When is the best time to book a cruise?
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The best time to book a cruise is when you’ve done your planning, picked a ship and found a cruise fare that fits your budget and offers good value. But that doesn’t stop vacationers from wondering if they’d find a cheaper price if they wait to book tomorrow, next week or next month.
I’d love to give you a magic date to circle in red on your calendar, so you’d know for sure that was the best time to book a cruise. The truth is there’s no one best day, but knowing a few things about how cruise lines price cabins and when they tend to run promotions will help you identify high-value deals. When you see one, you’ll know it’s as good a time as any to book your next cruise vacation.
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What is the best day to book a cruise?
Everyone wants to know the cheapest day to book travel — as if fares drop like clockwork on Wednesday morning and rise with the sun on Thursday. It doesn’t work that way.
It used to be that lines like Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Line would offer midweek sales on select cruises every Tuesday or Wednesday. These lines still offer the occasional flash sale, but they don’t always fall on the same day of the week.
Within a given cruise sale’s promotional period, I’ve seen cabin prices fluctuate daily and I’ve seen them stay the same for a week. It all depends on how many cabins a cruise line has allocated for a specific fare class and whether those rooms happen to sell out or not.
I could tell you that it’s cheaper to book a cruise at the beginning of a sale because availability is greatest. However, if the line sees a certain cabin category on a specific ship failing to sell as expected, it could drop rates halfway into the sale period. The exception is world cruises (and other highly anticipated and publicized short-season sailings, like this year’s Great Lakes cruises). World cruises have sold out within hours, even with price tags of $150,000 per couple.
What is the best month to book a cruise?
If there’s no best day to book a cruise for the best deal, you might think there’s a best month. While you can find cheap cruises any month you look, I can give you some pointers about which months are most likely to feature cruise sales with value-added promotions.
The best months to book a cruise are January through March, when nearly every cruise line launches some kind of “wave season” promotion, and November through December, when Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales often start well before Thanksgiving and end days or weeks after. You might find a cheap cruise deal or a fare packed with extras (like complimentary beverage packages, free kids fares or reduced deposits).
Are you guaranteed to find the cheapest, most freebie-laden pricing during these months? Of course not! Sometimes, cruise lines inflate prices before a sale, so when they offer 30% or 50% off, it’s not as good a deal as you think. Or, the cruise line may offer its best fares in a one-off sale at another time of year.
Whether the winter months are the best time to book a cruise depends on which itinerary you’re hoping to book and how popular that sailing is that year. In a year when Alaska cruises are popular, the wave season promotions in January and February might not be especially good because the lines don’t need to discount to fill cabins. But if Alaska cruise bookings are soft, the wave season specials could be the best of the year as cruise lines pull out all the tricks to fill ships.
What is the best time of year to book a cruise?
I could say that winter is the best time of year to book a cruise because that would cover the late-fall Thanksgiving week sales plus the wave season promotions. I can guarantee that your cruise line will offer some promotion during the winter, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best time to book.
If you want to book a solo or family cabin on a Mediterranean cruise in July, you likely want to book much earlier than January for the most availability and the best prices. And as I said earlier, great sales and deals can pop up year-round, including on other holidays such as Memorial Day and Fourth of July.
How far in advance should I book a cruise?
All this talk of the best time to book a cruise brings up the question of how far in advance you should book. The key to the answer is recognizing that cruise lines adjust pricing as cabins sell out (or fail to do so) on any given ship and itinerary.
Cruise lines want you to book as early as possible. Not only do they get cash in hand sooner, in the form of your deposit, but they can rest easy when a ship sells out early, knowing they don’t have to work to get people to come on board and spend more money.
Therefore, cruise lines will often offer their best fares when bookings first open to incentivize travelers to book early. Cruises open for bookings a year or more in advance. For example, as of May 2022, I can book a cruise on Norwegian Cruise Line’s Pride of America for December 2025 and on the rest of the fleet through November 2024.
Now, it might be the itinerary I’m looking at won’t be popular, and the cruise line will lower the fare closer to sailing. Or, the itinerary will sell well and prices will only go up from the original price. I have no way to know, though I can guess that peak-season trips to popular destinations on a newer cruise ship are more likely to sell quickly. Christmas and New Year’s cruises, top suites and limited specialty cabins (such as solo and family cabins) also tend to sell out early.
