By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 6/2/2008 12:55:42 PM ET 2008-06-02T16:55:42

With the slumping economy and weak dollar value overseas, cruise lines are sending SOS signals to North American consumers to get onboard and sail away.

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“Competition among cruise lines for your vacation dollars is intense,” says Stewart Chiron, a cruise industry expert who is nationally recognized as The Cruise Guy.

Chiron has uncovered some incredible deals that are hard to pass up. A few even include free airfare and kids sail free. It’s important to note that the following fares are starting prices, which means they are for inside cabins. You will almost certainly pay more for an outside cabin. (For additional money-saving tips, see my recent story on finding a quickie cruise.)

Mediterranean deals
“If you want a European vacation, a cruise offers the best value for your dollar,” says Chiron.

Additionally, with more ships in the region than ever before, big cruise savings abound.

“Evidently, the 2008 European cruise season is not as solid as in previous years. European travel by Americans is slower than normal and Europeans aren’t jumping on the cruise bandwagon as fast as anticipated to fill the huge amount of ships based there,” says Chiron.

He points to the abundant amount of discounting by cruise lines as proof. “Some cruise lines are offering free or reduced airfares to entice new bookings by North American travelers,” he says.

Carnival Cruise Lines’ Carnival Freedom: Chiron says 12-night sailings on the Carnival Freedom sailing from Civitavecchia (Rome) from June through August are selling for less than some 7-night Caribbean sailings. Prices that formerly fetched $4,969 per person are now going for $2,579 a real deal since it includes free airfare from select U.S. gateways (cruise-only is $1,199).

For that bargain price tag you’ll get to visit the best of Europe that includes Western Mediterranean or Greece and Turkey itineraries. Cruises stop in Naples (Italy), Dubrovnik (Croatia), Venice (Italy), Messina (Sicily), Barcelona (Spain), Livorno (Florence/Pisa, Italy), Cannes (France), Marmaris (Turkey), Izmir (Turkey), Istanbul (Turkey), Athens (Greece), Katakolon (Greece).

MSC Cruises MSC Poesia: MSC’s newest ship offers amazing seven-day itineraries from Venice (Italy) with stops in Bari (Italy), Katakolon (Greece), Izmir (Turkey), Istanbul (Turkey), and Dubrovnik (Croatia). Prices that formerly started at $3,300 per person now are a bargain at $1,949, and that includes roundtrip airfare from select U.S. gateways ($899 cruise-only fare). Better yet, kids 17 years old or younger sailing as the third or fourth passenger in a stateroom sail free.

Celebrity Summit: August and September are great months to save on premium line Celebrity. The Summit is offering 12-night Western Mediterranean sailings from Barcelona and Venice with stops in Villefranche (Nice, France), Livorno (Florence/Pisa, Italy), Civitavecchia (Rome), Naples (Italy), Santorini (Greece), Athens (Greece), and Dubrovnik (Croatia). Prices that formerly started at $4,999 per person now are a bargain, from $2,499 that includes roundtrip airfare from select U.S. gateways.

Norwegian Cruise Lines Norwegian Gem: This summer you can cruise on Norwegian’s newest ship on 7-day Western Mediterranean sailings from Barcelona that stop in Valletta (Malta), Naples (Italy), Civitavecchia (Rome, Italy), Livorno (Pisa/Florance, Italy), and Villefrance (Nice, France). Prices that formerly started at $1,599 per person now are a bargain, from $799.

Alaska deals
Holland America Line’s Oosterdam or Westerdam. June and July offer great Alaska savings from Seattle onboard premium line Holland America. Itineraries are 7-night sailings with stops in Juneau (Alaska), cruising the Hubbard Glacier, Sitka (Alaska), Ketchikan (Alaska), and Victoria (Canada). Starting prices have been cut from $1,629 per person to $699.

Caribbean deals
Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Sky. On July 14, Norwegian Cruise Line will reassign Pride of Aloha, formerly part of the line’s Hawaii-based fleet, to Miami. The ship will be re-named Norwegian Sky, which ironically was its original name. The Sky will become the only Miami-based ship to offer three and four night sailings to the Bahamas with stops in Nassau, Freeport and Norwegian’s private island, Great Stirrup Cay. Fares that were formerly priced from $799 per person can now be had for as little as $229 (past passengers can cruise from $189). Best of all kids 17 years old or younger sailing as the third or fourth passenger in a stateroom sail free.

“It’s a buyer’s market right now,” says Chiron. To get even more bang for your buck he recommends researching online, but not booking online. “You’ll never be sure you’re getting the best deal possible,” he says. He recommends using a travel agent who can research various discounts offered by the cruise lines, which can include regional specials, senior and military discounts. Chiron says these discounts can further reduce upfront costs as well as securing possible stateroom upgrades.

So what are you waiting for? Cash out that tax rebate check and start packing.

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