Royal Caribbean’s newest ship, Allure of the Seas, has been a hot option for vacationers since it set sail on its maiden voyage one year ago this week. Ditto for the vessel’s nearly identical sister, Oasis of the Seas, which is turning two. As we reported earlier this week, the much-ballyhooed cruise ships — the world’s largest — continue to command significant price premiums versus most other mass-market vessels. Still, it’s not impossible to find a deal on the ships.
With Allure and Oasis entering their second and third years at sea, respectively, we quizzed several veteran cruise sellers about ways to save when booking the ships. Their top tips:
— Book early. Allure and Oasis sailings can be booked nearly two years in advance (as of now you can make bookings through Sept. 29, 2013), and it generally pays to be one of the first to lock in a cabin, particularly if you want a specific type of room such as a suite or a specific location on the ship, says Stewart Chiron of CruiseGuy.com. As sailings start to book up, Royal Caribbean usually raises the rates on remaining cabins, and some cabin categories become unavailable entirely. Take a photo tour of Allure of the Seas’ cabins.
“Rates on specific categories are cheapest in advance, (and) the top seven categories are usually first to sell-out,” Chiron says. At a minimum, you should have your fare locked in at least six months before sailing, he says. “If the price drops before your final payment is due, they’ll adjust it.”
— Book late. While as a rule fares rise as a sailing date approaches, there are times when Royal Caribbean unexpectedly finds itself with a handful of unfilled cabins just before a departure, and in that case the opposite happens: Fares come down. It’s hit or miss, but if you’re super flexible and can take off at the last minute, you’ll sometimes find Allure and Oasis included in the last-minute deals the line sends around to travel agents every Tuesday, notes Chuck Flagg of The Flagg Agency, a Cruise Holidays franchise in Canton, Ga.
PHOTO TOUR: A look inside Allure of the Seas
RELATED: See cabins on Allure of the Seas
A last-minute Royal Caribbean offer earlier this week included balcony cabins on the Allure sailing that begins on Dec. 11 — eight days from now — for $1,199 per person, based on double occupancy. That’s less than what the cabin was going for several months ago, says Flagg. Rates for a third or fourth person in a cabin also were reduced to $849, as was the “single supplement” penalty for a single person occupying a room for two.
“You must realize that your stateroom selection is not going to be as great as if you had purchased your cruise months ahead of time,” Flagg notes.
— Be flexible on your sailing dates. Family-friendly Allure and Oasis are in hot demand during holiday periods such as Christmas and New Year’s weeks when kids are out of school, as well as during Spring Break weeks and summer, and you’ll pay top dollar for a cabin during those periods, says Simon Duvall of Expedia CruiseShipCenters in Plantation, Fla.
“For the best deals, you have to look at off-peak dates,” Duvall says, noting that May and September are usually the most affordable months to book the ships. Just keep in mind that even during off-peak times Allure and Oasis still will be pricey as compared to other vessels. “You’re still going to pay a premium to sail on the biggest and the best.”
— Go Western. Based in Ft. Lauderdale, Allure and Oasis alternate between Eastern Caribbean and Western Caribbean sailings, and invariably the Western Caribbean itineraries are less pricey, says Chiron. It’s a quirk of supply and demand, as cruisers today favor Eastern Caribbean trips.
The funny thing is it wasn’t always this way. As recently as the 1990s, the Western Caribbean itinerary was more expensive because it had higher demand, notes Chiron. “Over the past 10 years preference shifted to the Eastern Caribbean.”
Royal Caribbean’s Western Caribbean itinerary for Allure and Oasis includes stops in Falmouth, Jamaica; Cozumel, Mexico; and the line’s private beach destination at Labadee, Haiti. The line’s Eastern Caribbean itinerary includes stops in St. Maarten, St. Thomas and Nassau in the Bahamas.
— Look for low-priced group space. Some travel agents will block group space on Allure and Oasis more than a year in advance, when prices are low. As the ships fill and prices increase, the agents are then able to offer a (sometimes substantially) lower fare to the consumer because they have a guaranteed number of cabins at a locked-in lower rate.
“When you see a travel agency promoting a cruise fare that’s several hundred dollars per person less than the cruise line is charging at the moment, chances are they have group space blocked,” says Duvall.
In addition to fare savings, another benefit of booking into an agent’s group is that extras such as a shipboard credit or pre-paid gratuities often are included, notes Duvall. The only catch: Unsold group space is taken back by the cruise line about four to six months before a sailing, so hunting for group space isn’t a way to snag a last-minute deal. The strategy works best for people shopping for a cruise 120 to 180 days in advance of a sailing, Duvall says.
One more thing on group space: Don’t be put off by the term “group.” You’re not going to be sailing with an alumni club or the local Kiwanis chapter or anything like that. “You’ll just be booking with other travelers who like a good value,” Duvall says. “Chances are you’ll never meet or even know any of the other people your travel agent booked on board.”