Last-minute deals, Part 2: How to do it

(You can read Part I about cruise pricing and last minute deals here.)

So, what does all of this mean for you, the aspiring last-minute-deal-getting cruiser? Well, I’ve spent the last few months actively pursuing these deals, and I’ve learned a few things that can help your chances.

  1. Be flexible. There’s a reason that so many people on cruises (especially out of the U.S.) are retired and/or live in Florida! Of course, this isn’t something that everyone can do: People have children or pets to make arrangements for, work schedules that they can’t move around, etc. If you live far from the cruise port, the savings you get for booking a last-minute deal might be gobbled up by the cost of buying airfare at the last minute (this is pretty much what happened with our last-minute Cuba cruise). But if you can be flexible with your travel times, you’ll have more chance of finding a good deal on a last-minute cruise.
  2. Lower your expectations. Understand that you might not get the type of cabin, or the location, that you like or are used to. When you book late, you don’t get a very good selection of available cabins. In order to get the best deals, you might even need to take a guarantee room option (where the cruise line picks your room for you) or take a different type of cabin than you’re used to, like an inside or oceanview room instead of a balcony.
  3. Be open to new possibilities. Let’s say you’re the type of person who always like to cruise in a certain region, or on a certain ship or class of cruise ships. Well, the more you narrow your options, the less likely you are to find that great deal. If you’re open to new options, you might find a better deal – and who knows, you might even find a new favorite cruise destination!
  4. Work with a travel agent. This one might seem a little self-serving, because, well, I am a travel agent. But if your travel agent knows this kind of cruises you’re interested in, and your relative level of flexibility, she can notify you when last-minute deals become available, such as Royal Caribbean’s Going Going Gone rates or Celebrity’s Exciting Deals. (Note: For some reason I don’t quite understand, these sites are quite frequently offline. Try checking back another day.) You can check these deals yourself, of course, or you can sign up for e-mail newsletter from a web site like Cruise Critic. But your travel agent can be your best ally in the search for cruise deals – especially if she’s a natural-born bargain hunter, like me! As travel agents, we can also see which ships have a lot of available cabins – a good piece of information to have as you try to win this supply-and-demand based game.

Happy (bargain) hunting! If you’re interested in working with me to help you find your next cruise, you can fill out this contact form.

Last-minute deals: What I’ve learned, and what I’d recommend (or not)

(If you’re not interested in reading my nerdy treatise on cruise pricing, you can skip ahead to the advice for getting last minute deals.)

Understanding how to get a last-minute deal on a cruise comes down to just three words: Supply and demand.

I was a good student in college, but introductory economics was possibly the hardest class I took during my four years. Some of the concepts just seemed completely foreign to me, and I couldn’t wrap my head around them. I despaired over studying for the tests, but eventually I figured out how to make it work – and I’ve never been so proud in my life to get an A-. (See, I told you I was a nerd.)

So imagine my surprise when I learned that the pricing structure of the cruise industry, for the most part, is driven largely by supply and demand. Good thing I paid attention in that Econ class!

To understand cruise pricing, it helps to think from the perspective of the cruise line: They’d like to have every cabin on the ship booked as far ahead of time as possible. That way they know they can count on the revenue from that sailing. This explains the bonuses you might see for booking ahead, or lower prices for sailings more than a year out. (Unfortunately, it also explains the recent introduction of nonrefundable deposit fares, which are lower but can’t be changed or refunded if you find you can’t take the cruise you originally booked.)

At some point, the cruise line will notice that for a certain sailing, the supply is far exceeding the demand. This can happen as far out as six months or so, but it’s most likely to happen 90 days out, which is when the final payment for the cruise is due. Once final payments have been made, the cruise line has a much clearer picture of which cabins are bought and paid for – and which ones aren’t.

Of course, the cruise line doesn’t want to let any cabin be empty on any sailing. An empty cabin means there aren’t passengers to buy drinks at the bar, purchase shore excursions, or gamble at the casino. So on a sailing where supply exceeds demand, the cruise line relies on one of the oldest tricks in the book and lowers the price. Often, this does the trick, and the cruise sails mostly full.

You can see this most clearly in the case of transatlantic cruises, where the cruise lines reposition their ships from Europe (where they sail in the summer) to the Caribbean (where they sail in the winter), and vice versa. These ships have the same number of available cabins as they always do, but the demand is much lower: Because these are longer cruises, and often include a lot of sea days, there aren’t as many cruisers who are interested and willing – or even able – to take these cruises which can often be 12-15 nights in length.

Continue to Part II: Advice on how to get a last-minute cruise deal

Booking our last-minute cruise to Cuba

I’d wanted to go to Cuba for a while, but I wasn’t planning on doing it as soon as early October. After all, we’d just gotten back from our 7-day Pacific Coastal cruise!

However, fate intervened: In the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, Royal Caribbean was having trouble filling its cruises to Cuba from Tampa (on board, we were told the previous two sailings had been only 60-70% full). I’d learned from the excellent CNBC documentary Cruise, Inc. that cruise lines made most of their money from drinks and shore excursions (along with other extra charges), not really from the cruise fare itself. So I wasn’t surprised to see Royal drop the prices on cruise fares to Cuba.

In this particular case, the price drop was irresistible: The total cost of our 4-day cruise to Key West and Havana was just over $800 total for two people, including taxes and fees. We kept the price as low as possible by booking a guarantee oceanview room. (We could have made it cheaper by booking an interior room, but to be honest, I was still a little scarred by my experience in an inside room on Majesty of the Seas!)

I did learn, however, that the price savings for booking a last-minute cruise are often offset by the cost of purchasing last-minute airfare. In this case, our tickets from North Carolina to Tampa for the cruise were pricing at just under $500 apiece, due to the fact that we were only one week away and we needed to fly at certain times. Fortunately, I still had the companion certificate I earned from my Delta American Express card, so I used that to keep the overall costs down.

Overall, if you have the flexibility and are relatively close to a cruise port, last-minute deals on cruises can be a good option for you. I’ll write more soon about some strategies for finding some last-minute cruise deals.