How to save on your next cruise

The Clipper Odyssey anchored next to John F. Kennedy Island (foreground) in the Solomon Islands. This is the tiny island where future President JFK swam ashore after his PT-109 was cut in half by a Japanese destroyer in World War II. Photo: Toulmin

by Lew Toulmin

Today I’ll try to save you some money on your next cruise. I’ll talk about sources of information on cruises, who to buy from, where to go, and timing your cruise and purchase.

Sources of information and discounts

You are about to buy a big-ticket item, so it pays to do some research. A very useful book is “The Unofficial Guide to Cruises” by Kay Showker and Bob Sehlinger (2005, Wiley. ISBN 9780764578632 — 684 pp., $22). I contributed to an earlier edition of this massive and fact-filled volume.

Of course, the Internet is excellent for research, since the industry changes so fast. Useful sites include,, and The big-name online travel providers all supply information and sell cruises too. These include Orbitz (; Travelocity (www.travelocity) and Expedia (

Don’t ignore groups you belong to in gathering information and buying cruises. Alumni groups, senior-citizen groups and your ITN travel club all can negotiate lower fares, based on volume sales. Your favorite cruise line will be happy to offer you a discount to sail with them again.

Who to buy from

Many people assume that when you go to buy a cruise, you should buy from a cruise line. Logical but wrong. Over 95% of cruises are sold by travel agents, online Internet consolidators or other intermediaries. Surprisingly, it often is easier to find good deals from these middlemen than it is by going directly to the cruise lines.

In terms of travel agents, the key elements for selection are 1) an agent you trust who knows you and your style and will put you in a ship that suits you and/or 2) an agent who is very experienced in cruising and has sold a wide range of ships.

You do not want someone who will “steer” you to a particular cruise that is not suited for you but that will maximize his commissions. Look for an agent certified by the Cruise Lines International Association, or CLIA (212/921-0066,, at their Associate, Master or Elite Cruise Counselor level. These agents generally each will have their certification as an ACC, MCC or ECC listed on their business cards and literature.

In terms of finding online suppliers, consider choosing a firm that advertises in and supports International Travel News. These firms offer a wide range of interesting and unusual cruises and destinations, and they understand the ITN audience.

Where to go

Lots of places in the world have wonderful cruising grounds but are remote or have had bad publicity over the years and hence are not popular. Often, ships sailing in these waters have empty cabins they are eager to fill at reasonable prices.

For example, I recently completed a fascinating trip with Zegrahm & Eco Expeditions (Seattle, WA; 800/628-8747, to Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia. Many people have not even heard of some of these locations; they are off the beaten track. Also, over the years there have been some troubles in PNG and the Solomons, but the Southwest Pacific area is quiet now. It’s one of the most unusual areas on Earth, with lots of World War II history and diverse cultures, plus the prices are reasonable.

Other similar unusual ocean and sea cruise destinations include the Black Sea, the south coast of Turkey, the Baltic, Antarctica, the north, east and west coasts of Africa, the Dalmatian-Albanian-Montenegran coast of the Adriatic Sea, and many areas in Asia. Unusual and often lower-priced river cruise destinations include Russia, Eastern Europe, Egypt and China.

If you live near a major port, consider sailing on a cruise ship based there; you will save a bundle on airfare.

Timing your cruise

Most parts of the world have seasonal factors that dramatically affect the cruise price. For example, cruise prices are usually lower in Europe in April/May or September/October, at the beginning and end of the season (the “shoulder season”), when it may be cooler. But, with global warming, I think these are the perfect times to sail — and save money too.

Other examples of off-season or shoulder-season travel include Alaska or Bermuda in May and September, and the Caribbean and Mexican Riviera from Labor Day to just before Christmas as well as in early January and between April and Memorial Day. Most cruising grounds are slow and lower-priced immediately after New Year’s Day and between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Consider timing your cruise to take advantage of the repositioning that many ships do, usually from the Caribbean/Mexico/Panama Canal to Europe or Alaska in the spring and vice versa in the fall. Repositioning cruises often are very cheap, since they follow unusual routes and last longer than the seven to 10 days that most people can take off of work.

Timing your purchase

Carefully timing your cruise purchase can save you lots of money. Generally, the rule here is buy early or buy late. “Early” means 10 to 14 months in advance. (Ship schedules are usually announced 14 months ahead.) This is where the lowest fares are often found, and the earlier the better. “Late” means 59 days or fewer before the ship sails, just after the 60-days-in-advance deposits are due from conventional passengers.

Unfortunately, due to U.S. security rules, it is no longer allowed to “pier hop,” that is, to show up at the pier with your bags packed and negotiate a really low fare with the purser just minutes before the ship sails. You may be able to do this overseas, however.

Let’s identify and analyze a cruise, to see what prices are available. Currently, I am using to research a repositioning cruise on the Norwegian Jewel from Barcelona to Miami via Nice, Livorno, Rome, Ajaccio, Majorca, Gibraltar and Funchal. This is an interesting cruise with many good ports and on a very attractive ship. The vessel leaves in just five days, so if I want to go I’d better start packing!

The price per person for one of the few remaining inside cabins is $719 per person, cruise only. The cruise duration is 16 days total, but that’s actually only 14 full days of cruise experience. (The cruise leaves in the afternoon and arrives in the very early morning, so in my calculations I omit those days.)

I divide $719 by 14 and get a per-day cost of only $51. Wow! This is an incredibly low fare. My rule of thumb is that anything under $150 per person per day is reasonable these days.

I’ll talk to you next month. I gotta catch a. . .

Lew Toulmin is the author of “The Most Traveled Man on Earth,” available for $16.95 plus $5 shipping from The Village Press (13108 Hutchinson Way, Silver Spring, MD 20906;