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Every cruise line has a brochure full of beautiful glossy photos. You'll see low starting rates on the charts, but look further, and you'll realize those are for tiny inside cubicles; most of the cabins sell for much more. Sometimes the brochures feature published rates that are nothing more than a pie-in-the-sky wish (most customers will pay less). The cruise lines would like you to look at the early bird savings column and book your cruise early. (The brochures come out about a year in advance and you typically have until mid-Feb for average savings of 25%-30% and sometimes as much as 50%.) In previous years, if you waited until March or April to book, you might save significantly more. This was not the case in 2011. Chalk it up to less capacity, or perhaps the increasing popularity of Alaska cruises -- given natural disasters and war in some other parts of the world -- but there were few last-minute bargains to be had at the start of the cruise season last year. The cheapest fares we could find in mid-April for early season cruises were $619 and $699. Compare that to 2010, when there were plenty of $399 fares in the market and even one crazy fare we spotted of $269, though that was also a year when the economic downturn caused travelers to book closer in and the cruise lines to panic about filling their ships. We don't expect many last-minute deals this year, but for those there are, it's important to remember these kinds of prices are for a limited number of cabins, and getting last-minute airfare is not always that easy. So here's our suggestion: Either book way in advance and snag an early booking deal, or decide what month you want to travel and keep careful track of what's happening in the market come mid-February into March. Check websites that track cruise sales, including Gene's own USA Today Cruise Log Blog (www.usatoday.com/travel/cruises). In reality, you may be able to get the cruise for 40% or 50% off, but if you don't reserve space early, you could just as easily be left out in the cold. Remember that the most expensive and the cheapest cabins tend to sell out first. The midrange rooms are by and large the last to go. Increasingly aggressive marketing by the cruise lines to previous passengers is adding to the increase in early bookings.

Book your cruise through an experienced cruise travel agent or online. Many people still turn to travel agents and, though the Internet has knocked some of those agents out of business, many of the remaining traditional travel agencies have created their own websites in an effort to keep pace.

So which is the better way to book a cruise these days? The answer can be both. If you're computer savvy, have a good handle on all the elements that go into a cruise, and have narrowed down the choices to a few cruise lines that appeal to you, websites are a great way to trawl the seas at your own pace and check out last-minute deals, which can be dramatic. On the other hand, you'll barely get a stitch of personalized service searching for and booking a cruise online. If you need help getting a refund or arranging special meals or other matters, or deciding which cabin to choose, you're on your own. In addition, agents usually know about cruise and airfare discounts that the lines won't necessarily publicize on their websites. So the best bet, to our way of thinking, is to do your research electronically and, better informed, then visit a travel agent to make the reservation.

Shore Excursions: The What, When & Why

Shore excursions offered by the cruise lines provide a chance for you to get off the ship and explore the sights close up, taking in the history, nature, and culture of the region -- from exploring gold-rush-era streets to experiencing Native Alaskan traditions such as totem carving.

Some excursions are of the walking tour or bus tour variety, but many others are activity oriented: Cruise passengers have the opportunity to go sea kayaking, mountain-biking, horseback riding, salmon fishing, and even rock climbing or zip-lining through the treetops, and to see the sights by seaplane or helicopter -- and maybe even to land on a glacier and go for a walk. Occasionally, with some of the smaller cruise lines, you'll find quirky excursions, such as a visit with local artists in their studios. Some lines even offer scuba diving and snorkeling. The cruise lines vet the operators, so you do get assurance you're dealing with pros.

With some lines, select shore excursions are included in your cruise fare, but with most lines, they are an added (though very worthwhile) expense.

Booking a Small-Ship Cruise

The small-ship companies in Alaska -- Alaskan Dream, American Safari, Lindblad Expeditions, and InnerSea Discoveries -- all offer real niche-oriented cruise experiences, attracting passengers who have a very good idea of the kind of experience they want (usually educational and/or adventurous, and always casual and small scale). In many cases, a large percentage of passengers on any given cruise will have sailed with the line before. Because of all this, and because the passenger capacity of these small ships is so low, in general, you're not going to find the kind of deep discounts you do with the large ships. Still, for the most part, these lines rely on agents to handle their bookings, taking very few reservations directly. All of the lines have a list of agents with whom they do considerable business, and they can hook you up with an agent if you call (or e-mail) and ask for an agent near you.

