Cruise travel can be a great bargain, but finding the best prices can be difficult when every travel agent and website seems to be offering competing deals. To find the best value for your travel dollar, you have to consider what aspects of the vacation are most important to you before shopping around to arrange the best discount possible.
Value in Cruise Vacations
Value and 'best price' have two different meanings, and the cruises that offer the best deals are not always the least expensive ones. Before snagging a low-price bargain, it is important to consider several factors that truly determine if the offer is a good deal.
- Cabin location: Is the discounted cabin in a favorable location? Is there a balcony, window, or porthole? Is the view obstructed? What facilities are nearby (children's areas, gym, lounge, restaurants)?
- Included amenities: What amenities are included in the fare price? Gratuities? Shore excursions? Souvenirs? Also consider intangible benefits such as priority boarding service or shuttle transfers from the airport.
- Sailing convenience: Is the sailing date compatible with your vacation dates? Is the port convenient to reach or will it require extended travel just to begin your cruise vacation?
- Per-day value: How does the fare break down on a per-day basis? A cruise that costs $200 more may be a better bargain if its itinerary is four days longer.
Naturally, different people will rate each of these factors differently depending on personal circumstances and preferences. A family, for example, may consider a cabin near the children's area to be a great bargain, while a honeymooning couple may consider it a detriment. To identify your best cruise values, rate different factors according to their importance and choose a cruise using those ratings as a priority list.
When asked to recommend some of the most affordable cruise destinations, cruise expert Kristi Hocutt, a Sales Expert for Cruise.com indicated, "The three- to four-day Bahamas cruises and three- to four-day Baja Mexico cruises are great values for a quick vacation."
Great cruise values can also be found to other destinations as well, though prices vary significantly. Examples of the best prices found while searching multiple cruise lines on Cruise Critic inlcude:
- You can typically find a four-night cruise to the Bahamas with Celebrity Cruises for around $400 to $500, while seven nights for the same destination will cost closer to $600 or $700, depending on the time of year and the cruise company.
- For a cruise to the Mexican Riviera, fares are quite similar - sometimes even a little more affordable. You can find three-night cruises aboard affordable carriers like Carnival for around $300, while seven night sailings cost around $700.
- Another popular option is Alaska, where less than $1,000 for a seven-night cruise is a good deal with any company.
- Caribbean cruises will vary a great deal depending on the port, carrier and time of year. A typical seven-night Eastern Caribbean cruise that includes popular ports like Saint Martin and Puerto Rico will typically cost around $900 ($700 is a very good deal) for the most basic accommodations (using Royal Caribbean as an example).
Companies include Carnival, Princess, Celebrity and Royal Caribbean tend to be the more affordable cruise companies. Norwegian Cruise Lines is another popular and affordable carrier. Their prices may cost an additional hundred dollars, but they offer packages, such as their "Free at Sea" option that provides guests with special perks.
More specialized cruise lines, like the family favorite Disney Cruise Lines, tend to be significantly more expensive because of the kind of onboard programming that they offer. For example, it's nearly $800 for a three-day cruise to the Bahamas with Disney.
Finding the Best Cruise Prices
There are different methods for finding the best cruise prices, from booking directly with the cruise company in search of unpublished deals to visiting sites with multiple booking options and more.
Through the Cruise Line
If you go to the cruise lines directly, they may offer you deals that are not advertised. For example, most cruise lines offer price breaks and benefits to past passengers, particularly if you enroll in their past passenger programs (usually free to join). There may also be military, educational, or state resident deals as well as discounts for seniors. You must usually inquire about the possibilities to take advantage of the savings - they will not be openly offered. It's best to consult at least a few different cruise lines to find the best deal.
Through Reverse Auction Sites
Consulting multiple cruise lines about their deals can be an exhausting undertaking, and that's where reverse auction sites come in. Reverse auction sites offer you the chance to see multiple quotes in one place, and the competitive landscape can make for some great deals.
Lisa explains, "A reverse auction drives your cruise price down because multiple travel agents are competing against each other to earn your business. Additionally, your chance of finding the best price or deal is greatly improved because there are hundreds, if not thousands, of agents across the world who will know about your request and have the ability to provide a quotation. Often there is a small independent travel agent hidden away somewhere with one or two staterooms of unsold group space that has better pricing and amenities than can be found anywhere online or offline."
