If you’re dreaming of visiting multiple far-flung locales, ancient cities and dreamy island destinations in one trip – without blowing your budget – consider a cruise for your next vacation. Although many lines sail to similar destinations around the world, cruise experiences vary greatly depending on several factors. Before booking, you’ll have to choose between an ocean or river voyage, decide what size ship you wish to travel on and consider the length of your journey. You’ll also need to determine what types of onboard amenities you’re interested in, pinpoint your ideal shore excursions and – of course – calculate the overall value of what you’ll receive for the price you pay.
To help you snag a great rate on your next cruise vacation, U.S. News spoke with cruise industry professionals to discuss cruise pricing trends and compile expert advice. Read on to see the top tips for finding cheap cruise deals. (Note: Some sailings may be affected due to the coronavirus pandemic. Cruise lines may require travelers to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or present a negative COVID-19 test before boarding. Some excursions and onboard activities may also be limited. For the latest information, please visit the CDC website and each individual cruise line’s website.)
Keep up with current cruise trends
Before diving into your search for sailings, it’s a good idea to have a general sense of what the cruise industry looks like to know what to expect. Marni Becker – senior director of cruise partnerships for Global Travel Collection, a division of Internova Travel Group – says, “[Cruise trends depend] on the type of cruise line you are sailing on. While ships are not sailing at full inventory yet, some of the cruise lines within the contemporary market are selling most cabin categories (except suites) at very low rates close in. However, if you are sailing on one of the deluxe lines, good luck. Demand is high. We are into 2024 on many cruise lines.”
John Mast, senior director of global cruise marketing for Expedia Group, says, “Since 2019, average booking value has seen a notable spike. Prices are a little more fluid for mass-market destinations such as Mexico, the Caribbean and the Bahamas. Still, they remain at a premium price for destinations such as Alaska and Europe, especially into 2022 and 2023. Supply and demand are at play as the industry recovers. Trips with a shorter booking window may offer exceptional value, whereas further out trips into 2022 are in very high demand, so prices are higher than historical norms.”
Chris Gray Faust, managing editor at Cruise Critic, agrees. “Right now, we see a broad range in post-COVID pricing, with high fluidity. Pricing has been a bit higher because supply is limited at the moment, with fewer ships sailing and ships sailing at reduced capacity,” she says. “On the other hand, there are numerous deals and sales that lines are using to entice travelers to return to cruising. In a recent Cruise Critic survey, 61% of respondents said they are currently booking based on price and want a good deal. That indicates that bookings are not being driven so much by the ‘need’ to travel that everyone felt when the lockdown lifted. Instead, people are being motivated by the desire to cruise tempered by the desire to get a bargain or at least the best price available.”
Book with a travel advisor – especially if you’re new to cruising
One way to save money, especially if you don’t have time to search the internet for cruise deals, is to enlist the assistance of a travel advisor. Knowledgeable advisors, especially cruise specialists, can simplify the booking experience and may also help cruisers save money. According to Faust, “If you’re newer to cruising, a travel agent can answer your questions, guide you through booking the right cruise line, assist with tours and make onboard reservations. It’s nice to have an expert working to ensure you have a seamless vacation. A cruise is a complicated product, and there are many decisions to be made, so if you’re newer to cruising, it’s best to book where you can speak to an actual person.”
But the perks don’t end there. Faust continues, “If you’re working with a travel agent, they can also alert you to sales and specials offered through their preferred supplier agreements. Another benefit of booking with a travel agent is that they will track the pricing, so if it goes down, they can contact the cruise line and get the price adjusted or see what else can be done to compensate, like a category upgrade, onboard credit, etc.”
Becker agrees. “Travel advisors know the people at the cruise lines,” she says. “They also have access to special amenities through various relationships,” meaning you may save money on extras in addition to scoring a lower price for the cruise itself.
