How early (or late) should you book a cruise for the best price?

Book your cruise too early and you risk paying through the nose. But book too late and you're limited in your cabin selection or may miss the lower-priced cabins altogether. So is there a perfect time? Experts from the cruise industry weigh in. 

Carlo Allergi/Reuters/File
The Royal Caribbean's cruise ship Explorer of the Seas arrives in Bayonne, New Jersey. Experts say it's best to book a cruise six to 12 months ahead for the best price, but you might be able to snag a better deal if you have the flexibility to wait a bit longer.

Getting the delicate balance right on booking a cruise can be tricky. Book too early and you risk paying through the nose. But book too late and you're limited in your cabin selection or may miss the lower-priced cabins altogether! This week we investigate whether there's a tipping point for when booking a cruise.

How Far in Advance Can You Book?

Cruise lines typically open bookings to cruises as early as two years in advance, and there are significant perks to booking early. Firstly, cruises usually offer bonus extras like onboard credit or dining and beverage packages to entice bookers to book early. Secondly, the earlier you book, the more choice you'll have when it comes to choosing your cabin. This is no small advantage, especially on cruises of a week or more.

Waiting Until the Last Minute is a Double-Edged Sword

There definitely are reductions in cost on last-minute cruise fares. We reviewed the number of Editors' Choice deals we listed for cruises in the last year and the results revealed a whopping 62% were within a month of the sail date.
But leaving your booking until the last minute poses many risks. Lower-price cabins, such as inside cabins, are the first to sell out, meaning that if you wait too long you may end up having to book a more expensive cabin grade. The other major disadvantage is that last-minute discount fares are often tied to so-called "guaranteed" cabins, meaning you don't get to choose your room. A final warning about booking a last minute cruise comes from Brian Clement, general manager ofTravelocity Cruise: "Many guests who wait until the last minute to book discounted cruises will lose all those savings in increased airfare."

Price Protection Policies FTW!

Get ready to love the cruise line price protection policy system. Most major cruise lines, including Norwegian Cruise Line, MSC, Carnival Cruises, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, and Royal Caribbean, operate a system which allows the customer to take advantage of a lower rate if it comes up after they've booked. This means that you can book your cruise well in advance, and then if you notice that the price has decreased, you can request to have your rate lowered.
With this tool in your belt, we recommend taking the advice of Carnival Cruise Lines' vice president, Jennifer DeLaCruz: "It's best to book a cruise six to 12 months out to ensure you get an optimum selection of cabin types, preferred itineraries, and special promotional rates."

What's the Catch?

Of course there are provisos for availing oneself of a cruise's price protection policy: the lower rate must be for the same category of room on the same cruise. This policy can't be used once the final payment has been made on the booking or after the penalty period has come into effect (usually 75 to 90 days before the sail date). Make sure you carefully read the fine print of the cruise before you book to check that your cruise does not exclude changes. And don't expect your cruise line to contact you to say the price of your cruise has dropped!

Flexibility is Your Friend

As with all things travel, the more flexible you can be, the better the bargain you can bag. If you happen to be one of those lucky unattached, unencumbered (unemployed?) people who can just drop everything and set sail, your best bet is to wait to book until a month before the date you intend to travel. The rest of us mere mortals who have to deal with leave requests, baby-sitters, scheduling conflicts, and just life in general, should book our cruises about six months in advance and then keep a savvy eye on the price to see if it drops.

Armed with this information, you should be able to say bon voyage to over-paying for your cruise.

Paula Kerrigan is the travel editor for DealNews, where this article first appeared. 

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