. Olsen typically have ships in or near Monaco during the Grand Prix each year. Celebrity's Signature Sailings are timed to coincide with marquee events such as Mardi Gras, Carnival and the British Open, while Crystal's Marquee Events cruises allow passengers to attend the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo or other famous events.