The pre-September 11 tradition of showing up at the dock, suitcase in hand, hoping to negotiate your way onboard may be history (these days, cruise lines are required by law to submit passenger manifests within 24 - 48 hours of departure), but nabbing a great last-minute deal is still possible! Last-minute cruises -- defined roughly in industry terms as a sailing that departs between sixty days and six months in the future -- offer savings to those of us who either procrastinate for a living or enjoy the luxury of cruising on a whim. The Internet has evolved as a terrific resource for deals, and travel agencies regularly receive faxes from cruise lines trying to fill ships on close-in voyages.
But like any deal that comes with a "too good to be true" price tag, buying a last-minute cruise has its pros and cons. Read these tips and tricks for cruising on the cheap, and avoiding potential savings pitfalls:
Strike while the iron's hot. One of the best times to find last-minute rates on a particular sailing is 60 days prior to departure. The reason? This is the last call (for most cruise lines) for travelers to cancel existing reservations without penalty. At this point, the cruise line will know exactly how many cabins are left -- and if there is more space available than the cruise line would like, they will quickly (and often heavily) reduce the fare so that they can sell out the ship.
Don't expect "peak" travel. There's a reason why a cruise is being unloaded with little time to spare -- and it's not because it's a hot seller. Calendar wise, you probably won't find a last-minute bargain on Christmas or New Year's sailings, Easter week, or even Thanksgiving. You might -- but don't hold out if you have your heart set on traveling during those times. On the flip side, you're very likely to find plenty of variety in the Caribbean during peak hurricane season (September through early November), or during the pre-holiday travel lull (first week or two of December) and the post-holiday travel lull (first two weeks of January).
Embrace repositioning cruises. Often times certain itineraries just don't sell well, particularly when ships reposition. When vessels change "regions" for the season, they are known as repositioning cruises. These voyages are usually longer -- maybe two weeks or so instead of 7 to 10 days -- and visit lots of ports, all at a reasonable price. There is a catch: Because these voyages begin in one port and end in another, the passenger is responsible for picking up generally expensive one-way or open-jaw airfares. Still, crunch the numbers -- if you can find a good deal on airfare (check the Bargain Box on IndependentTraveler.com for the latest air bargains), you'll save big on eleventh-hour repositionings.
Do your homework. Many cruises are often pretty well discounted in the first place. By going the ultra-discount route, you might even lose perks -- upgrades, free air, a bottle of wine or bouquet of flowers from your travel agent, etc.
Defining value is key. How much of a bargain is a cheap cruise that requires you to spend twice as much on airfare? You'll more often see more Anchorage - Vancouver voyages on last-minute lists than the more affordable Vancouver - Vancouver trip. Why? Air is typically cheaper on the latter, which goes to and from Vancouver, than the former, which has you flying in and out of different airports. Measure that cost in before committing.
Fine print alert! Read the offer very, very carefully, because it will specify exactly what your purchase entitles you to. An inside cabin is no bargain if you suffer from claustrophobia. In most cases, airfare add-ons, so useful with tricky itineraries, are not available at all. You cannot request a cabin number or type of cabin and typically, though not always, you will not get an in-demand suite or balcony cabin cause they're usually snapped up early in the selling process. Some do, however, offer options to "buy up," but that could cost you as much as simply buying the cruise through your regular channels.
Fine Print Alert ... Continued! Is the price for two people or per person? Double occupancy? Look carefully for information on service fees, government taxes and port charges, which often aren't included in the sale price.
Where to Shop
Here are some of the resources we at Cruise Critic have had luck with:
Cruise Critic's own Cruise Sails newsletter is a weekly (and free!) service available to subscribers, featuring great deals on popular ships sailing less than 120 days out. How good are the deals? How about an 11-night cruise on Celebrity from Tampa to the Caribbean from $599 per person (sailing date: February 21, 2005)? Click here to sign up. Also, Cruise Critic's regular Bargains area is another good place to check for up-to-the-minute deals.
Check out Cruise Critic's Ship Shop, where advertisers highlight last-minute discounts, bargains and exclusive offers for Cruise Critic readers.
Luxurylink.com is a travel auction site specializing in the highest of high-end travel. The site occasionally adds a cruise to its mix of resorts, offering deals (if not dirt-cheap bargains) on really unique or pricey voyages -- think lines such as Crystal, Windstar and Silversea. If you want to see what luxury cruising is all about without breaking the bank, this is the way to go.
Cruise.com is one of a number of online travel agencies that have incorporated a "hot deals" feature into its site. Other great sites to try are Travelocity, Expedia, cruiselocators.com, Cruise411.com, CruiseBrothers.com, CruCon Cruise Outlet and Cruise Club of America.
Moment's Notice is a long-timer in the last-minute game. In fact, the Brooklyn-based company has been selling trips for decades. It's embraced the Web beautifully, with an easy-to-maneuver site. Moment's Notice is a membership organization, but the $25 per-family fee is well spent -- particularly on deals like a seven-day Canada/New England cruise onboard Carnival from just $459 per person (sailing date: September 13, 2004).
Again, don't underestimate the value of your own travel agent. Pester him or her to think of you when good deals come across the fax or pop into their inbox. Or better yet, make it a point to call every once in awhile to say, "Hi, whaddya got?"
, which launched in 1995, is a comprehensive cruise vacation planning guide providing objective cruise ship reviews, cruise line profiles, destination content on 125+ worldwide ports, cruise bargains, tips, industry news, and cruise message boards.
Cruise Critic has been honored by the Society of American Travel Writers with its Lowell Thomas Award and was recently named in Travel + Leisure's "Best 35 Travel Sites" list.