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The Pros and Cons of Last Minute Cruise Holiday Specials

Posted by Fine Travel

21/10/2019, 09:21

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For holidaymakers looking for a special offer on a cruise holiday, it can feel like you're spoilt for choice.  It's difficult to read the newspaper or walk past a travel agency without seeing a cruise discount, deal or special offer.  But for all the attention grabbing headlines, the "Last minute" sale is only likely to appeal to certain travellers.  We explore why.

 Learn More About How to Choose Your Cruise Holiday

Why do Cruise Lines Discount More Often than Airlines

When it comes to the work Fine Travel does with Business Class and Premium Economy airfares, it is very rare now to see last minute specials.  Airlines have sophisticated revenue management algorithms (and teams) and so the release of discounted Business Class and Premium Economy airfares is very structured (and yes they are available) and focussed on rewarding early commitment.

Unlike airlines, cruise lines have less flexibility if they find that a particular itinerary isn't as popular as forecast.  Where an airline can hide behind a schedule change or "unscheduled maintenance" to move passengers from a low yielding flight onto another flight on the same route, a cruise ship may be on a program across a number of seasons and is therefore committed to that route.  If a particular departure isn't full, the cruise line is faced with the invidious choice of leaving cabins empty, or discounting the remaining cabins. 

Examples of Cruise Holiday Special Offers

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When you're booking a cruise holiday, there are a number of important considerations - and special offers is one of them.   In addition to discounts, special offers on cruise holidays can include a number of "inclusions".  A cruise line will generally run a campaign of special offers at three times during the selling period for the cruise:

  • Earlybird Specials - To encourage guests to book when an itinerary is launched (and give the cruise line some certainty)
  • During the selling period - If a particular sailing isn't selling as well as forecast
  • Last Minute - When it's clear there will be empty cabins onboard and the departure isn't likely to be profitable.

Earlybird specials are planned to be the most generous.   Cruise lines may have contingency plans if a sailing doesn't sell well, but they are unlikely to go into a cruise season planning to aggravate guests (and their travel agents) by undercutting an earlier special.  At the start of a selling period when the itinerary is launched you'll generally see special offers that include:

  • Fly Free / Discounted airfares / Air Credits - These are most common with European River Cruises, but some cruise lines like Silversea Cruises and Viking also regularly incorporate them in campaigns.
  • Large onboard credits - This is "free money to spend onboard" and is used liberally through most selling periods.
  • Free WIFI - In the Premium and Luxury space it is becoming more common for WIFI to be included as standard, but occasionally it is included in sales too.
  • Reduced deposits - Generally when booking a cruise you are only required to pay a deposit (around 10% of the total cruise cost).  Some cruise lines offer reduced Earlybird deposits (Cunard and Holland America often employ this tactic).
  • Discounts - To reward passengers who book early, discounts off the "brochure price" are often offered. 
  • Free Upgrades - These come in the form of paying for a lower cabin category and then receiving a confirmed upgrade to a higher cabin category (effectively discounting by another name).

Past passenger discounts are reasonably common with the major cruise lines, rewarding and encouraging past guests to return.  "Back to Back" discounts also reward guests who book consecutive itineraries with the same cruise line.  These discounts can all generally can be booked through a travel agent too.  

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During the selling period, cruise lines will run tactical campaigns that include discounts off the brochure price and also include certain of the above offers (onboard spending money is the most common).  The extent of the specials will generally be determined by how empty the ship is.

At the end of the selling period, if the itinerary hasn't proved as popular as forecast then a Last Minute Sale may be required.  These will generally take the form of straight discounts and potentially onboard spending money.  

In addition to the different types of specials above, many cruise lines will offer an incentive to commit to booking a subsequent cruise while guests are onboard (usually with an attractive discount).  This allows them to lock a guest in to sailing again with that cruise line - rather than falling in love with the idea of cruises, but being enticed away by another cruise line.  

