Ride the Wave: How to Catch the Best Cruise Deals During Wave Season
Ride the Wave: How to Catch the Best Cruise Deals During Wave Season - Book Early for the Biggest Discounts
One of the best ways to score a deal on a cruise is to book early. Cruise lines typically offer their lowest fares and biggest discounts when they first open up sailings, usually about 18 months or more before departure. This is known as the "early booking window," and it's when you'll find some of the biggest bargains.
During this time, cruise lines are trying to fill up ships and generate excitement for upcoming itineraries. So they'll often run promotions offering reduced deposits, onboard credits, complimentary upgrades, and discounted fares. For example, Norwegian Cruise Line recently ran a promotion giving up to $1,700 in extras on 2024 cruises when booked early. Deals like these represent huge savings compared to booking later.
Booking early also gives you first dibs on cabin selection. This means you can secure your preferred room type before inventory starts filling up. Whether you want a balcony stateroom midship or a suite near the top, booking early improves your chances of getting it. Otherwise, you may get stuck with one of the few cabins left, potentially in an undesirable location.
In addition, early booking prices are often several hundred dollars cheaper per person compared to booking just a few months out. For instance, a 7-night Caribbean cruise may start around $500 per person when first announced, then rise to $750 as the sailing date approaches. That's a difference of $250 per person, which adds up fast if cruising as a family or group.
Of course, life happens and plans change. But as long as you bookmark that cruise on your calendar, you can take advantage of the lower early booking rate. Most cruise lines allow you to modify your reservation for a fee, move it to a future sailing, or cancel in exchange for a refund/future cruise credit. This provides flexibility in case you need to adjust dates.
What else is in this post?
- Ride the Wave: How to Catch the Best Cruise Deals During Wave Season - Book Early for the Biggest Discounts
- Ride the Wave: How to Catch the Best Cruise Deals During Wave Season - Take Advantage of Onboard Credits
- Ride the Wave: How to Catch the Best Cruise Deals During Wave Season - Watch for Specialty Cruise Promotions
- Ride the Wave: How to Catch the Best Cruise Deals During Wave Season - Be Flexible with Departure Dates
- Ride the Wave: How to Catch the Best Cruise Deals During Wave Season - Research Less Traditional Cruise Destinations
- Ride the Wave: How to Catch the Best Cruise Deals During Wave Season - Compare Similar Itineraries on Different Lines
- Ride the Wave: How to Catch the Best Cruise Deals During Wave Season - Look for Value-Adds Like Free Drinks and WiFi
- Ride the Wave: How to Catch the Best Cruise Deals During Wave Season - Use a Travel Agent for Extra Perks
Ride the Wave: How to Catch the Best Cruise Deals During Wave Season - Take Advantage of Onboard Credits
One of the best perks you can score when booking a cruise is free onboard credit. This gives you extra money to spend once you're sailing, on everything from shore excursions and spa treatments to specialty dining and alcoholic drinks. When used strategically, onboard credits can help you save big on your vacation budget.
Cruise lines offer onboard credits in various amounts, typically $25 to $300 per stateroom. They're included as booking incentives, offered through promotions, or given as compensation if an itinerary changes. Whatever the reason, don't let these free credits go to waste.
First, make sure you understand the terms. Onboard credit is usually applied per stateroom, not per person. So if you're sailing with others, you'll have to share the credit. It also can't typically be combined with other offers or discounts. And credits often must be used on the cruise you book - they have no cash value if left unused.
Once on your cruise, head to the onboard credit desk or guest services to activate your credit account. Then strategize the best ways to leverage it. One approach is using credits toward big-ticket splurges you wouldn't normally purchase. Treat yourself to that couples massage at the spa or indulgent multi-course dinner with wine pairings. This allows you to enjoy premium experiences you'd otherwise skip.
If you don't have anything in particular you want to splurge on, use credits for routine purchases that add up. For instance, pay for daily specialty coffees, bottled water/sodas, or WiFi with your credits. You can also use them toward pricier cocktail orders, souvenirs in the gift shops, photos, bingo games, and more. This takes a chunk out of expenses you'd incur anyway.
Shore excursions can be a smart use of credits too. Depending on the itinerary, these can run $50-$200 or more per person. By applying your credits, you get to take tours and adventures that might be out of reach normally. Just be sure to book excursions you're genuinely interested in rather than just using up credits.
