Travelers planning a cruise can often feel pulled in two directions. They want to book the perfect cabin on the perfect itinerary, but they want to get the best price possible for their sailing. Sometimes, it's hard to figure out exactly when to book that cruise to get the best balance between selection and price.
Cruisers seem to fall into three categories when it comes to booking: those who book early, those who book late, and those who book during "Wave Season." Here's what you'll find when you book during these times, and a few hints as to which kind of cruisers should book during which times.
Many cruise lines advise travelers to book a cruise six to 12 months in advance, especially for popular sailings such as summertime Mediterranean and Alaska cruises. Booking early guarantees you'll have your pick of cabin category, cabin location, dinner seatings, and sometimes shore excursions. If you're booking a high-season sailing or a luxury cruise, you'll also find the best prices early on. Popular itineraries do sell out far in advance, so you should always book these as early as possible. And, luxury lines often offer their best prices to early birds.
Best for cruisers who wish to book very specific itineraries or cabins.
Cruise lines are no longer overflowing with last-minute deals, but you can still find plenty of low prices if you wait. More last-minute deals are available during shoulder seasons, such as October through mid-December, the first few weeks of January after the holidays, and March through May. You'll have much more trouble finding close-in discounts on Alaska or Europe sailings in the summer or Caribbean sailings during the winter holidays and February and March vacation weeks.
You can often begin to find deals four to eight weeks before departure and may even see low prices as late as a few days prior to sailing. If you want to book at the eleventh hour, you can find great prices if you're not picky, or you may find exorbitant walk-up prices or no availability. Note that some luxury lines do not discount sailings at the last minute.
Best for cruisers with flexible vacation schedules or who live very close to a port city.
The first few months of the year are known as "Wave Season" in the cruising industry because many people choose to book in January, February, and March for the sailings in the coming year. During this period, cruise lines and travel agents try to woo vacationers by offering discounts and extra perks. For example, Expedia and Travelocity always have huge cruise sales at the beginning of each year and offer freebies such as ship credit, cash back, and onboard coupon books. With so many special offers from an assortment of providers, "Wave Season" can be a field day for comparison shoppers.
Best for cruisers who want extra perks with their booking or who like to comparison shop.
Cruise prices change according to the laws of supply and demand. If a particular itinerary is not selling well, a cruise line might choose to discount it. But, it's not always obvious which sailings will sell quickly and which won't in any given year. The best way to decide when to book a cruise is to use the above guidelines in conjunction with when you know your vacation schedule, but to always be on the lookout for a great fare. They usually don't last long, so the best time to book is whenever you see a price that's right for you.