The best cruise deals aren’t as hard to find as you might think. But digging for cheap cruises can mean the difference between unearthing that low fare or compromising on price and itinerary, so you need to know where to look -- even if you use your own trusted cruise travel agent.
Let us share some of our favorite tips on how to get cheap cruises. While some may sound trite, others may catch you by surprise.
Last-minute cheap cruise deals are a tough find in the most popular seasons and routes, especially if you want your pick of cabins. Summer travel and school holiday periods book up early, particularly for cabins that sleep three or more and are in demand by families traveling together.
If you have a very specific cruise itinerary and ship in mind, we recommend booking early. The choicest digs on popular new ships will sell quickly, pushing fares higher the longer you wait. New ship sailings are also incredibly popular well in advance.
Interested in an exotic cruise? For some lines and sailings, you can forget it unless you book months -- or a year -- in advance. This is particularly true for bucket-list voyages to places like Antarctica, the Galapagos Islands and world cruises -- some of which can sell out in a single day. The same rules apply for theme cruises.
It's also best to book river cruises early. Not only are choice itineraries likely to sell out as the sail date draws closer, but the price is also likely to jump, not drop.
Repositioning cruise deals, whether transatlantic or something less dramatic like ships moving into and out of Alaska, are some of the lowest cost per night/per person deals available.
The second best deals are often those sailing on dates just outside the peak seasons of popular destinations. This might mean picking April or late September as the month to visit Alaska, March as your best bet to sail the Mediterranean and October for your Caribbean cruise -- before or after the summer swell of family vacations. In addition to low prices, you'll encounter fewer crowds.
On the flip side, the weather might not be as ideal for sightseeing.
Don't have the time to obsessively watch cruise pricing? Cruise Critic rounds up deals across tons of major cruise lines and popular destinations, as well as last-minute cruise deals. These are accompanied by a Deal Score, which uses pricing data along with onboard credits, flight discounts, food and drink package deals and more.
It's easy to use: The higher the Deal Score, the better the deal.
But if you'd prefer to go your own way on finding a deal, do some research on typical rates for the cruise you have in mind, and check back frequently (we mean daily, at least) to see if the fare has dropped.
See what promotions each cruise line is offering and contact your preferred travel agent to see what pricing and promotional specials they're running.
Some of the best cruise deals aren’t only about getting the bottom dollar cruise fare. A number of cruise lines offer booking promotions that include your choice of perks, such as free specialty dining, tips, Wi-Fi and drink packages.
Nearly every mainstream cruise line offers special deals that let you save on the total cost of your cruise vacation.
In addition, bundling multiple vacation elements together can help you save on individual costs. Luxury and river lines sometimes offer promotions that will include economy-class airfare, or a pre-cruise hotel stay at the price of your upscale cruise.
If the cruise fare changes after you've booked but before you've made your final payment, it's possible to take advantage of the lower rate. Enlist the help of a travel agent who can monitor pricing after you've booked, and who can request a re-fare to the lower rate.
When the fare plummets, you can request a rate change, cancel, and rebook at the lower rate or request the difference in onboard credit. What you're entitled to varies by cruise line, but it all leads to more money in your pocket.
Note that some lines may have non-refundable deposit policies; always read the fine print before deciding to pull the trigger and cancel and rebook.
While waiting until the last minute to book a cruise won't always pay off for your wallet, that's not always the case. For starters, check out Cruise Critic’s last-minute cruise deals, which feature bargains on a variety of sailings leaving within 90 days.
In general, there are always plenty of Caribbean cruise deals, as well as some for the Mediterranean. For those who can be spontaneous, flexibility can pay off.
Of course, booking last-minute airfare might wipe out any savings. Plus, you'll have a limited selection of cabin locations and dinner seatings. But if you're flexible and can drive to a cruise port -- or have plenty of frequent flier airline points to burn -- it's a great way to take a cruise without breaking the bank.
Booking a cruise for a group might get you the ultimate cruise deal: free berths.
