I have spent quite a bit of time lately researching a cruise to Alaska for myself. Too much time one could say. But I also learned that it's not necessary to spend as much time as I did looking for the big special discounts that don't really exist. Sure, there are some great sales and discounts out there but they are designed to get you to book “right now” and not later.
Everyone likes to list the retail price, the brochure price, the tariff or the price that no one would ever pay. Just like buying a car or any other big item, no one pays the highest price possible. These lower prices are the current normal discounted price for that cruise and everyone will have that price.
Once in a while a cruise line will offer a “ one day sale ” or a “ weekend sale ” that has reduced rates and then the rates actually do go up back up a bit when the sale is over. If the price looks good, go ahead and take advantage of the timed sales period.
I dug through at twenty websites on and off for nearly a week in my research for this Alaska cruise. I couldn't find even a dollars difference in price no matter what the hype promised. The only edge you can get is if the website or agent gives you something on their own, out of their own commission. Maybe a bottle of wine. Maybe a free hotel night. Maybe an onboard credit. Those are independent incentives that do make it worthwhile to look around. But when times are hard and profits are down, it's hard to find even those little things.
Whether it's 50% or 80% off, it doesn't really matter as it's the final price that counts in the end. Most of the time, you'll see an ad for say, $350 per person, and then you can't find that actual rate anywhere. And if you did, you'd probably be hanging off the edge of the ship. If you do find it, it is the absolute worst cabin on the ship. This may be fine and the best deal if you only sleep in your cabin and plan on enjoying every minute out and about. Otherwise, you'll probably step up the room a bit and pay more.
Finding the details
It can be difficult to get the real details on the internet or from anyone else about each cabin. For a large company that has a limited number of ships, I would think that by now they would have tons of details about every little thing on the ship. Unique pictures and video of it all. But no, they show the same stock photos for many different ships and cabins. Even with an expensive suite, they show one from one ship if you are lucky. The decors, colors and layouts are different on most ships. So what you actually get on another ship is far different than that tiny photo you saw. The details are vague. The websites are very hard to use. You call on the phone and they start reading the website to you or pointing you to a page that you've already gotten frustrated with for an hour. Sometimes I'm looking at websites for what seems like hours and then I accidentally stumble upon a really useful page that should have been shown to me at the beginning. Overall, Norwegian seems to have the most information buried on their website. You can find floorplans and decent category details for most of the Alaska cruises that I was looking at. They still use images that are way too small and limited in quantity. I just saw some of the same tiny images that I remember seeing back when I took my first cruise ten years ago. Holland America's website is terrible and tells you nearly nothing. They wanted me to create an account and give them information before I could get much information at all. That makes me go bye bye.
Reviews with a grain of salt
You need to find information from real people but it's easy to go overboard as well. Read some reviews but don't get wound up about them good or bad. You can find reviews for just about everything that say it is the best or worst. Don't even consider the brief reviews that are extremely negative or positive. Remember that more people will complain than take the time to praise. Some people have an agenda for another cruise line. Some people just like to complain. Some people have never been on a cruise before and were expecting something totally different. We don't all get to do the things just like the host of a show on the Travel Channel.
So skim over the general ratings and get a overall feel for it. If they are almost all good or bad, then it's pretty safe to consider that is the overall opinion. I try to find a few that are well written, intelligent, objective and look at the overall experience. There are probably always a few things I'll complain about either on the cruise or immediately afterward, which is when the reviews are written. But now years later, I have great memories of every single cruise I was on as any negatives have faded away. The good memories remain so none of it could have been that bad. At least for me. If I was on a cruise where a virus broke out, I'm sure I'd have a different memory. Speaking of which, Sometimes one particular problem will impact a bunch of reviews. Bad weather, a ship breakdown or a virus will cause a string of bad reviews on websites. So if the screen fills up with bad reviews, chances are that the dates will be around the same time as well. Pass on by those reviews and move on to another time period where things were more normal.
Search for the cruise line, ship name or cabin category name on youtube, twitter, flickr, Google video and any other social media type of website. You'll be surprised at the amount of photos and videos out there now. I wound up making my final Alaska cruise decision based on the personal videos out there that showed me exactly what my cabin and ship looked like. It helped me more than any of the official information out there.
