By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 10/16/2007 1:21:07 PM ET 2007-10-16T17:21:07

Cold weather is approaching and you might be starting to think about a cruise vacation. Wouldn't it be nice to find the best deal? With a little planning and some travel agent connections, you could take part in a group cruise for a fraction of the usual cost — and you don't even have to be a member of the group. It's called "piggyback cruising."

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What is group cruising?
In a previous column called "How to cruise for free," I talked about how you can lower your cruise costs by joining with a bunch of other cruise enthusiasts and booking a cruise as a group. 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 are allowed in a cabin, but they do not count toward the total). The 16th person (the tour conductor) cruises free. When the free fare is divided evenly among the group, everyone saves some money.

But what if you don't know anyone booking a group cruise? Then you "piggyback."

The art of the piggyback
Many travel agencies hold what is known as "block space" on ships. That means that they have reserved space at group rates, which can be between 20 percent and 30 percent lower than individual rates. Sometimes these agencies hold aside several of the group cabins for individual clients who might be able to depart on the group date — it's called "piggybacking."

When an agency is affiliated with a large travel consortium, it needn't book block space of its own. A consortium is a group of companies that enter into a voluntary association to pool resources in order to gain a market advantage. Large travel consortia, like Ensemble and Virtuoso, often negotiate special rates with cruise lines. Their size gives them a lot of buying power — enough to get better rates than the solo agencies can. Cruise lines will heavily discount certain cruises for a consortium in order to sell a predetermined number of staterooms all at once. Agencies that are members of the booking consortium can then book the consortium's block space for their own clients.

Some cruise lines also offer special perks 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 tote bags, private hosted cocktail parties, cabin upgrades and shipboard credits.

To reap the rewards of piggyback cruising, you have to be flexible.

"The consortium cruises are often not the most desirable sailings," says travel agency owner and fellow Trips columnist John Frenaye. "You might get the week before Christmas, or the week after school vacation, but the price is usually phenomenal." Frenaye also points out a downside: If an agency doesn't sell all the cabins in the group it has booked, the price for those who've signed on could be adjusted to a higher rate.

But the rewards are sweet. Frenaye is currently holding group space for several voyages in 2008; amenities include a $50 onboard credit, a sail-away package, and a wine-and-cheese tray, to name a few. The savings on these sailings can be significant. Frenaye once booked a group sailing aboard Royal Caribbean for $950 per person; six weeks before sailing, the cruise line was selling equivalent staterooms for $1,750 per person.

Piggybacking can put dollars in your piggy bank. So always ask your travel agent if the agency has any group space to offer.

Sound off! Do you have a comment, an idea, a complaint or a problem for Anita to solve? Send her an e-mail and you might find yourself in her next column.

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