Booking a cruise is complicated — prices change based on cabin availability, and determining whether you’re getting the best deal is tough. Here, our best advice for booking the ship you want at the best price possible:
Know this: Most cruises sail full.
Since cruise lines make their money as much on the extras — drinks, shore excursions, the casino — as they do on the fares, the lines make a serious effort to fill up every cabin on every cruise. That means if you can be flexible on dates, ships, and itineraries, you can probably get a good deal close to the time of sailing.
You’ll get the best deals on older ships.
Because new ships have an easy audience of people who’ve been waiting for the launch and cruise line fans who always want to try the hottest new thing, the older ships are more likely to have deep discounts. Just don’t expect the latest amenities, like water slides, ropes courses, and recently launched specialty restaurants.
Look for value weeks.
The weeks after three major national, nonreligious holidays tend to be the quietest of the year on cruise ships: New Year’s, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving. Best of all, if you hosted friends and family — and stayed in town, without taking vacation time — you may need a holiday to recuperate, and be able to get off work for a week without a problem.
It’s the airfare that will cost you.
If you track last-minute deals, you’ll find that if you discover one, typically it’s the airfare that you’ll need to pay a premium for if you book at the eleventh hour. As a result, the best value you’ll get on your overall cruise vacation is on a ship within driving distance. Fortunately, many mass-market lines have taken to porting ships in a variety of U.S. home ports — from Boston to New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, New Orleans, Galveston, and Seattle — so, depending on the time of year, you’ll find options that aren’t just in Florida and California.
Consider an early booking deal with a price back guarantee.
If you do book early, look for programs that allow you to get a refund if the price drops closer to the sailing. Carnival Cruise Lines, for example, offers an Early Saver program, and it’s not the only line to do so: Azamara Club Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, and Royal Caribbean also offer a Best Price Guarantee.