With the vacation season underway, more Americans are gearing up for getaways in distant cities and destinations. While many prefer to travel by plane or even automobile, for others, it’s cruisin’ time.
But before you board that ship you need to do all you can to score a deal. After all, you’ll have much fonder memories of your trip if you know that you enjoyed yourself and was able to save some serious coin in the process.
Clark’s tips: How to book a cruise for less
Money expert Clark Howard says that booking cruises isn’t how it used to be several years ago. Back then travelers could find bargains pretty easily because the industry wasn’t doing too well. But that’s simply no longer the case.
“Now you have to do a lot more picking and choosing as the economy has gotten better,” he says. Clark adds that before you can find a good cruise deal, you need to make a couple of adjustments regarding your mindset and travel plans.
“You have to adjust to today’s reality and adjust how you book with the flexibility of the ship you go on, and particularly when you sail to get the best deal,” he says.
What are some of the top cruise lines? There are several big names, including Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Carnival, Oceania and more. But the focus shouldn’t be on the cruise liner as much as other factors that contribute to a great trip.
For example, Royal Caribbean’s Oasis class is very popular, but “those cruises have become very expensive for what you get,” Clark says. The Oasis offers patrons a mix of adventure (zip lining and other activities are available) and entertainment (musicals and stage plays are routine) but if you’re trying to get the most bang for your buck, it ain’t cheap.
“You can go on a smaller ship on Royal Caribbean or go on another cruise line and pay half of what you pay for an equivalent cabin right now on the Oasis class ships,” Clark says.
With that information in mind, here are three Clark-approved keys to finding a good cruise deal.
1. Let the calendar save you money
Just as Clark advises booking air travel by letting the sale determine the destination, he follows a similar course when it comes to cruises.
“There are certain cycles through the year when cruise lines have trouble filling all their cabins, and that’s when you steal the great deals,” he says. So where are the bargains located on the calendar? Clark says it’s usually before or after well-known travel times.
“After Thanksgiving but before Christmas kicks off is a bargain time for any kind of travel —and cruises are right in the midst of that,” he says. “Europe? Early in the season and late in the season, you get cheaper rates. Alaska, early in the season and late in the season.”
2. Don’t let cruise brand loyalty costs you more
Some people are stringently loyal to cruise line brands. But instead of giving you more options, that can absolutely kill your budget.
Clark’s advice is when planning your trip, venture away from what you know and explore other cruise liners and what they’re about. “Look at things like experimenting with cruise lines you’re not that familiar with.”
An example of that would be MSC Cruises, a small but expanding company that routinely sets sail from South Florida. “Their rates tend to be significantly lower than other mid-priced cruise lines because they’re trying to get established,” he says.
Comparison shopping will give you a better understanding of what prices should look like at certain times of the year.
Clark does offer this one caution though: “Never book a deal on a cruise just because it’s a deal. You need to really be comfortable that that ship is going to fit your lifestyle, the things that you’re interested in.”
As we alluded to earlier, some cruise liners offer all-night parties and bar scenes. Others cater to couples and have more romantic activities. Still others are kid-oriented. The price won’t matter as much if you find yourself on a cruise ship that doesn’t mesh with your expectations. Do the research.
3. Go online & read the reviews
If you just listen to the promotional script that these cruise lines tell you, you’re likely to believe these companies offer a piece of heaven in the sea. Instead, you should seek a balanced (truthful) view of the cruise ship, and to do that, it’s best to read some reviews.
Clark recommends a site where you can take a deep dive into cruise ship specs as well as deals and booking tips. “I’d love for you to spend time on CruiseCritic.com, reading about a ship before you book on that ship. Additionally, you can look closely at the various individual cabins to make sure you don’t get in a cabin that’s going to be a problem because it’s in a noisy area of the ship, for example.”
The main thing Clark wants you to remember when trying to book a cruise is “be flexible, flexible, flexible,” he says. Not only will you learn the best times to travel, but you’ll educate yourself on the sale patterns of each individual cruise liner, “and that’s how you’ll save.”