The Problem with Last Minute Sales

Everyone loves a bargain, and for subscribers to our Cruise Sales Alerts finding a bargain is part of what we aim to provide.  Although knowing you've bought well is one thing, there are challenges with waiting for a sale - and in particular last minute sales.  

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They're Hard to Plan Around

If you've put a lot of time researching and planning for a holiday, and a cruise holiday is a part of those plans, it is risky to rely on a Last Minute special (they are also becoming less common with many major lines not offering them).  The risk to your holiday plans will be particularly acute if:

  • You're timing isn't flexible
  • You have particular ports you wish to see and only a few itineraries visit them
  • There's a particular cruise line you prefer
  • You like to have your choice of cabins / suites (and their location on the ship)

If this sounds like your circumstances you're likely to be better to take advantage of an Earlybird special and have certainty and choice.

If your plans are more flexible and you're just going to be away with no fixed plans - a Last Minute special may come along and be exactly what you're looking for. 

You're Left with the Last Remaining Cabins

Choosing your cabin or suite on a cruise can be an important decision.  You'll want to consider the size and style of cabin (generally ranging from a basic inside cabin through to a suite) and where the cabin or suite is located on a ship (upper or lower decks - forward, mid ship or aft - away from the elevators / common areas etc). 

If you're going to be on a cruise for an extended period of time, you don't want to be in a cabin you're unhappy with.  Booking early and taking advantage of Earlybird specials gives you the greatest selection of cabins and suites.   The importance of this decision is underlined by some cruise lines already offering itineraries three years in advance and some cabins (such as the Mini-Suites on Princess World Cruises) selling out almost immediately.

Missing Popular Shore Excursions and Specialty Restaurants

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An important part of a particular itinerary may be the Shore Excursions as these planned activities may have a limited capacity.  Popular Shore Excursions generally need to be booked in advance so when it comes to Last Minute specials, you may find that you've missed out.

The same applies to specialty restaurants.  The cruise fare will generally include all meals onboard, however access to specialty restaurants may come with a surcharge (less common with the luxury lines) and a requirement to book in advance.  Again with Last Minute specials specialty restaurants may be fully booked.  

That "What Have I Missed" Feeling

Also known as the "This is too good to be true feeling" there's always the risk with Last Minute sales that the item in question has been discounted for a reason...  

The Airfare Cost May Offset the Cruise Saving

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Unless you're looking at a cruise from New Zealand or Australia it's likely that you'll need to book a long-haul international flight to connect with your cruise.  As explained above, although a cruise line may need to offer a Last Minute sale, airlines are much better at ensuring that passengers booking last minute flights pay a premium.  

Read More About Open Jaw Airfares and Cruise Holidays

So although the last minute cruise fare may be attractive, be sure to check the airfares at the same time to understand the full cost of the itinerary.

Which Special Will Work Best for Me?

Overall, Last Minute Specials are likely to work best for travellers with greater flexibility and without firm requirements around cabins / suites and other onboard activities.  It may be something of a lucky dip, but the discount offsets any concern.

For travellers with specific needs, looking to plan a detailed itinerary and wanting to have the greatest selection of cabins / suites and activities (and who don't like to hear "I'm sorry that's no longer available") the Earlybird specials are most likely to appeal.  Discounts and special offers are still likely to be generous at the Earlybird stage, and you can take pleasure in making your selections.  The glow of looking forward to your cruise holiday may be dulled if you see a subsequent special offer of Last Minute Special, but the disappointment is unlikely to be as great as that felt if you wait for a Last Minute Special that doesn't come...  

Can Cruise Specials Be booked through a travel agent? 

It is very rare for cruise lines to offer a special that cannot be booked through a travel agent (including past passenger discounts).  At Fine Travel we work directly with the cruise lines or their local wholesale partners to find the latest special offers in the market when our clients are ready to book their cruise.  

How to Choose Your Cruise Holiday

Topics: Cruise Holiday Tips