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Cruise News: Catch the Wave of Winter Deals

“Wave season” brings bargains on major and specialty cruise lines. Plus, MSC’s new private island destination, and more.

Discounts, upgrades, reduced deposits, free drinks, onboard spending money—these and other offers are available now during major cruise lines’ biggest promotional period of the year. It's called “wave season.”

January to March is the cruise lines’ busiest booking period, and travelers can benefit from all kinds of deals on sailings throughout 2016 and beyond.

It’s smart to book early; you get the best choice of itineraries and accommodations. There used to be a waiting game for last-minute discounts close to the sailing date, but that has changed. New cruise line pricing strategies reward early bookers with the lowest fares and the most perks.

And lines like Carnival and Celebrity Cruises have best price guarantees. With Carnival, if you later find a better fare, you can request the difference in the form of an onboard credit or an upgrade. Celebrity will match the lower fare or apply an added-value offer such as a shipboard credit.

The crest of the wave

Current wave season offers include Celebrity’s four free perks for travelers booking suites. Those perks are a beverage package, prepaid gratuities, unlimited Internet use, and $150 to spend onboard. Suites come with butler service and access to a private restaurant and a concierge lounge.

Royal Caribbean’s “BOGO Further” is good for bookings made by Feb. 15. The second person in a stateroom gets 50 percent off their fare, while the third and fourth person in the room get a 25 percent discount. Deposits for all are reduced 50 percent. Plus, the line dangles credits ranging from $50 to $300 per stateroom that can be used for onboard purchases.

Holland America Line’s “View and Verandah” sale features free upgrades (from inside stateroom to ocean-view, ocean-view to verandah), up to 10 percent off shore excursions, and savings on Collectors’ Voyages (back-to-back cruises) if booked by Feb. 29. The deals apply to 2016 and 2017 sailings.

Seabourn’s “Signature Savings Event” reduces deposits, offers free upgrades, and gives additional savings of up to 15 percent on combination (back-to-back) voyages. Travelers get a $1,000 per suite shipboard credit for penthouse and premium suites and a $200 per suite credit for select Europe voyages.

Two of the newer river cruise operators, Emerald Waterways and Scenic, are promoting free international flights to some sailings in Europe and Asia.

Un-Cruise Adventures, a Seattle-based operator with small ships and active experiences, has wave offers for Alaska. Save $400 per couple on some weeklong adventures. Adding on the line's new Denali and Knik River land tour triggers an additional $250 per couple discount. Bookings must be made by March 1.

A new private island, a refurbished Empress, and shiploads of Dutch masters

MSC Cruises plans to pack its new private island destination in the Bahamas with a vast array of experiences. The company is shelling out $200 million to develop Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve. It will be larger than other private islands such as Disney Cruise Line’s Castaway Cay and Royal Caribbean’s CocoCay. MSC is bragging its Ocean Cay will have the longest beachfront, too—11,811 feet. That’s almost as long as Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana. Concerts will be staged in a 2,000-seat amphitheater, and restaurants and bars will feature Bahamian specialties. There will be ample water sports and reef-diving opportunities. The blueprints have a spa and wellness sanctuary with private bungalows and massage huts, a children’s club, and a venue for weddings and vow renewals. Ocean Cay is to be inaugurated in December 2017, when the new MSC Seaside sails in for an overnight stay after its naming by actress Sophia Loren at PortMiami.

A classic, midsized ship is sailing back into the Royal Caribbean stable in February. After a major refurbishment, Empress of the Seas will whisk you away on short cruises from Miami. The theme is “Party. Chill. Repeat.” No formal nights. Daily “Sunday” brunches with a free mimosa or Bloody Mary. The Latin-style Boleros lounge for salsa dancing and triple coconut mojitos. A new Las Vegas–style show, “Sequins & Feathers.” Four- and five-night getaways call at Cozumel and Costa Maya, Mexico; George Town, Grand Cayman; and Key West, Florida. In some unusual twists, embarkation starts at the early hour of 11 a.m., and stays in every port will stretch past sunset. On certain five-night cruises Empress of the Seas overnights at Cozumel. The ship has been sailing as Empress for Royal Caribbean’s Spanish subsidiary, Pullmantur. It began service for Royal Caribbean as Nordic Empress in 1990.

Holland America Line ships are already dripping in artwork. Now, reproductions of Dutch masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam will be popping up onboard as well. They’ll be displayed throughout the ships, while a new dedicated space will house art workshops. Rijksmuseum staff are going to present enrichment programs on certain cruises, and videos about the museum’s collections will air on in-cabin television. Another new Holland America partnership, with Koppert Cress, will plant microgreens in Koningsdam’s Culinary Arts Center. They’ll be snipped for the center’s farm-to-table dinners.

Anne Kalosh doesn’t count the cruises she’s taken, though there have been hundreds—including five years as a shipboard newspaper editor, sailing the world. She loves the experiences sea travel offers. Her byline has appeared in many major publications, and she’s on top of the latest cruise developments as the longtime U.S. editor for Seatrade-Cruise.com and Seatrade Cruise Review.