- CruiseCompete is a popular reverse auction website for cruises that has been operating since 2002. First you find a cruise you'd like and create a quote. Then, you can review the options that come back from the agents. It's popular among customers, with some claiming they receive extras from companies they find here, or save upwards of $500.
- SkyAuction operates in a similar capacity for air, hotel and sea options.
Discount Cruise Sites
If the ide of participating in auctions doesn't appeal to you, you can still shop online. Several popular websites offer competitive pricing for cruises. Options include:
- CruiseCritic offers great deals, as well as advice, news alerts (like when cruise companies change their policies) and a very active forum where cruisers can offer honest reviews to help others. It's seen as an authority, and its top picks regularly make the news.
- American Discount Cruises is known for its self-professed and highly valued great customer service, as pointed out by the Better Business Bureau in its A+ rating (compared with cruise.com's B- rating).
- Expedia also offers cruise deals, and is a leader in customer satisfaction with a 91% satisfaction rate.
- CruiseDirect.com is another site that offers shoppers as easy-to-scan layout supported by great deals.
Through Travel Agents
You may also be able to get a great price on a cruise through a travel agent. Once you receive a price quote from one agent, if you find a lower price online or through a different agent, the first agent may be willing to use discretionary discounts to lower their price even further, giving you the best possible price.
According to Lisa Rivers, Marketing Director of MyBestFareFinder.com, there are many reasons why different cruise agents will have different offers. She explains, "Some agents may have better pricing due to higher sales volume on certain cruise lines or even on certain sailings. Other agents may have access to group space, reserved years before the actual sailing date, with pricing or amenities no longer available or not generally publicized."
Kristi advises shoppers to "look around for the best deals and always ask your agent if this is the lowest price." She recommends, "Ask for perks - it never hurts to ask!"
Ways to Save
If you've done your research and still aren't happy with the results, there are other things to consider. "[You] can look at another sail date that has lower rates, look at a shorter cruise, or select another destination," advises Kristi. She indicates that it's possible to accommodate just about any budget - "as long as it is realistic."
When to Sail
Cruises are typically less expensive in September, October, January, and March - months that do not have many family vacations, weddings, or reunions scheduled. Cruise lines will often offer deep discounts during those months. Kristi indicates, "The best time of year to cruise would be after Labor Day going into the third week in November. I usually find the cheapest deals at that time."
Last Minute Deals
If your travel dates are very flexible, it might be possible to take advantage of last minute bargains for greater savings if cabins have not been filled. Be careful, though, because waiting until the last minute could also backfire. Kristi warns, "Waiting until the last minute will not guarantee you the lowest price. If the ship is filling up the cruise lines will more than likely raise the rates." It can be better to consult a travel agent for details about date-specific savings and other discount options.
Your cabin selection greatly impacts the overall value of your cruise. Interior cabins on lower decks are typically the least expensive, though great bargains exist for more luxurious categories if you know how to take advantage of them. For example:
- Many cruise lines offer in-category upgrades. If you purchase the least expensive type of oceanview cabin you may be eligible for an upgrade to the best type of oceanview cabin, giving you substantial savings and a better value cruise.
- Suites are often the most expensive cabins, but offer greater amenities, including more luxurious furnishings, better locations, and possibly free souvenirs or onboard discounts.
Which cabin you choose depends on the type of cruise value you are seeking.
Beyond the actual sticker price of the cruise, there are many ways to receive added value, from beverage packages to included gratuities and more. "All the cruise lines have remarkable deals," says Kristi. She expands, "They each have different specials to offer to clients. Options may include onboard credits, free category upgrades, and other types of discounts. They all offer specials."
With this in mind, don't just limit your view on pricing to the actual cost of the cruise. Think about other onboard expenses you may incur (such as beverages) and find out if there is a special deal running where the ship is willing to absorb the cost.
Finding Your Best Value
If you consider the overall value of a cruise as it relates to your personal preferences, including when you sail and which cabin you choose, it can be easy to locate the best cruise deals for both your budget and vacation dreams. By researching discounts prior to sailing, you can easily find the cruise vacation of a lifetime without needing a lifetime to pay for it.