Some deals still out there but dirt-cheap cruising is over


If you’re hoping for another year of dirt-cheap cruising, I have news for you: That ship has sailed.

After foundering in the recession, cruise lines have been buoyed by a recent surge in bookings. And that is bringing higher prices.

In the last month, industry giants Carnival Cruise Lines and Norwegian Cruise Line have announced fare increases.

But don’t jump ship just yet. You can still find affordable cruises.

“Last year was the year of the steal,” said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of Cruise Critic, a consumer website. “They were almost paying you to get on a cruise ship. This year, you can still find deals. But you have to look for them.”

With that in mind, here are five ways to trim your budget sails in 2010:

• Reposition yourself. In spring, cruise lines typically shift ships from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean or Alaska for summer, then back in fall. Many of these repositioning cruises, which tend to be long on sea days and short on port calls, cost as little as $50 a day.

“If you love ship life, they’re very relaxing,” said Mike Driscoll, editor of Cruise Week, an industry newsletter based in Brookfield, Ill. Allow plenty of time, beware of bad weather on trans-Atlantic crossings and expect an older crowd.

• Take a long weekend. Short cruises from drive-to ports can be inexpensive. One reason: The rising tide of the economic recovery is not lifting all boats.

“You’re going to see good prices for three-, four-, five-day cruises because for that segment of the population — the classic budget traveler — their economic situation has not improved in the past year,” Driscoll said. “If they have a job, a lot of them are worried. If they don’t have a job, they’re not going to take a vacation.”

And if you can’t get quite the itinerary you want from Miami or Fort Lauderdale, check out Tampa, Port Canaveral or Jacksonville, which also have weekend cruises to Mexico, the Bahamas and the Caribbean.

• Live like a pirate. As their investments recover from the losses of 2008, the affluent are spending again, said Mimi Weisband, spokeswoman for Crystal Cruises, where fares typically run about $500 per day.

“Last year, people were paralyzed,” Weisband said. “Now there isn’t as much uncertainty.” As a result, some sailings, especially in Europe, are already sold out.

But Crystal, like many luxury lines, is still offering huge incentives, such as free airfare, two-for-one fares and on-board spending credits.

Similarly, Silversea is offering free airfare and transfers and up to 60 percent off brochure prices on some Caribbean cruises; Seabourn has two-for-one cruise fares and discounted airfare; and Regent Seven Seas offers free airfare and shore excursions.

So luxe can be affordable.

• Head for Mexico. With recent fares as low as $429 for seven-day, round-trip sailings from Southern California, the Mexican Riviera (Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta) is hard to beat for savings, especially if you can take advantage of airfare sales that put roundtrip prices to Los Angeles in the $240 range. Prices have been pounded by California’s weakened economy, Mexico’s drug wars and the entry of bigger ships into the market, experts say.

By contrast, Alaska, the Mediterranean and the Baltics remain popular, especially with affluent travelers, so you will find fewer deals there.

• Book early — or late. Greater demand means cabins are disappearing on popular sailings. At Crystal, where some ships sailed only 60 percent or 70 percent full last year, many departures in Europe are already more than 90 percent booked, Weisband said. Oceania is fully booked this summer.

So if you’re heading to Europe or Alaska, book now; if to Mexico, where lower demand is driving some fire sales, Spencer Brown said, it’s not as urgent.

How soon you book also has to do with how choosy you are.

“If you’re picky about your cabin, book early,” Spencer Brown said. “If not, book two weeks out and take what’s left.”

At a discount, of course.