Look online for flash sales and price drops
Before you whip out your credit card, check cruise line websites and travel booking sites like GoToSea, Expedia, Cruise Critic and CruiseDirect for flash sales and deals, or ask your travel advisor. You can also check websites like Cruise Fever and Cruisewatch for current price drops. Additionally, Tripadvisor and other travel sites compile the best deals available from cruise line websites, various travel agencies and more into one place.
Mast says, “Flash sales are usually available closer to departure dates when cruise lines introduce ‘no frills’ pricing on their remaining inventory, which are low rates that include no built-in amenities such as drink packages, onboard spending credits and more. They depend on supply and demand.”
But remember, flash sales are only available for limited sailings, so you’ll have to act fast. “When you see the sale go live,” Faust says, “don’t delay in booking because the date you want might become unavailable.”
[Ready to plan a cruise? Find the best value sailings on GoToSea, a service of U.S. News.]
Sign up for updates and newsletters
One of the best ways to stay in the know about flash sales, cruise deals and special offers is to sign up for notifications and cruise line newsletters. Travelers can opt in for messaging directly from the cruise line or sign up for updates from sites like Cruise Fever, Cruisewatch, CruiseCompete, Cruises.com and Cheap Cruises. You can also notify your travel advisor that you’d like to receive updates on specific types of cruise deals so you won’t have to sift through dozens of irrelevant emails in your inbox.
[Sign up for the U.S. News Best Cruise Deals newsletter.]
Book during wave season
Consider booking a cruise at the beginning of the year for some of the best deals. “Travelers can typically get fantastic values on cruises during wave season, which is the period starting right after the holidays through mid-March,” Mast says. “This is the busiest cruise booking period of the year, and cruise lines often have some of the best inventory available. This year, however, we are advising travelers to book now because sailings for 2022 are filling at unprecedented rates due to pent-up demand.” If you’re hesitant to book months in advance because of the pandemic, Mast says that many cruise lines are offering “very flexible change and cancellation policies” to make it easy to alter plans should circumstances change.
Additionally, Becker recommends considering a fall sailing. “There’s usually another smaller ‘wave’ in October,” she says. “However, COVID has changed this as more cruise lines are going ‘inclusive’ based upon historical data from passengers. There are more value adds included now than ever before, such as gratuities, shipboard credits and drink packages.”
Don’t pay for what you won’t use
Before booking a larger, pricier stateroom with bonus amenities, Elizabeth Avery, founder of online travel sites Solo Trekker 4 U and Solo Travel Pricing, says to consider if you’ll actually take advantage of the benefits that come with that extra expense. If you think you’ll spend most of your voyage off of the ship or outside of your cabin, save some money by booking a smaller stateroom in an entry-level category instead of an upgraded room with a balcony you’ll rarely use.
Book early for the best selection
A top-notch price may not feel like much of a deal if you don’t get the specific itinerary or accommodations you want. “If you have your heart set on a specific departure date or cabin preference,” Faust says, “booking earlier is better. If you wait, the selections might be limited, so you might not get the category (such as inside or balcony) or the location (forward, midship or aft, or a certain deck) on the ship.”
Travel with a group
Before booking your cruise, Avery says to consider “groups you are a member of that have travel programs … [such as] your college alumni association, community groups and professional workgroups.” These group sailings may include additional perks beyond a lower cruise price, such as included or discounted airfare; privileged access tours, such as visits to renowned wineries hosted by master sommeliers; special themes (like a culinary- or history-focused voyage); and exclusive meals, wine tastings or lectures by notable historians.
Look for holiday and weekend specials
Check for special offers around the holidays or during weekends. “Some lines will offer special pricing around holiday weekends, such as Labor Day, Memorial Day and Black Friday,” Becker says. She also adds that some cruise lines, such as Royal Caribbean International, will occasionally add weekend specials. “If you’re working with a great travel advisor, give them a heads-up on what might intrigue you. Then they can alert you when a good deal is available.” You can also set holiday and weekend reminders yourself and peruse the lines’ websites for these special offers when the dates arrive.
