- Cruise lines have traditionally offered their best deals between January and March
- Known as wave season, the period has become less important, cruise expert says
- Cruise executive disagrees, calling it still the best time to book a cruise
- Watch out for more fees and "cabin stuffing" if you book a voyage this year
Getting a killer price on a cruise in the first quarter of the year used to be as common as seeing chocolates dominate store shelves before Valentine's Day, but these days, the rules may be changing.
Many travelers wait for wave season -- the period from January to March, when cruise lines have traditionally offered their best deals -- to book their vacation at sea.
Is that still a good strategy today? The views are mixed.
The magnitude of wave season deals has lessened each year for the last three years, to the point where there really is no wave season in 2012, said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of CruiseCritic.com, calling it a major shift in the industry.
"Cruise lines used to have a Nordstrom mentality, where they were selective about how they put things on sale. So during wave season ... they put all their marketing dollars in a basket, and this was the best time of year to get incredible value for the money," Brown said.
"I really think that it's not Nordstrom anymore. It's Macy's, because Macy's has a sale all the time."
Brown said she hasn't seen any offers that would compel her to book now, so she advises cruise aficionados to simply look for deals year-round, taking care not to wait too long to lock in trips for popular vacation times like spring break or Christmas.
But Vicki Freed, senior vice president of sales at Royal Caribbean, said she respectfully disagrees with Brown, calling the first quarter of the year still the best time to book a cruise.
"This is where we have our deepest discounts right now," Freed said.
"For us as an industry, not just as a company, wave season continues to be a very important part of our calendar year."
Still, wave season has "changed considerably" over the past few years, said Mark Schiffner, vice president and chief operating officer of Cruise Holidays, a network of cruise agencies.
He estimated that up to 60% of the company's Caribbean business for the year is still booked in January, February and March -- in part because those are big travel months in the region as people seek to escape the winter cold. But the overall focus now is more year-round.
"If you talk to most people in the industry, they've seen the whole business, same as us, stretch out more throughout the year versus that big-wave first quarter," Schiffner said.
The Cruise Lines International Association, which represents 26 major cruise lines, attributed the trend of a "flattened out" wave season to the growth of cruising.
"Because now it's a global [industry] and we have our cruise ships going all over the world, there really isn't a season per se," said Lanie Morgenstern, a spokeswoman for the association.
"We do see spikes still following the holiday season ... [but] the whole year is important to the cruise industry."
So cruise lines distribute their advertising and marketing throughout the 12-month period, Morgenstern said, and aren't just focused on the first quarter anymore.
You might just get a great deal in October -- which the Cruise Lines International Association has designated National Cruise Vacation Month -- or any other time.
Still looking for offers now? Cruise Holidays noted that Oceania is offering two-for-one fares, free airfare and savings up to several thousand dollars per stateroom if you book by March 31.
Norwegian is touting its "Take It To The Next Level" sale, in which all new cruise reservations on all ships booked through March 31 will receive a free upgrade within the same stateroom category.
Meanwhile, Royal Caribbean is offering up to $100 onboard credit per outside stateroom or higher level cabin when you book a six-night or longer Caribbean cruise by March 31 or any European cruise by February 29 for departures from early spring through the end of 2012.
Here's what else to look for in 2012:
River cruising is huge
Schiffner called the growth of the river cruise phenomenon "just unbelievable," as passengers discover the appeal of going from city to city within a country rather than staying at sea.
Cruising down the Rhine, the Danube and other rivers in Europe has become so popular that Viking will launch six new ships this year alone in the region, Brown said.
As the voyages attract younger, more active and savvier travelers, river boats are transforming from "fusty" and boring to dynamic, she said.
"It's really a hot thing right now," Brown said.
Many cruise lines have discovered they put too many ships in Europe, so they have brought a lot of them back to the Caribbean, making that popular region newly hot again, Brown said.
"Really, the most glamorous, sexy, fun, innovative ships that are out there are all in the Caribbean, so it's really got a new, fresh energy about it," Brown said.
Australia will be a popular destination in 2012 as Royal Caribbean places its ship, Voyager of the Seas, in the region, Schiffner said.
Much closer to home, the Mississippi River is promising to become a draw as American Cruise Lines and the Great American Steamboat Company are set to start offering voyages on the iconic waterway.
"The heartland of America is going to be a cruise destination this year, and I think that's kind of cool," Brown said.
Brace for new fees
Cruise fares are low -- so low that Schiffner said he doesn't know what more the industry could do to entice travelers.
With fares so low, cruise lines are trying to think of anything they can do to help you part with your money once you're on board, Brown said. In particular, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Norwegian are the perpetrators of this trend, she added.
Brown said that Celebrity upped its alternative restaurant cover charges by 20% late last year, while several of the restaurants on board Epic, Norwegian's new ship, are extra-fee eateries.
"It's starting to feel excessive," Brown said.
'Cabin stuffing' means less space
Brown said that while there aren't a lot of "new, sexy ships" coming out in 2012, cruise lines are spending a lot of money to refurbish older vessels. That gives them the opportunity to do a little "cabin stuffing" -- adding more cabins to boost capacity.
"They're actually taking space away from public areas to [do it]," Brown said, noting that a chunk of the casino disappeared on one ship and part of a bar vanished on another to make more space for cabins.
"Not only are they adding more people on board, they're giving you less space to move around. ... That's a concern."