When it comes to finding an affordable vacation, the cruise industry’s got you covered. The very nature of cruising—with your transportation, accommodations, meals, and entertainment all rolled into one fare—is an incredibly efficient and affordable way to travel. That being said, people are still always on the hunt for additional discounts, so here are our 10 tried-and-true ways to find the lowest cruise fare for your next vacation.
1. Book Early or Book Late
Deciding exactly when to book your cruise can actually save you money, but divining the actual timeline can be tricky. There are two schools of thought on this: Some say book as early as possible to net the largest discount while others with more flexibility in their schedules often hold off and commit to a cruise late, when the cruise line is more apt to offer some last-minute discounts. Both methods can net good pricing.
2. Buy a Cruise During One of the Industry’s Sale Seasons
Cruise lines traditionally unveil new packages and promotions during Wave Season (January through March) each year. However, the industry has also spearheaded some other annual sales. In November, watch for National Cruise Vacation Week as well as deals on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Many travel agencies that cater to the cruise industry also host their own sales on major holidays to drum up additional business. Watch for these sales events and compare prices; sometimes you’ll find savings on fares and other times you’ll instead receive perks like upgraded cabins, complimentary beverage packages, pre-paid gratuities, or shipboard credit.
3. Be Loyal
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This tip is fairly obvious, but it’s important to remember that nearly every cruise line has its own loyalty program that offers discounts and perks to previous guests. Select a cruise brand (or two or three) that you love and stick with them. That way, when you book future cruises you’ll receive “alumni” discounts or other privileges.
4. Forge a Strong Relationship with a Travel Agent
Many of us love booking travel plans ourselves but when it comes to cruising, it's worht it to find an excellent travel agent who focuses on this vacation market. Agents who specialize in cruising know the ships inside and out and have sailed them, so they can advise which ship is right for you and what cabins are right for your party. They also often offer excellent perks above and beyond any special pricing being offered by the cruise line itself. Extras can range from onboard cocktail parties to pre-paid gratuities to shipboard credit and more. A good travel agent is also worth his or her weight in gold if you encounter a problem. It’s your agent’s mission to take care of any and all issues, and that’s a huge relief when something threatens to ruin your vacation.
5. Don’t Forget Your Status
Are you a senior citizen, a member of the military, a teacher, a police officer, or a firefighter/EMT? If so, some cruise lines offer valuable discounts to members of those groups. The discounts aren’t always available for every sailing, but it’s worth looking into the options. These are a few of the cruise lines that offer military discounts: Carnival, Celebrity, Costa Cruises, Cunard, Disney Cruise Line, Holland America, MSC, Norwegian, Princess Cruises, and Royal Caribbean.
6. Compare Embarkation Dates
Once you’ve selected the cruise line and itinerary, be sure to review prices for different embarkation dates. You could save several hundred dollars by simply selecting a different departure date.
7. Look Into Discounts from Big-Box Stores and Flash Sales Sites
Cruise lines are always partnering with different retail outlets to offer discounted cruises. Costco Travel often has excellent pricing, and you can sometimes find good cruise fares being sold on flash sales sites like Jetsetter, LuxuryLink, and even Groupon.
8. Arrange Your Own Shore Excursions
Sometimes it’s cheaper to book your own shore excursions instead of using the services provided by the ship. Visit Fodor’s Travel Talk Forums to get advice and recommendations from other travelers.
9. Watch That Cruise Fare
After you’ve booked a cruise, be sure to monitor the fluctuation of the cruise fare. You (or your travel agent) can call and get the lower price up until the time when you make final payment. If it’s after final payment, ask for a cabin upgrade.
10. Invest in Travel Insurance
Protect your cruise investment with travel insurance or understand that you’re self-insuring. Self-insuring is a valid option when booking an inexpensive cruise, but it might not suit your purposes if you’re planning a multi-week voyage halfway around the world. No one wants to lose a cruise fare that was several thousand dollars.
Andrea M. Rotondo is a freelance writer based in New York City. She covers cruise news and luxury travel trends for Fodors.com, Condé Nast Traveler, Cruise Critic, and other websites and magazines. Her latest book is Tom Petty: Rock ‘n’ Roll Guardian. Follow her on Twitter: @luxtravelmavens.