If you’re like many travelers, you like having your vacation planned out months in advance, with all the reservations made and tickets booked. And if you think you’d never switch up your advance planning for a more spontaneous kind of travel, we have three words for you: last-minute cruises.
Last-minute cruises are exactly what they sound like: cruises booked somewhere between several days and three months before the embarkation date. And for travelers with the flexibility to book a cruise on a relatively short timeline, they’re an easy way to find a bargain. Read on to get all the secrets you need to know about last-minute cruises.
1. You can find great deals on last-minute cruises online
Cruise Critic reports that if you’re looking for last-minute cruises, you can find a great deal online. And USA Today recommends checking out websites like Cruise Bargains and Vacations to Go, which serve as clearinghouses of discounted cruises. But you don’t have to figure it all out on your own. In fact, calling up your travel agent can also land you some great deals. As Cruise Critic explains, travel agencies regularly receive offers from cruise lines that want to fill up ships that are just weeks or months away from departure.
Next: Timing is everything.
2. But you have to book at the right time
Even though looking at last-minute cruises requires you to throw your usual timeline out the window, it’s not a free-for-all. Cruise Critic reports that you should aim to book a last-minute rate between 60 and 90 days before departure. That period is the last call — for most cruise lines and on most itineraries — for travelers to cancel their reservations without penalty. So at that point, the cruise line will know how many cabins it has left. And it will reduce fares so that it can fill up those cabins. For that reason, you can often find the best deals just weeks before departure.
Next: Keep this in mind when you choose a departure port.
3. You should almost always pick a port within driving distance
Don’t know where to start when looking for deals on last-minute cruises? Cruise Critic offers a very valuable piece of advice. If you live within driving distance of a departure port, focus your search on itineraries that depart from that port. Last-minute flights to get to and from a distant port can add up because they aren’t nearly as inexpensive as last-minute cruises. But an impromptu road trip is much simpler and cheaper to plan.
Next: Figure out what you really want.
4. You have to know what you want
Bargains on last-minute cruises are great — unless they don’t get you what you really want. As Cruise Critic explains, you should “read each offer carefully because it will specify exactly what your purchase entitles you to.” When you read the fine print, take a close look at what kind of cabin you’ll get. “An inside cabin is no bargain if you suffer from claustrophobia,” Cruise Critic note. “Outside cabins on sale may have obstructed views. Some last minute deals are for guarantee cabins, for which you cannot request a cabin number or location.” Know what you want and don’t settle for the wrong deal.
Next: Figure out where you can compromise, too.
5. But you need to be flexible when it comes to last-minute cruises
It’s a good idea to know what aspects of the experience are non-negotiable for you or your spouse. But when you start to look for last-minute cruises, you’ll realize that you’ll also need to be flexible and remain open to compromise. Booking at the eleventh hour means that you’ll make your selection long after most other travelers have chosen their cabin and made their restaurant reservations. If you feel invested in getting the best cabin location, the most in-demand reservation, or the perfect suite, last-minute cruises may not be the way to go.
Next: Do this before you start shopping.
6. The best strategy is to set a budget before you start shopping
USA Today reports that you have to compromise to book last-minute cruises. But the publication advises that you should set your budget before you start looking for deals. “Once you investigate an offer, and after you’re excited about the trip, you may find that it is not within your budget,” the publication explains. “This is one area where you should not compromise.”
Next: Look at this kind of cruise ship.
7. Smaller ships are just as likely to offer deals as bigger ones
Many people want to travel on one of the biggest cruise ships. But as Matthew Kepnes of Nomadic Matt points out, you can probably find a cheaper fare if you go with a smaller ship. Kepnes explains, “Smaller boats tend to be less expensive since they offer fewer amenities and attractions.” When you start searching for a deal on last-minute cruises, don’t write off the smaller ships.
Next: Let the cruise lines make your shopping easier.
8. Making friends with your favorite cruise lines reduces the work for you
Shermans Cruise offers another valuable tip for finding bargains on last-minute cruises. You should make friends with your favorite cruise lines — and not just by following them on Facebook or Instagram. Instead, you should sign up to become a member of your favorite cruise lines’ past-passengers program. Members of those programs often get priority access to deals, including deals on last-minute cruises. And if you sign up for the cruise line’s newsletter, you’ll also receive alerts about sales and deals.
