11 Tips for Finding a Cruise Bargain in the "Year of the Non-Deal"

March 10, 2010
Love to Save (4:30 p.m. EST) -- Let's face it: cruise fares are on the rise. With the economy showing signs of buoyancy -- and lines publicly announcing price hikes -- it seems as if the incredible deals of 2009 are behind us. But while the days of $25-per-night cruises may be gone for now, savvy cruise shoppers can still find bargain fares ... if they're persistent and willing to try a blend of unorthodox and pragmatic methods.

Here are some tips to help you become a deal tiger waiting in the weeds in 2010.

Tweet Your Way to Savings. Tech-savvy shoppers may want to try Twitter, the wildly popular micro-blogging Web site where users have 140 characters to gossip about celebrities … or post last minute cruise bargains. Just about every agent and agency -- including Cruisedeals.com (@cruisedeals), Cruise.com (@cruisecom) and Cruisebuzz.net (@cruisebuzz) -- is tweeting its best cruise offers. The cruise lines have gotten into the game, as well, and Royal Caribbean posts a daily deal -- like a seven-night Eastern Caribbean cruise on Liberty of the Seas from $519 -- on its Royal Hot Deals feed (@RoyalHotDeals).

Taking it a step further, you can customize a list of deal tweeters by using Twitter's list function, in essence creating your own deal aggregator.

Send Deals to Your Inbox or Phone. E-mail may be passe at this point, but the vast majority of lines and agencies still rely on "e-letters" to help fill cruise ships. Celebrity Cruises, in particular, sends deals e-mails with special one-day sales that you wouldn't know about otherwise. A recent mailing showed a seven-night Eastern Caribbean cruise on Celebrity Solstice from $749 for a balcony cabin. And, of course, there's Cruise Critic's own "Cruise Sails," a weekly rundown of inventory, priced to sell from a variety of our advertisers. For the hardcore deal-seekers who don't want e-deals cluttering up their personal inboxes, we suggest setting up a separate account just for bargains mailings.

For those who can't be stationed on the computer 24 hours a day, agency Cruisenow.com even has a "Cruise Text" program that sends deals right to your phone.

Bid Your Way to a Luxury Cruise Deal, Auction-Style. Luxury Link is an online travel auction that regularly features luxury cruises up for bid. The latest cruises on offer include a variety of cruise-and-stay packages on luxury river cruise line Uniworld. While the savings aren't breathtaking -- one recent test case found us saving about $300 on a nearly $10,000-per-person Regent Seven Seas cruise -- it's still something. Rue La La, an invitation-only site that offers luxury "boutiques" -- with a set number of upscale items for sale on a first come, first serve basis -- may also be worth a look. While the site mostly focuses on shoes and jewelry, Windstar Cruises sailings have been popping up with some regularity.

To read more about cruise auctions, check out our Ask the Editor: Luxury Cruise Questions.

Book Ahead for High-Season Cruising. For certain dates and destinations, last-minute bargains are a tough find -- especially if you want your pick of cabins. Travel agents are telling us that Europe cruises for this year are selling like Tickle Me Elmos during Christmas 1996. In a piece published earlier this week, Marcy Hamed, owner of American Discount Cruises & Travel, told us that Europe cruises were among the best selling at her agency.

More generally, the booking window (how far in advance people book a cruise prior to departure) is expanding as the lines improve their booking rates. Historically, the peak summer-travel season had a large booking window, but that timeframe shrank during the recent recession. "The Summer adds a glut of extra people -- families -- and so there's always greater demand," says Anthony Hamawy, President of Cruise.com. "But now, moving forward, we're starting to see prices start to climb further out … usually an indicator that things are going well for the lines. We've seen a couple of price increases already."

Book Last Minute. Still, we don't expect all last minute deals to dry up, and for those who can be spontaneous, flexibility can really pay. Vacations to Go features 90-day ticker deals -- 90 days out being the typical point at which full deposits are due -- and there are always plenty of Caribbean deals. If you can drop everything and go, there's a deal on a seven-night roundtrip Miami cruise on Norwegian Pearl, leaving on March 13 (three days from the publication of this piece), from $399. Stops include the Dominican Republic, St. Thomas, Tortola and Great Stirrup Cay.

