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How to Find the Best Cruise Bargains (Photo: Cruise Critic)

How to Find the Best Cruise Bargains in 2018

What's in store for 2018 for cruisers seeking low prices and great value? We asked a panel of eight cruise and travel professional for their tips and insight into finding the absolute best cruise bargains this year -- and when to book them. Find out the destinations that will stay cheap and the ships that won't, as well as the surprising perks of using a travel agent to book your cruise.

Predicting where and when savvy cruise shoppers are most likely to find dirt-cheap seven-night South Pacific cruises, elusive five-category upgrades or the best cruise packages offering free drinks and spending-money requires a crystal ball. While travel agents can't see into the future of cruise deals, they do have a few tricks up their sleeves when looking for the best cruise prices and overall value.

We asked a few knowledgeable cruise sellers for their best tips on finding cheap cruise deals, getting extra freebies and making the best choices for your next sailing. Here's what you need to know.

Book now if you want to cruise on new ships or to exotic destinations.

The most popular cruises change from year to year, but one fact remains: You need to book those cruises early because they sell out fast. "Cruises can be locked in up to two years in advance. The best time to book is sooner rather than later as this means you have a better chance of getting exactly what you want," says Kerrie Croft, an experienced agent at Travel Counsellors. Cruise specialist Marion Picot from Orbit World Travel agrees. "When a new destination or ship is announced, these always sell well, so it is advisable to book early to avoid disappointment."

River cruising remains a popular option, with new rivers and destinations becoming available for regular cruisers seeking something new. Manager at Perchalla & Turner Travel Associates Becky Kent-Perchalla tips Portugal as one of the hottest river cruising destinations right now. Vietnam and Cambodia are also increasing in popularity, as is the Amazon. Even better, you don't need to rough it. "With the rise of quality cruise lines venturing into new, exotic destinations like the Amazon, you no longer have to do these rivers like a backpacker," says Croft, who once experienced this first-hand.

Australians are still cruising overseas, particularly in the Mediterranean and Alaska, but the South Pacific remains our No. 1 destination. With more ships based in our region than ever before, the deals can be incredible. As Tim Faircloth, the Director of I Love Cruising points out, "The more ships there are, the more competition there is. In February there were 46 ships departing Sydney alone." Cruising in peak months can equate to stellar deals for travellers who can be flexible on ships and sail dates.

If you think the attacks in Europe, which have been making headlines, will lead to fewer international bookings from local cruisers, think again. "Australians tend to be pretty resilient. They understand the need for caution but many are disappointed they can no longer visit certain ports such as those in Turkey." says Kent. "They don't like this choice being taken away from them." In some ways, a cruise is the safest holiday travellers can take. "I think the beauty of being on a cruise is the ability to be able to move locations when issues arise, whether that be political unrest in cruise destinations or unforeseen weather conditions," says Jill Rimmer, Assistant Branch Manager at Phil Hoffmann Travel. "Passenger safety is always the No. 1 priority."

If you want a deal, skip the school holidays.

There are tricks of the trade for finding a bargain at any time of year but agents agree that cruising outside school holidays, particularly in February, March and November, offers the best deals. "In February, the kids have just had six weeks off and are back at school. In November, you can get in before the Christmas rush," says Faircloth. Repositioning cruises to and from Australia also offer more nights for less money. "Look at the price per day," suggests Faircloth. "Some of the longer cruises on premium brands such as Princess or Holland America offer exceptional value. It often works out the same price per day as Carnival." Repositioning cruises are a particularly good deal for Australians who don't want to cruise with lots of kids on-board, as they typically take place outside school holidays.

October also offers great deals for Australian cruisers, as this is CLIA Cruise Month. During this month, cruisers can pick up discounted fares and onboard offers such as free beverage packages, gratuities, onboard credit, category upgrades, specialty dining and spa treatments. "Even the lines that don't discount still have bonuses," says Kent.

In addition, some lines also offer reduced deposits and third/fourth passenger rates during this period.

While it is tempting to snap up a cheap deal, the best way to compare offers or decide if you're getting a good deal is to look at the whole holiday (including airfare and how much you'll spend onboard for drinks, shore excursions and other purchases) and then put a dollar amount on the extra-value perks to see how much you're really saving or spending.

Bigger is not always better.

While there is a trend toward larger ships such as Ovation of the Seas, they are not for everyone. "These ships draw in the kids and therefore the adults. However, activities like ice rinks, water parks and dodgem cars only account for a very small amount of time onboard," says Faircloth, who points out that Royal Caribbean's iFly takes one minute and Carnivals' Green Thunder waterslide lasts just four seconds. "At the end of the day, it is food, entertainment and service that matters most to passengers."

