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Travelers hunting for a bargain warm-weather getaway could easily believe their ship has come in. But picking among cruise deals isn't a straightforward process.
Fare sales are just a starting point these days.
"As the industry has gotten more competitive in the last year or two, you've seen much more valuable perks thrown in as incentives," said Gabe Saglie, senior editor for deal site Travelzoo.
Cruise lines' latest offers read like an infomercial — "But wait, there's more!" — with a long list of extras and freebies piled on top of an attractive price: onboard credit and shore excursions and cabin upgrades and extra guest discounts.
A few have a choose-your-own-adventure novel flair. Norwegian, for example, is currently offering travelers their pick of one of four freebies, including unlimited drinks and free Wi-Fi, while Celebrity allows you to add two bonuses out of four, with combos it says are worth as much as $2,150.
Not enough? Booking sites, including Travelocity and Expedia, are dangling another $50 to $1,000 in onboard credit based on the final price of whatever deal you snag.
Just don't mistake the deals for desperation. Last year was the cruise industry's best year since 2007, and this year is shaping up to be even better, said broker Stewart Chiron, known as The Cruise Guy. "The booking trends are higher; the fares are higher," he said.
Those extras thrown in can mask a higher base price, he said, and there can also be fine print that makes a freebie less valuable than you might initially think. For example, speed caps on that free unlimited Wi-Fi, or gratuity owed on each of those free unlimited cocktails.
"Put the blinders on; look past the stuff they're trying to distract you with," Chiron said. "While they sound great, look at what the bottom-line costs are when comparing ships and sailings."
Savvy travelers should start by narrowing the field to a particular destination.
"Before you start looking for a bargain, figure out where you want to go," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of review site CruiseCritic.com. "It's ridiculous to go on a cruise to the Mexican Riviera because it was the cheapest, when you really wanted to go to Alaska."
Then limit your search to cruise lines that fit your travel personality and needs. (For example, do you want one with an active nightlife? One that promises luxury? Or one that caters to families with kids?)
"Very few of them are one size fits all," Spencer Brown said.
For a better apples-to-apples comparison of prices, look into what those preferred cruise lines regularly include — and what costs extra. For example, Regent Seven Seas and Viking Cruises are among those lines whose prices already include expenses, such as shore excursions, Wi-Fi and wine and beer with meals, Spencer Brown said.
That assessment could make a difference in what is ultimately the best deal, or at least head off unexpected onboard expenses that could sour your vacation.
Faced with promotional extras, consider both their financial and personal value.
Pricewise, options such as a drinks package or a double cabin upgrade can be worth up to $1,000, or more, said Travelzoo's Saglie. But don't get hung up on the dollar figure.
"If you don't drink alcohol, an $850-value drinks package won't mean much to you," he said. Gratuities on drinks can also eat into savings if the freebie prompts you to drink more than you might have otherwise.
Plenty of travelers don't find a cabin upgrade appealing, either, Saglie said, because rooms with a balcony are often higher up — which means you'll feel the movement of the ocean more. Other perks might be more valuable, too, if you don't plan to spend much time in your cabin.
Prepaid gratuities can be a good deal. Depending on the cruise line and cabin, the rule of thumb is to otherwise budget $10 to $15 per person per day for tips, said Chiron, The Cruise Guy.
Families traveling may want to keep an eye out for deals that discount or waive the cost to have a third and fourth passenger share your stateroom.
"It's definitely a major incentive," Saglie said, although with "limited cabin elbow room," boosting your roommate count is best kept to kids and others you're very comfortable with.
Onboard credits are nice, but don't base your booking on them. Most are tied to the cost of the cabin, so getting $300 in credit might be the result of spending $1,000 more, said Chiron. Still, they can be a nice option to cover the cost of something — an excursion, a fancy meal — that you might otherwise nix for budget reasons, Saglie explained.