There's nothing like bagging a great cruise deal, but the choice can often seem overwhelming. So where do you start? Timing, planning and being a savvy shopper all come into the mix when you're looking for the best cruise prices. We asked leading cruise experts for their top tips. Here's what you need to know.
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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.
According to Phil Evans, MD of Cruise Nation, the answer is a definitive yes. "The wave season is a great time to find a cruise deal," he says. "During this period, cruise lines are keen to encourage travellers to book now, rather than waiting and shopping around to find their holidays, so you'll find some unbeatable deals."
Examples this year include half-price fares for second passengers with Royal Caribbean. Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises, free onboard credit with P&O Cruises and Seabourn, drinks packages with MSC, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises, and premium drinks and free gratuities with Norwegian Cruise Line.
The early bird catches the worm and he who hesitates is lost, and it's no different with cruise fares. If you can book ahead you can get both the cruise you want and save money.
Evans says: "There are some amazing value cruise deals available to destinations across the world, especially if you get in early. Popular sailings are likely to sell out really quickly, and cruise lines are keen to fill up cabin space early, so booking early is a great way to get a good deal. Don’t hesitate to get yourself booked, we often have customers who have missed out on a fantastic deal because they thought the 'limited availability' was just a sales tactic and they had plenty of time. The simple truth is, if you don't book a great deal, someone else will snap it up first.
"It generally pays to book through a tour operator as opposed to cruise lines packages as we tend to base flights on non-peak days, which saves us considerable cost and we pass these savings on to the customer."
Scott Anderson, General Manager of The Luxury Cruise Company, adds: "I always recommend clients book their luxury cruise early to secure the best fares and the best suites in the most desirable locations. Luxury cruise lines launch their cruise programmes with their best offers, and we're not just talking about price. Many lines will entice early bookers with added-value benefits such as free flights, free flight upgrades, suite upgrades, on board credit packages and more. As the ships fill up, these benefits are withdrawn and the suite fares will increase too. The most popular suites are the ones that sell first, so those desirable mid-ship suites will be booked quickly as well as the popular higher level suites. Many ships will only have a limited number of 'top suites', such as Owners Suites, and the savvy traveller needs to book early to secure these.
"If you have your heart set on a specific itinerary on a certain date then book early as you do not want to miss out. Expedition voyages also sell early. By their very nature the ships are smaller and many only carry 200 guests or fewer, and often sell out nine to 12 months in advance, especially on 'one off' voyages.
"With all the news ships debuting in 2019 and 2020 there will be a rush to get onboard and be some of the first to experience the new features and accommodations these ships are offering. One brand that is making waves is Virgin Voyages. Their first ship, Scarlet Lady, will be like nothing the cruise industry has seen, with no main dining room and a focus on health and wellbeing, not to mention the first tattoo parlour at sea and a drag queen brunch. They are aiming at new to cruise clients but no doubt a lot of seasoned cruisers will be curious about this rebellious upstart. Due to sail early 2020, you will need to book early to secure some of their innovative RockStar Suites. Celebrity Apex (Celebrity Cruises), Iona (P&O), Spirit of Adventure (Saga), and Enchanted Princess (Princess) all debut in 2020 too and again, book now to get on board.
"Many cruises are already getting booked up for the summer peak season so do not wait for a last minute offer -- these are getting scarcer as cruise lines want to fill the ships early.
"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 Scenic, Crystal Cruises, Ponant, Celebrity Cruises, Quark Expeditions, Aurora Expeditions and others, this still only amounts to about 2,000 berths -- half the capacity of Royal Caribbean new Spectrum of the Seas! Popular destinations 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 Scenic, Crystal Cruises, Ponant, Celebrity Cruises, Quark Expeditions, Aurora Expeditions and others, this still only amounts to about 2,000 berths – half the capacity of Royal Caribbean's new Spectrum of the Seas!"
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.
Flexibility Pays Off
If you don't have fixed ideas about when you want to travel, or even where you want to go, and are happy to go with the flow regarding cabins and dining times then you're in a great position to grab a bargain.
Mills says: "Being able to travel at the drop of a hat and being flexible about the destination can be an advantage and lead to some superb deals, particularly on ex-U.K. sailings without a flight. Cruises requiring flights fill up first to avoid flights selling out, ships are bigger than planes! However, it's worth bearing in mind this is more often the case on 'off season' dates such as early spring or late autumn.
