The great debate about whether you will get a better deal booking early or last-minute has filled cruise-related forums for years.

Some like to book the cruise as soon as bookings are made available and lock in a discounted rate.  This also allows them to have more variety of cruise cabin categories from which to select.

Cruise ships in Nassau, Bahamas. Photo Credit: Cruise Fever

Other types of cruisers would rather roll the dice and pick a last-second deal that pops up, allowing them to have a great deal as long as they are flexible with the planning process.

So, who gets the better deal?  That’s not as easy to answer.  In this article we will highlight the pros and cons of each method of cruise booking, while giving some guidance for cruise travelers.

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Let’s define some terms before we go any further.

What is early?  This is when a cruise line opens their bookings, which can be anywhere from 18-24 months out.

What is last-minute?  This can be anywhere from 1 month out to the week of a cruise sailing date.

Other things impact cruise price as well

Cruise prices are not just affected by how soon or late you book them.  Itineraries and exact departure dates can also impact the price.

Any sailing when the kids are out of school is generally more expensive.  So, cruise dates from June through August are going to have a premium, even if you try to book early or last-minute.  The same goes for sailings around major holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Some itineraries will also carry a heavier cost no matter when you book them.

Related: Cheapest weeks of the year to take a cruise

Which cruise lines offer a free cruise for being loyal? (Photo Credit: Cruise Fever)

Last-minute bookings carry a major risk

I’ve booked dozens of last-minute cruises before.  But the risk is always the same.   The ship could sell out before you are able to secure a cabin.  This is especially true of popular itineraries on newer ships.

As soon as there is a price drop those cabins could sell out quickly to the ambitious cruise goers who utilize price drop tools and subscribe to cruise deal newsletters.

Cabin selection is the major difference

If you are not picky about where you want to stay on a ship or what category of cabin you would like to enjoy then a last-minute cruise is perfect for you.

The biggest advantage of being an early bird in the booking process is having full reign of cabin selection.  This is mostly important if the cabin category you want is more limited in the numbers available.  So, suite guests might be more prone to book early.

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Inside cabins often sell out before balcony cabins as well.  This is due to the limited number of inside cabins and also because they are lower priced staterooms that see higher demand from cruisers.

Related: How to choose the best cabins on a cruise ship

Cruise lines can offer SOME of their best deals early in the process

It behooves the cruise lines to sell as many cabins as they can as soon as they can.   They encourage early reservations by publishing hard-to-resist deals right off the bat.   A lot of research is done ahead of time by the company to figure out what price point will both be attractive to cruisers and viable to the cruise line to actually make money.

I say some of the best deals come when bookings first open.  A last-minute cruise on the same ship and itinerary can offer an even lower price closer to the sailing.   A website like cruisewatch.com can help predict if the price is expected to go up or down, but take this with a grain of salt.  As mentioned already, there’s greater risk in waiting too long, but if this is your style go for it.

No matter how good the early bird deals were, if the cruise ship isn’t selling cabins there will be deals for less, eventually.  We have heard from cruise executives that people actually spend more money onboard when a ship is full.  So, even if a cruise line has to lower rates, they expect to make up for it from other areas of revenue.

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Less popular itineraries can offer the best last-minute deals

It makes sense, right?  If there is less demand for a certain itinerary it is more likely that deals will open up at the last second.

Cruise lines need to fill ships, and if they can’t get to full capacity they will get as close as possible by offering those last-minute offerings.  Fares will be reduced to fill the ship, and it’s more common when an itinerary doesn’t have as many potential cruisers going after it.

What is one type of cruise that typically has the lowest rates for last-minute shoppers?  Repositioning cruises.  These are somewhat awkward itineraries that are one-way trips that allow cruise ships to change homeports for a new season.  This opens up the perfect opportunity for last-second cruisers who don’t mind booking multi-destination flights.

Last-minute doesn’t have to be literal

Entire websites have been built around the concept of booking a cruise just days before it departs from port.  But you don’t actually wait until the day of the cruise.  Most of the time it will be impossible to book the day of.  There was a time when you could just show up at a cruise port and work your way onto the ship with some finagling, but those glory days for extreme procrastinators have long passed.

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When doing last-minute cruise searches start with 3 months as a baseline and then look at shorter time frames.

I have booked last-minute cruises withing a couple weeks before, and this is a time frame I’m more comfortable with.  After all, if I have to fly to the cruise port those last-second flight costs can be very high, which could negate any savings I scored on the cruise fare.

Read more: Cruising on a budget: 12 tips for saving money on your next cruise

Checking cruise deals after final payment is due

The final payment due date is when a cruise has to be completely paid off if you are to keep your booking.  This date typically ranges from 75 to 100+ days before the sailing.

The final payment date provides an opportunity.  On this date the buyer has to determine if they will complete the purchase of the cruise or let it go to someone else.  If a good number of deposit holders decide to not pay for the cruise, these cabins will open up and often at a discounted rate if there are enough of them.

Below are the typical final payment due dates by cruise line.  These dates can vary by destination and length of cruise.  The longer the cruise the earlier the final payment is due in most cases.

Carnival: 76 – 91 days before the sailing
Royal Caribbean: 75 – 120 days from sailing
MSC Cruises: 75 – 110 days from sailing
Norwegian Cruise Line: 120 days before sailing
Princess Cruises: 75 – 90 days before sailing
Celebrity Cruises: 75 – 90 days before sailing (Galapagos sailings: 120 -180 days before)
Holland America Line: 75 – 90 days before sailing
Disney Cruise Line: 90 – 120 days before sailing
Photo Credit: Cruise Fever

What about wave season deals

“Wave Season” is like the “Black Friday” of cruise shopping.  It is the time of year from January through March when cruise lines start to ramp up their marketing machines to fill as many ships as possible for the year.

From year to year these deals can range from incredible to so-so.  A lot depends on the cruise demand and how the cruise lines are projecting sales for the year.  During this time of year you can look for both last-minute deals and early bird specials.  But you’re more likely to find a deal on a cruise well in advance of its sail date during wave season.

To sum it up

We all went to get the best possible deal on a cruise.  Some people swear by last-minute deals for those bargain basement prices and others like to lock in deals early.  Either one can offer a lower prices depending on all the variables we mentioned above.

Here are the pros and cons of booking early.

Pros:

Consistently offers some of the best prices
You can look for price-drops throughout the year and reprice
Plenty of stateroom categories to choose from
Excursions and other onboard amenities can be reserved easily

Cons:

More time for schedule conflicts to arise when scheduling so far in advance
Itineraries and schedules for the ship might change in the meantime
Price fluctuations

And here are the pros and cons of booking last minute.

Pros:

Cost savings with some of the lowest prices you can find on a cruise
Less chance for a scheduling conflict
Allows you to be spontaneous instead of having to plan for months

Cons:

Less cabin selection available
Less time to plan excursions and activities on the trip
Having to book airfare at the last-minute
Some excursions or activities could be filled up already

How about you?  Do you try to book cruises 1 to 2 years in advance?  Or do you like to score those last-second cruise deals and hope for the best?  I’d love to hear you’re reasoning for either method in the comment section below.

Read more:  8 reasons regular cruisers choose older cruise ships (and why you should too)

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