NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) - Sure, browse the brochures for a
glossy glimpse of paradise -- just ignore the prices. As with
hotels, there's no reason to pay list. Here's how to get the most
for your cruise dollars.
First, use a travel agent. Unlike airlines, which maintain
tenuous, even hostile, relationships with travel agents, cruise
lines encourage booking through agents specializing in cruises. They
get discounts, group rates (even if you're not part of a group) and
priority on room selection. Most Master Cruise Counselor (MCC)
certified agents have relationships with specific lines, so we
suggest you speak with several.
Second, use the Web to do some of your own research. Want
the straight dope on a line or ship? At Cruisemates.com, cruising
devotees dish about everything from the size of the lobsters to how
firm the mattresses are.
Book early to get the berth of your choice. Plus, many
lines offer discounts; Silverseas, Royal Caribbean and Radisson take
off 20 percent if you book six months ahead.
Last-minute booking does have its advantages, though. Like
airlines, cruise ships slash prices as departure time approaches.
Find the deals through a cruise travel agent or at Expedia.com or Travelocity.com, both of
which let you handpick your room using floor plans.
Sail off-peak. Great deals are available between
Thanksgiving and Christmas. Also look for deeply discounted
repositioning cruises, when ships sail from winter ports (in the
Caribbean, Mexico and the South Pacific) to summer destinations like
northern Europe and Alaska. These trips are usually longer than a
typical cruise and stop in fewer ports.
Consider leaving from alternate ports. Since 1997, the
number of ships leaving small regional ports has grown from 136 to
439. This hasn't affected prices directly, but if you live within
driving distance of places like Baltimore, Charleston, S.C.,
Galveston, Texas and Seattle you'll save on air fare. Also, some of
the best last-minute offers appear in local papers.
Ships leaving from traditional "fly to" ports like San Juan and
especially Hawaii have been hurt by the tourism lull and are
offering sizable discounts.
Find out what's included. Cruise fares often don't cover
gratuities, port charges or land excursions, and they rarely cover
air fare, alcoholic beverages or babysitting.
Buy travel insurance. Trip-cancellation policies, which
will refund a deposit if you cancel for medical reasons, should run
about $7 for every $100 of coverage. Read the fine print: Many
policies no longer cover you if your cruise line goes bankrupt.
Private insurers such as CSA Travel Protection usually offer more
comprehensive coverage than the cruise lines. Quotesmith.com will do
a free carrier-to-carrier comparison.