Cruise prices fluctuate widely. Even though you might expect prices to vary from cruise line to cruise, or even ship to ship, but you might not know that they also vary according to cabin location, cruise destination, and availability. Smart travelers have learned how to save on their cruises by following these tips.
BE FLEXIBLE ON DATES
Some seasons are more popular than others for sailing. If a sailing is "soft", that is, not all cabins are booked, cruise lines lower the price to fill the ship. So leaving a week later can get you the same cruise (same ship, same itinerary) for a lower price. Ask your travel agent about all departure-date options.
LOOK FOR SEASONAL DISCOUNTS
Many itineraries are based on seasons. Alaskan cruises are typically offered from May to September; European and Caribbean cruises are usually between November and April. Off-season sailings always cost less, but even within the off-season, prices for different departure dates can differ considerably. In Alaska, for example, the two largest cruise lines, Princess and Holland America, actually price their seven-day cruises in six different "seasons". The difference from the highest "high season" to the lowest "low season" can be considerable. Again, this is for the same ship on the same itinerary. The same is true for Europe and the Caribbean.
CONSIDER A CRUISE TO NOWHERE
If you're intrigued by the idea of a cruise but are not yet ready to commit your vacation to a specific destination, ask your travel agent about a short "cruise to nowhere." On a "nowhere" cruise there are no ports of call and no real itinerary. You set sail, float at sea, and return home. That's it. These cruises last between two and four days, usually over a weekend, and they cost only a few hundred dollars. The level of luxury will be the same as on a longer cruise.
CHOOSE A POPULAR DESTINATION
Some destinations are more expensive than others. Popular locations like the Caribbean tend to cost less than trips to more remote regions like Russia or Scandinavia. If the purpose of your trip is more to enjoy the ship than to visit specific places, stick with the higher-traffic routes with lower prices.
It's in the best interest of the cruise lines to fill ships quickly, so most offer low prices to people who book from three to six months in advance. Cruise lines often guarantee that if the price goes down after you book, they'll give you the better price or refund the difference - although you have to ask. Your travel agent can also arrange it so that you'll be upgraded to a better cabin on a "soft sailing". Again, you have to ask.
In addition to early-booking discounts, there are also last-minute discounts. Like discounted seats on an airplane, these reduced-price cabins may be hard to find, and not all travel agencies offer them. The cruise line may offer its unsold cabins only to its top-selling agencies. Or the line may designate only agencies in certain geographical areas. For example, only people in Vancouver may be able to get a last-minute deal on cruises to Alaska. Keep in mind that these last-minute promotions - and many other special fares such as two-for-one deals - often involve only the price of the cruise (airfare is extra).
BUY INTERNATIONAL AIR-SEA PACKAGES
If you need to fly to the point of embarkation, agencies and even cruise lines typically offer what's known as an air-sea package, which usually includes cruise fare and airfare all in one. This type of package makes most sense if you're flying internationally, where the cost of airfare is typically very high. The great benefit of an air-sea package is that if your flight is delayed or canceled, the cruise line will make arrangements to catch up to the cruise. If you book your flight separately and miss the plane, however, you're on your own - the cruise line is not required to assist you or issue a refund. You may also be able to get a precruise package, which includes an overnight in the departure city and plenty of time before you set sail.
BOOK DOMESTIC AIR SEPARATELY
If you're flying domestically, consider buying your plane ticket independently - not from the cruise line. You may be able to snag a great airfare. Check the Internet, call the airlines directly, and speak with your travel agent. Always do some checking yourself. It's easy enough to make a few phone calls, and it's a great yardstick by which to measure the best deal that anyone quotes you. Airline competition is fierce within the United States, and if your flights involve major hub cities within the United States ,say, Miami and your home city, you may be able to beat the cruise line's price, especially if you book far enough in advance.
LOOK FOR TWO-FOR-ONE OR BACK-TO-BACK DEALS
Many cruise lines and agents offer discounts if you book more than one cruise at the same time. The discounts may be significant. Ask your agent or the cruise line if the price you want would be reduced if you booked another cruise for later in the same year. However, if you see an ad for a special two-for-one deal, read the fine print - you don't want to find out after the fact that you're making up the difference in price by paying top dollar for flights or special accommodations.
DON'T FORGET FAMILY AND SENIOR DISCOUNTS
Many deals are family-oriented, with special "kids cruise for free" bargains or special discounts on multiple rooms. As you consider these options with your travel agent, make sure you ask for the fine print. One family-oriented cruise line advertises a special bargain with free cruises for kids under 11, but the kids have to be accompanied by two adults who also pay full airfare through the cruise line's service, with all guests staying in the same cabin.
If you're 55 or over, ask your agent about discounts for senior citizens. Not all cruises offer senior discounts; rather, you'll find your best deals by taking advantage of special senior citizen promotions, advertised specifically to travel agents. If you can be flexible with your travel dates, ask your agent to notify you when these special deals are offered.
ASK ABOUT GROUP RATES
If the purpose of your cruise is to celebrate something special (a wedding, for example), ask your agent if any special group rates are available. If you're booking a cruise for a large group of guests, a multiple-person discount may apply. Some cruise lines offer theme-oriented packages (which may include photographers and caterers, or conference suites) that are well worth booking in advance. These can be pricey, but you might appreciate the convenience of having everything arranged on board.
GET A GUARANTEE
Many cruise lines offer price guarantees wherein the cruise line guarantees you the lowest price at the time of booking for a cabin in the category you booked, or possibly even a higher category. But the cruise line will pick your cabin, not you. You pay a minimum rate and get nothing less than the lowest-priced cabin in the category you booked. So while you lose control over which cabin you get, the upside is you might also get an upgrade and still pay the minimum rate. The important thing to remember when booking your cabin on a guarantee is that you will have no say about which cabin you are assigned.
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