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Searching for Cruising’s Best Bargains

SmarterTravel

Predicting where—and when—the savvy cruise shopper is most likely to find that dirt-cheap seven-day Caribbean cruise, the usually elusive five-category upgrade or a truly generous onboard credit perk requires a crystal ball. And while travel agents can’t see into the future of cruise deals, they do have a few tricks up their sleeves about where and when to look for the best prices. We pumped a couple of knowledgeable cruise sellers for their best tips on finding low cruise fares. So put down your tarot cards, step away from the Ouija board, and listen to some real-world advice on searching out cruising’s best bargains.

If You Have the Means, Book Now

“Right now, we are seeing the cheapest deals we’ve seen since 9/11,” says Anthony Hamawy, president of Cruise.com. As the economy has scared many travelers into cutting back their vacation plans, cruise lines are scrambling to fill empty cabins on late 2008 and early 2009 sailings, as well as hedging bets for spring and summer 2009 sailings.

The deals appearing now are incredible—seven-night cruises for $199, anyone?—but travel agents don’t think they’ll last. “Right now, there are good deals for summer and winter 2009,” says Hamawy. “Will the inventory remain? I’d be very surprised if there was space left 30 days out.” So if you’ve got your eye on a 2009 cruise, put a deposit down now to lock in the sale fares. You won’t be taking too much of a risk, especially if you can take advantage of the reduced deposits or extended no-penalty cancelation periods currently on offer.

If You Can Be Totally Flexible Don’t Plan Too Far Ahead

The concept of last-minute booking continues to evolve, but travel agents basically consider last-minute to be any date beyond a cruise’s final payment deadline (60 to 90 days before departure). Because some people put down a deposit to hold space on a cruise and then cancel their sailing before ponying up the rest of the money, the cruise lines don’t have an accurate picture of how many cabins have truly sold on a cruise until after final payment is due. At that time, the cruise lines can see how much space is left on a given sailing and how hard they need to work to sell it.

Cruise lines typically offer deals on sailings with many unsold cabins 60 days out. But this year could see even more deals. “Everyone is booking close in, from a few weeks prior to sailing to 30 or 60 days out,” says Bill Kraus, president and CEO of Cruise Club of America. “They don’t want to tie up money for cruises down the road.” This new booking pattern means more cabins will remain available for longer, resulting in great last-minute deals.

If you’re going to take this approach, keep these two caveats in mind: Booking last minute means you don’t always get a choice of preferences, so that great deal may be on an inside cabin with a dinner seating that’s not ideal. Also, that old tradition of showing up at the dock and negotiating a great cruise rate on the day of departure is no longer viable in most cases. Governmental regulations, especially in the United States, put a kibosh on that trick—passenger information is now required to be submitted a few days in advance of sailing.

If You Can Only Travel During High Season and/or Holiday Periods: Book Way Ahead

In general, aim to book six months in advance for cruises that sail during prime time, including the December holiday period, spring break and summer. For shorter cruises or mass-market Caribbean sailings at non-peak times, you’re safe with three to six months; longer and exotic voyages should be booked six or more months out (give yourself plenty of time to acquire necessary passports, visas and airfare).

The reason to book well in advance is to have your pick of itineraries, cabins and even dinner seatings. Although this year is out of the ordinary, with last-minute availability on popular destinations and holiday cruises, in general those sailings sell out quickly. People who wait to book will have to make do with whatever space is left. Plus, with cruises that sell well, rates tend to go up, rather than down, as the departure date approaches.

The other good point made by agents is travelers will not necessarily pay more to book in advance. Most cruise lines that lower prices after a customer’s already committed to a cabin will shave off the difference. In this case, though, it helps to be a savvy consumer—agents encourage travelers to monitor prices on their own and then call to ask the agency to handle the markdown with the cruise line.

When’s The Best Time to Find Discounts or Extra-Value Promotions?

There are two primary rules of thumb. Generally cruise lines launch their splashiest sales in January-February—what industry insiders call “[[Wave Season | wave season]],” when they hope to entice people to commit early to spring, summer and fall voyages. This is a good time to snap up a free balcony in Alaska or Europe or get free or reduced-cost air, not to mention a fair, well, fare. When cruises sell well all year round, wave season has less of an impact. But when cruises aren’t selling out in advance, wave season deals become more impressive. If the recession continues, look for some first-rate specials in early 2009.

The second? Know your seasons—and know when they’re soft. It varies by itinerary. Demand is softer for cabins in Europe and Alaska during shoulder season. For Europe, look for specials in late March and into April and then again in mid-September through November. In Alaska, soft periods include May and early June, and then again in September. In the Caribbean, standard bargain times include the fall months (prime hurricane season), non-holiday portions of November and December, and early January. (Last-minute deals are also prevalent at these times.)

When playing the soft-season game, know this: There’s a reason beyond the fact that kids are still in school that these cruises are a better value. Weather can easily be a factor—causing ship officers to cancel shore excursions or bypass ports. Simply put, wandering through Europe in the rain isn’t necessarily as pleasant as exploring on a warm sunny day.

And again, we can’t stress enough the benefits of booking now. There are plenty of free upgrades, free airfare and discounted cruise fares on offer for those who book in late 2008 for the following year.

What’s the Best Way to Get a Great Bargain on a Luxury Line?

Even luxury lines are feeling the credit crunch, and are offering fabulous promotions. Silversea has free airfare promotions, while Regent Seven Seas is offering bonuses for combining segments into longer sailings and single supplement reductions.

Your fast track to deals? “Use an agent who’s knowledgeable about the vessels and can offer extra savings and amenities,” says Joyce Kliger of Premium Cruises. The best agents can negotiate exclusive deals with the cruise lines, may have group space at a lower price or belong to a consortium that provides extra-value perks.

If you just want to get on a luxury line for less, and are willing to be flexible about where and when you go, certain sailings are typically cheaper than others. Look for December departures or late-season voyages. Repositioning cruises can be great bargains; Kliger says that Silversea’s Barbados-to-Ft. Lauderdale trip is discounted every year. And back-to-back cruises are often better value than the individual cruises added together.

As for when to book, Kliger recommends booking nine months to a year in advance if you want the most expensive or least expensive cabins; the middle-tier cabins are slower to sell. Kraus also adds that unique itineraries with only a couple of departures a year sell out first, so book early (one to two years in advance) to get a spot on those cruises. You’ll find more deals on luxury cruises to mainstream destinations in the Mediterranean, Alaska or Caribbean, where there are several sailings in a row.

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