In recent years, many cruise companies have ditched last-minute discounts – even if this means ships are not full when they sail.
To bag a bargain, grab an early-bird fare – usually released 12 to 18 months in advance. You’ll get a great price, have your pick of the cabins, choose the departure dates and flights you want, and be showered with complimentary extras.
We checked Celebrity’s nine-night Adriatic Discoveries cruise in its first week on sale (over 12 months before the departure date). We found savings of up to £700 on the fare, plus a free all-inclusive drinks package, valet parking and $300 to spend on board.
Specialist travel agents are often able to give a better range of discounts or deals than would be on offer by going direct to cruise lines. Agents bulk-buy cabins at lower rates, which means they can pass that discount on to the customer. For example, we found an interior room on Celebrity's Norwegian Fjords cruise for £774pp on cruise.co.uk, rather than £819pp direct - a saving of £90 per couple.
But don't just stick to one cruise agent. There's always some wiggle room if you're happy to haggle. When we told Cruisedeals.co.uk that a balcony room on P&O's Western Med cruise was cheaper with Virgin Holidays Cruise, it came down from £1,219pp to £1,203pp.
Even if agents can't beat the cruise line's own rate, they can usually offer sweeteners such as on-board credit, or prepaid gratuities.
Flight-inclusive deals from cruise lines give peace of mind in case of flight delays or cancellations (in which case the ship will wait for you). Sometimes they offer great rates, too, as cruise lines are able to bulk-book seats. But in some cases, buying your own flights can be significantly cheaper.
We found a huge saving of £787 per person on P&O’s Sydney to Hong Kong cruise by organising our own Etihad flights arriving at the same time as the BA/Etihad combination that P&O offered us.
If you do book your own flight, make sure you're aware of your cruise consumer rights. It may be that if your flight is delayed or cancelled, you won't be able to get a refund on the cruise (unless your insurance covers it). And if you choose to catch up with the cruise, it will be at your own expense.
Cruising and boozing can be very bad for your wallet, especially if you travel with one of the big US-based cruise lines. A glass of wine on board a Royal Caribbean ship, for example, will cost you at least £7.90, plus an 18% service charge.
Think you can cut costs by bringing your own drinks on board? Think again. Very few cruise lines allow this (the exceptions are P&O, Disney and Royal Caribbean, but only for limited amounts).
You can sometimes save with an all-inclusive drinks package, although the amount depends on how many drinks you plan to have.
Most cruise lines sell excursions at exorbitant prices, and you’ll save money if you go it alone or book with a third party. We looked at the shore excursions offered by Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) on its seven-day Western Mediterranean cruise, and found near-identical options at half the price. For example, NCL’s walking tour of Pisa and Florence is £204pp, whereas Cruisingexcursions.com’s alternative is just £78pp. In fact, if you were to choose a third-party excursion for all six ports on this cruise, you would save a staggering £534 per couple.
Find alternatives by checking out passengers’ reviews on Cruisecritic.co.uk. Companies such as Cruisingexcursions.com guarantee they will get you back to your ship in plenty of time, but promise to get you to the next port of call if there’s an unavoidable delay.
In August 2017, we found a seven-night Eastern Caribbean cruise with Celebrity, departing in August 2018, including drinks, flights and two shore excursions and departing in August 2018. By following these steps, we secured a discount of 34% on the initial price of £2,788 per person.