Often that’s not an easy question to answer. If you don’t want to make your head hurt, just take the deal that you got, and go enjoy your vacation!
But if you’re like me, you want to KNOW whether you got a great deal on your cruise!
I believe that cruise pricing strategies are intentionally designed to be confusing — to make it difficult for you to compare offers. This aggravates the daylights out of me, so I go to great effort to create a way to compare prices before I make a buying decision.
If you are interested in the concept of deliberately confusing pricing, read Confusopoly: Why companies are motivated to deliberately confuse.
Author Kenan Kalayci states, “Recent economic theory recognizes the possibility that companies might have incentives to intentionally confuse their consumers by spuriously differentiating their products or by using complex price schedules.”
I believe that this is EXACTLY what is going on in the mainstream cruise industry.
A Simple Way to Get Good Cruise Deal?
And before we go any further — NO — I don’t have one single magic bullet. There isn’t one. Anyone who tells you differently is writing a click-bait article not worth the time it takes to read.
There are strategies, and knowing the times you are likely to find the best prices. Past that, you’ve got to do some work to get the best deal on that cruise you want to take.
In this post, I’ll write about standard cruise line pricing strategies, best time of the year to get a deal on a cruise, AND my experience comparing quotes from three online travel agencies last year when I booked a two week Caribbean cruise on Celebrity Reflection.
Additionally, there is an Excel worksheet, along with a Cruise Comparison .pdf worksheet, for you to download and use as you work on your own cruise quotes. You’ll find those below.
No one, at least no one I know, pays full fare for a cruise. So whatever that “brochure price” is — is frankly meaningless. Whenever you look at cruise prices, and you see that it’s 55% off . . . well, if it’s pretty well ALWAYS 55% off, then that’s the normal price.
The more you know about pricing on a particular cruise line for a specific type of cruise . . . the more likely you are to get a good deal.
The answers to these questions affect the price you pay for a cruise vacation:
My Strategy for Comparing Cruise Offers
Arm thyself with knowledge!
So, here’s what I did last summer as I was looking for a fall cruise.
I shopped several cruises initially, then chose the one we most wanted to take. I followed that cruise on Expedia May 2017 – August 2017, then got quotes from three large online travel agencies a couple of times: Expedia, Avoya, and Vacations to Go.
I started by making a spreadsheet. I looked up average drink costs on Celebrity ships. You’ll want to estimate how many cocktails, glasses of beer or wine you think you’ll consume each day. It’s better to slightly over-estimate than under estimate. This is important, because you need to know whether that drink package is worthwhile for you.
To be able to understand the 13 different kinds of prices a cruise line may be offering on a single cabin, you have to start at the beginning.
- Get a baseline cost for your desired cabin WITH all taxes and fees.
- Get an accurate cost of what each of the package perks WOULD cost you if you bought them separately — without this deal of the century they’re waving in your face.
- This is the retail, or brochure price of purchasing these packages à la carte.
- Do you even want the package? If you don’t use the internet onboard, or don’t drink alcohol, then these things have no value.
- Make an estimate of what you would spend on alcohol, per day, without a package. If you don’t know what this figure is, it’s impossible to judge how much value that Drink Package really is for you.
- Look up drink prices on your cruise line, normally easy to find. If you drink two glasses of wine with dinner, and mixed drinks at other times, create an average price — on the high side. Then decide how many drinks you typically consume in a day.
- You may want to do the same thing with WiFi. As a travel writer and blogger, I use the internet constantly, and need unlimited access throughout the cruise. If you want to buy a package of a set number of minutes, look at what that costs.
- THEN you can start plugging numbers into the spreadsheet (download below).
- Look at perk offerings and incentives, compare apples to apples, and KNOW whether you are looking at a good deal.
- ALWAYS double check the math.
Cruise Cost Estimating Worksheet version 2 (click to download an Excel workbook), with an example I made from a 2018 Celebrity Cruise, along with two sheets where you can fill in your own cruise information and you work on comparing costs. Please note, you are responsible for checking the math and being sure that your estimates are accurate.
Additionally, I have included a Cruise Cost Worksheet .pdf document, where you can make notes. This can be useful for comparing cruise costs between different cruises you may be considering.
Cruise worksheets — pdf final version — click to download.
I did not include excursion costs in my estimate sheet figured into the calculations to compare quotes.
I do consider excursion costs when I make decisions about whether I’ll take a particular cruise. Other expenses to consider: shopping, specialty restaurant charges, and whether you intend to get spa treatments or gamble. It’s smart to make a list of ports and estimate what you’ll spend per port of call, then add in what you’ll spend on those other areas.
If you really want to go whole-hog with price comparisons, you could do worksheets on several cruise lines with similar itineraries for you desired dates.
