It's a new year -- in a new decade -- with holiday time to use and cruises to plan. To uncover the best ways to bag a cruise bargain in 2020, we spoke to travel agent experts to learn what's hot and where the price is right. What we found is that cheap cruise deals are plentiful, even in the most popular destinations, but getting on the right ship to the right destination might mean taking quick action.
We've narrowed down the who, what, where and when of finding the best cruise deals in 2020 so you can spend more time enjoying the seas for less money.
Buy During Wave Season
The promotional period known as wave season is when cruise lines offer a raft of special deals on bookings made between January and March. With an increase in year-round promotions, it has been widely debated if this three-month window is still one of the best times to book a cruise, however experts say there are still plenty of good deals to be found.
"There might not be some of the deals there once were, but the wave season is great for people with a specific criteria," says Phil Nuttall, Managing Director of the Travel Village Group. "For example if you are travelling with a family or have your mind set on a standout itinerary or a small ship with less capacity and these are advertised during wave season then this is where you can definitely benefit. Later in the season it becomes much harder to get family cabins and small ships can sell out."
Clare Dudley Managing Director of Ponders Travel, agrees. "The cruise lines know that the beginning of the year is the traditional time that many people want to book their holidays and so there are definitely bargains during wave season."
Examples this year include free onboard credit of up to $700 per cabin and 50 per cent fare discount with 50 percent fare discount for third, fourth and fifth passengers in any cabin on selected sailings until April 2021 with Silversea, reduced deposits with Crystal Cruises and Princess Cruises, and flight upgrades on Scenic's brand new expedition ship Scenic Eclipse.
Why it Pays to Book Early
If you know (more or less) what you are looking for then it pays to be first off the starting blocks and book well in advance.
"If you have a set preference in terms of dining and restaurants and want a midship cabin on Deck 10 then you should book early," says Dudley. "The later you leave it the less choice you will have and you could find that the dining times and cabin you wanted have gone."
Similarly, don't hang around if you have your heart set on sailing on a brand new ship as you could end up being disappointed.
Scott Anderson, General Manager, The Luxury Cruise Company, says: "We are seeing a lot of new ships this year, including Virgin Voyages' first ship Scarlet Lady, P&O's new flagship Iona, Saga's Spirit of Adventure, Princess Cruises' Enchanted Princess, Crystal's Crystal Endeavour, Silversea's Silver Origin and Silver Moon, and Regent Seven Seas' Seven Seas Splendor. People are always curious to see new ships so book early to join the inaugural season."
You should also book early to be assured of a cabin on small ships, such as expedition vessels and luxury ships. Carrying far fewer passengers than large cruise ships, there is less chance of cabins being available further down the line.
"Popular destinations also sell early so if you really want to see the spring cherry blossoms in Japan you will have to book up to a year or more in advance to secure your preferred cabin on your preferred ship. Similarly those places visited by the expedition ships sell out fast with most ships only carrying 100 to 200 guests. And even with the new capacity being offered by new ships from Hurtigruten, Ponant, Silversea, Quark Expeditions, Crystal, Scenic and others, this still only amounts to about 2,000 berths -- less than half the capacity of P&O Cruises' new megaship, the 5,200-passenger Iona!
Dave Mills, Global Supply Director at Iglu, adds: "Many people end up losing out if they leave it too late to plump for a peak season departure, be it the Mediterranean in summer or Caribbean in winter. This is particularly true when travelling as part of a family group, where more options in terms of cabins, such as four and five-berth cabins, and sailing choice are available for early bookers."
Does that mean that least-minute deals are dead? Not necessarily.
When it Pays to Book Late
If cruise timing is not a primary concern, or maybe you are taking a cruise as a second holiday, then booking further down the line comes to the fore.
"If you have the luxury of being able to book late then you will get some excellent deals as cruise lines don't want to sail ships with empty cabins," says Nuttall. "Some particularly good deals can be found if cruise lines charter their own aircraft as they need to get the seats filled. Also consider going from a different departure airport than you might normally use. For example, if flights from Birmingham are already full, but there is capacity from Leeds then you will get a better deal.
"Destination also comes into it. For example, the Atlantic coast has some really good prices for late bookings in spring and autumn. Plus, places like Lisbon, Porto and Cadiz are lovely in April and May and September and October and not as busy as other times, so it is also a really nice time of year to go."
Caveat: Air fares tend to be more expensive the closer they are to departure dates, so this factor needs to be taken into account.
Luxury for Less
Luxury cruises are expensive, but with some insider tips the travellers who can afford them can get amazing value for their money.
Anderson explains: "To get even more value from your luxury cruise you need to book early as this is when the cruise lines have the most added-value inclusions such as Wi-Fi packages, free suite upgrades, onboard credits, land packages and flight offers. Another thing to bear in mind is that some luxury cruise specialist travel agents have access to special rates and added onboard benefits that even the cruise lines don't get, so it's not always better going direct.
Additionally, those same cruise specialists can often 're-package' the cruise using special fares and have a wide choice of flights, hotels and transfer services so can offer a better holiday package with more inclusions for the same price, or sometimes cheaper than going direct to a cruise line."
Find Discounts for Popular Destinations
Cruise regions where there are high numbers of ships can result in excellent savings, even on luxury ships, says Anderson.