For instance, book seven or more double-occupancy cabins on Norwegian Cruise Line, and for every 10 passengers booked, one passenger can cruise for free.
Keep in mind that each cruise line has its own threshold for groups. Some lines consider 10 guests (five cabins) to be a group, while others require 16 guests (eight cabins).
Group leaders can choose to spread the savings across the group or keep it all for themselves. Groups can get other perks, as well. Norwegian offers group members a choice of complimentary amenities beyond its Free at Sea promotion, such as extra onboard credit or a cocktail party for the group.
Though not as exciting as sailing for free when you book a large group cruise, small group perks are out there too.
Throughout the year, many cruise lines offer promotions that include free cruise fares for third and fourth passengers booked in the same cabin. Watch for the deals that also include those passengers in bonus offerings like drink packages or prepaid gratuities.
All the cruise deals you dream about will appear in your inbox if you ask for them. You never have to miss another cheap Caribbean cruise again. Major cruise lines, such as Celebrity, Norwegian, Holland America, Princess and Royal Caribbean offer deals emails with ongoing promotions in addition to last-minute deals and short sales.
For the hardcore deal-seekers who don't want e-deals cluttering up their personal inboxes, we suggest setting up separate accounts for cruise bargain mailings. With a little extra effort, you can even sort them into folders for your favorite shopping categories like “cheap Carnival cruises” or “cheap cruises from Galveston.”
Military cruise deals for active and retired members of the armed services are only one means of double dipping your deals. A number of cruise lines have special programs for seniors, military personnel and even teachers that apply even to the lowest advertised fares.
For example, MSC Cruises provides discounts of up to 10 percent to active and retired military families on almost all sailings. AARP members can find exclusive senior discounts on multiple lines when booking through the AARP Travel Center Powered by Expedia.
Many lines also offer residential discounts. Here's how it works: A line's revenue stream is based on a formula that requires a certain number of bookings from various cities, states and regions.
So, if it's not getting enough bookings from one place, it'll drop the price slightly -- say, in Florida -- to entice more Floridians to book.
There's no guarantee you'll get a residential discount, but it can't hurt to mention your home city and state during the booking process, just in case. Look for options for requesting these deals about halfway through the booking process when you use the cruise lines’ websites. Even if it only saves you $50, it's still $50 in your pocket.
Take it a step further by customizing a list of deal tweeters using Twitter's list function, in essence creating your own deals aggregator. For more variety, assuming you don’t mind wading through a few tweets, you can always just search for the hashtag #cruisedeals.
Are "guarantee cabins" on cruises really deals? A cabin guarantee, which basically means you're assured to get a cabin in the category specified -- or better -- means you can't choose your exact stateroom.
And for giving up that privilege, many lines discount guaranteed cabin bookings about $50 to $100 per person off the advertised fares.
If you're prone to seasickness or sensitive to noise, you might want to reconsider the value of choosing your own cabin location so as to not end up near the elevators or riding the wave near the bow.
The biggest caveat though, is that not all guarantee cabin fares are eligible for those booking perks we told you to bundle, so ensure the value tradeoff is worth it before you commit.
Frequent cruisers, like frequent fliers, can benefit from brand loyalty. Sticking with one line means earning perks like nightly cocktails in private lounges, free laundry, complimentary dinners in alternative restaurants, cabin upgrades and even free cruises once you've earned enough "credits."
Past passengers can also take advantage of special discount cruises throughout the year or be entitled to book new itineraries before the public can, often turning your cruise dreams into affordable cruise deals.
If you don't have time for Twitter, online cruise research or gathering up a group of 20 friends, nothing beats a good travel agent to help you score deals on cruises.
Because agents often book in bulk and work directly with the lines, they have access to deals that normal cruisers don't. Cruise lines will offer their top agencies special discounts that the agents can't promote on their websites, so even if you see a good deal online, it's best to talk to a real person and ask for the best fare.
Even if savings aren't necessarily there for every sailing, agencies often offer deals with value-added perks like onboard credit or prepaid gratuities, which can amount to nearly $100 per person on a weeklong sailing.