Finally, in August 2017, the offer I got from Expedia looked like our best option, and we went for it. The deal “maker” was that in addition to a $300 Celebrity onboard credit, I got $350 more in onboard credit from Expedia, plus ALL of the perks, including the premium beverage package. Neither Avoya nor Vacations to Go could touch the deal.
|All quotes were for Balcony Cabins, 1C cabin code, TOTAL Cabin Cost, 2 person occupancy — 14 Day Cruise on Celebrity Reflection|
|From Avoya, we had a quote $4,670.38. This included a Classic Drink Package, included $100 reduction in price. No cabin credit money at all.|
|Avoya: I figured that after we bought WiFi and standard gratuities, real cost would $5,510.38 — plus we would be paying an up-charge for premium drinks.|
|From Vacations to Go $3,542.38. No perks, but with $100 cabin credit.|
|Vacations to Go: After we bought WiFi, standard gratuities, and a Premium Beverage package, our cost would be $6,314.38.|
|From Expedia $5,670.38 — with ALL perks included: Premium Drink Package, unlimited WiFi, all gratuities, $300 onboard credit. Plus — an additional $350 credit from Expedia. — So, a total Cabin Credit of $650|
|Expedia — at $5,670.38 — WITH $650 credit. This was the buy we made 73 days before the cruise departed. And we added trip insurance, which we would have bought with either of the others for about the same rate.|
|Notes on Expedia On Board Credits: There are special rules and restrictions for getting this credit. If you DO NOT follow their instructions by the specified date, you will get nothing. See further notes below.|
I looked at prices again in September and October. The Expedia onboard credit was indeed gone, and the other offers I saw didn’t improve, but they didn’t rise much either.
The Expedia offer 73 days before Celebrity Reflection sailed was the best we got.
So — just because Expedia gave me the best deal last summer, would I count on that again. NO, of course not. Cruise lines are constantly negotiating specials with different travel agency consortiums, so what you find will vary.
My takeaway: you’d better shop around!
Reading the Fine Print on Expedia’s Cabin Credit
Expedia often offers an additional cabin credit to their customers at different times through the year. Sometimes, these offers are in conjunction with MasterCard — and you must purchase with a MasterCard to get the offer. Sometimes, this is purely an Expedia offer — which is what I got when I booked in August 2017 — the fine print and redemption stuff was all the same as the linked example below.
Note: You must complete an submit a Redemption Form through Expedia to GET that cabin credit. If you do not do this correctly, and by the deadline, you will NOT get the money credited to your shipboard account. Read the the fine print and follow the guidelines. After I completed the form, I called Expedia several days later to be sure their cruise people saw everything as properly completed, and he did. Our $350 credit appeared on our stateroom account on Day 2 of the cruise, just like it was supposed to do.
Here is a link to a similar deal Expedia offered in 2018, so you can look at the rules. Be aware that terms may change — and you always want to be sure of the deal, and rules, you are accepting.
I found working with Avoya annoying. I don’t want a salesperson calling me. I want a quote emailed to me, and then I’ll call the person — if I am interested. Geez, I hate sales calls!! No faster way to turn me off!
My experience with Vacations to Go is that they email me the quote, we chat via email, and I call them when I need to — and I like this. I’ve booked several cruises with them over the last few years. I find Vacations to Go a great place to monitor cruise prices, and I’ve taken advantage of good deals on both Star Clippers and Windstar.
Downside, when you are looking at prices on their website, the information is sparse — not much detail about cabin category or inclusions. Warning: Vacations to Go emails you LINKS to your cruise quote. After a period of time, these quotes DISAPPEAR. Be sure to take a screenshot of that quote and save it with your cruise pricing work, otherwise it may be gone the next time you’d like to look at it.
I really like Expedia for shopping the big cruise lines, because I get the WHOLE quote myself, and I can re-look at it six different ways (different cabin levels, different perk offerings, online, immediately). I look at this as a great starting point to gather information before you go shopping for other quotes. I also save screenshots of these quotes to make it easier to compare pricing.
In my experience, you will rarely, if ever, get the best deal directly from the cruise line. If you do want to explore it, get a quote from them first. Once you are working with a travel agent, the cruise line will not talk directly to you about prices.
I’m sailing with a friend on the new Celebrity Edge in December. He initially booked with Celebrity, but when friends got a better deal through Vacations to Go, he called Celebrity back to see if they would match the price. They would not. He cancelled, and re-booked through Vacations to Go.
Note: you can change from working directly with the cruise line, to working with a travel agent. There are time limitations for doing this, typically before the final payment is made — but this can vary by cruise line. You CANNOT change the other direction — from working with an travel agent to working directly with the cruise line.
Other cost benefits from working with a travel agent: they often have access to group pricing through consortiums they belong to — where a cruise line has negotiated a discount, cabin credit, or set of perks that you’ll only get working with that travel agency. This is why I encountered differences in the quotes I got from different travel agencies last year.
