Wave season is in full roll.
From January through March, the cruise industry runs all kinds of promotions to get you signed up and shipped out.
Early bird pricing, upgrades, two-for-one deals, free airfare -- the industry would love to book a boatload of reservations for summer, fall and even 2012 cruises. But do you really need to book this far ahead? What about those eye-popping last-minute deals the neighbors got two years ago?
First, forget 2009's rock-bottom deals. The recession's undertow sucked the cruise industry to a low ebb, along with the rest of us. But 2010 brought an uptick for the industry, and 2011 bookings are even better, industry analysts say.
Whether you book now depends on what you want. Thinking Alaska this summer? The Mediterranean? Family cruise? Those are hot sellers, so now is the time to buy.
"It is a strong wave season right now," says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of www.cruisecritic.com, a site that's a lifeboat of cruise advice.
"The adage is that if you have specific needs during high seasons, or let's say you want a suite, or a family cabin, or connecting staterooms -- which are in low supply -- you really do need to book as far ahead as you can."
High season, by the way, is not just fine-weather months. Anyone planning a cruise with children faces high season anytime school is out. Think fast if you want to cruise an
Wave season can also be a good ride for the passenger who wants extra value. An upgrade from an outside cabin to a veranda cabin (think porthole upgraded to small balcony) could represent a treat one might not normally pay for, but -- for free, absolutely.
Other early-booking savings: Airfare is often cheaper when booked very early. And mileage club awards are much easier to get when you book early.
Either way, airfare could be a bugaboo this summer, now that airlines are flying fewer and fuller planes.
"I'm hearing from cruise lines that airlines are already very booked for Europe this summer," Spencer Brown says, "and that's something to consider -- fares will be higher closer in."
Just set me adrift
But booking during wave season is by no means the only way to sail. The traveler whose time is flexible and who has no dream ship or trip in mind can score some terrific bargains.
For one thing, the seas are afloat with ships these days. Royal Caribbean alone has 11 ships in Europe this
Cruise lines will be tossing out deals regularly to fill every cabin.
"If you really want to just get by as cheaply as possible," says Spencer Brown, "it's still a good idea to play cruise roulette and wait until three months or fewer before cruise sail date to start comparing fares."
Make a bid
Yet another money-saving way to set sail is to try your luck on an auction site, www.cruisecompete.com. You can search by region you'd like to cruise, favorite cruise lines, or just see what's available on certain dates.
Once you've spotted a cruise you like, set up an anonymous account and post your cruise pick. Then wait for bids to come in from participating travel agencies. There's no cost, and no obligation to select any of the offers. But if you do accept a bid, you'll then have the assistance of a cruise specialist from that agency, and that's helpful in choosing a cabin, dining time and learning about the ship.
But when shopping for bargain cruises, keep in mind that not all ships are created equal. Although cruise ships departing from the United States meet Coast Guard safety standards, there is no team of cracker jack decorators who shut down ships whose rugs are shabby and mattresses saggy. And yes, major cruise lines do operate some of these "tubs." Check out the date the ship was last refurbished; it will be listed on the cruise line's website. No redo since 2003? You'll feel the drab, and the crew will lack the zip and pride of those working on nicely appointed ships.
Find out what both passengers and cruise experts think of a particular ship on www.cruisecritic.com, which includes ship reviews both from passengers and cruise journalists.
I 'heart' Acme Cruises
Another way to get cruise bargains: Sign up for cruise line loyalty programs. Once you've sailed a cruise line, you're in the club and will see promotional offers first. Sometimes they're just tempting, sometimes they aim for a few quick bookings.
I received such an e-mail in March 2010 from Holland America for an 18-day Asia cruise in April 2011. It was a great itinerary and a real bargain. I contemplated it all of five minutes, then called and booked. As was my guess, only a few staterooms had become available on this popular world cruise (they book completely well over a year ahead).
With our deposit placed, my husband and I then used mileage club miles for airfare and -- bingo! -- we had an inexpensive, fabulous cruise lined up 13 months out.
But along came that pesky little truism of life: You can line your ducks up, but they don't always waddle. Turns out we can't go, but for a good reason. Two months ago my husband was promoted to a new position that doesn't give him time to get to the corner grocery. Great job, but bye-bye cruise.
We squeaked out a sob, then pushed our deposit forward to a shorter Holland America Asia cruise a year later.
Since life is iffy, it's a good idea to buy cancellation insurance for big trips. You can purchase it from the cruise line, but it's less expensive from an unaffiliated insurer, such as www.accessamerica.com. Or check out the list of insurers at www.insuremytrip.com.
There's one last stickler in the game of shopping for cruises late in the game. All the good cabins will be gone.
This may or may not be a big deal.
I once sailed in an outside cabin with an "obstructed view," which meant there was a big orange lifeboat hanging in front of my porthole. I did miss looking out the window at 6 a.m. as the ship sailed into a harbor, but I didn't miss it enough to jump into my clothes and go watch from a deck.
That wasn't so bad. But I would not like sailing in an inside cabin, despite the reduced price. I've heard too many passengers complain that their inside cabin was next to a noisy service area, where the cabin stewards start bustling with laundry and prepping to clean at 6 a.m.
Nor would I like a cabin on the bottom deck over the engine -- too noisy. Or near an elevator, or over the nightclub. And though I don't mind the roll of the sea, it's less pronounced in cabins located center ship, and it's more rock-'n'-rolly on higher decks.
Cruise lines post their preferred agents on their websites. A preferred agent can usually get you a good price, and will steer you to the right ship, cabin and tell you the lore of the ship.
And right now, ask them how bookings are going for the ship of your dreams during wave season.
It may be time to book.