Cruise Line Price Guarantees: nice but a little bit sneaky

Cruise line pricing has always been front and center when making a buying decision. With many variables to figure into the equation, finding a price point you can live with is often difficult to determine. “Is NOW the time to book?” we often ask ourselves. One factor to consider is what happens with pricing after booking. Prices go up and down all the time in a comoddity-like fashion sometimes. A price guarantee to stabilize that aspect of the process is a good thing being offered by some lines now. Just the notion of a “price guarantee” sounds like something we would want to have as consumers. But some are better than others and how they all go about it is a little bit sneaky.

Carnival Cruise Line was the first to do it, a guarantee that once booked, guests would be given 110% of the difference in price in onboard credit should they find a lower price within 48 hours. Aptly titled their 110% Best Price Guarantee, the line even provides an easy online form to make a claim.

Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean Internationals price guarantee programs are similar with the same 110% on-board credit offer. Those lines also gives guests the ability to have the booking repriced at the lower rate too.

This is good to know if booking late, within what cruise lines call the “penalty period”; usually within 90 days of sailing. But booking outside of that 90 day penalty period, say 6 months in advance for example, guests are in a different situation.

In that case, price guarantees lose a bit of their bite as booked guests can cancel and rebook at the lower price without penalty anyway. That’s significant because up until recently, cruise lines commonly honored lower pricing and simply applied it to existing bookings if they were asked to. It wasn’t automatic, you or your travel agent had be looking for a lower price then call to make it happen.

The idea was that the cruise lines were grateful to those who booked well in advance and held them in high regard.

Cruise lines live to sail full ships, that’s universal among all lines, and traditionally honored guests who booked well in advance. They were not about to turn their back on those who booked way ahead by granting those booking at the last minute a lower fare and not honoring it on an existing booking, should it be asked for.

Now here’s the sneaky part.

In the past, a quick call to the cruise line, any cruise line, got that new lower pricing applied to an existing booking before final payment. If that lower price came along after final payment, either a refund issued or on-board credit added for the difference. Special sales or promotions like Royal Caribbean’s weekly Sales Event never qualified and there were a few other exceptions with minor variances from line to line. But for the most part, guests who booked far in advance could count on the cruise line to stand by them and do the right thing.

Not so much any more.

Now, say I book a fare 6 months in advance, pay on time and the price goes down after final payment has been made. On Royal Caribbean or Norwegian, I’m out of luck. That guy who waited until the last minute got a lower price and there is nothing I can do about it. I’m not feeling quite as valued now. Carnival runs about the same way too.

At least Carnival gave me an option, and it was a better option that I ever had before, when they invented the Early Saver Fare. This one is guaranteed by Carnival to be the lowest price, no matter what, no matter when, up to two days before sailing or they give on-board credit (like cash on the ship) for the difference. They’ll add that on as often and for as much as I can find when I compare my fare to any other fare they advertise.

It’s not without cost though, the Early Saver Fare has absolute restrictions they don’t waver on. A Non-refundable deposit is required and no changes can be made to the booking once deposited are the two biggies that scare wishy-washy people off. It shouldn’t. The gains way outweigh the possible losses. Like they say “Non-refundable” on the deposit but that’s not totally accurate. If you have to cancel, you can pay a $50 per person administrative fee and carry that deposit forward to another booking to be used within a year. Its not a total loss. No Changes is pretty much what they say. They might let you change a letter or two in the spelling of a name but otherwise that $50 per change administrative fee is charged.

Still, the Early Saver Fare is a good way to go if you are for sure going on your cruise no matter what and odds are your plans will not change. The trick is finding a Travel Expert who will watch pricing for you and snag those lower prices when they come along.

Most people don’t really think about the price over the life of the booking. They should. Prices change.