Clark Howard

Is Booking a Cruise Last-Minute Still a Good Bargain Strategy?

Cruises are a gold standard for people who love traveling the world at relatively affordable prices. If you can find a bargain on a last-minute cruise, even better.

Prior to the onset of COVID-19, and all the wild disruptions it caused the cruise industry, offering last-minute deals became commonplace.

Is waiting to book until the last minute still a good strategy for discount hunters? Or has the industry moved away from those deals?

That's what a listener of the Clark Howard Podcast recently asked.

Are Last-Minute Cruise Bookings Still a Good Way To Score a Deal?

Can you still find the best cruise discounts by booking last minute?

A Clark listener posed that question on the March 3 podcast episode.

Asked Joe in Florida: "I love cruising. I was wondering if there's a website where the cruise lines offer deep discounts to help fill the ship at the last minute. I know they used to do this more often, but with security measures in our day and age, they cannot do it last minute.

"What is the cut-off time now to book a cruise? And can you really find those cruise deals a few days before the ship embarks, or is that more of a myth now?"

A few years before the COVID pandemic spread through the world, cruises regularly gave out last-minute deep discounts to fill all their cabins before sailing. Customers could wait until the last minute and find serious bargains either directly from a cruise line or via a cruise agency.

Unfortunately for Joe and others who love taking cruises on the cheap, that’s no longer the case.

“I think starting in 2017 or 2018, the cruise lines decided that they were teaching their customers … people who lived in Florida near the ports that account for a meaningful market share … to always wait until the last minute to book a cruise,” Clark says.

“The cruise lines said, ‘This is bad for us. So we’re going to try to use wave season as a way to frontload discounts, to encourage people to book way in advance. Give us a sense of capacity. Help us price our inventory of unsold cabins more appropriately.”

Where To Find a Deal on a Cruise in 2023

So if booking a last-minute cruise won't net you a regular bargain, where should you look for a great deal on a cruise in 2023?

If you're intent on finding a pre-sail deal, Clark says, you're not always totally out of luck. Cruise Critic, one of several message boards frequented by cruise passengers, sometimes alerts community members to what Clark calls "soft sailings."

“You can see which sailings are offering last-minute deals just because they have unsold inventory,” Clark says. “But it’s not the normal way to get a good deal anymore.”

The best way to land a cabin at a great price in 2023 involves basic supply and demand. During the summer, when school is out and the sun is shining in the Caribbean, cruise demand peaks. The same goes for Thanksgiving and especially Christmas.

Book in September after school has started, or in January when everyone is experiencing a travel, food, family and financial hangover from the holidays, and you should be able to find a better price.

You can also scour the nine best cruise lines for your money. This list of cruise lines is a good starting point if you're wanting a deal on a cruise.

Final Thoughts

It’s not as easy as it used to be to land a last-minute cruise bargain. But you can still scout good prices on cruises.

The biggest key is to avoid cruises when school is out — and to book when no one else is booking.

Outside of that, it may come down to old-fashioned elbow grease. In other words, comparison shopping and research.

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