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Cruising Without the Bruising

Most people aren't going to win a cruise in a card game, as Leonardo DiCaprio did in Titanic. But they may have some idea how he felt at the end of the movie as they attempt to navigate the complex process of booking a cruise. In comparison, finding a good deal on an airline ticket or hotel room is a breeze.

"The system for pricing cruises is archaic," says Mike Driscoll, editor of the industry newsletter Cruise Week. With airlines and hotels you can often go straight to the source to get steep discounts. But with cruise lines you need an intermediary: most won't let you book with them directly. The vast majority of reservations are made through travel agents, and each agent may have access to different prices depending on the deals he or she has worked out. "Cruise lines can't afford to alienate travel agents the way the airlines can," says Driscoll. Because of all the choices the consumer has to make—itinerary, cabin class, etc.—cruise lines would have to hire a slew of reservations agents themselves.

You may be able to weed out the inexperienced and the unreliable by asking whether an agent is a member of the Cruise Lines International Association or the American Society of Travel Agents, but it doesn't necessarily mean that much. After all, more than 22,000 agents are members of CLIA; finding one who can locate the best price involves as much luck as skill. "Ask how long the agent has been selling cruises," says Anne Campbell, editor of CruiseMates.com. "Go with a person who knows what they're doing." National agents can be found in the travel section of major newspapers. But in the end, the best way to find a good agent is to comparison shop.

The first thing to know is that almost all cruises are sold at a steep discount off the brochure price, except when a cruise is nearly sold out. "No one should ever pay the brochure price," says Rick White of White Travel in West Hartford, Connecticut, cruise specialists for 28 years. The reasoning behind misleadingly high rates, according to Driscoll, is that "cruise lines want you to think you're getting a great deal when you pay, say, thirty percent less."

Prices fluctuate according to supply and demand. Many lines offer big discounts for early booking. But if a ship doesn't sell out, it may also offer last-minute discounts. Should you wait?"There are good last-minute deals, but you don't always pay less than you would if you booked in advance," says Driscoll. "If you're flexible and not even sure that you want to take a cruise, then it's fine to do it at the last minute. But if you know you're going next summer it's better to do it far in advance."

Some lines offer a guarantee that in the event of a price decrease, you'll end up paying less. But you may not always qualify: since cruise lines would prefer that you pay the higher price, late discounts can be highly restrictive. For example, they might apply only to residents of certain states. Before offering regional discounts, the lines examine passenger lists to see which states are home to the fewest passengers. If there are 20 passengers from New Jersey and three from Idaho, the discount may be offered only to residents of Idaho. Then fewer booked passengers can claim the lower fares.

Even when you qualify for a reduced rate, you may not find out about it. Many discounts are advertised only in faxes sent to travel agents. If the price you pay goes down, so does the agent's commission, which reduces the agent's incentive to tell you about it. "You have to rely on your agent's integrity," says Gloria Price, an agent with the Travel Company. "But it is a business." Many agents offer rebates to clients; these rebates come out of the agent's commission, which could make them loath to take another hit. "Ask the agent to check the price again," says Driscoll—and hope he or she is ethical enough to tell you.

You still have to contend with costs added onto the base price, such as port charges, insurance, and airfare. Though port charges are non-negotiable, they vary among ships. "There's no rhyme or reason to them," says Price. They're supposed to be what local governments charge a ship to dock, but in the past decade cruise lines have begun padding these charges with their own expenses. As for trip-cancellation insurance, many agents recommend it. Cruise lines can be notoriously coldhearted about giving money back in case of an emergency. Finally, you have to decide whether to book air travel with the cruise or on your own. Sometimes cruise lines charter seats for much less than you could find elsewhere, but not always. And when the line is responsible for the flight, it can make the ship wait if your plane is late. (If you book the airfare yourself and your flight is canceled or delayed, you could miss the cruise.) "If you're going to set up your own flights, you have to save a lot to make it worthwhile," says Price. According to White, consumers may save less than they think. Transfers, which are usually included in sea/air packages, can offset any savings. "A taxi from the port to the airport in Rome can cost three hundred dollars," he says.

Cruise lines have always marketed themselves as all-inclusive: for one price you get food, lodging, transportation, and leisure. But don't leave your wallet at home. Passengers can be charged for everything from massages to ice cream. In addition, you're expected to tip an increasing number of crew members. Because most ships are registered under foreign flags, they can get away with paying the staff a pittance. "Celebrity now wants you to tip the head housekeeper," says Campbell. "Why am I paying their wages?"

The way prices fluctuate, you'd think the Internet would have some answers. Wrong. "Cruise lines are probably five years away from booking on the Internet," says Driscoll. Carnival has gingerly started taking bookings on-line, but, fearful of the wrath of travel agents, it gives you the option of listing an agent so he or she will receive a commission. Yet even travel agents don't always have accurate information at their fingertips. Because cruise lines are not linked electronically to agents the way airlines are, price changes must be entered manually into travel agency databases—which, therefore, are not always correct. One of the largest Internet retailers, Cruise.com, even posts a disclaimer: "Until the cruise lines move into the electronic age, we cannot guarantee prices unless a booking is made, and a deposit is received." To make a booking one must call the site's toll-free number. "The whole retail side is a farce," says Bob Falcone of Cruises, Inc., a leading national retailer of cruises. "And it will be until cruise lines update information simultaneously. When people see that a price is invalid, they're offended."

