8 Ways to Find Cruising's Best Bargains in 2012
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.
We pumped a couple of knowledgeable cruise sellers for their best tips on finding low cruise fares, especially as 2012 is something of an anomaly year for deal-seekers. Cruise lines generally launch their splashiest sales in January and February -- what industry insiders call "Wave Season," when they hope to entice people to book by offering free upgrades, free or reduced-cost air and reasonable cruise fares. However, Wave Season was temporarily derailed in 2012 when Costa Concordia sank, causing cruise lines to suspend advertising for a short while and distracted vacationers to delay making vacation decisions. The upshot? Some great last-minute Mediterranean deals for April, but as of yet, no long-term impact or fire-sale deals are expected.
Where else can you turn for the year's best bargains? 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. "Even luxury lines are putting lower prices up front." "Regent Seven Seas, Silversea and Crystal (somewhat) are raising rates quarterly."
Some lines, such as Oceania, release their best deals early (two-for-one fares, free airfare, extra discounts) and 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."
And just because you see an intriguing promotion now does not mean it'll be repeated later on. "You can't bank on deals happening."
The agents' advice? "If you see it, book it." If a lower published fare comes out for your sailing prior to the final payment period, many lines will adjust the rate for you 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 stateroom location. And by booking early, you have a much better chance of getting the exact vacation you want.
Why? Availability. "All travelers should book as far in advance as possible." "This ensures they have the widest range of products and destination options." Many cruise lines are releasing 2014 fares in early 2012 because people want to lock in their preferences as soon as possible.
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."
And you're running out of time to be an early bird for certain cruises in 2012. "Summer Caribbean cruises are hot." Families, especially, are flocking to lines like Carnival and Royal Caribbean, and those ships are filling quickly.
"Hawaii has always been a sought-after cruise destination, but it continues increasing in popularity even today." "With limited capacity in Hawaii, ships are selling out very quickly."
On the luxury side, one top seller is shorter cruises, such as Regent's seven-night Europe cruises. As luxury lines expand their target audiences, they're attracting working professionals who are opting for weeklong sailings, rather than two-week trips.
Everyone we talked to agreed that river cruising is hot in 2012, and inventory is limited. (Despite the explosion of new ships, riverboats are much smaller than oceangoing vessels.) The pros recommend booking eight to 10 months in advance.
2. Time your purchase right.
In general, aim your purchase for six to 12 months in advance for cruises that sail during prime time, including spring break and summer.
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.
It used to be that holiday sailings needed to be booked a year in advance, but that advice is now outdated. "For the past few years, our holiday sailings have not done very well, and there have been great deals if you book last minute, starting in October, actually," he says. "I think we will see the same thing this year, so unless you have a large group or need an exact cabin location, I would recommend waiting a bit to book." He believes the interest in holiday cruises will come back as the economy rebounds, so don't get too comfortable with last minute holiday bookings.
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 may 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 now 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.
4. Know your cruise seasons to find discounts or extra-value promotions.
If you're looking for discounts, it helps to "know the good months for value." For Europe, look for specials from late March through April and again from mid-September to November. In Alaska, 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.
When playing the soft-season game, 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 that 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 2012's itineraries and booking trends is the key to snagging a deal, since you'll know where to look for the lowest prices.
The number one spot to look for deals this year is Europe. This is due to a combination of over-capacity in the region, high airfares and a concern over the economy. Keen says to look for "deals on mega-ships in the Mediterranean and Europe during the May and September shoulder season." "Europe is on sale." September through December cruises offer good value, as there's less family demand -- and even nice weather early on.
While some agents warn that high airfares may eat up your savings, the cost of flights may not be as much of a factor as people think. "The fact is, airfare to Europe has significantly decreased in recent weeks because of the weaker than expected demand, making cruising in Europe much more affordable." Still, it can be hit and miss, as "all of the major lines are sold out on some Europe sailings."
Alaska cruises, especially early-season sailings, may also be a good bet for bargains. "We're starting to see hot shoulder-season deals." "May sailings are as low as $449 -- we haven't seen $399 yet but think it's coming. The deals are likely to migrate into June." His advice: Look for the best deals on one-way sailings, and don't expect price drops on balcony cabins or cruisetours, which typically sell out. In addition, Bermuda cruises out of Baltimore and New York can be "spotty."
When it comes to ships, everyone agrees that new ships -- like Disney Fantasy and Oceania's Marina and Riviera -- are hot ... and pricey. You won't find too many deals on these popular vessels. But, if you insist on something new, we have a suggestion: "Older ships are wonderfully refurbished with new venues added." "They're also a much better deal on the same itineraries."
6. Work the discounts.
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. "Keep an eye on your favorite discounter and watch the promos, 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. Norwegian offers between 5 and 30 percent off cruise fares for military personnel and union members, but you've got 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 or river cruise.
The success of the luxury and luxury-lite lines may have to do with various value-added deals like free hotel stays, free or discounted shore excursions, thousands of dollars in onboard credit and free airfare (Oceania, Silversea, Regent).
Booking through an agency that is a member of a consortium, such as Signature or Virtuoso. These affiliations offer added value to customers; for example, The Cruise Authority, a member of Signature, has a consortium offer for a free car and driver for Crystal and Silversea bookings.
Booking early is definitely the key with luxury. "Not all sailings go up in price, but the best-selling sailings do" 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, however, 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 may have access to lower fares than the lines themselves.
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." "If you want to upgrade from premium to luxury, try off-season Caribbean, May and September Alaska or fall Europe." For example, we have seen six- and seven-night Caribbean cruises on Regent Seven Seas sell for $1,400 or $1,500 per person on fall sailings -- excellent rates for a line that includes many vacation costs (drinks, tips, etc.) in its fares.
Repositioning cruises -- one-way, end-of-season sailings when cruise ships move from one cruising region to another -- can also be great bargains.
Finding a bargain on a river cruise today is difficult, but you can do it. There are some deals for fall (including a few $999 deals), but if you can pay $1,500 - $2,000 per person for a weeklong cruise on a line like Avalon or Viking, you're doing well. Uniworld routinely waives the single supplements on select dates, including popular itineraries, so solo travelers should keep an eye out for those offers. And don't be fooled by two-for-one cruise fare promotions; the lines have likely inflated the original price, so the half-off fare is what they'd offer anyway.
Warning: Think twice before jumping on an off-season deal. River cruising has a small shoulder season, usually the first few weeks at the beginning and end of the river cruise season. But the weather is not ideal -- typically cold and rainy in the spring and possibly snowy on winter Christmas Markets cruises. You may also find yourself on a bus tour if heavy rains make sections of the river impassable.
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.
Which cruise you pick can 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." And keep in mind that flights are cheaper on Tuesday or Wednesday.
Finally, don't forget about how much money you're likely to spend onboard on drinks, spa treatments, souvenirs and activities. "You may be shocked with what you've paid onboard."