Andy Newman  /  Carnival Cruise Line
A port call in Costa Maya, Mexico, provides Carnival Glory guests an excellent opportunity to enjoy a Mexican beach.
By Travel columnist
updated 1/13/2006 2:26:03 PM ET 2006-01-13T19:26:03

Winter cruises are no longer the indulgence of the rich and privileged few. In fact, cruises are the fastest-growing sector of the travel industry. According to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which represents 19 major cruise lines, more than 10 million people worldwide took a cruise in 2005, and that number is expected to more than double in the next five years.

Purchasing a cruise was once as simple as going to your local travel agent and leafing through a couple of brochures. But with the growth of the industry has come an almost overwhelming array of itineraries, packages, purchasing options and prices. How do you navigate through all the information to find the best deals? The tips that follow will help you clinch the best possible cruise for your money.

1. Catch the wave
The January-through-March “wave period” is traditionally the cruise industry’s busiest booking period. During this time, cruise lines make about 35 percent of their annual sales. This is the time when they pull out all the stops, offering consumers many hot deals.

This year the deals may be a little cooler. Unlike the past five years, when a dozen or more new cruise ships were launched each year, only six new vessels are being launched in 2006. With the slowdown in growth, supply is a little tighter. Still, some cruise lines are making special offers to entice travelers. For example, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line was recently offering BlackBerries and RAZR phones as booking incentives on selected cruises.

2. Call the cruise line first
Talk with a cruise line representative about the particular cruises and stateroom categories that interest you. Ask for any specials and be sure to mention your age and state of residence, as well as whether you are traveling in a group or have sailed with the cruise line before; all of these circumstances could qualify you for additional discounts. Use the quote given by the cruise line as your starting price point.

3. Check the Sunday papers
Sunday newspapers often carry ads for big cruise bargains in their travel sections. Larger metropolitan-area papers and papers in or near cruise embarkation cities are especially good for finding deals. For example, to find discounts for Miami, Fort Lauderdale or Port Canaveral embarkations, you should check the newspapers in those cities. You can purchase a short-term subscription to these papers or research them at your local library. If you’re looking to cruise out of Galveston, check the Houston Chronicle and the Dallas Morning News, whose travel ads are online.

4. Check cruise booking Web sites
Large online cruise discount agencies like cruise.com, icruise.com, 1-800-cruises.com and cruise411.com offer some of the lowest cruise rates anywhere. Travel megasites like Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity often have excellent deals as well, particularly on last-minute cruises. Recent comparison-shopping found that prices with the large dedicated cruise sites tended to fall within a few dollars of each other. Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity all offered similar prices that were slightly higher.

While the abovementioned sites may be selling cruises cheaper, be sure to inquire about additional and hidden fees, particularly cancellation penalties, which can range anywhere from $35 to $75.

5. Call a travel agent
Many consumers feel more comfortable working with a travel agent face to face. Try both local independent agents and large national agencies like AAA and American Express. If the cruise line you’re researching has an agent-finder function on its Web site, use it to find agents near you. The CLIA Web site, for example, has a “Cruise Expert Locator.”

When you meet with a travel agent, try not to waste your time or the agent’s. Be direct: Tell him exactly what you’re looking for and that you are comparison-shopping.

One thing to know before you meet with a local travel agent is that many charge consulting fees for their time with you. Like many independent travel agents, luxury cruise specialist Lucy Hirleman, president of Berkshire Travel in Newfoundland, N.J., charges new clients a $50 nonrefundable trip deposit fee.

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“We charge this fee to discourage the shopping around,” Hirleman says. “But if you book the trip with us, the fee is then applied toward the total cost of the cruise. If you cancel the trip we keep the fee; however, we allow customers one year to use the fee toward another cruise or vacation package.”

Local agents are especially useful for consumers who have special requests or needs and for cruise itineraries that require visas and other special documentation.

6. Place a “Cruise Wanted” ad online
Check out CruiseCompete.com. After you complete a quick registration, you can post an anonymous ad to which travel agents can respond with their best offers. The key is to be specific about what you are looking for. An agent or agents will often get back to you with price quotes the first day.

7. Negotiate
Once you’ve received several quotes, try to negotiate a lower price or some additional onboard extras. Online, use icruise.com’s “Beat Your Quote” feature to see if it will bring your cost down a bit further (this only works when icruise has agents online; the function will appear in the “Click to speak with a live agent” section). Cruise411 also offers a lowest-price guarantee: Should you ever book a cruise with Cruise411 and later find a lower advertised rate for which you qualify from a competitor, Crusie411 will beat it.

In today’s ultracompetitive travel market, many independent agents will do their best to beat the lowest quote you’ve found. So if a travel agent quotes you the same rate as the cruise line, you should keep shopping around.

There is a cruise deal out there that will fit your budget and lifestyle. All it takes is a little detective work to ward off that big winter chill.

Anita Dunham-Potter is a Pittsburgh-based travel journalist specializing in cruise travel. Anita's columns have appeared in major newspapers and many Internet outlets, and she is a contributor to Fodor's "Complete Guide to Caribbean Cruises 2006." E-mail Anitaor visit her Web site anitavacation.com.

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