You’ve finally landed on the cruise you want to take—maybe it’s a winter expedition to Norway to see the northern lights or perhaps you’re keen on sailing around the Galápagos to see the islands’ impossibly curious animals—but now the question is, when should you book? Is it better to secure reservations far in advance or do you stand a better chance of snagging a deal if you wait?
We polled travel advisors who specialize in cruises to better understand when the best time to book a cruise is. Here’s what they had to say.
When is the best time to book a cruise?
While there’s not necessarily a wrong time to book a cruise, there are time frames where travelers can benefit from discounts and promotions.
Beyond during holiday periods such as Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Labor Day when there may be some flash sales, January and February are particularly good times to fire up the booking engine, as the first two months of the year are considered “wave season” in the cruising industry. It’s when companies are looking to base load their ships for the year.
“Wave season is when cruise lines announce incredible promotions in an effort to sell as much unsold space for the year as possible,” explains Jeremy Hall, a travel advisor at Cruise Vacations International.
Those promotions could include free stateroom upgrades, highly reduced cruise fares, discounts on deposits, free sailings for children, complimentary airfare, and discounted beverage packages, among other offers.
The best “wave season” deals of 2023
Since we’re in the heart of wave season, here are some of the best cruise deals we have spied during this enticing promotional period:
- AmaWaterways: Complimentary two-, three-, or four-night pre- or post-cruise land package on select Europe and Egypt sailings in 2023
- American Queen Voyages: Up to $2,500 off per stateroom and free economy-class round-trip flights on select 2023 voyages.
- Azamara: Save 40 percent on select staterooms and receive a $300 onboard credit for select sailings departing between February 28, 2023, and April 3, 2024 (such as a nine-night Mediterranean voyage for $937 or a seven-night sailing along France’s coast for $939).
- Emerald Cruises: Up to $1,000 off per couple on European river cruises in 2023 (including those on the Danube, the Douro, and the Rhine).
- Holland America Line: A free balcony upgrade and up to 30 percent off select sailings (such as a 14-day Indonesia odyssey for $2,099 and a 13-day circumnavigation of Japan for $2,349).
- Hurtigruten Expeditions: Up to 40% off for Galapagos; up to 30% off for Alaska, Iceland, and South America; and up to 25% off for Antarctica.
- Lindblad Expeditions: Lindblad is offering a discount on a second “poles” sailing—if you book an Arctic expedition (most of which take place in the summer), this company will give you 20 percent off an Antarctica sailing (which take place in the winter). Both departures need to occur between January 2023 and March 2024, with bookings made by April 30, 2023.
- MSC Cruises: Kids sail free, up to $200 in on-board credit, and cruises from $119 per person (such as a four-night Bahamas trip and a three-night sailing to see Saudi Arabia and the Red Sea, both for $119) are all on offer from MSC.
- Quark Expeditions: Up to 45 percent off an Antarctica sailing and up to 35 percent off an Arctic sailing
- Seabourn Cruises: Save up to 25 percent on expedition cruises and 15 percent on ocean voyages for select 2023 and 2024 sailings.
- Star Clippers: Guests who book any sailing (like a seven-night Costa Rica and Panama sailing or a week-long Greece and Türkiye trip) between now and November 2024 will receive a $230 credit per person, which can be used on drinks, Wi-Fi packages, spa services, excursions, or items from the gift shop.
- Uniworld: Save up to $1,500 per person on select 2023 voyages (like an eight-day sailing to see castles along the Rhine River or 11 days in the rain forest rivers of Peru).
- Virgin Voyages: Buy one sailor and get the second sailor 60% off, plus up to a $600 complimentary bar tab, depending on the voyage length.
How far in advance should you book a cruise? Is it better to book early?
Travelers who are less concerned about deals and more focused on a specific destination or making sure they get choice accommodations may want to take a different approach to booking a cruise. Cruise companies open up bookings for sailings as early as two years in advance. While that might sound like plenty of time to mull over sailings, William Kiburz, a travel advisor at Coronet Travel, says the earlier you book, the better, especially when it comes to expedition-style or specialized cruises, as well as sailings to Alaska, as those are itineraries that often sell out more than a year in advance.
Samantha Robichaud, a travel advisor and owner of Fabulous Adventures Travel Company, says that booking early also means travelers have more choices when it comes to travel dates, staterooms, specialty dining reservations at preferred times, and shore excursions.
Todd Smith, owner of AdventureSmith Explorations, says that if you want to go on an expedition cruise, which typically involves a smaller ship, it’s imperative to book early.