"The Mediterranean is the number one cruise destination for the U.K. and there are a lot of cruises out there and a lot of ships, including new ones. As a result there is a lot more competition out there than there used to be and this means there are some very good deals, even on new ships such as Celebrity Apex which still has availability for 2020."
Another trend is 'cruise and stay' trips. These holidays allow you to start or end your cruise in some of the most popular cities around the world, such as Barcelona, Venice, Seattle or Miami, as well as enjoying all the perks of a luxury cruise holiday and providing travellers with the best of both worlds.
Be Strategic for Best River Deals
At face value, river cruises are invariably more expensive than lead-in fares for ocean cruises. This is because they have far more inclusions, such as excursions, drinks with meals -- an open bar with some lines -- WiFi and, sometimes, tips. At one time it was rare to see offers on river cruises, but our experts say things are changing.
Dudley says: "The number of river ships is increasing year-on-year and lines are becoming more competitive, particularly on the most popular rivers of the Rhine and Danube where there are the most ships and the largest number of itineraries. Where there were few deals in the past, it is now common to see offers such as onboard credit, flight upgrades and complimentary drinks packages."
Edwina Lonsdale, Managing Director of Mundy Cruising, explains: "By their very nature, with small ships and fixed costs, there have never been the deals you see on ocean ships on river ships and river cruises do seem expensive by comparison. However, there are now offers such as free air travel. One of the best things to look out for if you are a solo traveller is when cruise lines set aside a small number of cabins for single occupancy with no supplement and you get a double cabin."
Caveat: If you have your sights set on a 'hot destination' don't hold out for deals.
"The Douro is really popular at the moment, so you won't see similar offers there," concludes Dudley. "Many sailings are already sold out for 2020 and we are already booking customers in for 2021."
Consider Combination Cruises and Packages
If you've got plenty of time then the combination of two cruises or a sailing with a land-based element can be much less expensive than you think.
Lonsdale said: "Back-to-back cruises are very good value for money. For example, if you take the last Caribbean cruise of the season and staying onboard the ship for a transatlantic crossing to reach its new base for the next season. If you are happy with days at sea, these crossing are always cheaper than cruises with ports of call. Cruise lines often mask how reasonable these fares can be so as not to impact passengers that have already booked.
"Also look at packages that combine a cruise with a rail journey or similar. If you tried to book the various elements individually -- the air fare, cruise and land journey -- they would cost much more than the package price."
Use a Travel Agent
With a wealth of online offers from airlines, hotels, car hire companies and, of course, cruise lines, some people think they can secure the most cost effective cruise holiday through their own research and believe it will cost more to book through a travel agent. However, that's not the case and it can pay dividends to seek out a cruise expert -- plus, you can't put a price on peace of mind.
High street travel agents can provide information, but they are selling all kinds of holidays and some might not even have set foot onboard, or they might have a partnership with certain cruise lines and only recommend them to cruise customers. So you might not necessarily be steered in the direction that’s right for you. Similarly, agents representing individual cruise lines will only be able to talk and answer questions about their own brands and not be able to compare and contrast between lines.
"Opinion polls show that there has been an increase in the number of people using travel agents and realising the benefits," says Nuttall. "Even so, it is not just a case of walking into any agent or picking up the phone to a call centre. You need to be talking to someone you trust and have confidence in and we are cruise specialists.
"There are some really great products out there at great prices and through some really good companies, however they are not necessarily the brands that people might see when doing their own research. It could be a company that is not particularly high profile as it has built up a loyal following of customers and might not necessarily advertise as much as others. We know about these brands and can recommend them if they fit what the customer is looking for."
James Hill, from GoCruise, also points out that if something unfortunately goes wrong with the cruise clients are not left high and dry.
"A cruise agent is an agent for the client, not the cruise line," he explains. “So if something is not up to expectation, the client is not on their own in dealing with a big corporate cruise line complaints department."
Anderson adds: "If you go DIY you are not covered by unexpected circumstances, such as Storm Ciara which saw flights being diverted and cancelled. If you are on your way to a cruise and can't get there, you're on your own have no comeback. An ABTA and ATOL bonded operator will sort things out and get you where you need to be. As far as deals are concerned, we get ones that the public don't have access to and don't get to see. If a cruise line has last minute or unexpected availability they will feed these deals through specialists so as not to upset passengers that have already booked."
Dudley says: "A lot of advertised deals can be very confusing and unless you go through them very carefully and compare them with others you might not know exactly how good a deal it is. We can sift through the offers and know exactly how good they are."
Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining
The outbreak of coronavirus has dominated news headlines, with ships quarantined, turned away from ports and various measures in place to prevent spread of the deadly respiratory illness. With cruise lines already cancelling Asian itineraries -- including Norwegian Cruise Line pulling all future sailings on Norwegian Spirit cruise from April to December -- the unfolding situation could lead to previously unforeseen cruise bargains.
Nuttall says: "Where we will see an opportunity for good bargains is with cruise lines that decide to take their ships out of Asia and reposition them for the rest of the season and sail somewhere completely different. They will be starting with empty capacity, so keep an eye out for news about any lines that are doing this and follow the ships to see where they are redeployed."