Ride the Wave: How to Catch the Best Cruise Deals During Wave Season - Watch for Specialty Cruise Promotions
In addition to the major cruise lines' seasonal promotions, keep an eye out for special deals from niche and specialty cruise operators too. These smaller cruise companies cater to particular interests or demographics, offering unique experiences like culinary cruises, sports fan cruises, family reunions at sea, and more. Their limited inventory means when they run promotions, cabins can book up lightning fast. But for savvy travelers paying attention, the rewards are ample.
For instance, through Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel Representative, I discovered an incredible specialty cruise deal. They were chartering a Celebrity cruise ship for a Bluegrass music-themed sailing with a lineup of acclaimed Bluegrass artists performing daily. Staterooms started at just $699 per person for the 9-night Caribbean cruise – an absolute steal. As a huge Bluegrass fan, this was a dream vacation I never imagined could be so affordable.
Cruises focused around major sporting events also offer exceptional value. A friend scored a Western Caribbean cruise with Norwegian Cruise Line over Super Bowl weekend. The ship had big screen TVs all over to watch the game and Super Bowl parties galore. Including flights and the cruise fare in an interior stateroom, he paid just $749 total. A similar cruise pre-Super Bowl was $300 more expensive.
Another friend, an avid fan of Broadway musicals, found a theater-themed cruise through Cruises Inc. It sailed from New York to Bermuda with Broadway dancers, singers and musicians onboard. They offered choreography lessons, Q&As, dinner with the performers - a theater lover's paradise. The starting price was $100 cheaper than similar sailings, enabling this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Companies like Sixthman specialize entirely in music-themed cruises, chartering ships for genres like rock, country, jazz and more. They pack the lineup with A-list musicians from those genres hosting concerts, meet-and-greets with fans, Q&As and late-night jam sessions. Utah-based American West Heritage Center offers annual family reunion cruises. Guests learn frontier skills like butter churning, quilting, and wagon riding.
Ride the Wave: How to Catch the Best Cruise Deals During Wave Season - Be Flexible with Departure Dates
When it comes to scoring deals on cruises, flexibility is key. While everyone dreams of jetting off on vacation during peak periods like spring break or summer, being open to sailing during shoulder and off-peak seasons can lead to major savings. As an avid cruiser, some of my best deals have come from being flexible with departure dates.
Cruise lines discount sailings during slower seasons to fill ships and generate bookings. For example, a 7-night Caribbean cruise over Christmas break could start around $2,000 per person. But that same cruise in mid-September before kids are back in school might be $800-$1,000 cheaper. The itinerary and onboard experience is generally the same—you’re just voyaging during a lower demand period.
Similarly, repositioning cruises as ships move between seasonal homeports offer exceptional value. Relocating a vessel is a major operational expense, so cruise lines incentivize bookings. Friends sailed a 14-day Alaska-to-Vancouver repo cruise in May for $1,100 per person. That same itinerary would have been double during peak summer. The weather wasn’t quite as ideal and days were shorter, but they still saw glaciers, whales, and other incredible sights.
Don’t get locked into rigid vacation schedules if your goal is to get the best cruise deal. Shifting your dates by even a month earlier or later can unlock substantial savings. And off-peak cruising still offers wonderful experiences. You’re just swapping summer crowds and peak prices for emptier ships, lower fares, and more relaxed vibes.
If you have fixed vacation weeks, look at sailings right before or after high season. April/May, September/October, and first half of December are great times to cruise. You get similar weather, avoid crowds and kids on summer break, and save hundreds compared to just weeks later. Vacationing during shoulder seasons will likely become your new norm!
Being flexible has allowed me to cruise regions from the Mediterranean to the Panama Canal for far less than travelers only considering prime summer dates. Saving 40-60% off has made so many dream trips possible. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good—a cruise in late spring or early fall can be just as enjoyable as mid-summer.
Ride the Wave: How to Catch the Best Cruise Deals During Wave Season - Research Less Traditional Cruise Destinations
Setting sail for less conventional cruise ports can unlock voyages brimming with culture, natural beauty, and distinctive experiences. Rather than only considering the same well-trodden Caribbean and Mediterranean ports, branch out and explore the fascinating destinations along less expected cruise routes. Your cruise research will reveal fascinating destinations devoid of mass tourism.
Former Cruise Director Torsten Jacobi raves about lesser-known South Pacific ports like Mystery Island, Vanuatu. Most cruisers flock to crowd favorites like Fiji or Tahiti. But Torsten writes, “Mystery Island’s crescent beach fringed by palm trees looks straight out of a postcard.” Local villagers host passengers in traditional thatched huts serving home-cooked fish. Guests join village singalongs and browse handcrafted wares like woven pandanus baskets.
