Keep an eye on excess inventory. “Home in on a line that has lots of ships in one destination—such as Holland America or Princess in Alaska—and you’ll often get a deal,” says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of cruisecritic.com. Other examples include MSC, Costa Cruises, and Royal Caribbean in the Mediterranean and Carnival in the Caribbean.
New ships mean new deals. This tip is true even in the luxury market, where value options have been historically harder to score. By June, Seabourn will have launched three ships in three years—debuts that have come with great discounts. (The line is offering two seven-day Mediterranean cruises aboard the new Quest this summer starting at $3,499 per person—a savings of up to 50 percent off brochure rates.) Other ships to check out: Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas.
Book during “wave season” for freebies. The period from January through March, when cruise lines try to entice Americans to book their summer vacations, remains a good time to score deals—especially at the beginning and end of the season. “Cruise lines prefer that you commit at the beginning of the year in order to have inventory control,” Brown explains. “So they throw in free airfare, onboard credits, and cabin upgrades. They used to offer one of these things; now many lines give away all three.”
But book early if your dates are not flexible. That said, people who must travel during the most popular weeks of the year (winter vacation, spring break) should make arrangements as soon as possible instead of waiting for wave season. Certain types of staterooms, especially adjoining and family cabins, are snapped up quickly.
Determine the price of what’s included. While high-end cruise companies are more likely to cleave tightly to published rates, they still offer good value when you factor in the airfare, transfers, alcohol, and extras that you’d pay for on other cruise lines. (See “Great All-Inclusive Cruises” for more details.)
Skip the “run of the ship” option. Many cruise lines offer deals for a “run of the ship” booking, which guarantees a cabin, but not always a particular type. Sometimes this pays off with an unexpected upgrade on a quiet sailing, but more often than not the gamble isn’t worth the risk. T+L A-List travel agent and cruise specialist Ruth Turpin concurs: “You’ll simply get what the cruise line assigns, and this can sometimes be dreadful.” The takeaway: Pay for the cabin you want.
Consider shoulder-season cruises. If you hit the Mediterranean in April, May, or September, not only will you beat the heat and crowds but you’ll also find lower rates. Likewise, consider the Caribbean in early April. But be mindful of weather issues. Shoulder season in Alaska can mean temperatures that make it too chilly to hang out on deck all day spotting the whales, a key experience in that region.
Stay in a cabin built for one. Single travelers tired of having to pay a supplement for sailing solo finally have a reprieve. Last year, Norwegian Cruise Line introduced pioneering singles-only cabins on the Epic (see “T+L Design Awards 2011” for more): priced as low as $899 for a one-week sailing, they’re as much as 18 percent less than you’d pay for a double stateroom with a supplement. The idea is taking off, Brown says: P&O has recently added singles cabins to its new ship, Azura.