In 2007 and 2008, a sinking global economy forced cruise lines to steeply discount fares in order to fill ships. As a result, customers waited until the last minute to pounce on rapidly falling prices. Even experienced cruisers with quite a few voyages under their belts – cruisers who understood that a cruise vacation was already an enormous value, because approximately 80% of all costs are paid upfront – held out as long as possible before booking.
But according to analysts, the cruise industry has rebounded. Fares and occupancy rates are rising. Booking trends have returned to normal, and the most experienced cruisers are once again reserving their staterooms months and months in advance of departure.
Why are they doing so? Here’s a look at the advantages of booking early.
To secure the best stateroom, ship, and sailing. I’ve always advised cruisers to put their deposits down as quickly as possible, because the best staterooms sell out first. Balcony staterooms and suites are generally the first categories to go, so waiting to grab a last-minute bargain is especially risky if you’ve got your heart set on a high-end cabin.
Last-minute deals are available everywhere. But look closely and you’ll usually find that the steepest discounts don’t apply to the best ships. And the selection of staterooms and sailings will often be limited. You can almost always find a good deal on a last-minute Bahamas cruise, for example. But that’s not likely to be the case when it comes to other destinations. Expect to book an Alaskan or European cruise at least six months in advance if you’re interested in a balcony stateroom aboard one of the industry’s newer vessels. $499 may seem like a great last-minute price for a weeklong voyage to either destination, but what if you want a room with a view and there are no longer any available?
Wait for a last-minute bargain and you may find some terrific prices on certain sailings. Then again, you may end up paying more than you wanted to because all of the early-booking deals have disappeared. Worse yet? Hold out long enough and you might discover there’s no space left on the specific itinerary you’d been dreaming about.
To pay the lowest price possible. The cruise lines want you to book early. Several, including Princess Cruises and Holland America, offer their lowest fares well in advance of departure. The closer you get to departure, the higher your price will be. Remember – cruise deals may abound on the Internet, but most are available for a limited time only (say, three days or less). Bypass a good price and there’s a good chance you won’t see it offered again.
To allow time for finding affordable airfare. I frequently see steep discounts available on Southern Caribbean cruises. And how could anyone resist the temptation of a weeklong tropical voyage on a much-touted cruise ship at fares that start at just $500? Well, there’s a catch – you have to get to the ship, and most ships that cruise the Southern Caribbean sail from San Juan. Finding affordable airfare to Puerto Rico may not be a problem if you’re booking seven or eight months prior to departure, but take a look at that same airfare four to six weeks out and the price will be sky-high (assuming there are even any seats available). The same holds true for anyone that’s planning on flying to meet a cruise ship, regardless of destination. Because airlines have cut capacity, fares are now higher than ever (and that’s especially true when you’re talking about flights to popular vacation spots).
Last but not least? Take the fear out of booking early. While the economy is improving, many people are still understandably skittish about planning a vacation too far in advance – any number of unforeseen circumstances could result in the need for cancellation. But the solution to that concern is as close at hand as your CruisesOnly expert, and that’s travel insurance. Most travel insurance policies offer a “cancel for any reason” provision that protects your investment from practically every eventuality.
by Anne Campbell