March 1, 1998

Look Around For Last-Minute Cruise Bargains

Carolyn Spencer Brown The Washington Post
 

What are your chances for booking a cruise at the last minute and getting a great deal in the process? Cruise companies would like you to believe that with less than three months notice - their version of “last minute” - it’s highly improbable. They want to fill their ships early, which is why the biggest discounts are offered for those who book six to 12 months out.

“The last-minute market is not one we’re interested in,” sniffs Carnival spokesman Tim Gallagher.

Yet, the dirty secret is that bargains on unsold cabins are available for those who know where to look, and whose lifestyle gives them flexibility to take advantage of them. Check this out: $460 for a seven-day Caribbean cruise on Carnival’s Sensation. That’s a per diem rate of $66, about half of what most folks pay for a value-priced cruise. Serious cruises on premier lines can cost $300 to $500 per day.

You have to know where to look for such bargains. The cruise lines send out regular streams of faxes to travel agencies announcing last-minute specials for underbooked sailings; some agents specializing in cruises report receiving between 150 and 200 such faxes per week (though other agencies report receiving a dozen or so). Any travel agent will survey the last-minute deals that have come to his or her attention for those who ask. But the agent may not be drawing on an organized and complete set of options.

Enter the last-minute cruise “specialists,” most of them national 800-number operations based near cruise ports. Cruises of Distinction (1-800-634-3445) and Cruises Only (1-800-683-SHIP/1-800-683-7447), both members of the Cruise Lines International Association, are reliable practitioners of the art. You can call these firms and get decent reports on last-minute options.

Moment’s Notice, a travel club with an annual $25 membership fee, is another; via its recorded hot line (212-873-0908), which is updated weekly, I found a $679 rate on a Panama Canal cruise on the Norwegian Dynasty.

On the Internet, an inspired site called Cruise2 (www.Cruise2.com) compiles fire-sale rates from last-minute specialists nationwide. Agencies post their own deals, along with phone numbers for reservations. Ultimately, though, the site’s success depends on its participants’ desire to actually fill cabins at those bargain-basement prices.

A recent offering by Cruises Only for a Caribbean cruise aboard the Sun Princess was a steal at $863 and was available as promised. But Cruise Line Inc.’s tempting 10-day Panama Canal cruise for just $1,074 earned a curt “we’ll call you back.” Four days later, I was still waiting.

The last-minute cruise game is for the flexible and the frugal. Most deals, by definition, are for “distressed merchandise” - cruises, itineraries and cabins that other customers have picked rather carefully around. The stuff that’s left often resembles the contents of a department store bargain bin. And recall that if you have to fly to the port of departure for your great deal, last-minute air fare may set you back more than you saved on the cruise.


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