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How to Always Book a Cruise for the Lowest Price Possible

Condé Nast Traveler logo Condé Nast Traveler 7/1/2019 Suzanne Rowan Kelleher
a large body of water with a city in the background © Courtesy Viking Beloved by hardcore deal hunters, price-tracking tools like Yapta (for airfares and hotels) and AutoSlash (for rental cars) alert you when the price goes down so you can rebook at a lower rate. But how can you get the best deal on a cruise?

Fares can drop significantly as your departure date nears, according to research by Cruisewatch, a site that monitors prices, and automated price-tracking tools can alert you to fare fluctuations. Two of the most popular are Cruiseline’s Cruise Price Alerts and Cruise Critic’s Price Alerts. (To use the latter, simply plug in your cruise line, destination and dates to get email alerts when there’s a price drop). It’s possible to save a bundle using these tools: Travelers should “cancel and then rebook their cruise at fares reduced up to 71 percent," Cruisewatch CEO Markus Stumpe has said. But there’s a huge caveat: Doing that can get very messy, very fast.

“Cruising is a very complicated purchase,” says Colleen McDaniel, editor in chief at Cruise Critic. You not only have to choose a cruise line but also an itinerary, sailing date, ship, and stateroom category—plus onboard activities, shore excursions, and even dining options, depending on the trip.

“All cabins are not created equal and the most desirable are the first to go,” says Linda Allen-Speer, an independent cruise planner. “If you cancel and release your cabin, it goes back into open inventory. When you rebook, you may not have any good cabin options.” Canceling a cruise—even one you intend to rebook right away—also wipes out your dining times, excursions, and other preferences. Essentially, you start all over.

Crucially, a price drop doesn’t always translate to a better deal. Suppose you purchase a cruise through a promotion that includes added bonuses, such as a free beverage package, free shipboard credits, or included gratuities. If the cruise fare drops and you rebook, you can lose those add-ons.

“You have to weigh the total cost,” says Tom Baker, president of CruiseCenter, a travel agency. “Is it worth saving $200 to lose $1,000 in value-add? In most cases, rebooking does not make sense.”

Besides, McDaniel says, “If [the price] does drop, many cruise lines will honor that new price, assuming you have not made your final payment.”

Want to know the surefire ways to get the very best deal on a cruise? Read on for four time-honored—and expert-approved—tips.

Work with an experienced cruise planner

More than eight in 10 cruisers book with a travel agent, according to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the largest cruise industry trade association. A cruise specialist will do more than make sure you don’t land a dud stateroom—one above the boiler room or with an obstructed view. Both Allen and Baker say a good agent will proactively track your cruise fare for you. “Before working with a travel agent, always ask, ‘How will I know that I’m getting the best deal? Will you tell me if the price drops?’” Baker says.

“There is a misconception that there’s an extra cost when you use a travel agent,” McDaniel says. “But travel agents generally receive commissions from cruise lines and don’t charge the passenger extra."

You’re also likely to get a better deal by working with an insider. “In most cases, travel agents have access to deals and discounts that aren’t available to consumers booking directly,” says Sarah Kennedy, CLIA’s director of public relations.

Understand the timing of price drops

Expect the first price drop at about six months before departure, when a percentage of passengers start canceling, Baker says. There will likely be a second price drop, Allen says, “just under 90 days out, after the final payment is typically due.” At that time, cruise lines often lower fares significantly with a last-minute deal, "but only on entry-level, lowest-grade cabins,” Baker says.

Most importantly, book as far in advance as you can (more than a year ahead of time if possible)

“Year after year, we find that the people who book the farthest out always get the lowest prices,” Allen says, who's already booking cruises for 2021. “For cruise lines, the whole idea is to reward the early booker,” Baker says. There’s even a fancy name for it. “Cruise lines call it ‘pricing integrity,’” McDaniel says.

Remember that you can always cancel your cruise and get a full refund—as long as you haven’t made your final payment

“You have nothing to lose [by booking early],” Baker says. “You book two years out, put down your deposit, and as long as you cancel before 90 days out, you can get every penny back,” he says. “It’s actually a pretty lenient policy.”

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