There are two schools of thought about how to get the most budget-conscious cruise fares. One is that you should comb last-minute Web site deals. The other is that you should book as much as a year in advance to take advantage of the cruise companies’ early-bird discounts.
A good rule to remember is this: If you don't care what kind of cabin you get on which itinerary, you may save a few extra dollars by waiting for a last-minute deal. But if your goal is to be aboard a specific boat in a particular level of cabin on the itinerary of your choice, you are much more likely to get the best deal with the companies’ early-booking programs. (You'll read more about how this works in Chapter 3.)
In general, if you want to try out cruising without busting your budget, you should look for short, two- to four-day itineraries in non-exotic ports of call. Simply choosing a three-day cruise, say, round-trip to New York that is all scenic cruising with no ports of calls will save you at least several hundred dollars because you will have no extra fees for excursions. If you can find a ship leaving from a city near your home—someplace like Fort Lauderdale, Florida, or San Francisco, California—you also will be able to put your limited budget to more use aboard your ship, as you will have no airfare expenses.
In the past, the last-minute deals have been the best, but that is beginning to change. As cruises have become more popular, many of the cruise lines are seeing more demand than they have cabins available—meaning they have no incentive to offer last-minute deals because their ships are already full.
Booking an inside cabin (without a view) is another way to stretch your vacation dollars, and in some cases, you really won't be sacrificing all that much. If, for example, you're the kind of person who likes to be out and about constantly, who only goes back to your cabin to shower and sleep, then paying for a balcony or an ocean-view suite really makes no sense for you. You might as well save your limited funds for excursions instead.
Sometimes, you can find longer itineraries that are good deals. Norwegian Cruise Line, for example, promotes its repositioning cruises as excellent bargains. Repositioning means the company needs to move its ship—for example, from the Caribbean at the end of the winter to the Mediterranean at the beginning of the summer. These cruises are bargains, if you don't mind sometimes skipping favorite ports of call or cruising during shoulder seasons (just before or after the summer rush, for example). Norwegian knows it cannot get top dollar for its cabins during a shoulder season going across the Atlantic Ocean with limited chances for you to get off the boat, so it lowers its rates to get at least some income during the trip. For you, this can sometimes mean cruising aboard for more than a week at less than $100 per day.