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When to book your cruise depends on your destination (Photo: Shutterstock)

When To Book Your Cruise, By Destination

When to book your cruise depends on your destination (Photo: Shutterstock)
Mikkel Woodruff

Sep 13, 2023

Read time
9 min read

Few things are more disappointing than going to book your dream cruise, only to find you have no options because other vacationers beat you to it. This is why it’s crucial to plan your cruise in advance -- and not all cruises are booked equally. Knowing when to book that dream cruise vacation quite often depends on the destination you want to sail to, and cruise experience you're after.

Some cruises are more scarce than others, such as one-off sailings that only operate during a particular month, or seasonal voyages like Alaska cruises or Christmas Market river cruises in Europe. Some cruises are more plentiful and are offered year-round, like Caribbean cruises -- and that means competition to sail isn't as cutthroat.

The scarcer the cruise, the further out you need to book -- and that can apply to sailings on brand-new cruise ships, too.

Here's Cruise Critic's rundown of what cruise to book, when.

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When to Book Alaska Cruises

Carnival Splendor at Icy Strait Point, Alaska (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

One of the hottest cruises on the market are sailings to Alaska. This incredible destination offers unique activities you may only be able to do somewhere typically cold, like Alaska, the Arctic, or Antarctica. Alaska – the most affordable of the three popular cruise locales – is a singular destination where you’ll have the chance to see glaciers and brown bears, among other memorable activities.

Alaska's cruise season is from May to October because of the region's climate, which corresponds to various wildlife activities like whale watching and salmon spawning, not to mention the weather that can be inhospitable in the winter months. Many cruise lines sail to Alaska, so you have plenty of options. But it’s one of the most popular cruise options that continues to grow in popularity. As a seasonal destination, you must act swiftly and book well in advance if you want specific dates on a certain cruise line and your preferred stateroom.

White Pass & Yukon Route in Skagway (Photo/Aaron Saunders)

As a rule, Alaska cruises should be booked no less than six months out, if not more. For summer cruises to Alaska, which is peak season, reserve one to two years in advance, depending on when your preferred cruise line’s future dates become available. Vacationers who miss out on their ideal cruise dates for the current year must book now for next year. This is particularly true for lines like Disney Cruise Line that only base one ship in Alaska each year.

If you choose shoulder season – the time before or after peak summer season, when kids are in school – you’ll have more options than during July and August. And, if you're flexible with your preference in line or ship, a last-minute sailing can still be had -- but only if you're not married to a particular cruise line and departure date.

When to Book Canada and New England Cruises

Peggy's Cove, near Halifax (Photo:Maurizio De Mattei/Shutterstock)

A Canada and New England cruise offers coastal delights like iconic lighthouses and food tours focused on fresh seafood. Many travelers – especially repeat cruisers – enjoy exploring Nova Scotia, Quebec, and ports of the northeastern United States, like Boston, Massachusetts and Bar Harbor, Maine. Summer months are ideal for Canada and New England cruises when the weather and temperatures are sublime. Book six months to one year in advance for July and August itineraries.

Another incredibly popular time of year for a cruise in this region is the start of autumn, when fall colors on the deciduous trees dazzle visitors. “Leaf peeping” season, as it’s called, is limited and hard to predict though many cruisers book for September or October, which is toward the end of the cruise season in this area. They do so hoping Mother Nature shows off during their vacation; the calculated risk may equal a huge reward, with awe-inspiring colors painting the landscape.

For leaf-peeping cruise times, book one year to 18 months in advance. Summer sailings usually have more availability -- unless your departure date runs over the Canada Day or Independence Day holidays, which tend to sell out sooner.

When To Book Arctic and Antarctic Cruises

Antarctica is full of natural wonders (Photo: Lindblad Expeditions)

Fewer cruise ships sail to these regions than to warm destinations like the Mediterranean or Caribbean. Polar animals and dramatic landscapes will wow you, and you’ll have nearly endless daylight hours, depending on your precise sail dates, thanks to the “midnight sun.”

Cruise to the Arctic to visit Greenland, Iceland, and northern Norway. You’ll have a chance to see polar bears on Norway’s island of Svalbard and seals in Greenland.

Antarctica is the coveted “seventh continent” for world travelers, providing a singular opportunity to see penguins, impressive glaciers, and be near the South Pole.

Expedition staff from Ponant’s ship Le Boreal help cruisers off the Zodiac in Svalbard (Photo: Chris Gray Faust )

The cruise season for the poles is opposite in the north and south. In the Arctic, it is during late spring and summer. In the southern hemisphere, it’s the opposite: Antarctica's cruise season is November through February, during winter in the Northern Hemisphere, or the Southern Hemisphere's summer. Each year, an increasing number of cruise lines offer trips to visit the polar regions. Generally speaking, though, the ships that sail here have much smaller guest capacities than mega-ships because of regulations that aim to minimize the environmental impact of tourism in the area. This means there are fewer staterooms available per ship to book -- and those that are available can command a hefty price tag.

Ideally, be prepared to book at least a year in advance, particularly for cruises to Antarctica, which tend to sell out well in advance. If you have a shorter runway between when you decide you want to book and sail, you may get lucky with some last-minute deals for cruise lines that want to fill the rooms left onboard. In this case, understand you’ll have to be flexible with your stateroom location and category, not to mention your departure date.

