Looking to take to the high seas, or journey along the rivers of the world this year? Escape spoke to the cruise line experts to get the inside word on all you need to know and what you need to look for when booking a cruise in 2018.
THE BENEFITS OF BOOKING EARLY
Cruise experts all agree - when it comes to cruising, whether in Alaska, Australia, Asia or Europe, it pays to book early.
"Booking early gives you ample choice; it's all about first in, best dressed," says Adam Armstrong, managing director, Royal Caribbean Cruises, Australia and New Zealand.
"For families who want interconnecting rooms or a stateroom near the Adventure Ocean Kids' Club, or for travellers who prefer a balcony cabin or a suite; these are the rooms that get snapped up quickly. You don't want to miss out!"
APT reservations manager Karen Scharnbock concurs. "I would always recommend booking early whenever possible, as this way you get your first choice of departure dates, cabin and you can take advantage of the early bird sale prices, plus it means your trip of a lifetime is locked in, you can relax and enjoy the countdown till sail-away," she says.
Silversea Cruises, for example, offers an early booking bonus which entitles guests to a 10 per cent saving when they book and pay in full, according to Silversea's managing director, Asia Pacific, Amber Wilson.
There's another advantage; once you've paid, you don't need to worry about the price going up due to foreign exchange.
"The benefits include pricing protected against foreign exchange volatility, choosing the itinerary you want, best pricing, the category of suite you want and being able to confirm any land packages that are on offer," says Lisa Pile, vice-president sales, Australia & New Zealand, Regent Seven Seas Cruises.
THE LAST-MINUTE ADVANTAGE
All is not lost if you don't book early. According to APT's Karen Scharnbock, if you don't mind where you're heading on your holidays and are happy to go wherever the best deals take you, then last-minute sales can have their perks.
"But they do tend to come with a few more restrictions than if you booked early," she says. There are specials to be taken advantage of too, if you know where to look.
"Both Carnival Cruise Line and P&O Cruises have fantastic weekly deals that mean cruise lovers can be a little spontaneous," says Sandy Olsen, vice president, Carnival Australia Corporate Affairs.
Royal Caribbean's website runs a Going, Going, Gone sale, with heavily discounted fares for a range of cruises departing within the month.
"Or you can get lucky with a Last Minute Luxury fare on Celebrity Cruises," says Adam Armstrong.
"A spontaneous holiday can work in your favour if you're flexible on dates and itineraries."
WHEN TO LOOK FOR NEW ITINERARIES TO MAXIMISE PLANNING
So, you've made the decision to book a cruise, and you know the early bird catches the worm but how do you know when the itineraries are released to make sure you secure that cabin and your preferred dates?
"Cruise lines are generally working 18 months in advance with their itinerary release," says Amber Wilson from Silversea. "This allows guests plenty of time to plan ahead for their next voyage."
According to Sandy Olsen, Carnival Cruise Line typically releases its programs between May and July each year for sailings about 18-24 months ahead. "This is great for holiday seekers needing to coordinate holiday availability for families and friends well in advance for special occasions such as anniversaries, birthdays and weddings," she says.
Princess Cruises releases its programs throughout the year to provide ample time for booking ahead of departure.
"With destinations worldwide such as Alaska and Europe, fly-cruises have become increasingly popular and the more time to book and plan ahead, the better," Sandy says.
And P&O Cruises typically releases its programs in two stages: its summer program in March and its winter program in October each year for sailings up to two years in advance.
Meanwhile, Regent Seven Seas Cruises at any one time has three years of sailing itineraries available to peruse.
"In August 2018, we will launch our 2020/2021 itineraries," Lisa Pile says.
"Australians and New Zealanders tend to book 18 months to two years in advance, giving them booking advantages over fellow cruisers from the United Kingdom, United States and Europe."
APT's Karen Scharnbock says that APT releases brochures throughout the year to align with peak booking and travel times for each destination.
And the RCL Cruises family - incorporating Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises - tends to release its itineraries at the same time each year.
"There's no need to mark the diary, just sign up to receive the first email alerts when we go on sale for early-bird specials," Adam Armstrong says.
HOW TO KEEP AHEAD OF THE OTHER CRUISERS
These days, getting updates about when itineraries are released is as easy as signing up to email newsletters and liking cruise firms' Facebook pages.
"A great option for people today is to follow our brands on Facebook and other social media channels," says Carnival's Sandy Olsen.
"Some promotional offers will last between 12 to 72 hours so make sure you check how long you have to book so as not to miss out."
If you've sailed before, it is also good to join loyalty programs such as Carnival's VIFP program or Princess Cruises' Cruise Loyalty and Recognition Programs.
