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Travel Q&A

Travel Q&A: Booking Last-minute Cruises with Brokers; Getting to Union Station for an Early Train

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By K.C. Summers
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 5, 2009

Q. All cruise brokers say they're the biggest and cheapest. Which one really does the most business with the cruise lines? We can only travel last-minute -- say, a week before sail date. Would the cruise line give us the lowest price for unsold cabins, or is it better to deal with a broker?

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C.E. Preston, Bethesda

A. When buying a cruise, as with any other form of travel, it's wise to heed the words of that great philosopher, Smokey Robinson's mama: You better shop around.

That's because, despite the claims, no one cruise agency is the "biggest and cheapest." In fact, most offer pretty much the same prices, said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of the independent review Web site Cruise Critic (http://www.cruisecritic.com). But those that do a lot of business with a particular line may throw in shipboard credits or other enticements, she said, and that's where you might be able to save a few bucks. Individual cruise lines also offer their own exclusive deals. To help you sort it all out, sign up for free e-mail alerts from Cruise Critic, cruise brokers and the lines themselves.

As for last-minute deals, alas, they're not what they used to be.

Cruise lines have been extremely aggressive about filling ships, Brown said, so there aren't many cabins left unsold, and "it's a bit like buying tag-sale stuff." You may wind up with an inconvenient routing or a crummy cabin. The absolute "last minute" to book a cruise is about two weeks before the sailing date, Brown said.

In addition to consulting cruise discounters such as Cruises.com, Cruises Only (http://www.cruisesonly.com) and LastMinuteCruises.com, check all-purpose booking sites such as Travelocity, Expedia and Orbitz; discounters such as Travelzoo (http://www.travelzoo.com) and Cheaptickets (http://www.cheaptickets.com); and auction sites Priceline.com, Hotwire (http://www.hotwire.com) and SkyAuction.com.

We are taking a trip on Amtrak, leaving from Washington's Union Station. We were planning to park at the station, but since we'd be leaving the car for 12 days, the cost would be more than $200. How can we get to the station at a more reasonable cost? We must be there by 5:30 a.m.

Elizabeth Jackson, Ashburn

You were doing okay until you got to the 5:30 a.m. part. Theoretically, you could take a Loudoun County commuter bus from the Dulles North Transit Center (where there's a park-and-ride lot) to the Union Station area for $8 one way ($7 with a SmarTrip card), but the first departure isn't until 5:37 a.m. You could also take a cab to the West Falls Church Metro station, but the first train doesn't depart until 5:07 a.m., arriving at Union Station at 5:45.

Your best bet, short of getting a friend to drive you, is a taxi or limousine service. Limos 4 Less (877-566-4577, http://www.limos4less.com), for example, charges $85 one way from Ashburn to Union Station, plus a $10 early-pickup fee for rides before 5 a.m. So you're looking at a round-trip cost of at least $180, plus tip. But that's still cheaper than parking at Union Station: At $19 a day, your bill would be $228.

Send queries by e-mail (travelqa@washpost.com) or U.S. mail (Travel Q&A, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071). Please include your name and town.


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