"Another aspect of flexibility surrounds the onboard experience. If passengers can be flexible around cabin location, dining time and possibly cabin type, such as inside or balcony, it can help in terms of getting the pick of the deals. In these cases 'guaranteed' options may be available where you only find out dining time or where your cabin is located immediately before departure."
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
The Mediterranean, Far East and Alaska are among the "hot" destinations for 2019 identified by Evans, and increased demand coupled with competition among the cruise lines results in some good value fares.
"Cruising is continuing to become increasingly popular but there are particular destinations we expect to be more popular in 2019," he says. "The Mediterranean is popular year in, year out and will continue to be a favourite. From Italy's amazing food to Greece's historic sites and Croatia's picturesque towns, the Med offers something for every type of holiday and draws people back.
"We're also seeing travellers seeking adventure destinations such as Alaska, one of the world's last truly wild regions. Cruising is also becoming a more popular way of exploring the Far East and soaking up its culture, from Cambodia's ancient temples to the Philippines' pristine beaches. 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
European river ships may look similar on the outside, but they offer different experiences and inclusions which reflect in the fare.
Clare Dudley, Managing Director at Ponders Travel, says many lines offer flexible travel arrangements with options to reach the ship by rail, ferry and coach travel, which is more cost effective than flying and ideal for those who prefer not to fly.
She says: "Many clients now want a little more than just the cruise and we often add some nights before or after the cruise in the towns where the cruise embarks or disembarks. This gives more time to enjoy the fabulous places on offer. As an example, on a Danube cruise a day or so simply isn’t enough in Budapest and adding a little more time to your trip will allow you to see more.
"Just as ocean has a plethora of choices to accommodate every taste and budget, river has just the same on a smaller scale. You can choose from a luxury all-suite butler experience to budget-driven lower deck cabins depending on your preference. Some passengers may not see the benefit in an all-inclusive river cruise holiday and instead prefer to have the choice of picking the excursions that appeal to them rather than having them included in the fare. Also, people that are not big drinkers can save money by booking cruises where wine is included with dinner rather than an all-inclusive cruise.
"Many families are now taking their children onboard river cruises and there are a couple of operators who welcome children with open arms. A-Rosa allows children to go free and they get their own cabin too! There are also many exciting new additions on river cruise ships, such as swimming pools, cinemas, choices of restaurants and electric bikes."
2019 is the Year to Get Free Drinks, Excursions and Guaranteed Fun
Each year different trends emerge to add value to cruises and Mills has seen an increase in drinks packages and other perks.
He says: "Many lines are using complimentary drinks packages as the 'must have' freebie this year, which is going down well with U.K. guests, particularly with exchange rates being less predictable! Other popular free add-ons are excursion credits to put towards any of the exciting shore excursions on offer, complimentary hotel say add-ons, free Wi-Fi and the age old favourite of the free cabin upgrade. Some of these can offer really significant savings.
"Another new feature is a guaranteed good time, seriously. Fred. Olsen, Saga and Hurtigruten, to name a few, are offering satisfaction of enjoyment guarantees. If guests don't have a good time or, in the case of Hurtigruten, don't see the Northern Lights, they are offered another cruise for free or their money back."
Score a Last-Minute Discount
With all the early booking bonuses and advance planning advice, you might think it's impossible to find deals close to sailing dates. But according to the agents we spoke to, that's not the case.
"Many people automatically turn to the internet and trawl through a huge number of websites and waste a lot of time," says Dudley. "As an independent agent we can sell any cruise to anywhere in the world and this is still applicable to last minute offers. We can search all the operators in a matter of seconds to see what is available and the prices being offered. The fact that every cruise line sends us their offers on a daily basis means we have access to all the best deals."
Use a Travel Agent
Some people believe that booking through a travel agent costs more, or that they don't have access to the best deals. This isn't true, particularly in the case of cruise specialists. In addition to being able to offer exclusive savings and perks such as onboard credit or drinks packages, they can save hours of time in researching the best cruise for their clients.
Dudley says: "It can be a minefield, such as which ship to choose, which river or ocean, what time of year to sail, what facilities are available, what to wear, different dining options and so forth. We are here to hold your hand with as little or as much as needed during the choosing and booking process. We can ask questions that will allow us to recommend a product from the widest choice imaginable and do all we can to ensure your holiday is all you want it to be. Even if you are a seasoned cruiser wanting more information about a product or destination, we can help with first-hand knowledge and advice. To date I have been on roughly 90 different ships, and this in itself allows me to provide an honest and detailed summary."