Tips on last-minute cruising

By Lew Toulmin
This item appears on page 59 of the April 2012 issue.

(First of two parts, go to part 2)

Last-minute cruising is the technique of securing a great price on a cruise by making your reservation just 30 to 90 days before the sailing.

If you have a target cruise line, check what its deadline is for beginning to drop prices to the “last-minute” level; the average date is 60 days before sailing. At that point, the cruise line and the smart computers that manage its “revenue enhancement system” become highly motivated to sell off the remaining cabins, since an empty cabin is a loss that can never be recouped (hence the oft-used term “distressed cruising” — the cruise line is nervous and distressed).

Remember, what we are talking about here is a product, a cabin, for which the “marginal cost” is virtually zero. All the crew has been or will be paid, the food all has been bought and stored, the fuel is purchased and so on. So the extra cost — or what an economist would call the “marginal” cost — of adding you to the passenger list and carrying you is negligible.

But if the cruise line can get you aboard to fill that otherwise-empty cabin, then virtually ALL the thousands of dollars you pay is extra revenue, which, when set against the already sunk costs, “drops right to the bottom line” and creates extra profit for the line.

And be aware that on most ships, the cruise line has a massive mortgage of perhaps $500 million to $750 million that it is very keen to pay off. So you actually have a lot of leverage during the “distressed” period. Using the last-minute cruising technique, it is possible to save up to 80%-85% off published brochure rates.

If you live near the Miami/Ft. Lauderdale area or can get there quickly, you have the best access to excellent last-minute sales, since the cruise volume there, as measured by the number of passengers sailing, is the highest in the world.

For 2012, it is forecast that Miami will host about 4.0 million cruise passengers, while Ft. Lauderdale/Port Everglades will host about 3.6 million, for a staggering total of 7.6 million cruise passengers sailing from southern Florida. Secondary but still attractive markets are New York; Los Angeles; Vancouver, BC, and Southampton, England.

Remember that if you have to fly to the debarkation point of your last-minute cheap cruise, your cruise savings may be negated by the high airfare you’ll have to pay to buy a last-minute flight. Those airline computers are just as smart as the cruise line computers!

Some of the highest savings involve cruises in unusual places that are less popular among the set that is focused on the traditional Caribbean and Alaskan markets.

For example, 60 days from the day I am writing this, a 20-day voyage will embark from Hong Kong to Dubai on Seabourn Quest, rated by virtually all guidebooks (and me) as one of the best cruise ships in the world, and the published brochure rate of a suite on board is a whopping $33,775 per person. Yikes! Would you pay that much? I wouldn’t.

But what if the rate were discounted by 82%, down to $5,599? Still a lot but much better! This fare included all drinks, meals and gratuities but not airfares.

The way I got to this deal was to go to, then click on “Cruise Lines” in the blue bar at the top of the page and select the cruise line I was interested in (Seabourn). Next I pulled down the region I was interested in (Asia) and clicked on the “Show Me the Deals!” button.*

Up came a page with a long list of deals, showing for each (from left to right) the voyage number, the number of nights, the departure date, the arrival date, the cruise line and ship, the ship’s rating on a six-star scale, the brochure price, the website price, the percentage of savings and the status of the available deals.

I then identified the best deal, in percentage terms. I made a note of the voyage number (on the left-hand side of the page), in case I wanted to check back later and recheck the price or get more details. (If you enter this “FastDeal” number on the homepage (upper-left side), when you return to the website you can go straight to the details of the voyage.)

Surprisingly, I just checked the Seabourn website, and they were offering this same last-minute cruise package for $6,699, which is $1,100 more (or 19.6% higher) than the Vacationstogo price! Often, dealing with third-party sellers, even at the last minute, can be a good strategy.

Note that these types of cheap fares are often listed as “subject to availability.” Be sure to demand that exact advertised fare and cabin, and don’t allow yourself to be “bumped” up in fare or “switched” to a lesser cabin for the same price or to a different sailing that doesn’t match your plans.

