8 ways to snag a deal when booking a cruise

By Gene Sloan, USA TODAY

Thinking about booking a cruise this year? The bad news is fares have been on the rise over the past two years after dropping during the recent economic crisis. Still, the average ticket price remains below the levels seen before the downturn, and there are plenty of ways to save when booking. With the busy cruise-buying period known as "Wave Season" just beginning, USA TODAY offers up eight money-saving tips.

1. Book early.
Many cruises can be booked as far as two or even three years in advance, and it generally pays to be one of the first to lock in a cabin, particularly if you want a specific type of room such as a suite or a specific location on the ship. As sailings start to book up, lines usually raise rates on remaining cabins, and some cabin categories become unavailable entirely.

"Rates on specific categories are cheapest in advance, (and) the top categories are usually first to sell out." At a minimum, you should have your fare locked in at least six months before sailing. "If the price drops before your final payment is due, they'll adjust it."

2. Book late.
While as a rule, fares rise as a sailing date approaches, there are times when cruise lines unexpectedly find themselves with a handful of unfilled cabins just before a departure, and in that case, the opposite happens: Fares come down. It's hit or miss, but if you're super flexible and can take off at the last minute, you'll sometimes find top ships included in the last-minute deals that lines such as Royal Caribbean send to travel agents every week.

A last-minute Royal Caribbean offer sent to travel agents in recent days included balcony cabins on a Liberty of the Seas sailing that begins Jan. 30 for $479 per person, based on double occupancy. That's less than what the cabin was going for several months ago. Rates for a third or fourth person in a cabin also were reduced to $199.

"Your stateroom selection is not going to be as great as if you had purchased your cruise months ahead of time."

3. Be flexible on your sailing dates
Cruises are in hot demand during holiday periods, such as Christmas and New Year's weeks, when kids are out of school, as well as during spring-break weeks and summer. You'll pay top dollar during those periods.

"For the best deals, you have to look at off-peak dates,", noting that May and September are usually the most affordable months to book a sailing in the Caribbean. Just keep in mind that even during off-peak times, top ships such as Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas still will be pricey as compared with other vessels. "You're still going to pay a premium to sail on the biggest and the best."

4. Consider a "repositioning" cruise
Cruise lines sometimes will move a ship from one popular cruising area to another say, from the Caribbean to Europe and when they do, it results in a one-of-a-kind "repositioning" cruise between the two destinations that often sells for far less on a per-day basis than the vessel's traditional itineraries. They're not for everyone, as they're often longer than the typical voyage and feature odd itineraries with lots of sea days and few port calls. But the prices can be stunningly low sometimes less then $50 per person, per day.

Norwegian Cruise Line, for example, currently is offering an 11-night, trans-Atlantic repositioning cruise on its newest ship, the Norwegian Epic, in April starting at $499 per person just $45 a day. The voyage begins in Miami, the ship's winter home, and ends in Barcelona, with just a single port call in Ponta Delgada, Azores.

5. Consider stepping up to a premium line
It may seem counterintuitive, but these days, some of the best deals are available at the "premium" lines, including Celebrity Cruises and Holland America, which are marketed as a step up from mass-market lines such as Carnival.

In a last-minute deal offered Tuesday, for instance, Celebrity promoted a soon-to-depart, five-night Western Caribbean sailing on the Celebrity Millennium for just $249 per person, based on double occupancy or about $100 a day for a couple.

"My wife and I would be hard-pressed to eat three meals out and about in Atlanta for $100 a day. "You couldn't find lodging at a comparable Atlanta hotel for that price, either."

6. Take advantage of Wave Season incentives
Cruise lines often roll out short-term booking incentives during the first few months of the year to lock in business, everything from onboard credits to spa treatments to a free dinner for two in a specialty restaurant.

Norwegian Cruise Line, for instance, is offering a free cabin upgrade to those who book a trip by March 31 as part of its "Norwegians Take It to the Next Level" promotion for Wave Season, and those who book by Jan. 22 can get an even better upgrade. The line also has reduced the amount of deposit it takes to hold a cruise by 50%.

7. Go Western
Assuming you want to visit the Caribbean (still the region most visited by cruise ships), you'll often get a better price if you opt for an itinerary in the Western Caribbean as opposed to the Eastern Caribbean. It's a quirk of supply and demand, as cruisers today favor Eastern Caribbean trips.

The typical Western Caribbean itinerary includes stops in such places as Jamaica; the Caymans Islands; Roatan, Honduras; Belize; and Cozumel, Mexico. The typical Eastern Caribbean itinerary includes stops in St. Maarten, St. Thomas and Nassau in the Bahamas.

8. Look for low-priced group space
Some travel agents will block group space on ships more than a year in advance, when prices are low. As the vessels fill and prices increase, the agents are then able to offer a (sometimes substantially) lower fare to the consumer because they have a guaranteed number of cabins at a locked-in lower rate.

"When you see a travel agency promoting a cruise fare that's several hundred dollars per person less than the cruise line is charging at the moment, chances are they have group space blocked.

In addition to fare savings, extras such as a shipboard credit or prepaid gratuities often are included. The only catch: Unsold group space is taken back by the cruise line about four to six months before a sailing, so hunting for group space isn't a way to snag a last-minute deal. The strategy works best when booking a cruise 120 to 180 days in advance.

Finally, don't be put off by the term "group." You're not sailing with an alumni club or the local Kiwanis chapter. "You'll just be booking with other travelers who like a good value." "Chances are you'll never meet or even know any of the other people your travel agent booked on board."

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