Washington - To the average consumer, it can seem easier to pin Jell-O to a wall than to find the best price on an ocean cruise - especially because there are so many options.
As a consumer expert and longtime cruiser, I'm well versed in securing decent prices. I also asked Cruise Critic editor in chief Colleen McDaniel and Emerson Hankamer, CEO of Houston-based Vacations To Go, one of the largest sellers of ocean cruises, for their advice on finding deals. Here are our suggestions.
Wait until the last minute
Most cruise lines have cancellation policies allowing for some sort of refund up to 90 days before departure. That's why the biggest discounts usually appear in that three-months-to-sailing window.
"Cruise lines use a book-to-fill model, meaning they want to fill 100 percent of cabins for each voyage to maximize their profit," Hankamer says. "Since they want to sell out the ship, they offer markdowns on any available cabins."
Or be an early bird
If you know exactly which ship, cabin type and location, when you want to sail, and the itinerary, however, you can often get a good deal by booking as soon as an itinerary is announced - typically 18 to 24 months in advance, according to McDaniel.
While the cruise lines may not discount the cabin per se, they reward early bookers with add-on incentives such as free or discounted airfare, beverage packages, prepaid gratuities and onboard credits, which can save you hundreds of rands.
Repositioning cruises have trade-offs. On the plus side, you may experience some unique ports of call, transit the Panama Canal, or have more time for in-depth workshops and onboard lectures themed around topics of interest such as cooking, world affairs or photography.
In the minus column: Depending on the route, you may have numerous days at sea, cross large expanses of open, sometimes rough water and have to deal with the extra cost of an "open-jaw" airline ticket - where the origin and destination are not the same in both directions.
Look to shoulder seasons
If I could predict the weather, I would have become a meteorologist instead of a journalist. Cruise lines aren't any more accurate in long-range forecasting than the rest of us.
Be willing to take a risk
One of the best times to find an affordable cruise is during hurricane season, from late May to late October in the Caribbean. "I often cruise during hurricane season and have never had a trip disrupted," McDaniel says.
Find an experienced travel agent
A good one will take the time to understand your needs and match you to the right cruise. They may also have access to deals not found on cruise line websites or widely publicized and will give you notice of sales or deals when they see a price drop. In fact, cruise lines often rely on partners such as travel agencies to let customers know about last-minute deals, Hankamer explains.
Look into every possible discount
There are other options for obtaining a deal. Being loyal to a specific cruise line can net you some savings; repeat passengers typically get a small discount on a future cruise. McDaniel also reminds travellers they may able to use points or miles accrued through credit cards toward a cruise.