Recent images of a cruise ship limping back to port after an engine malfunction didn't do the cruise industry any favors heading into the summer vacation season. And cringe-worthy accounts from passengers who had to make do without power or working toilets for five days may have turned some travelers off cruising for good.
But for those undeterred by the mishap that befell the Carnival Triumph in February, nor that of several other headline-grabbing woes that afflicted some of Carnival Corp.'s other ships over the past year, this is a good time to save money on a cruise vacation, experts say.
And it's not just Carnival that has had to discount its fares to coax back passengers. An economic slowdown in Europe has opened the door to savings on cruises that sail around ports in the Mediterranean Sea, 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 money on a cruise vacation:
1. BOOK EARLY
The cruise 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 the summer when kids are out of school, it pays to book as soon 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 an 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, travel dates and state room of choice, adds Carrie Finley-Bajak, CEO 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.
2. AVOID PEAK TIMES
High season is generally during the summer and other times of the year when school is out. That includes spring break, around the December holidays, Thanksgiving, etc.
For the best deals, book travel for other times of the year: During the school year. After Thanksgiving and before Christmas. And, incidentally, right now.
"This is the season," Spencer Brown says. "Spring is a great time after the Easter holidays to nab a deal."
At this time of the year, different cruise ship itineraries become more affordable, too.
With summer still a couple months away, Caribbean and Mediterranean cruises are more affordable, as is an Alaskan voyage, Spencer Brown says.
3. SAIL OLD SCHOOL
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 some research on the cruise line to find what year a given ship was built.
Many of the older ships tend to run all year long on the three-day itineraries and are more affordable.