Why now might be the cheapest time to plan a cruise

Jan 16, 2021

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Cruise ships might be on a temporary pause, but wave season is back!

While wave season has been starting earlier and earlier every year, January through March is traditionally when cruise lines run very competitive sales. These promotions are designed to entice you to not only book a cruise for later this year but even for dates well into 2022 and sometimes even into 2023.

Every fall, I make a point to research the cruise itineraries my family may want to sail in the next year or so. Then, I watch the fares as the weeks tick by, knowing discounts and value-added deals are likely to pop up in the new year.

If you’ve had your eye on a cruise vacation, now is the perfect time to price it out and see what kind of special deal you can snag.

For more cruise news, reviews and tips, sign up for TPG’s cruise newsletter.

Read on to find out what sorts of deals you should be on the lookout for, and how to get the best possible deal.

In This Post

What is wave season?

Wave season, an annual timeframe when all the cruise lines tout their fares and special deals in the hopes of booking up their voyages for the next 12 months, generally starts in January and ends at the end of March. Just like how Christmas decorations creep out earlier than they used to in retail stores, however, over the past five or so years, we’ve seen the big cruise sales starting even earlier, too. These days, you may see special deals announced as early as the fall. But, they really ramp up through the holidays and then stay strong through March.

Related: How to book a cruise using miles and points

Disney Dream at Port Canaveral, Florida
Disney Dream at Port Canaveral. (Photo by Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

What cruise deals are offered?

The important thing to know about wave season sales is that you aren’t just looking for reduced cruise fares, though those are a great place to begin. The real incentive is the bevy of bonuses cruise lines add to their promotions that make it tough to pass up booking a cruise (or three).

Here are the type of value-adds you should look for:

  • Discounted cruise fares
  • Reduced deposits
  • Two-for-one cruise fares
  • Third and/or fourth passenger in a cabin sail free
  • Kids sail free
  • Free airfare from select U.S. gateways
  • Precruise overnight hotel stay
  • Cabin upgrades
  • Onboard credit you can use to pay for specialty dining, shore excursions, spa treatments and more
  • Beverage packages
  • Prepaid specialty dining fees
  • Prepaid gratuities
  • Free internet access
  • Complimentary shore excursions
  • Spa treatments

The best wave season promotions of 2021

Now, let’s look at some of the current wave season deals we’re most excited about. There are many different types of promotions cruise lines offer during sales. You may easily rule out some that don’t matter to you. For example, unless you’re tight on cash or you’re booking a far-off sailing date and don’t want to tie up your money, is a reduced deposit really that valuable to you? On the other hand, if you always buy a beverage package, getting one for free may be much more appealing. And benefits like prepaid gratuities or onboard credit are almost like getting cash — assuming, of course, you were going to spend that money anyway.

Related: The best credit cards for booking cruises


Join Us, Stay Awhile
Booking dates: Now through March 31, 2021
Travel dates: Select Europe sailings embarking in 2021 through 2023
Promotion includes: 10% off the cruise fare of your second and all subsequent back-to-back cruise itineraries. Must mention promo code B2B10 at time of reservation. (Can be combined with the Complimentary Pre- and Post-River Cruise Land Packages deal.)

Complimentary Pre- and Post-River Cruise Land Packages
Booking dates: Reserve by Jan. 31, 2021
Travel dates: Select 2021 and 2022 European river cruise and land journeys (140 itineraries from which to choose)
Promotion includes: Package includes stays at four- and five-star hotels near major sites, daily breakfast at the hotel, city tours lead by local guides, services of an AmaWaterways cruise manager and transfers to and from the ship. Mention promo code FREELAND at time of reservation. (Can be combined with the Join Us, Stay Awhile deal.)

Azamara Cruises

Save Up to 40% on Voyages Plus Free Wi-Fi
Booking dates: Book by March 31, 2021
Travel dates: Select sailings between March 31, 2021 and May 13, 2022
Promotion includes: Up to 40% off cruise fares for the first two guests in a stateroom plus complimentary Wi-Fi when booking an oceanview or higher stateroom. (Note that Azamara cruise fares always include gratuities, select beverages and one culturally focused shore excursion.)


