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After two-plus years of turmoil in the cruise industry because of COVID-19, planning a cruise vacation looks different now than before the pandemic began – in a number of positive ways. Travelers eager to return to sea as soon as possible may be able to take advantage of current industry trends ranging from cheaper cruise costs to more flexible cancellation policies.
There are several new cruise ships to experience (including the highly anticipated Disney Wish), and cruise lines are no longer required to publicly track COVID-19 cases on ships – a hopeful sign that the cruise industry is able to effectively manage the risks of coronavirus.
The best development for potential passengers is that cruising is set to be one of the cheapest ways to travel in late 2022, with many cruise lines advertising rates for less than $60 a night on new bookings. These last-minute cruise deals include a variety of itineraries in the Eastern Caribbean (including the Bahamas), Western Caribbean, Mexico and beyond.
If you’re ready to set sail in 2022 and 2023, here’s how you can book your dream cruise vacation for less.
The time to a score a cruise deal is this minute. Now that many cruise lines are operating their fleets at full capacity, they’re keeping fares low to entice travelers and fill vacancies.
These cruise deals aren’t guaranteed to last, though, and are expected to creep up for new bookings in 2023 or sooner. Read on to see which other times of year you might be able to score a last-minute cruise deal.
Chris Gray Faust, managing editor of Cruise Critic, says the window for finding last-minute cruise deals is within 90 days of a sailing. “That three-month mark is when final deposits are due on a cruise, and historically the last point you could cancel your cruise without financial penalty. At that point, cruise lines try to fill those vacant cabins, usually in the form of slashed fares to entice people to book.”
She adds that cancellation policies have changed significantly since the pandemic began, providing peace of mind for those interested in last-minute cruises. “Cruise lines are more flexible with their policies, which in turn, could have an impact on last-minute cruise deals and big savings now that travelers are able to cancel more closely to a sailing,” Gray Faust says.
You may also find cheaper cruise fares if you’re able to book a last-minute cruise departing in the spring or fall, when most families with children in school can’t travel. As such, cruise lines typically have more availability and lower pricing during these times.
If you’re willing to book a cruise during “wave season” – which spans early January through the end of March – you may be able to find a last-minute cruise deal that fits your budget.
“Availability on most cruise lines, especially early in the year, translates into some good opportunities for savings and possible upgrades,” says Patty Perry, president and owner of Cruise Vacations International, a Virtuoso agency.
Planning a last-minute cruise during hurricane season in the Caribbean and Mexico – from June 1 to Nov. 30 – is another option. These months are considered the shoulder season in those regions, so it can be a great time to find cruise savings. If you do book a cruise during hurricane season, consider investing in a travel insurance policy that has trip interruption and trip cancellation benefits. You’ll also want to make sure that all of your prepaid and nonrefundable expenses are covered in the policy.
If you’re internet-savvy and don’t mind perusing the cruise lines’ websites individually, check out their advertised discounted fares, included amenities and special bonus exclusive offers. These often include free upgrades and shore excursion credits to cover port expenses.
For example, Norwegian Cruise Line offers a number of Free at Sea offers. These deals include unlimited open bar, shore excursion credits, rates for third and fourth guests on select dates (in the same room where you’ve already paid double occupancy rates), dining at specialty restaurants and Wi-Fi.
In addition to the Free at Sea offers, Norwegian features CruiseFirst, a special bonus offer that essentially allows cruisers to earn free money. For example, if you purchase a $250 CruiseFirst certificate today, it will immediately double in value and you’ll have $500 to spend on a cruise now or in the future.
If you’re looking for reduced fares on a luxury cruise, it’ll likely be more challenging to find a last-minute deal. “In the luxury segment, the industry is seeing a lot of pent-up demand, as seen with world cruises selling out within hours. The combination of pent-up demand and limited inventory is keeping pricing stable,” says Beth Butzlaff, formerly of Virtuoso and now vice president of partnerships at Global Travel Collection.
If you prefer to use cruise deal aggregator sites, you can find last-minute cruises across the industry all in one place. Simply sort your findings by the month you’d like to travel, the length of your intended trip and where you wish to cruise. These are some of the best resources for finding cruise discounts:
Gray Faust says, “Some lines began steering away from last-minute fare drops a few years ago, so keep an eye out for value-add deals as well. While you might not get a super cheap base fare, things like free gratuities, drink packages and/or shore excursions could actually save you even more than you’d save on a slashed price.”
