How do you book a cruise? It's a common question with many different answers.
It might be tempting to book a cruise around special occasions, tax refunds, milestone events, or when an attractive deal pops up on your radar. With a little strategizing, you can save money and get the most value for your dollar.
The best time to book a cruise is during a period known as Wave Season, which is typically held January through March of every year, though in recent years similar deals have started as early as Black Friday in late-November. After a busy holiday season, travelers often think about getting away from the cold winter or planning their vacation for the upcoming year.
Wave season offers are usually announced in December of the previous year or during the immediate start of the new one.
Cruise lines take this opportunity to offer discounts while sweetening the pot with additional limited-time perks. These can include free cabin upgrades, complimentary beverage packages, specialty dining, free Wi-Fi, and onboard credit (free onboard spending money). Additional incentives may be reduced airfare and deposit, and free or discounted fares for third and fourth guests sharing a cabin.
Keep in mind, these included perks often carry greater value than reductions in the overall price of the cruise. A complimentary beverage package, for example, can save you upwards of $1400 over the price of purchasing one onboard.
Cruise lines generally open new itineraries for booking between 12 and 18 months in advance. How early should you book a cruise? The sweet spot seems to be six to 12 months before the departure date. Booking this far out gives you enough time to plan ahead while taking advantage of early-booking benefits.
These days, cruise lines have switched to offering the lowest fares with the most perks early on, and as the cruise date approaches, lines will often raise the fares -- so forget about waiting until the last minute to snag a deal. Unless you're incredibly flexible or live near a major cruise port, reduced cabin availability and sky-high airfares limit the appeal of the old-school 'last-minute-deal' of days gone by.
Booking early means you'll have access to early-bird rates plus first dibs on the most desirable itineraries, cabin locations, and dining arrangements (for those who like a set dinner time every evening). If you are taking a cruise with family and need a cabin that accommodates three or four people, it is even more important to book early as those cabins are often limited and aren’t found in every stateroom category.
All cruise lines also offer some form of price protection policy. If there is a price drop or a better promotion after you booked but before you make your final payment, in most cases the cruise line will adjust your fare. Some cruise lines may compensate for the fare difference in the form of an onboard credit or a cabin upgrade. Either way, you are protected, so there’s really nothing to lose by booking early.
When you are ready to book, there are a few ways to make your cruise holiday dreams come true.
Booking with travel advisors (or travel agents as they have traditionally been called) has multiple benefits. First and foremost is the invaluable knowledge, personalized service, and support they provide. This is especially important for first-time cruisers who are unsure which cruise line or style is best for them.
Travel advisors have access to the best fares and promotions and sometimes can offer additional perks that you cannot get elsewhere. They handle all the logistics and fine details of your cruise booking and can manage any additional add-ons for your travel such as flights, transportation to and from the ship, and pre- and post-cruise hotels. They can also advise the cruise line of any dietary restrictions and arrange special occasion celebrations on the ship. In short, they are your one-stop shop for booking your cruise vacation with confidence.
Most of all, they also serve as your contact if an issue arises during your trip -- whether it is a flight delay or an unexpected emergency. They have connections with the cruise lines and can get through to rectify any issues without you having to call and wait on hold for hours. Moreover, the service of a travel advisor has become ever more indispensable in this era of flight delays and cancellations, and ever-changing travel requirements.
Experienced cruisers may choose to conduct research and book through third-party cruise booking sites. Many consider this a convenience, and most sites are staffed with their own advisors who can answer questions and provide guidance in selecting the right cruise.
When researching, be sure to compare "apples to apples". One site may advertise a lower fare for a cabin that is located in an undesirable location while another has a higher fare because it is a better situated cabin or on a higher floor. Or, you may see one low price that doesn’t come with any perks while another higher price includes extras. Also, pay attention to the booking terms and conditions. Sometimes the lowest advertised fares may have a non-refundable deposit or some other restrictions.
Cruise Critic's Find a Cruise tool is an excellent way to begin your search, with the ability to narrow down your results by specific dates, destinations, and even special interests such as family cruises or romantic getaways. You can also compare prices on multiple sites and sign up for Price Drop alerts.
Set on one particular cruise line or ship? You might find that booking through the cruise line - either online or by calling one of their sales representatives - is the best method for you. An advantage of booking directly with the cruise line is the lack of a "middleman" involved; you can contact them anytime you need assistance with your booking.
Furthermore, your reservation will be assigned to a specific representative or consultant, which can provide peace of mind knowing you'll work with someone who is familiar with your interests and needs.
Nothing beats cruise advice from other cruisers themselves, especially those with a few (or even 100) sailings under their belts. Cruise Critic's cruise Message Boards encompass a passionate community of cruise lovers that has been around for more than 25 years.
You don’t have to be booked on a cruise to join or participate in Cruise Critic's Message Boards. For millions in the research stage, the boards have become a vital resource for questions, recommendations, and advice -- there's no joining fee, just sign up and you are good to start exploring.
Since members love to share photos, you can count on getting a real, behind-the-scenes look at ships and ports that pique your interest. Reviews and live blogging are other ways cruisers share the ins and outs from their experiences to help others make the best possible decision.
Once booked, members are encouraged to sign up for Roll Calls -- message boards dedicated to specific future sailings -- to make friends before they embark. Members on select lines also get to enjoy Cruise Critic-hosted Meet & Mingle parties complete with drinks and light bites on the house, as well as occasional prizes and giveaways -- and often a visit by the ship’s senior officers.
However you book your cruise, we wish you a bon voyage and happy cruising!