1. Book Early
Most cruise lines open reservations on their sailings up to 1.5 to two years before the departure date, which means you can book your trip well in advance. If you know exactly where and when you want to go, this can often be the best choice, as it gives you the most options on everything from itineraries to dates to cabin categories. You’ll get the early bird rates, which can be up to half off the listed rate. And by booking early, you avoid restrictions that cruise lines enact closer to sailings, such as limiting cabins to just two passengers when the ship is at maximum capacity.
“It’s best to book a cruise six to 12 months out to ensure you get an optimum selection of cabin types, preferred itineraries, and special promotional rates,” says Jennifer DeLaCruz, a vice president at Carnival Cruise Lines. Some lines have price protection, like Carnival’s Early Saver program, so if a lower rate pops up after you book, the cruise line will adjust your fare accordingly.
The wave season — the most popular booking period — traditionally ran between January and March, especially for Caribbean sailings. But the growth of Alaska and Europe as cruise destinations has widened the booking period.
“There isn’t as much of a season as there once was,” says cruise expert Stewart Chiron, the voice behind cruiseguy.com, a cruise booking and news site. Now cruise lines offer discounted cruises and savings year-round to push sales.
In addition, the cruise lines often add incentives to book soon after sailings are announced (a year and a half to two years in advance), so they can fill up their ships. “Cruise lines offer the best deals upfront to get an early start on their itineraries, and sometimes couple those great prices with value-adds, such as onboard credits and drink packages,” says Michael Consoli, a cruise planning agent and owner of planmycruise.com. Additionally, booking early can sometimes help you get the best airfare and hotel rates, too, especially during peak season.
2. Recognize that different regions have different lead times.
Popular but remote destinations and areas with a limited cruise season — such as Alaska, where ships don’t sail in wintertime — tend to fill up fast. A general rule is the farther away the destination, the further out you should book, because more planning is required, from airfare to hotel reservations.
When booking cruises to Alaska, exotic destinations like the Galapagos Islands or Australia, and some European locations — especially in the Mediterranean and Baltic routes that include St. Petersburg — plan ahead so you can get your preferred route and cabin location. For example, the starboard cabins with views of the coastline sailing north to Alaska can sell out 15 to 18 months before those on the port side. However, placement may not be as important as getting an outside cabin. According to Chiron, the ship is usually too far out to sea to see the coastline for more than a day, and once in Alaska, there’s usually land on both sides of the ship.
“For Alaska cruises, we strongly recommend booking at least six to 12 months out, as the cruise season runs only from May to September,” says DeLaCruz. “And staterooms with balconies are highly desirable for Alaska cruising, so it’s important to book early to be assured a balcony cabin in your preferred location.”
Other cruises where it’s a good idea to book at least six months in advance are summertime river cruises, which often sell out for the season before spring, and launches of new ships, which have the latest features and tend to fill up quickly.
3. Use flexibility to your advantage.
If you’re not locked into a set date and can be flexible, it could mean big savings. Sometimes booking a cruise a week earlier or a week later can often get you a promotional fare or discount.
“Being flexible is the best way because every sailing varies by ship and sailing date, so check a few dates before and after you want to travel,” suggests Chiron. You might end up seeing a difference of hundreds of dollars in price for a sailing even just a few days later or earlier.
If your schedule allows, book at least six to 12 months in advance for a trip in May or September, when kids are in school, or outside of the holiday season. The peak months of June, July, and August, and late November and late December are usually more expensive. “There is better pricing on the offseason, generally when schools are in session and non-holiday sailings,” says Consoli.
4. Think way ahead if traveling with a group.
For large groups, it can make sense to book up to two years in advance, if the cruise line will allow it. But keep in mind that you can only reserve your flights 330 days ahead, and departure ports are confirmed around 18 months before sail away. Booking early will also help large groups ensure they get onto a ship with dining rooms that can accommodate them. “Certain cruise lines with small dining rooms or completely flexible dining times may not be the best option,” notes Chiron.
5. Book last-minute to get a deal.
If price is the most important factor to you, booking 45 to 90 days before a sailing can get you deeply discounted fares. Cruise lines will be looking to fill empty cabins once early bookers have paid their full fares and they have an idea of how many cabins have been filled. However, even these fares may not be as low as the initial early booking price.
The downside is that you may not be able to choose your cabin class or location, as many rock-bottom fares are linked to so-called “guaranteed” cabins, which are not specified when you book. “Our ‘price is king’ customer looks for great tactical last-minute bargains,” says Brian Clement, general manager of Travelocity Cruise. “Cabin category and location are not important to them; it’s all about the price.”
If you do decide to go on a cruise last-minute, check for cancellations. Sometimes it’s possible to get a stellar deal that way. But note that the money you save might be lost when you book your last-minute flight. “Many guests who wait until the last minute to book discounted cruises,” says Clement, “will lose all those savings in increased airfare.”