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 a brand-new ship's first cruises, 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 with less passenger capacity, as well as big ships from popular cruise lines like Royal Caribbean, Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Disney Cruise Line, Princess Cruises and Holland America Line.
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). Because these ships are so popular, the best cabins sell out fast.
It's true you can probably get an inside or obstructed view cabin (generally considered less desirable options) within a year of sailing, but if you want your pick of high-demand cabins -- like suites on all ships, or those with limited availability such as the Family Harbor cabins on Carnival's Vista-class ships or Norwegian's studios -- 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 tend to 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.
Photo: E.J.Johnson Photography/Shutterstock.com
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, 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 off a little time, 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 ships tend to be fairly small, which 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 quite zealous, 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 recurring Star Trek Cruise, Impractical Jokers Cruise and KISS Kruise, for instance, continue to sell out merely months after they go on sale.
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 must be booked well in advance, since they only happen once a year. In addition to booking the cruise, you'll want to make sure you reserve any perks -- such as excursions/tickets to the event -- that aren't included in the fare.
Worldwide events can you sail to include Mardi Gras, Rio's Carnival, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, Cannes Film Festival, New York Fashion Week, the Australian Open and the Melbourne Cup.
Cruise ship life can be a little mysterious. Your choices aren't always spelled out in black and white. The more you cruise, the more you pick up on the unofficial secrets the cruise lines don't tell you -- which give you more options, let you save money and generally allow you to have a better time onboard. Maybe it's knowing what your cabin steward is able to bring you or what the off-the-menu items are at the bar or dining room. Or perhaps it's a tip to getting a good deal on an onboard purchase. But why wait to figure these things out the hard way -- possibly after you've missed your chance? We trawled through all the great advice on Cruise Critic's Message Boards to bring you some of the worst-kept cruise secrets ... at least among our readers who love to share. But whether you're a first-time cruiser or an old sea dog, you might find there's something here you didn't already know.