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The $64,000 question is, of course, how do you find the best cruise deal? It boils down to luck -- being at the right place at the right time -- and strategy. Pay heed to the following tips to find the cruise of your dreams at a price you can brag about.

Supply and Demand

The old tenet of supply and demand still determines cruise rates: When the lines have more ships than they can fill, prices are low. They're higher when people are clamoring to cruise. With so much new (and bigger) supply on the market in the Caribbean these days and apparently a bit of been-there-done-that malaise that's knocked back some of the demand, there are a lot of bargains on cruises around the islands (see this week's cruise deals for proof). With the exception of the summer months, when lots of families are traveling, Caribbean cruise pricing has been soft of late, so booking at the last minute (up until a few weeks before sailing) can often land you the lowest rates. Of course, to reap the deals, it'll help if you're flexible with the cabin category you get and even the ship.

For the other destinations, it's not quite as easy to generalize. Alaska and Europe cruises tend to be higher priced and prime months can be sold out. It's generally advisable to book at least 90 days ahead and sometimes even four to six months early, because there is typically less price slashing done. Again, if you're ultra-flexible about when you can travel and which ship you take, you may find a last-minute deal. Just don't count on it.

What's Included and What's Not

Before you figure out what your budget is, remember, cruise fares include meals, entertainment, and most onboard activities (dance classes, use of gym, contests, games, movies. etc). Generally, you'll have to shell out extra dough for drinks (sodas, bottled water and booze), tips (to the tune of about $10 per person a day), shore excursions (an average of $50 to $100 a pop, often more), certain activities (wine tasting and trendy gym classes like pilates and yoga, for example), and airfare to the ship.

Exception: the most expensive lines -- Silversea, Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas and SeaDream Yacht Club -- come closest to being truly all-inclusive by including all booze and gratuities in their cruise rates.

How to Book

Cruise lines still rely on traditional travel agents and travel websites to sell their product, though they do sell cruises direct for those that prefer it that way. Generally, travel agents have less leeway in discounting than they used to, as the cruise lines have taken more control of their pricing. This means you're less likely than in the past to find rates being dramatically different from travel agent to travel agent (though, you'll see other perks in lieu of deep price cuts, from cabin upgrades to onboard credits and bottles of wine). So, your best bet is picking an agent or website based on reliability, a referral and service. If you're a whiz on the web and know what you want, booking online may be a good option. If you need some hand holding, though, a good agent will be there for you if problems arise.

Finding a Good Travel Agent or Website

So, how do you know if an agent is any good? Referrals are key and it can't hurt if an agent is an Accredited Cruise Counselor (ACC), Master Cruise Counselor (MCC), or Elite Cruise Counselor (ECC), designations doled out by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), an industry trade organization, after agents take classes and inspect a number of ships. Many of the cruise lines' websites list preferred agencies (generally broken down or searchable by city or state), as does the CLIA site at www.cruising.org. Many of the most reliable agencies are also members of agent groups, such as Virtuoso (tel. 866/401-7974; www.virtuoso.com) and Signature Travel Network (tel. 800/339-0868; www.signaturetravelnetwork.com), which cater to high-end cruise sellers. For agents specializing in mainstream cruises, try TravelSavers (tel. 800/366-9895; www.travelsavers.com), Carlson Wagonlit Travel (www.carlsontravel.com), Cruise Holidays (www.cruiseholidays.com) and Vacation.com (tel. 800/843-0733; www.vacation.com). Most of these websites allow you search for a member agency in your area.

The agencies that supply our Frommers.com monthly cruise deals are reliable, and so are these mainstream sellers:

  • The Cruise Company, 10760 Q St., Omaha, NE 68127 (tel. 800/289-5505 or 402/339-6800; www.thecruisecompany.com)
  • Cruise Holidays, 7000 NW Prairie View Rd., Kansas City, MO 64151 (tel. 800/869-6806 or 816/741-7417; www.cruiseholidayskc.com)
  • Cruises Only, 10 Harbor Park Dr, Port Washington, NY 11050 (tel. 800/278-4737; www.cruisesonly.com), is part of World Travel Holdings, the largest cruise retailer in the world.
  • Cruise Value Center, 6 Edgeboro Rd., Suite 400, East Brunswick, NJ 08816 (tel. 800/231-7447 or 732/257-4545; www.cruisevalue.com)
  • Just Cruisin' Plus, 5640 Nolensville Rd., Nashville, TN 37211 (tel. 800/888-0922 or 615/833-0922; www.justcruisinplus.com)
  • Vacations To Go, 1502 Augusta Drive, Ste. 415, Houston, TX 77057 (tel. 800/338-4962 or 713/974-2121; www.vacationstogo.com)

