The Secret Trick That Can Save Up to 40 Percent on Cruise Ships

One of the industry's latest trends is giving travelers a chance to score some serious deals.
Celebrity Summit
Michel Verdure/Courtesy Celebrity

Looking for terrific value on your next—or first—cruise? It's a simple but seriously insider tip: choose an older ship that just received a total makeover. In the past, cruise lines typically gave older ships a periodic update, bringing them in every two or three years for routine maintenance and a light refresh. But recently, a spate of major industry players have launched big renovation plans for entire classes of ships that not only upgrade their interiors and amenities for guests, but offer travelers a chance at considerably lower fares, too (not exactly by design; but older ships don't command the same price points that newer ships do).

For years, cruise lines would send their ships into dry dock—the company's maintenance facility—at regular intervals for a tune up. “They would invest in soft goods like new carpets, new décor, and new furniture," says Colleen McDaniel, editor in chief at Cruise Critic. But part of what's new in this latest trend, she says, is that they're "reinventing entire spaces” on the ships—on a far more extensive level.

“What we’re seeing now is a reflection of cruise lines really investing in their older ships, and this is a relatively new thing,” McDaniel says. “The 'wow' factors traditionally reserved for new ships are now also being added to these older ships.”

Consider the 18-year-old Celebrity Summit—a middle-aged gal by cruise-ship standards—which has never looked more gorgeous. She emerged in March of this year from a 38-day, stem-to-stern transformation that gutted and rebuilt her staterooms from scratch and gave them a timeless designer look. Her once-dated restaurants and lounges are now bright, sleek, and sophisticated. Top-deck hangouts feel like swanky Manhattan rooftop bars. And all the behind-the-scenes technology, from navigational controls to Wi-Fi connectivity, is now up to the minute. Pretty timely for vacationers looking for cushy summer vacations, as she'll sail to the Bahamas and New England through the summer.

Deals ahoy! How to compare fares

New ships will always be the industry’s brightest, shiniest objects, because they typically bring a raft load of new features. But they also command higher fares. For value-minded travelers, choosing a recently renovated older ship can be a savvy and moneywise strategy. “Sailing on a brand new ship is probably going to cost you 30 percent more, depending on the time of year and the itinerary,” says Doug Parker, founder and host of Cruise Radio. “When an older ship emerges from a big makeover in dry dock, you get a newer experience for not-a-new-ship price point.”

You see this most clearly when you compare fares for a new ship with a refurbished ship in the same cruise line; for example, revamped Celebrity Summit and four-month-old Celebrity Edge, which was just recognized on Condé Nast Traveler's 2019 Hot List for its ability to nab hot designer talent like Patricia Urquiola and Tom Wright. As you’d expect, Edge has more bells and whistles, including first-at-sea innovations like the multi-purpose Magic Carpet platform that slides up and down the outside of the ship (which Wright designed). But Summit suddenly feels like a new ship, and her staterooms and public areas now sport the same chic, timeless designer look inspired by Edge.

Notably for travelers, “While it is great to have an older vessel take on the look and feel of the newest fleet mates, it does not really increase prices,” says Tom Baker, president of the travel agency CruiseCenter. It's impossible to do an exact apples-to-apples comparison on pricing, but we can look at itineraries to the same part of the world in the same month. On Edge, a 9-night Southern Caribbean cruise in November runs $1,357 per person, on average, which translates to about $151 per day. On Summit, a 7-night Southern Caribbean cruise in the same month costs just $633 per person, on average, or $90 per day.

In this case, Summit’s fares are roughly 41 percent less than Edge’s. On a 7-day cruise, that $61-per-day savings works out to $427 per person—or $854 per couple.

Carnival Sunshine

Danny Lehman/Courtesy Carnival

A rising trend lifts all ships

Here’s a wider look at how major cruise lines are embracing this everything-old-is-new-again trend.

Carnival Cruise Line is creating an entirely new class of ship around older ships that have undergone total makeovers. In 2013, Carnival Destiny, then 17 years old, got a massive overhaul with all of the line’s latest upgrades. The ship was rechristened as Carnival Sunshine, the lead ship in the line’s new Sunshine class.

