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8 Secret Tricks for Scoring a Cruise Deal

Follow these expert-approved strategies to land a bargain.

U.S. News & World Report

8 Secret Tricks for Scoring a Cruise Deal

Smiling young woman enjoying her day on a ship and looking away.

These tips can get you cruising for less.(Getty Images)

If you're contemplating taking a cruise, you're not alone. The Cruise Lines International Association's 2016 Cruise Industry Outlook projects 24 million passengers will set sail in 2016, up from 23.2 million in 2015. In fact, the industry trade organization, which represents 62 cruise lines and 95 percent of the global cruise market, reports demand for cruising has grown by 68 percent over the past 10 years. If you're one of the millions of people looking to book a cruise, check out these insider strategies from top industry experts for landing a great deal.

Hone in on Value

"The best way to snap up a cruise bargain is to focus on value rather than the deepest possible discounts," says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of cruise advice site CruiseCritic.com. "Cruise lines are increasingly offering add-on packages in addition to cruise fares that can save you a lot of money as long as you know what you would ordinarily spend extra for while on the trip," she explains.

Seek Out a Specialized Travel Agent

Travel agents have the best grasp of the promotions that are available, says Lorri Christou, senior vice president of strategic marketing and communications at CLIA. Wendy Perrin, founder and editor of travel-planning site WendyPerrin.com, echoes similar sentiments, pointing out that a cruise-deals site will yield the best rate, but a reliable agent will pinpoint the best experience for your dollar. She recommends booking your itinerary through a specialist listed on the cruise line's travel agent advisory board or a top-producing agent who books a large number of passengers for a particular line and has the clout to secure the best rates. "Once you've found a proven cruise agent you love – one with savvy insider expertise, one who has a direct line to the CEO – stick with that agent because you will have access to secret unpublicized deals," Perrin adds.

Start Early

Cruise lines typically offer the lowest rates when a new itinerary becomes available, though pricing varies depending on your desired itinerary. "People are booking further in advance than ever before," Christou says, noting that 12 to 18 months in advance is the best booking window to optimize savings and ensure you get your desired cabin.

A smart time to book is "wave season," from January to March, when many companies offer extras to lure prospective cruisers. For extra perks such as complimentary or discounted flights or a cabin upgrade, it's best to book an itinerary as soon as it's available, Brown says. While procrastinators can still land a bargain if they book two weeks to two months ahead of the sail date, having flexibility is essential, because you may have limited cabin inventory, she explains.

Choose Your Sail Date Wisely

If you have some flexibility, planning an off-season cruise (during a less crowded time than the holidays or school breaks) can be kind to your wallet, Perrin says. "You can find great deals on Caribbean cruises in early December (after Thanksgiving and before the Christmas rush) and in early January (after the New Year's rush)," she adds.

Planning a shoulder season sailing is another great way to snag discounted rates. Sometimes, you can can knock off as much as hundreds per person, Brown says. Another top selling point of cruising during the shoulder season is fewer visitors, "which makes it easier to escape crowds when you're sightseeing," Perrin says. Plus, the weather is pleasant in the Mediterranean in May or October, for example, more comfortable than an August itinerary, when you can expect high temperatures, steep prices and high tourist traffic, Perrin explains.

That said, depending on where you want to cruise, you have to take into account seasonality. "Weather could be iffier in shoulder season in northern cruise regions like the Baltic and Alaska, so just pack more carefully," Brown says.

Consider a Repositioning Cruise

Repositioning cruises, which take place when ships relocate from one part of the world to another (think migrating to the Caribbean in winter or the Mediterranean in summer) can tender significant savings, Perrin says. "If you can get a good open-jaw airfare on a repositioning cruise, you can save big," she adds. Cruise fares often drop by up to 50 to 75 percent for these sailings, explains Gabe Saglie, senior editor at travel deal site Travelzoo.com. From August to October, ships based in Alaska are repositioned to chart sailings to the West Coast, Hawaii, Mexico and the Panama Canal, yielding affordable itineraries as they switch routes, he explains.

Pick the Right Cabin and Location

If your heart is set on a balcony or suite-category room, paying a little more up front can be worthwhile, Brown says. "If you can score a complimentary cabin upgrade as part of a cruise line perk – even better," she adds. Also keep in mind that on high-end ships, "the lower cabin categories often have more bells and whistles than the mid-range cabins on a mainstream line – so you'll still be getting some bang for your buck at those lower levels." And remember, on large ships carrying 3,000-plus passengers, it can take some time to reach different areas of the ship, so if you're traveling with kids, you may want to base yourself near the kids' pool, sports deck or kids' club, Perrin says.

Know What's Included

While most cruise lines offer all-inclusive pricing that covers accommodations, dining and onboard entertainment costs in one flat rate, there are add-ons that can translate to a hefty final bill. "On mainstream cruises, you'll typically pay extra for shore excursions; beverages beyond water, tea and basic coffee; and boutique restaurants," Brown says. Look for cost-effective packages that "bundle shore excursions, alternative restaurant fees or beverages," she says. And if you're planning to drink cocktails throughout your trip, it's a wise idea to consider an unlimited drink package, which tends to offer a higher value, she adds.

Account for Transportation Costs

Keep in mind that extra transportation costs can add up quickly. "Don't book a cruise that starts in one city and ends in another before researching the airfare, since open-jaw airfares can be pricey," Perrin says. "If you’re lucky enough to have a lot of frequent-flier miles with an airline that lets you book one-way fares, it can be very helpful in such a scenario," she says.

Also consider how you'll want to spend your time ashore, and the transportation required to reach desired attractions, Perrin says. If you want to visit Florence, Italy, for example, "the ship will actually be docking at the port of Livorno, which is a 90-minute drive from Florence," Perrin explains. In this situation, you may wind up with only a few hours in Florence – and much of that time may be when shops and restaurants are closed, she says, yielding limited options if you're on a tight budget.

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