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.
1. If you have the means, book now.
Travel agents cite two important reasons for booking early: price and availability.
On the value end of things, agents agree that, in general, the best prices are found early, with fares going up as sail dates get closer.
"Cruise lines are good at putting out good deals early," Greg Nacco, vice president of Cruise Specialists, says. Especially with luxury lines, you're not likely to see fares drop from those original prices -- and you might lose out on the best value-adds. Many luxury lines raise rates quarterly. Some lines, such as Oceania, release their best deals early (two-for-one fares, free airfare, extra discounts), then pull those deals back as the ships sell out. "They have trained their past passengers to realize that there is not going to be a better deal, and that they possibly won't get to go [on their preferred sailing] if they wait," Nacco says.
And just because you see an intriguing promotion now doesn't mean it'll be repeated later. On the flip side, if a lower published fare comes out for your sailing before the final payment period, many lines will adjust the rate or upgrade you.
While booking early does come with some risk that you won't be getting a rock-bottom rate, agents say it's worth it to lock in your preferred ship, sailing date, cabin category and location. And by booking early, you have a much better chance of getting the exact vacation you want.
Why? Availability. "You gamble if you wait for a better deal," Nacco says. "If you like a certain category, a certain itinerary, etc., is it worth it to save maybe $200 to not get what you want?"
Certain traveler types should also consider booking earlier. "People with families or set vacation schedules and those who need a specific type of cabin -- like quads or balconies -- should book early," John Keen, CEO of Cruise Now, says. Family suites and interconnecting cabins are quickly snapped up, and booking six months out might not be early enough for peak travel dates.
And you're running out of time to be an early bird for certain cruises in 2013. "Summer Caribbean cruises are selling like [hot] cakes," Anthony Hamawy, president of Cruise.com says. "They're just going out the door, and prices will go up." Agents agree there's lots of interest in Alaska, both regular cruises and cruisetours. Hamawy predicts there won't be any deals for people who wait to book.
New ships, with all the bells and whistles, always sell well -- even with higher-than-average prices. Hamawy notes many people are requesting summer Caribbean on Royal Caribbean's mega-ships Oasis and Allure of the Seas, and Celebrity's newest ship Reflection is getting lots of bookings. While he reports that people "haven't caught on" to 2013's most innovative new ships -- Norwegian Breakaway and Royal Princess -- Joad Hamed, vice president of American Discount Cruises & Travel, says "hands down Breakaway is our best-selling ship." While you won't necessarily find a super-cheap price, you'll want to book early to get your pick of cabins on either of these new ships.
River cruises are extremely hot in 2013. Even with 15 new ships launching this year, inventory is very limited, compared to ocean cruises, because riverboats have comparatively few cabins (an average of 75 per ship). "As of the first week of February, prime-season Europe is 85 percent sold out for 2013, and we're already taking bookings for 2014," Rick Kaplan, president of Premier River Cruises, says. When he checked, he could find only four balcony cabins available on 16 Danube River itineraries departing between early July and mid-August. River cruisers should book at least a year in advance and should be planning their 2014 cruise now.
In general, aim your purchase for six to 12 months in advance for cruises that sail during prime time, including spring break and summer. Many travelers are making their summer travel plans the winter before, and many ships fill up for their peak-season itineraries in the early months of the year.
Longer and more exotic voyages should also be booked well in advance to give you plenty of time to acquire necessary passports, visas and airfare.
River cruises should be booked 12 to 15 months advance -- or as soon as the rates are released. "For river cruises, Wave Season starts in September at the latest," Kaplan notes. Nacco agrees saying that as of early 2013, all prices for 2014 river cruises have been released and those itineraries are already selling.
It used to be that holiday sailings needed to be booked a year in advance, but agents tell us that advice is now outdated. While New Year's cruises tend to sell quickly, Christmas and Thanksgiving sailings have sold more slowly the past few years, especially due to the larger capacity of ships in the Caribbean in the winter. "It's not urgent to book a holiday sailing now," says Hamed, though there's no guarantee last-minute deals will be as prevalent this year.
