Booking cheap cruises is frequently a matter of paying attention to a few key variables.
One is the timing for your trip.
A recent cruise advertisement by a major line featured a seven-day, inter-island tour of Hawaii. This cruise started at $1,959/person for an interior room in late August. If you were willing to hold off until Jan. 1 for the same cabin and the same cruise, your price was cut by more than half to $949.
Cruise ships are larger than ever before, and the lines must fill all those cabins no matter what the season. So you're likely to find rates that drop quickly in the slower periods. If you're able to arrange your travel time to coincide with one of those off-peak times, you'll save a lot of money.
Shop for Special Offers
One way to find out if a cruise line has cabins marked down for quick sale is to consult the places online where they typically make this known. One is the special offer pages of each cruise line.
Yes, some of these pages are filled with hype. But cut past all the hoopla and look at what is on sale. Are there itineraries or dates of departure that appeal to you?
A good spot to check on discounts, especially for luxury cruises, is the 90-day ticker at VacationsToGo.com. It's not unusual at certain times of the year to find discounts in the 60-70 percent range over the brochure prices. Those brochure prices are too high and many people pay less, but the cuts -- especially at the last-minute -- are well worth a look.
Shop for an Itinerary, not a Cruise Line
For many years, I had wanted to explore the ruins of Ephesus, an ancient site that at one time was home to the world's fourth-largest city. So when I looked for a cruise in the area of Greece and Turkey, this was a top priority.
Many cruises that go to the region don't stop at Kusadasi, the nearest port city to the archeological site. Some that did make the stop were there barely long enough to do more than just rush through the marble streets and race back to the ship.
By finding a cruise line that spent about 10 hours in port, I added value to my trip before it even started. Decide the ports that have greatest significance and then see which lines offer the best opportunities for a visit. The itinerary should have greater weight in your buying decision than the number of water slides or lounges a cruise line boasts about in its advertising.
Use Cruises to Visit Expensive Destinations
The Greek island of Santorini (also known as Thira) is a wonderful place to visit, but the prices can be as steep as its volcanic cliffs for a relatively limited number of hotel rooms or restaurant meals.
A flight into or out of Santorini and a few nights in one of the more centrally located hotels could wipe out your Greek travel budget and preclude visits to some of the other enchanting islands in the vicinity.
On a cruise, you can visit pricey places such as Santorini or Venice with many of the most elevated costs well under control. You'll sleep on the ship and eat your meals there as well.
The trade-off is far less time to enjoy Santorini's beautiful sunsets and intriguing vistas. But look at a cruise as your introduction to a place where one day you'll return for a longer visit. It could also become an opportunity to discover that a place you thought was going to be enchanting was expensive and relatively easy to leave.
Avoid Buying Airfares and Insurance from Cruise Lines
Cruise lines will quote you prices with cabin, transfers and airfare included. It doesn't hurt to look at the prices they offer, because on occasion they are better than you can find on your own. But many times, they provide very ordinary or even overpriced fares merely as a convenience for people who don't want to bother to shop for airfares.
Some lines also will offer insurance policies for your trip. If these come at added expense, it's usually best to decline. If a cruise line files for bankruptcy, will their insurance package protect you from cancellation costs? Travel insurance experts say if a policy is tied directly to the cruise line, it could have built-in exceptions that are not in your best interests. An independent source is less likely to do so.
Consider a Repositioning Cruise
Most people have no idea many cruise ships have to be repositioned twice a year. The result is a long trip that touches unusual ports and results in some great on board experiences.
For example, if you've operated your ship in the fjords of Norway all summer, you'll want to leave before the cold winter air makes travel unpleasant. You'll take your ship to Jamaica for the next six months or so.
That trip costs the cruise line money, so they accept paying passengers. Repositioning cruises (also called "repo" cruises) are advertised, but not to the extent of conventional trips because they usually fill with repeat customers. So you'll have to hunt for a trip that suits your schedule and interests.
Find out more about repositioning cruises, which on a daily basis are often cheaper than their conventional cousins.
Shop for an Inside Cabin
You'll notice curtains in this shot. Yes, it's an outside cabin. On this particular cruise, the interior cabins were sold out before I decided to book the trip. Why? Because inside cabins are the best value.
You'll sometimes pay 30 percent more for a porthole or picture window. Cruise lines are building ships now for comfort and customers usually want an outside state room with balcony if at all possible.
If you're willing to settle for less, there is a lot of money to be saved. Just remember you'll be competing with other budget travelers for those inside cabins, and they will go quickly.
Beware of Expensive Add-Ons
It was once true that you paid one price and received whatever meals or beverages you wanted. But cruise ships are now adding "premium dining rooms" where that special gourmet dinner is not included in your original price.
Cruise ships routinely add on gratuities and charges for beverages you might have thought would be included in your fare. Check the gratuities at the end of your trip to be certain you received service commensurate with what is being charged.
Look for ways to lessen those other charges. Some ships offer an "all you can drink" soft drink price that will pay for itself quickly.
Avoid Excursions Offered through the Cruise Line
After you book a cruise, most lines will send word advising you to sign up immediately for shore excursions. They'll tell you these trips fill up quickly and you need to reserve space right away to avoid disappointment.
Look at the prices carefully, because many times they are inflated. It's often possible to step off the ship and make your own arrangements at a substantial savings. For example, I found a guided tour of Ephesus apart from my cruise line.
These trips might not be identical to those offered through the line, but many budget travelers reap great savings by doing a little research and booking outside of the cruise line offerings. Avoid overpriced shore excursions by making your own arrangements.
Consider the Cheapest Excursion on the Last Day
In the last step, you were advised to be cautious when booking excursions with the cruise line. As with all good rules-of-thumb, there are a few exceptions.
One such exception might just come on your final day.
On larger ships, debarkation can be a lengthy and even frustrating experience. I've found that the cruise lines often have efficient and equitable procedures in place for getting passengers off the ship, but some in a hurry to depart simply ignore the rules. Those who choose to follow can spend hours waiting for a chance to leave.
But if you book the least expensive excursion to tour the port of debarkation, you can move up in the lines to exit the ship. It's not a strategy that's always necessary, and sometimes the excursions are just too expensive. But if you can pay $40 per person to get off the ship two hours quicker and get a guided tour, there is value worth considering.