ach year during the past decade, dozens of new cruise ships have been built and introduced into service. Most of these monstrous floating hotels accommodate more than 2,000 passengers each and sail the most popular itineraries in the world—the Alaskan passages, the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Europe, and Polynesia.

What does this glut of ships navigating the globe mean to the average traveler? The cruise industry has overbuilt because cruising is at an all-time high in popularity. That means super savings for passengers. And passengers have their pick from an unprecedented number of ships.

Before you get excited and think you're automatically going to get a great cruise deal, think again. Unless you know how to develop a strategy and know what questions to ask, it may not happen. Cruise booking is complicated, and it can be less than fun for the novice.

Travel agents and cruise discount brokers can be helpful travel partners, but you'll get the best deals on your cruise vacation if you understand a few strategies yourself. For instance, you should never pay more than 70% of the price quoted in a cruise company's brochure. And generally, you won't be offered the lowest fare unless you ask for it.

Here are ways to get the lowest possible costs on a glamorous cruise.

    Cruise specialists

    Cruise links

Timing is everything
When to go, that is the all important question. Flexibility is the key to cruise deals. Bargain hunters know they usually can get the lowest fares during off-season sailing dates. Early spring or very late Alaskan sailings are lower than peak summer cruises. But did you know you can find great cruise bargains to the Caribbean during the lightly booked months between September and early December? Heavily discounted fares usually fall between Thanksgiving and the first three weeks in December.

Royal Caribbean's spiffy new 2,000-passenger Rhapsody of the Seas, for example, heavily discounts its sailings during this underbooked time. The Mexico sailings run around $700 per person. Airfare to and from the point of departure is extra.

Repositioning cruises
Twice a year many cruise lines reposition their ships from one part of the world to another. In the spring, ships in the Caribbean are moved from their winter homes in the Caribbean, Florida, and Mexico to summer homes in Alaska, the Eastern U.S. seaboard, Canada, Europe, and the Mediterranean. In the fall, the ships are moved back again to their winter positions.

These one-way repositioning cruises are a windfall for cruisers who have the time—most repositioning cruises are two-week jaunts. Prices range from 50% to 70% lower than the cruise line's typical fares. Sometimes these bargain cruises aren't advertised, so you may have to ask about them when shopping for good cruise deals.

Book early or book late
Many people book cruises six months or even a year or more in advance. You'll get a discount when you book ahead, and you'll get a refund (often a slow process) if you have to cancel, but you're tying up your money in the interim. The best reasons to book far in advance of the sailing date are for special events, like an anniversary, or for a special sailing to an infrequently traveled itinerary, or if you're sailing with a group that needs multiple cabins. Many ships have staterooms accommodating three to four people. But these cabins fill up fast, so advance booking makes sense.

It's often more cost-effective to book a cabin for four people than to book two cabins for two people per cabin.

If you suddenly get an urge to take a cruise, it's possible to find great savings if you call within 30 days of the sailing date. Even the most popular cruises get cancellations at the last minute. Rule of thumb: The closer you book the cruise to the sailing date, the deeper the discount. The down side is you won't have the same choice of accommodations you would if you'd booked earlier.

Share your expertise and sail free
The best bargain of all is a free cruise. It's attainable if you're willing to lecture about something you're passionate about or have expertise in. On each ship, on every sailing, there's usually at least one lecturer on board who has traded his or her knowledge about a subject in exchange for a free cruise.

The key to getting a free cruise (spouses usually pay a discounted price) is to be well-versed in an appealing topic. Cruise lines look for people who can talk about fun, popular topics like astrology, cooking, or pop culture. They're also interested in people educated in maritime history. Cruise lines trade cabin space to book authors, motivational speakers, entertainment figures, or those having knowledge of destination-related topics.

For example, if you're sailing to Bali, and you're an expert on batik or textiles, this might be of interest to the cruise line. Cruise lines are not looking for speakers, such as financial advisers, who focus on topics that might put them in a tenuous legal position. In fact, many cruise lines obtain their presenters from professional speakers' agencies, but if you're a good speaker and have an interesting topic, chances are you'll find at least one cruise line interested in talking to you.

Contact the cruise lines directly by giving them an overview of your background and subject area. You'll have a better chance of getting a free cruise if you include a video tape of your presentation.

These cruise lines are among those that take speakers along on their voyages: Holland America Line, Silversea Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Royal Caribbean International, Norwegian Cruise Line, Costa Cruises, Princess Cruise Line, and the Cunard Line.

More ways to save
  • Look for the best fares on mass-market cruises. Popular itineraries have the largest number of ships, so take advantage of the fierce competition. Conversely, don't expect to find rock-bottom prices on specialty cruises to out of the way destinations on small ships.

  • Older ships are usually more affordable than their newer, more glamorous cousins. One example: The Rotterdam was one of Holland America's all-time popular ships. Now, Premier Cruises operates it under the name Rembrandt. Typically, a seven night sail in the Mediterranean (not including air) in summer, with stops at popular ports including Rome, can be had for as low as $600 per person.

  • Ask for a senior rate if one person in your cabin is 55 years old or older. Senior rates usually are offered during the off season. Discounts usually run between $50 and $100 per person. Some cruise lines, such as EuroCruises, offer deeper discounts. Their SeniorSaver program offers a 25% savings on specific sailings.

  • Book the lowest priced cabin. Your cruise fare is not only determined by when you go, but the location of your cabin on the ship. Generally, the higher the deck is on the ship, the more costly the cabin. Inside cabins (newer ships have a far greater number of outside cabins) are usually significantly less expensive than outside cabins having a porthole.
Most cruisers spend very little time in their cabins, so the way to go, if you're looking for the best cruise deal, is to book the cheapest cabin you can. Then use the money you saved for other vacation pleasures. Or save the money and apply it to your next cruise.

Cruise specialists
These are some sources specializing in discounted cruises:
  • Cruises Only: 800-777-0707
  • National Discount Cruises: 800-854-0500
  • The Cruise Line Inc. 800-683-7447
  • Cruises of Distinction: 800-434-7447

Cruise links
A few cruise brokers: (agencies specializing in cruises)

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