Booking a Mainstream Cruise

If you don't know a good travel agent already, try to find one through your friends, preferably those who have cruised before. For the most personal service, look for an agent in your local area, and for the most knowledgeable service, look for an agent who has cruising experience. It's perfectly okay to ask an agent questions about his or her personal knowledge of the product, such as whether he or she has ever cruised in Alaska or with one of the lines you're considering. The easiest way to be sure the agent is experienced in booking cruises is to work with a cruise-only agency (meaning that the whole agency specializes in cruises) or to find somebody in a more conventional agency who is a cruise specialist (meaning he or she handles that agency's cruise business). If you are calling a full-service travel agency, ask for the cruise desk, which is where you'll find these specialists. If the agency doesn't have a cruise desk, per se, it might be wise to check elsewhere.

A good and easy rule of thumb to maximize your chances of finding an agent who has cruise experience and who won't rip you off is to book with agencies that are members of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA; tel. 754/224-2200; www.cruising.org), the main industry association. Membership in the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA; tel. 800/275-2782; www.travelsense.org) ensures that the agency is monitored for ethical practices, although it does not designate cruise experience.

You can tap into the Internet sites of these organizations for easy access to agents in your area.

The Cost: What's Included & What's Not

However you arrange to buy your cruise, what you basically have in hand at the end is a contract for transportation, lodging, dining, entertainment, housekeeping, and assorted other miscellaneous services that will be provided to you over the course of your vacation. It's important, though, to remember what extras are not included in your cruise fare. Are you getting a price that includes port charges, taxes, fees, and insurance, or are you getting a cruise-only fare? Are airfare and airport transfers included, or do you have to book them separately (either as an add-on to the cruise fare or on your own)? Make sure you're comparing apples with apples when making price comparisons. Read the fine print!

Aside from airfare, which is usually not included in your cruise fare , the priciest addition to your cruise fare, particularly in Alaska, will likely be shore excursions. Ranging from about $35 for a bus tour to $299 and up (sometimes as high as $600) for a lengthy helicopter or seaplane flightseeing excursion, these sightseeing tours are designed to help cruise passengers make the most of their time at the ports the ship visits, but they can add a hefty sum to your vacation costs.

You'll also want to add to your calculations tips for the ship's crew. Tips are given at the end of the cruise, and passengers should reserve at least $10 per passenger per day for tips for the room steward, waiter, and busperson. (In practice, we find that most people tend to give a little more.) Additional tips to other personnel, such as the head waiter or maitre d', are at your discretion. On small ships, all tips often go into one pot, which the crew divides up after the cruise.

Most ships charge extra for alcoholic beverages (including wine at dinner) and for soda. Nonbubbly soft drinks, such as lemonade and iced tea, are included in your cruise fare. (Regent's Seven Seas Navigator and Silversea's Silver Shadow both include alcoholic beverages in the cruise price.) You'll also want to set some money aside for optional offerings such as spa treatments, fancy dinners in your ship's alternative dining room (which may carry a price tag of up to $30 per person), shipboard photos, Internet access, and other temptations.

Money-Saving Strategies

Cruise pricing is a fluid medium, and there are a number of strategies you can use to save money on the booking price.

Early & Late Booking -- When you book in advance, in a typical year, you can expect to save 25% to 50% off the brochure rate if you book your Alaska cruise by mid- to late February of the year of the cruise. If the cabins do not fill up by the cutoff date, the early bird rate may be extended. We've seen starting early bird brochure prices for 2012 as low as $529 on Carnival and $459 on Norwegian Cruise Line. Princess, in April 2011, was selling 2012 Alaska cruises from $649, and cruise tours with 3 nights in Denali from $948.

If the cabins are still not full as the cruise season begins, cruise lines typically start marketing special deals, usually through their top-producing travel agents. These discounts ran as high as 50% to 75% in previous years, though not in 2011, as noted above, and may be sparse in 2012. And again, remember that last-minute deals are usually for a very limited number of cabins. Planning your Alaska cruise vacation well in advance and taking advantage of early booking discounts is still the best way to go.

