When to book a cruise to get the best price

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Crewman with guests (Photo: Silversea Cruises)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on November 9, 2004. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: cruise, Erica Silverstein.

Travelers these days are bombarded with conflicting information about when to get the best prices on their next vacation. Early-booking savings vie for attention with last-minute deals, and special savings offers pop up at seemingly random times. Prices can vary widely, so budget-conscious customers want to book the best deal available. But it can be quite hard to determine the right time to book to maximize savings.

We went straight to the cruise lines to get the low-down on the best time to book a cruise vacation. And the answers may be surprising to the procrastinators out there. While travel agents and third-party providers may lure you with last-minute savings, the certain way to get the most value from your cruise is to book early. And early may be earlier than you think.

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Early savings

Last-minute specials may save you money on airfare, but cruise lines offer their best deals early. As Jaye Hilton, manager of corporate communications at Royal Caribbean, explains, "We open at what we feel will be the lowest price for that cruise, which will go up as the sail date nears and the ship fills." And Royal Caribbean isn't the only line to follow that policy. Several cruise lines, such as Silversea, Crystal, and Costa, offer early booking specials at reduced rates.

Financial savings isn't the only reason to book early. Hilton tells us that "by booking early, guests can secure their optimal stateroom category, position, meal time, and shore excursions." If you have your heart set on staying on a certain deck or taking a specific tour, you will have more success tailoring your cruise to suit your needs if you book early. Wait until the last minute and the best rooms will be taken and the most popular shore activities sold out. Plus, by booking in advance, you'll have extra time to hunt for a great deal on your airfare to your departure port.

Selling out

How early is early? As cruising continues to rise in popularity, many sailings are selling out months in advance. Cruise lines begin selling cabins roughly 12 to 18 months before a cruise departs, and you'd do well to start thinking about your next cruise a year in advance as well. Brad Ball, director of corporate communications at Silversea Cruises, told us that popular cruises, such as Christmas and New Year's, Alaska, and summer Baltic sailings tend to sell out as early as six months in advance. He says that "for best availability, bookings should be made as soon as possible after the cruises are made available for sale."

So the word from on high is you should book your cruise six to 12 months in advance for the best prices and best availability on the most popular cruises. However, this advice is not a hard and fast rule. As Ball explains, "The closer to home the destination, the earlier the date will sell out. Our Ft. Lauderdale to Ft. Lauderdale holiday cruise sold out easily six months in advance, while the more exotic destinations might have availability a little closer in." Plus, shoulder-season sailings may continue to have low pricing and good availability longer than peak-time itineraries.

The flip side

You'll certainly get the best value for your dollar by booking close to a year in advance, but low rates are not limited to early bookings. Cruises often release discounted prices for sailings that are not selling out quickly or that have extra space in certain cabin categories. Guarantee rates and other deals can come out at any time. For example, SilverSea offers Silver Sailing Savings on select itineraries, but Ball tells us that "there is no predictable pattern as to when they may become available." You can find these savings through a travel agent or a cruise line's promotional e-mails or website.

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