Booking a cruise can be a minefield, with hundreds of cruise lines around the world and thousands of itineraries and ports, not to mention the dizzying number of packages on offer. It’s no wonder you can end up frazzled before you start. Coupled with that, the internet is rife with conflicting advice – do you book a cruise early or leave it late? Use a travel agent or do it yourself online?
Helping you secure the best deal possible, we’ve put on our investigative hats to bring you all the top booking tips and tricks…
1. Book early to get a great deal
Booking a cruise far in advance will often secure you the best deal possible. “Cruise holidays work differently from last-minute package holiday deals,” says Paramount Cruises’ Sam Redfearn. ‘Typically, we see that the earlier customers book, the better the deal. Cruise lines offer special early-bird prices, plus incentives such as onboard credits, drinks packages or excursion credits for booking well in advance. And the higher grades of cabin will have the most generous offers, which is a great way to get the best cabin for your budget.”
2. Choose a ‘guarantee’ cabin
If you’re not too fussy about where your stateroom is located, letting the cruise line decide where to place you can often lead to a great discount on the advertised price. A guarantee cabin is a cabin booked without a specific location or assigned number,” says Wael Seliman, head of sales at online travel agent Ahoy Cruises. In other words, you are guaranteed to get the grade of cabin you’ve booked – or better – but it could be anywhere on the ship. “These sell at a reduced fare compared to a numbered cabin of the same category,” adds Wael, “and there is always the possibility of a free upgrade”.
3. Speak to a travel agent… in the third week of the month
When it comes to visiting a travel agent or calling an online cruise specialist, don’t just rock up any time. Instead, think strategically. Towards the end of the month, salespeople are looking to hit their monthly targets, meaning they are hungrier for bookings than ever. So delay your approach till at least the third week of the month, and you know you’ll be dealing with someone who’s motivated to get you the best possible deal. If you prefer to talk face-to-face, try cruise holiday specialists like Bolsover Cruise Club or Barrhead Travel. Happy to do the deal over the phone or online? Then try the likes of Abercrombie & Kent, Fred Olsen Travel (including Fred River Cruises), Hays Travel, Paramount or ROL Cruise.
4. Play the game
Don’t be afraid to play the game – and by that, we mean playing a few travel agents off against each other. It’s worth visiting several companies in search of the best deal, and then comparing the results. Take one agent’s best deal to a rival company, to see if they can better it. You may be surprised at how competitive people become when a sale is at stake…
5. Consider upping your budget
It seems counter-intuitive, but spending a little more might actually be cheaper in the long run. Many budget and affordable cruise lines supplement their low baseline fares with a host of chargeable extras. If your great cruise deal comes with the absolute bare minimum – cruise, accommodation and meals – you’ll find that paying for drinks, excursions and speciality dining, even access to the spa, can soon erode any saving you’ve made. So if you fancy a cocktail or two on board (who doesn’t?), or you like to explore onshore at every port, don’t be afraid to look at higher budget cruise lines where all these extras – plus other benefits like gratuities and wi-fi – are included in the price. In fact, a luxury all-inclusive sailing could actually work out cheaper.
6. Secure your packages as early as possible
So you’ve decided to go with the affordable deal you’ve found. Now it’s time to book your packages – and here again, the further in advance you book, the better. Get in early enough and the cruise line will be running special package deals with cheaper rates or free onboard credit. Packages can include anything from unlimited wi-fi and entertainment options to free-flowing alcohol or premium spirits. Consider the nature of your cruise and which packages you really need. If your trip is port-intensive, you may want to consider booking with a line that offers free or reasonably priced excursions; if it’s a mini-cruise, you may not need speciality dining, and finally, a sun-soaked Mediterranean cruise might call for an unlimited booze package – cue pina coladas on tap.
7. Ask for your money back
The only downside of booking early is potentially missing out on any deals that might be offered closer to the time of departure. However, if a cruise fare drops after you’ve booked, it is possible to recover the difference. If you’ve booked through a travel agent, get them on the case, and try to request a rate change – or even just cancel and re-book the cruise. The cruise line will probably want to keep you as a customer, and even if a cash refund isn’t available they might offer you the difference in onboard credit. It’s definitely worth trying your luck.
8. Book late…
Yes, we know we’ve been harping on about booking early, but it can also be worth hanging on for those last-minute deals, especially if you don’t mind where you go. Cruise lines hate sailing with unused capacity – so as departure approaches, any staterooms that remain unsold are offered at knockdown prices. Depending on the length of the cruise, a last-minute deal could pop up anywhere from three months to just a couple of days before the ship sails. Stay on top of pricing trends, and if you notice a sudden drop, nab your cruise there and then. These tickets are priced to sell quickly, and they always do.
9. Subscribe to World of Cruising
OK, we may be biased, but there’s no better way to scope out a new cruise deal than by reading the pages of this magazine. In each issue, not only do we provide destination inspiration, we also suggest countless itineraries, many of them great, budget-friendly deals. You’ll also find in-depth features and ship reports, giving you a better idea of which cruise will suit you. It’s also worth signing up to our weekly Editor’s Pick newsletter, where our cruise editors bring you the best deals around that week, direct to your email inbox.