The brochures for 2014 from the major cruise lines are out. With them comes the usual dilemma of whether to book now or wait for a bargain – but this time with added twists.
A decade ago, when there were fewer and smaller ships, you simply booked early for the best dates, itineraries and cabins, and booked late for cheaper deals on what was left.
However, the past few years have seen new mega-ships and more lines sailing from the UK, combined with a reluctance by holidaymakers to commit. Cruise lines would bring out periodic promotions in order to fill ships, with the unhappy result that passengers swapping notes on what they paid would discover huge differences in price for the same holiday.
So, to quell mutiny among loyal customers, P&O (pocruises.co.uk) and Cunard (cunard.co.uk) have created two classes of bookings: Vantage fares (15 per cent deposit and booking flexibility, choice of cabins and dining time, free parking or onboard credit, and free shuttle buses in ports), and Getaway fares (100 per cent, non-refundable payment up front, cabin and dining time allocated on check-in). Early booking is encouraged by a "price promise" that if the Vantage fare goes down after you book, the difference will be made up with onboard credit or cabin upgrade.
So now, less than six weeks before departure, why would anyone choose Vantage (£1,939pp) rather than Getaway (£849pp) for a balcony cabin on P&O's Arcadia for a 13-night cruise to the Norwegian fjords sailing from Southampton on 22 May?
Simone Clarke, managing director of Iglu (iglucruise.com), says: "Getaway fares work best if you aren't set on a particular cruise, don't mind where your cabin is, or having to have dinner at 6.30pm. But sometimes the difference in price is marginal, making a Vantage fare worth it to get free parking or on-board credit, as well as having the option to add a third or fourth passenger in your cabin. And dining time is an important part of a holiday to many people.The key is to work out what you need. A good travel agent will get you the right fare."
A 12-night cruise to the Canaries aboard P&O's Ventura on 27 July costs from £1,049 per person on a no-frills Getaway fare. But with a Vantage fare, from £1,169pp, you get either car parking at Southampton (worth £135) or onboard credit of £60pp (020-8544 6447; iglucruise.com).
w Southampton to New York aboard Queen Mary 2 on 20 July, and flying home a week later, costs from £999pp with a Getaway fare, but you will pay from £1,479pp for a Vantage fare that includes $80pp onboard credit (0843 374 0000; cunard.co.uk).