Where to find the best cruise deals

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Couple with laptop (Photo:Index Open)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on June 13, 2006. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: cruise, Cruise Compete, Cruises N More, Erica Silverstein, Expedia, Southwest, Travelocity.

The number-one question on cruisers' lips is, "Where can I find the best cruise deals?" First-timers and longtime seafarers alike hope to find the Holy Grail of cruising: an outstanding vacation at the lowest possible price. Sadly, I have no definite answer to this oft-asked question. The best deals flit from seller to seller. An online cruise site may have a dirt-cheap price, but a travel agent might throw in a complimentary bottle of wine, a free upgrade, or ship credit. One day, the cruise line itself might have a rock-bottom rate, while the next day, Travelocity or Expedia will hold the low card. The key is knowing where to look and exhausting all possible resources before plunking down your cash in exchange for a cabin. Here's a quick rundown of all the places you should scour for those tantalizingly low prices.

Travel agents

The cruise lines highly recommend you use a travel agent to book your cruise. Trained agents will direct you toward the itinerary and line that is best for your needs and your wallet. But, they are also a wonderful source for deals. "Travel agents have access to the best cruise values," says Terry Dale, President of the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA). "They'll often get a heads up on promotional sailings before the word goes out to the masses." Travel agents can also point budget-conscious travelers to cruises that offer greater value, such as repositioning and shoulder-season sailings. Plus, agents with the right connections can often swing you a cabin upgrade. Or, to say thank you for your business, they might leave a complimentary bottle of wine or champagne in your stateroom or arrange for some onboard perks. So not only will you have access to the lowest fares, you might get more for your dollar as well.

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Online cruise sellers

Search for "cruise deals" on Google and you'll get 24,900,000 results. These days, everyone seems to be selling cruises online, and many websites tout low fares or last-minute deals. You can choose to purchase your vacation from a big provider, such as Travelocity or Expedia; from a dedicated cruise seller, such as Cruise.com, Cruises-N-More, or CruiseBrothers.com; or even through airline websites, such as Southwest. One site won't always be better than others, so you'll have to look around. First question: How do you know if a site is legit? Look for seals of approval by CLIA, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) Online, or the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA). These organizations require companies to meet certain guidelines; if one or more of these agencies endorse a particular seller, you can trust you're not walking into a scam. Second question: How do you know if a deal is too good to be true? Online sites have lots of competition and will vie for your attention with exclamations of "hot deals" and "cruise bargains." When you see a low price listed, read the fine print to see if port charges, taxes, or additional fees are included in the price. These extras can bump your fare up hundreds of dollars. The cruise price isn't the only thing you should check before you hand over your credit card. Does the seller add its own fees to the price of the cruise? Does it impose cancellation fees? Does the website offer a phone number to contact a trained cruise professional who can help you make the best purchasing decision or offer assistance if something goes wrong while you're traveling? The best deal is not just a great price but a guarantee you'll get some help if you need it.

CruiseCompete

CruiseCompete.com is a unique website through which travel agents bid for your business. You send information about where, when, and which line you'd like to cruise, and within a few hours to a few weeks, travel agents will respond to your query with their best offers. If you've done a little Web surfing beforehand, you'll be able to compare prices and know when an agent is presenting a great deal. And, if all the offers are too high, you are not obligated to take them.

Cruise line sales and emails

The cruise lines occasionally lower their prices, though collectively they've never been a fan of discounts. You'll get the first alerts of cruise sales if you subscribe to the lines' email newsletters. Often, the companies will target members in certain regions of the country, and sometimes only email recipients can access the lowest sale prices. You'll find the best deals at times when certain cruises aren't selling well. These could be traditional slow periods such as hurricane season in the Caribbean; it could also be a one-time-only sale. Look for sale emails roughly one to three months prior to the cruise's departure.

Past-guest savings

Once you sail with a cruise line, you're eligible for savings first-timers can't access. You automatically become a member of the line's past-guest program, though you may have to enroll to receive emails or have access to the members-only section of the website. You'll then receive special discount coupons, access to members-only prices, and invitations for past-guest cruises. When you sail again, you may get onboard perks as well.

Always compare prices

Since no one site always has the lowest prices, you must do your homework to determine which fares are the best. Use all of these channels to compare deals, and you'll come away with a good sense of what the price range is for the itinerary you've selected. SmarterTravel's
price-comparison feature is a useful tool for comparing online rates, but don't forget to try offline methods as well. The most educated consumer will get the best deal, so buckle down and start shopping.

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