The No-Risk, No-Hassle Strategy to Always Get the Best Price on a Cruise
By Suzanne Rowan Kelleher
Experts share their time-tested methods for getting the absolute best deal on your next vacation. Beloved by hardcore deal hunters, price-tracking tools like Yapta (for airfares and hotels) and AutoSlash (for rental cars) alert you when the price goes down so you can rebook at a lower rate.
But what about cruises? Fares can drop significantly as your departure date nears, according to research by Cruisewatch, a site that monitors prices. Automated price-tracking tools can alert you to fare fluctuations. Two of the most popular are Cruiseline’s Cruise Price Alerts and Cruise Critic’s Price Alerts. (To use the latter, first find your sailing and then click “get price alerts”). It’s possible to save a bundle using these tools, Cruisewatch’s CEO recently suggested: Travelers should “cancel and then rebook their cruise at fares reduced up to 71 percent," CEO Markus Stumpe said. But here’s a huge caveat: Doing that can get very messy, very fast.
“Cruising is a very complicated purchase,” says Colleen McDaniel, Senior Executive Editor at Cruise Critic. You not only have to choose cruise line but also an itinerary, sailing date, ship, and stateroom category—plus onboard activities shore excursions, and even dining options, depending on the trip. “All cabins are not created equal and the most desirable are the first to go,” says Linda Allen, an independent cruise planner. “If you cancel and release your cabin, it goes back into open inventory. When you rebook, you may not have any good cabin options.” Canceling a cruise—even one you intend to rebook right away—also wipes out your dining times, excursions, and other preferences. Essentially, you start all over.
Crucially, a price drop doesn’t always translate to a better deal. Suppose you purchase a cruise through a promotion that includes added bonuses, such as a free beverage package, free shipboard credits, or included gratuities. If the cruise fare drops and you rebook, you can lose those add-ons. “You have to weigh the total cost,” says Tom Baker, President of CruiseCenter, a travel agency. “Is it worth saving $200 to lose $1,000 in value-add? In most cases, rebooking does not make sense.” Besides, says McDaniel, “If [the price] does drop, many cruise lines will honor that new price assuming you have not made your final payment,” says McDaniel.
Four ways to make sure you get the very best deal on a cruise
First, work with an experienced cruise planner. More than eight in 10 cruisers book with a travel agent, according to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the largest cruise industry trade association. A cruise specialist will do more than make sure you don’t land a dud stateroom—one above the boiler room or with an obstructed view. Both Allen and Baker say a good agent will proactively track your cruise fare for you. “Before working with a travel agent, always ask, ‘How will I know that I’m getting the best deal? Will you tell me if the price drops?’” says Baker. “There is a misconception that there’s an extra cost when you use a travel agent,” says McDaniel. “But travel agents generally receive commissions from cruise lines and don’t charge the passenger extra." You’re also likely to get a better deal by working with an insider. “In most cases, travel agents have access to deals and discounts that aren’t available to consumers booking directly,” says Sarah Kennedy, CLIA’s director of public relations.
Second, understand the timing of price drops. Expect the first price drop at about six months before departure, when a percentage of passengers start canceling, says Baker. There will likely be a second price drop “just under 90 days out, after the final payment is typically due,” says Allen. At that time, cruise lines often lower fares significantly with a last-minute deal—"but only on entry-level, lowest-grade cabins,” says Baker.
Third and most importantly, book as far in advance as you can—more than a year ahead of time if possible. “Year after year, we find that the people who book the very farthest out always get the lowest prices,” says Allen, who's already booking cruises for 2020. “For cruise lines, the whole idea is to reward the early booker,” says Baker. There’s even a fancy name for it. “Cruise lines call it ‘pricing integrity,’” says McDaniel.
Lastly, remember that you can always cancel your cruise and get a full refund, as long as you haven’t made your final payment. “You have nothing to lose [by booking early],” says Baker. “You book two years out, put down your deposit, and as long as you cancel before 90 days out, you can get every penny back,” he says. “It’s actually a pretty lenient policy.”