We've covered secrets to finding cheap airfare and booking hotel rooms, but there's another vacation option that I know plenty of you probably love. I am, of course, talking about cruises.
I have relatives who take up to three cruises a year and can't get enough of them. They love the food, entertainment, exotic locations and just hanging out as the boat chugs along. Of course, that's all less enjoyable if you feel like you overpaid, or you picked an option that you later regret.
Fortunately, there are some ways you can make sure your cruise goes off without a hitch.
Not every cruise line is created equal, and neither are a single company's ships. Some cruise companies cater to families, while others target couples or older and younger demographics.
One cruise ship might have tons of entertainment options, specialty dining rooms, climbing walls, water parks, onboard Wi-Fi and everything else you need to squeeze every second of fun out of a long ocean journey. Other ships might have the bare minimum to get you from port to port, which is fine if you're more interested in the stops than the journey.
A larger cruise ship tends to hit major ports and spend more time at sea, while small ships can get to harder-to-reach places like the Alaskan shoreline. You get the idea.
In addition to picking your destination, you'll want to narrow down some cruise lines and specific ships that seem like they'd be a good fit for you. If you just buy based on what's cheapest, you might end up on a cruise you don't like very much.
Be aware that basic cruises might have a lower price, but then you pay for more when you get on board. A luxury cruise might have a higher initial price, but it might include food, entertainment and bookings at port attractions. So, figure out what you'll want to do and come up with the "real" cost before you jump on the cheap option.
Speaking of which, cabin placement is important as well. You can pull up deck plans for most cruise ships, so know where you want to be. If you get seasick easily, then a middle cabin as close to the water line as possible is going to be best; definitely avoid the bow.
If you don't want a lot of noise, avoid the rear cabins near the engine, or anything under the dining hall, entertainment areas or dance floor. However, look at cabins near stairs or elevators for less walking.
You might end up paying a bit more to get just the cabin you want, but remember you're going to be living there for a week or more, so you want to be comfortable.
2. When to travel
Getting the destination and ship are good, but when you travel can make a difference in how much you pay. And you have several money-saving options available.
One great time to book a cruise is just after Labor Day. Summer vacation time is over, adults are going back to work and the kids are back to school. Cruise lines need to fill the ships, so they tend to offer better prices. The first week in December and just after New Year's Day are also money-saving times.
Similarly, people tend to avoid cruises during hurricane season, which is June 1 to November 30. If you travel during that time, you can find better deals. And don't worry; cruise ships can avoid hurricanes. However, if the cruise does have to be canceled, you'll get a refund or credit.
Booking 18 months in advance can get you lower rates, and you get to select your cabin before they fill up. The cruises to more exotic and coveted locations typically fill up a year before, so you want to make sure you get a spot.
Just be sure to wait until the final deadline to pay in case there's a price drop. Once you pay, you won't get a refund for any price difference.
If you aren't choosy about your cabin, you can try booking at the last minute, which is within three months of departure. Plenty of people cancel their bookings and the cruise lines offer big discounts to fill the space. Just take into account the cost of a last-minute flight and hotel room at the port where the cruise is departing.
Finally, see if you can find a "repositioning cruise." This is when a cruise line repositions a ship from one seasonal region to another and lets you tag along. It's a one-way trip, so you'll have to fly back, but the prices are really low.
3. Where to book
If you're booking a cruise online, it's handy to know that many of the major cruise websites, such as CruisesOnly, Cruises.com, LuxuryCruise.com, Cruises Inc. and more are owned by a single company: World Travel Holdings. It also provides inventory and deals for most of the major travel deal sites.
So, don't expect to find a cruise website with lower prices than the others. Instead, each cruise site will have its own focus and perks. Some might have deals with certain resorts on the route or airlines for cheaper travel to the port. So look around and see what extras your money can get you.
Once you have a good price, you should also call the cruise line directly and see if they can knock anything off the price, upgrade your cabin or offer other perks. You never know until you ask.
I've also seen plenty of travel experts recommend that for a first-time cruise you hire a travel agent. A knowledgeable agent can make sure everything you want is booked correctly and get you deals that you might not otherwise get.
However, watch out for upselling and always double-check the prices the agent quotes to see if you can get a better deal on things like airfare and hotel stays on your own.
Bonus Tip: Don't just book with the cruise line. Be sure to book with the attractions you want to visit at each stop so you don't arrive and find that the tickets are gone.
Are you a fan of cruises? Let me know your best tips for finding and booking cruises in the comments.