10 questions to ask before booking your cruise
You can find great values on cruises during shoulder seasons, which are just before and after high season. For the Caribbean and the Mexican Riviera, this is post-spring break (usually late March) through May, and late fall. For Alaska, it’s May and September. If you’re bound for New England or Canada, go during the window of time after the leaves have changed but before they’ve fallen from the trees—think late October. No matter where you’re heading, the best fares are between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and just after New Year’s.
Feeling brave? You can find deals during hurricane season, especially mid-August through October. Just be sure to invest in travel insurance!
Another way to save is to book a trip on a repositioning liner, when cruise lines move ships from one region to another for a new season. Routes include transatlantic crossings, when lines transfer vessels between Europe and the Caribbean, and coastal voyages, when ships travel from Alaska to the Mexican Riviera and from Canada and New England to the Bahamas and the Caribbean. There’s one caveat to the great prices: These are one-way trips, so you’ll embark in one city and depart in another—which means the airfare can be costly.
Beware of school-holiday periods: Presidents’ Day weekend, spring break, Christmas, and New Year’s are among the priciest sailings. They’re also hugely popular with traveling families—and dodging other people’s kids is no one’s idea of a getaway.
Here are 10 questions to ask before you book:
1. Are there discounts for groups?
Bottom line: Groups do have purchasing power. The standard discount is one free cruise fare for every 10 to 15 travelers, but sometimes cruise lines are willing to throw in perks such as a complimentary cocktail party or onboard credit.
2. Does the ship have traditional cruise dining, in which the passengers are told when, where, and with whom they’ll be eating?
If so, request your time slot when you book your cruise and specify that your group must dine together.
3. Are there specialty restaurants?
If you would like to have a nice meal together one night, make a reservation as early as possible. Alternative restaurants are growing in popularity and tend to fill up quickly. Also: Find out in advance if a surcharge will be applied to the meal.
4. Do we need to worry about a dress code?
Some cruise lines have a relaxed dress code during the day, some call for “country-club casual” throughout the cruise, and others have formal nights, when proper attire can range from fun cocktail dresses to full-length formal gowns.
5. What types of official ID should we bring?
In addition to your passport, some destinations require visas. Find out what you’ll need early, so you have time to apply for the proper documentation.
6. What organized tours does the cruise line offer at each port?
Ships give passengers a range of onshore tour options, from leisurely bus tours to thrilling zip-line excursions. If your group wants to go on any of these, book early while there’s still space for all of you. You can also book tours independently or explore on your own. Either of those options is usually cheaper, but know that getting back to the ship on time is your responsibility. The captain will almost always wait if you’re on one of the tours the cruise line has arranged, but not necessarily if you’re on your own.
7. Does the cruise line offer special rates for pre- and post-cruise hotel stays? Do these deals include transfers to and from the ship?
Always find out the hotel’s rates on your own to make sure you’re actually getting a deal. Also, some hotels will let you park your car in their lots for the duration of the cruise, saving you the fees for parking at the port.
8. Can we book transportation to and from the departure port through the cruise line?
Some cruise lines offer package fares that include airline tickets. Lines also have air/sea departments that will offer to book your tickets for you. The service is convenient, but the price isn’t always the best; compare what it would cost if you bought the tickets on your own.
9. What’s the policy on deposits and refunds?
Policies depend on the cruise line and the trip length. A seven-night cruise usually requires a deposit of about $250; the full amount is usually due 70 to 90 days before departure. Refund rules vary, too, but most lines allow you to cancel with no penalty up to the time when your final payment is due.
10. What’s a fuel surcharge, and how much will I pay?
In response to the rising cost of fuel, cruise lines now tack on a fuel surcharge. It’s usually per person, up to a certain number of people per cabin, and per day (with a maximum amount). You pay it on top of your cruise fare—and the cruise lines do reserve the right to increase it at any time.