Score Luxury Cruises at Bargain Prices

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The cruise-ship tour industry sailed through the worst of the economic downturn by offering dirt-cheap deals to travelers. It expects to board nearly 14.3 million passengers this year, an increase of more than 6% from 2009.

And while prices are not as low as they were in 2009, cruises -- which typically wrap shipboard rooms, entertainment, meals and ground transfers into one price -- are good value, even at the luxury end.

As with other modes of travel, the best fares and travel experiences go to consumers who do their homework. A cluster of well-designed Web sites enable customers to research cruise-line offerings and customize their trips before setting sail.

The best way to get a good deal is to put it out to bid. CruiseCompete.com enables travelers to plug in details -- destination, season, bargain or luxe line, length of trip and so on -- submit a cruise request, and review competitive bids from travel agents. Some 16,000 travel agents are certified by the Cruise Lines International Association, a trade group of 25 cruise ship lines. For people who'd rather talk to a live person, Cruise Compete runs a toll-free telephone help line at 1 (800) 797-4635 seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Eastern standard time. Otherwise, the process begins by filling out an online questionnaire and using it to let participating agents -- cruising is the one segment of travel dominated by agents -- bid on your request.

CruiseCompete.com is also a good resource for a wide range of specifics about cruising. The site posts daily cruise deals on its home page, features an extensive frequently asked questions section and backgrounders on cruise topics such as staying safe, staying healthy and how to entertain children and teenagers on a family cruise vacation.

Nearly 1 million youngsters join their parents for cruises in summer and at school holidays. The site devotes a detailed section about cruise ship lines' policies for children, which vary widely. The minimum acceptable age for children on family-friendly Disney Cruise Line is 12 weeks; on Costa Cruises, it is six months. On Celebrity Cruises' ships, babysitting is available in passengers' rooms; on mega-ships operated by Cunard Line, there are supervised nurseries.

Finding the right kind of cruise involves more than running the numbers. It also means finding the right cultural fit and match of sensibilities. AllThingsCruise.com, a cruise portal (and spinoff of CruiseCompete.com) matches a set of travel tools such as sections on buying travel insurance, applying for visas and so on, with a roster of cruise bloggers, an updated mix of cruise news and short videos that give a sense of what it's like to be on board a particular ship.

Another good site, Cruisecritic.com, showcases tips and guidelines about cruising, research tools for picking a cruise ship and pithy thumbnail characterizations of leading cruise ship lines. Princess is a company known for its nightlife, for example, while Royal Caribbean's freedom-class ships showcase enormous fitness centers. Crystal Cruises' "mid-sized ships offer a lovely balance of superb dining and services, with more big-ship amenities than are typically available on smaller vessels,'' Cruisecritic.com notes. Online travelers' reviews and forums round out the site's offerings.

A few parting words: while those "all-inclusive'' cruise packages do indeed encompass many things, they don't cover everything. Specialty shipboard restaurants, shore excursions and alcohol usually cost extra. As for the casino, need I say more?

David Armstrong is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer. He covers airlines and airports, hotels and resorts, food and wine, and writes travel destination features.

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