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10 things to know before you book a cruise

Cruise travel can be a grand adventure -- but the price tag can get out of hand if you're not careful.

By Stacy Johnson Mar 24, 2011 1:25PM

This post comes from Brandon Ballenger at partner site Money Talks News.

 

Americans are traveling again for vacation, according to a report from Travelocity. And more than 90% say they'll spend as much or more than they did in 2010 on travel this year and next. The report also says more than a quarter of Americans will spend more than $2,000 on travel and lodging.

 

The high cost of travel is one reason why cruises are a popular vacation choice: The cost of a cruise can include lodging, entertainment, and even multiple destinations. But before you say "anchors aweigh," it will pay to learn a little about the pricing.  For some advice, we talked with "The Cruise Guy," Stewart Chiron, for this video. 

While you can enjoy smooth sailing and incredible value, there are a lot of factors to consider. Here's a recap of the five tips given in the video above, as well as five more:

 

Research online, but book through an agent. That way, you're sure to get the most current deals, plus any insider discounts. "There may be resident discounts, military discounts, discounts based on the part of the country you live in, and last-minute deals," Chiron says. "An experienced cruise agent can get you the right trip in the right cabin at the right price." Preferably, you want someone who's actually been on the ship, so you can ask about the quality of the food and entertainment, get an idea of what's actually included in the ticket price, and learn about the atmosphere. Some cruises are formal, some are more family-friendly, and others are just big party boats.

 

Book ASAP. While many cruise destinations are available year-round, the best rooms aren't, and the top rooms on the top ships are usually booked up to two years in advance. Booking early has other perks too. "If the price drops before you make the final payment, you'll have the cabin at the lower price," Chiron says. 

 

Join loyalty programs. Before you book a cruise, make sure you're signed up for the line's rewards program. It's usually free, and there's no reason not to start racking up free benefits. That's the fastest way to get perks like free gifts and food, priority reservations and service, and on-board discounts. CruiseMates.com has a pretty thorough accounting of the various cruise line loyalty programs.

 

Book ship and flight separately. This isn't always cheaper -- you should definitely compare -- but it usually costs less to pay your own way to the port of departure. This is because cruise lines have to look at air rates much further out than you do. Sometimes, though, they offer "free air" -- the airfare is bundled into the ticket price, and you're paying for it whether you use it or not.

When you talk to an agent, ask for a comparison of the "cruise only" and "cruise and air" rates. "Less than 30% of all airline tickets are booked direct (through the cruise)," says Chiron, and going around them could save you hundreds, "especially when you're going for more exotic itineraries, like to Europe." Self-booking also means you have control over the times and number of connecting flights. But on the downside, flight delays may be your problem to deal with. When the flight comes with the cruise, they make sure you get on the boat.

 

Budget for extras. "All-inclusive" is often a little misleading. The basics are covered, but if you want better dining, specialty services like massages, some forms of entertainment, and also gambling, merchandise, and alcohol, you'd better bring extra cash. "On the newer ships you have specialty restaurants," says Chiron. "The beauty is, the sky's the limit: There's incredible options for you to customize your experience your way, which makes a whole lot of difference."

Tip less. Don't feel guilty about not tipping everybody who serves you. A per-day gratuity fee is usually built into the ticket price to cover tips. On the other hand, a lot of these guys and gals aren't paid that well, so a little extra tip might mean a big boost in the service you get. For advice on who and how to tip, ask.

 

Check with the government. There are at least two government websites to check when booking a cruise. One is Travel.state.gov, which has the latest travel advisories about dangerous destinations, and visa and immunization requirements. If you don't have a passport, this is a place to start. The site also has plenty of info about country-specific crime, laws, medical facilities, and other stuff travelers need to know.

 

The second site to check is the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has cruise ship inspection results, tips on staying healthy, and outbreak updates.

 

DIY excursions. If you're cruising for a bruising, look no further than the added expense of excursions. Guided exploration and tours in foreign countries can be a lot of fun, but it's also pricey, and the cruise lines make a lot of their profit this way. However, like airfare, you don't have to book your adventures through the cruise, and it's often cheaper not to.

 

"I always recommend people go on the cruise lines' websites and see what's being offered in the ports on your cruise," says Chiron. "At a lot of ports you can do it yourself, see more, and have it be a lot less expensive."

 

Look at travel insurance. You could get your insurance through the cruise, but it's often cheaper to shop around and buy elsewhere. Especially if you're touring through a port that's risky for whatever reason -- seasonal weather, political instability, violent crime, disease -- you may want coverage for illness, cancellations, or evacuations. Check out a site like InsureMyTrip.com for comparison rates.

 

Check for repositioning cruises. Many destinations in the Mediterranean and Caribbean are available year-round. Others aren't, and when cruise ships are switching routes, you can score big. "It's all weather-related, and some ships are offering repositioning cruises when they're going to or from Europe or to or from Alaska," says Chiron. "They have incredible itineraries that are usually combinations of three or four itineraries and cruise lines are just giving that away" at the regular rates. 

 

Bottom line? Cruising can be an extraordinary adventure but can come with an extraordinary price tag. Plan well, though, and you can sail the seas without worrying about lost treasure. "It's a great way to see the world because you're not packing and unpacking, not checking out of hotels, and not waiting in airports," Chiron says. "My favorite part is you're not waking up in the same boring place every day."

 

More from Money Talks News and MSN Money:

1Comment
May 14, 2011 10:34AM
avatar
Beware of new agents. Your agent should have no less that 5 years in the cruising industry.  Want a real dedicated agent?  Then spread their name and do it often.  If you want them on your side be on their side.
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