Recent images of a cruise ship limping back to port after an engine malfunction didn't do the cruise industry any favors heading into the summer vacation season. And cringe-worthy accounts from passengers who had to make do without power or working toilets for five days may have turned some travelers off cruising for good.
But for those undeterred by the mishap that befell the Carnival Triumph in February, nor that of several other headline-grabbing woes that afflicted some of Carnival Corp.'s other ships over the past year, this is a good time to save money on a cruise vacation, experts say.
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And it's not just Carnival that has had to discount its fares to coax back passengers. An economic slowdown in Europe has opened the door to savings on cruises that sail around ports in the Mediterranean Sea, says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief, of Cruise Critic, an online cruise reviews guide published by The Independent Traveler Inc.
"A lot of Europe is feeling the pinch of the recession," she says. "There are some low prices and there's a lot of availability."
Ready to set sail? Here are eight tips for saving money on a cruise vacation:
1. Book early: The cruise industry touts offer-packed deals during its annual "Wave Season," which runs from January through March. If you know exactly when you want to travel, say specifically in the summer when kids are out of school, it pays to book as soon as possible.
Although you may get a lower price attempting to book at the last minute, by booking early you can often get perks, such as free airfare to the departure city, or onboard credits to spend on extras like a massage, or an upgraded cabin.
In general to take advantage of these added incentives, travelers need to book at least four to six months in advance to get the ship, travel dates and state room of choice, adds Carrie Finley-Bajak, CEO of cruising information site CruiseBuzz.net. Also, if you aren't picky about which cabin you get, you can save by accepting an unspecified cabin guarantee.
2. Avoid peak times: High season is generally during the summer and other times of the year when school is out. That includes spring break, around the December holidays, Thanksgiving, etc.
For the best deals, book travel for other times of the year: During the school year. After Thanksgiving and before Christmas. And, incidentally, right now.
"This is the season," Spencer Brown says. "Spring is a great time after the Easter holidays to nab a deal."
At this time of the year, different cruise ship itineraries become more affordable, too.
With summer still a couple months away, Caribbean and Mediterranean cruises are more affordable, as is an Alaskan voyage, Spencer Brown says.
3. Sail old school: Another way to save money: Select a cruise with an older ship. It may not have as many amenities, but it also won't have nearly as many of the cabins with balconies, which are pricier than the smaller, windowless interior cabins.
Finley-Bajak recommends doing some research on the cruise line to find what year a given ship was built.
Many of the older ships tend to run all year long on the three-day itineraries and are more affordable.
4. Look for repositioning cruises: Cruise lines move their ships from their rotation in one region to another every few months. For example, a ship will shift from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean for the winter. Or from the Caribbean to Alaska for the summer.
Booking a vacation on one of these repositioning cruises can be significantly cheaper than a regular itinerary that hits several stops before returning to a home port. All told, you could pay from $35 to $65 per person, per day on a repositioning cruise, says Spencer Brown.
However, one should consider repositioning cruises are only one-way and can take longer with fewer stops at ports of call along the way.
5. Look beyond price: When selecting a cruise, price isn't the only consideration, by far.
There are the perks and incentives that could end up making the trip a better value. But a key factor is whether the cruise you select is right for you. That's because cruise lines cater to different niches of travelers. An older traveler looking for a refined cruise probably wouldn't be happy on a party ship festooned with nightclubs, basketball courts and other attractions aimed at younger passengers.
Experts recommend you read up about specific ships and their itineraries to get a sense of whether the cruise fits what you're looking for.
6. Target cheaper iteniraries: The shorter the voyage, the less costly the cruise. If you're looking for ultracheap, go for a three-day cruise, which tend to compete more on price.
The weak economy in Europe makes a seven-day Mediterranean cruise a good value. Plus, as more cruise lines reposition ships there, competition will increase. That's good for the consumer.
In addition, getting on mailing lists can tip you off to sales in advance.
7. Consider a travel agent: A cruise vacation has a lot of components to sort out, from air travel to the departure port, to offshore activities that often are not included in your cruise costs. Travel agents can help sort out the details.
"A travel agent will have access to all the ships and current pricing and promotions," says Finley-Bajak.
8. Account for extras: The term all-inclusive is often associated with a cruise vacation, but in most cases, it's far from the truth.
"If anybody says cruising is all-inclusive, they're crazy," says Spencer Brown, adding that one always pays extra to gamble in the casino, visit the spa, use the Internet, eat at certain restaurants and onshore excursions. There may be a hotel stay before your departure, taxes, fees and gratuities to cover.
Here's a tool to help add up potential travel costs when you book a cruise: independenttraveler.com/travel-budget-calculator.