Will Carnival's New Early Saver Fares Save You Money?

January 13, 2009
Carnival Dream Carnival Cruise Lines announced today the introduction of new Early Saver fares -- special fares up to 25 percent lower than the best available regular rates -- that also come with a price protection. The program is another in a long line of tactics, like reduced deposits and enhanced cancellation policies, cruise lines are employing to convince skittish travel consumers to book early, particularly during Wave Season.

Sure, the fares sound great, but are they too good to be true? We did the homework for you -- and it turns out they may not save you as much money as you think.

First, here is how Carnival's Early Saver program works:

Early Saver rates will be up to 25 percent lower than Carnival's Super Saver (now Fun Select) rates, the best available regular rates; you will be able to pick a cabin when you book.

These low fares will be available beginning January 12. You can book them up to three months prior to departure on five-night or shorter cruises, and up to five months prior to departure on six-night or longer cruises, subject to availability in all cabin categories.

If you see a lower fare for the same sailing and cabin category after you book, you can submit a form for a price adjustment from Carnival. If the lower rate is valid, the cruise line will refund you the difference in the form of an onboard credit. You can request price reductions as often as you see them.

For Early Saver fares, deposits are nonrefundable. Any changes made to your itinerary before final payment will incur a $50 penalty; changes made after final payment follow the same penalty schedule as regular cruise fares. Carnival tells us, however, that travel insurance may cover deposits for a canceled Early Saver booking -- if the cancelation falls under the coverage umbrella.

So on first glance, this program sounds great. You can save 25 percent initially and should the price drop even lower, you'll get a refund in the form of onboard credit. But before you book, there are some caveats you should consider.

The deposits on regular Carnival fares are refundable, whereas the Early Saver deposits are not. Typically, if you see a better price on a different ship or sail date, you can switch your booking without penalty up to final payment. With the Early Saver rates, you'll lose your deposit if you cancel -- and a $50 change fee applies should you decide to change your ship or sail date.

The rates tout a price protection, but it is important to know that the difference is only available in the form of an onboard credit, which might go unused or cause you to spend extra onboard. Just for comparison's sake, with non-Early Saver rates, Carnival will attempt to provide an upgrade of equal value if a price drops after final payment, subject to availability. (No matter what type of rate you book, you won't get cash back in your pocket; price adjustments are not allowed after final payment, and a Carnival spokeswoman tells us that exceptions to that rule are no longer being made.)

You must monitor the fares to see if the price on your Early Saver cruise drops, and then you must submit a claim -- it doesn't happen automatically. That's a lot of work for you to do -- and you might just miss a price drop if you're not extra vigilant. Plus, it's up to Carnival to decide if the new fare actually meets the reduction requirements, and you might not get the discount even though you've submitted a claim. The list of ineligible discounts includes "group rates, membership programs, charters or other Travel Agent promotions not offered by Carnival to the general public, including but not limited to travel agent rebates."

Even with these caveats, you can still use it to save money. If you want to book early and get a good rate -- and then not think about it for six months -- Carnival's Early Saver fares may be worth looking into. Alternately, if you know you will not change your sailing date or ship, and don't mind keeping an eye on fare fluctuations, you may be able to use this new fare class to your advantage.

However, if what you want is flexibility to find the best cruise fare on a certain type of cruise during a certain date range, you might be better off holding off. Given the current state of the economy, it's possible that you'll be just as well off waiting until two months before sailing and booking a last-minute bargain.

Do you think Carnival's Early Saver fares are a great deal or too restrictive for your taste? We'd like to hear your opinion.

--by Erica Silverstein, Associate Editor