Getting the best deal on booking a cruise is a process very much like getting the best fare on a flight. Like all businesses, cruise lines want to get the most for every cabin and, like the airlines at the moment of departure, anything unsold has no future value. Economists call these items non-fungible, meaning they cannot be exchanged in the future. We’ve booked more than fifty cruises over the years and have discovered a few truths in this process. We have also discovered a few tricks that help us save money and reduce the outlay of deposit amounts.
Start By Researching Fares in the Market You’re Interested In
Like the cost of everything, cruise prices vary based on market conditions. Prices vary by the cruise line, the itinerary, the time of year and the cruise’s popularity.
Just like hotels and restaurants, cruise lines are generally priced by their expected level of service and their intended clientele. Carnival, an economy line, is structured to appeal to a younger group looking to party. Royal Caribbean, a mid-range price point, focuses on young families while Celebrity, a higher priced choice, focuses on an older demographic with higher expectations in service. Taking a quick look at a number of similar cruises will quickly give you an idea how this pricing element works.
Some itineraries are more popular than others and pricing reflects this difference. Alaska can be more expensive than the Caribbean and trans-Atlantic cruises are usually much less expensive than European cruises.
Finally, the time of year has a huge effect on pricing. The easiest example is Caribbean cruise prices in August compared with October. While summer is usually off-season in the Caribbean it is also school break time. By October the kids are back in school and demand has dropped accordingly and so have the fares.
Look at Add-On Expenses You’re Likely to Use
In addition to the cabin rate, you should also consider onboard expenses you are likely to incur. Included services vary by cruise lines and frequent cruiser status. In addition, most cruise lines are now offering onboard packages that can include laundry, internet, sodas, fancy coffees and bar drinks. Another major onboard expense is booking tours.
Make sure you understand what things are included in a cruise and if not what they are likely to cost you specifically. For example, some cruises include drinks while others may cost $500.00 or more for a drink package. Making this price comparison may actually justify the expense of an upgrade.
Decide What You Want in a Cabin
Picking a cabin category isn’t as straight forward as you would think. Most people assume that an inside cabin is the choice for saving money and, often it is, but not always. More and more the cruise lines are offering free add-ons as a sales promotion. These can include prepaid gratuities, drink packages and onboard credits. Sometimes incentives include one and at times all three. Often, inside cabins do not qualify for these free add-ons and that can have a big impact on the overall cost of the cruise.
At the time we make a reservation, this is a major consideration. When these promotions are being offered, an ocean view or veranda cabin can be less expensive than an inside cabin. There have also been cruises where an inside cabin costs more to book. We believe this happens when we book early and the cruise ship is trying to keep these cabins in reserve.
When we select a cruise we often let the itinerary dictate which cabin we want. Long ago we decided that we have no problem with inside cabins. On most cruises we actually spend very little time in our cabin so upgrading means little. On one cruise we were upgraded to an owner’s suite and while spacious and beautiful, it really seemed a waste of space and certainly would not be worth it to us if we had to pay full price. On a trans-Atlantic, an inside cabin is fine with us but, in Alaska, getting a veranda cabin usually is a must. Often it is all about the view.
Many times the best prices are available when a cruise is first announced. After the initial listing the cruise company can discover the cruise is getting a good response and the simple rule of supply and demand allows them to increase fares. Also, unlike airline tickets, the cruise line may allow you to take advantage of price reductions right up to the final payment date which is generally 90 days prior to sailing. That policy usually includes reduced fares, upgrading the cabin or taking advantage of free add-ons.
There are also situations where the opposite strategy can produce big savings. That is last minute booking, usually only a few days or weeks before sailing. Faced with empty cabins and no revenue, many cruise lines will offer super last-minute discounts. This is partly because the cabin fare is only part of the potential revenue from a passenger. Casinos, drink sales and tour fees add up to big money. We generally do not use this option in our planning but will take advantage of last minute cruises if the price is too good to pass up.
Always Book Onboard
The likelihood of a passenger returning to the same cruise line is actually very high and with frequent cruiser programs the likelihood is even greater. Most ships have a future booking office onboard and to get you to commit they offer additional incentives. These may include greatly reduced deposits and special add-ons. Since you can take advantage of price changes or switch cruises up to 90 days before the cruise and also get your deposit refunded if you cancel, this is a great opportunity*.
Watch and Take Advantage of Incentives
Even after you have confirmed a reservation and put down a deposit you can take advantage of special incentives. If you are a member of a buying group (Groupon, AAA, AARP), or an online travel service (Expedia, PriceLine) that sends you emails of special offers, get in the habit of reviewing these on a regular basis. If you see a good offer, see if you can add it to your reservation. Most times these offers are not exclusive regardless of what the agency says.
After You Book Keep Watching the Fares
As likely as fares are to go up, price reductions also happen but you can’t take advantage of them if you don’t know about them. Get in the habit of checking the prices on cruises you have already booked looking for opportunities to save or upgrade.
Work with a Good Travel Agent
There may not be such a thing as a free lunch, but travel agents are actually free (at least to you) when booking a cruise. We strongly recommend getting to know a good travel agent and getting in the habit of booking everything through them. They actually will appreciate the business and most consider it their job to help you manage saving money. They are also much more effective at dealing with the cruise lines when getting fares reduced or adding on incentives. Your way to contact the cruise line is to call an inside agent but the travel agent has a marketing representative that they routinely deal with and have less difficulty negotiating changes.
Also, if your agent is affiliated with one of the growing super agencies, they can offer you specials provided by their agency in addition to the cruise line. Often their agency has booked a popular cruise as a group package and they can add you to the group and get you an additional discount or onboard credit. At times they also offer their own promotional specials like a free tour or an additional onboard credit.
The best way to connect with a good agent is to ask friends or fellow travelers for their recommendation and ask questions about their experience.
In closing, we have an observation about advertised offers. We get emails from a number of travel agencies and they are constantly screaming about their exclusive special deals from this or that cruise line. Usually they are not exclusive deals and often they are cleverly misrepresenting a price structure. “Cruises from $499.00 with a $700.00 onboard credit” sound familiar? It may be true that an inside cabin can be booked for $499.00 but it is not eligible for any onboard credit; the $700.00 credit is only for suites. We have rarely found a unique offer but often these are a clue that there are price reductions happening.
*Unfortunately, in the last year, a number of cruise companies have started adopting a policy of non-refundable deposits and this changes the process some. Currently, Celebrity is offering lower fares for non-refundable deposits so this is going to cause some rethinking of how we address some booking in the future.