If you haven’t taken a cruise lately, you might be surprised by the variety of offerings now available. No longer are cruises the sole province of greasy buffets, cheesy dance contests and screaming kids – some of the newer ships are downright luxurious, offering five star dining created by celebrity chefs and onboard activities to rival the fanciest resort. But don’t take my word for it. Here are some down and dirty tips on how to score a cruise vacation so cheap, you’ll almost feel like you took advantage of the cruise company.
Don’t Book in Advance
No, that’s not a typo. I said don’t book in advance. Unlike the airlines, the best cruise deals are usually available at the very last minute. That’s because also unlike the airlines, most people don’t take last minute cruises. (Last minute business trips or hurried flights to see a sick relative mean airlines can afford to jack up prices for people who need to travel immediately.)
But cruises are vacations. People don’t need to scurry last minute, and in fact, they usually have to plan time off work pretty far in advance. That means cruise ships with unsold capacity a few days prior to sailing need to dump it pronto, because they’re unlikely to get a last-minute rush of passengers.
So when is the ideal time to buy? As close to departure as you can. Cruise lines will usually start lowering prices 4-8 weeks prior to sailing, but it’s during the last week or two that you’ll really see prices plummet by over 50%. The cruise companies offer unsold inventory to their employees a week before the cruise. That means anything that does not sell after that goes on an absolute fire sale. The craziest deals are available 2-7 days before departure. We recently scored a 5-night Western Caribbean cruise for $149 by purchasing 4 days out. The original price was $329.
Long Cruises – and Trans-Atlantics
The best deals are often on longer cruises, because most people can’t afford to take off a week or more at a time. In fact, you’ll sometimes find 7+ night cruises selling for the same (or just a bit more) than shorter ones.
But the most screaming deals are on Trans-Atlantic trips. True, these sailings mean a lot of time at sea, but they can sometimes sell for less than 3-night cruises. We recently booked a 13-night trip from Fort Lauderdale to Barcelona for just $369. An 11 night from Miami to Southampton, England was on sale a few weeks ago for about $400.
Heck, you’d probably spend that much money on food, alone. You’re basically getting the transportation, lodging, and entertainment for free. And how many people get to say they crossed the Atlantic by sea, stopping in unusual ports like the Azores or Tenerife?
Senior, State Resident, Military and Police Discounts
Most cruises will offer hefty discounts for senior citizens, members of the military, police officers and state residents of the port of departure. But the best news is that depending on how and where you book, these discounts often apply to everyone traveling in the same room –even if only one person qualifies for the discount. Since some accommodations can fit up to four travelers, that means big savings for your party.
Choose the Big Ships
When people book cruise vacations, they usually look at the dates and itineraries first. But checking out the ship’s capacity can yield even bigger benefits. First, the ship is likelier to be newer or offer more restaurants and amenities. More importantly, the extra capacity means more rooms to sell – and the potential for cheaper prices. When comparison shopping, start with the bigger ships first. They’re the likeliest to offer lower-priced fares when compared to smaller ships on similar itineraries.
Mileage & Point Conversions
Got any unused airline miles or hotel, credit card or Amtrak points? Most of these can be readily converted into cruise credits. Depending upon the program, you can either convert into a cash-equivalent or a voucher specifically for cruise purchases. On many major airline programs, 10,000 miles are usually the equivalent of a $100 cruise credit.
Share your tips of how you saved on your last vacation or cruise below. Bon voyage!