How to find the best cheap cruise deals
Cruisers are a competitive lot, so finding out your shipmates paid less than you for the same cruise doesn't half take the edge off that Caribbean sunset or dinner at the Captain's table. Make sure you don't pay over the odds with our guide to finding cheap cruise deals.
1. Do your research
Before you do anything decide what sort of cruise you fancy. Do you want to go on a big ship packed with restaurants and bars or would you prefer a smaller boutique ship? Do you mind if there are families on board, where you go and what you see? Do you want to spend sea days indulging in gourmet food, playing sport or arts and crafts? Independent cruise website, Cruisecritic.co.uk (a subsidiary of TripAdvisor) is a good starting point for cruise reviews.
2. Don't pay brochure price
Adam Coulter, UK editor of CruiseCritic.co.uk, says: "Cruise lines create glossy brochures with ‘sample' pricing, but unless it's a particularly special and an extremely well sold trip where demand is high – which is very rare – you can usually pay less." Get an idea of prices by looking at ads in the travel section of your weekend paper and from various holiday and cruise comparison websites.
3. Get on the phone
While comparison websites might promise cheap cruise deals and give you a good indication of prices, speaking to a good cruise travel agent can save you more money, says Coulter. "Since agents often book in bulk and work directly with the cruise lines, they can access additional deals they can't promote on their websites, so even if you see a good deal online, it's best to talk to a real person and ask for the best fare," he explains.
Even if they can't offer you a lower price they might still be able to throw in some on board credit to pay for any extras you might fancy or prepaid gratuities – a hidden cost of cruises that many a Brit is likely to overlook.
4. Last-minute cruises
If you don't mind where you go and aren't too fussy about which ship you sail on, you can bag some cheap cruise deals in the last 90 days before the ship sails. Coulter says: "There are typically a large number of Caribbean deals. Other cruises that are difficult to fill, such as shoulder season cruises (see point 8) and one-way repositioning sailings, where open-jaw airfare [flying into one airport and leaving from another] is required are often reduced significantly at the last minute."
Your savings, however, do need to be counteracted by the cost of any airfares. Cabin choice could be limited too. But if you are flexible and can drive to the departure port it's a great way to get a cheap cruise deal. Be aware repositioning or transatlantic cruises will have more ‘sea days' so you need to be happy with the range of entertainment available on board.
5. Book early
If you are specific about the ship, cabin and when and where you cruise to, it's best to book ahead for early-bird savings. James Cole, managing director of comparison website Cruise118, says there are additional perks for early bookers: "Many value added giveaway promotions are available for early bookers, for example Celebrity Cruises have free drinks promotions on sailings in the Mediterranean, Caribbean and Alaska, and also on sailings from the UK, when booking a balcony and above.
"Royal Caribbean also has a free drinks package on all sailings from the UK that are seven nights and above – this includes five bottles of wine and kids get unlimited soda for the duration of the cruise."
6. Choose your cabin wisely
Inside cabins – without windows – are the cheapest option and can make sense if you don't plan on spending much time in your room. However, they don't suit everyone – give them a wide berth if you are likely to suffer from seasickness, as a view of horizon can help calm queasy tummies.
Cole adds that free cabin upgrades are sometimes offered to early bookers, and that with some cabins, you may receive other value-added benefits. "For example, Aqua Class cabins on Celebrity Cruises gain you access to the exclusive Blu Restaurant and all suites receive a complimentary speciality dining evening."
7. Cabin guarantees
Cabin upgrades on cruises are as elusive as first class upgrades on transatlantic flights. However, one way you can increase your chances is to plump for a cabin guarantee. Here, you reserve the type of cabin you want to stay in, but not its exact location – for example, mid-ship, low deck or high deck.
When your cabin is eventually allocated (in the final days or weeks prior to departure) you could get an upgrade if all the cabins in your category are full or if there is availability in better rooms. This can be a risky gamble – while you might get an upgrade, you may end up with a cabin that nobody else picked because it's an odd shape or in a noisier location.
How cruise ships price their cabin guarantees is key to how much value of money these deals offer. According to Cruise Critic, Cunard, Carnival, Seabourn and Costa all offer discounts on cabin guarantees, meaning you pay less than those cruisers who pick their exact cabin. However, Crystal, Disney and Holland America all offer guarantees but don't offer any discounts, so you only stand to gain if you manage to get an upgrade.
8. Select shoulder-season sailings
If you have your heart set on a specific destination you can get cheap cruise deals by picking travel dates outside of peak season. "Pick May to visit Alaska, April for the Mediterranean and October for a Caribbean cruise, before or after the influx of family summer holidays," advises Coulter.
Not only will you save money, but there will also be fewer crowds. The downside is the weather may not be as good as it is in peak season, so do your meteorological research to see if it's a saving worth making.
9. Arrange your own excursions
There are many advantages to booking your tours through your cruise ship – you know the company is licensed, reputable and importantly, that the ship won't leave without you if there are any delays. However, they can be notoriously expensive.
Coulter says: "You can save money by arranging your own shore excursions if you spend some time researching the ports you will visit before you leave home. Before you sail, look for free planners with maps, calendars of events and attraction guides for the ports of call on your. Take out books on your destination from the local library, and research online."
Alternatively, you can book tours with companies that specialise in tours for cruise passengers before you leave home, such as Cruising Excursions. Good tour operators should guarantee to get you back to your ship in time, provide English-speaking guides and a full refund if your ship is prevented from calling at that particular port.
10. Watch for hidden costs
Included in the price of your cruise will be more food than you can eat and round-the-clock entertainment. Nonetheless, there are plenty of hidden costs of cruising. Cruise Critic warns you need to be prepared to pay restaurant prices for alcohol and many soft drinks.
However, you can stock up on bottled water and soft drinks in ports and if you order wine with dinner you don't have to finish it that evening – it can be held over for the following night. Laundry can be expensive too so pack plenty of clothes as well as some travel wash so you can wash some items in your room. To avoid sky-high wifi charges on board, hold off checking your emails until you're in port. Many cafés close to port will offer free wifi.
Have you cruised before? Share your tips for cutting costs here.