Shoulder Season Discounts -- You can save by booking a cruise in the shoulder months of May or September, when cruise pricing is lower than during the high summer months. Typically, Alaska cruises are divided into budget, low, economy, value, standard, and peak seasons, but since these overlap quite a bit from cruise line to cruise line, we can lump them into three basic periods:

1. Budget/Low/Economy Season: May and September

2. Value/Standard Season: Early June and late August

3. Peak Season: Late June, July, and early to mid-August

Discounts for 3rd & 4th Passengers & Groups -- Most ships offer highly discounted rates for 3rd and 4th passengers sharing a cabin with two full-fare passengers, even if those two have booked at a discounted rate. It may mean a tight squeeze, but it'll save you a bundle. Some lines offer special rates for kids, usually on a seasonal or select-sailings basis, that may include free or discounted airfare. Norwegian Cruise Line, for one, was offering a kids' rate on Alaska cruises in 2010, from $199 (the rates apply only when kids share a cabin with two adults paying the regular fare).

One of the best ways to get a cruise deal is to book as a group of at least 16 people in at least eight cabins. The savings include a discounted rate, and at least the cruise portion of the 16th ticket will be free. Ask your travel agent about any group deals they may offer.

Special Discounts -- Occasionally, cruise lines will do offers of two-for-one fares, free shore excursions, onboard spending credits (the cruise line gives you, say, $200 per person you can spend any way you please onboard), and offers of cabin upgrades. We can't predict which of these perks will reappear in 2012, or when. But keep an eye out, as they can amount to significant savings.

Booking Air Travel Through the Cruise Line

Except during special promotions, airfare to the port of embarkation is rarely included in the cruise rates, so you'll have to purchase airfare on your own or take advantage of the cruise lines' air add-ons, which is usually a better option. Why? First of all, as frequent customers of the airlines, cruise lines tend to get decent (if not the best) discounts on airfare, which they pass on to their customers. Second, booking air with the cruise line allows the line to keep track of your whereabouts. If your plane is late, for instance, they may hold the boat, though not always. When you book air travel with your cruise line, most lines will include transfers from the airport to the ship, saving you the hassle of getting a cab. (If you book the air travel on your own, you may still be able to get the transfers separately -- ask your agent about this.) Be aware that once the air ticket is issued by the cruise line, you usually aren't allowed to make changes. It may pay to book your own air transportation if you are using frequent-flier miles and can get your air travel for free, or if you are particular about which carrier route you take. Or you may see a much better deal than the cruise line is offering.

Choosing Your Cabin

Cruise-ship cabins run from tiny boxes with accordion doors and bunk beds to palatial multiroom suites with hot tubs on the balcony. Which is right for you? Price will likely be a big factor here, but so should the vacation style you prefer. If, for instance, you plan to spend a lot of quiet time in your cabin, you should probably consider booking the biggest room you can afford. If, conversely, you plan to be out on deck all the time checking out the glaciers and wildlife, you might be just as happy with a smaller (and cheaper) cabin to crash in at the end of the day. Cabins are either inside (without a window or porthole) or outside (with), the latter being more expensive. On the big ships, the more deluxe outside cabins may also come with private verandas. The cabins are usually described by price (highest to lowest), category (suite, deluxe, superior, standard, economy, and others), and furniture configuration ("sitting area with two lower beds," for example).

Special Menu Requests

The cruise line should be informed at the time you make your reservations about any special dietary requests you have. Some lines offer kosher menus, and all will have vegetarian, low-fat, low-salt, vegan, and sugar-free options available.

Smoking

Cruise lines have recently been reevaluating their smoking policies, and some, including Celebrity Cruises and Regent Seven Seas, have moved to ban smoking in cabins and on cabin balconies (Royal Caribbean and Disney Cruise Line do not allow smoking in cabins but do allow it on cabin balconies). Smoking is generally not allowed in shipboard theaters, show lounges, or dining rooms, and may be restricted to certain bars (many ships now have cigar lounges) or even certain sides of the ship (open decks on starboard side only on Royal Caribbean vessels, for instance). If you are a smoker, check with your line in advance. If you are not a smoker, you will no doubt be relieved policies are being enhanced.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.