Why now’s a great time to book a cruise, even if you don’t plan to travel for many months

Feb 6, 2022

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The surge in COVID-19 cases across the globe in the past two months may have you thinking twice about taking a cruise — or going on any other type of trip — in the coming weeks.

Given some of the disruptions to sailings that positive cases on ships have caused of late, you may even be at the point where you want to steer clear of cruise ships in the near term.

But even if that’s the case, I have some advice for you, assuming you’re a cruise fan: You should take a hard look at locking in a cruise (or two or three) right now for further out on the calendar — either later this year or even as far out as 2023 or 2024.

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It may be an iffy time to be on a cruise. But it’s not an iffy time to book one for the future. In fact, this may be the best time you’ll find all year to put down a deposit on a voyage that will take place many months from now — when the omicron surge, in theory, will be far behind us.

After being completely shut down for a good chunk of the past two years due to COVID-19, cruise lines are eager for your business — so eager that they’re rolling out some truly alluring promotions on sailings scheduled to take place not just in the coming months but as far out as two years in the future.

A wave of deals

Cruise lines always roll out major promotions in January and February for what is known as “wave season” — the three-month period at the start of the year when bookings for cruises traditionally surge. This year, some of these early promotions are even better than usual.

The “wave season” deals this year include lots of 2-for-1 fares, free fares for the third and fourth passengers in a cabin, free kids fares, gratis airfare, complimentary pre-cruise hotel stays, cabin upgrades, onboard credit, beverage packages, included gratuities, free Wi-Fi and more.

Among the promotions that have caught my eye — and may move me to open my own wallet in the coming weeks — is the latest incarnation of Princess Cruises‘ “Best. Sale. Ever.” The “wave season” deal gives customers who book select seven-night voyages up to $695 in add-ons for free. The freebies include a free premier beverage package, complimentary Wi-Fi, included gratuities, a cabin location upgrade and a gratis meal in one of the ship’s specialty dining venues.

That’s a lot of included extras.

Being a lover of off-the-beaten-path “expedition” voyages to places like the Arctic, I’m also eyeing a new “wave season” deal from Hurtigruten Expeditions that offers up to $2,900 in savings on select 2022 voyages to the Galapagos, Antarctica and more.

Related: A beginner’s guide to picking a cruise line

Even better, if you want to push off cruising for a year or even two, is another Hurtigruten offer that brings savings of up to 30% on sailings as far out as 2024. This second offer includes voyages to Iceland, Greenland, Spitsbergen in Norway, South America and other destinations.

Both of the Hurtigruten deals will be available through March 31.

One big difference this year with the “wave season” deals is that many of them, such as the Hurtigruten offers, include a markdown on the starting price of sailings in addition to value-added perks. In normal years, many lines try not to discount fares and use the offering of value-added perks as the key incentive to drive more bookings.

In general, fares for cruises right now are down in a number of key markets, according to industry watchers.

Fares on 2022 sailings in the Caribbean are running about 2.5% to 7.5% below the level of 2019 — the last normal year before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Truist Securities said in a report issued on Jan. 14. At press time, a weeklong Caribbean cruise on Norwegian starts at $449 per person, based on double occupancy, while Carnival’s fares start in the $200s.

Disney’s short Bahamas cruises are starting in the $1,300s for couples and $2,200s for a family of four, with balcony cabins just a few hundred dollars more — amazing rates, according to Summer Hull, TPG’s Disney expert.

Fares for 2022 sailings to Alaska are down even more, according to the Truist report, which cited a decline of 12.5% to 17.5% for the average Alaska cruise fare. I found seven-night Alaska sailings on Royal Caribbean starting at $395 per person, based on double occupancy; Norwegian Cruise Line’s weeklong Alaska cruises start at $500.

Fares for 2022 sailings in Europe, by contrast, were roughly flat, the Truist report suggested.

The good news for cruisers (and bad news for the financial profile of cruise companies) is that at least some of the price cuts could stick around for a while.