If you ask me, the answer to “How far in advance should I book a cruise?” is as early as possible for the most popular cruises and cabin categories and at least nine months in advance of most sailings.
Can I book a cruise at the last minute?
Yes, you can book a cruise at the last minute, but that doesn’t mean you should.
In the cruise industry, a last-minute booking is considered any cruise purchased after final payment is due, generally 60 to 90 days before sailing. That means you have to pay the entire cruise fare at the time of booking rather than paying a deposit and the rest at a later date.
The final payment date is a day of reckoning for cruise salespeople. It’s the last date that undecided travelers can cancel without penalty. Once final payment is due, the cruise line has a more accurate picture of who is likely to sail (since once you pay you’re likely to go, barring an emergency). At that point, the line can see if the ship is comfortably full (meaning it can hold prices steady or raise them because it’s not worried about filling the ship) or is too empty (meaning it better run some promotions to get more folks in cabins).
If it’s the latter, that’s when you get last-minute deals on cruise ships with unsold cabins. However, even if that last-minute cruise is cheap, the 11th-hour airfare or pre-cruise hotel booking could eat into your savings.
For the real procrastinators out there, the absolute last day you can book a cruise before its departure has changed over the years. Currently, a cruise line could accept a booking mere hours before sailing, as long as boarding is still open and the ship’s manifest (list of passengers and crew members on board) has not been submitted to the authorities.
In actuality, most cruise lines will sell available cabins through the day prior to sailing, but limit or deny same-day bookings. Depending on the line, you may only be able to book cruises within a day or two of departure directly through the cruise line’s reservations department.
Booking a cruise just days before sailing should only be attempted by vaccinated travelers within an easy drive of the cruise port. You should also make sure that you have time to get any required COVID-19 tests (with results back) or other necessary documentation, as well as make related travel plans.
How do I know if I’m getting a good deal when I book?
Regardless of when you’re booking a cruise, you’ll want to know if the fare you’re paying for your vacation at sea is a cheap deal, average or overpriced. Sadly, the best way to know that is to do your research.
Tracking prices allows you to watch the rise and fall of cruise fares over time, so when the fare drops, you’ll recognize the price as a deal and be able to pounce on it. This strategy is best if you plan to book early and aren’t as concerned about the ship selling out right away.
Don’t forget to watch for value-added promotions, as well. For example, Norwegian’s Free at Sea promotion includes five booking perks (free beverage package, shore excursion credit, specialty dining, Wi-Fi and extra guests) this year. Its recent Memorial Day sale upped the number to seven possible perks, including buy-one-get-one-free airfare and $250 off a $500 CruiseFirst certificate (to apply to a future cruise).
If that sounds like too much math homework for you, I recommend you call up a travel agent. A cruise-knowledgeable travel advisor can help you with trip planning and also determine if the current pricing is good or if you should hold out for a deal.
I’ll say it again: The best time to book a cruise is when you see a price and promotion that seems like a good value to you. If you feel like you’re getting your money’s worth on a cruise purchase, then go ahead and book that dream vacation. There’s no way to be absolutely sure you’re buying when the cruise fare is the lowest possible price with the maximum number of fare inclusions.
Sometimes you may be forced to choose between the cheapest possible fare and one that offers a greater total value, given the included perks. Knowing when cruise lines are likely to run promotions will help you strategize, but sales can pop up anytime — and not every promotion offers the cheapest fares.
Stop trying to game the system and focus instead on planning the perfect cruise vacation that you and your loved ones will reminisce about long after you’ve forgotten how much you paid for the trip.
Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:
- The 5 most desirable cabin locations on any cruise ship
- A beginners guide to picking a cruise line
- The 8 worst cabin locations on any cruise ship
- A quick guide to the most popular cruise lines
- 21 tips and tricks that will make your cruise go smoothly
- 15 ways cruisers waste money
- 12 best cruises for people who never want to grow up
- The ultimate guide to what to pack for a cruise
Featured photo by d3sign/Getty Images.
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