Q: My wife and I are thinking of taking a cruise later this year. Our first priority is a great boat—our second is a good deal. How can we find the latter?—George Veiwig, New York, N.Y.
A: George, it's a great time to be asking that question. This year will see the introduction of six new cruise ships—including Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas (see "Stacking the Decks") and Norwegian Cruise Line's Pride of Hawaii—joining the 17 vessels that took their inaugural trips in 2004 and 2005. Although cruising has never been more popular—some 31 million people are expected to take cruising vacations over the next three years—the additional capacity on these ships means good deals are out there. Finding them, however, requires a little strategic maneuvering. Here's what to do.
Pick your targets. This year, as a result of last year's horrific hurricane season, the lowest prices are on Caribbean cruises. The fall is the best time to go, says Anne Campbell, editor of CruiseMates.com. "When the kids head back to school, you'll find a tremendous amount of dealing and price-slashing in order to attract customers," she says. "You can even get a deal on the Queen Mary 2. During the summer that ship is full. After Labor Day, it sells at tremendous discounts." That said, if you do venture out during hurricane season, Campbell recommends purchasing travel insurance and heading to port a day early (often the problem is getting to the launch, not the sailing itself). Buy the insurance from a travel insurance company rather than from the cruise line itself.
Consider a repositioning cruise. Ships spend the bulk of their time sailing where the weather is best—but they have to get there somehow. Thus, the repositioning cruise was born. These are twice-a-year sailings that take the ship from the Mediterranean back to Fort Lauderdale, for instance, or from Alaska to Hawaii, then Mexico, and then through the Panama Canal, before making it back to the Caribbean for a long season. Campbell says you can get discounts of up to 50 percent on these trips, simply because people don't actively seek them out.
Book your own flight...or none at all. According to Linda Coffman of CruiseDiva.com, cruise lines offer airfares to give their passengers the convenience of one-stop shopping. But they rarely offer the best deals, so do your own shopping for this leg of the trip. Or see if you can skip airfare altogether. Coffman notes that there are twice as many embarkation ports today as there were a decade ago, including Seattle and San Francisco on the West Coast, and New York (there is a new port in Brooklyn) and Baltimore on the East. Eliminating airfare completely can cut hundreds of dollars off the cost of your trip.
Make your own plans for shore excursions. If you opt out of shore excursions entirely—or decide simply to shop near each port—you're missing some of the best experiences available on a cruise, Coffman says. However, if you're not careful, you can spend as much or more money on these excursions than on the cruise itself. The solution: Take a look at what the ship is offering and then hit the Web to see if you can find a better deal. In St. Thomas, for instance, many local companies can arrange snorkeling. Sometimes, the same outfitter the ship is using will allow you to book directly for less. Similarly, if you are planning to rent a car in a particular port, you'll find it cheaper to do it yourself than through the cruise line. The one benefit of booking through the cruise itself: timing. If your ship is late getting into port, excursions booked as part of your package will wait for you. Those booked on your own may not.
Finally, use a travel agent who specializes in cruising. There are times when booking through an 800 number or over the Internet is the way to save big bucks. This is not one of them. It's a great advantage to book with someone who has actually sailed on the ships you're interested in, especially if you're not a frequent cruiser. Some ships have better entertainment, others have better cabins, and each has its own vibe. An expert will sometimes have access to deals not available elsewhere, or be aware of regional specials. An expert will also know that the youngest passengers will be on four- or five-day cruises, while anything longer than eight days attracts seniors. To find a travel agent who specializes in cruising, go to travelandleisure.com/alist. And, oh yes, have a great time.
E-mail Jean! Send your queries about value-related travel issues to AskJean@aexp.com. We regret that questions can be answered only in the column.