Never heard of wave season? The “calendar phenomenon,” as one cruise industry executive calls it, is that sweet spot when cruise lines announce their best and broadest offers. Free air. Cabin upgrades. Discounted cruise fares. And heads up, cruisers, because it’s happening right now.
“Wave season is sort of like the Black Friday or Cyber Monday of the cruise industry — only it lasts three months,” says Josh Gershenson, executive producer of Travelzoo’s vacation and cruise department. “There are some very aggressive packages with some very attractive incentives out there.”
Traditionally, wave season lasts from January through February or March, depending on the cruise line. This year, offers began to surface as early as mid-December. What does this mean for the consumer? Book your cruise during wave season, and you’ll get the best offers on 2017 and early 2018 departures. While there will be last-minute flash sales year-round, none will match the scope of the wave season offers.
“It may not be the cheapest fare, but it offers the best in value. It’s peak booking season,” notes Joni Rein, vice president of sales and marketing USA for Scenic and Emerald Waterways. “Sure, there are some really inexpensive deals when a ship doesn’t fill up, but for the average consumer planning the perfect seven-day cruise in Europe, you’re not going to be buying those one-offs. Plus, most people aren’t going to Europe on a few weeks’ notice.”
Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, president and CEO of Celebrity Cruises, calls wave season a “calendar phenomenon” that got its start decades ago when winter-weary Americans began to think about vacation planning. “Wave is probably the biggest event any of us have — it’s very important for all of us,” she said. “We are able to judge our year a lot based on what happens in wave.”
At the moment, the hottest bookings are Alaska, Europe and that get-out-of-the cold perennial, the Caribbean.
“If it’s a mild winter, people are less likely to think about getting away,” says Steve Simao, vice president of sales for Windstar Cruises. “With these storms in January, our phones have been really busy.”
Wave season perks range from free premium beverage packages to kids sail free to buy one cruise fare get one free. There are oceans of offers. Here are a few standouts:
— Windstar Cruises’ “Star Perks” event includes reduced fares plus a free perk when booked by Feb. 24. Passengers can choose one free perk per cabin, such as two free hotel nights; free premium beverage package; free unlimited Wi-Fi; or a shipboard credit of up to $1,000.
— MSC Cruises is offering two-for-one Caribbean and Europe fares, and it recently reduced its $200 booking deposit to $49 a person. Kids 11 and under sail free on select cruises. And passengers who book a balcony stateroom on the MSC Seaside, launching in December, will also get a $50 shipboard credit per stateroom, free Wi-Fi and a complimentary mealtime drinks package for two. The offer is good through March 31.
— Cunard’s “Upgrades on Us” promotion through Feb. 28 is available on select voyages on the Queen Mary 2, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth. Perks include a free double upgrade from an inside to a balcony stateroom and reduced deposit requirements. Past guests receive free gratuities. Grill Suites passengers get an upgrade and free drinks. The deal applies to some of the new themed voyages, including A Journey of Genealogy, a first-ever collaboration with Ancestry.com, and Transatlantic Fashion Week, which will feature an array of fashion shows, exhibitions, lectures and hosted dinners.
Cruise Lines International Association estimates that more than 25 million people will take a cruise this year, a 60 percent increase from a decade ago. What many of them will find out — if they haven’t already — is that cruise fares can be complex and difficult to decipher. Here’s what the pros advise:
— It sounds retro, but consider using a travel agent. “In the internet age, there’s a lot of product out there, and it can be overwhelming,” says Katie Powell, owner of an Expedia CruiseShipsCenter in Naperville, Ill. “When you book directly with a cruise line, you’re talking to an order taker. Unless you ask for that $600 shipboard credit, they’re not going to offer it. A travel agent knows what to ask for.” Companies such as Expedia also have search engines that allow agents to instantly compare brands, itineraries, pricing and perks. “We can narrow it down based on what’s the best fit for you.”
— Flexibility matters. Most cruise lines will offer sales on cabins no one else wanted 45 days in advance of a departure. “If you’re not tied down, this is a sweet spot. They still want to fill the ships,” according to Chuck Flagg, who operates Cruise Planners in Canton, Ga. Just as with air fares, the very same cruise fare may differ from week to week or month to month. “If you can be flexible, it could mean a difference of $100 per person,” he adds. Fares are cheapest during the school year. “If you don’t have kids, go when the kids are in school. Cruise when other people can’t.”
— Track your booking. If you find a price you’re willing to pay, book it, says Tanner Callais, who runs Cruzely.com. Then track it. If you discover that the line has reduced the fare, ask for the new fare. “I recommend you check the price every couple of weeks. If it’s lower, call them up. They will often reduce it, or if they can’t, they’ll throw in an onboard credit to make you happy,” he said. “They want happy cruisers.”