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So, you've decided to take a cruise. A cruise to the Caribbean next January. Ahhhh, you can already taste the salty air and smell that suntan oil. You're in the cabin, all snug and content, sailing to the next tropical island . . .

But wait, what's your next move? Do you book this dream cruise today? Tomorrow? Do you wait until December?

I know, I know, it's not easy to get a handle on how to buy travel these days, especially cruises, which have been wheeled and dealed for the past number of years like a stack of carpets at Turkish bazaar.

For several years running you would have done yourself a favor if you would have waited to book your cruise until a month or so before departure, when rates would most likely be lowest and you'd almost be guaranteed a decent cabin even just a week or two before sailing. Because of a glut of brand new ships -- often 10 or more a year -- coupled with a sluggish economy and a public hesitant to travel, supply trumped demand. There was no incentive to book months and months early.

"You could book as little as a week prior to departure in June 2003 and get a choice of cabins at good rates because the industry was still in recovery mode," says Charlie Funk, co-owner of Just Cruis'n Plus (tel. 800/888-0922; www.justcruisinplus.com).

Today, it's a different story.

"In February 2005," Funk continues, "the cruise industry is stronger and it's absolutely necessary to book as much as twelve months in advance if you want a particular ship, date and cabin during peak cruise travel periods."

Indeed, conditions have changed. There are fewer new cruise ships being launched this year -- you can count them on one hand -- and the next ...and the next, but lots of people are traveling.

"The 'booking windows' have all been shattered," says Paul Largay, president and co-owner of Connecticut-based Largay Travel (tel. 800-322-9481; www.largaytravel.com). "Since the new year, demand for travel has returned with a vengeance, to levels we have not seen for three years. If you are planning to visit Europe this summer on a cruise, you better book it within the next month. With the Euro at an all time high people are leveraging the dollar by paying in US currency and many ships are already sold out.

"Similarly, with Alaska, in spite of all the ships there, you'll need a minimum of three months to plan," Largay says. In the Caribbean, there's more supply, so more flexibility. Largay recommends you book no later than 6 to 8 weeks prior to sailing.

With the flurry of shipbuilding that's raged over the past decade finally slowed down for 2006 and the foreseeable future, prices are back up to where they were in the late 90s, especially during the most popular cruising seasons. Cruises are still affordable, but don't go banking on finding a bargain of the century these days.

"Barring some geopolitical catastrophe, I see prices heading up and stabilizing. Last minute shoppers will not be rewarded with bargains like they have been for the past five years," says Mike Driscoll editor of industry bible Cruise Week.

Driscoll says you can expect to pay roughly $100 more, probably several hundred more, for a cruise this year versus two or three years ago. So, after preaching that booking at the last minute would land you the best deal, the sermon is over. Your best strategy is booking early, generally three to six months out.

Of course there are always exceptions -- just see the list of deals I put together for this newsletter every month, which often includes sailings during slow periods like late spring, September, October and non-holidays weeks in November and December (though of course keep in mind, if you book last minute, you'll have to take whatever cabins are available and could have trouble booking any flights you may need to get to the ship).

Another way to snag a lower rate is to book as part of a group. 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. The cruise lines benefits because they're potentially selling a lot cabins through agency X, and the agent benefits because they can offer their clients a good price. So, always ask your travel agent if you can piggyback on to some group space.

Recommended Agencies

So, how do you find a good and reliable travel agent? In addition to the ones I include in my deals column, you can find a reputable travel agency in your town by contacting one of a handful of agency groups or consortiums, which screen their members. The following groups, whose members specialize in mainstream cruises, all maintain websites that allow you search for local agencies with your zip code or city:

For luxury cruises, there are agency groups whose members specialize in high-end travel, and who often get perks to pass on to clients, from cabin upgrades to onboard credits and private cocktail parties. All maintain websites that allow you search for local agencies with your zip code or city. Groups include: Virtuoso (tel. 800/401-4274; www.virtuoso.com), a consortium of more than 310 member agencies nationwide, including some on the list above -- to find an agency in your area, call their toll-free number or e-mail information@virtuoso.com. Another group is Signature Travel Network (tel. 800/339-0868; www.signaturetravel.com), with about 200 member agencies on the west coast; to find an agency in your area, call or e-mail info@signaturetravelnetwork.com.

Using a qualified and respected travel agent is probably the most important way to get the best rates and the best customer service. You never know when you'll get in a bind and need help canceling a cruise or making special arrangements (from medical issues to dining reservations. And in the spirit of valuing an agency for its quality and integrity -- and not just its size -- in the past year or so, the major lines started doing something they had talked about for years, offering all agencies large or small the same rates -- a major coup for small agencies who have been struggling to keep up with the Expedia's of the world. So far, Carnival, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Crystal, and Celebrity had declared in one way or another that they would offer all agencies the same rates, and further, that they would have no dealings with any agency who publicly (via print or website advertising) doled out rebates to clients -- that is, give their customers additional discounts by sacrificing some of their own commissions. As quoted in industry bible Cruise Week, Crystal Senior Vice resident Bill Smith summed it up: "Whatever the agent and the customer finally decide upon in their private negotiations is one thing, but if agents go out and publicly negotiate pricing below our pricing, it's a problem." The lines believe rebating and cutthroat discounting among agencies cheapens the cruise product; lines want travel agents to emphasize the benefits of cruise vacations, not just the fact that one agent has a cruise cheaper than another agent. Still, though industry insiders predict all the major lines will level the playing field by 2006, don't think there aren't any loopholes -- note the free bottles of wine you can get if you book a Royal Caribbean cruise through Icruise.com (again, see my deals column). Other agencies have offered customers gift cards or other incentives in lieu of reduced rates.

Do you have a question or comment on this column? Head to our Cruise Message Boards to join in the discussions with fellow Frommer's travelers.