1. Related "Getting There" Cruise Costs
When planning a cruise vacation it is important to understand that while cruises are considered "inclusive vacations" they are not considered "all-inclusive" except on the pricier cruise lines. For example, the typical Caribbean cruise on a mainstream cruise line like Carnival will include room and board (your stateroom and all meals) and shipboard entertainment. The cruise also includes your itinerary; stops at various ports of call.
While there is no entry fee to the vast majority of ports, some places do require acquiring a visa before your arrive. Visa rules vary greatly by destination, but whoever is selling you any particular cruise should have complete information about any visas that may be required. If not, you can always visit the U.S. State Department web site at www.state.gov. This is an excellent resource for many travel questions including passport requirements, prohibited items for import, consulate locations and the visa requirements for U.S. citizens in various nations worldwide.
Countries where cruisers commonly encounter Visa requirements include Turkey, Brazil and Russia. Each of these countries has its own rules – so be prepared. The most important cost consideration for visas is the price of NOT having one – you may be denied entry to a country or even your cruise if you don't have the proper visa.
Cruise Tip: If your passport comes from someplace other than the United States, even if you are a U.S. citizen through marriage, you may still need a visa to visit many places – take a copy of your marriage license.
Cruise Tip: Four day cruises are usually the same price or cheaper than three-day cruises because a three day cruise only requires one full day off from work, while a four day cruise sails Monday night through Friday morning. If you are retired and want a quieter cruise at a cheaper per diem cost – take the four-day cruise.
2. Timing Your Cruise Purchase
Most people think about where they would like to cruise first, and then they think about a convenient time to take a vacation. This is backwards. Getting a real cruise bargain is like finding a Van Gogh in a Goodwill Store – you never know when it will happen, and when it does you had better grab it quickly or it could disappear soon. Many cruise novices make the mistake of thinking cruise prices are calculated like train fares, with a set price on a recurring timetable and prices directly related to mileage. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The cruise industry has created a business model that depends upon filling up every ship at any price. The closest comparison is airlines and hotels, pricing is purely based on supply and demand where the supplier has what is called a "perishable commodity," meaning they can't sell a stateroom on a cruise that has already sailed.
Cruise prices are set over a year in advance, but the prices will change as the sail date gets closer. If the ship still has room close to the sail date the prices can drop drastically as the cruise gets closer – solely depending on how full that ship gets. Logically, this implies the best deals are to be had by waiting until the last minute. But there is no guarantee this will happen, and waiting too long can be a big mistake.
The cruise lines have a target capacity – 100% of "berth capacity," meaning a number equal to all the cabins filled at double occupancy. But in actuality the ship can be sold at 100% berth capacity with extra passengers in many cabins, but it still has empty cabins available. At this point the cruise line may decide the ship is full enough and raise prices for that ship, to a point even higher than where they started. The logic is that anyone who wants to cruise on that specific ship at a late date probably has a good reason; it's their only vacation time, or they want to join friends onboard. They know these people will pay a premium to get on that ship.
The buyer never knows which direction prices are going until you see them change. They may go down one week and up drastically the next, because a ship that was relatively empty suddenly hit its mark in capacity.
There are no "best time to buy a cruise" rules – merely rough guidelines and understanding cruise pricing tactics. Historically here is what I found; in 2007 the Caribbean was soft in demand, so it had the best prices. In 2008 it was Mexico, in 2009 it was Alaska, in 2010 it was the Eastern Mediterranean, in 2011 it was the Western Mediterranean.
So, here is the secret: The best approach to cruising is to grab a bargain when you see one. In my experience, if you do this for five years you are likely to cruise to a different region every year. Let the whims of nature decide where you are going to go and eventually you will see every cruise region you want to see.