11 Simple Tips to Find the Best Cruise Deals

With 30 million passengers expected to have cruised by the end of 2019, I sometimes wonder if all these cruisers believe they truly found the best cruise deal. Conversely, how many folks felt they didn’t, especially after gabbing with fellow cruisers while onboard.

Carnival Sunshine departs from Port Canaveral as people line Jetty Park to wave goodbye.
As a Carnival ship departs from Port Canaveral, almost everyone onboard probably wondered if they found the best cruise deal.

How To Find The Best Cruise Deal

When it comes time to plan a cruise, everyone wants to find the best deal and with as many benefits as possible. Like the airlines, cruise prices  fluctuate on what seems like a whim. How do you get the best cruise deal and  hopefully some value-added amenities? Here are my eleven suggestions to get the most value for your cruise dollar.

1. Book Your Cruise As Far In Advance As Possible

In the “old” days, hopeful cruisers would show up at the port, suitcase in hand, thirty minutes before sailing time in hopes of negotiating a last-minute bargain. Those days long gone. Not only does Homeland Security not allow such frivolity, cruise ships seem to always sail full.

As soon as cruise lines release their new deployment. This means when their newest itineraries are open for reservations and is usually up to 18 months in advance, it’s time to check.

Sometimes, the best values, accommodations and availability are offered up to eighteen months before the cruise, not the week of the cruise. Many cruise lines offer early booking savings and usually with lots of early-booking perks. They may even offer upgrades to those who book early. Why? The cruise line will eventually “re-sell” the same stateroom to a new customer at a higher price. This isn’t rocket science.

Supply and demand drives the rates. As a ship nears capacity due to heavy sales, fares will increase for those people who book closer to the sailing date. Usually. Here’s where cruise research is needed.

2. Or…Wait Until The Last Minute

If you can pick up and go, aren’t fussy about the itinerary, the accommodations or what cruise line, you just might find a last minute bargain (that’s “bargain” not a “steal”.)  Why? The mega online and big box cruise sellers block group space as soon as a new itinerary is open for sale.

At some point they have to return the unsold allotment to the cruise line or get stuck with unsold “merchandise.”  This starts to happen somewhere in the vicinity of ninety days before the cruise. Maybe 60 or again at 30 days.

But you can’t be choosy. The last-minute discounted cabin might be all the way at the bow on a very high deck or all the way aft on a very low deck. Think lots of motion and engine vibration, respectively.

Then there’s last-minute airfares to consider. Does the cost of the cruise savings justify a higher airfare?

But if you are willing to spend hundreds of dollars for last minute air fares, then the more exotic cruise itineraries may have the best opportunity for snagging a decent cabin on a last minute (ninety days or less) cruise.

Enjoy breakfast on your balcony. Even better when you find the best cruise deal for a balcony stateroom!
Enjoy breakfast on your balcony. Even better if you can score a deal on a balcony stateroom!

3. Look For Added Benefits And Amenities

To entice guests, cruise lines add additional benefits to specific cruises in order to add value and uniqueness when a price drop isn’t in the plan. For example, many times they’ll offer onboard credits (actual dollars that may spent onboard), pre- or post-cruise hotel stays, complimentary airport transfers, lunches or dinners in the specialty restaurants, private shore excursions or exclusive onboard gatherings.

For example, Norwegian Cruise Line has had their Free at Sea perks for several years, with some not-so-full sailings offering extra perks. To help fill their ships, Celebrity Cruises offers free category upgrades, their 4Perks program and several others. This doesn’t mean a lower price tag but the onboard benefits or amenities might just outweigh the cruise cost. And again, check the restrictions before you pay your deposit.

READ NEXT:  Cruising Solo – What the Cruise Lines Don’t Want You to Know

4. You Might Qualify For Special Rates Or Discounts

Several cruise lines offer senior citizen rates (over fifty-five), active/retired military discounts and resident rates and this might be the best cruise deal at the moment. From time to time cruise lines like to say “thank you” to those who belong to or have careers with service organizations.

Firefighters, police and teachers may have special pricing as a way to show appreciation for all they do for the community. Many times the mega online cruise “discounters” as well as cruise line reservationists fail to ask if you fall into any of these categories for special offers. Why? They lose commission. Always ask what discounts are available.

5. Frequent Cruiser? Ask About Any Alumni / Loyalty Discounts

Cruise lines have their own past passenger clubs. Holland America has their Mariner Club, Carnival Cruise line has their VIFP program, Crystal has their Crystal Society and so on. Each cruise line has their rewards for being a repeat passenger. It may be in the form of a discounted rate, category upgrade, onboard amenities, welcome back parties or even complimentary wash and fold for your clothes.

