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How to find a great last-minute cruise deal

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Cruise ship at sunset (Photo: iStockphoto)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on July 24, 2007. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: cruise, Cruise Compete, Erica Silverstein, last-minute.

Snagging a fabulous last-minute deal is the dream of many a budget-conscious cruiser. It's the perfect trip—no wasted time or money, just look, book, and go. That 11th-hour bargain can be quite elusive, however, so you'll need a little know-how to make your dream a reality. Use the following tips, and you'll soon be bragging about your upcoming vacation at sea—the one that hardly made a dent in your bank account.

Embrace flexibility

Are you bendy like Gumby or stubborn as a mule? You'll need to befriend your inner pretzel if you wish to find a last-minute deal.

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There's no guarantee your preferred itinerary and cabin category will be available a few weeks or months in advance on the dates you want and at the right price. You'll maximize your chances of getting a deal if you can be flexible with your vacation requirements. You may want to impose a few loose parameters on your search, such as a specific departure port if you're driving, or basic cruise region (Caribbean, Mexico, etc.). But if you demand an outside cabin on a particular voyage with one cruise line only, you'd do better to book your cruise in advance.

Determine likely candidates

Cruise lines aren't going to discount really popular sailings six weeks before departure. If those voyages haven't sold out already, they will soon. Instead, the lines slash prices on itineraries that aren't selling well. If you know which sailings tend to be less popular, you'll know where and when to look for the best last-minute deals.

The key is identifying the shoulder season for the cruise region you're interested in. Alaska cruises, for example, tend to be cheaper in May and September, Caribbean cruises are discounted in the fall, and Europe cruises have lower rates in the early spring and late fall.

Sure, flukes such as large groups canceling at the last minute can drop prices on peak-season sailings, but odds are that less popular itineraries are more likely to become close-in bargains.

Time your research

It's useless to search for a last-minute deal not at the last minute. Therefore, you need to understand what cruise lines think is a late booking to know when to start looking.

Last-minute deals start appearing about two to four months prior to departure. Most cruise lines require payment in full 60 to 120 days ahead of the sail date. Travelers who wish to cancel their cruise try to do so before this time, leaving the cruise lines with a better idea of how many cabins are left on each itinerary. At this point, they will lower prices if many staterooms remain unsold. If you have a few lines in mind, check online or call a representative to find out when deposits are due. You'll then know when you should start your deal hunt.

The latest you can book is a few days prior to departure. The cruise lines need a day or two to run security checks and prepare the ship's roster. You will not be able to reserve a cabin and sail on the same day.

Form a transportation plan

A rock-bottom rate on a Europe cruise is no good to you if the last-minute airfare to get to your departure port costs thousands of dollars. Before you turn on your computer or pick up your phone to look for sailings, you should develop a transportation plan.

Last-minute cruises work best for people who can drive to a nearby U.S. departure port. If you're within a day's drive of a homeport, you've got the best shot at making a last-minute sailing a reality. Just remember to add driving time to your vacation request and consider staying in a hotel pre- or post-cruise.

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