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Decoding cruise deals during Wave Season

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With December upon us, the holidays aren’t the only season that’s just around the corner. We’re also heading into Wave Season, which is the Black Friday and Cyber Monday of the cruise world.  But instead of one day, this sale lasts for three full months, running from January through March. 

Every year during this time, cruise lines roll out special deals, perks and upgrades in order to entice travelers to book early for their departures later in the year. However, beyond the frequent cruiser, it’s surprising how many other travelers are unaware of this season, and also unaware of the savings that can be had on ocean voyages all over the globe. 

The problem is that if you’re a first time cruiser, this time of year can also be dizzying with the array of choices you have.

In fact, there are so many different ships, offers and promotions, it’s difficult to know where to start and even tougher to discern a mediocre deal from the bargains you shouldn’t pass up. With the start of the season just a few weeks away, I’ve put together a handy guide to help you narrow down your options and book the ideal cruise to fit both your lifestyle and your travel budget.

Ride the Wave Season to Score the Best Deals
During Wave Season, deals are offered on departures for pretty much any time of the year. As a rule, the peak travel season for many destinations will be during the summer months of July and August, so prices will be higher for those dates. On the other hand, prices will be lower for sailings in early spring or fall when cruise lines are discounting even more to attract travelers onto these harder-to-fill ships. However, whether you’re looking to cruise in peak or off season, if you have some flexibility on your destination don’t jump on the first great deal you see. It could get better.

Often, cruise lines will set their deals and promotion structure ahead of Wave Season based on which destinations and ships they think will produce the most demand. As we enter the season, providers will closely monitor their predictions and if what they forecasted does not come true, prices will get slashed, whether the sailing is for peak season or not. We saw this happen last year when it came to European cruises, and a similar trend will likely happen this year. Where exactly that will happen is still unknown, but by taking a little chance and playing a waiting game, you could score some incredible savings.

Different Ships for Different Interests and Budgets
When you start planning your cruise, it’s best to go in knowing what type of ship suits you best, because even though the deals will be abundant, the amount of savings can vary depending on the cruise ship. Here are some high-level details on ship categories to give you a better idea of what you can expect on each:

--Big ships can hold up to 5,000 passengers and are designed to feel like destinations in themselves, offering everything from clubs to surfing to Broadway-style shows day and night. They’re typically the most affordable for cabin bookings, but extras like drinks and shore excursions often aren’t included and can really add up if you’re having wine at dinner or want to take advantage of the many activities while you’re in port.

--Medium ships are perfect for those looking for more personalization without breaking the bank. Holding up to 3,000 passengers, these ships cater to folks that are more interested in fine dining and service than the round-the-clock entertainment options found on bigger cruise liners.

--Small ships are the ideal choice if you’re in the mood for luxury. On these ships, guests will receive more “all inclusive” packages, as well as 1:1 crew-to-guest ratios, meaning superior service, dining and accommodations. They might have a higher price tag, but a small ship is well worth it if folks are interested in getting many of the things that would be considered “extras” on a larger ship, or if they just want a more exclusive getaway.

Dig a Little Deeper and Get Deeper Savings
During Wave Season, cruise lines and online travel sites offer a variety of promotions and packages, but not all are created equal. Some offer perks like on-board credits for drinks, spa treatments, shore excursions or even free or discounted flights or hotel rooms. Some offer all of the above. Be sure to take the time to evaluate what you’re getting from the various packages being offered to understand the true value of the offer. This will require a little more time, but it’s time well spent. Also, be sure to read the fine print. We know this is never fun, but when there are so many extra add-ons, they often come with added restrictions. Understand the fine print so you know the exact bookings to make sure you get all the added perks as advertised.

Furthermore, families or friends that are traveling with a larger group – such as 16 people – might want to consider taking advantage of “group rates”. Many cruise lines will offer extra discounts or even a buy one get one free offer if the party fills multiple rooms. Be sure to ask about these kinds of deals as they are not always advertised as much as other kinds of offers.

Pay in Installments
If you don’t want to wait out the season a little and want to book quickly, the best piece of advice I can share is to pay in installments. Many cruise lines will allow you to set up a payment plan for your booking. Then you can keep a watchful eye on the cruise you’ve purchased as prices can sometimes drop if cabins remain unfilled closer to the departure date. As an added bonus, folks who haven’t paid in full can then take advantage of a lower fare (i.e., a “re-fare”) and/or change their cabin at the last minute without incurring any penalty. It’s tougher to find these situations during the high season when cabins typically fill up, but folks can potentially upgrade from an interior cabin to a balcony cabin at little to no extra charge.  

If an ocean adventure is on your wish list for this upcoming year, be sure to do your research in the coming months. Happy Wave Season!

Clem Bason is the president of the Hotwire Group. Every month he provides FoxNews.com readers travel information, tips and advice to help them plan a fun, affordable trip.