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Issue Date: February 29, 2004
In this article:
Should you buy travel insurance?
Ask Jean Chatzky a money question!
Finance

Cruising for a deal

First, make sure you like a ship's amenities and the type of traveler it attracts -- then start looking for the best price.

About a dozen cruise ships were christened in 2003, and the same number (including the luxe Queen Mary 2) are expected to be launched this year. That's good news for those considering a ship-to-shore vacation. These new boats join an already crowded fleet that hasn't quite rebounded from Sept. 11 and recent health scares. What it means for vacationers is that there's a buyer's market on the high seas right now.

Still, there are some things you need to know when you're looking for the very best deal, says Anne Campbell, editor of Cruisemates.com, and the first is that price isn't everything. "If you are guided by price alone, you can get yourself on the wrong ship," she says. "This is not an airline seat; it's a lifestyle choice." Individual ships often cater to different audiences with particular personal interests.

None of which means, however, that you shouldn't be looking for the best deal (once you've determined the right cruise style for you). Here's how to find it:

Book early (or late), and be flexible. Signing up six to eight months in advance can cut the price in half. If that's not an option, consider waiting until less than a month before the cruise you want sets sail. At that point, the cruise lines want to fill cabins, and they'll start dropping prices. Also, be as flexible as you can about when and where you travel. The week after New Year's is usually a good time to get a great deal. So is September, after kids return to school, for trips to Alaska. And if you truly enjoy days at sea, traveling on a "repositioning cruise" (when a ship relocates from the Caribbean in the winter to Alaska or Europe for the summer) can be a way to get many bargain days on the water.

Shop around online. The big travel Web sites -- Orbitz, Expedia and Travelocity -- all have search engines to match potential cruisers with an itinerary that meets their date and pricing preferences. Surf those sites to get an idea of what you should be paying. Then try the Bargain Finder reverse search engine at Cruisemates.com, where you can type in the days you want to go and cruise lines reply by e-mail (privately) and offer you deals. As intriguing as that sounds, approach it with caution, suggests Kay Showker, the author of "The Unofficial Guide to Cruises" (Wiley, $22.99). Make sure you know what constitutes a real deal before you accept one.

Then ask your travel agent to beat the best price. Cruise lines sell 95% of their cabins through travel agents, according to the American Society of Travel Agents. A pro who does big volume may be able to get you a better fare than a Web site. Moreover, about 70% of agents receive commissions, and they may be willing to reduce their take -- generally 7% to 10% of the fare -- to get you a better price, Campbell says. They won't advertise the fact "because other agents and the cruise line will scream bloody murder." But that doesn't mean it doesn't happen.

Watch the prices of extras. One reason cruising is considered a good value is that it's an all-inclusive vacation. The cabin rates generally cover food, activities and entertainment. But they often don't include "extras," such as spa services, alcohol (or even soda) and shore excursions (Showker says the price of side trips has risen about 40% in the past five years). "To sell packages at these [low] prices, cruise lines have to make it up," she notes. "And where they are making it up is in onboard services." So if you want land excursions, book them ahead at one-third to half the price they'll be once you sail. Or plan your own day: Hire a taxi with other passengers so you can see the sights independently. Cut drink costs by purchasing cards that allow kids unlimited beverages. And consider avoiding the spa. "I have never had a good manicure on any ship," Campbell says.

Contributing Editor Jean Chatzky is the author of "Talking Money" (Warner Books, $24.95). Eric Dash contributed to this report.

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Should you buy travel insurance?

I say yes, given our tumultuous political times and trip operators' stricter cancellation policies (not to mention bouts of "cruise flu" in 2003). In general, insurance covers you for two things: trip interruption or cancellation (due only to circumstances detailed in the policy, so read the fine print) and emergency medical evacuation.

The premium, which is based on the price of the trip and passengers' ages, should run 5% to 7% of your cost. Don't buy it from your tour operator; if it goes bankrupt, you lose your trip and premium. I like InsureMyTrip.com, a site that lets you compare quotes from various insurers.

It's important to buy a policy within a week or two of making the first trip payment to get the fullest coverage, including protection if the line goes belly up.



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