Booking a cruise at the last minute isn’t as easy as it used to be. Would-be cruisers have been locking in their trips earlier than ever, thanks to early-booking promotions, leaving fewer cabins available on short notice.
At the same time, many cruise lines have moved away from the practice of offering deep discounts to fill empty cabins in the final weeks before sailing. Instead, they often try to maintain their prices at a base level even if it means some cabins go unsold.
The result is that last-minute bookers are having a harder time finding the type of cabins they want on ships and the itineraries they want at a good price.
Still, all is not lost for those hoping to hit the high seas on short notice. Whether you’ve procrastinated in making your cruise plans or just love to travel on a whim, there are several ways to find and book a last-minute voyage.
First, understand the “booking window”
While cruise cabins have always booked up further in advance than hotel rooms and airline seats, the cruise “booking window”–the average number of days between the time a customer books and a ship sails–has widened considerably in recent years to well over six months at many lines. That means a large percentage of cabins on any given sailing is already booked up even three or four months out.
That said, the booking window varies widely by itinerary. Michelle Fee, CEO of Cruise Planners, one of the nation’s largest travel agency networks, says the booking window is now a full year out for long itineraries in faraway places such as Asia. But it’s three to six months for shorter, closer-to-home voyages. The latter category of cruises is where you’ll have the most luck finding last-minute cabin availability and deals.
Which cruise lines are known for last-minute availability?
Fee says most last-minute sales happen on the larger ships leaving from U.S. home ports on Caribbean cruises, where there is a huge amount of capacity. We’re talking sailings on the giant vessels of Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line, and other similar lines. It’ll be tougher to find a last-minute spot (let alone a deal) on one of the smaller luxury ships operated by the likes of Regent Seven Seas Cruises or Crystal Cruises, which book up far in advance.
On a conference call with Wall Street analysts in May, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank del Rio noted that the company’s two upscale brands, Regent Seven Seas and Oceania Cruises, already were nearly sold out for all of 2019. What’s more, about 40 percent of inventory for 2020 was gone, too. If you’re hoping to grab a last-minute cabin on one of those lines, you’re going to struggle.
How to time your search
A good time to start looking for last-minute deals is about 90 days before a sailing. This is the “final payment” deadline for many cruises–the point where customers who have put down deposits on trips must send in the full amount due or cancel. After the deadline, cruise lines have a much better idea of how many cabins they have left to sell, and they adjust pricing accordingly. If a ship is heavily booked after final payment, fares for the remaining cabins will remain high or go higher. If there are an unexpectedly large number of cabins left to sell, pricing could come down.
The final payment deadline varies by line and itinerary. At Royal Caribbean, it’s 75 days for shorter voyages. Regent Seven Seas cuts things off as far out as 150 days on some trips.
Look at the slow weeks
You’re more likely to find last-minute space on ships at reasonable or even rock-bottom prices during the slow seasons for travel in various destinations. In the Caribbean, that means the fall, when kids are back at school and hurricane-season worries are keeping some travelers away. In Alaska, where the cruise season only lasts a few months between May and September, the first few weeks and last few weeks of that period are good hunting grounds for a last-minute deal.
Consider a repositioning cruise
Cruise lines sometimes need to move ships long distances between major markets, resulting in “repositioning cruises” with odd itineraries that often are tough to sell and thus available at the last minute. Many lines move vessels from the Caribbean to Europe in the spring, for instance, and then back to the Caribbean in the fall, resulting in long, one-off sailings with lots of sea days that only appeal to a small subset of cruisers. Repositioning sailings between Europe and Asia in spring and fall are another good place to look for last-minute deals. Some cruise-focused websites such as VacationsToGo.Com offer tabs listing last-minute repositioning cruises that you can sort by date and price.
If a cruise line is doing its revenue management right, there always will be at least a few cabins available on any given voyage as the sailing date approaches. It might not be the type of cabin that you want (a coveted midship balcony, for instance) or at the price you were hoping to pay. But if you don’t care about the cabin type or–better yet–even the specific sailing, ship, line or destination, you’ll have a lot easier time finding a last-minute deal.
Cruise Planners’ Fee says premium cabins such as suites, connecting cabins (popular with families), and cabins that have a third or fourth berth often are the first to sell out for any given voyage. But you never know what will be available when it comes to the last few weeks before a sailing.
Pick up the phone
The pricing you find online for last-minute cruises often is the same from site to site, whether you’re shopping directly with a cruise line or at an online travel agency. But you sometimes can get a better deal if you pick up the phone to call a travel agent directly. Big cruise-selling travel agent networks such as Cruise Planners and Avoya Travel often have access to lower “group rate” pricing or added-value perks such as free drinks packages that cruise lines won’t let travel agents advertise online.
Avoya cofounder Brad Anderson says the price that the 1,500 agents affiliated with his company can give you over the phone for a last-minute cruise might be radically different than what you see on the company’s website. While it varies by line, you’ll almost always get a better price by calling, he says.
Keep it close to home
The biggest challenge to booking a last-minute cruise sometimes isn’t finding the right ship at the right price. It’s finding flights to get to that ship at the right price. This is particularly true if you’re shopping for a last-minute cruise that is far from where you live. The solution? Look at sailings in ports that you can reach by car or via an air route that is short and inexpensive.
For vacationers on the East Coast, that might mean sailings out of New York or Boston. For a West Coaster, it could mean a sailing from Los Angeles or San Diego.
Watch the news
Almost every year there are one-off events–a terrorist attack in a European city, a major hurricane in the Caribbean–that cause cruise bookings in a specific area to freeze up. Some events cause waves of cancellations. When this happens, cruise lines often will roll out last-minute deals to get people booking again. In the wake of this year’s ban on Cuba cruise calls, for instance, cruise lines were forced to drop the island from itineraries on short notice, setting off a flurry of cancellations for trips that included at least one Cuba call. To get people back on board the affected ships, now sailing altered routes, the cruise lines have been offering particularly good deals.
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