Early Saver Sale
Booking dates: Now through Monday, Jan. 18
Travel dates: Select sailings through April 2023
Promotion includes: Up to 40% off cruises, free room upgrades and reduced deposits from $50 per person

Celebrity Cruises

Airfare Deal
Booking dates: Book now through Jan. 31, 2021
Travel dates: All sailings from May–September 2021 and select sailings in October 2021
Promotion includes: Special airfare pricing from any major North American gateway to all summer 2021 sailings in Alaska, the Caribbean and Europe. Flights start at $99 per person for Alaska and Caribbean sailings and from $499 on European sailings from 20 U.S. gateways. For all other gateways in the U.S. and Canada, guests can save up to $200 on their flight.

Note that Celebrity recently changed how it packages its cuise fares. They are now “Always Included” and include Wi-Fi, drinks and gratuities.

Costa Cruises

Andiamo Sale
Booking dates: Book by Jan. 31, 2021
Travel dates: Valid on select sailings from February to November 2021
Promotion includes: Book a balcony cabin at the price of an oceanview cabin for 2021.


Discovery Awaits Event
Booking dates: Book by Feb. 25, 2021
Travel dates: Pick from 250 voyages
Promotion includes: Fares from $1,049 per person, up to $2,000 *onboard credit per stateroom and 50% reduced deposits.

*Onboard credit depends on the voyage length and cabin category booked. For example, book an oceanview cabin for a seven-night cruise and get a $50 per person onboard credit. Balcony passengers get $100 per person for a seven-night voyage.

Disney Cruise Line

Save Up to 25% on Select Bahamian, Caribbean and Baja Cruises
Booking dates: Limited-time offer.
Travel dates: Select April–June 2021 sailings
Promotion includes: Save 25% off prevailing rates as quoted on Disneycruise.com by booking the “VGT” Verandah Category with Restrictions. Full payment is required at the time of booking and is nonrefundable.

Holland America Line

View & Verandah: The Ultimate Upgrade Event
Booking dates: Book by Feb. 28, 2021. Book by Jan. 5, 2021 for free stateroom gratuities
Travel dates: Select 2021 and 2022 sailings
Promotion includes: Get a cabin upgrade (subject to availability), Signature Beverage Package, one night specialty dining at either the Pinnacle Grill or Tamarind, 10% off shore excursions and a 50% reduced deposit. You also can get free stateroom gratuities, but only if you book by Jan. 5, 2021.

MSC Cruises

Your Cruise, Your Choice!
Booking dates: Book by March 31, 2021
Travel dates: 2021–2022
Promotion includes: Up to $400 *spending credit, Kids Sail Free (kids 17 and under sail free on select cruises when sailing as third/fourth guest), and Total Cruiseflex (no-penalty cruise changes) on three-, four-, and seven-night Bahamas, Caribbean and Europe cruises. Ask for “SPENDING CREDIT ONBOARD” promotion when booking.

*Spending credit (onboard credit) details: $25 pp (max $50 per stateroom) for interior and ocean-view staterooms; $50 pp (max $100 per stateroom) for balcony staterooms; $100 pp (max $200 per stateroom) for suites & MSC Yacht Club on three- and four-night cruises; $200 pp (max $400 per stateroom) for Suites & MSC Yacht Club on cruises five-nights or longer. 

Related: TPG Editors’ Choice Award for best new cruise destination: MSC Cruises’ Ocean Cay

Oceania Cruises

The Ultimate Sale
Booking dates: Now through March 31, 2021
Travel dates: Select 2021 voyages
Promotion includes: Up to eight free shore excursions, free beverage package and up to $800 in shipboard credit.

Princess Cruises

Best. Sale. Ever.
Booking dates: Book by March 2, 2021
Travel dates: Select cruises in 2021 and 2022
Promotion includes: Receive five perks: A Premier beverage package (including tips), unlimited Wi-Fi, gratuities, one specialty restaurant meal and a stateroom location upgrade. (Cabin upgrade not valid for cruises 66 days or longer.)

