How to Get the Best Cruise Deals

| January 5, 2009

Getting the best cruise deal is easy if you know how to do it. How to find the best cruise deals possible.

As 2009 dawns in the midst of a global recession and slumping consumer demand, there are fantastic cruise deals to be had everywhere. January marks the beginning of the cruise industry's "Wave Season," when major lines traditionally trot out the best cruise deals of the year; but this time, due to consumer angst and reduced spending, the bargains are likely to be better than ever.

Finding the Best Cruise Deal -- the Process

Let's say your sole goal is to find the cheapest seven-day cruise possible. That assumes you are not really concerned about which cruise line you take, or even where you go, as long as you sail on a fairly new ship with good food and service. (It is hard to find a bad ship these days, since the vast majority of those available to American and European passengers were built in the last 15 years. Most lines have several ships built since 2000, and all of them are still in top condition when it comes to interior d�cor and amenities. They all have modern theaters, children's facilities, the latest food services and top-notch staterooms.)

So to find the best cruise deal possible, start with cruise agency and cruise web site newsletters. This naturally includes Cruisemates' cruise bargains area, where you will find links to our bi-weekly newsletters: CruiseMates Best Cruise Bargains and our CruiseMates' Best of the Web Cruise Bargains.

These newsletters will tell you what some of the best cruise agencies have on sale this week. There is no bargain like a current bargain, and there is no better way to know what is "hot" in cruise bargains than to subscribe to cruise newsletters from CruiseMates -- and those from various cruise travel agencies.

So the number one rule in finding cruise deals is:

1. Use 'Cruise Bargain' Newsletters

But these newsletters are just the start. Once you see an actual deal, we recommend that you click on the link. Why? Because any deal you see might not last too long. Cruise pricing does not work the way most people think it does. Many travelers assume cruise lines set prices similar to railroads, that the same ship plies the same route year 'round and charges a set price regardless of the time of year or number of available staterooms.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Cruise lines base their pricing on the airline model of yield management and capacity control. That means that the price of a given cabin on a specific cruise is subject to change at any time, since it is determined by the amount of available space on the ship and the number of days before it sails. In general, cruise prices are updated every morning, but they can change at any time.

So the very same itinerary, on the same ship, in the same cabin could be selling for drastically different rates from one week to the next, if one week is nearly sold out while the next week is almost completely open.

This leads us to rule number two of finding cruise deals:

2. Be Date-Flexible

No matter what kind of cruise you want, always leave your specific travel dates open, enough to cover at least two months, because you never know which week will have the best prices. As an example, lets look at prices on the Celebrity Solstice for February 2009. Today, I see the following prices for an outside cabin on the following dates:

February 1 $949
February 8 $1079
February 15 $949
February 22 $1149
March 1 1129

For the same ship, itinerary and cabin category, the price varies by as much as $200 per person. Why? Capacity control. The goal of the cruise line is to sell out the ship on every cruise and it will do so, or come close, every time. It's basic supply and demand: When bookings go up, so do prices for the remaining unsold cabins.

So being date-flexible you can save a significant amount. Let's combine the two above rules and see what happens.

In the current CruiseMates Cruise Bargains Newsletter (Dec. 30, 2008), we see Holland America Veendam sailing a seven-day Western Caribbean cruise from Tampa to Key West, Belize, Guatemala and Costa Maya, Mexico.

Contrary to popular belief, "last-minute" cruise prices are NOT the biggest bargains. In this case we see the following pricing:

Date Inside Oceanview Balcony Suite
January 4 Sold Out $999 $1499 $2649
January 11 Sold Out Sold Out Sold Out Sold Out
January 18 Sold Out $1099 $1299 $2749
February 1 Sold Out $599 $1299 $2749
February 8 Sold Out $599 $1599 $2849
February 15 Sold Out $599 $1299 $2849
March 1 Sold Out $599 $1299 $2899

The closest-in cruises tend to be the most expensive. This proves that as the ship fills up, the price goes up. Why do the cruise lines do this? The only people likely to book this cruise at the last minute are those who only want this ship and sail date -- perhaps because some other family members are going on this cruise. If they want it, they are going to have to pay for it.

