Updated January 8, 2020
Seasoned cruisers know that booking the ultimate cruise deal is a tricky formula of aiming for the right destination at the right time of year; booking at the exact moment when good prices and excellent availability align; jumping on promotions; scoring perks like onboard credits; remaining vigilant for price drops; and sometimes, a dash of pure luck.
Simply browsing the web might not be enough to secure the ultimate deal. Heed our advice using these five cruise booking hacks and you might be able to find secret pricing, score double the bonuses and land the upgrade of a lifetime.
1. Book onboard; then switch to an agent.
Booking a cruise while you're on vacation might seem impulsive, but it's actually a great way to gather extra bonuses and discounts. When you book a cruise onboard, you not only earn onboard credit to use on that future sailing and often pay a reduced deposit, but you can transfer that booking to your preferred travel agent once you disembark.
A travel agent can offer you even more perks on top of what you negotiated on the ship (more onboard credit, bottles of wine), and many times you can even adjust dates and ships without a penalty, if your plans change. It's really a win-win situation if you know you want to cruise the same line again soon.
2. Call for hidden pricing.
When online agents tell you to call for pricing, it's not a gimmick or another way of saying a ship is sold out. Through direct connections with cruise lines and marketing partners, agents and cruise specialists receive deals called "quiet offers" that they're not allowed to publish. What that means for the consumer is that there might be even lower rates available than the listed bargain.
In order to get in on the savings, you have to call to discuss your options. Agents are also privy to sales before they go public, and know about any additional savings you might be eligible for, such as a military or senior discount. Picking up the phone might seem a bit archaic these days, but if you want to book a cruise at the lowest rate, it's almost essential.
3. Refer a friend (or get referred).
Referral programs exist for gyms, hair salons and apartment complexes, so why not cruises? Some companies, like online travel marketplace CruCon, offer onboard credit in exchange for a new referral to their agency. Likewise, select cruise lines offer onboard credit to you and your friends when they are referred. If you've never been on a cruise but have friends who have, ask them if their cruise line or agency offers a referral program and chances are, you'll all reap the benefits.
Not sure if your cruise line offers a referral program -- or don't know anyone who can refer you? The Cruise Critic message boards are a great place to ask and discuss. For example, Seabourn cruisers use the message boards to connect repeat passengers with $400 referral coupons to new passengers looking for extra onboard credit.
4. Scour for price drops.
Be your own bargain advocate. Sign up for cruise line e-letters, which will inform you about the latest deals, and even check their pages on social media. If you see a bargain that's better than the one you have, call your agent to see if it's possible to make a switch. Depending on the terms of a new fare or promotion, you might be able to score extra perks, get a price reduction, upgrade your cabin or receive the fare difference in onboard credit.
While some travel agents might notify you of price drops, you're the person most invested in your vacation, so it makes sense to monitor the price changes yourself.
5. Pay more for a lower total price.
Sure it sounds counterintuitive, but if you don't mind shelling out a little extra on the base cruise fare, the upgrades and amenities included can make a significant impact on your total vacation expenses. If you're on a super tight budget and plan on limiting onboard spending, then it might be important to adhere to low cruise rates, down to the last cent. However, if you have the ability to pay a bit more, the returns can be much greater than the difference in fares.
You'll hear it often from travel agents: The best deal isn't always the sailing with the cheapest price. For example, pay slightly more for an ocean-view or balcony cabin, and on some lines you can receive an included drink package, internet or prepaid tips that aren't available to inside cabin cruisers. The perks included in upper stateroom categories could add hundreds of dollars of value to your vacation. Think about which amenities you plan to buy (be it airfare or alcohol), and compare the total cost of a cheap fare plus all the add-ons with a pricier intro fare that includes more. The results might surprise you.