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Seven Ways to Find Cruising’s Best Bargains in 2011

SmarterTravel

Predicting where and when savvy cruise shoppers are most likely to find dirt-cheap seven-night Caribbean cruises, elusive five-category upgrades or truly generous onboard credit 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 when looking for the best prices. We pumped a couple of knowledgeable cruise sellers for their best tips on finding low cruise fares. Here’s what you need to know.

1. If you have the means, book now.

Travel agents cite two important reasons for booking early: price and availability.

On the value end of things, agents agree that the best prices are likely to be found early with fares going up as sail dates get closer. “This year the lines are focusing on early bookings,” says Jeffrey Anderson, vice president of marketing for Avoya Travel/America’s Vacation Center. “The deals they used to offer 30 to 60 days in advance, they’re now offering 120 days in advance.” And just because you see an intriguing promotion now does not mean it’ll be repeated later on. Warns Eric Maryanov, president of All-Travel.com, “You can’t bank on deals happening. Consumers get caught [thinking lower fares will come out later] but the cruise line won’t offer the same promotion again.”

Their advice? “If you see it, book it,” says Andrea Taverna, office manager of Direct Line Cruises. If a lower published fare comes out for your sailing prior to the final payment period, many lines will adjust the rate for you or upgrade you to a higher-category cabin.

While booking early does come with some risk that you won’t be getting a rock-bottom rate, agents say it’s worth it to lock in your preferred ship, sailing date, cabin category and stateroom location. “This is your vacation — you want as close to your idea of perfect as possible,” says Maryanov. And by booking early, you have a much better chance of getting the exact vacation you want.

Why? Availability. CruCon Cruise Outlet president Sandy Cleary says, “There’s been a huge pickup in Europe, and Alaska cruisetours are doing phenomenal.” Cabin categories, if not entire sailings, are already selling out. John Keen, CEO of Cruise Now, says he’s seeing a lot of people booking early. “People are planning now for summer,” he says. “Spring break is also popular and deals are harder to get.” As early-bird planners snap up those primo cabins, not only will fares start to climb but fewer spots will be left for procrastinators.

And while not everyone needs to book early, certain traveler types should consider booking earlier than others.

“People with families or set vacation schedules and those who need a specific type of cabin — like quads or balconies — should book early,” says Keen. Anthony Hamawy, president of Cruise.com, reminds traveler to consider availability on all aspects of their vacation. He says to book summer cruises — particularly Europe cruises — now because of skyrocketing airfare. “Air prices are 15 to 19 percent higher for all itineraries,” he says. “Be conscious of airfare because there’s no end to air price increases.” A great last-minute deal won’t help you if you’re paying through the nose for transportation to your homeport or are forced to book a flight with three connections rather than a nonstop.

2. Know when to book.

In general, aim for six to 12 months advance purchase for cabins on cruises that sail during prime time, including spring break and summer. “Booking six months out is fine for summer Caribbean, but know that summer fares will only go up,” says Keen.

Longer and more exotic voyages should also be booked well in advance to give yourself plenty of time to acquire necessary passports, visas and airfare. Plus, you’re unlikely to find better deals by waiting anyway. “If there’s a lack of supply, book early,” adds Keen. “You won’t see too many fire sales on exotic destinations.” Fewer departures lead to more demand, so ships sell quickly and fares don’t fall.

Interestingly, this year agents are divided when it comes to when to book holiday sailings. Previously, popular Christmas and New Year’s sailings sold out quickly and the recommendation was to book close to a year in advance. Taverna takes this view, encouraging travelers to “book holiday sailings as soon as rates come out. We’ve seen prices climb significantly month to month.”

But wait: Keen sees things differently for 2011. He notes the plethora of last-minute holidays deals in 2010. “We’ve seen this trend the last few years,” he says. “I’d almost say to wait on booking holiday sailings, but you may have air issues. If you book in December, you take a risk, but based on past trends, people who waited paid half of what people paid who booked six months in advance.” The waiting game may be more lucrative for those who can drive to their homeport and avoid the airfare dilemma.

3. If you can’t plan far ahead, you’ve got to be flexible.

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 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 lines can see how much space is left on a given sailing and how hard they need to work to sell it.

If you’re going to take this approach, keep these two caveats in mind: Booking last minute means you have limited choices, 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 on the dock and negotiating a great cruise rate on the day of departure is no longer viable in most cases. Government regulations, especially the United States, put a kibosh on that trick — passenger information is now required to be submitted a few days in advance of sailing.

