Strategies for Cruising on a Budget

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By Sharyn Alden
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 4, 2009

Many cruisers eagerly sail because of this word: value. And no wonder. Typically, expenses such as entertainment, educational programs, hotel services and meals are already covered. And your suitcase sits in your closet unpacked and parked while you explore the beaches and mountains of foreign countries.

But because there are so many variables -- there are cruises aimed at singles, families headed to reunions, even cruises for people with babies -- the price range is vast. Lanie Fagan, communications director of the Cruise Lines International Association, says the options range from $170 per person for a three-day cruise to more than $89,000 for a 107-day world tour. But that's without airfare.

When watching your budget while planning a cruise, the first step is to make sure you understand the expenses. Remember that on top of the fare, you'll typically pay out of pocket for mixed drinks, wine, laundry, casino gambling and spa services, including hair salons. Some babysitting services are extra, as are Internet use, phone calls, shore excursions and visits to the infirmary.

So how do you get the best cruise for the price? Some strategies to consider:

Book very early -- or very late. If you lock in a rate six to nine months before a sailing, you'll save if prices go up, which they usually do, according to Chrissy Bergman, a cruise consultant at Cruise.com. If rates eventually go down, many cruise lines will honor the lower rate for those who have locked in, she said, or will offer onboard credits for the difference.

For those who didn't book early, it might be worth waiting for last-minute deals, found on such sites as Cheapcruises.com and Cruises.com. Costa Atlantica recently offered rates as low as $384 per person for a seven-day Caribbean sailing in November.

Lose your claustrophobia. The least-expensive cabins typically have no windows or portholes. If you need air or want to spend a lot of time gazing at the water, you might have to pay much more than the cheapest rate. For example, a coveted balcony stateroom on Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Sky starts at $399 per person for a four-day trip to the Bahamas leaving Miami on Nov. 30, while an inside cabin starts at $229 per person.

Consider a repositioning cruise. These one-way shoulder season cruises are when cruise lines move their ships from summer or winter waters, such as from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean in the fall and vice versa in the spring. You'll typically visit few to no ports, but you might save up to 50 percent compared with a traditional cruise of similar duration. Royal Caribbean's Vision of the Seas leaves Nov. 19, for instance, for a 14-night cruise from Barcelona to Sao Paulo with an inside-cabin price of $499 a person. (Keep in mind, however, that this does not include airfare to Barcelona or back home from Brazil, making such cruises good options for people with lots of frequent-flier miles.)

Shop around, of course. After you've decided on your destination and budget, plan a cruise through such resources as http://www.cruising.org, run by CLIA, or CruiseCompete (http://www.cruisecompete.com), where you choose a cruise and watch the resulting prices come in from competing agents.

Look at trip-cancellation insurance. It could save you thousands if you can't make your trip because of injury, illness or having to attend a funeral.

Take the family. Disney, Costa, MSC and Regent Seven Seas all have "Kids Sail Free" programs. (But be sure to review the full offers, as you might have to pay taxes, fees and port charges.) If you are a family of four, look for deals on lines such as Oceania that offer 50 percent off for the third and fourth person. The catch: Usually you all have to stay in one stateroom, so make sure you're fine in tight quarters.

Check the tipping policy. Many cruises are moving to a flat-fee service charge added to your account. So if you want to leave customized tips, ask if you can opt out of the service charge, or you're essentially paying twice.

Beware the single supplement. If you're cruising solo, the surcharge can range from 10 to 100 percent or even twice the per-person rate. (On a Royal Caribbean seven-night Southern Caribbean cruise in January, an outside cabin is $632 per person with double occupancy, but $1,144 for a single person.) Some options: Ask if your cruise line has a "guaranteed share rate," in which the line will try to find a passenger of the same gender to share your cabin. For other ideas, go to Singlescruiseresource.com or Sololady.com. And keep an eye out for cruise lines that are doing more to reach single travelers. When P&O Cruises' Azura is launched in April, it will be the first in its fleet to offer 18 dedicated interior and outside single cabins as a cost-effective option for independent travelers.

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