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Merry tips for winter holiday cruise savings

Many Americans may dream of a white Christmas, but many others dream of spending the winter holidays in the Caribbean and other warm destinations. Holiday cruises are some of the most popular of the year, so you’ll need to plan ahead to get the best prices or even a spot on the ship at all.

The key to popularity

Winter holiday cruises are popular for several reasons. The first is timing. People generally have more time off work or school at the end of December, and they want to escape the winter cold. Plus, as Bruce Good, director of public relations at Seabourn Cruise Line, puts it, “Some people just want to go back to work after the holidays with a great tan.”

The second is that cruises give travelers a chance to spend time with their families without the headaches of hosting. “Holiday cruises can bring families together who live in different parts of the country. Everyone can spend Christmas together on the cruise ship and not somewhere where it’s five degrees out,” says Mitchell Schlesinger, vice president of North American sales at Norwegian Cruise Line. A cruise offers activities that will appeal to family members of different generations, and no one has to worry about cleaning up after a big holiday dinner. For these reasons, you’ll often find more families with kids on holiday cruises. Holiday cruises also give people who would otherwise spend the holidays alone a chance to be with people and participate in celebrations and special dinners.

And finally, some people just want to get away. Good remarks that “some people go to get away from the craziness, to be more relaxed, pampered, and taken care of.” You can avoid the traffic and the crowded malls and still have a holiday to remember on a cruise line.

Onboard celebrations

Cruise lines do their best to ensure a festive holiday season. Erik Elvejord, director of public relations for Holland America Line, details his cruise line’s holiday plans. “We always do a dinner, and the chefs will also do cookie making demonstrations. The crew performs a Christmas show and sing carols and show holiday traditions from their homelands. We have a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, and a Jewish rabbi onboard to lead services, and we decorate the ship for Christmas and Chanukah. Santa brings small gifts to the kids onboard; sometimes he arrives by parasail. And then on New Year’s Eve, there’s a party in the Show Lounge with our version of the ball dropping.”

Good and Schlesinger also report that their lines do traditional holiday dinners and New Year’s celebrations, and the ships are decorated in the spirit of the season. No matter which cruise ship you choose, you’re likely to find plenty of holiday cheer and festive meals.

The early planner gets the cruise

All of the cruise line representatives we talked to agreed that holiday sailings almost always sell out in advance. And this year, with many regular cruises selling out, it’s likely that the 2005 holiday cruises will disappear quickly.

Schlesinger says that Norwegian’s goal is for holiday cruises to sell out by September 1. He’s seen a spike in bookings within the past three to four weeks, so his company is on track to meet its goal. According to Elvejord, Holland America’s holiday sailings are probably half to three-quarters sold. “If we continue at this pace, we’ll be sold out by mid-October,” he says. Good reports that Seabourn’s small ships, which have only 104 suites each, usually sell out for holiday sailings by the end of August.

So how can you guarantee a spot on a holiday cruise and get a good price? Book early. Due to the popularity of these sailings, the prices will only go up as the departure date nears, and travelers who try to book in November will find a dearth of cabins and no flexibility in pricing.

If you want to sail this December, it’s best to book now. In a few more weeks, most of the cabins will be taken, and you’ll be forced to choose from the few leftover spots (and potentially high prices). If you’re thinking about a 2006 holiday cruise, the advice is to book six months out, preferably more. Not only will cabins be plentiful, but Elvejord says that Holland America often runs promotions six to eight months prior to a sailing, meaning that you may find the best deals at this time as well.

Elvejord also recommends getting travel insurance or looking up the cruise line’s cancellation policy if you intend to book early because holiday plans often change. If you’re leery about booking too early, he says to call the the cruise line or a travel agent and ask how many cabins are still available. If the ship is still empty, you can wait a few weeks then call again. However, there’s no guarantee that the price won’t go up if you wait to book.

When the temperature tops 90 degrees, you may have trouble envisioning where you’ll want to go on vacation when the weather turns cold. But if you spend those hours on the beach or in your air-conditioned home planning your holiday cruise, you’ll be rewarded with low prices and no worries on your next holiday cruise.

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