Roughly 85% of cruises are still sold by travel agents, and like most professionals, they have their trade secrets. One such covert term is cruise value season, a period of time I did not know about until I had been in the business several years.
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Cruise value season just started and refers to cruises that sail between the start of the school year and the beginning of the holiday season. Holiday cruises sell well and generally cost more than any cruise, and summer cruise prices are also higher because thats when families take vacations. The period from mid-January through May is called wave season in the trade, and are ships filled by northerners looking to escape the bitter winter cold.
The slowest (hence cheapest) weeks for cruising of the entire year are usually the second week in December and the second week in January.
Better Value Season Deals
As I was looking for some of the better value season cruise deals, I had a common experience that probably confuses a lot of cruise buyers. I was on the website of a well-known cruise agency called CruisesOnly, which is part of a larger company called World Travel Holdings that supplies cruise inventory to warehouse chain BJs, Hotwire.com, Priceline and other well-known retailers that sell cruises.
Browsing for cruises through travel agent websites has advantages and risks. Travel aggregator sites help users compare all the major brands cruise prices at once. I am not going to find prices for NCL cruises on Carnival.com.
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CruisesOnly displays prices on a cost-per-day basis because it helps me find the best cruise deals quickly. With that said, I never consider a price at any travel agency website to be fully accurate until I verify it.
The cruise price quotes shown on websites can be wrong. In most cases they are loaded into the website's computer in the morning, but prices can change drastically over the course of the day. If the price has changed, it will not be reflected in the search results on that agency website, but the updated price is the one you will have to pay when you try to purchase the cruise. For an actual purchase transaction, the cruise agents website goes to a central database for all cruise lines and fetches the current price. It's too costly for an agency to display up-to-the-minute prices for people just browsing.
Consumers should be wary of any site that promises the cheapest cruise prices. All cruise sites will eventually charge you the price set by the cruise line. So, while last-minute cruise bargains are a reality, no single site has any last-minute pricing advantage over the competition.
Here's the proof:
I recently went to CruisesOnly to seek out last-minute prices for the current value season and found a four-night cruise on Celebrity Millennium showing the unbelievably low price of $173 for a balcony cabin - even cheaper than an inside cabin listed for $199 per person. To test the accuracy of the website, I followed through with purchasing this cabin to the point where it actually asked for my credit card. I discovered the total price, with taxes, would be $700.82 for two people. The math did not add up: The taxes were only $90.41 per person and the cruise fare was listed at $173 per person. The final price should have been $173 cheaper.
Looking to solve the mystery, I went to the Celebrity Cruises's website and priced the very same stateroom. The cruise line broke down the charges as $347 cruise fare for the first guest and $173 for the second guest only - exactly half price. The CruisesOnly website had uploaded the best price for that stateroom from that morning as $173, but it was only good for the second guest in the room. The purchase price, with tax, was the same on all websites: $700.83.
CruisesOnly had picked the lowest price for that stateroom, but it did not see that it only applied to the second guest in the room. To be clear, this likely would have happened no matter where you priced the cruise - except for the actual cruise line website. And that is the moral of this story: for accuracy in prices, the cruise line is the final authority.
That is why I only quote prices from the websites of specific cruise lines in this column: I know they are the most accurate. Still, I advise people always to book through a travel agent after they have verified the correct price with the cruise line. Even though I quote prices from the cruise line "supplier" websites, I dont recommend buying the cruises there.
For more cruise information consult our Cruising101 FAQ.
I started writing about stock market investing for Motley Fool in 1995, but previously I worked aboard cruise ships. I co-founded CruiseMates.com, the first cruise travel guide on the Internet, in New York City in 1999. CruiseMates, still one the Webs top cruise travel guides was acquired by Internet Brands in 2006. Once CEO, I am now the editor of CruiseMates