Last-minute cruises: Should you book the deal?
A spontaneous cruise vacation can be fun. And if you aren’t too picky, there are some amazing last-minute cruise deals. You might 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 might 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 are less likely to be near the top of your wish list.
Don’t expect a deal on the latest, greatest ship or route, or in the fanciest cabin. High demand equals fewer last-minute offers. If you’re trying for something last-minute, you also should be flexible on when you will cruise or the length of the itinerary.
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At the same time, these deals can satisfy the itch when your brain says, “I want a vacation, NOW,” but your pocketbook says otherwise.
So, is it best to book a cruise last minute? 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 are they offered?
Last-minute deals become available when a cruise line has not sold the number of cabins that officials hoped to sell on a particular sailing. To fill vacant cabins, a cruise line might slash fares.
Offers for last-minute cheap cruises 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, so they make a bigger profit if they get more people on board — even if they need to reduce fares drastically to attract a larger crowd. But that strategy can backfire.
If lines always offered last-minute cruise bargains, 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.
Related: When is the best time to book a cruise?
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; scroll to the bottom to sign up for alerts, so you get first dibs on the offers. Carnival lists last-minute fares as Pack & Go, with a pricing button that allows you to filter results by your preferred price range. Sign up for Carnival’s VIFP Club to receive alerts — and maybe additional discounts.
You can also 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 can help you track deals, as well.
How much can I save?
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 and booking perks from the cruise line.
For instance, some lines offer kids-sail-free deals, free category upgrades or free drinks as enticements, but they might not apply to certain last-minute fares. Depending on your specific needs, you could be better off booking early and taking advantage of these value-added ways to save.
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 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 are always other pockets, so it pays to keep track.
Related: How to get a deal on a cruise
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. Deals on last-minute cruises 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 region of the world 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 could be fewer offers on those routes.
What sort of cabins are offered last minute?
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 those to be available, either. The same applies to cabin types that are limited in number, such as family, spa or solo cabins.
Be prepared to take what you get in terms of both the type of cabin and the cabin location. You might 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 could receive a better cabin than you paid for, but conversely, you might get a cabin — like one in a noisy area of the ship — that earlier bookers avoided for a reason.
How close to sailing 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 one to two days before the cruise, rather than on embarkation day.
Be aware that if you’re waiting until the very last minute, you might not be able to book online, and calling the reservations line could mean sitting on hold for hours.
Should I book a last-minute cruise if I have to fly?
You can, but the savings you get from cheap last-minute cruise fares could be gobbled up by the airlines. Last-minute airfare deals can be hard to come by. Definitely check to see if you can save by booking your flight through your cruise line.
Because expensive flights can ruin your savings strategy, last-minute cruises might work best for those passengers who can drive to catch the ship. Last-minute deals work especially well for people who live in Florida or who are wintering in the Sunshine State because they have several major cruise departure ports within driving distance offering a choice of sailings.
Will I still have access to shore excursions and drink packages?
Yes, but you might have to be OK with taking what's left. The closer to departure you book a last-minute fare, the less opportunity you will have to pre-book shore excursions; the most popular ones are likely to be sold out. The same goes for the opportunity to pre-book spa treatments and specialty dining at popular times, as well as prepaid drinks packages, which are limited in number.
Do I need a passport?
If you are looking for a last-minute deal on a route where a passport is required, such as Alaska, make sure your documentation is up to date. Renewals can take months, so don’t count on that happening 90 days or less before a cruise.
Just because you can get a last-minute deal for a cruise doesn’t mean you should take it. However, if you’re flexible with your dates and type of cabin, and especially if you can drive to a departure port, go for it. A spontaneous and affordable vacation is often just what you need.
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