I’ve offered tips for saving money on Disney Cruise Line bookings (most notably in our recent 101 DCL Tips post), but in this I wanted to share some of the ‘tricks’ for getting cheaper fares, realistic analysis as to their likelihood of success, and some easier ways of getting a discount on Disney cruises. (Last updated March 14, 2018.)
I think I’ve gotten a bit ahead of myself in other cruise posts by failing to explain discounted Disney Cruise Line rates work, judging by some reader questions we’ve received. I thought I’d backtrack a bit and cover exactly what you need to know when trying to save money on a Disney cruise. The first thing you need to understand is the dynamic pricing model that Disney Cruise Line uses. This is unlike Disney hotel rooms, which have a set rack rate for the year and release discounts from that to incentivize bookings.
You may think you’re unfamiliar with dynamic pricing, but really, you are not. It’s the model airlines use to sell seats, with prices rising and falling with supply/demand and inventory projections. With both airlines and Disney Cruise Line, there are no “rack” rates or published fares, unless you count opening day prices.
Whether it be hotel rooms, seats on an airplane, or cruise ship staterooms, these are all perishable inventory. In economic terms, this means that whatever rooms or seats are unsold “spoil,” and cannot later be resold. The comparison might not seem apt, but it’s the same idea as produce at a grocery store.
In light of that, the hospitality sector uses various methods of discounting to minimize unsold inventory. Ultimately, it’s the same end result across hotels, airlines, and cruises, albeit via different means. The end goal in all cases is the same, the methods just differ.
Walt Disney World takes the Kohl’s approach, playing the psychological manipulation game with special offers and sales. The idea there is that maintaining high base prices (that few people will actually pay) but increasing discounts–even if the end price is ultimately the same–is most appealing to budget-conscious consumers.
In large part, Disney Cruise Line is not targeting these same budget-conscious consumers. Instead, it has positioned itself as a premium brand among cruise lines. Among such products, the concept of discounting can dilute brand equity. This concept of “price integrity” is not unique to Disney in the cruise industry–there’s been a growing push to cut last-minute discounts. But that does not mean they don’t still discount–Disney Cruise Line is just more subtle about it.
With that background set, we’ll take a look at how you can save money on Disney Cruise Line bookings…
The easiest and most consistent way to save money on Disney Cruise Line, unfortunately, is to book on opening day or as close thereto as possible. This is especially true if you don’t have much flexibility in when you can travel, want to book a fairly unique itinerary, or simply want peace of mind.
In our experience, the vast majority of Disney Cruise Line rates increase from their opening day prices. Anecdotally, I’d say about 80% of the itineraries we’ve watched have increased in price from opening date until closer to departure (that number might even be closer to 90%).
Disney just opened its 2019 itineraries for booking the first week of March 2018, and we noticed what seemed like an unprecedented surge in demand for opening day bookings. This is unsurprising, as the economy is hot and consumer confidence levels are at all-time highs.
Unfortunately, this means that for the foreseeable future, the 80-90% number mentioned above is probably more like 95% of Disney Cruise Line itineraries are cheapest close to opening day. In other words, if you’re thinking about a 2019 itinerary and are debating whether to book now or wait for a last minute restricted fare, you should probably book sooner rather than later. At least until the economy cools down (or Disney’s three new ships debut), the last minute deals are mostly a thing of the past.
If there’s a specific itinerary you have in mind or you want to travel during a relatively popular time, the odds are not in your favor. If you check out TouringPlans’ helpful fare tracker, you can see that most of cruises trend upwards closer to sailing, not down. (I’m not sure to what degree this tracker is accurate, but it’s a good tool for trendspotting.)
However, if you have a lot of flexibility (like us!), are looking at generic Caribbean itineraries, and/or don’t mind setting sail while school is in session, that 20% or so of cruises that decrease in price might present enough allure to avoid opening day. We’ve booked several Disney Cruise Line itineraries relatively last minute to score deep discounts, including our recent 7-Night Norwegian Fjords Cruise on the Disney Magic.
There are a couple of ways you can save money on these itineraries. First, Disney Cruise Line could just quietly decrease the price, so what you see is a reduced rate without any note being made of that fact on Disney’s booking site. Same way airlines drop prices without shouting SALE! in the process.
The second way is a bit more noteworthy, and that’s via “Restricted Guarantee” fares. The various classes of these are Inside (IGT), Outside (OGT), and Verandah Guarantees (VGT). With each of these tiers, you cannot select your specific category or stateroom, but you’re guaranteed the pertinent category of room or better.
These restricted fares are non-refundable, must be paid in full when booked, and no changes can be made. Think of these rates akin to the new barebones airfares that don’t allow you to select a seat or check luggage. (Good news! You can still bring your luggage on Disney Cruise Line with these rates. Well…unless your airline loses it. 😉 )
For a few years, Disney Cruise Line was really aggressive in using these restricted guarantee rooms to fill unsold stateroom inventory, and these rooms could generally be booked within 75 days of sailing on a lot of itineraries, specifically during storm season in the fall and January & February. Unpopular times to sail, coupled with school being back in session led to deep discounts.