Next: Plan to travel during this part of the year.
9. Many deals on last-minute cruises happen during the shoulder season
Looking for voyages scheduled for the beginning and end of the season is another smart way to search for deals, according to Shermans Cruise. You can sometimes find great deals on last-minute cruises during peak travel times, like Christmas or spring break. But Cruise Critic reports that you shouldn’t count on it. Instead, bargains are easier to come by during the shoulder season. But don’t give up hope if you want that holiday itinerary or peak summer departure. Sometimes, those cruises don’t sell out as the cruise line expects them to, and you can find bargains.
Next: Think about choosing this type of itinerary.
10. Longer itineraries sometimes make better last-minute cruises
Shermans Cruise reports that you should also keep an eye out for longer itineraries when you search for deals. “The longer the cruise, the more chance of cancellations, leading to price breaks,” the publication explains. If you love cruises, you probably wouldn’t mind spending a few extra days at sea. And depending on the deals you can find, it may pay to clear your schedule and extend your vacation a little longer than you expected.
Next: Search for this kind of cruise.
11. ‘Repositioning’ cruises also make an excellent choice
Cruise Critic also has another useful piece of advice. When you search for last-minute cruises, keep an eye out for repositioning cruises, which cruise lines offer when vessels need to change regions and sail an uncommon route to get to a new home port. These voyages are usually long and include a lot of sea days, as well as a variety of ports. But do your research carefully. Because they begin in one port and end in another, you’ll need to pay for a potentially expensive airfare, which you should factor in when you calculate the cost of the trip.
Next: Take the cost of this into account.
12. Expensive airfare can cancel out your savings
Speaking of expensive airfares, you’ll need to take plane tickets into account when you look for deals on last-minute cruises. Flying in and out of different airports can increase the cost of your airfare. So can flying into a smaller regional airport, or flying through one airport that’s known to be more expensive than another. Even if you get a great deal on your cruise fare, you can cancel out those savings if you have to buy expensive plane tickets. Do your research before you commit to a cruise.
Next: Watch the headlines.
13. The news can influence deals on last-minute cruises
Another surprising strategy that can help you find bargains on last-minute cruises? Paying attention to the news. Shermans Cruise points out that “If there’s strife in a market — or negative press for a cruise line — people cancel and last-minute deals emerge.” The same things happen after major storms, and in places that experience instances of political unrest. “Right after the Paris terrorist attacks, for instance, river cruises from Paris were a huge bargain, and the French were happy to have tourism dollars from travelers who were willing to go immediately,” the publication explains.
Next: Stay aware of these.
14. You also have to watch out for cruise line fees
Cruise lines notoriously charge passengers a wide variety of fees. And annoyingly enough, those fees can add a significant amount of money to the cost of your trip. Cruise Critic recommends reading the fine print and looking for information on service fees, government taxes, and port charges. Those often aren’t included in the sale price, but you’ll need to account for them as you compare last-minute cruises. Also check whether the cruise line will require you to pay in full at the time of booking, or if your deposit is nonrefundable.
Next: Compare your options.
15. Comparison shopping will give you the best deal
Cruise Critic reports that cruise lines impose restrictions on travel agencies and the discounts they can offer. But agencies that sell cruises do have some authorized ways of accessing lower prices or offering booking bonuses. That means that it pays to do some comparison-shopping. Many travel agencies have pages specifically dedicated to last-minute cruises and eleventh-hour deals, but you may also want to call to see if they have any deals that they can’t list online.
Next: Keep this in order.
16. You — and your passport — have to be ready to go
If you see yourself taking advantage of deals on last-minute cruises, there’s one other detail you don’t want to forget. Make sure that you keep your passport up to date! Most travelers would feel disappointed to find an eleventh-hour bargain on an itinerary they’d love to sail, only to realize that they can’t take advantage of it because their passport is about to expire. Get up to speed on the government’s passport rules and file your renewal paperwork in advance to avoid missing out.
Read more: 5 Ways to Boost Your Vacation Happiness
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