Book an all-inclusive cruise
Base fares on more budget-friendly lines can look attractive at the beginning of the booking process, but costs can quickly add up once you add in stateroom upgrades, beverage packages, excursions, gratuities, specialty dining, exercise classes and more. Instead, an all-inclusive cruise (a sailing that covers the majority, if not all, of your expenses up front) may provide a much better value in the long run. Viking Ocean Cruises, for example, offers a nearly all-inclusive experience in its cruise fare that covers one complimentary excursion in every port; beer, wine and soft drinks at lunch and dinner; alternative dining options; 24-hour specialty coffees, teas and bottled water; Wi-Fi access; and other amenities.
Similarly, Azamara includes amenities in its pricing, such as its signature AzAmazing Evenings experiences; select spirits, wine and beer; bottled water, specialty coffee and teas; gratuities; shuttle service in ports; and other perks. Meanwhile, luxury line Regent Seven Seas Cruises offers two-for-one all-inclusive fares that cover airfare (varies by destination); unlimited shore excursions; a one-night, pre-cruise hotel stay; two- or three-night land programs; unlimited beverages; prepaid gratuities; specialty dining options; Wi-Fi access; and transfers between the airport and ship.
[Read: Best Cruise Lines for the Money.]
Look for airfare packages or other incentives
Some cruise lines boast special airfare packages or two-for-one flight bundles when you book. For example, Norwegian Cruise Line‘s “Free at Sea” promotion offers up to 30% off of sailings, free roundtrip airfare for a second passenger and up to five additional perks, such as included specialty dining, a complimentary open bar or free shore excursions. Cruise lines frequently update these special incentives, so it’s best to check the current deals on the individual cruise line websites, on travel aggregator sites or through a travel advisor.
Book your next cruise while on your current voyage
If you find yourself missing your cruise vacation before it’s even over, take advantage of the cruise line’s incentives to book your next getaway before you disembark. Although specific rules vary by cruise line, many offer perks like reduced, refundable deposits on certain stateroom categories and onboard credits for future voyages if you book during your current sailing. For example, Carnival Cruise Line‘s Future Cruise Vacation Program offers early saver rates, a 50% deposit discount, a two-category room upgrade (excluding suites) and an onboard credit, depending on the cabin type you book. If you choose not to book your next journey while on board, you’ll still have four weeks to make plans once you’re back home.
Look for solo traveler perks
Solo travel is an important segment of the cruise industry, and some cruise lines may reward you for traveling on your own. For example, Emerald Cruises’ river cruises do not charge single supplements (surcharges added to the room rates for solo travelers) on select sailings. The line also offers savings on deposits and a flexible booking policy. Similarly, Overseas Adventure Travel’s small ship adventures cater to solo travelers with nominal single supplements – or none at all.
Some larger ocean cruise lines, like Celebrity Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line, boast single staterooms on select ships designed specifically for solo cruisers (and priced accordingly for one person). In fact, fares for these cabins may even cost less than what you’d normally pay per person if you were traveling with a companion. Norwegian Cruise Line adds extra perks like complimentary key card access to the Studio Complex and Lounge, where you can meet other single travelers, relax with a cocktail or watch shows on the big-screen TV.
Join the cruise line’s frequent cruiser program
If you’re loyal to a specific cruise line, you might earn extra benefits as a member of the company’s loyalty program. While the details of elite status vary by cruise line, most add greater perks and incentives the more you sail with the company. Azamara’s frequent cruiser program, for example, offers booking discounts of 5% to 10%, depending on how often you cruise on the line.
Viking Cruises’ guests are automatically enrolled in the Viking Explorer Society after their first voyage. This free membership grants travelers discounts on future river or ocean cruises, as well as invitations to onboard cocktail parties. Additionally, members will receive updates about new ships, itineraries and special pricing. Celebrity Cruises’ exclusive Captain’s Club benefits vary by level, but they include stateroom upgrades, complimentary welcome events, onboard premium offers and discounted laundry and spa services.
[Read: Best Travel Rewards Programs.]
