AIDAluna on the Elbe, June 2010Credit: Frank Schwichtenberg GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL) and/or CreativeCommons (CC)


Are you looking for a dream vacation on a budget? Do you know someone who snagged an unbelievable cruise deal and would like to know how they did it? Or are you simply a compulsive bargain hunter? If you answer "yes" to any of these questions, you might be interested in the marketing tactics of cruise lines, how they fill unsold cabins, and how this knowledge could help you nail a great deal.

Cruise Lines and Travel Agents

Cruise lines begin by selling blocks of cabins to major travel agents or to travel wholesalers for resale to smaller travel agents. Agents can sell cabins up to a specified deadline, after which they return unsold tickets to the cruise line.

Cruise ships are rarely fully booked. The number of passengers booked on a ship is limited by its lifeboat capacity: the ship cannot take on more people than the number of lifeboat seats that it can provide. Also, some unsold cabins are kept on hand in case of emergencies. If some passengers have problems with their cabins, for example, having a few empty rooms enables cruise staff to move guests into new accommodations.

One of the Carnival Sensation's lifeboats lowered for maintenance while the cruise ship is docked in Freeport Harbour, The Bahamas.Credit: Broken sphere via Wikimedia Commons

Having said that, it obviously makes good business sense for a ship to be as fully booked as possible. A full cruise ship is a profitable cruise ship. In addition to maximizing booking revenue, there are more guests to spend money at the bars, gift shops and casinos.

Cruise lines are therefore highly motivated to sell the tickets that travel agents return to them.

Cabin Upgrades

Sometimes cruisers are pleasantly surprised when the company offers them a cabin upgrade. What they are unaware of is that these upgrades are part of the cruise line's strategy to deal with unsold cabins.


Queen Mary CabinCredit: David Krieger via Creative Commons

When agents return tickets, the company looks at empty high end cabins and contacts confirmed guests to offer them upgrades. While this action is guaranteed to create a happily satisfied customer, it also enables the cruise line to free up reasonably-priced cabins for resale at attractive discount prices.

Bulk Cabin Sales

Cheap cabin resales are usually handled by the cruise line’s travel agent partners or a travel clearing house such as the on-line ticket seller vacationstogo. The cruise line benefits because the vendor can provide them with confirmed bookings. At the same time, the vendor benefits because they can offer customers amazing deals.

Deep Cruise Discounts

The cruise line's final strategy is to offering deep discounts on the last remaining cabins.

These last minute deals may be discounted by as much as 75-80%. However, deep discounts create a marketing problem for the cruise line, which needs to maintain its luxury image and avoid getting a "bargain basement" reputation. In addition, it does not want to upset confirmed passengers who paid a much higher rate, and it certainly does not want to be seen as undercutting its own travel agent partners.

These deals are therefore hard to find. They are often marketed as exclusive rates for select groups. The cruise line may offer them only to residents at a specific port of departure, to frequent customers, or to preferred travel agents in conjunction with advertising restrictions.  Because they are not allowed to advertise these tickets widely, agents may target a select clientele in a membership newsletter or contact individuals by phone or e-mail.

Taking Advantage of a Cruise Deal

Unsold cabins usually become available within 90 days of departure. The travel website cruisecritic advises bargain hunters to seek a cruise line's preferred agents. They also recommend following up on an agent's invitation to "call for low rates", a phrase which could indicate they have one of those unbelievable but difficult to find deals.

The best deal I was ever lucky enough to get was through the automobile association. They phoned with an unbelievable price on a Panama Cruise, and asked for an immediate decision. Of course, I jumped at the offer. Interestingly, I discovered on the cruise that the rest of those tickets had been snapped up by travel agents.

A Word of Caution

If you come across an awesome deal, you should also be prepared to encounter a downside. Your cabin may be uncomfortably small. It may be located in a noisy, high traffic area or, at the other extreme, too far away from the action. You may be travelling at a less popular time of year. The cheapest Alaskan cruises, for example, are offered either very early or very late in the season when the weather is misty and cold, while tropical cruises are usually cheapest during storm season.

Buffet cook on cruise ship, 1998Credit: Joe+Jeanette Archie via Wikimedia Commons

You also need to be aware that the ticket price is not your only expense. Meals and on board entertainment are provided. However, staff gratuities will cost $10-$15 per person per day, and bar drinks will set you back between $6 and $10 each. Everything is painlessly charged to your cabin, so you will be tempted to visit the casino or the spa, pay for shore excursions, purchase photos from the ship's photographer or an art work from the art auction, and buy high end gift shop merchandise with price tags to match. It is therefore vitally important to track your on-board spending so that you are not faced with a final bill which greatly inflates the price of your "cheap" cruise.

The temptation of on board spending seems to have gotten worse in the last few  years. The cruise industry is highly competitive and cruise lines appear to be attracting passengers with low unprofitable ticket prices and then recouping their losses from passengers after they are on board.

Nova star 2Credit: Bd2media own work via Wikimedia CommonsWhen I cruised the Panama in 1995, tipping was optional and the only additional expenses were bar drinks and shore excursions. There were free exercise and entertainment programs throughout the day and amazing food choices, from afternoon desserts and liqueur topped ice cream to a decadent midnight chocolate buffet. There was free room service, and formal evening dining where guests could order an unlimited number of portions.

But I have noticed that cruise hospitality has gradually become less generous. On my most recent cruise in 2014 the only free dining options were the buffet and two full service restaurants which offered identical menus. These were complemented by a selection of specialty restaurants which charged premium prices, and there was also a fee for room service. I refused to use the internet because WiFi fees worked out at about a dollar a minute, and was annoyed to discover there was a $5 charge for all exercise activities. In addition, cruise staff seemed to spend most of their time pestering guests to buy pull tabs and raffle tickets. 

But if this scenario does not deter you from seeking a bargain, you should be prepared to travel off season and to settle for whatever cabin is available. If you do come across an unbelievable last minute deal you will need to decide quickly and make last minute travel arrangements.