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If you had money to travel in 2009, it was the year to take a cruise. Because of falling demand, cruise lines offered phenomenal discounts, free upgrades, and sometimes free airfare. It worked; many cruises were at full capacity throughout the recession.
Demand is up this year. So, alas, are prices, but bargains are still available—and in general, prices are lower than before the recession.
"I compare cruise prices to the stock market; they're based on supply and demand," says Paul Motter, editor in chief at Cruisemates, an interactive, online cruise ship guide. "If you bought a cruise last year you got in at the bottom—just like with stocks—and now we're about halfway back to the top of the price scale."
There's great variation within that scale, so you have to do some research to get the best deal and to find the cruise that's right for you. There are huge ships, smaller ones, family-friendly cruises, singles cruises, those that offer water parks and ice skating, others specializing in peace and quiet, some with Broadway shows, some with planetariums and science lectures...and the list goes on.
"Research all the different cruise lines. There are around 10—with about 140 ships—easily available to the American market, and they run the gamut from mainstream to luxury," says Motter.
With mainstream, or contemporary, cruise lines such as Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and NCL, the ships are very large, holding anywhere from 3,000 to 4,500 passengers. The largest, Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, carries about 5,400. Mainstream cruises tend to voyage to the Caribbean for three to seven days.
"These are the least expensive options, so if you want to see what a cruise is like without spending too much money, give one of them a try," Motter advises. "They sail from around 20 different ports around the U.S. at different times of year. You can Google 'homeland cruising' to find a list."
With luxury cruises the ships are much smaller, usually 600 passengers or less. "The staterooms are bigger and you get more personalized service," says Motter. "There are also more in-depth 'enrichment programs,' " like lectures and education sessions.
Great bargains are still available on upscale cruise lines, such as Cunard, Silversea, and Windstar, indicates Heidi Allison, executive vice president and group publisher at cruise information site All Things Cruise.
Because luxury cruise perks usually come in the form of amendments and incentives, these cruises are much trickier to shop for, Motter notes. "The more money you're planning to spend, the more I recommend you use a travel agent. They really help the process a lot and you don't pay extra—the cruise line pays [the agent]. You gain convenience, and, if something goes wrong with your trip, the travel agent will act as your advocate."
If you prefer to do your own shopping, Allison recommends online marketplace CruiseCompete, where you select the cruise you would like to take and dozens of travel agencies and travel brokers, who have negotiated with cruise lines, vie to give you the lowest rates. Allison is a senior partner for the organization.
After you pick a ship—and Motter recommends the newer ones, built after the year 2000—it's time to schedule your cruise. "The trick is to be date-flexible," he says. For example, specific ships do the same cruise all year. But Motter says, during certain times of the year, say November, fares can be as low as about $400 per person. In summer it's closer to $900 per person. Fall, after school starts until shortly before the winter holidays, is the value season in cruising.
And just like airline prices, cruise fares can vary greatly in the span of a few weeks. "It's based on availability; the more people sign up, the higher the price goes," says Motter. "To get a low fare, book way ahead. As the lowest-priced cabins sell out, prices rise."
However, sometimes people who book early and get good deals cancel their cruises, making their bargain-priced cabins available. You can find last-minute deals at Sky Auction or Moment's Notice.
You also can check social media communities for specials. Most cruise lines have Twitter accounts and Facebook pages. And both All Things Cruise and Cruisemates list specials as well, along with online discussions, articles, and blogs about cruising.
If you have frequent flyer points, use them to book your airfare to the departure city, Allison advises. But, "You have to be really careful. Book the cruise and get [the agent] to hold it for 24 hours, then research the airfare and see if you can use your points. Build the trip around your airfare. Also, it may be cheaper to fly in a couple of days early for a Saturday cruise."
She recommends purchasing travel insurance. "I'd get a 'cancel for any reason' policy," she says. According to the Kiplinger advice resource, you can get the best value on travel insurance from the leading insurance company, Travel Guard, rather than from your cruise line.
You'll want to watch your spending while you cruise, too. The fare includes food, accommodations, onboard entertainment, and your ports of call port charges—fees remote destinations charge cruise lines to dock and unload passengers.
"When you get on a cruise ship, you open up an onboard account and use your key card to make purchases," says Motter. Tips are charged to your account at $10 per passenger per day and the cruise line distributes that money to the staff on board accordingly. You also can use your account to pay for optional shore tours if you book them through the cruise line, he continues. "On mainstream cruises, you'll pay for alcohol and soda beverages, although some cruises allow you to bring a few bottles of wine on board to drink in your stateroom."
You can buy drinks packages to save money, Allison notes. "And be sure you understand which menu items are free and order those, and find out how the cruise line charges for other items. Ice cream may be free in the dining room but not by the pool, and some cruise lines charge for room service. Have a family meeting and decide how you're going to do things."
Allison also recommends purchasing the onboard Internet package to avoid high charges for going online. "You can stretch it," she says. "Log on, download all your e-mails, and then log off. Answer all of them, send them to your outbox, log back on, and send them all at once."
Oh, and you may have heard it's easy to get a free cruise by being an onboard speaker. "It's not easy at all," Motter says. "Cruise lines get so many requests. You really have to be an authority on a topic, and [having] a recognizable name helps."
So, chances are you'll pay your way, but at least you'll know how to get the best deal.)