So what’s the scoop on 2011 last-minute deals? “You’re not going to see major price wars this year. The deals will go away as there will be more price stability,” says Keen. “There will be last-minute deals inside of final payment, but they’ll be destination-specific and depend on capacity. In summer, there will be fewer last-minute Caribbean deals, but you will see deals in the spring. This winter, there are lots of last-minute Caribbean deals, but you won’t find last-minute deals in Alaska unless they’re inside cabins.”

Of course, there are always cabins here and there that don’t sell and end up discounted. But agents warn that you can’t pin your hopes on a last-minute deal appearing on the exact ship, itinerary and cabin location you prefer. Taverna sums it up: “Last-minute people must be flexible, but there are incredible deals. If you need a midship cabin that’s not located below the disco, the deals won’t be there. But if you’re just looking to get on a ship at a great price [there are deals to be had].”

4. Know your cruise seasons to find discounts or extra-value promotions.

There are two primary rules of thumb. Generally, cruise lines launch their splashiest sales in January and February — what industry insiders call “Wave Season,” when they hope to entice people to book in advance for spring, summer and fall voyages. This is a good time to snap up free balcony upgrades in Alaska, free or reduced-cost air and fair … well, fares. When cruises sell well all year ’round, wave season has less of an impact. But, when cruises aren’t selling out in advance, or — as in 2011 — cruise lines want to incentivize early bookings, wave season deals become more impressive or prevalent.

The second rule? “Know the good months for value,” says Maryanov. They vary by itinerary. Demand is softer for cabins in Europe and Alaska during shoulder season. For Europe, look for specials from late March through April and again from mid-September to November. In Alaska, soft periods include May and September. In the Caribbean, standard bargain times include the fall months (prime hurricane season), non-holiday portions of November and December, and January and February (barring holiday weekends). Last-minute deals are also prevalent at these times.

Taverna adds that the last week in August is a great time to snag a Caribbean cruise deal. “Those cruises are always several hundred dollars less than the week before,” she says.

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 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.

5. Learn which homeports, destinations and ships are the cheapest.

Knowing the idiosyncrasies of 2011’s itineraries and booking trends is the key to snagging a deal since you’ll know where to look for the lowest prices. But there’s no need for a study session — just ask a travel agent.

The No. 1 spot to look for deals this year is Europe because cruise lines are flooding the region with ships this summer. “Look at how many ships will be redeployed to Europe this summer,” says Taverna. “Right now prices are incredible. We’re seeing outside cabins on seven-night cruises from $1,299, which is quite good. April, May, September and October are the best months for Europe deals.”

She also notes that cruises out of Baltimore are a great deal this year and are often less expensive than the sailings out of New York. Plus the Maryland city is an easy four- to five-hour drive from many places. New York cruises can also be a steal, especially on NCL where Taverna is seeing fares under $600 per person for sailings through May.

Cruises out of San Juan are always a good bet, she adds. The cruise lines drop rates on these sailings because airfare is more expensive to Puerto Rico than to the Miami or Gulf Coast homeports. But if you’ve got frequent-flyer miles or can snag a deal, you can find the savings add up.

Keen says that despite cruise lines pulling ships out of Mexico, deals still abound. “There are lots of last-minute deals, but also deals further out.”

When it comes to ships, everyone agrees that this year, new ships — like Royal Caribbean’s Oasis and Allure of the Seas and NCL’s Norwegian Epic — are hot . . . and therefore pricey. You won’t find too many deals on these popular vessels. So Taverna tells deal hunters to stay away — and they won’t regret it. “Everyone wants brand new ships, but the older ships are wonderfully refurbished with new venues added,” she says. “They’re also a much better deal on the same itineraries.”

6. Work the discounts.

One of the best pieces of advice agents have for finding a good deal is to take advantage of promotions and discounts. “Keep an eye on your favorite discounter and watch the promos,” says Keen, “and book when you can add a promotion to a deal. . . . If you wait too long, the rate might be the same, but the promotion is gone.”

CruCon’s Cleary says cruise lines and agents will change their deal focus every week or two to keep people interested. One week the deals might be Alaska on Princess and the next Europe on Royal Caribbean. “If you see something, get it,” she advises, because rates will go up when the sellers turn their attention to a new destination or line.

