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Paying (Relative) Peanuts for Top-Shelf Cruises

It's a different story these days with luxury cruises going for half the typical fare from five years ago.

March 12, 2004 -- For years, high-end ultra-luxury lines like Silversea, Seabourn, Radisson Seven Seas, SeaDream Yacht Club, Windstar and Cunard did very little discounting. These days it's a different story; a top-shelf cruise going for $250 a day now was selling for twice that five years ago.

Besides the effect of soft economies and unstable world politics, there's a greater supply of rooms in the high-end driving down prices, at least for the time being. Two new ships were launched in 2003, the 1,080-passenger Crystal Serenity and the 700-pasenger Seven Seas Voyager, and a third, the 2,620-passenger Queen Mary 2, just debuted in January.

Better yet, for the most part, deals on a high-end cruise are immune to the pitfalls that come hand-in-hand with the $100-a-day-and-less rates offered by the mainstream lines, which oftentimes gets you a small inside cabin without windows on a lower deck. In the high-end, there are very few crummy cabins, so a low rate doesn't mean you'll get the broom closet. With the exception of inside cabins on the 940-passenger Crystal Harmony, 1,791-passenger QE2, and new QM2, all standard staterooms on upscale ships have windows or private balconies, many are nearly twice as large as standard cabins on ships of lines like Royal Caribbean and Norwegian, and the vast majority have amenities like mini-bars, bathtubs, walk-in closets and sitting areas.

One of the main factors that does differentiate one $250-a-day high-end bargain from another is the ship's itinerary -- some are oddball sailings with large numbers of days at sea. Crystal has a 15-night cruise on the 940-passener Crystal Harmony that departs Tokyo on May 16, bound for San Francisco, that includes just one port call (in Honolulu) and 13 days at sea! Rates for an inside cabin start at about $200 a day ($3,250 per person). If you're an old salt who gets into long stretches at sea, this is a total steal.

Another thing that separates a good deal from a great deal is what's included in the cruise rate. Some high-end lines include all drinks (alcoholic and non) and tips in the rates (Silversea, Seabourn, and SeaDream) -- others do not. If you like a couple of cocktails before and after dinner and like your osso buco with a C?tes du Rh?ne, count on easily spending another $100+ per day for drinks if they're not included.

The third factor to consider when looking for a high-end deal is when the cruise takes place. Though it may or may not make any difference to you, many deals are offered during slow periods -- the weeks just before and right after a major holiday like Christmas or Thanksgiving, and the months of May, September and October.

SeaDream Yacht Club, for example, is offering a seven-night cruise from San Juan to St. Thomas on November 21, for $2,199. The 110-passenger SeaDream I calls on Nevis, Guadeloupe, Antigua, St. Martin, Virgin Gorda, and Jost van Dyke. For $300 a day you get an outside cabin (there are no balconies on this ship), and unlimited spirits and drinks, tips and use of toys like ski jets and mountain bikes thrown into the price. Silversea is offering a 7-night Caribbean cruise on April 8 for $250 a day on the 2-year old 388-passenger Silver Whisper. All drinks, tips and beautiful suites with huge bathrooms and Bulgari toiletries are included in this steal, which starts in Antiqua and visits Martinique, Bequia, St. Vincent, Grenada, Isla Margarita in Venezuela, Trinidad, before ending in Barbados.

Still, the secret to snagging the deal of your life isn't just finding the lowest price on the right itinerary. The high-end lines are also offering more affordable cruises because they're offering more shorter sailings, more flexible itineraries, and sometimes free airfare. Radisson has a slew of short Caribbean cruises, including a 4-nighter on the Radisson Diamond roundtrip out of San Juan on April 5 for $1,148 per person (wine at dinner, all soft drinks and tips are included). Plus, Silversea, for instance, allows passengers to start and end a cruise as they like and not have to adhere to a set itinerary. Assuming you're in compliance with the Passenger Vessel Services Act (a law requiring a visit to a foreign port if cruising between two US ports), you can, for example, take half of one cruise and three days of the next. The only requirement is that the cruise be a minimum of five days.

How to find these deals? For starters, read our deals column twice a month! It can also be beneficial to work with a travel agent who specializes in high-end travel: They'll be plugged into what's going down with the top-end lines. It also helps that many of these travel agencies are members of Virtuoso, an exclusive network of 285 agencies that specialize in selling upscale leisure travel. Virtuoso negotiates discounted rates for members, plus throws in client perks like cocktail parties with the captain, cabin upgrades, a complimentary shore excursion, and credits for on board purchases like massages and drinks.

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