You may think of January as the start of 2018, but for the cruise industry, the early months are Wave Season. That’s when most lines, homeports and industry groups pull out their big marketing campaigns, urging travelers to book early for the season ahead. Promotions promise “the best deals of the year.” But is that really true?
The answer is “maybe.”
If you view a “deal” as the rock-bottom price to get on board any major ship, then Wave Season probably won’t deliver. Last-minute fares do still exist — if you define “last minute” as within a month of sailing. (Because of security regulations, week-of-sailing bookings are no longer allowed.) If you are not particularly picky about your ship, cabin or itinerary, you can find fares for as little as $70 per person per night.
But if you view a “deal” as getting the best value for your dollar on a ship and itinerary that’s on your favorites list, then you definitely want to check out the January offerings, says Cruise Critic’s Carolyn Spencer Brown.
(Tip: Sign up online for news from your preferred cruise lines. They will alert you to flash deals that you may otherwise miss.)
For sailings in late spring, summer or fall, “Wave Season is definitely a smart time to buy a cruise,” says Brown. That’s because on most ships, the cruise fare is only one factor in your tab. “You’ll want to buy a beverage package. You know you’ll want to buy shore excursions.” Those and other “value-added” extras — such as airfare, Wi-Fi, specialty-restaurant dining and tips —are often available with the base price as part of Wave Season deals.
That also applies to luxury lines like Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal and Regent. “Space is more limited on the luxury ships, so bookings have been coming in [earlier], to get the best selection and prices,” writes Jean Sauleau, president of Sixth Star Travel, via an email. Bookings have picked up in recent years, “so we encourage our clients to book during the Wave season, to get a better price and a better selection.”
What’s more, Wave Season dictates the rhythm for the rest of the year, says Brown. Hot destinations like Europe or Alaska can nearly sell out during Wave Season, meaning you might have trouble finding cabins at all. And destinations with relatively few cruises, like French Polynesia, also book up early.
In fact, when it comes to super-hot destinations, says expert Stewart Chiron, Wave Season may be too late. “Each destination has its own peak booking period. If people wait until January-March to book Europe or Alaska, prices typically would be 20-40 percent higher than had they booked earlier,” he writes via email.
That’s also true with river cruises — especially if you’re looking for more than one cabin. Specials that package cabin upgrades and well-priced airfares are offered as much as a year in advance; by the time January arrives, those deals are long expired.
The bottom line: If you’re traveling with a group on a small ship, book as early as you can set your schedule, and be sure to purchase travel insurance to protect your investment against unexpected problems. If you’re booking on a larger ship, keep your eyes open this Wave Season. But once you find a price you like, don’t tarry.