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CRUISE NEWS: No easy answer on timing of booking

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Ping... ping... ping. That's the sound of my email, chirping as usual at this time of year with variations of the same, familiar question: "Should I book a cruise now or wait until it's closer to when I want to go?"

The question always rides the crest of Wave Season, as cruise agents and cruise lines both like to call this promotional period that runs from January to March. This is when most cruisers are booking for 2013 and beyond.

Anecdotal industry evidence indicates a stronger booking pattern than one year ago. Stronger bookings mean prices are holding. Now, that's not a blanket application, and there will be pockets with specials, but fewer of them than last year.

Cruise lines are taking more of an anything-but-price-reduction approach, instead adding perks such as upgrades, onboard credits, discounted shore excursions and -- for a few departures on some river cruise lines -- two-for-one offerings.

In terms of guaranteeing fares, Carnival has an interesting approach. There is nothing worse than sitting on the pool deck and finding out the guy on the lounger next to you paid $300 less for the same type of balcony cabin. Carnival's Early Saver Fare guarantees the lowest fare (in each category) by the cruise line, and that could help convince you to book early.

Here's how the Early Saver program works:

When you book a three- to five-day cruise three months in advance, or a six-day (or longer) cruise five months in advance, you are guaranteed the lowest rate with a cabin assignment. There is one asterisk: The onus is on you (or your cruise agent) to find a lower Carnival-advertised rate. If you do, Carnival will honour the lower rate, but you have to initiate the process by applying for it.

If you decide to wait, even if you're using an agent, spend some time looking on the cruise lines' websites for special offerings that still give you enough time to plan your trip.

It took me about 30 seconds to find a special at Royalcaribbean.com. It's an inside cabin for a 14-night transatlantic cruise that leaves San Juan, Puerto Rico, on April 21 for Southampton (London). The price is $459, less than $33 a day. No, you don't get a sleeping bag on the deck -- the price includes your cabin, meals and entertainment. Between San Juan and Southampton, you will stop in St. Lucia, St. Thomas, St. Maarten, St. Kitts and the Azores.

It was available at the time of writing and is based on per-person, double occupancy and does not include fees and taxes. By the time you read this, it might be gone, but others will take its place.

Looking back at this column, I feel like a politician who hasn't fully answered your question. Maybe it's because there is no "yes" or "no" answer to the question.

So far, cruise travel agents are better off than they were last January when booking for 2012, and most analysts are calling for a modest gain this year. However, one hiccup in the economy is what we call a game-changer.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 16, 2013 D4

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