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Holland America’s Standby Program: Is This the Best Deal in Cruising? | Frommer's Solarisys / Shutterstock

Holland America’s Standby Program: Is This the Best Deal in Cruising?

Holland America Line's Standby Program offers significant discounts for cruises—but with very short notice if you're selected. Here's what to know before taking the gamble. 

Last summer, Holland America Line rolled out an enticing, novel proposition for cruisers.

In exchange for deep discounts, uber-flexible, adventurous travelers can pay upfront to be added to a standby list for a specific voyage from eligible sailings. If a spot opens up on the cruise, standby passengers are notified that the gamble paid off—though with as little as 2 days' notice in some cases. (Holland America says the standard window is 2 to 7 days before departure; cruisers report the range is typically more like 2 to 5 days.)

The Standby Program, which the cruise line recently expanded to a larger number of eligible sailings, launched with advertised rates as low as $49 per day. Prices are currently $99 per day for an inside or ocean view stateroom, or $129 per day for a Verandah stateroom. Compared to paying full price (as we'll show you in a moment), those numbers are still pretty good, especially considering that the rate now includes taxes and fees (but not gratuities or other add-ons).

Holland America rolled out the program, one of the company's PR specialists told Frommer's, because “circumstances may arise for booked guests where they must cancel a cruise the week before sailing, so this really is to fill those last-minute available staterooms.”

But is the program worth trying for consumers? Here's what to know before you go on standby. 

How Holland America's Standby Program Works. 

First, find an eligible sailing that appeals to you on the webpage for Holland America's Standby Program. You'll find upcoming sailings to and from Vancouver, Seattle, Boston, Montréal, and other destinations. 

To get on the standby list for your preferred cruise, you'll need to call 877/724-5425.

You'll be charged the standby amount (starting at $99 per day) right away, and Holland America will let you know by phone or email whether a vacancy has opened for you within days of departure. 

If you are not selected for the cruise, the amount you paid will be refunded. If you are selected and choose not to go on the cruise, no refund will be issued. So make sure you want to do this. 

Guests are selected from the standby list in the order they were added. You can't remove yourself from the list once you're on there.

Your stateroom options are limited to either an inside or ocean-view cabin (if you pay the $99 per day rate) or a Verandah stateroom (for the $129 per day rate). Beyond that, you don't get to choose your accommodations. You get what you get and you don't get upset.

Is Holland America's Standby Program a Good Deal?

Standby cruisers will almost certainly pay less than passengers who book the usual way. 

For example: A weeklong "Canada & New England Discovery" cruise this fall from Québec to Boston starts at $1,578 for an interior cabin, while a solo standby cruiser would pay only $693, a savings of 56%. An occupant of a guaranteed-rate Verandah cabin, meanwhile, would pay $2,678 with taxes and fees, while a traveler who's lucky enough to snag that room after a cancellation would only pay $959, a 64% discount.

Because the same per-person standby rate applies whether you're planning to travel on your own or in a double-occupany cabin, the standby option should be especially appealing to those cruising solo. 

In fact, cruising YouTuber Ken Bryan of My Travel Window calls Holland America's Standby Program "one of the best values for a solo traveler"—provided, of course, "you can deal with the uncertainty of possibly not sailing." According to Bryan, "You will almost certainly have a better price and more choice with the Holland America Standby Program." 

That's largely because solo standby cruisers do not have to pay the dreaded "single supplement," the extra fee that many travel companies charge solo guests as a penalty for missing out on opportunities to upsell phantom impulse buys to your phantom cabin mate. 

What Are the Drawbacks to Holland America's Standby Program?

Beyond the risk of disappointment if you don't get the cruise you went on standby for—and the last-minute scramble of it all if you do—the very limited cabin options are probably the first caveat to consider.

Going to the standby list is the cruise line's last-ditch effort to fill beds, after all, so multitudes of travelers have had their pick before you. Is it guaranteed you’ll be stuck in a windowless cell under the nightclub DJ booth? Not necessarily. People with nice cabins cancel, too. But it's important to remember you will have zero avenues for finagling your way to a more desirable cabin if you end up in cramped quarters. 

Remember as well that add-ons such as excursions, specialty dining, and onboard packages are not included in the standby rate. Getting a coveted slot on a dog-sledding ride or eating at one of the non-complimentary restaurants will cost extra, so you might be better off shopping around for a discounted (but not standby) voyage with more inclusions. “If you or your travel advisor do some research," says Rob Clabbers, founder and president of Chicago-based Q Cruise + Travel, "you may very well find some sailings at fares that are similar or even lower than the [$99 per day] standby fare—and without the restrictions.” 

For $55 per day per person, standby cruisers can upgrade to Holland America's "Have It All" status, which locks in a bundled rate for a shore excursion credit, a signature dining meal, Wi-Fi, and a basic drink package. But if frugality is on your mind—and if you’re even considering a standby cruise, it probably is—then you might want to determine which, if any, extras you absoultely can't live without and pay for them a la carte instead of potentially overpaying for drinks, activities, and specialty dining you could have skipped. 

Tips for Trying Standby Cruising

The New York Times described the experience as a “hair-raising, last-minute scramble,” but that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case, even if you’re not within driving range of your port of departure. 

A smart strategy, during the buildup to bon voyage: Act on the assumption you’re going, but have a backup plan if you get a thumbs down.

Remember, only your cruise confirmation will come at the last minute. You can be proactive in other areas, such as locking in advance rates for hotel accommodations in the departure city and airfare if necessary. In the case of plane tickets, make sure you book an airfare that won't come with change or cancellation fees if you need to alter your plans (budget or basic economy tickets are often impossible to change for free). 

Pick a cruise with a departure city you’ll be happy to spend a few days in. That way, if you get a last-minute no from Holland America, you’ve still got a nice couple days in Seattle or Boston or Vancouver on your calendar.

Since you’ll probably not want to spend a full cruise-length duration paying for a hotel in a port city, one option to make life easier is to book two return flights: one for the scheduled disembarkment, and an earlier one as a backup. Then you can just cancel the one you don’t need and bank the travel credit. 

Do some research to find which cruises likely have more vacancies. By starting a mock booking through Holland’s website, you can get a general idea of how booked up a ship is once you reach the cabin-selection page, and/or by comparing costs for the same voyage at different times of the year (if they're going down, the sailing is likely well under-capacity). 

A standby spot on a more popular voyage might yield you a worse cabin but save you more money. Likewise, a spot on an undersold voyage may not result in eye-popping savings, but you could wind up with a more spacious stateroom.

At the moment, the standby list is limited to sailings with select departures from Montréal, Boston, Whittier, Seattle, and Vancouver. The Holland America publicist tells us standby fares from San Diego and Fort Lauderdale will be available again soon. 

To see a list of cruises eligible for standby rates as well as answers to frequently asked questions, go to HollandAmerica.com.

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