There are lots of factors that come into play when booking a cruise. What’s the best way to book it? When do you have to put down a deposit, and how much? When is your money at risk if you change your mind? Who is eligible for discounts on a cruise fare? When is the best time to book?
Remember: Don't be afraid to ask questions: Every passenger was a first-time cruiser at some point! Our Super Guide to Booking a Cruise should help you take the worry and confusion out of what should be a hassle-free process.
Sections in this Guide:
- How to book your cruise
- What a cruise fare covers
- How much moolah you have to put down
- Special pricing for qualifying individuals
- Other ways to save money on your cruise
- Due dates for deposits and final payments
How to book your cruise
Some 24 million people will cruise this year. People book a cruise reservation in three basic ways:
- Travel agent: Though it seems old-fashioned, the truth is that finding a good travel agent can save you money (typically they make their earnings from cruise line commissions and don’t charge you anything) and provide you with someone in your corner if something goes sideways. See 10 reasons why a travel advisor can get you a better travel deal.
- Book with the cruise line: Some consumers think they’ll save money by cutting out the "middleman" and booking directly with a cruise line. That’s rarely the case. Cruise expert Stewart Chiron (the Cruise Guy) says in this interview that "there isn't one advantage to booking directly with a cruise line. You'll never receive the professional and objective advice that an experienced cruise agent can provide. A true cruise specialist can match you with the best ship and deal. Beware of cruise line and agency 'order takers,' who are often neither well informed nor experienced!"
- Online travel agency (OTA): Lots of folks use services like Expedia, Priceline or Travelocity to book hotel reservations online, or Orbitz for flights. Because cruises are more complex, you rarely book a cruise entirely online and usually wind up talking with an OTA call center operator who may not know much about the cruise you’re interested in.
While any of these options may work for you, we founded Cruiseable because we saw that these traditional routes were overlooking the needs of today’s modern, tech-savvy traveler. So we offer free research & planning tools — including our popular Bliss Filters, Destination and Price Filters (in the top navigation) and Compare Cruises tool — and, when you have an idea of the cruise experience that’s right for you, we connect you with an experienced travel advocate (travel agent) to get you the best price and value for your vacation dollar. So you get the best of both worlds: empowering, mobile-friendly research tools and a live expert who often can get you a better price or help you find a cruise you’ll really love.
Go ahead and take control of the price, date and destination filters for cruise itineraries on Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Princess Cruises. You can do similar searches for 33 cruises lines on Cruiseable.
What a cruise fare covers — and doesn’t cover
- Your sailing (of course!)
- On board activities (pools, whirlpools, games, contests, stargazing)
- Entertainment (stage productions, comedy acts, aerial acts, piano/jazz/blues)
- Kids' programs (on many ships)
- Access to the fitness center (generally)
- Water & iced tea (sometimes)
Here's what's not included in your base price:
- Shore excursions, tours & entrance fees
- Cocktails, sodas, bottled water
- Spa treatments & sauna
- Internet access
- Dry cleaning & laundry
- Dining at specialty restaurants
- Most enrichment classes (fitness, yoga, cooking, computer instruction)
- Private pool cabanas
- Onboard gift shop
- Medical services
- Port fees (charged by governments and port authorities)
- Taxes (a reputable travel agent will spell out all fees and taxes in advance)
There are some exceptions to the rule, naturally: On luxury cruises, all or most of these extras are included in all-inclusive pricing. And shore excursions are often included in river cruises and Viking Ocean Cruises sailings.
While all of these expenses can add up, you should know that cruises are still less expensive than comparable vacations at a hotel or resort. And to help you keep costs down, here are 15 tips on how to save money on a cruise.
How much moolah you have to put down
First-timers should know that your cruise bill will come due in two parts:
- Your base cruise fare, which covers the cost of your stateroom, meals, entertainment, etc. You pay this in advance, often 60 to 90 days before the cruise (see part 6 below).
- Expenses incurred on board, such as drinks, spa treatments, gift shop purchases, tips for the crew, etc. All of this is added to your shipboard account and your credit card is charged when the cruise ends.
