Fare Warning: Book Now for Some Surprising Holiday Deals

October 14, 2010
(7:30 a.m. EDT) -- If you're just beginning to plan your holiday vacation, your procrastination may have actually paid off. Travel agents are telling us that now is the best time to snag a cruise deal for Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year's -- but only if you act quickly. We know from a recent Cruise Critic poll that 45 percent of you have never cruised over the holidays but would love to. Well, now's your chance.

"I haven't seen lower pricing for Thanksgiving in a long time," says Bill Kraus, owner of Cruise Club of America. "The cruise lines are giving it away across the board." For example, Sandy Cleary, president of CruCon Cruise Outlet, quoted us Turkey Day prices such as $749 per person for a mini-suite on a seven-night Crown Princess sailing, $699 for a balcony on a seven-night Celebrity Solstice sailing and $449 per person for an inside cabin on a nine-night Enchantment of the Seas sailing.

Christmas and New Year's sale fares are revving up, too, especially as we get within 60 days of departure. "New Year's always sells out," says Anthony Hamawy, president of Cruise.com. "It's the number-one holiday of the year. You usually can't get deals [at this time] because cruises are sold out." But, this year, he's seeing availability for both Christmas and New Year's on nearly every sailing. Brad Anderson, co-president of America's Vacation Center / Avoya Travel, quoted us a seven-night Caribbean Christmas sailing on Norwegian Jewel from $499, a seven-night Caribbean New Year's cruise on Holland America's Noordam from $649 and a nine-night Bahamas Christmas sailing on Enchantment of the Seas from $599 (all inside cabins).

So, why are deals cropping up now, when by many accounts the economy is improving and the cruise industry rebounding?

Hamawy contends it's because people aren't booking cruises as far in advance as they used to. Anderson agrees, noting that "people are still looking for October cruises," even though the month is nearly half over. When people book early, holiday sailings sell out further in advance. With travelers now waiting longer to plan trips, cruise lines may be getting antsy about filling end-of-2010 sailings. Combined with that, as Cleary notes, we're past the final payment due date for Thanksgiving cruises and quickly approaching that date for December cruises. The result? Cruise lines have a better sense of which ships still have many cabins left to sell and how to adjust prices to move that remaining inventory.

Intrigued? Here are some tips from the pros about how to snag a great holiday cruise deal. And, for more holiday deals, visit Cruise Critic's Holiday Cruise Deals page.

Book this week for Thanksgiving. "Don't wait longer for Thanksgiving," Cleary urges. "Now is prime time with phenomenal rates." In a week or two, the deals likely won't be available. Take note: Thanksgiving (November 25) is a mere six weeks from today.

Book soon for Christmas and New Year's. "It's not normal that there's this much inventory," says Hamawy. If you didn't book early for your December prime-time sailing, you haven't missed your chance. Yet Cleary cautions that "in the next few weeks, we'll start to see Christmas and New Year's sales" -- in fact, CruCon will be promoting December holiday deals this week.

Take your pick of Hanukkah deals. Because Hanukkah is not necessarily a travel holiday, and because this year it falls during the early-December cruising low season (2010 holiday dates are December 1-9), travelers wishing to cruise over Hanukkah have many choices. However, given typical cruise-ship itineraries, it's hard to find a sailing that covers the entire holiday -- you may have to sail during either the first or last half of the holiday.

Look for more availability and lower prices on older ships. If you want a great deal, don't look to the hottest ships that debuted in 2009 or 2010. "It's a hardware thing," says Hamawy. "Glitz and glamour do better. Oasis, Epic and Allure are all selling much better [than older ships]." For example, he quoted a nine-night New Year's cruise on Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas from $2,169 per person for an inside cabin -- that's $241 a night, a price usually seen on luxury cruises. The three-night New Year's cruise on older sister Majesty of the Seas starts at $399 for an inside cabin, or a more reasonable $133 a night.

Comparison shop. If you're just looking at cruise line Web sites, you'll miss the best deals. Kraus tells us that many cruise lines resort to private sales (low prices offered to select agencies, often with the stipulation that actual fares cannot be advertised), so agents may be able to give you a better deal than a cruise line sales rep.

Anderson says AVC blocks out group space years in advance, especially on popular holiday sailings, and some of those lower prices are still available. "Cruise lines won't have those prices if you book direct," he explains. Also, agents note that holiday deals are cropping up on Royal Caribbean's and Celebrity's Happy Hour sales each Tuesday, and on flash sales or hot deals offered by NCL, Princess and Holland America. Sign up for agency and cruise line deals newsletters to get the word on the latest sales.

Got kids? Book right now. "Triples and quads disappear more quickly than double cabins," says Anderson. If you want to squeeze your family of three or four into one cabin, get on the phone with your agent. Cruise ships have a limited number of cabins with extra berths, and once they sell out, you'll need to book an extra cabin to house your tots.

Luxury ships still have availability -- but not for long. Even luxury holiday sailings haven't sold out this year. "Crystal still has availability on both ships for the holidays," says Anderson, who says that shorter, closer-to-home sailings on luxury ships traditionally sell out last. But he notes that since luxury cruises became more inclusive, they're selling off the charts, so don't wait too long to book your high-end holiday sailing.

--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor