The days are getting shorter, the weather cooler and this year's travel plans are finished -- so your thoughts naturally turn to next year's cruise vacation. Maybe this is the year you try your first cruise or perhaps you've taken annual vacations at sea for years. Either way, you're going to set sail, and you want to get the best deal out there.
Lucky for you, Wave Season runs January through March, and is a time when both cruise lines and travel agencies put out extra-value deals. Even luckier for you, the cruise lines have not been waiting for Wave to bundle free perks into their fares or offer some of their best prices. But if you want to be able to hop on an awesome deal the minute you see it, before it disappears or your preferred cabins sell out, you need to do your homework first.
If you want to be prepared to get the best deal this winter, check out this checklist (written in order of what you need to do first) and get all your ducks in a row. That way, you'll be ready when the perfect offer is announced to book a cruise quickly and get the most bang for your buck.
Photo: Cruise Critic
Figure out where and when you want to go.
The most important first step you can take is to narrow down your choices. Are you looking for an Alaska cruise in July, or a Europe cruise in the fall? Are you interested in specific cruise line or are you open to a variety of lines, depending on fares and timing?
For more help: How to Pick a Cruise Line
Photo: Filip Fuxa/Shutterstock.com
Get everyone onboard.
If you'd like to travel with family or friends, now is the time to get their buy-in; don't wait until you see a deal to start sending out invites and waiting for travel companions to hem and haw about joining you. Make sure you've got a yes for the specific sailing you've chosen as fast as possible, so you can jump on the deal the minute you see it.
For more help: Planning a Group Cruise
Identify areas of flexibility.
Do you have to cruise during spring break, or are there a few weeks you can consider? Would you settle for a balcony cabin if no mini-suites are available? The more wiggle room you have, the more opportunities you will have to access the best deal. Knowing your second and third choices ahead of time will save you time when the promotions come out.
For more help: Choosing a Cabin
Photo: Cruise Critic
Think about the extras you'd like.
These days, the name of the deal game is bundling. Instead of slashing prices, cruise lines tack on extra perks (free drink packages, shore tours or onboard spending money, for example) to give you more for your money. Knowing which extras you find compelling -- and whether that "free" amenity actually comes with a cost -- will help you identify the offer that's the best value.
For more help: What's Your Free Cruise Perk Really Worth?
Photo: Cruise Critic
Sign up for emails.
Don't be the last to know when deals come out. Sign up for emails from cruise lines, travel agencies and Cruise Critic, so you'll get alerts straight to your inbox when Wave Season goes into high gear. Some sites -- including Cruise Critic -- let you sign up for alerts when prices drop on cruises to your preferred destination.
Start Here: Get insider cruise tips and deals!
Talk to a travel agent now.
Not quite ready to book yet? That's no reason not to start a relationship with your friendly neighborhood (or online) travel agent. A knowledgeable cruise seller can help you narrow down which cruise lines or itineraries are best for you and alert you to any upcoming or current deals. They can give you the inside scoop, such as Alaska will be hot in 2017 and cruises will sell out early, while Europe is soft and deals abound. Plus, if they know what you're interested in, they can put you on their list to contact when a juicy promotion is published.
For more help: Finding a Cruise Travel Agent
Photo: Yuriy Ruddy/Shutterstock.com
Price out your trip.
OK, so this is the boring homework portion of your prep. But if you start watching fares now, you can determine what average, low and high prices are for your cruise and cabin of choice. That way, when fares drop, you can recognize the deal. Don't let cruise lines sucker you with claims of slashed prices or two-for-one sales, when they might have jacked up the fares before "reducing" them to not-so-cheap levels.
Start Shopping: Daily Cruise Deals
Don't wait; book now.
Travel agents tell us that pre-Wave Season promotions are often some of the best because cruise lines are trying to fill ships earlier and avoid reducing rates at the last minute. Whether it's Norwegian's ongoing "Free at Sea" deal (with your choice of perks like specialty dining, Wi-Fi, drinks, tips or third and fourth passengers free) or short sales from lines like Royal Caribbean, you might be able to beat the pack by booking in December. Remember, the earlier you book, the more availability there will be, so you can have your pick of stateroom types and locations.
For more help: Is There a Best Day to Book a Cruise?
Free. Money. Are there two more beautiful words in the English language? While money doesn't grow on trees, increasingly it can be found somewhere else -- on the high seas. Call it an incentive, call it a bonus; whatever you want to call it, onboard credit lets you spend more freely with less guilt. You've paid your cruise fare, and now you can splurge on those enticing extras -- Swedish massage, specialty restaurant, an excursion to swim with the dolphins -- without busting your budget. Not many need convincing as to why onboard credit -- money automatically deposited into your onboard account-- rocks, but finding out exactly how to get it and where you can spend it is a bit trickier. We found eight ways to hit the OBC jackpot (some more preferable than others) and offer even more suggestions on how to burn through it, although you probably have your own ideas already.