When to cruise and how to save

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Photo: Princess Cruises
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on October 11, 2004. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: cruise, Erica Silverstein.

Some of the first questions you'll ask yourself when you're planning a cruise vacation is, "Where do I want to go and when can I go there?" The answer to these questions can be trickier than you think, given that cruise ships only visit some destinations during the peak travel season when large crowds and high prices abound.

To help you make the decision of when and where to go on your next cruise, we've compiled a schedule of the cruising season for various destinations, as well as helpful hints about which sailings may offer greater discounts. Read on to find out how to choose the right departure date to maximize your vacation savings.

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When can I sail?

Although you can sail year-round to destinations such as the Caribbean and Hawaii, other regions such as Alaska and Europe have more limited cruising seasons. In the chart below, you'll find a list of the most popular cruise destinations, and the months that most cruise lines visit there.

Destination Cruise season
Alaska May to September
Bermuda April to October
Caribbean Year-round
Europe April to November (some destinations year-round)
Hawaii Year-round
Mexico Year-round
New England and Canada April to October
Panama Canal September to April (some lines sail year-round)
Repositioning cruises March to May, September to November
South America October to April

How can I save?

Two sailings with the same cruise ship and itinerary in the same cabin category can have very different prices. Why? Because of the departure date. Within each destination's cruise season, certain departures are considered peak dates, while others are off-peak. The determining factor is usually a combination of weather and the general travel season (whether it's a holiday, summer, school vacation time, etc.) Cruises during the off-peak or shoulder seasons are usually cheaper, and while you may run into less-than-ideal weather, you can often find pleasant days, fewer crowds, and your pick of cabin types and locations.

If you want to book a shoulder-season sailing in order to save a few bucks, here are a few tips about what dates to pick:

Alaska: May and September are the first and last months of the Alaska cruise and vacation season, and are less popular than the summer months. You may run into chilly weather, but you may also have an easier time sleeping as the sun won't be shining 24 hours a day.

Bermuda: Unlike Caribbean islands, Bermuda experiences four seasons. As summer is peak tourist season, try late spring or early fall cruises for discounts.

Caribbean: The Caribbean offers warm weather year-round, but can be plagued by hurricanes in the summer and early fall. Take a chance and book an August, September, or October sailing. Prices will be cheaper, and if a hurricane does hit, the ship will most likely switch itineraries and take you to a different island than originally planned, thus preserving your vacation.

Europe: Summer is Europe's high season, so book a late spring or early fall sailing to get the best prices.

Hawaii: Hawaii barely has an off-peak season. However, September and October can be slower months, occuring after the summer travel bonanza and before the winter chill drives travelers to seek warmer climes. If you're hoping for a discount, one may be available on an early fall sailing.

Mexico: October through April is high season in Mexico. Choose a summer sailing for lower prices, but remember that Mexico can be affected by hurricane season as well.

New England and Canada: The best time to visit the Eastern Seaboard is in the summer, but many travelers prefer the fall months for the foliage views. The early spring sailings are much less popular, so you can often find bargains.

Panama Canal: September through April are peak months to traverse the Canal, but some cruise lines offer sailings year-round. Look for discounts on one of the summer sailings.

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