Cruise lines that are owned by the same company, i.e. Royal Caribbean owns Celebrity and Azamara, may offer past passenger/loyalty rewards or credits simply because you’ve cruised on one of their “sister” cruise lines.

Ballroom dancers entertain at the past passenger cocktail party.
Ballroom dancers entertain at the past passenger cocktail party on Celebrity Cruises.

6. Book Your Next Cruise While On Your Cruise

The cruise lines know that the best time to sell a cruise is when their passengers are having a wonderful time on their current cruise. Most cruise lines are very generous and offer special savings to passengers that reserve and deposit a future cruise while still onboard. You may receive onboard $$$ credits towards that future cruise, a discounted rate, category upgrades and a reduced deposit.

Another advantage of booking onboard, if you know when you’d like to cruise, is that you can usually find a perfect cabin location, itinerary and sail date. Most important, all you have to do is to tell the cruise lines’ onboard booking agent that you want to have your travel agent back home handle your new reservation.

If you’re not sure of when you’d like to take your next cruise, but want to take advantage of the discount, cruise lines offer a future cruise booking opportunity. You place a small deposit for a future cruise and then when you know when and where you want to go, you or your travel agent will inform the cruise line of your future cruise deposit by using the reservation number given to you at time of booking.

Future cruise bookings may have time limits or other restrictions, so be sure to know what you’re buying.

The Onboard Cruise Consultant (as they may be called) will look up your travel agent’s name from your existing reservation and give the credit to that agency. Chances are, the agent at home will be so excited that you might even receive a special thank you gift for your effort.

7. Invest In The Stock Market…Super Cautiously, Of Course

Royal Caribbean International, Carnival Cruise Lines and Norwegian Cruise, being publicly held companies, offer onboard credits to their shareholders. With one hundred shares of either company, you are given up to $250 to spend onboard your cruise. If you cruise enough, you can actually make back the cost spent on buying their stock.

Unfortunately, there are restrictions with this offer. For example, more times than not, the cruise lines will not allow shareholder credits to be combinable with many other deals or discounts. So choose your dollars-off or onboard credits carefully.

For example, a Royal Caribbean shareholder who is also at the Diamond Plus past passenger level can choose between the $250 onboard credit OR a $225 discount for booking a balcony stateroom. Book a longer cruise at least six months ahead of time and receive a $350 discount on a balcony. Which would you choose – the shareholder $250 credit or a $225 – $350 discount?

8. Check Out Repositioning Cruises

If you don’t mind a one-way cruise, then a repositioning cruise could be your next best cruise deal. When a cruise line has to move one of their ships from one homeport to a new homeport, sometimes you can snag a really great cruise deal. And this could be almost any time of year. Just be prepared to pay for a one-way flight home.

9. Cruise During The Off-Season, Also Known As Shoulder Season

If you don’t easily get upset by weather-related travel issues, then a cruise during what’s known as shoulder season might be the cheapest cruise deal around. Shoulder season runs in the spring and fall, when the seasons begin to change. Especially noteworthy is of course the fall hurricane season if you’re craving a Caribbean cruise. You can always find a cruise deal at that time of year. But beware and ALWAYS buy travel insurance.

What’s wrong with a spring cruise? Nothing much except if you’re cruising from the Northeast area from Boston and NYC to Charleston for a Caribbean cruise. Late spring storms crop up out of seemingly nowhere and that one particular stretch of ocean can be really rough. Same for a cruise out of Los Angeles at that time of year.

Cruise Lines put up holiday decorations long before and after the actual holiday. Pre-Christmas offers some of the best cruise deals.

10. Cruise Pre- Or Post-Holidays

One thing I learned after 25 years of selling cruises and 12 years of writing about them is that some of the best deals can be found:

  • Departures on first two or three days after New Year’s
  • The week before Thanksgiving
  • In the first two weeks in December
  • At the very end of August, before most schools start
  • After schools begin, somewhere around the second week of September (see shoulder season cruises above)

11. Develop A Relationship With A Knowledgeable Cruise-Focused Travel Agent

Working with someone you know and trust makes more sense than spending hours chasing down a bargain on a computer. More times than not, if it’s too good to be true, it usually is.

Online mega-sized travel (not cruise) agencies may charge hidden service fees, cancellation fees and even penalty fees for name changes. Sometimes the fees or penalties are written in grey and in teeny, tiny font. If you should find something fabulous online, let your travel agent know and they can almost always match it or do better.

Travel agents also know when the cruise lines open their new deployment schedules. A home-based travel agent has access to the same sailings and rates as do the huge online agencies. Let your travel agent know what’s on your cruise bucket list and they can watch for it to become “open to sell” and grab the best rates and the most onboard amenities on the first day.

There you have it –  eleven ways to find the best cruise deal and value for your money. PS. If you have any tips for securing a good cruise price, please leave a comment to share with others. Happy cruising!

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