I asked Vince, an agent from Expedia Cruises, when the best time is to book a cruise. Here is his excellent response, which I gained his approval to share with you.
For 7-night cruises, final payment is usually due 75 days before the departure date; for longer cruises, final payment is usually due 90 days before the departure date. For the sake of this discussion, let’s consider a “last minute” booking to be any booking made after the final payment date.
With a few exceptions, deposits for cruise reservations are fully refundable prior to the final payment date. If you’ve paid a refundable deposit, you’re guaranteed to always be able to re-book and take advantage of a better deal if one becomes available prior to the final payment date. That is, you can simply cancel your reservation for a full refund and then re-book to get the better deal. The cruise lines know this and don’t make you go through the cancel-and-rebook process; instead, they let you re-book your original reservation to get the better deal.
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Because there are cancellation penalties after the final payment date, things get a little trickier. After the final payment date, you can no longer cancel and get a full refund. This is when cruise lines will sometimes introduce “last-minute” deals that are not available to customers with paid-in-full reservations. In these cases, you’re not able to re-book to take advantage of the better deal. However, the cruise lines will always allow you to upgrade to take advantage of the better deal. For example, let’s say you’re booked into an oceanview stateroom and a last-minute deal comes out such that balcony staterooms are priced only $100 higher than what you paid for the oceanview. In this case, the cruise lines will allow you to upgrade to the oceanview by paying only the $100 difference.
I’ve used the “last-minute deal upgrade” strategy on my personal cruises. Last December, I went on a Royal Caribbean cruise and wanted a junior suite. I had guessed that there might be last-minute deals on this cruise because it was a time of low demand, but I wanted to book right away to be sure to get on board. Therefore, I booked the lowest-price balcony stateroom and waited. Sure enough, a last-minute deal became available and I was able to upgrade to the junior suite for less than I would have paid when I originally booked. (If a last-minute deal had not become available, I would have been happy with my balcony stateroom).
It is true that it’s sometimes (often?) possible to get a lower price by waiting for a “last-minute” deal after the final payment date. However, there are some caveats for waiting for these deals:
This means that not only are there no last-minute deals, but you may not get on board at all. Therefore, if you know you want to go on a particular cruise on a specific date, waiting for a last-minute deal is not a good strategy.
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Therefore, the only staterooms left at the last minute are the ones no one else wanted. If stateroom location is important to you, waiting for a last-minute deal isn’t a good strategy. A good example of this is a family that needs multiple staterooms close to each other.
What you save in cruise fare, you might give back in airfare.
They set their initial prices low and then raise them as the sailing date gets closer (similar to what the airlines do). They’ll raise the prices faster or more slowly depending on how well a particular cruise is selling. Then, after the final payment date, they may offer last-minute deals to fill the remaining staterooms. However, because they’ve been raising prices all along, the “last-minute deals” may actually be higher than the initial prices you would have paid 12-18 months in advance.
The bottom line is, waiting for a last-minute deal can be a good strategy if: (a) you don’t care if you don’t get to go on the cruise at all because the ship sells out; (b) you don’t care about the location of your stateroom; and, (c) you’re not worried about airfare, either because you’re driving to the cruise port or using awards miles to pay for your flight.
A better strategy for most people is to book a cruise as early as possible to take advantage of the initial low fares before the cruise lines start raising prices. If a better deal becomes available before the final payment date, it’s a simple matter to re-book and get the better deal. After the final payment date, you can use the “last-minute deal upgrade” strategy to improve your stateroom category.
Originally published May 03, 2023
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