[Planning a Mediterranean getaway? See the top Mediterranean cruises on GoToSea, a service of U.S. News.]
Some cruise lines allow kids to sail free, greatly reducing the total price of and/or adding value to your cruise. MSC Cruises frequently allows those ages 17 and younger to cruise for free on select sailings, while other cruise lines offer more limited-time promotions that allow children to sail at no cost. If you’re considering a family cruise, check out these cruise lines that let kids sail free.
Consider joining your preferred cruise line’s loyalty and membership programs for free upgrades. These are some of the best options:
You can also find loyalty programs through sites such as Expedia. An Expedia Rewards membership is free and offers discounts on travel; depending on your level (Blue, Silver or Gold), there are additional perks and benefits. You also earn rewards points to use toward booking future trips.
A representative from the company says, “On the Expedia website and through nearly 300 Expedia Cruises retail locations across North America, Expedia offers Member Prices, saving travelers up to 10% on last-minute deals, along with exclusive promotions on a variety of cruises. Expedia also secures special rates in advance on the most popular itineraries and cruise lines through the Expedia Exclusive Staterooms program. Most of all, travelers can reach out to one of Expedia’s Vacation Consultants who can help navigate the current environment, answer any questions and help find the best value on their ideal vacations.”
Enlisting the help of a knowledgeable travel adviser can make planning easier and is one of the best ways to find last-minute cruise deals. Such advisers usually have unique access to perks and discounts for big savings with cruise lines that can further enhance the value of your vacation and/or lower the total price. Marni Becker, senior director of cruise partnerships for Global Travel Collection, agrees: “They can save you money and the time you can never get back searching website to website.”
Some aggregator sites also have their own travel advisers to assist in your search. Head of Priceline Cruises Denise Bialek says, “We highly recommend calling one of our Priceline Cruise advisors, as they are the most knowledgeable about the best rate options, know how to combine promotions to get the best deal and will save you time navigating the plethora of cruise lines, cabin categories, pricing, port charges and more.” She adds, “An advantage of booking with one of our Priceline Cruise advisors is access to all cruise line offers and loyalty perks, as you would when booking direct, in addition to our many Priceline exclusive deals, all supported by 24/7 service.”
Additionally, keep in mind that travel advisers have insight into additional restrictions and the condition of each cruise line.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, you may be able to score a better value by booking an all-inclusive (or mostly all-inclusive) voyage than a budget cruise with a cheaper base fare. While these options are primarily in the luxury cruise line category, some fares are especially attractive thanks to included airfare costs, transfers to the ship, meals at all dining venues, premium wines and spirits at an open bar, Wi-Fi access and more.
When you book one of these cruises, you’ll know the total cost upfront, and there won’t be any unexpected surprises when you close out your shipboard account at the end of the cruise. Some of the traditional extras on noninclusive cruise lines – like bottled water, snacks, specialty coffee, gratuities or even beach equipment rentals on the line’s private island – can add up quickly, diminishing the impact of your original fare savings. These are some of the all-inclusive cruise options:
These lines also offer other discounts, and you may be able to combine them with exclusive offers that your travel adviser can access.
Three- to five-night cruises generally equate to instant savings since they have lower fares than voyages lasting a week or longer. If you sail from ports in Florida or Texas, you can visit destinations in the Bahamas, the Caribbean and Mexico; ports of call may include stops at private, cruise line-owned islands like Royal Caribbean International’s Perfect Day at CocoCay in the Bahamas.
If you’re in the northeast U.S., you can book a short sailing to Bermuda aboard a few different lines. Bermuda sailings from Norwegian Cruise Line depart from Boston and New York City, while Royal Caribbean sails to the nearby island from New York City and Baltimore.
Shorter itineraries are less expensive not only because of their length, but also because they typically don’t use the cruise lines’ newest, largest vessels. Still, some ships have been updated, including Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas, which underwent a $116 million amplification in 2020. Its upcoming itineraries make short trips between Miami and the Bahamas.
Sign up for email alerts to receive updates on discounted pricing through the cruise line websites, travel aggregators or your travel adviser. That way, you’ll be the first to know about limited-time offers, last-minute deals or value-adds that may make the price just right.