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

Buying a 10 drinks card

Although I’ve bought Royal Caribbean’s unlimited drinks package before, I tend these days not to, especially when it’s just me and the hubby cruising by ourselves. He only drinks one or two a day, and I tend to do the same when we travel together. So I bring my two bottles of wine, and maybe a few mini booze bottles in my carry-on, and then I just pay as I go. (Oh, and along the way I look for free drinks, like at the Crown & Anchor events!)

On the second full day of our Pacific Coastal cruise, which was a sea day, I stopped in to the pub on the promenade and ordered a drink. The bartender told me about something I’d long heard mentioned, but never seen in person – the 10-drinks card, which offers ten drinks (up to a certain level) for a flat fee. So I bought one – in the name of research, of course – to learn how the whole thing worked.

The cost on my cruise for the card was $75 flat. This means that the 10-drinks card was actually around $63.50, plus the standard 18% gratuity for bar staff. Now as it happens, one of my favorite cruise drinks is a Grey Goose cosmopolitan, which can run on the expensive side. So the opportunity to pay under $6.50 a drink seemed like a great deal for me. (Note: I did not drink 10 cosmopolitans. Maybe 6 or 7. And not all at once, of course. 🙂

The 10-drinks card is lovely in its flexibility, and I wish it was a permanent part of the RC experience. I could buy drinks for both myself and my husband; if we’d wanted to, we could have bought one 10-drinks card for each of us. This level of drinking is much more suited to us than a package where one feels the need to “get your money’s worth” by drinking a certain amount a day.

The real downside is the card itself – it’s an actual physical piece of paper, and you have to have it on you, in addition to your SeaPass; plus if you lose it, you’re out of luck. We also had on this cruise the Café Selects card, which allows you to similarly prepay for coffee at a discount, and a few other paper drinks coupons. This made for a bit of paper management, but all in all it wasn’t much of a problem. (Tip: Designate one place on the desk, in the cabinets, etc to always place these lose-able items, to lessen the chance that you might lose them.)