Cruising is back – in a big way – after all the turmoil and shutdowns in the industry during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Cruise Lines International Association’s 2023 State of the Cruise Industry report, the intent to cruise is higher now than it was in December 2019, before the pandemic. About 85% of travelers who have been on a cruise will cruise again, which is 6% higher than it was pre-COVID.
John Lovell, president of the Travel Leaders Group division of Internova Travel Group, tells us, “Cruising has roared back since the pandemic and the lifting of sailing restrictions. It’s a true success story! That means that we will see (and are seeing) full ships, even more so than pre-pandemic.” He adds, “While Caribbean cruises remain popular, travelers are embracing river cruises, expedition cruises, smaller ships and off-the-beaten-path ports. There really is a cruise for everyone.”
CLIA’s report also states that passenger volume for 2023 is projected to reach an astounding 31.5 million passengers – 106% of the volume in 2019. In addition, the cruise industry is seeing higher numbers of solo travelers and people with mobility challenges – and there are more Gen X and millennials booking cruise vacations.
With more demand for cruise travel – one of the fastest-growing sectors of tourism – how can you find a last-minute cruise deal in 2023? Read on to find out how to book your dream cruise vacation for less.
When to find the best cruise deals
Scoring a great cruise deal depends on several factors, including the type of experience you’re looking for (adults-only or family-friendly, for example), the destination, the length of the sailing, the time of year and your flexibility to travel.
Lovell recommends booking early for the best pricing. “For many cruise lines, especially the expedition products and with some luxury lines, the best time to find deals is when they open new sailings,” he says. “The cruises fill up quickly, so usually the best offer is the first offering in terms of pricing. Some of the larger cruise lines will have pricing and value-added promotions on sailings that still have open space about 100 days prior to sailing.”
If you’re planning on traveling within the next few months, you may be able to score a last-minute cruise deal to some destinations, such as Alaska. According to Bob Levinstein, CEO of CruiseCompete.com, “There are still some great deals for the summer, especially in Alaska, which is particularly soft right now.”
A representative from Priceline notes that the travel agency is also offering great deals for summer cruises to Alaska, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean.
When you’re looking at pricing for cruises, be sure to compare fares that include the same costs, Levinstein advises. Some advertised fares that seem like an incredible deal don’t include the port taxes and fees, which can substantially raise the price of your vacation.
Within 90 days of sailing
Gray Faust says the window for finding last-minute cruise deals is within 90 days of a sailing. “That three-month mark is when final deposits are due on a cruise, and historically the last point you could cancel your cruise without financial penalty,” she says. “At that point, cruise lines try to fill those vacant cabins, usually in the form of slashed fares to entice people to book.”
Levinstein agrees. “While the market has heated up, the closer-in the sailing the more likely you will find a bargain.” He adds, “But as last-minute deals are based on how full a particular sailing on a particular ship might be at a given time, shopping around is often rewarded regardless of overall market conditions.”
Fall or spring
You may find cheaper cruise fares if you’re able to book a last-minute cruise departing in the spring or fall when most families with children in school can’t travel. As such, cruise lines typically have more availability and lower pricing during these times.
If you’re willing to book a cruise during the promotional period known as “wave season” – which spans early January through the end of March – you may be able to find a last-minute cruise deal that fits your budget.
Planning a last-minute cruise during hurricane season in the Caribbean and Mexico – from June 1 to Nov. 30 – is another option. These months coincide with the shoulder season in those regions, so it can be a great time to find cruise savings. If you do book a cruise during hurricane season, consider investing in a travel insurance policy that has trip interruption and trip cancellation benefits. You’ll also want to make sure that all of your prepaid and nonrefundable expenses are covered in the policy.
Levinstein says the first two weeks of December are also a great time to take a cruise. Early December is typically when families are preparing for the holidays at home or getting ready to travel at the end of the month for Christmas and New Year’s, so it’s an ideal time to go on a cruise for less.
Looking to plan a cruise? See the top cruises on GoToSea, a service of U.S. News.
How to find last-minute cruise deals
Cruise line sites
If you’re internet-savvy and don’t mind perusing the cruise lines’ websites individually, check out their advertised discounted fares, included amenities and special bonus exclusive offers. These special fares often include free upgrades, airfare and credit for onboard spending. The types and level of perks may increase depending on the stateroom category.
For example, Norwegian Cruise Line offers a number of Free at Sea offers. These deals include unlimited open bar, shore excursion credits, dining at specialty restaurants, complimentary Wi-Fi and discounted rates for the second guest. Third and fourth guests staying in the same stateroom even get to sail for free with some deals.
