Booking a cruise holiday can feel like a bit of a minefield. There are so many decisions to make. Which cruise operator should you choose, which deal suits you best, when's the best time to book, and how can you avoid any hidden pitfalls. Oh, and is the best bargain necessarily the best holiday anyway?
Take our top tips and cut through the confusion.
Know your cruise providers
If you're new to this type of holiday, don't be daunted, you'll find it's easy to mug up on who's who.Among the big boys for the UK market are cruise lines such as P&O Cruises, Cunard, MSC Cruises and Princess Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Lines, Fred. Olsen, Royal Caribbean, Seabourn and Cruise & Maritime Voyages. Among the cruise deals sites, check out Iglu Cruise, Planet Cruise, Cruise Critic, ROL Cruise, Cruise Nation, Bolsover Cruise Club, and Cruise Connections. CLIA (www.cruiseexperts.org), the cruise lines' trade association, has a useful New To Cruise section on its website, which gives information on the different cruise companies (and there are many many more than the biggies I've listed above), offers the option of locating a cruise agent near you, and provides a guide to the different types of cruise and destinations. Cruise Timetables is another useful site to know about for planning. It gives departure dates and points, as well as ports of call, for different scheduled cruises, plus information and maps for major ports.
If you want to travel during a peak period, such as the summer holidays, or just want to enjoy the widest choice of cruises, it's essential to grab a cabin early while there's still availability. But this doesn't mean you should wave goodbye to the idea of making savings. A number of cruise lines incentivise early bookers with their best prices. And when we say early, we mean early; some people book a year in advance. You might also find extra benefits if you're among the first off the blocks, such as on-board credit and cabin upgrades, even BOGOFs. As a rule, the longer you wait (even just a few months), the higher the price is likely to be. But don't despair if you booked early and have seen the price drop since, check the small print. Is your deposit still refundable? Do the maths, you may find you can rebook at a lower price or, if you're feeling bold, negotiate a discount or added extras.
Sign up for newsletters
It's a no-brainer. Sign up for all the newsletters of the major cruise lines and forums (and specialist media), because these often push empty cabins, and flag up sales, deals and added extras. Do a bit of sleuthing – are any new ships about to be launched? If so, see if the cruise line in question is offering deals on some of its other vessels, which can happen.
Trawl cruise and general deals sites
If you don't mind being flexible with both dates and options, you'll find there's still plenty to consider. Now you know who we're talking about, get on those sites and look for a bargain. But don't make them your only port of call, do a sweep of the tour operator sites, too, such as Travelzoo, and even general deals sites, such as Travel Supermarket and Groupon. Insiders will tell you that the best time to find a cheap cruise is 60 to 90 days before sailing, when most fee-free cancellation periods expire. Plus, did you know, sometimes travel agents can get you an even better saving, in particular ones they can offer over the phone.
Keep tabs on social media
The cruise lines and cruise deals sites know how to work social media, so you should, too. A quick look at their websites will reveal icons to pages on the popular Facebook and Twitter social media channels, just click through and Like or Follow. The tecchies among you can take this one step further by creating lists and setting up favourites so that you can see those price-crunching sales as they flash up.
Pick your moment
Do a bit of homework on the weather in the area you'll be sailing in and time your trip for the "shoulder" season, for a hefty discount. If you book just outside the peak period, you may well find there are just as fair winds in your ship's sails. Opting for off-peak days for your departure, if you have the flexibility in your diary, can also help bring down the price.
Book a package
The idea that your holiday will be better, more authentic, if you wear out your mouse pad by booking each element individually is a bit of a myth, however you choose to travel. Unless you are an indomitable explorer, the first rule of holidaymaking is, book a package. You'll probably find all the elements add up to far less – let's face it, you do not have the same purchasing power as a big company (and you don't have people on the ground to quality check, either). Also, by buying a package from an Atol-bonded company you'll receive financial protection. Then, if your holiday provider goes bust, you can claim back your money and, crucially, if you're already travelling, you will be able to return home without paying a small fortune. The exception that proves the rule – be aware of some of the specialists chipping niches into this lucrative market. For example, Cruise Excursions claims to be able to find potentially cheaper deals on shore excursions on your chosen sailing.
Choose a UK departure point
If you can depart from a UK port, so much the better, because you could save on flights. Check out park-and-cruise deals, too.
Book a one-way ticket
Feeling adventurous? Save money by hopping aboard a repositioning cruise – when ships head for a new region. You might find the trip calls at some unfamiliar ports and includes more days at sea, but hey, who doesn't love a magical mystery tour. Make sure you join up all the dots though; you'll probably have to buy your own flights to and from the departure and arrival destinations. Don't rinse your wallet on the air fares after making a killing on the boat.
Buy in bulk
Many of us will think of villas and big houses as being the place for a multi-generation celebration. How about a cruise? If you can get together 10 or more of your nearest and dearest, you could well qualify for a discount, even free berths and excursions and on-board credit.
Show your loyalty
If you love cruises consider showing your loyalty to a brand. Lots of perks are on offer, from cocktails in VIP lounges to free cruises. There are special discounts, too. Be forensic in your comparisons across the cruise lines, some offer better loyalty programmes than others.
Look out for hidden fees
Read the small print – does the price quoted cover local taxes, port fees and even service charges. Tips are expected on cruises, so are gratuities included in the price? Is your great discount non-refundable – if so, better make sure you've got appropriate travel insurance in place.
Never mind the bargains – make sure it's the cruise you want
Don't get too obsessive about finding a bargain. What's the point in skimping if it means enduring an inside cabin on a voyage in an area you're not very excited to experience. If your savings will impinge on the overall enjoyment of the trip, it could make that discount taste just a touch bitter-sweet.