If you aren't fond of lining up or simply don't like being part of a big crowd, a smaller mainstream ship with less bells and whistles could be a better option. Kent suggests thinking about your reasoning behind choosing a certain cruise line or ship. "Just because it is a good deal does not mean it is a good cruise for you. Value comes down to getting what you want and having a good time while you are onboard."

While larger ships are well suited to multi-generational groups, agents report mature cruisers travelling without extended family are moving to smaller, expedition-type ships and seeking interesting destinations to explore. Picot says these passengers, as well as discerning travellers, are also attracted by upmarket all-inclusive lines such as Seabourn or Silversea, which offer a more boutique experience.

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Book early for the best deals.

All the travel agents agree: Cruise lines offer their best deals (both prices and added-value offers) early, and are not dropping prices as frequently on close-to-departure sailings. Croft explains that cruise lines used to have their best deals close to the sailing date but this meant people would hold off booking. Now they are encouraging people to book early. It is a win-win situation for passengers as those who book 12 to 18 months out can still keep an eye on prices and upgrade to a better deal with no penalty before final payment is due. As Rimmer points out, it can go either way. However, if you have your heart set on a cruise that is 90 per cent full, you will almost certainly be paying a lot more than fellow passengers who got early-bird savings and onboard credits from booking in advance.

Late bookings can also come with a catch. "Quite often last-minute bookings are on a guarantee basis, which means you are unable to select a particular cabin. This can be tricky for people travelling with family or friends who want to be in the same area of the ship or passengers who like to be close to the elevators," says Rimmer. Croft agrees, adding there is also a chance you could end up with a cabin in a noisy area of the ship, such as under a nightclub or next to a crew service area, if you hold off booking until the last minute.

In 2018, it's all about doing the maths.

When it comes to getting the best value for your cruising dollar, you have to look at the whole package. "It's about doing comparisons between lines and looking at the inclusions," explains Rimmer. "It can be as simple as checking the price difference between an inside cabin and an ocean view that entitles you to a free drinks package or onboard credit. It is all about doing the maths when it comes to getting the best deal overall," she says.

It also pays to remember that the cheapest deals don't always offer the best value. Take river cruising, for example. As Croft points out, river cruises might seem expensive but many of them have everything included, from shore excursions to gratuities and unlimited Champagne. However, not all river cruises are created equal. "There are lots of different brands and not all of them are all-inclusive," cautions Croft. "Some lines might seem cheap but you could end up on an inferior ship and still be paying the same amount -- or even more -- by the time you add on the cost of things like excursions."

Agents all agree it is worth joining cruise line loyalty programs, which can give you access to upgrades and onboard perks with little or no effort on your part. Tim Faircloth knows a passenger who was upgraded five times due to their Elite status on Princess. Even entry-level loyalty tiers offer onboard goodies that can help to make your cruise more enjoyable.

Use a travel agent to get a good deal on a great cruise holiday.

If you're after savings -- or the best possible value on a cruise -- you might be surprised to learn that a travel agent can help you find the best deal.

"Travellers often think that booking with a travel agent will add extra fees to their cruise fare. It is certainly not the case at Orbit World Travel. We will always match the cruise price and offer our service free of charge," says Picot. Agents know which promotions can be combined with others to get you an even better deal and can point you toward the ship, sail date or cabin category with the greatest value. "An obstructed French door cabin on Carnival Spirit only costs an extra $100 or so more than an inside cabin," suggests Faircloth. "It's a significant upgrade to your onboard experience for very little cost."

Plus, travel agents can sweeten the deal even further with group bookings, where agencies reserve a block of cabins and pass the savings on to their clients. In addition to a lower fare, you'll receive additional amenities, such as shipboard credits, access to special onboard events (dinners, parties) and exclusive shore tours.

Agents also suggest not limiting yourself to advertised specials. "A number of luxury and smaller lines do not advertise because they don't need to," says Rimmer. Agents are aware of all the deals that are on offer, not just those which are advertised in the weekend paper, and can help you choose the one that is right for you.

Travel agents are knowledgeable about the different cruise products out there, and they can match you with the best choice for your preferences and budget. A good travel agent will spend time talking to you, especially if you are a first time cruiser, and getting a sense of your lifestyle, travel background and what is going to make you happy. No computer can offer the shared excitement and in-depth product knowledge that a travel agent can. After all, planning the trip is half the fun.

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