In addition to the Free at Sea offers, Norwegian features CruiseFirst, a special bonus offer that essentially allows cruisers to earn free money. For example, if you purchase a $150 CruiseFirst certificate today for a six-day or longer voyage, it will double in value and you’ll have $300 to spend on a cruise that you can take as early as 120 days from the purchase date. The certificates expire within three years.
If you’re looking for reduced fares on a luxury cruise, it’ll likely be more challenging to find a last-minute deal, with even lengthy – and expensive – world cruises selling out within hours. Levinstein explains this is because there’s more demand than supply, when compared with the entry-level market.
Cruise deal aggregator sites
If you prefer to use cruise deal aggregator sites, you can find last-minute cruises across the industry all in one place. Simply sort your findings by the month you’d like to travel, the length of your intended trip and where you wish to cruise. These are some of the best resources for finding cruise discounts:
“Some lines began steering away from last-minute fare drops a few years ago, so keep an eye out for value-add deals as well,” Gray Faust says. “While you might not get a super cheap base fare, things like free gratuities, drink packages and/or shore excursions could actually save you even more than you’d save on a slashed price.”
‘Kids sail free’ fares
Some cruise lines allow kids to sail free, greatly reducing the total price of and/or adding value to your cruise. MSC Cruises allows guests ages 17 and younger to cruise for free year-round when they’re the third and fourth passengers in the same stateroom with their parents. If you’re considering a family cruise, check out the other cruise lines that offer similar promotions where children sail free, including Holland America Line and Norwegian.
Want to plan a family cruise? See the top cruises on GoToSea, a service of U.S. News.
Cruise line loyalty programs
Consider joining your preferred cruise line’s loyalty and membership programs for free upgrades. These are some of the best options:
- Carnival Cruise Line’s VIFP Club: This program features up to 40% discounts off fares, up to $50 in onboard credits, access to exclusive deals and other perks. Carnival VIFP members receive a loyalty number and can watch their points and rewards accrue online.
- Viking Cruises‘ Explorer Society: Viking’s program offers past cruisers travel credits to use on future voyages, as well as members-only cocktail parties on the ship. Members are also privy to new itineraries and limited-time offers.
- Princess Cruises‘ Captain’s Circle: Benefits with the Captain’s Circle are based on the number of cruises you’ve taken. Some perks include early access to new itineraries, discounts for the onboard retail shops and excursions, complimentary minibar setups, priority disembarkation, access to the Platinum and Elite lounges, complimentary wine tasting events, and more.
- Norwegian Cruise Line’s Latitudes Rewards: This tiered program allows cruisers to earn discounts on select Norwegian products and services, such as beverage packages and signature spa treatments. You also get priority check-in, an exclusive cocktail party while on board, laundry service and more.
Cruise deal aggregator loyalty programs
You can also find loyalty programs through sites such as Expedia. An Expedia Rewards membership is free and offers discounts on travel; depending on your level (Blue, Silver or Gold), there are additional perks and benefits. You also earn rewards points to use toward booking future trips.
“On the Expedia website and through nearly 300 Expedia Cruises retail locations across North America, Expedia offers Member Prices, saving travelers up to 10% on last-minute deals, along with exclusive promotions on a variety of cruises,” a company spokesperson says. “Expedia also secures special rates in advance on the most popular itineraries and cruise lines through the Expedia Exclusive Staterooms program. Most of all, travelers can reach out to one of Expedia’s Vacation Consultants who can help navigate the current environment, answer any questions and help find the best value on their ideal vacations.”
Enlisting the help of a knowledgeable travel advisor can make planning easier – and it’s one of the best ways to find last-minute cruise deals. Advisors, especially those specializing in cruises, usually have unique access to perks and discounts for big savings with cruise lines that can further enhance the value of your vacation and/or lower the total price.
Lovell agrees with this tip. “Demand for cruising is very high. I would always recommend booking early and working with a travel advisor,” he says. “While there are lots of new ships, they often fill up quickly since travelers are eager to try out the latest and greatest the cruise lines have to offer.”
Some aggregator sites also have their own travel advisors to assist in your search. Head of Priceline Cruises Denise Bialek says, “We highly recommend calling one of our Priceline Cruise advisors, as they are the most knowledgeable about the best rate options, know how to combine promotions to get the best deal and will save you time navigating the plethora of cruise lines, cabin categories, pricing, port charges and more.” She adds, “An advantage of booking with one of our Priceline Cruise advisors is access to all cruise line offers and loyalty perks, in addition to our many Priceline exclusive deals, all supported by 24/7 service.”
