The best time to book cruises all year is heading into the home stretch, with just about two weeks left to go. ‘Wave Season’ -- as it’s called in the travel industry -- runs from January through March.

“Wave season is the busiest time of the year. Everyone is booking their cruises,” said travel agent Sue Ann Adams at AAA’s Bellaire Bluffs office.

That’s because some of the best deals all year are being offered right now, especially when it comes to perks.

“You can get gratuities, you can get cabin upgrades -- 3 or 4 levels up, you can get on-board credits, you can get your beverage package included,” Adams rattled off with the excitement of a bargain hunter.

Getting Free Perks

As you try to get the best deals, be sure to look closely at cabin pricing. If you upgrade to a higher cabin level or a suite, often times you can get more free perks, which can add up to a better overall value. For example, drink packages alone can run $40 to $60 a day.

Veteran cruising buddies Zoe Roseman and Josephine Campisi love it when they get their drink package included.

“We make good use of it!” Roseman said laughing.

Campisi says being part of a rewards program also gets you some good perks.

“They’ll give you a free excursion, or they’ll pay gratuities for us. Money-wise, you’re saving a lot with the perks,” she said.

Book 6 to 9 months ahead

Campisi and Roseman have been on more than two dozen cruises over the years.  They were at AAA picking up travel documents for an upcoming cruise to Amsterdam that they booked last year.

“2,400 dollars for 17 days! Beat that, you know!” Roseman exclaimed.

It’s best to book at least six to nine months before you sail to get the best prices and availability on a cruise line, especially if you’re picky about where you want your cabin to be on a ship.

“I like to be up high, the higher the better,” Campisi said, “and you don’t want to be by an elevator.”

There really is no drawback to booking early.  Even if the price goes down, you generally can rebook it without penalty.

“As long as your deposit is refundable, you can rebook under the lower fare,” Adams said.

Just keep an eye on the pricing yourself or have a travel agent do it for you.

“We’re your advocate, and we make sure you don’t leave any money on the table,” Adams said.

Travel agents often don’t cost you extra. They generally get paid by commissions from cruise lines, hotels and resorts (although airlines have not paid commissions to travel agents since the mid 1990s). 

Some travel agents do charge service fees, but many also are able to secure extra perks for travelers, in addition to their knowledge and assistance in booking.

Destination Deals

Some of the cheapest deals right now are to the Caribbean, as cruise lines try to attract people still wary after last year’s hurricanes.

“They have recovered from the hurricanes. They’re back open for business,” Adams said. “You can get on a cruise ship for $399 or $550 for a week cruise, as a cruise fare.”

To get those kind of prices, you do have to be flexible.  You’ll likely be in an inside cabin and would have to leave from Ft. Lauderdale or Miami.  But if you’re looking for a cheap deal, you can get it.

Even Mediterranean cruises, where the airfare can be a budget buster, can be affordable, if you know how to work the deal.

“What people don’t know is if you do your airfare through the cruise line, it’s generally going to be a better fare than if you book the airlines directly,” Adams said, “because they have contracts with negotiated prices.”

Repositioning Cruises

Another way to get a good deal is to book your trip on a "repositioning cruise.” 

That’s what Roseman and Campisi did for their latest cruise. Remember, they paid just $2,400 for 17 days. They’re leaving at the beginning of April to go to the Azores, Ireland, and finally to Amsterdam, where they’ll get off and fly home.

“The ship needs to go over to the other side of the world, where the season is over there, as opposed to here.  So, they just try to fill it up to get it back over there. That’s why we got this for such a good price,” Roseman explained.

River Cruises

One place it’s tough to get a cheap deal, right now, is on a river cruise.  They are the popular, new trend in cruising.

“They are hot!” Adams said. “People are booking two years in advance.”

On river cruises, the ship is smaller than the big ocean liners, but it still has the feel of a floating hotel.

“It’s more intimate,” Adams explained. “The river cruises get you into the heart of the cities, so you step off the ship, and everything is right there.  You go on excursions, which are included. It’s more about the destination.”

Among the most popular right now, according to Adams, are river cruises on the Rhine River and Danube River in Europe. (To learn more about river cruises and popular destinations watch the video link above.)

Takeaway Tips

Flexibility when you’re booking a cruise is the best way to get the best deal.  If you have specific things you want like having a certain type of cabin, leaving at a certain time of year and from a specific port, you’re likely going to pay more.

On the other hand, if you’re willing to travel off-season, i.e., not summertime when the kids are out of school or during holidays, more options are available.

“If you’re sailing in October or November, when it’s not a holiday—oh man, you can get some really good pricing!” Adams said with a big smile.