Working with a good travel agent longterm
All of this quote and price comparison work that you’ve just read over 3,000 words about — well. This is what a good travel agent does for you. They know the cruise market. He or she listens to what you want, and goes out and finds cruises that match your desires. And then the travel agent will slice and dice quotes six different ways from Sunday, if you ask her to, so that you can compare to your heart’s content. They also know how and when to ask for extra discounts or perks on your behalf.
I happen to be a do-it-myself kind of person, and like to do this kind of analysis.
Call me odd 🙂 .
|Top of Article||Cruise Price Comparison Worksheets|
|Things that Affect Pricing||Comparison of Cruise Costs|
|Cruise Price Comparison To Do List||Book Cruise Early or Late for Best Price|
|Cruise Line Pricing Strategies|
If you’re asking for very last minute cruise deals, you’ll likely to hear crickets chirping. Unless you’re booking one of those mini cruise (3 – 5 nights), you unlikely to get a huge discount.
In 2015, all of the major cruise lines changed sales strategy, moving away from slashing prices on last minute cruise booking — to exercising more pricing discipline.
In an early 2015 statement, Royal Caribbean Chairman Richard Fain stated, “Depending on the type of cruise, that last minute may be 10, 20 or 30 days out,” Fain said in a conference call with Wall Street analysts. “But from that point on, we will hold our price at the prior level.” Fain’s pledge was specific to North American itineraries and excluded the cruises under five days in length.
This is far from surprising. With the internet, customers can easily see massive last-minute fire sales. And nothing is more likely to anger their repeat customers who book early, who were told that they got the best deal going.
So, book early or book late?
Cruisewatch/Cruise News analyzed 3,000 cabins across twenty cruise lines in a 2016 study. Results:
- 56% of cruises: booking within 100 days of departure = best prices
- 19% of cruises: booking early (more than 550 days out) = best prices
- 25% of cruises: booking (101 – 550 days out) = best prices
The Cruisewatch analysis indicates that Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, and Princess typically offer their best prices within the last 100 days, while Crystal and Disney almost never do.
Costa, Norwegian, Holland America, and Windstar often offer their best prices within 50 days of departure. Visit Cruisewatch for more pricing analysis. Cruisewatch is also a very handy site for watching prices.
My experience last year is inline with this. We purchased our Celebrity cruise 73 days before the sailing date. The deal from Expedia expired 65 days before the sailing date.
Look, there are still deals. They just aren’t as evident as before, and frankly, they are rarely as large.
You will find cruises discounted as the sailing date nears, but they are rarely “last minute.” The sweet spot seems to be 60 – 100 days out.
True “last minute” deals are often out of foreign ports. The cruise discount is eaten up by the increased cost of airfare close to the time of travel. So, while you got a “deal” on the cruise, you turned right around and spent the money on your flights.
I sometimes see greatly reduced single supplement fees on cruises as departure dates loom. Vacations to Go is a very handy place to watch for these deals.
Where you’ll find the biggest swings in value are in the perks. Perks usually offered are unlimited WiFi, pre-paid gratuities, drink packages, and onboard credit.
So then it all comes down to — how many perks do you get, and what’s the price you’re going to pay? Are you getting an onboard credit? Or are you getting two onboard credits? Cruise lines may offer low price (or free) upgrades to the next level cabin (sometimes the difference is not distinguishable, and sometimes this is meaningful).
You are more likely to see cruise lines “sweeten” the deal by adding onboard credit rather than cutting prices up-front. They get your money now, then they give you services that they provide as a cost of doing business. Hey, you get WiFi — but it was running anyway — it’s a sunk cost for the cruise ship.
The Time of the Year Known as the “Wave Season”
Wave Season is like Black Friday for the cruise market, but it lasts for three full months, January through March. This is when more heavily discounted deals are offered across all cruise companies than any other time of the year. Cruise lines and travel agents hustle to sell those deals and book up cruise ships over the next year.
If you need to make plans several months to a year out, booking during Wave Season is probably your best bet. Most people simply don’t have the flexibility to book and travel to last minute cruises.
When you book a cruise during Wave Season, keep an eye on it. Know your final payment date, as well as key deposit refund dates. Check back about every two weeks to see if there is an improved offer. If there is — ask for it. Typically cruise lines with upgrade you, or offer a cabin credit to keep your booking. If not, cancel your reservation, get your deposit back, and start again.
Good luck with booking a great deal for your next cruise vacation!
Disclaimer: This is simply an example of how I go about comparing cruise prices. You are welcome to use my worksheets, but YOU are responsible for correctly calculating costs.
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I do have an affiliate relationship with Expedia. If you book a cruise, flight or hotel by clicking on an affiliate link I will get a small commission, at no extra cost to you, my readers. It helps support the travel, as well as the hours of writing, like creating these worksheets on this particular article, along with the photography work that make this blog possible.