January, February, storm season, and times when school is in session are still the times restricted rates are most likely to be offered, but I feel like over the last year-plus, there have been fewer of these rates. Additionally, some of the ones that have been available often are “why bother?” quality. Don’t get me wrong, there are still some excellent discounts to be had via these restricted fares, but some are minimal and many are not even as good as opening day prices.
Perhaps this is just my perception, or we’ve started having a narrower focus in terms of the cruises we want to take. I’m not really sure. In general, it seems increasing consumer confidence has benefited the travel sector. Growth in the cruise industry has exploded since the Great Recession–I’d argue this trend is unsustainable. If (when) the economy self-corrects or enters its next recession, the cruise industry will be hit hard, leading to more deals.
As for finding these restricted guarantee rates, it can be a bit of a pain. There are sites that (supposedly) aggregate cruise deals, but these are unreliable and often out of date. Instead, I just go to the list of cruises Disney Cruise Line offers directly on its site. Going through all 408 is a bit much, but you can narrow that list by choosing destinations, dates, etc. From there, quickly scroll through and see if anything jumps out as having a below normal price.
Another way to do this would be using a travel agent/Authorized Disney Vacation Planner and ask them to give you heads up when they spot a deal. Since they do this full-time, they often have a good feel for pricing and see when deals are quietly released.
You’re probably going to have to already have rapport with a travel agent before doing this. Disney Vacation Planners are only paid a commission when you book, and it’s unlikely one is going to take the time to email you about deals with the vague hope that maybe someday you’ll book one.
Speaking of using a travel agent, a bigger reason to use one in the case of Disney Cruise Line is for the on-board credits. Essentially, this is a kickback on the commission they receive from Disney. (Think of it like the various cashback portals for online retailers).
Our recommended Authorized Disney Vacation Planner provides on-board credits based upon the size of the booking, and also provides itinerary advice and suggestions for the cruise. Alternatively, if you’re fine with no-frills service, Costco members can book via them and receive a Costco gift card in lieu of the on-board credit.
Along the lines of the restricted guaranteed fares, there are also last minute ‘affiliation’ discounts that you can find on the Disney Cruise Line Special Offers page. Recently, these offers have been aimed at Florida residents and the military. In the past, there have been offers for Castaway Club members, Disney Vacation Club members, Canadians, and other demographics.
These affiliation discounts are often very good. If you’re a Florida resident or in the military, I’d go as far as to say that you should try to wait for an appealing one of these of offers before booking.
Finally, the best and most consistent way to save money is by booking a future cruise while on a Disney cruise. Not only will this help ease those post-cruise withdrawals, but you’ll also save 10% on that future sailing and receive an on-board credit from Disney Cruise Line. (Pro tip: don’t wait until the last night of the cruise to do this unless you really like waiting in line.)
Even if you don’t know which cruise you’d like to do in the future, you can still book a placeholder for only a $250 deposit to lock-in these same benefits for any sailing within 24 months of your cruise. This $250 deposit is fully refundable and is applied to the cost of the cruise you do end up booking, so it’s essentially no-risk either way (aside from having that $250 tied up in the interim).
A great way to double-dip on this discount is by transferring the placeholder (or actual reservation, if you go that route) to a travel agent within 30 days. If you do that, you’ll still receive the 10% discount and on-board credit directly from Disney Cruise Line, and will also receive whatever on-board credit offered by your travel agent.
Doing this and using your placeholder reservation to book an opening day rate in the future is the easiest and best way to save money on a Disney cruise for the vast majority of people, save for those who willing to stalk the restricted guarantee rates and be willing to wait for a really good discount there. I’d hazard a guess that this discount is the best you’ll be able to score for 95%+ of Disney Cruise Line itineraries.
Regardless of which of these options you choose to save money on your Disney cruise, you can save additional money by following our Tips on Saving Money with Disney Gift Cards to further decrease your costs. While discounts are not currently available for Disney Visa cardholders (only on-board merchandise, etc., discounts now), it’s not a bad idea to keep an eye on that in case it changes in the future.
Otherwise, that’s it in terms of saving money on Disney Cruise Line trips! Not nearly as many hacks or tricks to save on Disney cruises as trips to Walt Disney World, but hopefully this has still shed some light on strategies you can use to decrease the amount you’ll pay for your next (or first!) voyage aboard Disney Cruise Line…
Planning to set sail aboard one of the Disney Cruise Line ships? Read our comprehensive Disney Cruise Line Guide to prepare for your trip, plan entertainment and other activities, and learn what to expect from your Disney cruise!
Have you taken advantage of a discount (even if it wasn’t directly called that) when sailing aboard Disney Cruise Line? Do you tend to book on or around opening day, or wait until the last minute and hope for the best? Any other tips & tricks for saving money on Disney Cruise Line fares? Hearing from you is fun and helpful, so if you have questions or thoughts, please share them below and we’ll try to respond!