Additionally, keep in mind that travel advisors have insight into additional restrictions and the condition of each cruise line.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, you may be able to score a better value by booking an all-inclusive (or mostly all-inclusive) voyage than a budget cruise with a cheaper base fare. While these options are primarily in the luxury cruise line category, some fares are especially attractive thanks to included airfare costs, transfers to the ship, meals at all dining venues, premium wines and spirits, Wi-Fi access, and more.
When you book one of these cruises, you’ll know the total cost upfront, and there won’t be any unwanted surprises when you close out your shipboard account at the end of the cruise. Some of the traditional extras on noninclusive cruise lines – like bottled water, snacks, specialty coffee, gratuities or even beach equipment rentals on the line’s private island – can add up quickly, diminishing the impact of your original fare savings. These are some of the all-inclusive cruise options:
- Viking Ocean Cruises: On Viking Ocean Cruises, travelers enjoy veranda staterooms; all meals (including alternative dining); beer, wine and soft drinks with lunch and dinner; one complimentary excursion in every port; and more, all in the base fares.
- Silversea Cruises: Silversea Cruises boasts door-to-door all-inclusive fares that encompass private transfers, gourmet meals, butler service, beverages and at least one complimentary excursion in every port.
- Regent Seven Seas Cruises: Regent Seven Seas Cruises offers two-for-one all-inclusive fares that also feature business class airfare on international flights, free two- or three-night land programs, a one-night pre-cruise hotel stay, free unlimited beverages and open bars, complimentary dining in specialty restaurants, unlimited Wi-Fi, shore excursions, prepaid gratuities, and more.
These lines also offer other discounts, and you may be able to combine them with exclusive offers that your travel advisor can access.
Looking to plan an all-inclusive cruise? See the top cruises on GoToSea, a service of U.S. News.
Three- to five-night cruises generally equate to instant savings since they have lower fares than voyages lasting a week or longer. You may also be able to drive to the port, saving on airfare and other travel expenses. If you sail from ports in Florida or Texas, you can visit destinations in the Bahamas, the Caribbean and Mexico; ports of call may include stops at private, cruise line-owned islands like Royal Caribbean International’s Perfect Day at CocoCay in the Bahamas.
If you’re in the northeast U.S., you can book a short sailing to Bermuda aboard a few different lines. Bermuda sailings with Carnival Cruises depart from New York City and Norfolk, Virginia, while Royal Caribbean sails to the nearby island from New York City and Baltimore.
From Los Angeles, embark on four-night Royal Caribbean cruises to Catalina Island and Ensenada, Mexico. With Celebrity Cruises, passengers can book six-night voyages that call on select California cities and Vancouver. The line also offers six-night, round-trip sailings from Los Angeles to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Shorter itineraries are less expensive not only because of their length, but also because they typically don’t use the cruise lines’ newest, largest vessels. Still, some ships have been updated, including Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas, which underwent a $116 million amplification in 2020. Its upcoming itineraries make short trips between Miami and the Bahamas.
Repositioning cruises are another option for booking a great cruise deal. The price on these voyages is less expensive since most of the days are spent at sea as the ships move from one region of the world to another. The itineraries are longer, so you’ll need to have a flexible schedule for extended travel.
One of the pros of booking these cruises is that you’ll get to see incredible destinations like Hawaii, Australia, Fiji, Portugal, Spain and Italy – with considerable savings. If you enjoy spending time on board the ship and don’t need a port of call to explore every day, then this may be a great cost-saving option to consider.
For example, Celebrity has a 16-night Mediterranean Passage Transatlantic sailing from Rome to Tampa, Florida, in November 2023. The sailing includes eight ports and nine sea days, with fares starting at $899 per person.
Want to plan a cruise? See the top cruises on GoToSea, a service of U.S. News.
Sign up for email alerts to receive updates on discounted pricing through the cruise line websites, travel aggregators or your travel advisor. That way, you’ll be the first to know about limited-time offers, last-minute deals or value-adds that may make the price just right.
Why Trust U.S. News Travel
Gwen Pratesi has been an avid cruiser since her early 20s. She has sailed to destinations around the globe on nearly every type of cruise ship built, including the newest megaships, luxury yachts and traditional masted sailing ships. Most recently, she traveled on a small expedition vessel in Antarctica and crossed the notorious Drake Passage twice. She covers the travel and culinary industries for major publications, including U.S. News & World Report.