Remember, you have been offered an item, in writing, that you want at a particular price. Any change being suggested in date, cabin or destinations is likely being proposed because it is beneficial to the seller, not you, and will generate more profit for the seller. So stick to your guns or use the proposed change to ask for an even greater discount.

Of course, if the seller offers you a terrific deal that meets all your criteria, grab it immediately.

As you can see, buying a cruise is very similar to buying a rug in a souk!

In undertaking your search for a last-minute cruise, don’t seek out the newest and most popular ships. Don’t focus on really attractive “theme” cruises with big-name speakers or famous chefs on board. Don’t choose maiden voyages or voyages where two famous ships cruise in company. Don’t try to go at the height of the season.

All those voyages are likely to sell out completely (even in this bad economy), leaving you stranded at home. At best, you may get aboard but have an unattractive cabin near the engine room or up in the pitching bow.

In terms of timing, try to avoid any holiday weekend when the typical passenger family may have a day or two off work that will allow them to escape on a cruise without having to use as much vacation leave.

I have nothing against families, of course. It’s just that we Americans have, on average, very few vacation days when compared to Europeans, so there will be a very high demand for American-oriented cruises that stretch over a holiday weekend. This demand will reduce availability and decrease your last-minute bargaining leverage.

Also avoid periods like June, July and August when the kids are out of school and droves of families are more likely to book a cruise, again reducing your leverage.

Good target times for a cheap last-minute cruise vary depending on the target cruising area. For example, if you’re trying for an Alaskan, Baltic or Northern European cruise, focus on the “shoulder seasons,” when the weather is colder, in May or October. (As most travelers know, a “shoulder season” is the period just before or after a high season, high season being when most people are traveling. In shoulder season, prices are set lower than in the high season but higher than in the low season.)

If you want to cruise to Bermuda from the US East Coast, try the shoulder seasons of April/May or September/October. For the Mediterranean or Northern Asia, try April, September, October or November. For the Caribbean, investigate late April through May and September through early January; however, for the Caribbean, avoid any weeks with holidays.

For South American cruises below the Caribbean or for African cruises, there are few enough of these that there really is no shoulder season. Most voyages will be designed simply to take advantage of the best season for good weather. On the other hand, fewer people are drawn to these more exotic destinations, so you may have some last-minute leverage due to low demand.

In any case, pick a cruise that has a longer length than the typical family cruise of one week or 10 days or choose an unusual repositioning cruise. (A “repo cruise” is one where the ship shifts its cruising ground from one ocean or region to another, for example, from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean.)

Again, I have nothing against families; I’m just trying to understand the market forces of supply and demand and pick a cruise that will have lower demand than usual in order to increase my chances of having last-minute bargaining leverage.

One useful technique is to buy a “run of the ship” or a “guarantee” cabin. With this ticket, you are guaranteed a cabin on the ship, usually specified as an inside cabin or an outside cabin, but you don’t know the cabin number and its exact location until the sailing date. Thus you are more likely to have a cabin with an obstructed view or only a small window or porthole or to be in a noisy location.

If careful, you may achieve significant savings, and if the ship is not full you can try for an upgrade by approaching the purser as soon as you get on board. (Being a ship’s purser is the last job on Earth that I would want!)

Some passengers seem to think that getting a cabin upgrade is a right, and they make a fuss if they don’t get upgraded. Of course, there is no such right, and, in fact, you are less likely to get such an upgrade if you received a last-minute low fare. However, if your cabin has a demonstrable problem that cannot be immediately fixed, then it is quite reasonable to politely request a cabin change or upgrade.

Next month, I’ll cover the cruise line air department, discounts based on where you live, and employing an expert, certified cruise travel agent.

*First-time visitors must register (for free) as a member of Vacations To Go. After submitting your name, e-mail address, etc., the next page shows group discounts you might be eligible for. You can click any options that apply and then click on “Save my selections and show me all the Deals” or you can skip that and click on “I prefer not to provide more information. Take me to the Deals.”

Go to part 2 »