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Last-minute cruises: Should you take the deal?

September 3 2022
10 min read
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A spontaneous cruise vacation can be fun, and if you aren’t too picky there are some amazing last-minute cruise deals. You may even be able to snag a week in the Caribbean for less than $400 per person.

The thing is, just like clothes that have hung on sale racks for a while, if you're picky, you may not find an acceptable cruise bargain. If you wait too long you'll be left with whatever selection is available — ships, cabins and dates — that may not be near the top of your wish list.

If you're trying for a last-minute bargain, you also should be flexible on when you will cruise. Don’t expect a deal on the latest, greatest ship or route, or in the fanciest cabin. High demand equals fewer last-minute offers.

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At the same time, these bargain deals can very much satisfy the itch when your brain says, “I want a vacation, NOW,” but your pocketbook says otherwise.

Here’s a primer to help you figure out if a last-minute cruise fare is right for you.

What are last-minute deals and why?

These deals are available when a cruise line has not sold the number of cabins that officials were hoping to sell on a particular sailing. To fill vacant cabins, a cruise line may slash fares.

The last-minute offers come out after everyone who booked in advance makes their final payment, which, depending on the line and itinerary, could be 60 to 90 days before embarkation.

Cruise lines get a good chunk of their income from onboard spending and make a bigger profit if they get more people on board, even if they need to reduce fares drastically to attract a larger crowd. It’s a bit of a slippery slope, though.

If cruise lines always offered last-minute bargain fares, more people might be hesitant to take advantage of early-bird offers, and other sales geared to those passengers booking several months in advance — which is the period when cruise lines really want you to book.

Because of this, cruise lines don’t always offer last-minute deals. When they do, they are targeted on a ship-by-ship, sailing-by-sailing basis.

How can I find a last-minute cruise deal?

Last-minute fares are right out in the open, along with other sales a cruise line might be holding.

Norwegian includes a "last-minute cruise deals" category on its online deals page. Royal Caribbean’s last-minute deals get their own page, and at the bottom of the page you can sign up for alerts so you get first dibs on the offers. Carnival lists last-minute fares as Pack & Go, with a pricing button you can use to indicate what you want to pay. Sign up for Carnival’s VIFP Club to receive alerts — and maybe additional discounts.

You can find last-minute offers from a variety of cruise lines in one place at vacationstogo.com. Once you provide your contact information to the online agency, you have access to a large, scroll-down list of last-minute deals over the next 90 days.

Cruiseline.com provides listings and a price alert you can sign up for, and icruise.com offers a last-minute deals page.

If you work with an experienced cruise travel agent, they may have alerts or other ways to help you track deals.

How much can I save?

ALL INCLUSIVE PROJECT/CELEBRITY CRUISES

Comparing deals listed at vacationstogo.com, you’ll see last-minute deals ranging from about 30% to more than 85 % off full fares. Keep in mind, though, that it’s rare for anyone to pay a full fare or brochure price.

When checking out a last-minute fare, you should do a comparison with other value-added offers from the cruise line.

For instance, some lines do kids-cruise-free deals, free category upgrades or free drinks as enticements. None of these will apply to a last-minute fare. Depending on your specific needs, you may be better off booking early and taking advantage of these value-added ways to save.

On the other hand, if you don’t drink much, aren’t taking the kids and your goal is the lowest possible fare, last-minute may be for you.

What are the cancellation policies on last-minute fares?

You are likely booking a nonrefundable fare. If you go the last-minute route you must make a full payment at the time of booking rather than putting down a deposit, as you would if you were booking further out.

Once you click "buy," you've booked a cruise. If you cancel, you will get considerably less back than you paid – and nothing if you decide not to cruise less than 30 days before your sailing.

Are these fares offered at certain times of the year?

Last-minute offers are available year-round, and you can improve your chances of snagging one of these deals by keeping an eye on the calendar.

Busy periods for Caribbean and Mexican Riviera cruises include any time that kids are out of school for a week or more, such as winter and spring school holiday periods, summertime and around Christmas and New Year’s. You won’t find as many last-minute fares during these periods.