“Historically, once cruise lines begin discounting on ticket price it has taken years to get pricing back to pre-discount levels,” Truist analyst C. Patrick Scholes noted in the report.

The price cutting for cruises is even more notable when taken in the context of soaring prices for many other things. Inflation for goods and services in the U.S. is currently running at 7% per year, according to the latest reading of the Consumer Price Index.

Reduced deposits

In addition to lower fares and value-added perks, some lines are offering an additional sweetener to cruise fans who lock in a far-off voyage now: reduced deposits.

Unlike airlines, cruise lines don’t require customers to pay in full at the time of booking. Many only require a small deposit to lock in a cabin on a sailing far in the future. As part of their “wave season” deals this year, some lines, such as Holland America and Cunard, are reducing these deposits even further — meaning if you act soon, you won’t have to put down all that much money to reserve a room on your preferred itinerary.

Luxury line Seabourn, for instance, usually requires customers to put down a 25% deposit on a cabin within three days of making a booking. As part of its “wave season” promotion, it’s cutting that necessary deposit in half.

For cruises lasting 31 days or fewer, the balance of payment for a Seabourn cruise isn’t due until 90 days before sailing. With seven-night Seabourn sailings in 2023 starting at $3,999 per person, that means you can lock in next year’s vacation right now for just $500 and not owe another penny on the trip for nearly a year.

Like many cruise lines, Seabourn opens its sailings for bookings more than two years in advance — much further in advance than airlines open flights for bookings. As of today, you can book Seabourn sailings as far out as May 2024. That’s two years and three months from now. By then, hopefully, the days of significant COVID-19-related travel snarls will be long past.

In addition, some lines have extended the time between putting down a deposit and making that final full payment. For sailings through May 31, 2022, Royal Caribbean has pushed its final payment date from 90 days before sailing to 30 days. If the pandemic drags on, the line might extend that policy to summer cruises or beyond.

Flexible cancellation policies

If the idea of booking a cruise at a time when COVID-19 continues to cause travel disruptions still has you worried, here’s one more key thing to know: Many lines continue to be far more flexible than normal about cancellations.

Take cruise giant Carnival Cruise Line. Its current flexible cancellation policy allows passengers to cancel as long as a public health emergency remains in effect and receive 100% of the cruise fare paid in the form of a future cruise credit. Passengers are also able to cancel if they test positive for COVID-19. (Proof of a positive test result is required.)

Holland America just a few days ago extended its COVID-19-era flexible cancellation policy for another five months to cover sailings through the end of September 2022.

The “worry free” policy, which originally was set to expire in April, allows passengers to cancel a cruise without penalty up to 30 days before departure. The policy covers any sailing booked before March 31.

Related: Is it a terrible time to cruise? The feedback from current cruisers says otherwise

As part of the extended policy at Holland America, passengers also can cancel for a full refund right up to the day of embarkation if they test positive for COVID-19. They also can buy special insurance that would let them cancel for any reason up to 24 hours before a sailing.

Don’t forget to use a points card

Given TPG’s origins as a points and miles website, I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you to maximize your credit card points if you do put down a deposit on a cruise in the coming weeks. The best way to do this is to use a credit card that offers extra points for travel purchases such as cruises.

This could be the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which offers 3 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar on travel and dining (excluding the annual $300 travel credit). There’s also the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, which brings 2 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar on travel and 3 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar on dining.

Bottom line

With COVID-19 cases in the midst of a surge, there’s an argument that we’re once again in a period when it’s not a great time to be traveling. But even if you’re pressing pause on travel right now, that doesn’t mean that you can’t be eyeing trips for later this year or into 2023 or 2024.

If cruising is what you love, you’ll find some wonderful deals on future sailings this month and into the next month, too, as cruise lines put their best foot forward for “wave season” while offering stronger safeguards for your travel investment.

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Featured image courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line.

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