Regent Seven Seas Cruises

Upgrade Your Horizon
Booking dates: Now through Feb. 28, 2021
Travel dates: This deal is valid on any published sailing
Promotion includes: Two-category suite upgrade (up to a Penthouse Suite) plus 50% reduced deposits. This offer is capacity controlled. Mention “HORIZON” when you make your reservation.


2021 Signature Savings Event
Booking dates: Book by March 1, 2021
Travel dates: Select summer 2021 and winter/spring 2022 sailings
Promotion includes: Veranda for Ocean View Suite upgrades, up to three-category Veranda Suite upgrades, up to $1,000 in shipboard credit per suite, up to 900-minute internet package per guest and a 50% deposit. Also, if you book a Penthouse or premium suite, you’ll get up to $2,000 in onboard credit per suite plus an unlimited internet package.

Star Clippers

Star Clippers’ Royal Clipper and its sports platform in the Mediterranean. (Photo courtesy of Star Clippers)

Welcome 2021
Booking dates: Now through Jan. 21, 2021
Travel dates: April 2021 through March 2023
Promotion includes: 21% off cruise fares on select Caribbean and Mediterranean itineraries plus a complimentary bottle of Champagne in your cabin upon arrival

Virgin Voyages

Virgin Voyages Rings in 2021
Booking dates: Now through Feb. 9, 2021
Travel dates: All sailings
Promotion includes: Save 10% off the cruise fare, get up to $400 in onboard credit and an extra $100 (when you purchase a $300 prepaid bar tab) toward your bar tab.

Windstar Cruises

Sail Small, Live Large with Big Perks
Booking dates: Book now through Feb. 28, 2021
Travel dates: Select voyages
Promotion includes: “Pick Your Perk” savings options when booking a premium suite for 14+ days include up to a $1,000 shipboard credit per stateroom (credit reduced to $400 on sailings under 14 days), one-night hotel stay pre- or post-cruise on European voyages, a premium beverage package (wine, beer, spirits, soda) or free Wi-Fi. If you book a standard suite or stateroom, you’ll get free Wi-Fi, one complimentary hotel night for European voyages and onboard spending ($400 per stateroom for cruises of 14 nights or longer and $200 for itineraries that are less than 14 days). Deposits are also reduced from the normal 15% to 5%.

How to prepare for Wave Season

So, how can you make the most of wave season and any other good cruise sale? There are a few methods.

Research which cruises you want

Arm yourself with knowledge. Think about the places you want to cruise and look at the specific cruise lines, itineraries and dates that you’d consider. Here’s a great overview of various cruise lines as well as a breakdown specific to cruising families. Write down the current per-passenger fare and any available perks for the cruises that interest you most. Don’t forget any special discounts you may be eligible for (think: senior, teacher, military, Florida resident).

Then, as cruise lines announce their sales and included promotional perks, you can determine if the sale actually represents a good value for you.

Related: The best credit cards for booking cruises

Join cruise line email lists

You could monitor cruise line websites and social media feeds over the next few months so you don’t miss any sales. But an even better idea is to join the email lists for the cruise lines you like. That way, they’ll tell you exactly when a sale is about to begin.

Delegate the work

While you may not use a travel agent for other sorts of trips, you should consider one whenever you cruise. Agents that specialize in cruise travel often get advance notice of sales. They also often have access to special rates or perks you won’t be able to find on your own, and they tend to offer their own suite of bonuses as an incentive to book through them. For example, the right travel agent could get you several hundred dollars of onboard credit, even with Disney Cruise Line — which is notoriously light on sales and discounts. If you aren’t sure where to start, CruiseCompete.com is a solid place to begin your search.

Also note that cruise line deals have all sorts of terms and conditions. A knowledgeable travel agent will know which itineraries offer the best version of the current deals and can guide you appropriately.

Triple stack your deals

If you’re a fan of stacking deals, you can enjoy cruise discounts, cash back and perks from three source. Check out this post to learn how.

Related: How to leverage Amex’s cruise benefits

Bottom line

If this all sounds a little overwhelming, that’s OK. Booking first-class award flights probably felt overwhelming the first time you did that, too. But, knowing when to book a cruise can be the key to enjoying discounted prices or value-added perks

Looking for more cruise advice? Check out these articles:

Featured image by Shutterstock

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