The most basic factor -- and one we sometimes don't have much control over -- is the availability of vacation days from work. Some of us have limited vacation time, or must deal with restrictions on when we can use vacation time, as dictated by our jobs. Flexibility, or lack thereof, determines how broad our choices are.
Financial: When Are the Best Prices Available?
As a general rule, the best prices of the year for cruises are immediately before or after traditional holiday periods. The couple of weeks before Christmas/New Years, and immediately after, have traditionally been the least expensive weeks of the year to cruise. Likewise, before or after other holidays like Thanksgiving, Easter, etc. you'll often find lower pricing.
That's not to say that you won't find cheaper cruises at other times.
If you have flexibility in your travel plans, remember that three to six weeks prior to sailing, the cruise lines often put their remaining cabin space on sale. Lately, ships have been sailing at close to 100 percent capacity, so if you do wait for these close-in sales, be aware that your choice of cabin types and locations could be very limited. But if you don't see that as a deterrent, and would be happy anywhere on the ship, you can save a significant amount by going this route.
For years, the basic pricing structure of the cruise lines has been a sort of Bell Curve: They offer a significantly discounted cruise to those who book very early, then let prices rise as bookings increase. This reverses as the sailing date approaches, with prices coming down in order to sell off the remaining inventory. The cruise lines use computerized yield management programs to dictate when prices go up and down. Sometimes anomalies occur, because even super-computer programs can't always effectively predict human behavior. For example, I've personally seen times when balcony cabins were selling for less than inside cabins, because the yield management programs saw demand for inside cabins exceeding the demand for balcony cabins.
In the past 24 months, the major cruise lines instituted a pricing policy that forbids travel agencies from advertising rates that are lower than the cruise line's own rates. Royal Caribbean and Celebrity forbid travel agencies not only to advertise lower rates, but also to sell cruises below the rate the cruise lines are charging. The exception is discounted group rates that agencies negotiate with the cruise lines.
However, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity limit the amount of time agents can hold onto the cabins at discounted group rates. Thus if you happen to see a discounted group rate advertised on a sailing you'd like, book it when you see it. Any significant delay could result in that rate being changed if the cruise line takes back the agency's unsold group space.
Other cruise lines, while forbidding the advertising of rates lower than their own, will allow travel agencies to discount the prices by lowering their own commissions on the transaction, but they can only do so during direct contact with the potential customer.
This means you might not see the real best price just by scanning the advertised prices on travel agent web sites. In fact, in surfing their web sites, you may see prices that are all the same from one to the next. The only way to assure yourself that you're getting the best rate from an agency is through direct contact, via an e-mail inquiry or phone call.
Hurricane season (roughly June 1 - Nov. 30) can also produce lower pricing on Caribbean itineraries. This is not so true in the summer months, when many people with families have to cruise. But from September through November, cruise prices are reduced considerably to encourage people to risk the weather.
The obvious caveat in booking these fall Caribbean sailings is that itineraries can be instantly changed to steer clear of major storms or hurricanes. If you are choosing a ship for specific ports of call, I would recommend never booking your cruise during this time. On the other hand, if you're prepared to accept possible changes in your itinerary, you can often get some great buys.
Whether Weather Will Affect Your Cruise
One of the most common questions I'm asked is, "How will the weather be on my cruise?"
Of course, that depends on the itinerary and the time of year you're sailing.
We all know weather is unpredictable to a certainty. You can look up average seasonal temperatures for all areas of the world on many weather forecasting web sites. But that never guarantees the weather you'll experience -- it only gives an historical perspective of the weather for that area.
Historically, weather in the Caribbean is temperate. The temperatures generally don't vary by more than 10-15 degrees year-round. In the summer one can expect temperatures in the higher end of the range, with increased humidity. But even that can vary depending on storms passing through an area, and the threat of hurricanes.
On Alaska cruises you can expect enormous variances in the types of weather you may encounter. Early in the season (May and early June), and late in the season (September), you could encounter temperatures in the 40s and 50s Fahrenheit. During Alaska's peak season (mid-June through mid-September), you can expect temperatures anywhere from the 50s to mid or high 70s.
For Alaska cruises, be prepared to encounter any of the four seasons at any time, and sometimes all four during a seven-day cruise. I've personally sailed late in the season several times and been lucky enough to have shorts/bathing suit weather the entire cruise, but I could have easily experienced "parka weather" instead.
For Mediterranean cruises, one can expect typically warm, even hot, weather in the summer months. Early spring and late fall cruises will encounter slightly cooler and more variable weather patterns. Frankly, on European cruises with their port-intensive itineraries and busy touring schedules ashore, I prefer the weather a bit cooler. Another benefit to cruising during the cooler times is that shore-side attractions will be less crowded. August is traditionally a major vacation time for Europeans, so during that month tourism throughout Europe is at a peak.
Baltic and Northern Europe itineraries are similar to Alaska cruises in terms of weather. The late spring and summer months are the most reliable as far as weather is concerned, but cooler temperatures are still possible, so you should be prepared with rain gear and some warmer clothing if the weather turns cool.
Those who choose Panama Canal cruises can generally expect relatively hot temperatures year-round as they head farther south, and during the transit of the Panama Canal. If you're sailing a full transit of the Canal, depending on the time of year, the temperatures will naturally cool some as the ship heads north.
Other X Factors
In choosing the best time to cruise, there are other factors to consider that are more specific to your direct interests or needs.
Those who travel with young families want to be certain that other families will be onboard, and that children's programs are available. If you're traveling while schools are out session, you can almost be guaranteed there will be many others with the same circumstances who can only travel during that time. Therefore it's a given that other families will be onboard, and full children's programs with full allotments of "kids crew" will be available.
On the flip side, there are those who prefer cruises where they'll be least likely to encounter children onboard.
Cruising while schools are in session will certainly reduce the numbers of kids on the ships. However, on regular seven-day Caribbean sailings on the mass-market lines, you might be surprised at how many families take their children out of school, and/or bring young toddlers along.
If you're truly interested in cruising with a minimal number of children, the rule of thumb is, "the longer the cruise, the fewer children."
Anything cruises of eight days or longer will normally attract an older crowd, and few children of any age.
If you have questions about more issues specific to your situation, I recommend posting them on our message boards, where thousands of highly experienced cruisers will most certainly jump in to assist in answering your queries.