3. If you can't plan far ahead, you've got to be flexible.
Travel agents basically consider last minute to be any date beyond a cruise's final payment deadline (60 to 90 days before departure). Because some people put down a deposit to hold space and then cancel their sailing before ponying up the rest of the money, the cruise lines don't have an accurate picture of how many cabins have truly sold on a cruise until after final payment is due. At that time, the lines can see how much space is left on a given sailing.
If you're going to take the last-minute approach, keep this in mind: Booking last minute means you have limited choices, so that great deal might be on an inside cabin. Also, that old tradition of showing up on the dock and negotiating a great cruise rate on the day of departure is no longer viable in most cases. Government regulations, especially in the United States, put the kibosh on that trick -- passenger information is required to be submitted a few days in advance.
Finally, cruise lines realize that if they always drop rates drastically at the last minute, customers will never start booking in advance. Bottom line: They're more willing to let cabins go empty rather than offer a seven-night cruise for $299.
If you want a last-minute deal, Hamed says that "in the Caribbean, there's always something -- but you might not get the newest ship or the newest features." Currently, you'll find some last-minute March and April deals in the Caribbean. Hamawy notes that "Hurricane Sandy killed the Northeast for close-in bookings…creating some Q1 holes." On the river side, the low season of March and April might have some last-minute availability, but it will be just a few cabins.
4. Know your cruise seasons to find discounts or extra-value promotions.
If you're looking for discounts, it helps to know the best months for value. For Europe, look for specials from late March through April and again from mid-September to November. In Alaska and Bermuda, soft periods include May and September. In the Caribbean, standard bargain times include the fall months (hurricane season), non-holiday portions of November and December, and January and February (barring holiday weekends). Last-minute deals are also prevalent at these times.
For river cruises, March, April and October through December are considered the low season and offer the best value. Kaplan tells us "there are great savings on holiday market cruises"; a Danube River cruise could cost just $1,400 in the winter compared with $3,000 in the summer. Plus, you have a better shot of using your frequent flyer miles or finding affordable airfare at that time.
When playing the soft-season game for any cruise type, know this: There's a reason -- beyond the fact that kids are still in school -- that these cruises are a better value. Weather can be a factor, causing ship officers to cancel shore excursions or bypass ports.
Beyond shoulder season, there are a few other seasonal tricks of the trade you can employ. For example, Keen says fares for Caribbean cruises in August drop as the month goes on -- so the later in August you cruise, the less you'll pay.
5. Learn which destinations and ships are the cheapest.
Knowing the idiosyncrasies of 2013's itineraries and booking trends is the key to snagging a deal because you'll know where to look for the lowest prices.
The number one spot to look for deals this year is Europe. Europeans are not booking as many cruises, due in part to the economy and the ongoing presence of Costa Concordia in the news there. The result is that cruise lines have to make up the numbers from the U.S. market -- and they'll do that by dropping prices here.
"From a deal perspective, Europe has the best pricing -- it's priced very low," Hamawy says. The Eastern and Western Mediterranean, especially, have lower fares or better value-adds (onboard credit, reduced airfare). Airfares have not gone up from last year. But it won't last -- Hamawy expects a double-digit increase in costs next year. "If it's on your wish list, do it now."
The increased capacity in Australia and New Zealand has driven down prices, so 2013 could be your best chance for a bucket list cruise Down Under. They are popular, though, so don't wait to book. Hamawy also notes that prices are down on Mexico cruises roundtrip out of California, and Nacco cites good pricing on Hawaii cruises from the West Coast with many sea days.
When it comes to ships, everyone agrees that new ships are pricey. You won't find too many deals on these popular vessels. But, if you insist on something new, look for value rather than rock-bottom rates. "If you want a new ship on a peak-season cruise, try Oasis of the Seas," Hamed recommends. "It's not the cheapest, but it's always cheaper than Allure, the newer of the two ships." Hamawy has seen some recent deals on Norwegian Epic, as it falls from Norwegian's spotlight with the introduction of Breakaway this spring.
