How to save big on your next cruise

By Lew Toulmin
This item appears on page 69 of the July 2009 issue.

For years the cruise industry was a sellers’ market, with more eager passengers than cabins. But with the global economic crisis, many passengers are staying home, the cruising fleet is overbuilt and sellers are desperate for your business. This is good news if you can afford to go cruising, and at some of the discounts available you may be surprised how cheap it is.

In this column, I’ll describe how to research your cruise and some of the unusual discounts available. Throughout I will give examples on how to use the tools involved and have a great cruise at a great price.

Researching your cruise

First of all, be sure you know what you are looking for. Don’t buy a cruise just because it is 70% off the brochure price. Make sure it is right for you and yours in terms of the size of the ship, its atmosphere, the degree of formality and its reputation as well as the destinations visited, food and entertainment.

To find this out, one of the greatest research tools today is the Internet, which gives much more up-to-date information on prices and reviews than any book can. If you are not facile with computers and the Internet, don’t despair. Get your young relatives, or someone at your local library, community center or senior citizens’ center, to assist in your research.

For example, when my computer goes haywire, I go to our senior citizens’ center and there, for a small donation of $20, I get up to eight hours of time (!) from an expert volunteer who has never failed me yet.

Here are some Internet sites that are extremely useful.

• The site has details on over 150 ships and is searchable by ship, line, dates, region and ports.

Suppose you are keen to go to the fascinating Baltic on a well-regarded, traditional cruise line. You could search this website for the port of St. Petersburg, Russia, hit the button “Find the deals” and notice that Holland America’s Rotterdam sails there.

I did this and found an ocean-view cabin on a 12-night Rotterdam voyage 12 weeks away for $1,699 per person — 62% off the brochure price of $4,419. Savings of 30% to 70% off of brochure rates are typical for this website.

• The site allows you to search for and specify your cruise preference, then obtain quotes from up to 100 travel agents (and the website itself) who “bid” to offer you your chosen voyage at the lowest price. Bids are sent to you via e-mail (or you can click through on the website to find the best price).

I entered the target Rotterdam Baltic cruise and got six bids in two days. The best deal was the website’s own price: $1,475 for an ocean-view room, which was $200 less than even the price and 67% off the brochure price. Nice!

• The site provides narrative reviews of numerous ships. I found 16 reviews of the Rotterdam, including some that were incredibly detailed and went on for pages about each port visited and all the major public rooms on board. One detailed review actually described the exact voyage I was researching and so was very helpful.

These reviews were generally quite positive, so I was getting pretty certain that this voyage was in my strike zone.

• A site that is recommended by some cruise critics is, which lists over 4,800 reviews of cruise ships, with ratings in 42 categories such as “good for families” and “quality of cruise director.”

However, most of the reviews on this site are over six years old, which I think is too old to be very useful, hence I don’t recommend this site except to get a general idea of a ship.

The ship I was considering, Rotterdam, scored in the 90s and some 80s on most categories on this website, with the exception of “good for families,” where it got a low score of 74, but I would not be taking teenagers or children along, so this doesn’t bother me.

Discounts available

The usual “pricing model” used for most cruises is what is called “breakthrough pricing.” This complex, computerized model puts a price on each cabin in each month before the cruise at a price point designed to generate demand and deposits from buyers.

The price almost always goes up as the sailing date approaches, thus the cruise line in, say, August can tell the passenger interested in a voyage in December that “the price will never be lower than it is now and will almost certainly go up, so you better buy the trip right away.”

The key point is that statement is only half true. It is true that you can get really great deals, especially now that cruise lines are desperate, if you book nine to 18 months ahead. For example, in the voyage to the Baltic that I was researching, if I booked with Holland America 15 months ahead instead of three months, I could save about 23% on my fare.

But if I want to sail soon, there still are ways to get around the “breakthrough” ever-increasing- price model. The main ways are to book late and get specialty discounts, seasonal changes and upgrades.

“Book late” — This means that as the cruise date gets very close (usually fewer than 30 to 60 days away), the line will drop the prices to ensure a full sailing. If a cabin is empty as the ship departs the dock, that revenue can never be recovered by the line.

So if you are flexible and can stand the uncertainty, you should research four or five voyages you want, wait until the last minute and then grab the best deal at a wonderful price.

For example, if I were willing to dash to the Baltic immediately on only 11 days’ notice instead of three months later, I could have gotten a deal via on the Tahitian Princess, which was sailing on a 12-day Baltic voyage for just $999 for an ocean-view cabin or $699 for an inside cabin. These prices were a terrific 75% and 82% off the brochure price, respectively.

Amazingly, at the time of this writing, these prices were about half of those listed on the Princess Cruises website ( for the exact same voyage and cabin type. It often pays to buy from wholesalers and travel agents, not from the cruise line itself.

“Specialty discounts” — This means getting a discount for being over 55 years old, for being a firefighter, police officer, military person, teacher or past guest of the line or for working for an airline or for FedEx, DHL, UPS or another transport company or for organizing a group tour.

Specific discounts vary by line, and specialty retirees sometimes qualify, so check with your target line and also research your situation via your employer, union or association and via, which has special sections for these discounts.

“Seasonal changes” — This means picking an off season or “shoulder” season to go instead of high season. This is a great way to save and enjoy your trip more. Who wants to go to Southern Europe in August, for example, when it is hot and expensive, schools are out and everyone is crowding your target destinations?

“Upgrades” — This means that you may be able to raise the class of your cabin shortly before sailing or once on board, if the ship is sailing less than full. This is called a “soft sailing.” Call the line about 30 days before sailing and ask if there is a chance of an upgrade, either free or for a nominal sum. Also ask the purser as soon as you sail; there may be a few empty, better cabins due to people literally missing the boat!

Finally, as you can tell, all of this is very complicated. An excellent tactic is to do your research, pick out several target voyages, cabins and prices and then call two or three travel agents who specialize in cruising. Tell them about your research and the best prices you found and then ask them to beat your price.

Go and meet with the one who is the nicest and who beats your price by the highest amount. Ask him or her to explain all the wrinkles that you might have missed. Then have a great trip, knowing you have done your homework.

Lew Toulmin is the author of “The Most Traveled Man on Earth,” available for $16.95 plus $5 shipping from The Village Press (13108 Hutchinson Way, Silver Spring, MD 20906; www.themost