In one very important way, cruise prices have more in common with airfares than hotel prices, as prices are quoted per person and not per room (as is the case with most hotels). Also akin to airlines, the least expensive fares get you the least desirable space on the vessel. A cheap fare will typically get you a cheap cabin -- inside and on a low deck. Want a sea view or a balcony? You'll have to pay more.
Another way cruise fares are like airline fares is that they can change daily, based on complicated algorithms of supply and demand, as well as time-sensitive sales, so you'll want to do some research or watch prices for a few weeks to know what's a good deal.
It depends on the source of the quote. On cruise line websites taxes, fees, port charges and miscellaneous charges are typically not included in U.S. cruise fare quotes, but are included in U.K. fares. You may also find online booking websites or travel agents that include some or all of the mandatory fees and taxes in their initial price quote. In order to compare fairly across suppliers, you must read the fine print for each quoted fare.
Because cruise fares are based on double occupancy, if you wish to book a room with only one person in it, you will need to pay a surcharge to take the place of the second cruise fare the cruise line won't get. This is called a single supplement, and it's usually 100 percent of the second person's fare.
There are exceptions. Some lines have sales that remove the supplements on specific sailings; luxury lines like Seabourn and Silversea frequently offer single supplements as low as 10 to 25% of the fare. Many new big cruise ships have dedicated solo cabins. The best known are Norwegian Cruise Line's studio cabins. P&O Cruises' Britannia has single balcony cabins, a first for the line. Other lines with a small number of solo cabins on select ships include Royal Caribbean, Cunard and Holland America Line.
Check out our Solo Cruise Tips for more on cruising alone.
Cruise fares on mainstream lines -- Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line and Princess, among others -- include your accommodations, plus food in multiple restaurants and onboard entertainment. Kids clubs also are mostly free, but nursery time for babies and toddlers, and late-night group babysitting often carry extra fees.
Everything else is additional, and this is where costs can add up. Probably the biggest onboard expense is drinks, both alcoholic and soft. All lines offer drink packages, which are often worth purchasing if you consume a lot, rather than paying as you go.
Tipping also is additional.
Lines like Norwegian, Holland America and Celebrity often offer free extra perks at the time of booking that can make your cruise seem almost all-inclusive. The number and value of the perks offered vary with the length and date of your cruise as well as stateroom category. Add-on perks might include beverage packages (all the way up to a cruise-long open bar), free specialty dining, free kids sailing with you, free Wi-Fi, onboard spending money and even free excursions. MSC offers you a choice of "experiences" when you book, with each level up increasing both the quality of room and the perks that come with it.
It's a different story on premium and luxury lines, which include some or all drinks, gratuities, sometimes Internet and occasionally even shore excursions. River cruise lines often include drinks at meals, as well as select shore excursions. Free booking perks on these lines might include economy, or even business-class airfare to and from the departure port.
Cruise pricing is a confusing business. Just like airlines, the best fares are usually available either a long way out or at the last minute (and also at specific times of year, as detailed below).
Fares also change based on timing and availability. Unlike airlines, cruise lines release fares an average of 18 months before the cruise, in a bid to encourage people to book early. Expedition and luxury lines often accept bookings on popular routes as far out as 30 months. Lines may also tempt you with extras like onboard credit, which is credit placed directly into your cruise account that can be used for onboard purchases.
A last-minute deal also can get you a good price, but your cabin choice will be limited.
Book just out of the peak holiday periods (July, August, school holidays) in what's known as shoulder season, and you are likely to get a good deal. Book way out of season (Caribbean in hurricane season, Mediterranean in the winter), and you might get a real steal.
Another good time to book is Wave Season, which takes place January through the end of February, when cruise lines offer discounts on select sailings. Most of these specials must be booked through travel agents.
Twice a year, cruise lines reposition many of their ships to warmer climes. As an example, many ships depart the Mediterranean for the Caribbean and Brazil in the fall and return in March and April. These are known as repositioning cruises, and they often sell for significantly less than a regular sailing. For U.K. cruisers, fares often include return airfare. Keep in mind that repositioning cruises include mostly sea days, and you might have reduced services since the ships often travel half full.
Yes, they're called guarantee fares. With a guarantee, you pay to reserve a cabin within a particular cruise category, but you do not get to select your specific cabin. Because you're allowing the cruise line to pick your cabin, you're charged less. But you might have to wait a long time for a room assignment (on occasion up to just days ahead of sailing). You also run the risk of being allotted the worst cabin within the category, and you have no recourse if you don't like it.
On the other hand, with a guarantee fare, there's always a chance that the category you've booked will be sold out, and you'll actually be upgraded at no additional cost to you.
With most cruise lines, if a price drops, you can get the lower price right up until final payment is due. Some travel agents will monitor prices for you and alert you to drops. (An extra fee for this service may be levied.)
Another way to monitor price drops is to join a Cruise Critic Roll Call after you've booked your cruise. Members will often share when prices fall; if you learn of a price drop, contact your travel agent right away to get the new lower rate. If the final payment due date has already passed when you see a price drop, still contact the cruise line; you might get an upgrade or onboard credit.
Most cruise lines reward large groups with discounts and incentives, such as a free cabin for a certain number of rooms booked (which, as the leader of the group, you can bag yourself or share the savings with your group).
The short answer is yes, but this varies by line -- and by country. Family-friendly cruise lines will occasionally offer discounted or kids-go-free fares. Lines to check out for these offers (which are usually limited time offers) include Royal Caribbean, P&O Cruises and MSC Cruises.
At the other end of the spectrum, cruise lines regularly offer senior citizen (generally defined as older than 55 years) discounts on select sailings, though not typically during high season.
Additionally, military personnel are entitled to occasional discounts on several cruise lines, including Cunard, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line, Disney, Princess and many others.
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The What to Expect on a Cruise series, written by Cruise Critic's editorial staff, is a resource guide, where we answer the most common questions about cruise ship life -- including cruise food, cabins, drinks and onboard fun -- as well as money matters before and during your cruise and visiting ports of call on your cruise.