Everyone knows that wave season (January through March) is a time when cruise lines put out awesome booking promotions -- think free upgrades, extra-value offers and fare discounts. But, Cruise Critic's editors have seen some amazing sales in the fall months, too.
That got us wondering: If the autumn months are a time when cruise lines are pushing to sell off remaining inventory for the current year while encouraging cruisers to book early for next year and beyond, could fall possibly be a better time to book a cruise than winter?
We put this question to several travel agents, who acknowledged seeing great fall deals in the past, but cautioned that every year is different. So, is fall the best time to book? It can be -- if your needs and the cruise lines' match up. If you're itching for great value, here are three cases when fall is the best time to book.
You might have heard this one before: "From September through December, the Caribbean is oversaturated with ships, and there's less demand," says Greg Coiro, CEO of Direct Line Cruises. "Cruise lines get very aggressive and drop prices or offer extra value-adds to close off the end of the year."
If you can be flexible with your travel dates, don't have a particular need for a certain type of cabin (or are fine with an inside or outside) and don't mind cruising the islands during hurricane season, you can definitely score a great deal on a last-minute Caribbean (or Bahamas) cruise by booking in the fall.
Cruisers who are picky about cabin type and sail date want to book early to get their dream cruise. Fall is a key time to book early for next year's summer and even holiday sailings. If you're looking to be the first aboard, some cruise lines will announce new seasons of itineraries for the next year or two during the autumn months.
Booking early is also useful if you're looking at a limited-supply offering. "A consumer needs to look at the destination they are considering," counsels Karyn Todd, senior vice president at Cruise.com. "Is it a 'short-season' destination (like Alaska or Bermuda) with really only a few months when the weather is optimum and the season is in full swing? If that is the case, then there are fewer travel choices, so it pays to book early and lock in one of those perfect travel weeks."
The same applies to specific types of cabins in short supply, such as top-end suites, connecting cabins and staterooms that can sleep three, four or even five passengers. You might not get a rock-bottom rate, but that's secondary to getting the type of trip you actually want.
Many cruise travelers worry that by booking early, they won't get the best deal. Travel agents tell us that's not true. "Many cruise lines such as Carnival and Royal Caribbean provide Early Saver discounts," says Coiro. "If you book in advance, you'll get an early saver rate that guarantees to be the lowest fare and you'll get a rate adjustment if fares go down…. There's not too much risk to booking early, but there can be great reward like a value add or onboard credit."
He notes that Royal Caribbean Early Saver fares need to be booked at least six months in advance and require a nonrefundable deposit, where Carnival can offer reduced rates up until two to three months before sailing. "Early bookers get the best deals," agrees Stephanie Serino, a luxury cruise specialist for the Tzell Travel Group. "Every line lets bookings be adjusted [for price changes] so you're never penalized for booking early." She also notes that luxury cruise lines tend to offer their best cruise fares right when they announce new itineraries, so high-end travelers should feel confident committing early.
If you see the itinerary, sail date and cabin type you want in the fall, don't wait until the winter and wave season in hopes of getting a better deal. Book the cruise and be confident that you made a smart purchase.
The cruise lines want to fill their ships as early as possible, and to convince travelers to stop procrastinating on making their vacation plans, they lure you with promotions and promises of the lowest prices. Depending on a cruise line's sales needs each year, you might very well see some impressive promotions months before wave season kicks off.
"For the last few years, smart cruise lines have absolutely come out with some very attractive 'pre-wave' rates as a way to get a bump up prior to the start of wave season," says Todd. "The idea is to reward the consumer who is willing to help them lock in more revenue early on, helping them maintain a higher 'supply and demand' price point going into wave season. And, these rates usually come with some additional benefits."
In the past, Holland America has offered its Explore4 promotion with plenty of extra perks (such as onboard credit and free specialty dining), while Princess has offered a "3 for Free" sale with complimentary tips, upgrades and spending money. Even luxury lines like Seabourn and Regent Seven Seas Cruises have typically onboard with offers such as upgrades, onboard credit and free first-class airfare.
River cruise lines, which typically fill ships earlier than ocean cruises, tend to put out promos in the fall to try and sell off remaining inventory for next spring and summer's sailings (or any holiday cruises with cabins left).
Also, just because a cruise line doesn't have a deal on offer, it doesn't mean a travel agency won't release its own booking incentive. Many agencies partner with cruise lines for exclusive offers. Coiro says that Direct Line Cruises' promotions don't necessarily follow the same patterns as the cruise lines. So, if the cruise lines are advertising deals for wave season, his company might offer its own incentives before or after those times.
How do you know if you're getting a great fall deal? "The promotions to look for are value-adds," says Serino. "If you're not choosing a luxury line, a complimentary beverage package is a huge value and makes a difference in what you pay at the end of the cruise; it enhances your experience."
Consider monitoring cruise line's wave season promotions and comparing those to the line's fall promotions. If the offers seem skimpy, wait for November/December for the lines to jump-start their sales.
And, make sure the deal is right for you. If you only drink the occasional glass of wine, an offer of a complimentary beverage package won't be as beneficial as onboard credit or a cabin upgrade. If you don't spend a lot of time in your cabin, skip the upgrade promo and look for a value-add like prepaid gratuities or free shore excursions. Just want the lowest cruise fare possible? Know that those deals come with no or fewer extra perks than booking a balcony cabin or suite at a discounted but not rock-bottom rate.
It's hard to predict if this fall will see an outpouring of amazing deals or just some average early-booking incentives. Either way, if you know you want to cruise next year, it makes sense to keep an eye on the sales from September through December. You might discover a great offer on next year's dream vacation.