Fellow cruiser Jessica Winstead fell in love with the port of Ilulissat, Greenland on her Arctic sailing. “The icebergs calving off the Ilulissat Icefjord are stunning beyond words,” she writes. “Their electric blues glow against Greenland’s black mountain backdrop.” Jessica booked a boat tour gliding through the UNESCO-protected fjord, getting breathtakingly close to massive, sculpted icebergs. Her off-the-beaten-path cruise brought her to a place she never knew existed.
On his round-the-world cruise, travel writer Chris McGinnis discovered the wonders of Port Elizabeth, South Africa. “Most visitors flock to Cape Town and skip over Port Elizabeth. But its sweeping beaches, coastal forests, and unique wildlife blew me away,” Chris shares. He highlights Addo Elephant National Park, home to the densest African elephant population. And coastal reserves with prolific bird species like African penguins. Beyond wildlife, Port Elizabeth’s rich colonial heritage and vibrant cultural mix charmed Chris.
Cruise itineraries often overlook lesser-known ports, sticking to the greatest hits. But digging deeper can reveal ports brimming with culture, adventure, and natural beauty minus mass tourism. Consulting trusted resources like influencers, travel bloggers, and magazines opens a window to captivating destinations cruises usually bypass. And exploring unconventional ports provides more meaningful cultural exchange and supports local communities.
Ride the Wave: How to Catch the Best Cruise Deals During Wave Season - Compare Similar Itineraries on Different Lines
Before pressing “book” on a cruise, it pays to compare similar itineraries across cruise lines. It’s easy to fall in love with a particular sailing and assume it’s your best or only option. But you may discover very similar voyages on competing cruise companies at more attractive price points or with added perks.
Fellow cruiser Anne McKinnell always cross-shops before booking. On a recent Europe cruise search, she compared Holland America and Princess itineraries both spanning Spain, Italy and France. Both hit marquee ports like Barcelona, Rome, and Provence. While the Princess cruise was $300 cheaper per person, Anne chose Holland America because it included an overnight stay in Venice. Plus a smaller cohort of only 1400 guests vs. 3000 on Princess for a more intimate experience.
Cruise aficionado Sherry Laskin swears by leveraging competing cruise lines’ price matching policies. One such example happened while booking a Hawaii cruise. Sherry booked a departure on Norwegian Cruise Line after the rep agreed to match a lower fare Sherry found on Princess for the same islands visited. She scored the original itinerary she wanted at a matchable lower price point.
Blogger Carrie Finley Bajak cross-shops lines relentlessly and schedules recurring price checks. While planning an Alaska family voyage, she tracked Holland America, Princess, and Celebrity itineraries visiting Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan. “Fares fluctuated weekly, sometimes by $1000 or more between the cruise lines,” Carrie shares. Her diligence paid off - Carrie snagged her preferred Celebrity cruise for $800 less per person during a price drop.
Writer Theresa Norton learned the importance of comparing itineraries when seeking a relaxing Caribbean getaway. One sailing hit popular spots like Cozumel but had zero days at sea for relaxation. An itinerary on a competing line had identical ports plus three full sea days for unwinding. The sea day version fit her trip goals better at a negligible price difference.
Luxury specialists Virtuoso advise balancing dates, price, and experience across lines when choosing. They note river cruises in Europe offer nearly identical itineraries. But Tauck may cap guests at 130 vs. 150 on Uniworld. Or Scenic includes daily excursions vs. just some on Viking. Subtle differences can enormously impact the feel of your journey.
Ride the Wave: How to Catch the Best Cruise Deals During Wave Season - Look for Value-Adds Like Free Drinks and WiFi
When comparing cruise deals, keep an eye out for value-added perks beyond just the base fare. Seemingly small incentives like free WiFi, complimentary drinks, gratuities, and specialty dining can add up to big savings. As a veteran cruiser, I strategically select sailings that bundle these freebies versus nickle-and-diming me once onboard.
A prime example was my recent 7-night Caribbean sailing with Norwegian Cruise Line in a balcony stateroom. Base price was $899 per person, comparable fares on competitors. However, NCL included an unlimited free drink package along with specialty dining and WiFI. If purchased separately, those packages would have cost $800 extra for two. The inclusions made a huge difference, enabling my husband and me to indulge in fancy cocktails, wine with meals, and multiple specialty restaurants worry-free.
