Predicting where and when savvy cruise shoppers are most likely to find dirt-cheap seven-night Caribbean cruises, elusive five-category upgrades or truly generous onboard credit requires a crystal ball. And, while travel agents can't see into the future of cruise deals, they do have a few tricks up their sleeves when looking for the best prices and overall vacation value.
We pumped a couple of knowledgeable cruise sellers for their best tips on finding low cruise fares, getting the cabin you want and making the best choices for your next sailing. Here's what you need to know.
Book early for new ships, Europe and river cruises.
"Quantum of the Seas has tremendous early demand, especially out of the Northeast market," says Greg Coiro, CEO of Direct Line Cruises. Not only does the ship have appealing new features -- virtual balconies and 28 solo cabins, the Seaplex sports and entertainment venue, the North Star pod ride and the aforementioned skydiving simulator -- but it's also the first new Royal Caribbean ship to sail out of the Northeast in years. Coiro reports people are clamoring to book the ship, even though it's not launching until November 2014. If you want your pick of cabins and sail dates, book now.
But that doesn't mean there are no deals on new ships. Coiro has seen seven-night cruises on Norwegian Getaway, which launched in January 2014, with starting rates of $599. If you want to get the best value on a new ship sailing, he encourages consumers to look for periodic sales (like Norwegian's Dash promotions) or free upgrade offers.
The river cruise market is also exploding, with lines like Viking River Cruises churning out new vessels just to satisfy the ever-increasing demand. David Fredericks, VP of sales and marketing at Luxury Cruise Connection, says his customers are booking now for 2015, as 2014 is nearly sold out. While you can choose from an array of river lines with varying degrees of fare inclusivity and onboard creature comforts and amenities, you might find yourself on Viking because it simply has the most ships. "Viking is picking up all the demand, and it is prepared," Fredericks says. So if you prefer a different river line, book even earlier.
Europe is hot but not quite in the same way as new ships and river cruises. The Europe market has been soft the past few years, but this year, Fredericks says, the cruise lines were determined not to suffer and have generated appealing offers to attract customers. (They've also pulled some ships out, so there are fewer berths to sell.) Luxury cruisers should look for business-class airfare upgrades for $399 -- it usually costs closer to $3,200 to upgrade from economy to business-class -- while premium cruisers can have their choice of free gratuities, beverage packages and onboard credit.
"You won't see the price points that you did last year, so don't wait for them … book now," Cleary says. If you want the lowest fares, "look for the great deals in fall that are out there now."
What "booking early" means to a travel agent can vary based on cruise line and destination, and early to an agent might not seem so early to you.
Coiro says the booking window is growing. Whereas in the past few years, people booked three to four months in advance on average, now they're planning closer to five months in advance. Don't book later than that if you're looking at high-demand periods, such as summer and school holiday weeks. Fredericks agrees that this year you shouldn't "plan a summer vacation in May," as the cabin availability just won't be there.
Cruise travelers typically book Caribbean vacations closer in, as there's less planning involved, especially with homeport cruising. They book Europe and Alaska about six to seven months in advance. (Cleary says to look for Alaska deals at the end of February and beginning of March.) Coiro includes exotic cruises in this category, but Cleary is more conservative. "Consumers should make sure that if they are looking to go on an exotic cruise (Asia, Australia, South America) in the next 12 months, that they are booking now. This is a 12-month-out purchase, and that's when you'll see the promotions happen on those destinations. These promotions are just starting to hit the market now. Galapagos is selling a full 18 to 24 months out, due to the (small) size of the ships and demand." Other sailings that sell out quickly include small-ship cruises and one-off itineraries.
"Common sense should prevail in choosing when to pull the trigger and book," Cleary says. "The pickier you are, the earlier you should book. Do you have special requests for cabin location? Do you have multiple cabins that need to be near each other?" On luxury ships, Fredericks notes the entry-level verandah and the highest-tier suites sell out first, with the middle filling in after and the oceanview suites selling out last.
