Passengers who have been conditioned to expect bargains from an overbuilt cruise industry and a soured economy should brace themselves for higher prices resulting from higher occupancy, says Anne Campbell, editor of Cruisemates.com.
"The cruise climate has changed. To get what you want, when you want it, you'll need to set your sights further out," Campbell says. That means booking your cruise from four to six months in advance, she says.
"Even then, expect prices to increase, and don't expect the discounts you had last year."
A case in point proved Campbell right. Recently, I planned to pen a column about Christmas cruises. It seemed opportune, because it was still late summer. But I found, even then, that many holiday-cruise offerings already were booked solid. Some lines even reported European sailings for next May through October selling briskly.
The spread of homeland cruising -- in which ships depart from popular drive-to ports such as New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Charleston, Galveston and Port Canaveral -- spurred a surge in bookings and an increase in the number of vessels scheduled from domestic harbors.
With Sept. 11 jitters fading, Americans are eagerly returning to the waters off Europe, South America and Asia. Consequently, last-minute bargains might be a thing of the past, Campbell says, except maybe in Florida, where cruise lines frequently offer discounts to state residents.
To nab the best fares, compare prices by checking some of the larger travel agencies on the Internet, such as Cruise.com, Bestpricecruises.com, Priceline.com and CheapTickets.com. If you don't have access to the Internet, you can still snag great deals by calling cruise specialists such as Cruises Inc. (800-854-0500); Cruises Only (800-278-4737); and White Travel (800-547-4790).
Also, keep in mind that the cheapest inside cabins and the most expensive suites usually sell out first.
For a reliable deal, look for repositioning cruises, during which lines move fleets from one part of the globe to another to accommodate the seasons. Not only can such cruises be bargains, but they're typically longer and more leisurely than regularly scheduled sailings.
Meanwhile, if holiday cruising appeals to you, here's a sampling from some niche lines that might light up your tree or, at least, make a nice gift to yourself or a loved one:
Small-ship line Clipper Cruise Line has several Christmas-season departures that range from close-to-home -- along Florida's Gold Coast and in the warm waters of the Virgin Islands -- to far-flung, including an expeditionary cruise along the Antarctic Peninsula aboard the Clipper Odyssey and another that virtually circumnavigates New Zealand.
Two seven-night Florida Family Cruises, Dec. 19 and 26, coincide with school breaks and feature astronaut Capt. Jon A. McBride, a veteran of two space shuttle missions who will share yarns about NASA and space with passengers. Fares start at $1,870 per person, double occupancy.
Clipper's Dec. 5 and 12 Florida Golf Cruises highlight four of the state's most famous courses, including Disney's Magnolia Course and the Blue Monster at Doral. Fares start at $2,720 per person, double occupancy.
For a 25 percent savings on those fares, mention codes "NAFLCPR" for the golf cruise or "NAFACPR" for the family cruise. For more information, call Clipper Cruise Line at (800) 325-0010 or visit clippercruise.com.
Cruise West's nine-night New Year's sailing to Central America on the 100-passenger Pacific Explorer will deliver a Latin flair. During port stops, expect to see parades, carnivals and religious processions, including posadas -- the re-enactment of Joseph and Mary's pilgrimage to Bethlehem. Aboard ship, expand your seasonal palate to include customary Latin delicacies and desserts such as rompope (eggnog) and tamales.
The Dec. 27 itinerary to Costa Rica and Panama also will bring you close to nature. The voyage includes opportunities for hiking, kayaking and snorkeling. In Costa Rica, you'll also have opportunities to visit the 100,000-acre Corcovado National Park, a biodiverse nature sanctuary; the beautiful gardens of Casa Orquideas (Orchid House); and Manuel Antonio National Park. Cruise fares, which include most shore excursions, start at $3,349. For more information, call (800) 888-9378 or see cruisewest.com.
Prefer a more mainstream ship for your holiday fun? Check out Carnival's Fun Ship fleet, where offerings on 19 vessels include a seven-day southern Caribbean cruise on the 2,642-passenger Carnival Destiny departing San Juan Dec. 19 (starting at $779); and a seven-day Mexican Riviera cruise on the 2,124-passenger Carnival Pride from Long Beach, Calif., Dec. 19 (from $879). And just in time for Christmas, the line's new 2,974-passenger Valor is set to launch year-round seven-day Caribbean service from Miami Dec. 19, starting at $829. For more information, call (800) 327-9501 or see carnival.com.
Knight Ridder Newspapers