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Where did all the last-minute cruise deals go?

SmarterTravel

Industry experts spent the early part of the year warning that cheap last-minute deals would be hard to find in 2005. They cited early-booking trends and increased demand as reasons why cabin space would be scarce and prices high a few weeks prior to sailing. In other words, only far-sighted travelers who could book six months to a year in advance would find good deals.

With the year drawing to a close, we’ve decided to put those predictions to the test. And, luckily for the procrastinators, our research shows cheap last-minute deals are indeed still available. A little know-how will go a long way toward scoring a low rate at the eleventh hour.

Where did the cheap deals go?

Everyone agrees people are booking cruises farther in advance than they have been the past few years. But there’s some disagreement as to what that means for last-minute deals. Brad Ball, director of corporate communications for Silversea Cruises, says Silversea passengers will pay brochure rates, rather than discounted rates, for last-minute sailings. Jennifer de la Cruz, spokesperson for Carnival Cruise Lines, reports her line will take “tactical pricing measures” (in other words, offer last-minute discounts) if it looks like a ship could sail with empty cabins. And, Bob Levinstein, CEO of CruiseCompete, says that while earlier in the year it looked like last-minute deals would be hard to find, he doesn’t believe that prediction has come true.

This disagreement stems from how cruise lines price inventory, and how mainstream lines differ from luxury lines. De la Cruz explains “the ideal strategy is to price properly and predict consumer demand. In this model, those who book early will get the best deals.” In the perfect world, from a revenue manager’s standpoint, late planners would find little availability and high prices. And at the beginning of this year, industry experts were confident demand was high enough for ships to sell steadily.

But no one can accurately predict the future, and sometimes the best-laid plans don’t work. For a variety of reasons—high prices, off-peak dates, consumer confidence—some ships don’t sell as well as others. “Mass-market lines make money from alcohol purchases, the casino, and shore excursions,” explains Levinstein, so these lines need to fill a ship to make a profit. If 100 cabins aren’t booked and it’s two weeks prior to sailing, the lines will slash prices to entice travelers onboard. If you check prices for early December 2005 sailings, you’ll see this policy in action.

Luxury lines operate differently. They have smaller ships with fewer cabins to sell. Because more than 50 percent of luxury cruisers are past guests, they often book far in advance to have first crack at the best suites, so luxury lines don’t have as much space to fill a few weeks prior to departure. “Our main revenue is not from onboard purchases because we’re all-inclusive,” explains Ball. “We don’t want to alienate people who were loyal and booked early by offering last-minute discounts. We’d rather sail with a couple of cabins empty than reduce prices.”

Tips for getting last-minute deals

The deals are still out there, but you need to be smart to find them. The following tips can help you find last-minute availability and discounted rates.

Find the sweet spots: Certain times of year are more popular for cruising than others. You can bet sailings at these times are more likely to sell out in advance, while shoulder-season itineraries are more likely to have cabins available a few weeks prior to departure. Barbara Messing, vice president of customer experience at Hotwire, says “the first two weeks of December usually have lots of inventory available at a great value.” The first few weeks of January after the holidays is also a softer time when you can find more deals. De la Cruz also recommends September through December and May as good times to find great deals, and Ball says Mediterranean sailings in March, April, October, or November fill up more slowly than summertime cruises.

Look for lots of inventory: It makes sense that the higher the total number of cabins in a cruising region, the better chance you have of finding space available at the last minute. De la Cruz tells us “Carnival has the vast majority of its fleet in the Caribbean, so there’s a better opportunity for last-minute deals.” In contrast, Carnival currently has only one ship sailing in Europe, so when that ship sells out, you have no opportunities for last-minute deals.

Be flexible about cabin class: Messing describes the way cruise ships typically sell as top-to-bottom selling. “The least expensive and most expensive cabins go quickly, while the middle classes are available toward the last minute,” she says. If you’re looking for a last-minute deal, you’ll find more options if you don’t need to be in a top-tier suite or don’t have a preference about cabin location on the ship.

Choose departure cities that are harder to fly to: “The best deals on the cruise side may not be the best deals on the airline side,” cautions Levinstein. He’s found that cruises departing from Puerto Rico can have some of the cheapest last-minute rates because travelers feel it’s harder to get a flight there with two weeks’ notice than a flight to a port in the continental U.S. If you can book your airfare with frequent flyer miles or through the cruise line (they often reserve air space), you can snag a cruise deal others may not be willing to take.

Get on waiting lists: With cruises selling out so far ahead, sometimes the last-minute traveler can’t find any availability, even if he or she is willing to pay a higher price. Ball encourages travelers in this situation to take advantage of waiting lists. “There are almost always cancellations,” he says, “so even though on the books the cruise is full, there may actually be one or two empty cabins.” Call the cruise line or a travel agent to be put on a waiting list, and you’ll be alerted if a cabin suddenly opens up at the last minute.

Look for specials: Many cruise sellers make it easy to determine which ships have last-minute availability and discounts. On Hotwire, you can look for “Hotwire Top Values,” which are the cruises Hotwire believes offer the best value. Carnival publishes a host of specials on its website and keeps travel agents up-to-date on the latest promotions. Silversea’s “Silver Sailings” are also discounted itineraries, but you won’t often find discounts close to departure. On CruiseCompete.com, you can identify which sailing you’re interested in and agents will respond with their best offers.

Despite doomsday predictions earlier this year, last-minute deals are here to stay. While it’s always smart to book early, rest assured you still can find tremendous value on last-minute bookings—you just need to know where to look.

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