The takeaway? If you want the best value and most choice on your cruise, don't wait to book.
You'll find the best deals in the Caribbean, on older ships and during shoulder season.
While Coiro reports the bad winter and cruise line concentration on homeport cruising, especially with the newest ships, has led to an uptick in Caribbean cruise purchases, the tropics are still a great place to find deals. That's because so many ships are sailing in the islands this year that the region is over-saturated. Cleary notes that the Caribbean "is currently packed full of deals, including discounted rates and huge value-add perks (through April)." You can also find good prices out of alternative homeports, such as Galveston, Baltimore, San Juan and New Orleans.
If you're looking for a Caribbean deal, look to older ships. As we stated above, new ships are hot, so their older sisters are more affordable. And it's not just the line's smallest, oldest ships -- think Norwegian's Gem Class or Royal Caribbean's Freedom and Voyager classes.
In general, fall is a great time to find a cruise deal, as it's a slower vacation time with people saving up for the holidays and kids back to school. If you want a last-minute deal, look for "Q4 sailings in the Bahamas and Caribbean," Coiro says. However, don't rule out getting a good deal now. "A number of cruise lines [are] focusing on fall and winter now," Cleary says. "These will include some aggressive limited-time offers, so jump on them when you see them launch."
The last week in August is also a good time to get a discounted rate on a summer cruise. "Cruise lines dramatically drop prices" on sailings at that time, Coiro says. With some kids already back in school, the demand is beginning to drop off, and you can get a summer sailing for less.
Think you're not getting value if you sail in the shoulder season? Think again. "Shoulder season gets a bum rap, but it's actually a great time to cruise," Cleary says. "May is shoulder season in Alaska, and that's when all the [baby animals] are born and are just finding their way around. October in Europe, for instance, is great for shoppers ... you get to barter for all your purchases as the shops are preparing to close for the season." Other advantages include fewer crowds and, in some cases, better weather. Shoulder season might be a more affordable time of year to try out a luxury cruise in a mainstream destination (Caribbean, Alaska, Europe) with less sticker shock.
Wave Season promotions have always been about added value, but the 2014 deals are taking it up a notch. All the agents are quick to note Celebrity's highly successful 123 Go offer, which gives you the choice of onboard credit, free gratuities or a complimentary beverage package. (Book a cruise to Europe, and you choose two of the three.) It expires at the end of February, but Cleary cautions you "should not wait to book; the rates are escalating as more and more cabins are sold on each sailing."
Coiro notes that sister line Royal Caribbean's Wave Season offer -- up to $400 onboard credit on nearly all itineraries -- has also proven popular with consumers. On the luxury side, the aforementioned airfare deals, as well as perks like free Internet or onboard credit, offer great value to a pricier booking. These promotions are attracting consumers, so itineraries associated with these perks will sell out or increase in base price the longer you wait to book.
It's OK to wait if you don't see a deal that excites you. Cleary says "the best 'deals' change every week on a sliding calendar. Right now it's Caribbean Q1, spring transatlantics, and May in Europe, Alaska, and Bermuda. Next week it will slide a little further into June … and so on."
Solo cruisers still have to hunt for deals.
Every year, we think this is the year that solo cruising takes off, but the travel agents agree the industry is only creeping along in making life better for travelers who choose not to share cabins. "The cruise lines are very aware of the need for solo travel and have invested much money in modifying ships to accommodate solo guests," Cleary says. "However, these guests will still pay more per passenger than if you had two passengers in the same cabin." In 2014, Quantum of the Seas will debut with 28 solo cabins, and Getaway has just launched with 59. Both lines have added some cabins for one to older ships during refurbishments. It's definitely a move in the right direction.