Other hard-to-fill cruises -- such as one-way repositioning sailings, where open-jaw airfare is required -- can be dramatically reduced last minute. Of course, booking last minute airfare may wipe out any savings. Plus, you'll have a limited selection of cabin locations and dinner seatings.

Go for the Cabin Guarantee. If cabin location isn't important, you might want to opt for a "cabin guarantee," which basically means you're assured to get a cabin in at least the category specified -- and if you're lucky, you may even get an upgrade. However, you can't choose your exact stateroom. Lines like Carnival typically discount guaranteed cabin bookings about $50 to $100 per person off the advertised fares.

Bring the WHOLE Family (Plus Friends and Coworkers). If you're willing to book in bulk, most cruise lines will offer free berths, depending on the number of passengers in the group. For instance, Princess Cruises offers a free berth for every 16 lower berths booked. The ratio is reduced for small-ship and luxury lines, so you might only have to get a group of 10 to earn a free berth. Group leaders can choose to spread the savings across the group or keep it for themselves without telling anyone. Groups can get other perks, as well. For example, in addition to offering a free berth for every 10 passengers booked, luxury line Crystal throws in group perks like prepaid gratuities, onboard credit and discounts on select group excursions.

Choose Shoulder-Season Sailings. If you've already honed in on a destination, the best way to save is to focus on travel dates just outside the peak season. This might mean picking May as the month to visit Alaska, April as your best bet to sail the Mediterranean and October for your Caribbean cruise -- before or after the summer swell of family vacations. With Carnival and NCL keen on raising fares on peak-season sailings, steering clear of summer dates may be one of your best bets for a deal in 2010.

Past-Passenger Discounts. Like frequent fliers, frequent cruisers are able to benefit from brand loyalty. Sticking with one line means earning perks like nightly cocktails in private lounges, access to the spa's thermal suites, complimentary dinners in alternative restaurants and even free cruises once you've earned enough "credits" -- all things you'd typically have to pay for. Past passengers can also take advantage of special discounted sailings throughout the year.

But, know this: Past-passenger programs are not created equal. For a full list of offerings, check out our feature story.

Military, Senior or Residency Rates. A number of lines have special programs for seniors, military personnel and even teachers. NCL provides discounts to military vets through its Veterans Advantage, which the line's official language says offers five to 10 percent discounts off most published fares for select sailings. Holland America even goes so far as to offer discounts on select sailings to teachers, EMT's, firefighters and police officers. Erik Elvejord, Holland America's director of public relations, told us that, while fares vary, they've "typically been $50 to $100 below going rates."

Princess Cruises doesn't offer special rates for military personnel or seniors, but it does offer residential discounts (as do many other lines). Here's how it works: In essence, a line's revenue stream is based on a formula that requires a certain number of bookings from various cities, states and regions. So, if it's not getting enough bookings from one particular place, it'll drop the price slightly -- say, in Florida -- to entice more Floridians to book. There's no guarantee you'll get a residential discount, but it can't hurt to mention your home city and state during the booking process, just in case.

Leave the Deals Search to the Experts. If you don't have time for Twitter, online cruise auctions or gathering up a group of 20 friends, nothing quite beats a good travel agent to help you score a deal. Because agents often book in bulk and work directly with the lines, they have access to deals that normal cruisers won't. "One of the benefits of moving volume is that when they [the cruise lines] know you can move 100, 200 cabins in a day, they come to you," notes Hamawy. "There are certain discounts that we have access to that we're not allowed to promote on the site, per cruise line guidelines, and these can average anywhere from 8 to 12 percent off."

Even if savings aren't necessarily there for every sailing, agencies often offer deals with value-added perks like onboard credit or prepaid gratuities, which can amount to about $70 per person on a weeklong sailing.

In the end, it's best to remember that, while fares are on the upswing, it's hard to predict where they'll be once we get to summer. Lines are banking on passengers paying more this year, but time will tell if cruisers are really ready to get back on the water en masse.

Have your own tips and tricks for finding a cruise deal in 2010? Let us know!

--by Dan Askin, Associate Editor