The majority of cruise passengers reserve their vacations through a travel agent — preferably one with experience in cruises. It's a system that works well for the cruise lines, agents, and consumers. But for DIY types, there are lessons to learn from the pros that can help you make the right choices:
The first thing a professional cruise agent does with a new client is “qualify” the client. Agents ask questions to make sure they can meet clients' needs in terms of matching them to the right ship and the right itinerary at the right price. So ask yourself: What do you really want out of your cruise vacation? Are you looking for all the attractions of a mega resort? Or do you want a laid-back experience with few fellow passengers? Do you want to visit an exotic destination? Will you be traveling with kids and want them occupied? Make a list of your wants and needs.
Don't just peruse the cruise lines websites. Visit third-party sites and read reviews from travelers — like those on Cruiseline.com and see what people are saying on social media sites, too. This will help you hone in on a ship that's right for you — plus give you ideas of what to do once you're onboard. While you're at it, research options for shore excursions and other port activities as well.
Put thought into your cabin selection.
Unlike at a hotel, you can choose a specific room on a cruise ship. This gives you control, but it also requires due diligence. For instance, an aft-facing balcony cabin may have a larger balcony than one facing starboard, or a particular cabin may be in a noisy spot, such as under the disco venue or jogging track. This information will not be noted in the cabin description. It's important to study deck plans carefully to ensure you're choosing appropriate accommodations — and getting the most for your money.
Consider a "guaranteed" cabin.
Book with this option, and you'll choose a category rather than a specific cabin; you’re then guaranteed a room in that category or higher. It's a way to save, but it's also a gamble. You may get an upgrade, or you may get a less desirable cabin in your category. Clever agents can target specific categories on specific ships where upgrades are more likely to occur, but you may also be able to pick up hints in reviews.
Monitor fares before and after you book.
Cruise pricing is complicated, and it's rare that anyone pays full price. Discounts start with early-bird fares, which save you 25 to 50 percent and are listed in brochures. A few months before a sailing, a line with substantial unsold space may begin offering more extreme last-minute discounts. On top of that, cruise lines periodically launch special, limited-availability offers, such as two-for-one sales, kids cruise free deals, and onboard credit perks. All this requires careful monitoring, but luckily Cruiseline.com has a "Track Prices" feature that keeps an eye on price fluctuations for you. If you see a better fare after you book, call the cruise line and ask if your fare can be reduced.
Explore other dates.
There are weeks that fares on the same route may be cheaper, such as during fall — after the kids are in school. But even at other times, moving your travel dates by just a week may save you big bucks. One sailing may be practically sold out and commanding top fares because a big group is onboard, for instance, while the next sailing is empty and selling at a discount. Play around with dates to see if you can find a better deal.
Learn the nuances.
You don't want your vacation to cost hundreds of dollars more than you planned. When comparing prices on your own, make sure you understand everything that's included. Is the cruise line quoting the base price without port charges, fees, and taxes — or are those included in the rate you’re seeing? What extra charges might you encounter onboard? Also carefully review policies for how and when you actually pay for your cruise, from the initial deposit to the final payment.
See if you qualify for target discounts.
Cruise lines periodically make targeted offers. For instance, active and retired members of the military, seniors (age 55 or older), or residents of a particular state may save 5 percent or more with these specials.
Don't let “sold out” scare you off.
If you see a desirable itinerary or cabin and it’s listed online as sold out, call the cruise line to see if you can get on a waitlist. Not everyone who plops down a deposit actually goes on the cruise, so the status may change, in which case you’ll be the first one to get a cabin if one becomes available.