"Past cruisers often get to hear about the best deals first or get exclusives," Sandy says.
KNOWING WHAT SELLS OUT THE FASTEST
The best cabins on any ship will always sell out the fastest.
"Cruise lines always sell from top to bottom, so top suites always sell out first. You need to get in quick to secure the suite you want," Regent Seven Seas Cruises' Lisa Pile says.
APT's Karen Scharnbock seconds this advice.
"The fastest-selling cabins are our balcony cabins - they are always the first to sell as they provide a special experience when sailing,"
Add to this the relatively new trend in multi-generational families travelling together, which means lines of balcony cabins often book out quickly.
"All brands are seeing more and more multi-generational families booking cruise holidays so interconnecting cabins often sell out fast," Carnival's Sandy Olsen says.
Royal Caribbean's Adam Armstrong says that Christmas, New Year, school holidays and Easter cruises remain the fastest sellers, and new ships are also a big drawcard for cruisers. "While every group of holiday-makers has different requirements, some family rooms, certain suites and balcony cabins sell out the fastest no matter the time of year," he says.
Meanwhile Sandy notes the popularity of themed cruises, especially P&O Cruises' Main Events line-up. "From State of Origin and Australian Open to Melbourne Cup and Tasmania's Dark Mofo festival, P&O's main event cruises can sell out fast, sometimes a year out," she says.
Similarly Cunard's special event cruises - including Transatlantic Fashion Week and World Space Week - bring interest groups together. "They add an element of enrichment to the already luxurious Cunard experience that our guests expect," Sandy says.
HOW TO FIND THE HOT DESTINATIONS
Knowing which destinations are selling out the fastest at the moment will also put you in good stead to get the cruise that you want.
Scenic's national business manager Rob Kalemba says the Scenic itinerary that sells out the fastest is the Amsterdam to Budapest route. "There are still so many people that haven't done European river cruises and they offer such a relaxed way to see those countries," he says.
Regent Seven Seas' Lisa Pile has seen a strong trend towards sailings to Japan, Cuba and the Baltics.
"Having said this, the Mediterranean and Alaska are always favourites with the Aussies and Kiwis," she says.
APT's Karen Scharnbock notes that the Douro River cruising has been a popular destination this year.
"We are nearly sold out for 2018, and we have also seen great selling trends towards our small ship cruising program which sails to popular destinations such as Iceland and Antarctica," she says.
Silversea Cruises is seeing a similar trend. "Antarctica is a hot destination at the moment, and here guests want a veranda suite to really embrace the remoteness of the region from the comfort of their own suite," says Amber Wilson.
"The trend is also for unique destinations that are hard to reach other than via sea."
WHY YOUR TRAVEL AGENT SHOULD BE YOUR NEW BEST FRIEND
Want a shortcut to getting to know everything about booking a cruise? Find a good travel agent.
"Building a relationship with your travel agent is critical," says Silversea Cruises' Amber Wilson.
"Your agent can keep an eye out for voyages they know will be of interest, ensure your travel plans are to your expectations and that everything is organised perfectly." And they understand the difference between price and value.
"Price isn't always the be-all and end-all and not all cruise lines are created equal," says Royal Caribbean's Adam Armstrong. "A good agent can help you understand the included value with different cruise lines."
Scenic's Rob Kalemba says a good travel agent should be like your accountant, your mechanic, or your doctor - find a good one and keep them for life. "Travel agents have access to be able to see and do site inspections (of new ships) and sometimes even go on these cruises," Rob says.
Another bonus of booking through a travel agent? "They are also there to ensure everything runs smoothly and deal with any issues that may arise, so they are certainly people you want to be friends with," APT's Karen Scharnbock says.
KNOWING THE CRUISING SEASONS
Cruise lines follow the sun, so the cruising season within the Mediterranean and Baltics, and Alaska goes from May to September; Asia Pacific and South Africa from November to April, the US East Coast from May to September; and Florida, the Caribbean and South America from November through to April, Regent Seven Seas' Lisa Pile says.
But what seems to be happening now is that the Australian cruise season is popular all year-round.
"It's because we're geographically blessed," says Carnival's Sandy Olsen. "However, the busiest period is generally October to April and it stands to reason that the school holidays are really popular for families."
CAN'T DECIDE? DO YOUR RESEARCH
You've looked at the itineraries, spoken with your travel agent and still tossing up which cruise to choose? The advice from the experts?
Do your research! "There are so many products and companies, my advice is to read reviews of what other guests are saying about these experiences," Scenic's Rob Kalemba says.
For more travel advice and inspiration sign up to Escape's newsletter.
Update your news preferences and get the latest news delivered to your inbox.