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What the Economy Sours, Cruise Rates Sweeten: Here's What the Experts Think

The good news: Tough times usually mean some good deals are out there. To take advantage of the current buying opportunity, here are some tips from a group of experienced travel agents.

Unless you've been locked up in a cave you know the economy is on the skids. The good news: tough times usually mean some good deals are out there.

"Cruise lines are aggressively discounting 2009 cruises, especially the mass-market lines, with 10% drops in the last week not uncommon," says Charlie Funk, co-owner of Nashville-based Just Cruisin' Plus.

To take advantage of the current buying opportunity, here are some tips from a group of experienced travel agents (who, remember, are also eagerly trying to sell you their product).

What is the best way for cruise enthusiasts to take advantage of the weak economy?

David Shields: Now is the time to buy, cruise lines are providing many different types of incentives to fill open inventory, including offering 50% off on-deposit amounts and aggressive onboard credits.

Eric Maryanov: Be flexible with scheduling and be prepared to act quickly. Also, because of all the new deals flying around, working with a travel agent is extremely beneficial.

Sharon Turnau: Give your travel agent the dates you can travel and let the agent shop the best deals.

Sherry Laskin Kennedy: The best way for cruise enthusiasts to take advantage of the weak economy is to book, book, book. And, if you book your next cruise while on board a cruise [most ships have sales desks onboard], incentives include onboard credits, free upgrades, reduced deposits and/or special offers. This is a great time to take lots of shorter cruises so you can take advantage of your favorite cruise lines' past passenger rewards program. Also, before the stock market rallies again, think about becoming a shareholder of a cruise line to enjoy shareholder onboard credit benefits. And, though still expensive by most standards, the rates for luxury cruises are at all time lows.

Which cruising regions are effected most by down turn in the economy?

Eric Maryanov: We've been seeing some great deals in Europe and the Caribbean, however, buyer beware as regards Europe -- the airfare and cost to actually get there might negate the deal you're getting. In general, if you're looking to get a better value for your money, I'd suggest looking towards longer cruises (14 days); on a per-day basis, they've been significantly cheaper.

Steven Gelfuso: Right now it looks like Europe and the Caribbean, there are a lot of ships out there and all of the cruise lines seem to be slashing the prices to fill the ships.

Sherry Laskin Kennedy: The regions showing the most discounts are of course the Caribbean including Panama Canal full-transits, as well as Mexican Riviera cruises. The Med is discounted, though not as deeply as 7-night or shorter cruises from America's home ports. San Juan sailings, if the airfares aren't extreme, offer some really great values. On the other hand, Alaska and Hawaii are booking well for 2009, without too much of a dent in prices.

Given the state of the economy, do you expect cruise fares to dip to a lower level, at the last minute, than early-booking discounts?

David Shields: The cruise lines are very aggressive with their deals now, especially to Europe. Many cruise lines have committed large amounts of inventory to Europe for 2009 and they are very nervous, so they are cutting deals. If the economy starts to stabilize they will start reducing their discounts.

Eric Maryanov: This depends on the line; higher-end lines will concentrate more on value, while premium [mass market] lines are more likely to offer last minute deals.

Sharon Turnau: Yes, there will be some deals at the last minute with some lines, but if varies from cruise line to cruise line. Regent Seven Seas, for instance, currently offers its best prices farther out with specials such as free air, children sail free and shipboard credits. Celebrity and Holland America, on the other hand, are notorious for discounting closer to sailing so that the prices can decrease on any given sailing numerous times before departure.

Sherry Laskin Kennedy: The "last-minute" deals usually appear at 75 days or less before a sailing. If the rates dip below what you paid a year and a half ago, your travel agent can easily request that the cruise line adjust your rate and issue a refund for the difference.

How will the cruise lines make up for decreasing demand and lower fares?

David Shields: I think that we'll see a reduction in staff-to-passenger ratios affecting service to some degree and we'll see a little less spent on food, so quality maybe reduced. I also think ships will be very aggressive selling services and products on board to generate additional revenues.

Eric Maryanov: The premium [mass market lines] will raise rates for on board activities as much as possible; luxury lines will not have the same opportunity (because they include more in the price in the first place) and won't give as much away.

Sharon Turnau: Unfortunately, I think they will go the way of the airlines by charging the customer for anything they can once they are onboard. The cruise lines are looking to cut corners wherever possible.

Steven Gelfuso: Cruise lines are still getting the fuel surcharge and the price of fuel has dropped dramatically --- I think they will be fine. Raising prices on board isn't going to help to bring passengers back on board.

Sherry Laskin Kennedy: To make up for the decrease in rates for many itineraries, the cruise lines are charging more for incidentals rather than increasing already high-priced shore excursions. For example, very soon, Royal Caribbean will start charging for steak in the dining room. I would also guess that very soon, specialty coffees in the dining room will have a price tag.

Besides lower fares, are any cruise lines offering other incentives to get cruisers to commit in these tough times?

Eric Maryanov: Yes, definitely seeing more incentives on a daily basis. Expect to see reduced deposits and reduced cancellation periods.

Sharon Turnau: Most of the luxury cruise lines, other than Crystal, are holding firm at this time; it remains to be seen what the future will hold.

Steven Gelfuso: Offering a reduced deposit and onboard credits seem to help motivate customers to book. MSC has a "kids sail free" program that makes cruising more affordable for families.

Sherry Laskin Kennedy: Reduced deposits, cancellation penalty period reduced to 45 days before sailing, onboard credits, kids-go-free-under-17, two-for-one rates, and coupon booklets for use on board are all enticements to get people to cruise.

Which cruise lines offer the best value for cruisers feeling the pinch?

David Shields: I think NCL and Azamara are the most aggressive discounters I have seen. I also think Crystal will have to discount big time or they may not survive. Look for Europe to be heavily discounted because the air is so expensive for 2009.

Eric Maryanov: Though different buyers have different values, generally longer itineraries (14 days) on premium [mass market] lines offer great value. There's also good value specifically for families with lines that have capacity for three and four people in a cabin.

Sharon Turnau: Look for the free air deals, two-for-one fares or children-sail-free on Regent Seven Seas. Crystal is already offering $1,000 off airfare to Europe for 2009 on some sailings and has some very attractive rates left for its holiday sailings in 2008. In this economy, I feel that all the cruise lines will do whatever they need to do to fill the ships especially with so many new ships arriving in the next couple of years.

Steven Gelfuso: Royal Caribbean, Princess, Holland America, Carnival, and Celebrity; there are great deals out there for the Caribbean, Europe and Alaska for '09.

Sherry Laskin Kennedy: The best values in the mass-market cruise lines would be Costa and MSC, followed closely by Carnival and Royal Caribbean. This weekend, for example, the Carnival Glory's 7-night Caribbean sailings are starting at $299 per person, including port charges. If the ship sails empty, the crew doesn't get tips.