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Now is one of the best times to book a cruise — here's how to get a great deal

The Seven Seas Explorer
Source: Norwegian Cruise Lines
The Seven Seas Explorer

Right now is one of the best times to find a good deal on a cruise vacation. You can catch the end of what's known in the industry as "wave season" (typically January through March) when many companies are rapidly rolling out promotions.

"It's sort of like the Black Friday period for cruising, it's the time when most of the lines do offer some sort of incentive," Chris Gray Faust, managing editor of Cruisecritic.com, tells CNBC Make It.

And you still have time. "March and April are kind of low months for cruise-line booking, so cruise lines have extra promotions," says Makoto Rheault-Kihara, the director of marketing at Seahub, a cruise-booking site. "And cruise-booking sites ... [also] add extra promotions to compensate. So it's a pretty good time to book."

Here are some tips and tricks to make sure you're getting the best deal and some standout promotions to take advantage of.

Know what the deals are

When it comes to booking a cruise, there are two types of deals, Gray Faust explains.

"One of them is the slashed fares," says Gray Faust, "either through a discount, or you see a lot of things like buy one, get one free. Or they'll do a discount on extra passengers in [a] cabin, which is great for a family."

For example, Royal Caribbean is currently offering 30 percent off cruise fares on select Royal Caribbean cruises and an additional $200 in savings.

Another type of deal Gray Faust sees this time of year are add-on values.

"That's when the cruise lines don't necessarily lower the fare, but you get more in the fare…on a luxury line it might be airfare," Gray Faust says. "On a more mainstream line, it might be beverage packages, a cabin upgrade, on-board credit, free gratuities, free Wi-Fi, those types of things."

Gray Faust suggests would-be passengers pay attention to value-adds because they can help you save quite a bit of money. Possibly "more so than a slashed fare, particularly if it's tailored to something you personally are looking for," she says.

Current value-added offers include Norwegian's Free At Sea promotion, which consists of perks like a drinks package, a specialty dining package, $50 per port to spend on shore excursions and even free third and fourth passengers to a cabin.

When deciding between a slashed fare deal or an added value deal, Gray Fare recommends really examining what is important to you when cruising.

"The fare itself is not the only thing," she emphasizes. "It's what are you getting for that fare."

Book strategically

Many current deals are valid for departure dates beginning in 2019. That can sound intimidating, but it doesn't have to be.

"Unlike flights, there isn't this really optimal level of time where it's better to book," says Rheault-Kihara of Seahub.

Some cruise lines have lowest price guarantee policies too. Carnival, for example, says if you find a Carnival deal advertised somewhere else within two days of booking your cruise, they will give you 110 percent of the difference in on-board credit.

It's also often possible to get a full refund if you cancel far enough in advance, but there can be steep cancellation fees the closer you get to your departure date, so planning is key.

In fact, in some cases it may actually make more financial sense to cancel your booking, lose your deposit and then re-book on a cheaper cruise, Sherry Kennedy, cruising expert and blogger behind the website Cruise Maven explains.

"Before you make your final payment…which is generally usually 70, 80 even 90 days prior to your sailing date, check to see if rates have dropped. [At that point] you've only invested your deposit," Kennedy says.

"Say you lose the $500 [deposit], but the rate for the new cabin is $800 less than what you originally paid. Then you've got a $300 savings," she explains.

Cruise deposits typically run between $250 to $1,000 per state room or per person. Cruiseline.com estimates that cruise fares typically range from $400 to $1,400 per person, but prices vary widely and can go much, much higher.

As booking early to take advantage of a deal can get you good rates, so can booking a little later.

Kennedy explains the big travel agencies will block 100 to 200 cabins as soon as the ship's deployment is announced, which she says is around 18 months before sailing. Then they will try and sell those rooms.

At 90 and 60 days before the sailing, the travel agencies have to return their unsold inventory to the cruise line, Kennedy explains.

"That means if you're watching your calendar, at the 60-day mark or 90-day mark before sailing, you contact the cruise line and chances are there will be a glut of cabins that are being returned," says Kennedy. "That's when you might find some special deals and promotions." Just be mindful of cancellation penalties since you're booking so close to the departure date.

Go in a group

"The more people you book with, the better the price will get," says Rheault-Kihara. "So you'll get a lot of things like kids go free, drink packages, if you get a lot of people."

Norwegian Cruise Line, for example, is offering group discounts, including for every 14 passengers and seven cabins, two people cruise free; or for every 14 passengers and seven cabins, one cruises free, plus your choice of two amenities (which range from beverage packages to shore excursion credits).

Meanwhile, with minimum of 16 guests, Royal Caribbean is offering a cruise credit for every eight staterooms that sail with your group, which can be used towards the cost of the cruise fares.

On the other hand, if you're a single traveler, be on the lookout for reductions in the "single supplement," which is an additional charge for one person in a cabin. Cruise Critic reports that single supplements can range from an additional 10 percent of the rate up to a 100 percent.

"Sometimes on the smaller ships that have a higher ticket price, they will waive a solo supplement. That could be on a river cruise; they're really nice for solo passengers," Kennedy says.

Consider older ships

"A lot of people tend to look at the newer ships, naturally, but the older ships are just as good or almost as good, but much, much cheaper," Rheault-Kihara says.

Currently, a two-day Australian cruise aboard Princess Cruises' Majestic Princess (which launched in 2017) starts at around $384 per person for an interior room, while the rate on the line's Sun Princess (which launched in 1995) for the same room on the same route goes for $229.

Book for an off-season vacation

Wave season or not, you can get really great rates if you book to travel during cruising off-season, when rates are lower, according to Kennedy.

"A Caribbean cruise in September? Yeah, you're going to get a good rate. A Caribbean cruise in the middle of June? No, it's going to be high, no matter what you do," she says.

Kennedy says slow travel periods typically occur in the first few days after the New Year in January, right before Memorial Day in May, the first week of September, shortly before Thanksgiving in November and the middle of December.

In addition to wave season, "Those are ... times you can get a really good deal," Kennedy says.

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