Make your dream cruise vacation a reality with these tips.

Advertisement

Saving money feels good — almost as good as sitting on the top deck of a Caribbean-bound cruise with a cocktail in hand. But why not have both? Saving money on that Caribbean cruise (or any cruise for that matter) is easier than you think — you just need to know how the industry works, including the best time to book a cruise, when you can score an upgrade, and how to get the sailing you want without breaking the bank.

Pricing fluctuates based on itinerary, the ship's age, the type of cruise, and how soon the vessel is scheduled to sail. But the best time to book a cruise depends heavily on you: when you want to travel, what you want out of the experience, and how comfortable you are waiting until the last minute.

When to Book Early

If you have your sights set on a high-demand sailing — on a new ship or during school holiday dates — the best time to book a cruise will be as soon as fares are released. This is the only way to guarantee a spot (and secure a particular cabin location).

Cruise Critic explains that many popular sailings offer their best rates when fares first go on sale and then increase prices as the ship fills up. This rule is especially true for luxury itineraries, Disney cruises, and new ships.

When to Wait

If you're not interested in high-season travel or experiencing the latest cruise ship, you can play the waiting game and pounce as soon as fares drop. As any seasoned traveler knows, you'll often find lower rates or free add-ons as the departure date approaches and the cruise line works to fill the ship.

While holding off may result in a once-in-a-lifetime deal, keep in mind that your cabin and category choices may be minimal and there's no guarantee you'll be able to book at all. This approach works best for people with flexible work schedules or retirees who can adjust their dates to snag these less expensive fares.

Of course, the coronavirus pandemic has also caused some travelers to put off their cruise plans or opt for sailings further in advance. There's a lot to consider before booking a cruise during the pandemic, including your personal comfort level and the health and safety measures in place on the ship and at ports of call. We'll go deeper into pandemic-era considerations to keep in mind when booking a cruise below.

Best Time to Book a Cruise
Credit: Olga Shevtsova/EyeEm/Getty Images

Tracking Fares

The only way to really know the best time to book a cruise is to track fares, which is not an easy task. Luckily, rate tracking on the Shipmate app and Cruise Critic make it a bit more realistic. They'll let you know if there's a price drop, taking some of the extra work off your plate.

The Best Time of Year to Book a Cruise

The best time of year to book a cruise is often January through March. During this period — also known as wave season — industry-wide sales occur and the price of that cruise you've been dreaming of may drop significantly. It's also a good time to find booking promotions, like free upgrades, prepaid gratuities, or onboard spending money.

Understanding When and Why Cruise Prices Drop

Wave season may be a popular time to find cruise deals, but not every company releases their best deals and promotions during that period. Sales (or lack thereof) are often based on what is and isn't selling. If a cruise is filling up quickly, the company has no reason to release a sale to entice customers. But if a cruise's departure date is fast approaching and the ship is only partially booked, prices will drop and free add-ons will increase, resulting in some happy customers.

What to Know Before Booking a Cruise During the Pandemic

Planning a vacation during the pandemic can be tricky, and booking a cruise comes with an additional set of considerations and complications. While the above tips are helpful during "normal" times or when reserving a cruise far in advance, there are several factors to consider before booking a cruise right now. Cruises recently started setting sail again all around the world, but some itineraries and offerings have changed to accommodate pandemic restrictions and protocols.

Before booking, look into the cancellation policies and research the cruise line's COVID-19 measures to see how they'll impact your trip (some ships may require vaccination and/or COVID-19 testing prior to departure). Refer to the CDC's Cruise Ship Color Status to see if ships (sailing in U.S. waters) have reported COVID-19 cases or are being monitored by the CDC.

If you're planning a once-in-a-lifetime cruise experience or are concerned about the value for your money, you might want to wait because cruise lines are offering modified experiences with health measures in place for the safety of guests and crew. If you do decide to cruise right now, know that you'll have to be flexible and that your experience might not be like your last pre-pandemic cruise. Due to visitor restrictions in destinations around the world, your itinerary could change at the last minute. For example, European river cruise lines had to adjust their itineraries for Rhine River sailings this month after the Netherlands tightened travel restrictions.