The cruise industry has gotten in on the holiday shopping act — but that doesn’t mean travelers should scoop up the deals cruise lines are offering this weekend.
Nearly every major cruise line is offering some sort of promotion to coincide with Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Royal Caribbean
is offering 60% off the fare for a second guest and up to $300 in additional savings. Carnival Cruise Line
is advertising a “dockbuster” sale, with up to 35% off cruises in upcoming months and on-board credit. And Norwegian Cruise Line
is allowing consumers who book this weekend to pick from a range of six additional perks including drinks and wi-fi packages, free airfare and other deals.
While the deals may sound enticing, travel experts recommended consumers explore them with caution.
Don’t miss: 5 of the best travel deals — like $69 flights to Europe — to snap up this holiday weekend
“The turkey season deals tend to offer lots of stuffing and no meat,” said cruise industry expert and founder of CruiseGuy.com Stewart Chiron. “Many of these cruise sales are offering the same, mundane enticements that they’ve been offering all year, hoping a little gravy might do the trick.”
Here is what travelers should keep in mind before booking one of these holiday-season cruise line deals.
Cruise lines do run promotions throughout the year
Consumers shouldn’t feel the need to rush to book that cruise to the Bahamas or Alaska.
“As far as the quality of savings, many of the deals are quite similar to those we see offered as early booking incentives and during Wave Season – the annual period from January through March, which has typically served as the cruise industry’s own ‘Black Friday,’” Colleen McDaniel, senior executive editor of travel website Cruise Critic, in an email.
To ensure they’re not potentially missing out on a better deal, travelers should look up what discounts the cruise line they’re considering has offered at other times of the year. Consumers can find what discounts cruise lines have previously advertised by checking out sites like SmarterTravel, Cruise Fever and Cruise Critic.
Those who do choose to book now shouldn’t stop hunting for better offers though. “With pretty much every cruise line as long as you’re outside of the final payment, if a better deal comes up you can switch to that deal,” said Ben Souza, editor of travel website Cruise Fever.
Also see: The number of cruise ships failing health and safety inspections hits 10-year high
The best deals are only available for the most expensive packages
Take the Black Friday special on offer from Norwegian: The advertising says customers can get up to six free offers including unlimited open bar, free additional guests and airfare for booking. But that deal is only available to those who book the most expensive staterooms, including concierge-level and suites. Those who choose to book the cheapest room — such as a studio or inside stateroom — only get to pick one free offer from the various deals Norwegian is making available.
Similarly, one of the offers from Princess Cruises says it includes up to $800 in onboard spending money. In reality, the onboard spending money is allocated based on the number of people in the stateroom, the length of the cruise and the type of room. So four people staying in a suite for a voyage of 13 days would get $800 total, but a single person staying in an interior room on a six-day cruise only gets $50.
Look for deals on additional passengers
Among the Black Friday deals offered by Royal Caribbean is a “kids cruise free” special for select sailings. With that offer, a couple would not need to pay the fares for their two children if they are under the age of 12. While the parents would still be on the hook for the taxes and fees for the kids’ fares, that deal could represent major savings for a family of four, Souza said.
“Royal Caribbean has been offering [this deal] on and off throughout the year, but it’s not something that’s common,” he said.
Of course, there’s a catch: The kids need to be the third and fourth guests in the stateroom. So a single parent traveling with two kids wouldn’t get free fares for both of them. And the offer does not apply to sailing during popular school breaks, including spring and summer vacation periods.
Read more: Royal Caribbean’s $1 billion deal shows demand for cruises off the beaten path
Consider the additional cost of upgrades and other travel expenses
A cruise vacation is described as all-inclusive, because the fare includes the cost of food, lodging and some entertainment. But vacationers still need to pay for everything else — from alcoholic drinks to their airfare to and from the port of departure.
Many cruise lines offer freebies as part of their Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals. But not all packages are created equally — or as Chiron puts it, “Beware of free drink packages.”
Consumers should run a price comparison of the different freebies they can opt for before choosing one. Someone who plans to drink on the cruise vacation may be well-served by a free drink package, but if you’re the type of person who doesn’t even drink a full glass of wine at dinner it might be a waste.
That said the free airfare deals, particularly for European cruises, can represent as much value as the cost of the cruise fare, making them particularly attractive.
Keep an eye out on the fine print with deposits
One of the popular promotions offered this time of year is the low-cost deposit. Rather than pay the typical deposit of $200 or so to book, cruise lines such as Celebrity Cruises and Carnival are letting passenger only put $25 or $50 down on a booking.
For travelers, that can leave them with more flexibility in their budgets between now and when they sail, which can be helpful if they’re booking a cruise that’s a year or more out.
But with these holiday season specials, cruise lines may make their deposits non-refundable, Souza said, especially with these low cost deals. Given that a lot can happen over the span of a year or longer, consumers may want to consider avoiding an offer if it means that they won’t get their deposit back.
Additionally, if consumers choose to switch to another package, they may be forced to fork over a larger deposit if they opted for one of these low-cost options.
Jacob Passy is a personal-finance reporter for MarketWatch and is based in New York.
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