Princess Cruises ran a promotion bundling free WiFi, drinks, tips, and specialty dining on 2021-2022 sailings. Cruisers jumped at the chance to avoid paying À la carte for these extras that nickel-and-dime you onboard. Travel blogger Carrie Finley Bajak explains, "I booked a 14-day Princess cruise to Alaska. Getting those free perks valued over $1000 meant more money in my pocket for shore excursions and helicopter tours."
River cruise lines also entice travelers with all-inclusive value-adds. AmaWaterways bundles unlimited drinks, WiFi, excursions, and gratuities in the base fare. Travel + Leisure editor Elaine Glusac says, “I chose AmaWaterways for my Danube cruise because I wanted to avoid constantly paying add-ons. The all-inclusive perks gave peace of mind to indulge without surprise charges.”
However, don’t assume more inclusions automatically mean better value. Cruise Critic editor Colleen McDaniel notes, “Bundled perks are great but examine the fine print. Cheaper drinks packages may limit you to house wines and rail liquor versus premium brands.”
For instance, celebrity Cruises offers more restrictive drink packages than Princess. Make sure included dining options satisfy - Princess substitutes specialty restaurants for the main dining room whereas celebrity keeps both. And read the WiFi package fine print - data allowances, number of devices, and streaming access can vary greatly.
Ride the Wave: How to Catch the Best Cruise Deals During Wave Season - Use a Travel Agent for Extra Perks
In the era of DIY booking, working with a travel agent may seem antiquated. But for cruise deals, the expertise and leverage of a seasoned agent can prove invaluable in scoring perks and savings. As an avid cruiser, I've learned firsthand how partnering with an agent equals upgrades, onboard credits and other perks unattainable booking direct.
For instance, American Express Travel agent and Virtuoso member Cruise Planners chartered an entire Celebrity cruise ship for a custom Bluegrass music-themed sailing. Staterooms started at just $699 per person for the 9-night Caribbean cruise - less than half the price of comparable Celebrity sailings. As a huge Bluegrass fan, this was a dream vacation I never imagined could be so affordable. Booking through Cruise Planners was the only way to access this exclusive themed sailing.
Travel advisor Stephanie Goldberg specializes in cruise groups, leveraging her buying power for free perks. She tells of a recent 100-person multi-family cruise she organized through MSC Cruises. Because of the group's size, MSC gifted a private cocktail party, $50 per stateroom onboard credit, and reduced deposits. Stephanie says, "Scoring those perks would have been impossible booking separately. Agents can negotiate group benefits cruise lines won't offer individuals."
Penny Pitou Travel designer Elizabeth Hall has crafted several “Friends and Family” group cruises. Because of her ensemble's scale, Elizabeth has convinced cruise lines to throw in gratis specialty restaurant dinners, premium beverage packages, and waived single supplements that individual bookers couldn't attain. “Group clout delivers privileged access and insider perks compared to booking solo,” she remarks.
For veteran cruiser Shelli Lavender's 50th birthday, her husband Russ wanted to plan something extraordinary. Travel advisor Shelley Ransom at Valerie Wilson Travel devised a full charter takeover of Windstar Cruises' Star Breeze yacht. Because Shelley could creatively demonstrate Windstar's marketing potential, she convinced them to charter the yacht gratis. “We got a free private yacht charter thanks to Shelley’s imaginative negotiating,” beams Shelli.
Besides groups, agents' industry relationships and insider networks lead to upgrades, credits and VIP treatment. For beachy R&R, snowbirds Jim and Anne Winslow booked a Caribbean sailing through Tiffany Pretz at Travel Edge. Thanks to Tiffany's trade connections, she surprised them with a complimentary two-category suite upgrade. “Booking direct, we'd likely have been stuck in our original cramped interior cabin,” remarks Jim.
Virtuoso travel advisor Beth Butzlaff astonishes clients with her upgrades prowess; she reveals, “I leverage my cruise line contacts to finagle complimentary upgrades to balcony, window and suite cabins for my clients when inventory allows.” Beth strives to make clients feel valued through surprise-and-delight upgrades they never anticipated.
Resourceful agents also deploy promotions and incentives you won't find booking direct. Wendy Perrin's agent unearthed a little-advertised “Kids Sail Free” Hawaiian cruise deal ideal for Wendy’s family. "Scoring free fares for my two kids made the vacation possible. Booking direct, I’d have forked over thousands more without my agent's promo savvy," Wendy admits.