Let's posit one more rule before we move on.

As you look at cruise pricing, you will start to notice a "sweet spot" for the best rates in terms of timing your booking. Right now, the sweet spot is about 30 to 60 days out -- not too close and not too far out. This will change depending on the market. In a better economy, the best prices might be found a year before the cruise date, but right now, cruises a year away are actually priced higher than those a month away. If the cruises were selling better, that would not be true. An educated buyer would see that ships are still selling out (or close to it) -- but close to the last minute, not months in advance.

And so we can state rule number three:

3. Determine the "Sweet Spot" for cruise pricing in terms of days out.

Once you have determined when the best prices are available, book at that time. Keep in mind this does not cancel out the earlier rule about being date flexible. If you need to sail on a specific departure, you should book earlier just in case that cruise starts to sell out earlier than you expect. If you see the exact cruise you want is getting more expensive, book it immediately -- it is not going to get any cheaper.

Now let's move on to the next step, rule number four:

4. Call the cruise agent for a better price.

A lot of people won't believe this, but you should ALWAYS call and book your cruise with a qualified cruise travel agency over the phone. Yes, you might get the same deal by booking online, but in reality there are some offers a travel agent can only tell you about over the phone. The major lines impose rules on cruise agents that bar them from advertising certain discounts or posting them on their web sites. They are not even allowed to say "Call us for bigger discounts."

We can tell you that, however, because CruiseMates is not a cruise agency.

When you call the agency, ask them: "Are there any additional discounts that I qualify for?" They may say "actually, we are offering free travel protection this week," or something similar. And they should run down the list of other questions you may not have thought of, such as:

Are you a member of the military or a veteran?

Are you a shareholder?

Where do live? (Regional discounts may apply.)

Which cruise lines have you sailed on previously?

There are also many other discount qualifiers, but those are the most common. In terms of past passenger status, it pays off to keep track. Keep in mind that with Carnival you also get credit for sailing on Princess, Holland America, Seabourn, Costa, Cunard and other lines the company owns.

With Royal Caribbean you also get credit for previous sailings on Celebrity Cruises, Azamara and the European brands it owns.

Other Considerations

Another factor that always affects cruise prices is the season. Whether that means "summer" or "holiday season," there are certain times of the year when cruises cost more. Let's look at when cruises get cheaper:

(1). Off-season cruises -- including the weeks just before and after the Christmas/New Years holidays, i.e., mid-December or mid-January -- are cheaper. Cruises that might appeal to families, such as summer vacation or holiday cruises, tend to cost more.

(2). Repositioning cruises are cheaper. This is a cruise to move a ship from one seasonal cruising region to another. For example, our newsletter shows a 17-day transatlantic voyage from Ft Lauderdale to Italy selling for an astounding $549 per person inside cabin. Why is this cruise so cheap? It is currently close to a sweet spot as it sails March 15, 2009. It is in the off-season of mid-spring. It is too long to appeal to families, so the ship is not likely to sell out.

(3). Older ships are cheaper. Most people want to sail on the newest ships with the most bells and whistles. However, many cruise lovers do not care about ice-skating rinks or having four alternative dining spots. For these people an older ship where they can just enjoy the peace and quiet of life at sea is perfect -- and a bargain.

Summing Up

Everyone loves a bargain, but you have to determine what is most important to you. If you think 17 days of crossing the Atlantic in March will make you claustrophobic or seasick, then it isn't a bargain at any price. But for many people, any cruise selling at about $30 per person, per day is a real steal!

The main things to remember are the rules outlined above. Consult the newsletters to find bargains you may have never thought of looking for, like that 17-night cruise for $549. Next, be date-flexible if you want a certain ship. Try to determine which season is cheapest for that ship, and when the pricing sweet spot occurs. Try not to book too early or too late for the best price. And always call the travel agent for the best price. You never know what additional discounts or credits may apply.

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