You want to take a cruise but you also want to get onboard soon and snag a deal?
A cruise vacation is an attractive getaway, but finding a good price close to the sail date can be a challenge. Typically the best deals are when sailings are first put on sale up to two years in advance. As the sailing gets closer, prices tend to go up.
However, a last minute cruise deal is not unheard of, because there can be cancellations, itinerary changes, or simply weak demand for a sailing.
If you're looking to book a cheap cruise with just weeks to go before you get onboard, you're going to need some good internet searching skills, flexibility, and a little bit of luck.
The secret to last minute cruise deals
There are plenty of strategies to get a last minute cruise deal, but the most important component is going to be how flexible you are with choosing a sailing.
Flexibility comes in many facets: how flexible you are on sail dates, the ship, itinerary, and departure port.
When you look for a last minute deal, you're probably looking at cruises that are past final payment date, which is 90 days prior to sailing. When Royal Caribbean gets past the point of final payment, they get a good sense of how booked (or unbooked) a sailing is and responds accordingly to fill up the rest of the ship.
Years ago, Royal Caribbean would have incredibly deep discounts for unsold cabins, but they've backed off that strategy a bit, due to higher demand for cruises overall.
In looking at prices for cruises coming up in the next two months, you will certainly spot reasonable prices for a cruise. After all, it's more important for the cruise line to get people onboard since the real revenue comes in onboard spending rather than the cruise fare itself.
When it comes to consistently finding a good last minute price, you're going to want to focus on four major areas.
Time of year
Without a doubt, the biggest factor in getting a good price is going on a cruise when others are unable to sail.
Cruises when kids are in school is always a solid starting point. If you take a cruise in September, January, or early December, you're going to likely find far less families onboard since kids are in school. As a result, there's less demand.
Likewise, taking a cruise during "shoulder season" is an important time of year. This is when the weather or sea conditions may not be ideal, which leads some to opt not to cruise. On an Alaska cruise, the shoulder season would be May or September. In Europe it's late September and October.
If you can cruise during the times of year everyone else isn't going, you can usually find better prices.
Cruise prices will almost always be cheaper on a Vision, Radiance, or Voyager Class ship than an Oasis or Quantum Class ship.
Older ships simply don't offer as much to see and do onboard as the newer ships, and pricing is almost always cheaper to begin with, regardless if it's last minute or not.
Royal Caribbean's marketing is so effective that most cruisers tend to gravitate towards the newest ships so they can enjoy all the bells and whistles these ships offer.
Unfortunately, older ships tend to have (an incorrect) stereotype that they're rundown and boring. The reality is these ships still offer plenty to do, just not as much as the newer ships. Plus, for the right price, you can get some fantastic values.
Read more: Why you shouldn't avoid older and smaller cruise ships
In short, you're more likely to find a better price on an older ship than a newer one.
You may not find a great last minute deal on a cruise from Florida, but other less-common departure ports could get you a better deal.
Embarkation ports that cannot rely on a lot of people to drive to the port tend to have lower prices because nearly everyone has to fly there.
- Seward, Alaska
- Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
- San Juan, Puerto Rico
If you live in the area, or don't mind flying (more on that later), prices tend to be lower for cruises leaving from here and a last minute deal is more commonly found.
If there's one type of cruise that almost always has cheap fares close to sailing, it's a cruise where the ship begins in one port and ends in another.
Repositioning cruises are a necessary evil for the cruise industry so that a ship can move from one market to another to begin a new season.
The most common repositioning cruises are when ships move from North America to Europe (and then back again). Ditto for transpacific cruises between North America and Australia.
Where to find last minute cheap cruise deals
You may be tempted to start your search for a last minute cruise deal on the Royal Caribbean website, but there are a few resources you can leverage that may get you results faster.
It's always a good idea to reach out to a travel agent first. Travel agents do so much fare searches, that they could already be aware of a good price for a certain sailing. Moreover, their consortiums could have better rates than you can find online.
Even if you do spot a great price, it's not uncommon for travel agents to be able to find a better discount on top of it and sweeten the deal.
Read more: Top things you didn't know travel agents can do for your cruise vacation
There are a couple of third-party websites worth checking as well, just to see if they have something you haven't spotted yet.
