Growing up in the ’70s, I only knew one person who’d ever gone on a cruise: my grandmother. I vividly remember the excitement we all felt on her behalf when she booked a Caribbean voyage to celebrate her retirement. In those days, you visited your local travel agent to book a cruise or any other kind of travel.
While travel agents are still a valuable part of the travel-planning process, these days, you rarely visit just one person to get the best deals on travel. The options for booking a cruise—and getting a fantastic deal—are more varied than ever. You can book with a travel agent with a brick-and-mortar storefront, use an online travel agency or third-party cruise discounter, or book directly with the cruise line.
No matter how you ultimately pin down your cruise vacation, you’re bound to ask yourself: "Is this the lowest price I can find?" If you’re a comparison shopper, your best bet for finding the lowest fares of the year is to wait for one of the cruise industry’s annual sales.
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There was a time when most people booked their cruise travel during "Wave Season," which lasts from January through March. This was traditionally the time of year that the industry banded together to promote cruise travel and offer the most enticing sales.
In recent years, the industry has expanded to include other sale seasons like October’s National Cruise Vacation Week, hosted by the member lines of Cruise Lines International Association.
Similarly, many large-scale travel agencies and tour packagers offer their own special sales—often pegged to holiday weekends when families have time to research travel deals together and make a booking.
No matter the sale you’re holding out for, you should understand the ways in which cruise lines and travel agents discount fares and offer other perks to persuade you to book. That way, when a "deal" comes down the pike, you’ll know whether or not it’s too good to be true.
This perk honestly isn’t all that exciting—it simply means that the cruise line is lowering the amount of the deposit required to reserve your voyage. Of course, if you’re on a tight weekly budget or traveling with a big group, a reduced deposit may make it easier to commit to that cruise over a different one that requires more money upfront.
Discounted Cruise Fares
Cost-conscious shoppers focus on the base cruise fare: You want to pay the absolute lowest rate for the best cabin. Many lines discount their fares during sales, usually slashing about 5 percent off during promotions like National Cruise Vacation Week and Wave Season.
2-for-1 Cruise Fares
"Two for the price of one" cruise fares are a popular discount model for some luxury cruise lines and river cruises. Compare the regular per passenger fare with half off the two-for-one rate to see how valuable the discount actually is.
Kids Sail Free
Be careful with this one because sometimes you’re still better off making your own flight arrangements. Crunch the numbers against current airfares to see if the discount the "free" airfare represents is worth your while, and confirm that the flight schedule offered works best for you.
This popular promotion sees a certain amount of credit deposited to your onboard account that can be redeemed for shore excursions, specialty restaurants, spa treatments, casino games, etc. This perk is often "use or lose." In other words, you can’t cash it out at the end of the voyage.
Cabin Category Upgrades
Some sales tout the fact that you’ll receive a one or two category cabin upgrade when booking a certain fare. This is a nice benefit if you’re already happy with the price you’re paying for the cruise, but would love to end up in a balcony stateroom or suite.
Travel agents will sometimes cover the suggested daily tip for onboard staff as an added incentive for booking.
Free Beverage Packages or Specialty Restaurant Reservations
Most mainstream cruise lines sell all-inclusive beverage packages (both non-alcoholic and alcohol-inclusive). Getting these packages for free can save your family a lot of money if you were planning on purchasing them anyway. Likewise, your cruise deal may include one or more free specialty restaurant reservations.
Complimentary Shore Excursions or Spa Treatments
While increasingly rare, you will sometimes see a deal offer free shore excursions or complimentary spa treatments. SeaDream Yacht Club, for instance, often offers such spa perks.
Cruise Line Loyalty Program Perks
Finally, don’t overlook any cruise line loyalty programs that you’re enrolled in. Many programs offer special discounts and perks to return cruisers—just check to see if they’re combinable with any other promos being offered elsewhere for added value.
Andrea M. Rotondo is a freelance writer based in New York City. She covers cruise news and luxury travel trends for Fodors.com and writes for a variety of outlets, including her website Luxury Travel Mavens. Follow her on Twitter: @luxtravelmavens.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line