Most people reserve a cruise six to nine months before the sailing date — sometimes more than a year out, especially for new ships or popular itineraries. So do you have to pay your full fare in advance, as you do with an airline flight?
No. But you do have to put down a deposit to lock in your price and reserve your room.
Your first required payment is the deposit. Each cruise line’s deposit requirements vary, but the general idea is that you'll lock in the price and choose an available cabin for a specific sailing date.
The amount of the deposit varies by cruise line — see below for a summarized list. For example, a luxury cruise line like Crystal Cruises charges 20% of the total cruise fare of the stateroom. Royal Caribbean requires guests to make a deposit that is based on the length of the cruise and the type of stateroom reserved (see below). Suite categories require a double deposit (full fare for you and your traveling partner) because there are a limited number of suites.
All reservations are subject to cancellation if payments are not received by the cruise line’s payment schedule. Your travel agent will alert you when a payment date is coming up. There are plenty of opportunities for cruise guests to get their deposit money back, but if the deadline listed on the reservation has passed, then a portion of the money will be forfeited to the cruise line. See below for each cruise line's deposit & refund policies.
Special pricing for qualifying individuals
There are lots of opportunities for special pricing to lower your cruise fare. For example, most cruise lines offer promotions with discounts or savings for:
- Seniors (age 65 and over)
- Members of the military (including National Guard) or veterans
- Residents of certain states
- Airline employees and their families
- Past passengers and members of cruise line loyalty programs
If you're part of any of these groups, tell your travel agent and she'll let you know if there are discounts available for the cruise you're considering — you'll need to claim these discounts at the time of booking, not later. If you qualify, the cruise line will require documentation. (Not all travel agents know how to take advantage of these discounts; at Cruiseable, we do.)
Other ways to save money on your cruise
Some final tips on how to save money when booking your cruise:
- Book early. Book your cruise as far out as you can. Some of the most popular itineraries such as Europe river cruises and Alaska require bookings far in advance with travel savings that can amount to thousands of dollars. Take note that "early saver" fares will save you money, but the deposit is non-refundable.
- Last-minute deals: Some cruise lines offer discounted rates to boost specific sailings where bookings are not meeting their forecasts. Check sites like CruiseDeals for these. But these are rare. Cruise ships sail at an average of 104% capacity (double occupancy), and cruise lines like Royal Caribbean have made a point of sailing with empty staterooms rather than selling them at a discount (for one thing, it's unfair to passengers who paid full fare).
- Travel during the off-season: You'll find great bargains by being flexible with your vacation dates, especially if you're willing to travel during off-peak season.
- Loyalty: If you've sailed with a cruise line before, you probably belong to their loyalty program and thus can get a discount of $50 per person or more for sticking with them on your next cruise.
- Travel packages: Another reason for using a travel advocate is that they can often combine your cruise fare with air fare and a pre- or post-hotel stay for even greater savings.
Due dates for deposits and final payments
When do you need to make an initial deposit? (Generally when you book your room.) How about final payment? (It varies, but usually 60 to 90 days before the cruise.) And what happens if you need to cancel your vacation?
Here's some good news: Say you make a reservation for that dream cruise a year from now, and three or four months beforehand something comes up or circumstances change. (The deposit you put down came to about one-fourth to one-fifth of the cruise fare for each person.) Do you lose your deposit?
With a couple of exceptions you get a full refund if you cancel at least 90 days before the sailing date (though some cruise lines do impose a modest service fee, eg, $50). So make a reservation now and have the freedom to change your mind later. We've put together this extensive new resource for Cruiseable readers:
This should come in handy for both cruise passengers and travel agents.
I hope this Super Guide to Booking a Cruise proves useful. Let me know if you have any questions!
In our series Smart Money on a Cruise
- Guide to all-inclusive pricing on cruise ships
- Complete guide to tipping on a cruise
- Cheat sheet for deposits, payments & refunds
- 3 best travel rewards credit cards
- 15 tips on how to save money on a cruise
- Patti's 7 money-saving tips for cruise travelers
- Walter's 8 money-saving tips for cruisers
- Interline: Travel & cruise discounts for airline employees