When it comes to cruise buying, everyone wants to get a good deal. And the truth is that you can get the same exact cruise for hundreds — and sometimes thousands — of dollars less just by purchasing your cruise at the right time and sailing during the right part of the season.
So when is the best time to book a cruise? Below, we’ll explain exactly the best time to buy.
Before we get too far, you should know that the biggest factor in how much you’ll pay depends on one thing: timing. When it comes to timing your purchase, there are two things to consider: when you actually buy the cruise and when the cruise departs.
Below, we go into detail on both fronts with some actual data to show you exactly when to time your purchase and set sail to save the most money.
Best Time to Book Your Cruise: As Far in Advance as Possible
When should you book your cruise? While the lure of last-minute cruise deals tempt people, data actually suggests that it’s a much better deal to book as far in advance as possible. (More on this in a moment…)
Why not book last-minute?
It seems like basic logic that if a cruise were about to set sail with empty rooms the company would slash prices to get people on the ship. After all, once a room leaves empty, it earns no money for the cruise line.
However, if every cruise line slashed prices last-minute, people would catch on and wait to book their trip. There would be no reason to book early.
This would be disastrous for the cruise lines, who want you to book as soon as possible. In fact, some lines refuse to drop prices any lower — and sometimes even raise prices — once the cruise gets within a few weeks of departure.
But where you can get burned waiting until last-minute is with cabin selection. If you wait until a couple of weeks before the cruise sails, then you’re going to be left with cabins that other passengers didn’t want. This usually means there are no or limited balcony rooms and the locations of available rooms are often undesirable.
In other words, by waiting you can actually see higher prices and less selection.
If all that weren’t enough to convince you to book as early as possible, you should also consider how much you can save.
The Numbers Behind the Best Time to Book
How much can you save by booking your cruise far in advance? Turns out, it can be hundreds of dollars on a cruise.
The table below shows the headline fare for one cruise over the next year and a half. This cruise aboard the Carnival Valor is a 5-day trip departing Galveston. Since the cruise is scheduled regularly for more than a year into the future we can compare the price of the cruise now with the price of the cruise at the same time next year.
As you can see, the same exact cruise aboard the same exact ship booked at the same time of year is considerably cheaper booked a year in advance.
Remember that the prices below are shown per person for an interior cabin, before taxes and fees. The savings are greater for two people per room and for higher-grade cabins.
As you can tell from the table above, the fares are consistently lower when you book a cruise departing later. A cruise leaving in September of 2017 (when this article was first written) is $125 more per person than the same trip departing one year from now.
Bottom line: If you want to get the cheapest deal, book well in advance of your departure date.
Another Reason to Book Early: Price Protection
Yes you typically find the same cruise for cheaper when you book early. There is another reason to book early, however. When you book early, you can often get price protection included in your fare.
How does this work? Many last-minute cruise fares (those sold within 30-45 days from the sail date) have their prices locked in. If the price drops after you book, then you won’t get your money back.
If you book well in advance (usually 90+ days), you can usually get some sort of price guarantee. Book a fare and if you see it drop later, you can call the cruise line and get the price difference either refunded or get the difference back as onboard credit.
There are rules and stipulations for each cruise line as to whether your fare is eligible to get refunded should the price goes down. You’ll want to make sure you read all the fine print of your fare before you buy. For instance, you can learn more about Carnival’s different fares here.
Is There a Best Month to Book a Cruise?
We mentioned earlier that you should book as early as possible. This gives you the most options as far as lowest prices, most cabins available, and price protection.
What about the actual date that you book your cruise? Is there a month or time of year (e.g. “Wave Season”) when the cruise lines offer the best sales if you book?
In our experience, there isn’t much difference in the time that you book — apart from booking early. For example, it’s not like cruise fares are cheaper if you buy in January versus if you buy in July.
This makes sense. Say there was a month or two when cruises were drastically cheaper for you to book, no matter when you sailed. If that were the case, passengers would catch on and wait until then to book.
That would lead to fewer people booking throughout the year; instead they would wait until that one time a year when cruises were cheaper. Obviously the cruise lines wouldn’t want this. That’s why there’s not a best time of year to actually buy your cruise. You can find deals throughout the entire year.
Instead, what will have the biggest impact on what you pay for a cruise is when you sail, not when you book.
Best Time to Sail for Cheap: Go When School Is in Session
Knowing the best time to purchase your cruise is just one part of the puzzle to getting the cheapest price. The other piece of that puzzle? When you actually set sail.
The simple rule of thumb is that prices are lowest when school is session.
When school is back in session, it’s much more difficult for families to set sail. That means cruise lines offer cheaper cruises in an effort to get more people on the ship during these times. So you’ll find the cheapest time to book a cruise is in the fall and winter.
Specifically, the following times of year see cheap fares:
- January and February
- September through November
- Between Thanksgiving and Christmas
Meanwhile, you’ll see the highest fares during summer, Spring Break, and the Thanksgiving/Christmas holidays.
(For more on the cheapest and most expensive days to sail, see our article analyzing more then 2,500 cruises to find the absolute cheapest day to take a cruise.)
How much can you save based on when you sail? Take a look at the chart below. We’ve charted the interior cabin prices for all the recent departures of the Carnival Valor, profiled earlier.
During the course of a year, the price of the cruise varied from a low of $279 (between Thanksgiving and Christmas) and a high of $709 (Spring Break) even though this is the same trip on the same ship.
In other words, if you book at the best time, your cruise can be a 60% discount off the peak price.
Again, the best time to book a cruise is for a time when school is in session. If you have to sail during summer or holidays, expect to pay a premium.
What About Waiting For Sales?
Now that you know the best time to book a cruise, there is one final thing to mention — cruise line sales. You might wondering if they have an impact on the best time to take a trip.
Frankly, cruise lines are similar to clothing stores in that they are always running sales. Sometimes it might be an incentive to book and receive onboard credit, or a sale where additional passengers sail for a discount, or a percentage off the total cruise.
Truth is, there rarely seems to be a difference in what you end up paying for a cruise based on sales. Deals run so often that cruises seem to be in a constant sale. If you are short on cash right now, cruise lines do run deals with lower deposits to book cabins from time to time. However, the overall price that you’ll pay tends to end up the same.
In other words, if you’re looking for the best time to book then focus on buying earlier and sailing when school is in session. Those factors play a much bigger role than constant sales offered up by cruise lines.
For more tips on finding cruise deals, be sure to read our 10 Rules for Getting the Best Deal on a Cruise.