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Top five cruise bargains

How do you get the best cruise bargain? That’s easy: Sail when mainstream travelers don’t want to go. Most people want to cruise at predictable times of the year, such as summer and school holidays. Sail outside the box, so to speak, and you’ll find comfortable weather, fewer crowds, and, yes, fantastic deals.

Here are five kinds of cruises that never fail to offer low prices.

Caribbean in autumn

When fall sweeps in, most tourists lose interest in the Caribbean. Travelers fear the [% 1293341 | | hurricane season %] that runs through November, and families opt for vacations in the summer when kids are out of school. But savvy cruisers know the chances of a hurricane affecting their particular sailing are slim, especially as cruise ships can change course to avoid high winds and choppy waters. These cruisers are willing to risk a little rain to save a little money because Caribbean cruises in autumn can yield some of the best deals around.

For example, an inside cabin on a seven-night western Caribbean cruise on [% 15420 | | Royal Caribbean’s %] Freedom of the Seas will cost you $1,099 if you sail on February 17, 2008. The high price coincides with February vacation week at many schools. However, the same itinerary is selling for $699 on September 28 when kids are back in school and the chance of storms is greater. Prices for fall Caribbean cruises can also drop even further a few months out if cabins don’t sell out early.

Shoulder-season Alaska

[% 1262496 | | Alaska %] has earned the reputation of being a cold and rainy state, so most cruisers opt for summer sailings to try to get the best weather possible. The popularity of late June, July, and August voyages jacks the prices up. But, shoulder-season cruises in May and September fill up more slowly and have lower prices. In this case, a cheaper vacation doesn’t mean a lesser experience—spring voyages typically experience more sun than summer cruises, and late-season cruisers have a shot at viewing the aurora borealis, or northern lights.

A seven-night [% 14460 | | Princess %] cruise departing from Vancouver for Whittier will cost you $949 for an inside cabin on the July 19, 2008, sailing. Choose the September 13 cruise instead, and you’ll save hundreds with prices starting at $699. The May 10 cruise is even cheaper at $649 per person.

Shoulder-season Europe

[% 1285902 | | Europe cruises %] have won the popularity contest this year, but you can still get a great deal if you book an early- or late-season sailing. Why? Kids are still in school, and the Mediterranean weather hasn’t reached its warmest temperatures. Don’t be fooled into thinking shoulder-season trips are less desirable than summer sailings. Travel off-peak, and crowds won’t impede you from seeing the main attractions of Europe. Plus, cool weather is always preferable to stifling summer heat when you’re walking around a big city.

If you’d like to take a [% 11986 | | Carnival %] Europe cruise next year, you could pay $1,399 for a 12-night cruise on the Carnival Freedom departing on June 15, 2008. Or, you could wait to take your vacation until the end of the Europe cruising season, and snag the same sailing for $1,199 with an October 25 departure. The choice is yours.

Repositioning cruises

When a cruise ship moves from one cruising region to another at the start or end of a season, passengers come along for unique one-way sailings called [% 297224 | | repositioning cruises %]. These voyages typically occur in the spring and fall, mix a few port days in different regions with a large number of days at sea, and offer some of the lowest per-night rates of the year. You’ll need to save up your vacation days to take advantage of these bargains, as most repositioning cruises are over a week long.

When [% 14665 | | Celebrity’s %] Galaxy repositions from the Mediterranean back to the Caribbean in December 2008, it will sail a 14-night transatlantic cruise. The ship will call in a variety of ports, including stops in Morocco, the Canary Islands, and the British Virgin Islands. An inside cabin costs $749—just $54 a night. That price would be a great deal on a mainstream line, like Carnival or Norwegian, but on this itinerary, you’ll get premium food, service, and accommodations for less than you’d pay for most hotels on land.

Last-minute sailings

Cruise lines have been sounding the death knell for last-minute deals, but this year proved that late-booking savings are still thriving. Not every ship sold out early, including [% 2351433 | | popular Alaska itineraries %]. In order to fill cabins, the lines will slash prices, and you can find low rates two months to a few weeks prior to departure. Still, before you buy a block of rooms on that Europe cruise departing in 21 days, remember that last-minute airfare can be exorbitant. Close-in cruise deals are best for cruisers who live within driving distance of their departure ports, or who already have plane tickets.

You can find last-minute deals from the cruise lines or on many online cruise sellers’ websites. At press time, travel agents with were advertising a Norwegian Hawaii cruise in July from $425 for an inside cabin, a Royal Caribbean Alaska cruise in July from $599, and an August transatlantic sailing on the Queen Mary 2 from $999. Be sure to book last-minute deals soon after you find them because low rates on upcoming departures always disappear quickly.

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