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Is the Era of the Great Cruise Deal Over?

Editor
Jorge Oliver

Last updated
Sep 21, 2023

Read time
6 min read

Scoring a deal on a cruise fare can be considered as natural as enjoying your drink of choice on the pool deck or dining your way around the high seas.

But lately, you’d be forgiven for feeling that the cruise deals out there can seem a little underwhelming. Or, at best, the offers give you a sense of déjà vu, as promotions are often recycled or slightly modified from one sale to the next.

The days when irresistible cruise deals used to abound -- even outside of big promotional periods like Black Friday/Cyber Monday and Wave Season -- seem like a distant memory. The language hasn’t much changed -- with cruise lines often advertising their offers in superlative terms like “Best sale of the year.” But deeply discounted fares or multiple generous add-ons are few and far between, as robust occupancy rates on cruise ships continue to be the norm in the post-pandemic era.

“I always feel like if I go with a sale, or click on the big discount links, prices will always vary by about a hundred bucks (not that a hundred is nothing, but it’s not as noticeable when you're spending thousands),” wrote juanarcin on Cruise Critic’s community boards.

While cruise deals have always been and will continue to be a cornerstone of the industry, are the days of deep discounts now behind us?

Strong Sales Lead to Less Alluring Deals

There’s no arguing with the sound economic principle of supply and demand. And with pent-up demand for travel still high, cruise lines have been enjoying record occupancy and, therefore, less reliance on special offers to fill their inventory.

The recently revealed 2023 Q2 earnings for mainstream cruise lines like Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and Carnival tell a similar story of record booking volumes that harken back or even surpass pre-pandemic numbers

The momentum is so strong, that it’s not rare to see cruise lines open bookings for itineraries well into the future. Royal Caribbean, for instance, just opened up bookings for Icon of the Seas’ 2025-26 itineraries three months ahead of schedule, citing unprecedented consumer demand. It’s worth noting that average prices for Icon of the Seas are higher than for the cruise line’s other ships.

“Business has rebounded, and the industry is doing very well. It’s a wonderful problem to have coming out of the pandemic,” said Greg Corio, CEO of Direct Cruise Line, Inc., a travel agency based in Long Island, NY.

Corio adds that inventory on mainstream cruise lines was difficult to come by this summer, so it stands to reason that marketing special deals hasn’t been a top priority.

The travel advisor points to another post-pandemic phenomenon that is contributing to high occupancy rates: the abundance of future cruise credits (FCC). “During the pandemic, probably hundreds of thousands FCC were issued to customers (due to the cancellation of cruise itineraries). And as cruisers redeem their FCC, I think that’s also what’s causing a shortage in inventory.”

Expanded Inventory May Contribute to Better Deals

The new Surfside Water's Edge area aboard Icon of the Seas (Rendering: Royal Caribbean)
Royal Caribbean's Icon of the Seas will debut in January 2024 (Rendering: Royal Caribbean)

The obvious solution to not having enough inventory to satisfy demand is to introduce new ships. And that’s exactly what cruise lines are doing, with significant inventory coming in the next few years. The aforementioned Icon of the Seas, scheduled to arrive in January 2024, is set to be the world’s largest cruise ship, with capacity for 7,500 passengers. And the 250,800-ton ship is one of two new RCL vessels that will debut in 2024, with the 5,668-passenger Utopia of the Seas coming in summer.

And it’s not just Royal. Many major cruise lines -- including Celebrity Cruises, Carnival, Norwegian, Princess, Disney, Cunard and Virgin Voyages -- will have new ships out by 2024, with more on the way in subsequent years. “With all the new tonnage that will be introduced in the coming years, I anticipate that there will be more deals out there,” said Corio.

What’s more, some lines like MSC Cruises are presently expanding more aggressively. As the European-based cruise company continues to establish itself in the North American market, their US-based inventory has multiplied, with ships sailing year-round out of Florida and Brooklyn.

“They have a year-round product and also a strong price point, so we’ve seen our MSC business grow tremendously,” added Corio.

The Best Deals Are Still Found During the Sale Seasons

Black Friday cruise deals (Photo: Yunus Malik/Shutterstock.com)
Black Friday cruise deals (Photo: Yunus Malik/Shutterstock.com)

Generally speaking, cruise lines still rely on the biggest sale seasons of the year – such as Black Friday/Cyber Monday, Wave Season or other holidays like Memorial Day and Labor Day -- to advertise their best offers.

What’s become more commonplace in recent years is that cruise lines will offer the same deal or variations of the same deal for every sale season, instead of coming up with unique offers.

It’s also not uncommon to see a cruise line have a standard deal offered throughout the year, and then slightly improve it for certain sale periods. For example, if the cruise offers a discount of up to $500 (depending on the cruise itinerary and cabin), then the Wave Season of Black Friday deal might raise that ceiling to $650 or so.

How to Hunt for Cruise Deals Right Now

While deals may currently not be what they used to be, you can still find alluring offers that meet your expectations. And there are several ways to find these deals more effectively:

Enlist the help of a travel advisor – While cruisers have the option to book directly with cruise lines -- and cruise lines will advertise consumer-facing deals on a regular basis – you can often score better deals by booking through a travel agency. “We’re able to negotiate many tactical deal offers thanks to our great working relationships with cruise lines; like additional onboard credit, specialty dining, etc,” said Corio of Direct Cruise Line.

Temper your expectations – Often, the deals that advertise the most eye-popping savings and desirable perks are reserved for the highest category suites on a ship or the longest itineraries. If you’re looking for an inside or oceanview cabin, expect the discounts, OBC or other perks offered to be less impressive (but still worth it).

Be flexible – A broader selection will often yield better price variety. And it’s not just about being flexible with your dates; consider all options, like different cruise lines, older ships, cabin categories and destinations when trying to find a deal that suits your budget.

Book onboard – There are many benefits to booking your next cruise on board, one of them being pricing. And these offers are only available to onboard guests and do expire the minute you leave the ship. So, if you’re keen to sail again with the cruise line in question, consider sealing your next deal while you’re still on board.

Find a Cruise – Cruise Critic’s Find a Cruise tool is a handy and customizable resource that can help you compare prices and offers on thousands of cruise itineraries.

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