Now it’s time for Sunshine’s middle-aged sisters to get their own born-again makeovers. Carnival Triumph, launched in 1999, will undergo the knife and emerge as Carnival Sunrise at the end of this month. And next year, two-decades-old Carnival Victory will get rebooted as Carnival Radiance. “These two makeovers are perhaps the most extensive of any modern ships we have seen refurbished in recent years,” Baker says.

How’s this for a bargain: Upcoming 4-night Bahamian cruises on Carnival Sunrise, sailing out of Fort Lauderdale, start at just $229 per person.

Royal Caribbean is investing $1 billion in its “Royal Amplified” modernization program, which will update 10 ships over four years and introduce a wide range of new thrills and Royal Caribbean staple features. The line’s 17-year-old Navigator of the Seas just emerged from a $115-million dry-dock transformation that added new staterooms, new restaurants, a new pool deck and, for thrill seekers, two new water slides: The Blaster, the longest aqua coaster at sea, and Riptide, the industry’s only head-first mat racer slide. It also launched the world's first blowout bar at sea, proving cruise lines are paying special attention to new amenities during renovations.

Beginning in May, Navigator will sail three- and four-night Bahamian itineraries out of Miami. Starting at $375 per person in an outside-view cabin, the four-night sailings give passengers the chance to check out Perfect Day at CocoCay, the cruise line’s private island, which just got a $250-million transformation of its own.

Celebrity Cruises is in the early states of a $500-million fleetwide “Celebrity Revolution” upgrade that will bring massive makeovers to all the line’s older ships. Since launching Edge, Celebrity has moved at full throttle, with two older ships—Millennium and Summit—already revamped and a third, Celebrity Equinox, scheduled to enter dry dock in May. Another half-dozen Celebrity ships are slated for modernization by 2023.

Oceania Cruises is giving substantial facelifts to its Regatta-class ships as part of its $100-million “OceaniaNext” revitalization project. Staterooms, restaurants, and public areas are getting upgrades, and Martinis lounge will trade its gentleman’s club vibe for an updated, modern look. Sirena will come out of dry dock in May, followed by Regatta in September; sister ship Nautica will get her turn next summer.

Where to find savings on the high seas

New to cruising? Dip your toes in the water with a three- or four-day sailing. “If first-time cruisers are not sure they want to commit to a full week, they can pick a shorter itinerary and get a taste of cruising,” McDaniel says.

Wondering where to start? Here's a list of this year’s most notable ship refurbishments:

February 2019

Celebrity Millennium (1999)
Following a massive refurbishment, Millennium is currently sailing in Asia. In May, the ship moves to Vancouver and offers seven-night sailings to Alaska.

March 2019

Celebrity Summit (2001)
Fresh off its major makeover, Summit is now sailing out of San Juan on six- and seven-night Caribbean itineraries. In May, the ship moves to New York and offers seven-night sailings to Bermuda.

April 2019

Carnival Sunrise (1999)
After getting a $200-million makeover, the renamed Sunrise will hop around quite a bit, sailing out of Norfolk, New York, and Fort Lauderdale with a variety of four- to seven-night itineraries to destinations such as the Bahamas, Bermuda, Cuba, and various Caribbean ports of call.

May 2019

Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas (2002)
On the heels of a $115-million transformation, Navigator will sail out of Miami on three- and four-night itineraries in the Bahamas.

Celebrity Equinox (2009)
Following its own Edge-inspired revamp, 10-year-old Equinox will sail out of Fort Lauderdale and offer a variety of six- to eleven-night Caribbean itineraries.

Norwegian Joy (2017)
Though just two years old, Joy is getting around $50 million in upgrades to bring her up to par with her sister Norwegian Bliss. Beginning in May, Joy will offer seven-night Alaska cruises from Seattle this summer. At other times of the year, the ship will sail from Los Angeles to Mexico and Panama, and from Miami to the Western Caribbean.

Fall 2019

Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas, which launched in 1999 and 2009, respectively, are both slated for major renovations as part of the “Royal Amplified” program.