And don’t forget to ask about discounts for seniors, military, police officers and union members, not to mention regional residency discounts. According to Taverna, NCL offers between 5 and 30 percent off cruise fares for military personnel and union members, but you’ve got to book early for the biggest discounts.

7. You can still get great value on a luxury line.

The success of the luxury and luxury-lite lines may have to do with the continuation of various value-add deals like free shore excursions and hotel stays (Regent Seven Seas), thousands of dollars in onboard credit (Crystal, Oceania, Silversea) and free airfare (Crystal, Oceania, Silversea, Regent). So, even with a rebounding economy, you can still find value in your luxury cruise booking.

“Most of the hotter deals year over year are on the luxury end,” America’s Vacation Center’s Anderson tells us, referencing these increasingly inclusive fares. In early 2011, he’s been seeing luxury lines dropping prices, especially on spring cruises.

Yet Maryanov cautions that “on the luxury side, it’s too late for 2011, but there are great deals for 2012. Lots of inventory is already gone.” To put the two views in perspective, you’re not going to find deals or much availability on the most popular itineraries and cabin categories — though there’s always going to be some sailings or cabin types that get discounted because they’re not selling out as quickly. For instance, Maryanov says that specific cabin categories on certain lines tend to sell out first. These include Crystal’s penthouses and penthouse suites, Silversea’s Vista Suites with verandahs, and Regent’s entry-level H-category cabins. So try other categories to find more options.

Booking early is definitely the key with luxury, especially since many luxury lines have taken to increasing their prices on a regular basis throughout the year. “Not all sailings go up in price but the best-selling sailings do,” says Maryanov. And you won’t necessarily know whether the itinerary you’re interested in will be the one to hold steady or increase in price. If you have your heart set on a luxury sailing, don’t hesitate. “[With luxury] it’s about getting what you want, not the lowest price.”

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. “If you want to try a luxury line, try it in a less exotic location,” says Keen. “There are always spots and pockets in the shoulder season. If you want to upgrade from premium to luxury, try off-season Caribbean, May and September Alaska, or fall Europe.”

Repositioning cruises can also be great bargains. Some advice: If you want to book last minute, focus on the destination you want to visit, and then look for ships across lines with good deals — or choose the ship you want and see which itineraries have the better rates.

And if you’re having trouble figuring out whether a luxury promotion is a good deal or not, head straight for a knowledgeable travel agent. “A good travel professional can tell you the value of what you’re getting,” says Maryanov. For example, an agent can tell you whether you’re better off accepting a free pre-cruise hotel stay or taking the credit and booking the same or comparable hotel at a cheaper rate, and can decipher the intricacies of cruise line air packages. (Even with luxury line Regent, you have to pay a surcharge to pick your own routings.)

Some final agent tips:

You can get a better deal by booking through a travel agent than booking direct. “Large agencies like Direct Line Cruises buy blocks of space,” says Taverna. This means that agencies may have availability when the cruise lines are technically sold out and can sell the cruises for cheaper since they bought in bulk and paid lower rates. For example, when we interviewed Taverna, Direct Line Cruises was selling Oasis cruises for a few hundred dollars less than Royal Caribbean’s Web site; other cruise sellers who hold group space will similarly be able to beat cruise line rates depending on what they’ve blocked.

Already going on a cruise? Book your next one onboard. Cruise lines will always offer some sort of value-added perk for booking onboard. If you’re going to take this approach, just do your research in advance to know which itinerary you want and what you’re willing to pay. Otherwise, you’ll spend precious vacation time planning your next cruise instead of enjoying the one you’re on. If you’re hesitant, know that many lines ask for reduced deposits for onboard bookings and will let you move your deposit to another sailing if you change your mind.

Look at the big picture. You want to pay attention to the total cost of your vacation — flights, pre-trip hotel, cruise, excursions — especially how much money you’re likely to spend onboard on drinks, spa treatments, souvenirs and activities. Cautions Maryanov, “You may be shocked with what you’ve paid onboard. [And when booking] pay attention to value more than price. If you get hooked by the price, you won’t see the value proposition.” For example, a dirt-cheap last-minute deal might require you to pay through the nose for pre-cruise flights and hotel stays. Or the low price you’re thrilled to find might mean you’re staying in a noisy cabin that prevents you from sleeping and enjoying your holiday.

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