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Five tips to finding the best cruise deal online (or off)

Travelers can feel confident about booking their cruise online, but still not know where to go to find the best deal. If you’re wondering whether travel consolidators (such as Orbitz or Travelocity), online agencies (such as Cruise411 or icruise), or the cruise lines’ websites have the lowest prices, let us give you the scoop on where the deals lurk.

Luckily for you, it’s not hard to find great value for your money when purchasing a cruise. Most sites (and traditional walk-in travel agents) have the same fares, provided directly by the cruise lines. We talked to representatives from several cruise lines and put some online sellers to the test to come up with five tips that will help you differentiate between the sites and save money on the cost of your next cruise vacation.

Tip 1: Use a travel agent

Travel agents—online or off—can give you better savings and better value than booking via a cruise lines’ website can. The reason is that travel agents are knowledgeable about different types of cruises and can direct you to the ship or sailing that best suits your needs. Plus, they can give extra discounts the cruise lines can’t give. Almost all online cruise sellers have phone numbers you can call to talk to a certified travel agent, so you don’t have to worry about forfeiting value when booking online.

Most travel agents earn commission from the cruise lines, an incentive for selling a certain lines’ products. A spokesperson for Disney Cruise Line says that “the tiered commission program for travel agencies booking cruise and land/sea vacations through Disney starts at 10 percent and allows agencies to earn up to 16 percent.” Radisson’s commissions are similar. But the agents don’t always keep the full percentage; often, they will split the commission with clients, offering additional discounts on cruise bookings that allow you to get an even better price.

This is true whether you walk into a travel agency in your hometown or use an online cruise agent. The Disney spokesperson assures us that “all travel agents and websites have access to the same rates and specials,” so you won’t miss out on a cruise line’s discounts if you book through an agent.

One downside, however, is that you have to be wary of agents that accept “override” commission or are otherwise biased toward or against a particular cruise line.

Tip 2: Shop around

Though a cruise line will never have a sale that is exclusive to its reservation agents, various travel agencies can negotiate special deals or will pass differing commission-based discounts to their customers. You should always shop around before offering your credit card, just in case one agency is offering a special that others aren’t.

Apart from traditional travel agencies, the world of online cruise sellers is huge, so we tested a few sites to see who had the best deals. Our results show that booking with an online cruise agency, such as Cruise411 or icruise, can often lead to savings over booking through the cruise line or with an online travel consolidator, like Travelocity. However, we cannot guarantee that this strategy will work all of the time, so be sure to shop around. You might want to include a traditional travel agent in your comparison shopping as well.

The first cruise we tested—a seven-night Alaska cruise on Celebrity’s Mercury, departing in mid-July—came out to $1,205 per person on Celebrity’s website and Orbitz, but Cruise411 discounted that price by $93.15 per person. A seven-night Eastern Caribbean cruise on the Disney Magic, departing in late November, came out to the same total price of $799 per person when booked through Disney’s website, Travelocity, and Cruises Only, but only $626 per person on icruise. Because icruise did not factor port charges into the original rate, the actual savings weren’t as large, but the total price did come out to about $25 less per person.

However, keep in mind that port charges are not always included within a cruise base price, so watch out when comparing cruises. A five-night Western Caribbean cruise on Carnival’s Sensation, departing in late November, came out to $299 per person on Carnival’s website and Travelocity. Icruise showed an amazing price of $180 per person for the same cruise, but when we factored in all port charges and government taxes, the cruise cost $325.62 on all three sites. Icruise’s $14 shipping and handling fee for two tickets then bumped the price up even more, turning what seemed like the cheapest ticket into the most expensive.

Tip 3: Look for sales

Because most of the online cruise sellers we checked, whether travel consolidators or online agencies, offered the same prices or a minimal discount, we recommend searching sites (or asking traditional travel agents) for limited-time sales and promotions. Any agency can independently offer cash back, free upgrades, or shipboard credit, adding value to the price of its cruises. Travelocity’s “Top Deals” section and Cruise411’s “Hot Deals” page are just some of the places you can find extra-value deals, as well as cruise discounts.

The flip side is to know where not to look for sales. Dondra Ritzenthaler, vice president of sales for Celebrity Cruises, states that Celebrity does not offer promotions or deals because the line caters to the high-end traveler who wants great value for money. If you want to find a sale on Celebrity cruises, you’ll have to check with a travel agent.

Tip 4: Book early

Over and over again, cruise representatives tell us that the best strategy for saving is booking early. Andrew Poulton, director of marketing for Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, says that “we encourage guests to book as early as possible so that they can take advantage of the early booking savings, plus they get the stateroom or suite of their choice. Most guests book four to six months in advance of their sailing date.” Radisson’s early-booking discounts are approximately 10 percent off the full brochure rate and are valid up to 120 days prior to departure. Other cruise lines offer low rates to customers who book in advance; be sure to ask your travel agent as these rates may not be featured prominently on a cruise line’s website.

Given the prevalence of last-minute specials on everything from airfare to cruises, you may be tempted to wait until the eleventh hour to book your trip. While that strategy might work with airfare, Celebrity’s Ritzenthaler cautions that cruises are a different story. “Three years ago when the world and travel situation was more precarious, you could find many last-minute deals. Now that the travel industry is doing better, cruises are emphasizing early booking and moving away from last-minute deals.” With more people traveling, cruises are filling up faster, so the deals are shifting to those who book first.

However, you can still find last-minute deals from various online cruise agents, such as Cruise411 and icruise.

Tip 5: Choose off-peak cruises

The cruises that are most likely to be discounted are the ones that are hard to fill. Radisson’s Poulton tells us that Radisson “occasionally offers higher discounts (second person 50 percent off, or even two-for-one savings) on cruises which we know are traditionally weak or which are clearly in need of promotional help in order to fill up.” Off-peak times tend to be just before and after holidays: between Thanksgiving and Christmas and just after the New Year. He also says that in general, fall travel offers the best deals.

Avoid popular travel times, such as school vacation time and major holidays, and you are more likely to find deals. Or, try a region’s shoulder season. For instance, the first and last sailings of the Alaska cruise season may not typically offer the best weather, but if you can hack the cold, they might offer lower prices than cruises during the height of the season.

The savvy traveler gets the deals

Although we cannot guarantee that you will find a low price the first time you look, we know that following these five tips will increase your chances of getting a good deal on your cruise. Be smart and be persistent, and you can find a cruise vacation to fit your budget.

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