As I mentioned in earlier posts, there are two standard approaches to buying cruises: book early, or book late. The advantage to booking late is that you can often get some terrific deals, particularly if you book within sixty days of sailing. If you’re flexible with time and not too particular about destination, cruising last minute is the cheapest way to sail.
However, for those of us who cannot live life on the fly, booking ahead is our best option. Booking early gives you the best choice of itineraries and staterooms, the highest likelihood of obtaining your dining preference (early, late or ‘anytime’) and often the cheapest prices you may find on a cruise before that last minute thirty-to-sixty day window. Additionally, if you book a cruise early and the price goes down, in most cases you can adjust your fare to the lower price, as long as you are before the final payment date.
As such, these next few blog posts will be a guide for anyone who is looking to do long-term planning for their cruise.
If you want to book early, you need to book your cruise at least one year in advance. Cruise lines can release their itineraries as much as eighteen months out. Obviously, the best selection of cabin location is found the day that these cruises are released, and often cruise lines will make special offers to entice early bookers, such as giving additional onboard credit. However, since many people are not ‘planners’ in nature, generally booking more than twelve months out will give you an adequate selection of cabin and dining choices. One major exception to this is Disney Cruise Line. There is usually a large group of people (and travel agents working on their behalf) attempting to book the most popular Disney itineraries the day they are released, and as such the ‘best’ cruises can often sell a significant portion of available cabins (and see a significant price increase) even only a month or two after release. If you’re planning on sailing on a Disney cruise, it pays to be early.
So you’ve decided to book early, and you’re eighteen months out, what do you need to do? First, you need to determine your availability. Most of us work under vacation time restrictions such as number of days you can travel, time of year you can be off, etc. If you have children, you may be limited to traveling on their school vacations. On the other hand, avoiding holidays can result in significant savings on your cruise fare, and if you are interested in having fewer children aboard, you may prefer not to travel during traditional vacation times (such as over the summer and Christmas/New Year’s). You need to determine what (rough) time of year you wish to cruise, and for how many days. Keep in mind that if you are traveling further from home, you may need to use some of those days to fly to and from your cruise embarkation/debarkation ports.
Once you have determined your available time, you need to decide where you would like to cruise. Different parts of the world have more cruise availability at different times. Perhaps you just have a general idea, such as ‘the Caribbean’ or ‘Europe’. Or maybe you want to be more specific, such as ‘I want an Alaskan cruise that stops at Skagway’ or ‘I want to sail the Western Mediterranean.’ Determine what would be of interest to you, and what is also likely to be available during the time of year you wish to cruise.
The last consideration is the cruise line. If you have sailed before, or if you have researched cruise lines, you may have a preference as to which line(s) you sail. At the very least, you likely have an idea of whether you want to sail a more ‘mass market’ cruise line, such as Carnival, Norwegian or Royal Caribbean, an ‘upscale mass market’ cruise line, such as Princess, Holland America, Celebrity or Disney, or a ‘luxury’ line, such as Crystal, Seabourn, or Regent.
Once you have gathered all of this information, it’s time to begin searching for your cruise. If it is very early and the itineraries have only just been released, you will find the best information on the individual websites for each cruise line. You can search for cruises and find dates, itineraries and fares. If these itineraries have been available for a couple of weeks, then it will be easier to search through a travel agent website, which will be able to comb through multiple cruise lines to find something that fits your needs.
After you have found the cruise you desire, you may also wish to ‘price shop’, checking with different travel agencies. While officially, most cruise lines do not allow ‘discounting’ of cruise fares, you may find a travel agent offering a reduced ‘group rate’, or your travel agent may be able to offer extras, such as airport transfers, free gratuities or onboard credit. It never hurts to get a few different price quotes, and you may save yourself up to a few hundred dollars by doing so.
And now that you have booked your cruise, you’re all done for the next little while, right? Maybe. Part of the fun of booking a cruise far in advance is dreaming about it! You may want to spend some time reading guidebooks and figuring out what you want to do on your vacation, and the sights you wish to see in each port. You may choose to visit a site such as cruisecritic.com and discuss your cruise with others, or even join an online ‘roll call’ to virtually meet others who will be on your sailing. Your level of involvement is up to you.
One other possibility, if you want to throw yourself into this experience, is to potentially apply for a credit card sponsored by your cruise line. Most of the mass market and upscale mass market cruise lines have their own credit cards, and usually offer a nice ‘signing bonus’ of points to new cardholders. If you apply now, more than a year before your cruise, you can earn the signing bonus, as well as (usually) double points when you pay your cruise fare on the card. You may also choose to shift other spending to the cruise card. This should be enough to earn you a nice amount of onboard credit by the time you sail. In the case of Disney Cruise Line, you can apply for the general Disney Visa card, and use the reward dollars to either partially pay for your cruise or to pay for your onboard charges.
Next time, I’ll talk about what to do when you’re eight to twelve months out before your cruise.