Images last spring of a cruise ship limping back to port after an engine malfunction didn't do the industry any favors heading into summer vacation season. And cringe-worthy accounts from passengers this summer who had to make do without power or working toilets, and cruises cut short by fire and power outages, may have turned some travelers off cruising for good.
But for those undeterred by headline-grabbing woes that afflicted ships this year, this is a good time to save money on a cruise vacation, experts say.
And it's not just because some cruise lines have discounted fares to coax back passengers. An economic slowdown in Europe has opened the door to savings on cruises that sail the Mediterranean, says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of Cruise Critic, an online cruise reviews guide published by the Independent Traveler Inc.
"A lot of Europe is feeling the pinch of the recession," she says. "There are some low prices and there's a lot of availability."
Ready to set sail? Here are eight tips for saving on a cruise vacation:
The industry touts offer-packed deals during its annual "Wave Season," which runs from January through March. If you know exactly when you want to travel, say specifically in summer when kids are out of school, it pays to book as early as possible.
Although you may get a lower price attempting to book at the last minute, by booking early you can often get perks, such as free airfare to the departure city, or on-board credits to spend on extras like a massage or upgraded cabin.
In general, to take advantage of these added incentives, travelers need to book at least four to six months in advance to get the ship, dates, and stateroom of choice, adds Carrie Finley-Bajak, chief executive officer of cruising information site CruiseBuzz.net. Also, if you aren't picky about which cabin you get, you can save by accepting an unspecified-cabin guarantee.
High season is generally summer and other times of year when school is out. That includes spring break, around December holidays, Thanksgiving, etc.
For the best deals, book travel for other times: During the school year. After Thanksgiving and before Christmas. And, Spencer Brown says, "Spring is a great time after the Easter holidays to nab a deal."
In spring, different cruise ship itineraries become more affordable, too.
Another way to save money: Select a cruise with an older ship. It may not have as many amenities, but it also won't have nearly as many of the cabins with balconies, which are pricier than the smaller, windowless interior cabins.
Finley-Bajak recommends doing research on the line to find what year a given ship was built.
Many of the older ships tend to run all year long on three-day itineraries and are more affordable.
4. Repositioning cruises.
Cruise lines move their ships from their rotation in one region to another every few months, usually as high season in one region cools off and before the next destination heats up. For example, a ship will shift from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean for the winter, or vice versa. Or from the Caribbean to Alaska for the summer.
Booking a vacation on one of these repositioning cruises can be significantly cheaper than a regular itinerary that hits several stops before returning to a home port. All told, you could pay from $35 to $65 per person per day on a repositioning cruise, says Spencer Brown.
Remember, though, that repositioning cruises are only one-way, and the voyage can take 10 days to two weeks, with fewer stops at ports of call along the way.
When selecting a cruise, price isn't the only consideration, by far.
There are the perks and incentives that could end up making the trip a better value. But a key factor is whether the cruise you select is right for you. That's because cruise lines cater to different kinds of travelers. An older traveler looking for a refined cruise probably wouldn't be happy on a party ship full of nightclubs, basketball courts, and other attractions aimed at younger passengers.
Experts recommend you read up about specific ships and their itineraries to get a sense of whether the cruise fits what you're looking for.
6. Target cheaper itineraries.
The shorter the voyage, the less costly the cruise. If you're looking for ultra-cheap, go for a three-day cruise, which tend to compete more on price.
The weak economy in Europe makes a seven-day Mediterranean cruise a good value. Plus, as more cruise lines reposition ships there, competition will increase. That's good for the consumer.
Other ways to find deals: Monitor sites that advertise deals. Some of them include Cruisebuzz.net, Cruise.com, and Cruisedeals.com
In addition, getting on cruise-company mailing lists can tip you off to sales in advance.
A cruise vacation has a lot of components to sort out, from air travel to departure port to offshore activities that often are not included in your cruise costs. Travel agents can help sort out the details.
"A travel agent will have access to all the ships and current pricing and promotions," says Finley-Bajak.
8. Account for extras.
The term all-inclusive is often associated with a cruise vacation, but in most cases, it's far from accurate.
"If anybody says cruising is all-inclusive, they're crazy," says Spencer Brown, adding that one always pays extra to gamble in the casino, visit the spa, use the Internet, eat in certain restaurants, and take onshore excursions.
There may also be a hotel stay before your departure, government taxes, fees, and gratuities to cover.
Here's a tool to help add up potential travel costs when you book a cruise: www.independenttraveler.