Tips on last-minute cruising

By Lew Toulmin
This item appears on page 62 of the May 2012 issue.

(Part 2 of 2, go to part 1)

In part one of my discourse on last-minute cruising, I covered timing, where to sail from, researching via the Internet and using the laws of supply and demand to your advantage. This time I will discuss the cruise line air department, discounts based on where you live, and employing an expert, certified cruise travel agent.

According to my sources, it probably doesn’t pay you to use the cruise line’s air department to try to save money on last-minute (or other) airfares.

“You’re thinking about the 1980s,” said one experienced and certified cruise consultant who has 28 years in the industry and serves on cruise line advisory committees but, for this article, preferred to remain anonymous.

The source continued: “In those good old days, the cruise lines would block a large group of seats for passengers, get a discounted fare and pass all or most of that discount on to the passengers. That usually doesn’t happen anymore. Now you pay the standard airfare plus a ‘vigorish,’ an extra fee for the cruise line’s handling.”

Having said that, I should note that, recently, the air department of Voyages of Discovery was enormously helpful in making it clear to a recalcitrant airline that I really had paid my fare and should not be left stranded in Ukraine, thus literally missing the boat!

Many cruise lines have last-minute (and sometimes regular) cruise fare discounts available, depending on which state or province you live in. For example, the Royal Caribbean website says that “residents of particular states… may be eligible for Exclusive Rates.” The site then asks you to enter your US state or Canadian province.

This odd discount is offered due to the marketing theory that it is good to have a high dispersion of passengers coming from a wide geographic area, since they will provide “word of mouth” marketing among their friends and neighbors. “Word of mouth” marketing is valuable yet costs the cruise line nothing, hence the discount.

If you have residences in different states, try to obtain your last-minute fare using each of these states. I tried this in pricing a last-minute Caribbean-cruise fare on Allure of the Seas using my primary Maryland home and then my winter abode in Alabama.

I was confident that the Alabama rate would be cheaper, since relatively few Alabamians go cruising. In fact, the price for the “Maryland” cabin was $140 cheaper than the exact same “Alabama” cabin for the same cruise! Perhaps the Royal Caribbean computer software wanted to have more affluent Marylanders cruising.

If you use this second-residence strategy, bring a utility bill or other proof of residence on the cruise with you.

In researching last-minute cruises, build a relationship with a cruise travel agent certified by the Cruise Line International Association, or CLIA. Describe your preferences and explain to the agent well in advance your plan to do a “distressed cruise” (one in which you take advantage of price drops 30 to 90 days before a sailing). As the magical 90-day date passes, call the agent every few days to see what deals in your target region he (or she) is finding.

If the agent comes up with what appears to be an attractive deal, double-check his/her work by studying a few websites like, or If you come up with a much better price for the exact same cabin and sailing, then ask the agent to try to quickly meet or beat that price.

It is a common practice to pay an agent with whom you have a relationship a certain minimum amount to search for last-minute deals. This is known as a “book-to-go deposit.”

In this case, you put down, say, $100 or $200, and if the agent books the cruise, the payment goes toward your deposit and payment, but if you book your own cruise based on your own research, then the agent keeps the payment for his/her time spent.

In dealing with an agent, you want to give him/her reasonable compensation for time spent doing research for you, but you also want to verify that you are, in fact, getting a bargain. That is the goal of all this, after all.

If your travel agent’s price is a tad more expensive than the one you found, see if you can get an “onboard credit” or “shipboard credit” from the agent. Usually in the range of $100 to $300, such a credit can be applied to your shipboard account to offset the costs of excursions, drinks and other purchases, and most cruise travel agents have access to these neat goodies.

For last-minute cruising, you obviously need to be able to pack your bags and take off with just a few days’ or weeks’ notice. Don’t let the suspense of “distressed” travel distress you. Treat it like an adventure and, as you walk up the gangway, savor the fact that you saved a bundle.