Date: February 29, 2004
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
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
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
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,
sure you know what constitutes a real deal before you accept
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,
Dash contributed to this report.
Should you buy travel insurance?
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.