When to Book Caribbean Cruises

Perfect Day at CocoCay (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

The most popular cruise destination is the Caribbean. Thankfully, all well-known cruise lines have ships that sail there; some even have their own islands, like Disney Cruise Line’s Castaway Cay or Royal Caribbean’s Perfect Day at CocoCay.

Visit Caribbean destinations like St. Thomas, St. Maarten, and the Bahamas. Snorkel, go on dolphin tours, visit a cocoa farm, or hike Caribbean mountains like the Pitons in St. Lucia. Caribbean cruises sail year-round. You need less lead time to book your preferred travel dates and cruise line for the Caribbean; the supply can keep up with the demand. However, if a cruise ship is new or the cruise line is very popular and has fewer ships, consider adding a few months to your booking lead time.

St. Maarten (Photo:Sean Pavone/Shutterstock)

Book eight months to a year out if you want to cruise the Caribbean during spring break, summer vacation, or popular travel holidays like winter break, Memorial Day, and Labor Day.

If you sail during a less desirable time, like January after kids return to school following Christmas and New Year’s Eve, you’ll have more options closer to the sail date. For these cruises, we recommend booking two to six months in advance -- or even waiting for a good WAVE season deal to roll around.

When to Book Mediterranean Cruises

Salerno, Italy as seen from Costa Toscana (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

If you’re researching European cruises, going to the Mediterranean has likely crossed your mind. You can visit countries like Greece, Croatia, and Italy along the southern coastline of Europe. Visit fabulous beaches, seaside cities, and enjoy Mediterranean cuisine.

Large and small cruise ships sail the Mediterranean. Book either option six months to one year in advance. Summer months tend to book up the earliest due to school holidays, but those may not always be the best time to visit the Mediterranean due to crowds and, frequently, excessive temperatures.

If you are trying to book a small cruise ship but limited availability isn’t yielding as many options as you want, search availability on bigger cruise lines, which have thousands of staterooms. The experience will be very different, but it will get you to the Mediterranean in the time period you want.

When to Book Northern European Cruises

Tromsø. Norway (Photo: Mykhailo Brodskyi/Shutterstock)

The green hills and beautiful cliffs of Northern Europe appeal to cruisers who wish to visit Britain, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. Some cruises also sail to Norway, Sweden, and The Netherlands on Northern Europe itineraries.

Enjoy visiting fjords, seeing waterfalls, scenic hikes, bird watching, castle visits, and distilleries during summertime in Europe.

Summer is the season to sail Northern Europe on one of these popular cruises. Book 18 months to two years in advance if you want to sail during the peak months of July and August. If considering the months before or after, book one year out.

If you’re more flexible and are booking less than a year out, consider cruises in June and September, but know that there may be fewer sail dates. And note that an increasing number of cruise lines -- like Cunard, Fred. Olsen, Hurtigruten and Viking -- offer voyages to Northern Europe during the winter months that can often be a great deal.

When to Book Danube River Cruises

Viking Longship sailing along the Danube (Credit: Viking)

Explore various countries during a Danube River cruise, which ports in interesting European destinations from Germany to Romania, spending on which portion of the Danube River you sail.

River cruise ships sail the Danube River from March through October and take a short break before sailing again after the Christmas market season -- though some, like Viking, are now offering year-round Danube river cruises.

If you want to sail on the Danube River during peak times, including sailings that extend to the Rhine to cover tulip season in The Netherlands during April and May, or summertime in Europe during June, July, or August, book one year to 18 months in advance. Book six months to a year in advance for any spring or fall Danube river cruise.

When to Book Christmas Markets River Cruises

Traditional Christmas market in Vienna, Austria (Photo: S.Borisov/Shutterstock)

An always-popular river cruise itinerary is a Christmas markets cruise. This is due to the enjoyment they provide and seasonality, sailing at a very specific time of year to correspond to Europe’s holiday markets schedule. It’s also thanks to their uniqueness among cruise experiences worldwide.

It’s a magical time to be in Europe, with opportunities to be dazzled by glowing lights and the scents and sounds of the Christmas season in The Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Hungary, and beyond. Warm up with a mug of warm spiced wine – better known as gluhwein by locals – as you shop for souvenirs from ornaments to sweets and assorted religious keepsakes at the magical markets.

For bookings made within the same year you want to sail, secure a reservation as soon as possible, as much as ten months out. However, don’t be surprised if cruises are sold out by then or have limited availability. For the best options, book as far out as one year to 18 months in advance.

When to Book Christmas and New Year’s Ocean Cruises

Disney Cruise Line's Very Merrytime holiday cruises (Photo: Disney Cruise Line)

Love the idea of cruising during an incredibly special time of year with several onboard celebrations? You’re guaranteed endless fun during a Christmas and/or New Year’s Eve cruise. What better way to ring in a new year than during a cruise on the high seas?

There are finite dates for Christmas sailings and New Year’s Eve, so plan on booking at least one year to 18 months in advance. Though you’ll likely find availability in the months leading to the December dates if you decide you want to sail closer to the time period, you’ll simply have more options for cabin locations and categories if you book further out.

MSC Cruises rings in the New Year (Photo: MSC Cruises)

Start with what cruise line you ideally want to book -- but have another cruise line in mind if your preferred cruise line is at capacity. If the destination doesn’t matter to you as much as the length of this date-specific cruise, flexibility will help you land an end-of-December cruise.

Keep in mind that Christmas and New Year's sailings almost always operate at full capacity, so don't get your heart set on last-minute upgrade offers.

Updated September 13, 2023
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