Andy Newman  /  AP file
Carnival Cruise Lines' Ecstasy cruises in the Bahamas.
By Cruise columnist
updated 8/16/2006 4:08:16 PM ET 2006-08-16T20:08:16

Cruise for free? Yes, it’s possible and it’s not as hard as you might think. Just ask Lynn Shaw of Slippery Rock, Pa. For years, Shaw had wanted to cruise with a group of friends from college. After she talked to her travel agent about her group cruise idea, Shaw decided to take the bold step and reserve a group of cabins on a Carnival Cruise Lines cruise to the Caribbean. Shaw sent fliers with the cruise information to her friends. Her primary goal was to get as many people as possible to have a great vacation; a second goal was to entice enough friends to book so she could earn free passage under Carnival’s group policy.

What happened? Shaw was able to cruise for free when 22 people joined her group. As the organizer of the group, Shaw became the designated “tour conductor.” Tour conductors work with a travel agency to make all the travel and onboard arrangements; their primary jobs are recruitment and communication. All you really need is a congenial group willing to travel together and an excuse to go: family reunion, birthday, anniversary, wedding, college reunion — or just plain fun. Sign up enough people and you will pay no fare.

Most cruise lines, including Carnival, Celebrity, Disney, Holland America, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean and Princess, ordinarily define a group cruise as a minimum of 16 people occupying eight cabins (third and fourth passengers in a cabin are allowed, but they do not count toward the total). The 16th person (the tour conductor) cruises free. However, free passengers must pay taxes and port charges (and, of course, airfare to the port, if needed).

Getting a free fare is one thing; getting a free cabin is something else altogether. For that you need to book twice as many people and cabins. “Sixteen is the magic number,” says luxury cruise specialist Lucy Hirleman, president of Berkshire Travel in Newfoundland, N.J. “Sixteen people means the 16th person cruises free; 16 cabins means the 16th cabin is free.”

Off-peak sailings sometimes offer more generous terms, with some cruise lines offering groups a free fare to every 10th or 14th person. Generally, higher-end cruise lines like Silversea Cruises require fewer paid fares to qualify than do the more mainstream cruise lines.

Sail together, save together

OK, so the group leader can make out like a bandit, but what about the other group travelers? They can benefit, too. For one thing, group rates are sometimes lower than individual rates. For another, the free cruise fare can often be divided evenly among the group members, saving everyone money.

Some cruise lines also offer special perks available only to group cruisers. For example, many cruise lines are now awarding “group amenity points” based on the number of people in the group: the more people, the more points, the more perks. Amenities can include such things as private hosted cocktail parties, cabin upgrades and shipboard credits.

The details of group-travel offerings vary widely by cruise line, itinerary, time of year — even the nature of the group. Don’t be daunted. Travel agencies that specialize in group cruises can help find you find the best sailings and negotiate the best possible deal.

But what if you can’t round up enough friends or family members to get group benefits? Then book with an agency that can hook you up with a travel consortium like Ensemble or Virtuoso. These consortiums book blocks of cabins and offer deals that are exclusive to the clients of their member travel agencies. “It’s a great way for people to take advantage of a group rate without being in a group,” says Hirleman.

Slideshow: Caribbean way of life Warning: Being a tour conductor isn’t a breeze. You will have to keep extensive records and have good communication skills to keep the information flowing between the travel agent and your group members. Yes, the travel agency will do most of the work — including making bookings, tracking payments, making stateroom assignments and setting up special onboard events — but you are the one folks will turn to when things go wrong, crying, “Look what you got us into!”

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Lynn Shaw and her friends had a terrific time on their group cruise. Shaw says it was a lot of work, but the payoff was great: “I cruised for free. How cool is that?” She says she can’t wait to do it again. In fact, she is thinking of having her wedding at sea.

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.

Cruise for a Cause!

Tripso wants to take you on a cruise for a cause! See how far New Orleans and Cozumel have come since Katrina and Wilma. Join us October 26, 2006, for four nights on Carnival’s Fantasy, one of the vessels that Carnival offered for hurricane relief. Chat with your favorite Tripso columnist and contribute to a worthy Gulf Coast relief organization. Space is very limited. For more information, e-mail us or check out our cruise page.

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