When does the final price matter?
Some people like to say book early for the best fare. Yes and no. If you are dead set on a certain cabin or cruise date, then it may be best to book as soon as you can. If you are flexible, you can get some incredible deals at the last minute. This rule doesn't apply to the peak of summer like July 4th in Alaska. And for other destinations it would be around Spring Break, Christmas to New Years or summer seasons.
Prices vary by the week. As I looked for my cruise, the price was the lowest in the colder early season month of May and then went up almost every week into the summer and then went back down a little bit near the end of the season in the fall.
If you are tied to a certain week for a cruise, it will probably cost you more than if you can pick a cruise first and then work your schedule around it. I recently heard about an elderly citizens group that went on a cruise. They were disappointed that the ship was packed with kids running in front of them as they could barely get around and teens parting all night. Well they booked it during the middle of spring break time. If you don't want to be overwhelmed with kids screaming and bumping into you all the time, you can book a more expensive cruise or avoid spring break weeks and much of the summer months. Maybe avoid a Carnival Fun Ship that runs a ad campaign based on a water slide or whatever. Just take a few minutes and think about who is most likely to be around you, if that matters at all to you.
There are more and more cabin categories then ever before. It makes my head hurt looking at them all on certain ships. The majority of them are very similar and then it comes down things like a few extra square feet (which is a big deal on a cruise ship), a different bed configuration or a chair.
First you can look at the big picture and decide from these: inside or outside cabin, little window or big window, balcony or no balcony, suite or bigger suite.
I am of the opinion that a balcony is more important in Alaska than any place else. You only need to look out at the open ocean so many times in the Caribbean or on most cruises. In Alaska, however, you have the glaciers, the wildlife and the coastline.
After that, ask yourself how much time to do plan to spend in your cabin? How much time do you like to be alone or out being social? For most people, you'll spend very little time in your cabin. You will be out eating, drinking, playing, watching shows, in a port or watching the views from a deck lounge. If that is the case, save your money and get the best deal. You're only paying for the cabin to change clothes and sleep. Your cabin will be just a foot larger than the size of your bed and that's fine.
If you like to have a place to retreat and be alone or with your loved ones, then spend more for a larger cabin. Maybe you order room service and feel like you are not on a boat with two thousand other guests.
What is the exact square footage, where are the beds, is their a sleeper for flexibility, how big is the balcony, is there butler service or free perks included in a particular suite. All these little things can greatly impact the price.
Fees and numbers that pop up
The numbers that attract you to a price are not the end price. There will be port charges, taxes and fees added onto that total. So you need to step through the booking process a little bit to get the end total.
Remember that the cruise price does not include alcohol or soft drinks. On many lines now, you can buy a drink card that allows you to get unlimited sodas and that is a good deal if that is what you normally drink. Listen closely for a deal where you can buy a glass and get refills at a reduced price. Depending on your drink, this could save you some cash. On past cruises, I've seen this once or twice in a week where it was a really good deal and I still enjoy the glasses at home years later.
The best deals are for repositioning cruises. This is where they move the ships seasonally from one part of the world to another. From the Caribbean to Alaska for example, or even from one continent to another. Your travel is more complicated as you start and end in different places but the cruise itself is incredibly priced.
Seven days away. At the seven day mark or the week of the cruise, the push begins to fill those last rooms. You may get a call with an upgrade offer. It is easier to sell the cheaper cabins than the more expensive ones so they bump people up and then re-sell the lower end ones. If you have an eye on a suite level above yours, you may also call them and ask what is available for an upgrade.
Last minute. If you can go last minute or live somewhat close to a cruise port, watch out for the last minute deals. I've gone on 3 night cruises for as low as $150. When you consider food, entertainment and lodging, it's hard to beat that. The cruise ships need to be full one way or another. They need people on the ship when it leaves in order to buy drinks, excursions and gamble. If you are really disciplined, you can cruise without spending more than the fare.
More ships need more people on them so the deals have never been better. Go jump on a boat!