|By Paul Motter
While this one bit of knowledge can help you find the best cruise bargain and save money every time - I have also found it to be one of the most misunderstood aspects of cruise pricing - especially for the uninitiated. It has to do with how the cruise lines decide how much a cruise should cost.
The single most important piece of knowledge you need before buying a cruise:
People who ride on ferries, busses or trains are used to paying the same fare whenever they choose to travel. But a cruise ship that repeats the same itinerary on a regular schedule does not have a "set fare" for that cruise. The fare will vary week to week - and sometimes changing your sail date can yield savings in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
In fact, when it comes to specific and identical cruises (same ship, itinerary, accommodations), the cruise lines rarely have a set price or charge the same amount for even two weeks in a row. The price varies weekly, and it will also vary according to the type of accomodations you want, an inside cabin vs. a suite, for example. The price may go up for one while the other gets cheaper.
Why Cruise Prices Vary Week to Week
Cruise pricing is based solely upon supply and demand. Cruise lines use a model invented by the airlines called "capacity control." The idea is to fill each sailing with as many buyers at the highest prices possible. This means the main determining factor for the price of any given stateroom on any cruise will always be "demand."
Take any specific repeating cruise as an example; a seven day cruise to the Caribbean on a popular cruise line sailing from Miami to the Eastern Caribbean every Sunday for the next year. The schedule was announced anywhere from nine to 24 months in advance, but the prices were not revealed until the cruise was available for purchase.
There are always a few basic rules to price certain sail dates higher or lower than others; Cruises sailing during summer vacation will always be priced higher than cruises during school months, because summer is family vacation season. Holiday cruises are always priced higher as well. Another popular season for cruises is the "Wave Season" which now starts in January and may extend through April or even May.
The slowest season of the year for most cruises is the autumn; September through mid-December, because this is just after summer vacation. People are pre-occupied with the holidays, election-season and the kids starting school, plus the weather is not yet tediously cold in the northeast - a big incentive for tropical Caribbean cruises. Autumn is known as "value-season" with cruise trade insiders, although you won't hear this term much in consumer circles.
Once a cruise season goes on sale future cruise prices can change on a daily basis. As certain sail dates fill more quickly than others the prices will be adjusted higher or lower. The line will drop the prices on the cruise that has more availability while a ship that is fuller will get higher prices, because the cruise line is already reasonably sure this will be a profitable sailing.
The goal is to sail full on every cruise - and believe it or not, the cruise lines manage to do this very well. It is a rare cruise that does not sail with a number of passengers higher than the berth capacity (defined as the number of "beds on the floor" - generally two people per room). A ship sailing at berth capacity is considered 100% full, yet many staterooms will also have third and fourth passengers - usually kids - and that takes the ship's capacity beyond 100% for that cruise. The average passenger load factor in a given year for the popular cruise lines is 103% or more. Obviously, the cruise lines have the art of selling cruises down to a science.
The goal to sell out every ship might fool one into thinking that last minute cruise prices are bargains. Not necessarily. In fact, if a ship is already close to full a month before it sails then last-minute prices are often far higher than average. The cruise lines know that people who want to join friends or family on that specific ship at the last minute will be willing to pay more.
However, if a ship has not sold well, then you may very well find last minute bargains in the few weeks before the cruise sails. But this is not a strategy I recommend. Last minute cruise bargains exist but are rare - and you may end up in a less desirable cabin and pay more for airfare.
Bottom line - the only sure cruise bargain strategy is to be date-flexible and to book your cruise when you see a great price. There is no guarantee the same price will still be there tomorrow. Booking early also gets you better cabin selection and usually better airfare as well.