Cruising for a deal? Read this first.
Credit: Ryan Heshka

Recession Bonus

“Cruise lines are offering never-before-seen promotions during these extraordinary times,” says Liz Sutton of Alabama World Travel, in Montgomery. At press time, Regent Seven Seas Cruises had two bookings for the price of one, plus free plane tickets to select destinations. Crystal Cruises was touting a $1,000 onboard credit on its European sailings valid for spa services, shore excursions, and gift shops.

Agent Expertise

A good travel agent will keep track of price drops (rebooking you if the cruise line doesn’t automatically credit the difference), advise on whether to buy airfare with the cruise line or independently, and analyze deals. If an offer seems too good to be true, it might be—does the room look out onto a lifeboat or sit right below the disco?

The Right Timing

“Booking six months or more in advance typically brings the biggest discounts, as does the pre-holiday period in December,” says Ruth Turpin of Fort Worth’s Cruises Etc. Travel. And cruising during shoulder season could save you 20 to 30 percent off peak prices.

Home Advantage

“Home-port cruising has been gaining momentum since 9/11,” says Bob Sharak, executive vice president at Cruise Lines International Association. Cruisers can avoid airfare and bypass airport hassles. Starting this month, Carnival Cruise Lines will depart year-round from Baltimore. Celebrity will set up operations in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2010.

Quality Control

Don’t book a cruise based on price alone, says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of “You’re not always comparing apples to apples.” Repositioning cruises—the seasonal relocation of ships—don’t run round-trip, which means that you have to factor in an expensive open ticket. And if you want to go the last-minute route, “make sure you can secure a corresponding flight,” adds Lorenzo Surianello of Valerie Wilson Travel. “You could wind up with an undesirable flight schedule if you buy air through the cruise line.”