Some lines—Radisson Seven Seas is one—have begun to offer Internet specials, and last-minute deals can be found at sites such as moments-notice.com and lastminutetravel.com. While on-line auctions have become a popular way of selling airfare and hotel rooms, they've had little impact on the cruise industry. After a brief foray into the auction world, Carnival decided not to continue the experiment. For the budget consumer, however, there are bargains to be found. "I've seen some amazing deals at onsale.com," says Campbell, who also cites Yahoo's auctions. But, she urges consumers, "Be sure it's the ship you really want. Don't buy by price alone." A spokesman for Priceline.com says the company will sell cruises in the future, but won't say when. If Priceline is able to convince cruise lines that auctions are a good idea, it could revolutionize the industry. First, however, someone needs to convince them that computers are a good idea.

An exception to the technophobia is Renaissance Cruises, which has been forced to be Internet-savvy: many travel agents boycott the line because of its low commissions. Renaissance claims that you save by booking directly and cutting out the agent's commission. Agents maintain that, because of all the choices consumers must make when buying a cruise, the process is too complex without their expertise. But Renaissance is able to book directly because it has fewer ships, not to mention fewer cabin categories—a trend other lines are embracing. "It's a good product," says Price, one agent who won't book on Renaissance unless asked. "But there's no incentive, so I don't bother."

Find Out What Costs Extra
When booking a cruise, always ask what's included, and more important, what's not.
activities On Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas you can play miniature golf ($25 per hour), ice-skate ($6 per hour), rock climb ($8 for 90 minutes), and rollerblade ($5 per hour).
drinks Ships have always charged for alcoholic beverages, but prices have been going up (you'll still pay less than at a resort).
à la carte items Princess Cruises' Grand Princess asks $2 for a cappuccino and $3.75 for a Häagen-Dazs sundae. Charging for ice cream, free on most ships, has cruisers up in arms.
gratuities Many ships offer guidelines. For example, Crystal Cruises suggests you tip your stewardess $4; waiter $4; assistant waiter $2.50; and butler $4—all per guest, per day—while tips for the maître d', headwaiter, assistant stewardess, and night snack personnel are "at your discretion."
shore excursions Tours at port can run several hundred dollars if you choose to take them (but you can usually do them on your own for less).
spa services Use of the weight room is free—so far—but massages and facials are not.
alternative restaurants There's a cover charge in many ships' alternative restaurants: $3.50 on the Grand Princess, $5 on Disney's Magic. And even when you don't eat in the main dining room, you're encouraged to tip your regular waiter.

Are You Eligible for a Discount?
You may be eligible for special savings (though not all lines, or even all ships on a particular line, offer these deals).
senior citizens On some lines, you must be a member of the American Association of Retired Persons to qualify—the age requirement is 50—and some bookings must be made through an AARP-affiliated travel agent; on others, qualifying ages are higher.
family Kids sharing a cabin with their parents sometimes sail free.
past passengers Repeat customers might be eligible for discounts, though membership in the line's frequent-cruiser club might be a requirement.
regional For residents of certain states.
onboard booking If you put a deposit down on a future cruise while on board.
early booking Usually means more than six months in advance.
groups Sometimes your travel agent can secure a group rate if he or she is booking a number of people on the cruise.
frequent flier Some airline clubs offer discounts.
credit card Credit card companies occasionally run promotions for those who pay with their card.

Those So-Called Port Charges
Like sales taxes, port charges have always been depicted as annoying and unavoidable. But in 1995 some passengers wondered why port charges kept going up even though governments hadn't raised their fees. New York law firm Zwerling Schachter & Zwerling filed suits and discovered that the charges were not always what the cruise lines said they were.

Cruise lines didn't list port charges separately until the late seventies and early eighties, when competition forced them to make their prices look lower in the face of rising government fees. By the early nineties, according to Zwerling attorney Joseph Lipofsky, "Someone decided, 'Why don't we take port charges and pad them to cover costs?It'll look like the government is doing it.' " Some lines claimed that they were raising port charges in anticipation of tax increases that never materialized. "Others were more blatant," says Lipofsky. "They shifted expenses like fresh water, which normally would be under 'food and stores,' into port charges."

In 1997, Florida's attorney general conducted his own investigation into these fees. The companies agreed to a voluntary settlement, paying costs incurred by the state. Passengers weren't compensated, however, and port charges haven't gone down. "The advertising has changed," says Lipofsky, "but cruise lines are still including other expenses in port charges."

A Terrific New Resource
Do a Web search for cruise information, and you'll find a flood of cruise-line and travel-agency sites, all trying to sell you something. But the new CruiseMates Web site (www.cruisemates.com) is independent of such ties. It lists scores of ship schedules, objective reviews, and even sample menus and daily activity programs. In addition to the latest bargains, it has special-interest areas for families, singles, first-timers, and gays and lesbians. But best of all are the message boards, where people can locate others who will be on the same ship. "The Internet is about community," says the site's editor and chief reviewer, Anne Campbell, who once wrote Fielding's cruise guides and edited America Online's Cruise Critic. "I've always noticed that cruisers love to meet on-line to exchange information and chat, then meet in person aboard the ship."
—Jim Glab

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