Pay with Plastic for your Cruise

Are you on a belt-tightening budget and convinced you can't afford to spring for a cruise? Carnival Cruise Lines has found a way it hopes will make the matter moot. In May, it launched an installment plan that lets you pay out your cruise fare in 24 fixed monthly payments -- much like installment plans available for other types of big-ticket consumer purchases.

Carnival teamed with a financial services company, Capital One, to basically issue a brand new credit card, the Carnival MasterCard. The cruise line calls its particular credit program the ''Fun Finance Plan,'' a moniker that may strike some of you a tad Pollyanna-like, given that incurring long-term debt doesn't exactly sound like fun. Nevertheless, it could mean a boon to those of you who are strapped for cash but eager to cruise.

Payments on Carnival's card carry an annual interest rate that ranges from 9.9 percent to 19.9 percent, depending on your credit rating. Cardholders who qualify for the 9.9 percent APR, for example, and purchase, say, a seven-day sailing for $599, would pay for it over two years in $28 monthly installments. In other words, at a premium of $73 above the actual cruise cost.

If you already made a down payment on a Carnival cruise prior to the credit program's introduction, you still can obtain the card and apply the outstanding cruise fare balance to it, according to the line.

The credit card also earns you one reward point for every dollar charged on it, including the initial installment of your cruise purchase. The rewards program offers cruise upgrades and discounts and, when sufficient points accrue, even a free cruise.

Carnival's entry into the cruise-financing arena follows by about two years Princess' launch of a similar program. Princess' Love Boat Loan program, in conjunction with MBNA America Bank, has a choice of installment payout periods of 24, 36 and 48 months, with an APR starting at 14.99 percent.

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