Search for “cruise deals” on Google, and you’ll get 6.5 million results. You could spend hours combing these websites for low prices, special offers, and signs that the seller is legit. With no guidance but your own Web savvy and research skills, you may despair that a great deal is hard to find online.
The process can be easier than you think if you know where and how to look. I can’t tell you which of the many online cruise sellers are the best, but I can give you advice on how to conduct an effective search. The following tips—peppered with insider advice from two major online travel agencies—will put you on the path to uncovering the best the Web has to offer.
Bigger is better
Cruise lines and cruise sellers work hand in hand to sell cruises. Therefore, an online agency that regularly sells a high volume of cruises will have more negotiating power with the cruise lines than a small agency or one that doesn’t specialize in cruise vacations.
“Pricing is determined by the cruise lines, and they can decide to sell a cruise at a discount just with Expedia,” says Katie Deines, spokesperson for Expedia.com. When you’re searching for an online cruise agent, look for companies that focus on cruises or for big names such as Expedia and Travelocity. These sellers have clout with the cruise lines that can result in better deals for you.
Focus on extra value
Many consumers don’t know that cruise prices don’t vary much from seller to seller. The cruise lines tell agencies what prices they can advertise, and agents can try to angle for a better offer. More often than not, the difference between cruise deals lies in the add-ons, not the dollars and cents.
Both online and bricks-and-mortar travel agencies will negotiate extra perks for their clients, such as complimentary Champagne, spa treatments, insignia merchandise, photos taken by the ship’s photographer, shore excursions, and ship credit. If you’re not seeing differences in cruise fares, look to the add-ons to save you money.
Timing is everything
When you do your online cruise search can greatly affect the fares you’ll find. “Royal Caribbean and Celebrity have a one-day sale every Tuesday, and Carnival has a one-day sale every Wednesday. Norwegian and Holland America hold sales week by week,” says David Crooks, vice president of cruise product for World Travel Holdings, whose cruise brands include CruisesOnly, Cruises.com, CruiseOne, and Cruises Inc. Not all itineraries are discounted on these days, but you’ll have a better chance of finding low rates on a cruise line’s sale day than on any other.
Deines recommends booking during January and early February, when Expedia and other agents have big “Wave Season” sales. But Crooks says to wait until March to book. “If Wave Season is a success, the prices won’t change. But if Wave Season is weak, you’ll see deals left and right for spring,” he says. Fall cruises are typically less expensive no matter when you book.
Book at the last minute
Last-minute deals are here to stay, but waiting until the 11th hour to book can be a gamble. “If you wait until the last minute, I can offer you the deal of a lifetime for Europe, but you may not get your first choice of itinerary or cabin,” says Crooks. Shortly before departure, you’re more likely to find inside cabins at great prices, but you won’t find a balcony cabin or get a choice of destinations. Plus, pricey last-minute airfare might eat up the money you saved on your cruise fare. The best way to take advantage of last-minute deals is to book cruises from ports within driving distance of your home.
You may have your heart set on a western Caribbean cruise out of Miami, but the best deals might be for eastern Caribbean voyages out of Orlando. The more flexible you can be about your cruise preferences, the better chance you have of finding a great deal. “I encourage people to be flexible about their port of departure and ports-of-call,” says Deines. “If you don’t mind a couple of days at sea, you might realize extra savings.” You have the right to be picky about your vacation choices, of course. Just know that by limiting your options, you’re also decreasing the chances of finding a discounted sailing.
Take advantage of incentive programs
Did you know that you can book cruises through most airlines and earn frequent flyer miles for your purchase? Or, that Expedia participates in Citi’s Thank You rewards program, allowing customers to earn and redeem points for cruises? Your loyalty may not save you money on the cruise fare itself, but it might help you get free airfare or merchandise, providing savings elsewhere in your life.
World Travel Holdings sells cruises through BJ’s Vacations, American Airlines, Delta SkyMiles Cruises, Continental.com Cruises, Hawaiian Airlines Cruise Vacations, US Airways Cruises, Alaska Airlines Cruises, Frontier Airlines Cruises, and Priority Club Rewards Cruises. When you book through these channels, you’ll earn points redeemable for travel or a prepaid gift card. Travelocity has a co-branded credit card that lets its customers earn and redeem points for travel purchases. You can use your loyalty to these brands and others to get extra value on your next cruise purchase.
Use online tools
Online cruise sellers make it easy for you to find the best deals and learn about which cruises are right for you by putting helpful tools on their websites to aid you in your research.
Expedia’s tool page offers a cruise calendar to see when certain lines sail to the various destinations, side-by-side cruise comparisons, virtual tours, and a group-booking tool. CruisesOnly lists customer and expert reviews and cruise ratings, and will soon list the top customer-rated cruise lines on its homepage. Use these tools to help you learn about the various ships and lines before you book.
Pick up the phone
Gone are the days when online agents penalized guests for talking to a live human. Most websites now have phone representatives who are educated cruise sellers. You can call these knowledgeable people for help at any time during the cruise researching and booking process, and the best part is, there’s no extra charge.
“Only 20 percent of our customers book online,” says Crooks. Most people do their research via the Internet and then call to have a live agent help them make the final booking. Deines reports that there’s a higher instance of people booking cruises by phone than any other product Expedia sells. Cruises are trickier to choose and book than airfare or a hotel room, so use all the resources available to you to make the best decision. The high level of service you’ll receive from a cruise specialist will help to ensure that you make the best vacation decision possible and have a good experience while doing it.
Inquire about cruise-line airfare promotions
Web-savvy travelers often think they’ll get a better deal by booking on their own. But when it comes to air add-ons for your cruise vacation, the cruise lines may be able to offer better pricing than you’d find online. “People don’t understand that cruise lines have air promotions, like $99 airfare to Florida,” says Crooks. Oceania often offers free airfare on its cruises. It only takes a minute to ask a cruise specialist about any airfare promotions that might be available. If you’ve done a little pricing research ahead of time, you can quickly ascertain whether the cruise line’s airfare is a good deal or a mediocre one. If you play it right, you can save money on your cruise fare and on your airfare.
Finally, it’s always in your best interest to shop around. Check several online agencies, or run that great online deal by a local travel agent. You can use CruiseCompete to get offers from several cruise agents for a specific cruise, or to inquire if anyone can beat a rate you found elsewhere. A little bit of research can go a long way toward finding the best price out there.
Once you’ve found some compelling deals, don’t wait too long to book. You can play the game forever without ever knowing when the absolute lowest price will come up. Set a realistic budget, find a deal you’re happy with, book it, and then stop worrying about the price. Your goal now is to enjoy planning your upcoming vacation, knowing that you found the best deal you could.