These web-based cruise sellers are also fair options:

For luxury cruises (Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal, Regent, Windstar and SeaDream), these agencies specialize:

  • All Cruise Travel, 1213 Lincoln Avenue, Ste 205, San Jose, CA 95125 (tel. 800/227-8473 or 408/295-1200; www.allcruisetravel.com)
  • Concierge Cruises & Tours, 13470 N. Sunset Mesa Dr., Marana, AZ 85653 (tel. 800/940-8385 or 520/572-6377)
  • Cruise Professionals, 130 Dundas St. E., Suite 103, Mississauga, Ontario L5A 3V8, Canada (tel. 800/265-3838 or 905/275-3030; www.cruiseprofessionals.com)
  • Strictly Vacations, 108 W. Mission St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101 (tel. 800/447-2364; www.strictlyvacations.com; expert on Windstar)

Money-Saving Tips

Before you plunk down your hard-earned cash, keep these tips in mind before you sign on the dotted line.

Cruise during slow travel periods such September, October, and non-holiday weeks in November and December, fares tend to be low.

Cruise last-minute. Lately there are lots of deals on Caribbean cruises. If you've got the flexibility to take what you can get, look for last-minute promos advertised online and in the travel section of a handful of Sunday newspapers, namely the Miami Herald, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and New York Times. But the best route is checking with a travel agent that specializes in cruises, and getting on their email blast list to be alerted about special promotions and discounts. Keep in mind, getting airfare at the last minute may be tough.

Reap early-booking discounts. Though you won't get many for the Caribbean and Bahamas lately, early-booking discounts can be enticing for more exotic locales. "Generally speaking, when it comes to the major cruise lines, the farther away your cruise goes from North America, the earlier you should book it," says Cruise Week editor Mike Driscoll. That means you often get the best rates and availability for cruises to Alaska, Europe and Asia if you book at least four to six months early.

Brag about your age. From time to time some cruise lines offers discounts to seniors (usually defined as anyone 55 years or older), so don't keep your age a secret, and always ask your travel agent about these discounts (including anything connected with AARP) when you're booking.

Cash in on repeat passenger perks. If you've cruised with a particular cruise line before, you're considered a valued repeat passenger and will usually be rewarded with 5% to 10% discounts (sometimes higher) on future cruises. Depending on how many times you've sailed, you may also get cabin upgrades, invitations to private cocktail parties, priority check-in at the terminal, and a bottle of wine or a fruit basket in your cabin on embarkation days. The catch to all of this is that repeat-passenger discounts often cannot be combined with other pricing deals, particularly in the case of the mainstream lines. The high-end lines, ala Silversea, Seabourn and the rest, go overboard with free cruises for those reaching benchmarks of hundreds of days at sea.

Join a group. Some cruise lines offer reduced group rates to folks booking at least eight or more cabins, but this is really based on supply and demand. If a ship is selling well, group deals may not be available, but if it isn't, lines have a lot more incentive to wheel and deal. Groups may be family reunions and the like, but travel agents also may create their own "groups" whose members don't even know they're part of one. Quick explanation: The travel agent reserves a block of cabins on a given ship and the cruise line in turn gives them a discounted group rate that agents can pass on to their clients. So, always ask your travel agent if you can be piggybacked onto some group space.

Share a cabin. If you don't need a lot of privacy, three or four family members or friends can share one cabin if it's equipped with third or fourth berths (sofa beds or bunk-style berths that pull down from the ceiling or wall). Disney, Carnival, and NCL go one better by offering standard cabins geared to families that can accommodate five people -- Disney's even have 1 and 1/2 bathrooms. The rates for third, fourth, and fifth passengers in a cabin, whether adults or children, are typically 30% to 60% or more off the normal adult fare.

Shack up with a roommate. HAL and Windjammer Barefoot Cruises offer a cabin-share service that matches you with a same-gender roommate (read: a stranger). If the cruise line can't find a roommate for you, you'll probably get the cabin at the regular double occupancy rate anyway.

Always use a credit card to pay for your cruise. It gives you more protection in the event the agency or cruise line fails. (Note: The only exception to this is when an agency is running a charter cruise -- for example, a music cruise with special entertainment -- when payment would be made to the agency directly.)

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