Vacations to Go has a "90-day ticker" with a list of sailings of cruises departing within the next 90 days .
Cruisesheet.com is another aggregator of cruise deals you can reference.
Both sites are good jumping off points to start your search, and then circle back with your own travel agent to figure out the best possible price.
Downsides to a last minute cruise
If a last minute cruise sounds like a great deal, you should remember a few important caveats.
If you're booking at the last minute you cannot be picky with your stateroom. Expect very few cabin category choices, and even fewer choices of where it's located.
Another consideration is if you are booking a cruise after the final payment date, you will need to make a full payment up front, rather than a deposit and then the rest later.
If you have to fly to your cruise, airfare prices could sink any deal you find for a sailing. Be sure to cross-reference airfare prices before committing to a cruise fare.
The easiest way around high airfare prices is to drive. There's no question last minute cruise deals benefit those within driving distance of cruise ports, such as those living in the southeastern United States.
If driving is out of the question, look at other airports to fly out of or into. If your cruise is out of Fort Lauderdale, consider flying into West Palm Beach, Miami or Fort Myers. Likewise, if you are flying out of New York City, try all the city airports as well as Westchester, Philadelphia or Hartford. A little drive can save a lot of money.
Also consider flying to or from your cruise a day or two earlier/later to see if prices change. It's a fun way to extend your vacation while saving money too.
Tips for keeping your cruise deal as cheap as possible
Remember, your cheap cruise deal doesn't stop when you book your cruise fare.
From shore excursions to drinks to dining, there are a few other ways you can pinch pennies while on a cruise.
Stick to included drinks
Alcohol, soda, and lattes all cost extra, and those costs could run up your cruise bill quickly.
Royal Caribbean includes quite a few drinks with your fare. The more of these you can consume, the less you'll spend.
If you're going to enjoy cocktails or beers, then try to wait until you get to a port of call. Prices for drinks off the ship are usually cheaper.
If you have your heart set on a Royal Caribbean drink package, be sure to purchase it before the cruise. The price will be higher onboard.
Eat at complimentary restaurants
Say no to specialty dining and you'll also save some serious cash as well.
There are plenty of restaurants included with your Royal Caribbean cruise, and I think you'll find the food to be really good here as well.
Dining in the Windjammer, main dining room, or one of the grab-and-go locations will not compromise on your experience and keep costs low.
Bring your own drinks
Did you know Royal Caribbean allows you to bring a certain amount of non-alcoholic drinks and even wine onboard?
By bringing your own soda and a couple bottles of wine, you can really save money without having to skip out on these items.
Plan a DIY shore excursion
Another good way to save money is to tour the ports your ship visit on your own.
Instead of booking a cruise line shore excursion, walk around the port on your own and see what's around. You could bar hop, take a taxi to the beach, or just hang out at the port area.
Use your credit card points
If you're headed down the "cheapest vacation as possible" road, then now is a good time to cash out those credit card points.
You could use your credit card points for a free flight or hotel stay prior to your cruise. Or you could get a gift card for yourself to use in ports for spending money.
There's an art to a last minute deal, especially if you're looking for a slam dunk price instead of a "not that bad" price.
With some good internet sleuthing (and a good travel agent), you may be able to find a great getaway fare so that you can enjoy time relaxing onboard a ship enjoying (hopefully) beautiful weather and a fun atmosphere. The more flexible you are, the better your chances.
Equally important is being able to save money once you get onboard, because all those extras are very tempting. If you can avoid the additional costs, you'll be able to really save big money. Remember, you can have a great cruise without spending a ton on add-ons!
Ultimately, the difficulty in getting a last minute cruise deal boils down to luck with the right offer, at the right time, from the right embarkation port. When I search for last minute deals, it's not as difficult to find a good price as it is to find a good price on a sailing that you want to go on.
If you find a great price, act quickly as cabins go quickly in those final weeks. Unfortunately a lot of people miss out on a cheap cruise deal in the interim time they take to verify they can get time off from work, dog sitters, and other logistics.
Hopefully these tips help you net a great last minute deal and I wish you happy hunting!