“Booking last minute also means you get what remains available instead of the best trip, ship, cabin, and program for you,” Smith says.
Another reason to try to book early: the cabin price is usually lower.
“Cruise fares tend to rise as the time before departure draws closer,” Hall says. “Even though you may see a new promotion announced for the cruise you booked six months ago, chances are you got a better deal because the cruise fare more than likely went up before that new promotion was announced.”
There are often perks for guests who book early. For example, Holland America Line offers an early booking bonus that allows guests to enjoy all the benefits of the standard “Have It All” package, including shore excursion and specialty dining credit, plus included gratuity, a low-price guarantee, and upgrades to premium Wi-Fi and an “elite” beverage package, which includes all premium spirits, beers, and wines.
Is it possible to score last-minute cruise deals?
If pricing is more important than preferred accommodations, travelers can opt to wait until closer to the departure date to see if they can take advantage of any last-minute offers. It’s a bit of a gamble—you risk the ship selling out. And, in the eleventh hour, flights to the port might be more expensive.
To find deals, travelers can sign up for email newsletters from various cruise lines, as the companies often send out updates on flash sales. You can also search the cruise line websites—some, like Holland America and Uniworld Boutique River Cruises, have pages on their website dedicated to last-minute deals.
Hall says that his company typically sees more last-minute deals with river cruises than ocean cruises. He also noted that last-minute deals usually involve added amenities or a waived single supplement rather than a discounted fare.
Will working with a travel advisor get me a better deal?
“There are so many ways to get a good deal on a cruise, and nobody knows better than an experienced travel advisor,” Hall says. “There are so many promotions, amenities, loyalty programs, and pricing structures these days—it makes finding the best deal a daunting task. Your travel advisor will know precisely how to narrow down the search field to find the right cruise and deal for you.”
Robichaud echoes that sentiment, saying that travel advisors can leverage relationships with cruise companies to get discounted rates or free add-ons. And Smith notes that agencies that book a lot of cruises often receive free upgrades for their clients as an incentive from cruise lines aiming to build up a loyal network of travel advisors who sell and book their cruises.
Are there better times for families or groups to book a cruise?
Only certain ships and expeditions offer accommodations large enough to fit three or four people, so groups and families looking to stay in the same cabin should book as soon as possible because options may be limited.
As Robichaud notes, rooms that can accommodate more people tend to fill up fast during holidays and school breaks; if travelers have a specific sailing in mind, it’s essential to book early.
Judy Perl, president of Judy Perl Travel, adds that for parents looking to travel around school schedules, it’s worth noting that spring break is often the cheapest for cruising, and summer break offers more destination options. The holiday season is always significantly more expensive, she says.
How to bid on a cabin upgrade
Just as some airlines offer the opportunity to bid for a business- or first-class seat upgrade, many cruise companies offer travelers the opportunity to bid on stateroom upgrades.
Some cruise lines will email confirmed customers before their voyage, offering them the chance to bid on a higher class of cabin at a steeply discounted price. Travelers suggest a price they’re comfortable with spending, and if the cruise company accepts the offer, guests will be charged the amount of their bid and receive an updated booking with their new room details. Robichaud says she just got back from a Virgin Voyages sailing where she was supposed to have a Sea Terrace stateroom but won her bid for a Mega RockStar suite (complete with daily spa access, a bottomless in-room bar, a personal butler, and access to a members-only sundeck). Similarly, some companies, like Uniworld Boutique River Cruises and Celebrity Cruises, have dedicated landing pages on their websites where guests can bid.
When bidding for an upgrade online, be aware that you can’t cancel your bid once accepted (but you can cancel or change the offer before acceptance).
Upgrades are also available after you’ve boarded the ship. Perl recommends that people keen on a larger room go to the purser’s office and inquire if there have been any cancellations or no-shows. “Once the ship leaves the dock, typically, it is no longer under revenue management control back at headquarters,” Perl explains. “The ship can make their own pricing decisions about what to charge to maximize the yield on their available inventory.”
What’s worth it and what isn’t in terms of cruise add-ons?
Amenity add-ons, like beverage packages, on-board credit, Wi-Fi, laundry service, and included gratuities, only have a value if you are going to use them. A person who drinks only one glass of wine each day or someone who likes to disconnect from tech on vacation may find little value in an unlimited drinks package or premium Wi-Fi, respectively. It’s important to know the value of these items for you and purchase accordingly.