(Updated post from May 2016) Photo courtesy of Azamara Club Cruises
When is the best time to book my cruise?
A very common question, one I get at least 50% of the time when booking ocean and river cruises. The answer? It truly depends on you, the type of traveler you are and where you want to travel.
Flexible? Not at all concerned about a getting your choice of itinerary, sailing date, cabin or cabin location? Live a short distance from the cruise port? Then yes, you could wait until closer in to the sailing date. You may find a last minute "deal", as cruise lines prefer to sail with as many cabins filled as possible. Watch out though, as they aren't always what they first appear to be. And if airfare is involved, air tends to be more expensive the closer in to travel dates.
If you are a planner, traveling with others, want a specific sailing and like to have the major components of your trip in place well in advance, I always advise " book as early as possible". Generally speaking the best rates and options are going to be further out, not closer in. Cruise lines are always promoting special offers, but I have found that the majority of early offers are as good or better than subsequent ones.
Why book as early as possible? First, you get the best choice of dates, itineraries, cabins and cabin locations. Second, you often receive an early booking incentive, possible upgrades and a great rate. In most cases, you can hold your booking with a small deposit, plus you get to dream about your vacation for a longer period of time! Why wouldn't you book early?
This advice goes for both ocean and river. The smaller the ship the earlier the booking.
Popularity in cruising (large ocean, small ships and river) continues to grow. Fewer than 30% of the US population has taken a cruise - the remaining 70% are starting to figure out what the other 30% love about cruising!
Additional capacity has been added as travelers are discovering the great value, thus fueling the growth of this industry. Alaska, the Caribbean and Europe are still popular, and Asia and Australia markets are exploding with interest. Experienced North American travelers are seeking new and unique journeys, and these regions offer plenty for those looking for new adventures. Major cruise lines are responding with additional and/or unique itineraries to keep things interesting.
All that being said, another major reason to book early is that markets outside of North America are discovering the value of cruising as well. Cruise lines are actively marketing in these regions, and interest is really growing. Personally I find this exciting, being able to meet more people from other countries. It makes the trip that much more enriching. But it also means more competition, if you will, for the same itineraries, cabins, etc. This is especially true for small ship itineraries. On my last river cruise we had a large group from South Korea and Singapore and another group from Australia.
This shift has had an impact on booking times. In the US, most of us are accustomed to planning our vacations less than a year out. Not so in other parts of the world. For example, Australians often book 1-2 years out. They have to travel quite a distance and thus tend to take more time for their vacations. They plan 1-2 years out to ensure they get their first choices. Many Europeans do the same.
Suggested time frames for most small ship cruises is 9-12 months in advance. Keep in mind river cruises have fewer than 190 passengers, and most small ships have under 600, so popular sailings fill up quickly. If you are going with a group, this can extend out to 15-18 months, possibly longer. Holiday and unique itinerary sailings should be booked 12-18 months out. Large ocean cruises can be booked with less time, 6-12 months (unless you are going on a holiday, spring break, popular vacation periods or a unique itinerary). As an example, a very unique (and awesome) transatlantic cruise on Royal Caribbean sold out within weeks of the opening - almost 2 years in advance! Even world cruises are being sold out shortly (1-2 weeks) after being announced.
In summary, yes, you can wait to book, but savvy travelers are booking their cruise vacations earlier and earlier. YOU SHOULD TOO!
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Laurie Marschall - Owner and Founder