Ideally for the ultimate in last minute cruising deals, you should show up at the dock, suitcase ready-packed and with a readiness to negotiate. These days, because of rule changes, this is no longer an option because by law, cruise companies must submit a final passenger manifest 24 to 48 hours prior to departure. But it is still more than possible to find seriously-good bargains if you follow a few well-tried suggestions.
Last minute cruises - defined roughly in industry terms as sailings that depart between several days and three months in the future - offer savings for anyone who finds planning a long way ahead difficult, of who have time on their hands to allow sponteneity.
But, like any low cost or discounted arrangement, there are pitfalls to avoid. Here, we list some of them amongst our suggestions for the ultimate, easy-on-the-wallet sea cruise.
1. Choose the right time to book
One of the best times to find last minute rates on a particular sailing is 60 to 90 days before departure. Why? This is the last call (for most cruise lines and itineraries - for some it's up to 120 days) for travellers to cancel existing reservations without penalty. At that point, the cruise line will know exactly how many cabins are left - and if there is more space available than the cruise line would like, it will quickly (and often heavily) reduce the fare so that it can sell out the ship.
2. Don't expect to travel at peak times
There's a reason why a cruise is being offloaded with little time to spare - and it's not because it is a hot seller. You are unlikely to find a last minute bargain on any Christmas or New Year sailings, nor in Easter week or over the August bank holiday. You might, but it would be unusual . On the other hand, you're very likely to find plenty of variety in the Mediterranean during low season (October through to April) or during the pre-Christmas (first week or two of December) and the post-Christmas (first two weeks of January) travel lulls. But never rule anything out. Some years, holiday cruises or peak summer sailings don't sell out like they usually do, and there are surprise bargains on normally popular itineraries.
3. Think about repositioning cruises
Unusual itineraries don't always sell well, leading to last minute deals. Among them are repositioning cruises, when vessels change regions for the season and so need to sail unusual routes to get to their new homeports. This can often be across an ocean or sea. These voyages are usually longer - maybe two weeks or so instead of seven days - and include lots of days at sea, as well as an unusual variety of ports, all at a reasonable price. There is a catch: Because these voyages begin in one port and end in another, passengers are responsible for picking up generally expensive one way or open jaw airfares. Still, if you can find a good deal on the flight, a repositioning cruise might be for you.
4. Always shop around - internet is ideal
Though cruise lines have restrictions on travel agency discounting, cruise sellers have authorised ways of accessing lower prices or offering different booking bonuses than their competitors. Shop around to look for the best deals. Many agencies have web pages focusing on last minute deals or weekly bargains emails. And if you don't see anything you like, call. Often agencies have low prices that they can only tell customers about over the phone.
5. Look at all the extras
How much of a bargain is a cheap cruise that requires you to spend twice as much on the flight? For instance, you'll typically see more Anchorage-to-Vancouver voyages on last minute lists than the more affordable round trip Seattle itineraries. Why? Air is typically cheaper on the latter, which sails into and out of the same city. The former has you flying in and out of different airports, including one in Alaska where fares are often high. Account for that cost before committing.
6. Read the terms and conditions
Read each offer very, very carefully because it will specify exactly what your purchase entitles you to. An inside cabin is no bargain if you suffer from claustrophobia. 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. Look carefully for information on service fees, government taxes and port charges, which often aren't included in the sale price. And check whether special offers mandate that you pay in full at time of booking or if deposits are non-refundable.
7. Be flexible
Booking late means you'll get what's left after all the early bookers have made their arrangements. You are less likely to get an in-demand suite or balcony cabin, a prime dinner table or seating, or a choice cabin location. If you don't have your heart set on specific details, you'll be more likely to enjoy your discounted cruise. And, if you want to plan a getaway at a moment's notice, we recommend making sure there are at least six months left before your passport expires - and renewing it in advance if not.
8. Drive, don't fly
It's easier to say yes to an eleventh-hour offer if you don't have to worry about buying a plane ticket. If you live within driving distance of a homeport, say Southampton, Glasgow or Newcastle, focus your deal search on those departures. Find a deal, and you can quickly plan a pre-cruise road trip to get there. Some hotels near major embarkation ports offer park-sleep-cruise packages.
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