Hidden cruise deals: how to nab flash sales

While researching a recent story on summer’s best Alaska cruise bargains, I was dumbfounded to discover jaw-dropping $299 rates for a last-minute 7-night Princess Cruises sailing to Alaska — one of the best-value fares I’ve stumbled upon during my many years of travel deal-hunting. The only problem? They seemingly weren’t available to everybody, with the $299 fares populating on the Princess website for me, but not for my editor, who was located in another region (fares there showed up from $599 for the same sailing).

Intrigued, we decided to dig deeper on these fare discrepancies and uncovered a world of hidden cruise deals and short-lived “flash” sales.

Karen Candy, media relations manager for Princess, revealed that the $299 Alaska fares were likely showing up regionally, since the cruise line sometimes has limited flash sales that are targeted to specific markets. A rarity for any travel provider: They explicitly did not want any publicity on these blink-and-you’ll-miss-them fares. Candy explained, “They are restricted, offered very close in on sailings with space, and are offered in very limited quantities.”

Across the cruise industry, these flash fares are offered primarily to offload excess inventory. They typically aren’t widely publicized and are targeted to niche audiences in markets limited by either geography or other qualifiers (e.g., seniors, local residents, past guests). Alternatively, cruise lines might promote flash fares through preferred partner travel agents.

Erica Silverstein, features editor at online cruise guide Cruise Critic, explained that the limitations on the fares were applied “. . . so cruise lines can target marketing, and also so they don’t have to reduce fares for everyone who has already booked that cruise.” Obviously, reducing cruise fares in a more public arena could upset cruisers who have already booked in at a higher rate.

Of course, these aren’t deals that are going to show up in a Google search or be blatantly advertised; turning them up requires a little finagling. Silverstein said, “You’ll want to access flash sales for cruise lines you like and for travel agencies you trust.”

The easiest way is to sign up for free cruise line e-newsletters to get notifications of their short sales. Popular cruise lines like Holland America Line and Princess are especially known for their flash sales. Paul Motter, editor of popular online cruise resource CruiseMates.com, said, “Norwegian Cruise Line has a sale every two weeks, but when Princess Cruises has a sale, the prices are definite bargains and when the sale is over they will go back up. Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, Carnival…I recommend getting on all of their newsletters.”

Even smaller cruise companies offer flash sales. River cruise line Avalon Waterways promotes such discounting once or twice a season, using social media outlets like Facebook. An Avalon Waterways representative explained, “We tease the sale to our Facebook friends a day or two before it begins, and we typically run the sale for a limited time, about three to five days, on Facebook only.” From there, customers can use the associated Facebook promotion code to book online, by phone or with a travel agent.

As for special unpublicized rates that only top-selling travel agents can get their hands on, Silverstein said, “Often, the line will let the agent sell that fare to people who come to the agent looking for a cruise but won’t let the agent publicly announce the fare. Whenever you see a price listed as ‘call for price,’ it’s very often a sign that there’s an undisclosed discounted fare, so it’s worth your while to call and inquire about deals.”

Motter suggested establishing a relationship with a cruise-specialist travel agent by reaching out with some of the details of the cruise vacation that you’re looking for and promising business if they can deliver. “Just say ‘Call me when you have a real bargain’ and leave your phone number,” Motter recommends. “He should call you within a couple of weeks with a few options.”

Just what kind of inventory can you expect deals on? “Flash fares will focus on whatever is not selling as well as expected, where cruise lines need to fill open cabins,” Silverstein said.

Motter elaborated, “Cruise pricing is always based upon supply and demand, and when demand is low, fares go lower.”

That typically translates to last-minute sailings (embarking within 60 days), difficult-to-sell cruises (repositioning sailings, or embarkations during off-peak travel periods), or less popular cabin types (like inside cabins). Sometimes, special events can churn out promotions: Holland America Line just posted flash fares in celebration of its 140th anniversary.

“This year, I’m seeing lots of discounts on early-season Alaska and Europe,” noted Silverstein. She reported recently seeing week-long Eastern Mediterranean cruises on Royal Caribbean for just $399. Motter seconded her findings. “Right now Mediterranean cruises are bargains for many reasons, like political instability near Syria and Egypt and financial problems in Greece, Italy and Spain.”