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Repo cruises: More for less

What happens when a cruise line needs to move a ship from its winter waters to its summer port? It puts down the gangplank and offers a one-time, one-way sailing, of course. It's called a "repositioning cruise," and it can be a great deal.
New cruiser "Pride of Hawaii" of shipping company Norwegian Cruise Line, NCL, leaves the shipyard Meyer in Papenburg, northern Germany, for a transit through the river Ems to the North-Sea Sunday, March 12, 2006.Joerg Sarbach / AP
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With the change of seasons come changes in cruise destinations, especially in spring and fall when cruise lines offer new itineraries in anticipation of warmer or colder weather. At these times, cruise lines move their ships from one home port to another in a strategic fleet movement that’s called “repositioning.” Of course, those ships don’t move around empty; instead, what you get is a “repositioning cruise” (or “repo cruise”) — a unique, one-way itinerary that is available only once a year.

In spring, the most common repositioning itineraries are from the Caribbean to Europe or from the Caribbean to Alaska; in fall, these itineraries are reversed. Repo cruises to Alaska commonly include popular stops on the cruise line’s eastern, western, and southern Caribbean itineraries, a transit of the Panama Canal and stops along the Mexican Riviera. Silversea Cruises adds an interesting side trip to the Pacific leg, sending its Silver Shadow across the Bering Sea for a stop in Petropavlovsk, Russia, before ending the cruise in Anchorage.

Trans-Atlantic repositioning cruises from the Caribbean to Europe can include stops in Portugal, Spain and Morocco. For example, when Holland America’s Prinsendam sets sail from its winter port of Fort Lauderdale to begin its Mediterranean season, it will visit Madeira, Palma and Casablanca.

Some repo cruises really go off the beaten track. When Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Symphony returns to New York after its summer season in Europe, it will make stops in Tórshavn (Faroe Islands), Denmark, Reykjavík, and Nuuk, Greenland. Because these are one-time itineraries, repositioning cruises feel fresh and have great appeal to travelers who are looking for something new in cruising.

But if you’re not up for adventure, or you don’t want to be that cold, there are spring repo cruises that stop in warmer, more familiar ports. For example, Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Majesty offers spring repositioning cruises from the Caribbean to Boston that stop in Charleston, South Carolina; there are return trips in the fall.

Great value

Repositioning cruises are usually longer than conventional cruises, and they can offer unique ports of call. They also offer great value. In fact, repositioning cruises usually cost significantly less per day than other sailings on the same ship. This is partly because longer cruises do not suit everyone’s schedule, and partly because these cruises sail during the shoulder seasons, when fewer people travel.

Luxury cruise specialist Lucy Hirleman, president of Berkshire Travel in Newfoundland, N.J., says, “Cruise lines offer very attractive packages on repo cruises to ensure that their ships sail as full as possible. Pricing is sometimes 50 percent of the normal per diem on a regular itinerary. Depending upon the cruise line, pricing can be anywhere from $75 to $500 per day, per person.”

Cruise lines will sometimes dangle bigger savings on these sailings by offering free airfare or two-for-one pricing (and sometimes both). Currently, for example, Regent Seven Seas Cruises (formally known as Radisson Seven Sea Cruises) is offering free air on selected Alaska sailings and Oceania Cruises is offering free round-trip air and two-for-one cruise fares on selected cruises in Asia and Europe. All cruise lines feature repositioning cruises in their brochures, but it pays to check with a travel agent, who may know of unadvertised last-minute offers.

“Tai chi at sea”

Repositioning cruises generally make fewer port stops than conventional cruises; there is a lot of ocean to cross, so there will more days at sea. If shore excursions are your thing, this may not be the cruise for you. But for those who want to savor shipboard accommodations and services, this is a great way to do it.

In fact, there is a certain romantic aura around repositioning cruises. Devotees of trans-Atlantic crossings aboard Cunard Line’s Queen Mary 2 will attest to the pleasures of slowly navigating the time zones in luxury rather than suffering the frantic pace — and jetlag — of air travel.

Many travelers just love being at sea, and they prefer gentle shipboard rhythms to the stressful on-and-off of nonstop port calls.

“In our hectic-paced world, a repo cruise will definitely soothe the savage beast,” Hirleman says. “It’s like tai chi at sea.”

Moreover, the cruise lines often schedule additional activities and special themed events for their repositioning cruises. Cooking classes, wine tastings and guest lectures prove popular among those who want to be edified, while others find enjoyment in such old-fashioned pleasures as a good book, breakfast in bed and pampering spa treatments.

“A repositioning cruise offers long, restful days at sea,” says Linda Coffman, editor of Cruise Diva, a cruise Web site, and author of Fodor’s The Complete Guide to Caribbean Cruises.”

“If you see yourself lazing in a deck chair sipping morning coffee while gazing at the endless horizon,” Coffman says, “a repositioning cruise may just be your ticket.”

Last week, I wrote a column on getting bumped from a long-anticipated cruise. Reader Richard Johnson replied with the following comment: “As a young woman coming over from England, my grandmother was bumped from the Titanic. This has always given me a useful perspective on travel delays.” In travel, as in all things, perspective is important. Thanks, Richard! —ADP

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." or visit her Web site .