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Tips on Last-Minute Cruises

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Sunday, July 12, 2009

With a little research and a lot of flexibility, it's easy to scare up a cruise bargain these days. But there are plenty of potential pitfalls. Here are some things to keep in mind.

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-- "Booking within a narrow window presents its own challenges," said Karyn Todd of Cruise.com. "You're always going to be in immediate penalty if you book within 60 days" of your cruise, for one, which means that you could lose all or part of your money should you be forced to cancel. Accordingly, "you've got to think about insurance. Remember, anything can happen," Todd said, "and the cruise lines have gotten very tough on cancellation. I know it's an additional cost, but the value of having insurance when you're booking a product that's nonrefundable is huge."

-- "Before you make a booking, get your documentation in order," Todd advised. As of last month, any American wanting to travel to a foreign country is required to have either a valid passport or a U.S. passport card (the latter is good only for travelers returning to the United States by land or sea -- but not air -- from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean or Bermuda). Check to be sure your passport isn't about to expire; go to http://www.travel.state.gov for information on obtaining or renewing one. And take a second look at the name on your documents. "You really have to know what everybody's legal name is, what everybody's birth date is," and present that information correctly on your cruise documents.

-- "Before you jump on that great deal for a cruise at the last minute, make sure you can get to the port in a way that's economically friendly," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of CruiseCritic.com. You may see deals on Alaska cruises, for instance, but remember that if one begins in, say, Vancouver, B.C., and ends in Anchorage, you might have to buy two one-way tickets, which can be expensive.

-- "Keep in mind the importance of flexibility," Todd said. "Sometimes an eight-day cruise can be cheaper than a seven-day cruise. Sometimes you can get a great deal if you can leave on a Thursday rather than a Saturday." Added Brown, "last-minute works for some people and doesn't for others." Such cruises are best for people who "really don't care what kind of accommodations they have" -- meaning, usually, they'll get an interior stateroom with no windows -- "and who aren't concerned with things like whether they have an early or late seating" for dinner.

-- If you're traveling with children, be aware of the cruise lines that have reduced fares for the little ones (e.g., MSC, Costa, even Disney). "That can take a premium product and change the price point on the whole thing," Todd said.

-- "Most importantly, when you find a deal, take it," said Todd. Given the vagaries of cruise pricing these days, "it may not be there tomorrow."

-- Finally, for information on the availability of specific last-minute cruises, check Cruise.com and CruiseCritic.com, as well as LastMinuteCruises.com, Cruises Only (http://www.cruisesonly.com) and such general travel booking sites as Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz.

-- S.V.


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