But solo cabins are generally not as cheap as the rates for one cruiser sharing a cabin -- and they sell out quickly with little time to get discounted. Solo pricing is "still running about 150 percent on the mass-market lines. Occasionally the cruise lines will run a 'no single supplement' offer when trying to fill a ship. Jump on it if you see it." For example, in fall 2013, Carnival actually offered zero supplement on select last-minute sailings, but there's no guarantee the line will make that a regular occurrence.
On the luxury side, Fredericks says Silversea is the most aggressive about courting solo travelers with lots of low-supplement deals.
Go for value rather than price.
We know that it's sometimes hard to look beyond price at the total value of a cruise, but that truly is the way to get the most out of your hard-earned vacation. "We do sell $199 and $299 cruises," Coiro says, "but we need to make sure it's a good fit." Do you care about service and amenities? Do you mind staying in an inside cabin far from the elevators but close to early-morning and late-night noise? A bad vacation is a waste of money, even if you only paid $40 per person, per day.
Booking at the last minute could get you a super-low price, but it might come with super-high stress. "Can you really go at the drop of a hat? Do you need a flight? Do you need to find childcare?" Cleary asks. "Also, the cabins that are on the last-minute deals are typically 'guarantees.' That means you can't pick a cabin assignment." If you only have a few weeks of vacation of year, it's worth paying a bit more or booking a bit earlier to get the trip you want, not one you have to settle for.
"My advice: book when you see the deal and the value add that make sense to you. Pick a cabin. Be happy with your choice. Plan for your cruise, and get excited with the anticipation of its arrival," Cleary sums up. "Do you really care if the guy at the same table paid $100 less than you but is stuck listening to the sound of the anchor being dropped and the vibration of the bow thrusters maneuvering into port every morning?"
The industry is recovering -- watch out!
The past few years have been tough ones for the cruise industry, and consumers have benefitted with a rash of price drops, last-minute availability and terrific value adds. This year, agents are noting that things are looking up. "2014 is strong," Fredericks says. "The industry is on the up and doing far better than 1.5 to 2 years ago." Cleary notes that "wave season is off to a great start. All cruise lines seem to be getting a share (not equal, however)." And first-timers are starting to book cruises again.
What does this mean for you? Those rock-bottom rates are on their way out. More people are competing for available cabins and, as we said before, are booking earlier to get the cruises they want. This might be your year for getting a great deal, pricewise or valuewise, on a sailing; if the industry remains strong, deals will become more scarce in 2015.
But while you should be strategic about planning your next cruise, you shouldn't worry too much. There will always be another cruise deal and another added-value promotion. Your job is to make sure you get to it before anyone else does.
More great cruise tips:
A low cruise fare is not the only indicator of whether you got a steal or overspent on your vacation. You want to pay attention to the total cost of your vacation: flights, pre-trip hotel, cruise fare, excursions. Look for the hidden things that will add or subtract from your budget, such as expensive last-minute airfare on that cheap 11th-hour cruise, agent fees and freebies, onboard spending, and even travel dates and airports that could affect travel costs.
Repositioning cruises -- one-way, end-of-season sailings when cruise ships move from one cruising region to another -- can also be great bargains. They tend to have low nightly rates, more unusual itineraries and lots of sea days.
Don't forget to ask about discounts for seniors, military, police officers and union members, though you usually have to book early for the biggest discounts. Cruise lines also offer regional residency discounts, with promotions targeted to customers who live in specific states (such as Mexico cruises for California residents or Boston departures for New Englanders).
While travel agencies are under strict guidance from the cruise lines as to what kinds of deals and value-adds they can offer, a travel agent can still help you save on a cruise. Agents know all the available promotions and can ask the right questions to see if you qualify. Plus, many agencies reserve blocks of cabins on certain sailings at protected "first-release rates" that might be lower than what is available to the public. If you find out about such a deal (sometimes you have to call, as agencies can't promote them), jump on the offer; it might not last long. Agents, too, are working to make sure you get the best cruise for your family and can guide you to the right ship, destination or cabin category.