USA TODAY's Gene Sloan is captain of the Cruise Log, an online travel community covering news and events in the cruise world. This week, he launched a new feature: the Reader Tip of the Week, where readers share their traveling advice. Get on board Mondays at cruises.usatoday.com.
What's the secret to … getting a great deal?
I research as many sites as possible like cheapcruises.com and justcruises.com, then I call NCL (Norwegian Cruise Lines) direct and say "well, cheapcruises.com says they can give me that cabin for $x." Then I have the added 'warm fuzzy feeling' of having booked directly.
Here's a tip, but you have to be very flexible and sometimes it just doesn't work out. All cruise lines overbook their voyages. Book a very popular cruise (spring break, Alaska etc.), and let the line know that you are willing to be bumped if the voyage is oversold. Depending on how desperate they are to get people off the voyage, they will offer you a free cruise, an upgrade, onboard credit and possibly airfare too. Or not … It's a bit risky, but it's worked well for us a couple of times.
As a travel agent, I would like to express that Royal Caribbean and Celebrity have the best discounts on Tuesdays and will offer to adjust an invoice if you booked your cruise months in advance and a state residency or senior discount becomes available. You as the passenger have the responsibility of contacting the cruise company to inquire as to whether discounts have become available. This usually happens when group space is released back to a cruise line because the cabins haven't sold and the contract is up, or if the cruise line hasn't sold all the cabins in a category. If you have booked your cabin through a travel agent, you may ask your agent to check with the cruise lines to see if a discount has become available. These discounts are usually within a few weeks of final payment being due.
If you are looking for last minute deals, these are rare because cruise lines overbook and then guestimate how many will cancel before final payment is due. It's always best to book months in advance. The lower prices are usually available at least 9 months out. Disney Cruise Lines offers discounts about a month before sailing based on availability. Check with your travel agent.
My method for getting the best prices is to register with the major cruise sites (including the cruise line site itself). They will send you e-mails when sales occur. Find the best price you can on the web and then call the cruise line directly on the phone and see if they will do better.
It depends upon the cruise line and the type of cabin desired. There is not much fluctuation with Carnival's pricing, for example, and it will tend to go up, not down, as the cruise approaches — especially for the better cabins. But Royal Caribbean can be very different — especially if the goal is a good price on an inside cabin. Here is my recent experience on a trans-Atlantic cruise with them April 27-May 10. The inside cabin price starts at about $900 pp double occupancy, but several months before the sail date the website will sometimes offer a guarantee inside price of about $450 pp double occupancy. Watching their site at various times during the day, I discovered that they reset the prices (typically lower) at about 3 a.m. Eastern time. Then as the day progresses, the price will go up — typically double — if cabins start to sell. Too bad for the West Coast folks, unless they get up real early.
Shop around and book as early as possible. You get the best deals during off and shoulder seasons. Take advantage of booking incentives, and keep checking back to see if the price of your cruise has changed. If there is a decrease, let your cruise line or travel agent know to get a refund. The best advice is to always do your homework.
If I told you, it wouldn't be a secret anymore.