On the other hand, some of the best deals are before and after these time slots when the kids are back in school. Plan to sail later in September through December (with holidays an exception) and you'll likely find last-minute deals.

The same holds true for the month after New Year’s and into February. There may always be other pockets, so it pays to keep track.

For itineraries in Europe and Alaska, look for deals early or later in the season, the so-called shoulder season. The crowds come late in the spring through August, with peak season in the summer.

Flexibility is key. You are more likely to find a last-minute deal if you search for an available period of several weeks or even no set time in mind for your cruise, rather than targeting a specific date you want to sail.

Are there more last-minute deals on specific itineraries?

Yes. Last-minute offers tend to be on Bahamas, Caribbean and even Mediterranean cruises that are shorter than a week or on cruises of more than 10 days. This includes repositioning cruises — when a ship moves from one market to another, such as between Europe and the Caribbean.

That does not mean you can’t snag a last-minute fare on a popular seven-day sailing in the Caribbean, Mexican Riviera or the Mediterranean, but there may be fewer offers on those routes.

What sort of cabins are offered last minute?

PRINCESS CRUISES

Ay, there’s the rub. This is a case where you need to be flexible. Last-minute fares are not necessarily going to be for all cabin categories.

Since the cheapest and most expensive cabins tend to sell out first, don’t expect these accommodations to be available. If you're on a route like Alaska where everyone wants a balcony cabin with views, don’t expect many of these to be available, either.

Be prepared to take what you get in terms of both the type of cabin and the cabin location. You may find the last-minute deal is for a “guaranteed cabin,” which means you don’t choose your cabin at all — the cruise line does.

In a good scenario, you may receive a better cabin than you paid for, but conversely, you may get a cabin that earlier bookers avoided for a reason – such as in a particularly noisy area of the ship.

How close-in can I book?

Theoretically, you can book just hours before a cruise, though you can’t book after the ship’s manifest has been submitted to authorities. Logistically, this means the last day to book is a day before the cruise, rather than on embarkation day.

Be aware that if you're waiting until the very last minute, you may not be able to book online. You may have to call reservations, which may mean sitting on hold for hours.

Can I fly to my cruise?

Yes, but the savings you get from a last-minute cruise fare may be gobbled up by the airlines. Last-minute airfare deals may be hard to come by.

For that reason, last-minute cruises may work best for those passengers who can drive to catch the ship, especially if you are booking very close in. That’s one reason last-minute deals work so well for people who live in Florida or who are wintering in the Sunshine State.

Will I still have access to shore excursions and drink packages?

ALL INCLUSIVE PROJECT/CELEBRITY CRUISES

The closer in you book a last-minute fare, the less opportunity you will have to pre-book shore excursions, and the most popular excursions may already be sold out.

The same goes for the opportunity to pre-book spa treatments and specialty dining at popular times, as well as pre-paid drinks packages — which are limited in number and may already have sold out.

Do I have to be vaccinated and have a passport?

Cruise line vaccination and testing requirements are in flux. Carefully check the cruise line’s requirements. If you are vaccinated, you will likely find getting on a ship at the last minute a lot less hassle than if you aren’t.

If you are looking for a last-minute deal on a route where a passport is required, such as Alaska, make sure your passport is up to date. Renewals can take months, so don’t count on that happening 90 days or less before a cruise.

Bottom line

Just because you can get a last-minute deal for a cruise doesn’t mean you should. However, if you're flexible with your dates and type of cabin, and especially if you can drive to a port, go for it.

Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:

Featured photo by (Photo courtesy of the All Inclusive Project/Celebrity Cruises)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Why We Chose It

The Marriott Bonvoy Business Amex is a stacked card with a rewards rate that will help you earn bonus points on everyday and business-related purchases. You'll earn 15 elite night credits each calendar year, and receive automatic Gold elite status. Finally, the free night award certificate with a redemption level of 35,000 points or less can get you hundreds of dollars in potential value each year.

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  • Receive a 7% discount off standard rates for reservations of standard guest rooms at hotels that participate in the Marriott Bonvoy program when you book directly. Terms and Conditions Apply.
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