Sail on an older ship
Tanner Callais, founder of cruise advice website Cruzely, recommends sailing on an older ship for the best deal. “Cruise lines are regularly coming out with new and bigger ships,” he says. “In general, it’s more expensive to sail on these ships, just like it would be more costly to stay at the newest hotel in Vegas. Cruise lines regularly update older vessels to keep them fresh, so they will often have many of the features of newer ships, but at a fraction of the cost.”
Book a cruise when school is in session
According to Callais, cruise rates are determined based on the time of year. As a result, they tend to be higher when people have more availability to travel. “During spring break, summer and the Christmas holidays, you’ll see spikes in prices as more people can travel at that time,” he says. “The same cruise on the same ship can cost hundreds more if you sail in late December versus waiting until January.” Taking a cruise in the off-season, like when kids are in school, can help you save money, and you’ll receive the added benefit of fewer crowds at major tourist attractions, restaurants and shops on shore.
Take advantage of food, beverage and premium packages
If you plan to indulge in as much beer, wine, liquor and nonalcoholic beverages (think: bottled water, juice, carbonated drinks and coffee) as you can, consider a beverage package to save money. Drink packages typically come in a variety of levels to suit the needs of different passengers, and purchasing a package up front ensures there will be no surprises when you settle your account. Some lines, such as Royal Caribbean International, offer additional perks like discounts on bottles of wine, perfect for package holders who wish to splurge on a special bottle one evening during dinner.
Specialty dining packages are also an option if you’d like to upgrade your restaurant choices while on board. Royal Caribbean International offers a three-restaurant package, as well as an unlimited fixed-price dining option that includes multiple specialty restaurants throughout your sailing and lunches on sea days. Holland America Line offers premium cruise packages on select voyages. Perks include one shore excursion, an upgraded beverage package, one night of specialty dining and a Wi-Fi package on seven-day sailings. Check with your specific cruise line before booking to see what discount packages are available.
Take a shorter cruise
To save some cash, consider booking a three-, four- or five-night cruise instead of a voyage stretching a week or longer. These shorter itineraries often include ports in Key West, Florida; Mexico; and Caribbean destinations like the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic and Grand Cayman. Some lines, like Celebrity Cruises and MSC Cruises, offer deep discounts and additional perks on these routes, and they tend to depart from easy-to-access ports in Florida, like Miami and Fort Lauderdale. MSC Cruises offers free balcony upgrades, and kids sail for free on select itineraries. Be sure to check for up-to-date deals on short cruises when you’re ready to book.
[Looking for a Caribbean escape? See the top Caribbean cruises on GoToSea, a service of U.S. News.]
Tal Shelef, a realtor and co-founder of Canadian condominium database CondoWizard, takes to Twitter to find his best cruise deals. “Last-minute cruise deals may be found on Twitter for tech-savvy buyers,” he says. Almost every travel agent and agency are tweeting about their finest cruise bargains. The cruise lines have also joined the game, with their official accounts featuring their latest promotional deals.” Shelef recommends taking advantage of Twitter’s list feature to stay on top of deals shared by users. Or, those who are less tech savvy can simply scroll through different cruise lines’ Twitter accounts – or directly tweet at representatives – to find money-saving offers for upcoming voyages.
Look for last-minute deals
If you’re ready to get away at the last minute – or still have a couple of months to plan your escape – then look for a last-minute cruise deal. Travelers who are flexible on cruise lines, destinations and stateroom types should have no trouble finding a cruise within their budgets. “There are still good deals to be found with a shorter booking window as the ships restart,” Mast says, “but inventory from some ports may be limited, and there’s a chance that desirable shore trips may sell out with the cruise line. Right now, there are some exceptional offers on sailings to the Caribbean, the Bahamas and even Greece.” Keep in mind that some cruise lines offer waitlists for popular excursions, so you may still be able to nab a spot once your cruise begins.
[Planning a Mediterranean getaway? See the top Mediterranean cruises on GoToSea, a service of U.S. News.]
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