Or, try older ships that have recently been refurbished. They can be a better deal than their newer siblings but might have been retrofitted to include the cruise line's latest restaurants and amenities. The exception is in the river market, where Kaplan says so many ships are new and all the older ones have been meticulously remodeled that "age is irrelevant."
A week after the Carnival Triumph fire that left the ship powerless, Hamawy and Hamed report that cruise sales remain strong. "I think in the short run (close-in sailings) we may see some downward movement in pricing on Carnival for last-minute travelers," Hamawy says, but neither think the incident will lead to a lot of slashed rates or significant deals.
One of the best pieces of advice agents have for finding a good deal is to take advantage of added-value promotions (like free upgrades, onboard credit or prepaid gratuities) in addition to just fare discounts. In 2013, several agents have mentioned Celebrity's 123 Go sale as offering great value in Europe with free beverage packages, tips and onboard credit.
"Keep an eye on your favorite discounter and watch the promos," Keen says, "and book when you can add a promotion to a deal.... If you wait too long, the rate might be the same, but the promotion is gone."
And 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).
7. Look for value when booking a luxury cruise.
The success of the luxury and luxury-lite lines might have to do with various value-added deals like free hotel stays (Regent Seven Seas, Windstar), free or discounted shore excursions (Regent, Azamara Club Cruises, Oceania), and free or discounted airfare (Oceania, Silversea, Regent, Azamara).
Eric Maryanov, president of All-Travel.com, also recommends booking through an agency that is a member of a consortium, such as Signature or Virtuoso. These affiliations offer added value to customers with consortium-specific perks for booking.
Booking early is definitely the key with luxury. "Not all sailings go up in price, but the best-selling sailings do," Maryanov says. And you won't necessarily know whether the itinerary you're interested in will be the one to hold steady or increase in price. He does note, though, that if an agency has previously contracted certain rates with a cruise line, those fares are guaranteed even if the cruise line raises prices on that sailing -- so an agent might have access to lower fares than the lines themselves.
Maryanov also notes that specific cabin categories on certain lines tend to sell out first. These include Crystal's penthouses and penthouse suites, Silversea's Vista Suites with verandahs and Regent's entry-level H-category cabins. So try other categories to find more options.
If you just want to get on a luxury line for less and are willing to be flexible about where and when you go, certain sailings are typically cheaper than others. "If you want to try a luxury line, try it in a less exotic location," Keen says. "If you want to upgrade from premium to luxury, try offseason Caribbean, May and September Alaska or fall Europe."
8. Calculate all your travel costs before booking that "deal."
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, excursions.
For example, a dirt-cheap last minute deal might require you to pay through the nose for pre-cruise flights and hotel stays -- erasing any savings from the "bargain" cruise fare. Or the low price you're thrilled to find might mean you're staying in a noisy cabin that prevents you from enjoying your holiday.
Don't forget to ask about service fees or agency fees for canceling. "The front end price isn't always the best," Hamawy cautions. "It's the total price that counts. Ask about hidden charges, and you will find differences." On the flip side, different agency or cruise line deals -- like prepaid gratuities or onboard credit -- can you reduce your final cruise bill, making it smart to shop around.
Which cruise you pick can also influence how much the rest of your trip costs -- and many travelers don't bother to factor that in. If you're planning a Europe cruise, for instance, you'll have a greater choice of flights and a more reasonably priced pre- or post-cruise hotel stay if you depart from Athens than Venice. "Major gateways like Athens offer more value," Maryanov says. And keep in mind that flights are cheaper Tuesdays or Wednesdays.
Finally, don't forget about how much money you're likely to spend onboard on drinks, spa treatments, souvenirs and activities. Cautions Maryanov, "You may be shocked with what you've paid onboard."