Bargains buoy prospects of a family cruise

 
LA Times | Travel
 

If you're ready to hit the high seas with the family this summer, you'll find some bargains bobbing on the waves -- and a few rocks beneath. This is no time to throw away the compass. Sure, you can find fares under $100 a day, double occupancy, or even less for a third or fourth passenger sh...


By Jane Engle // 04.30.09
 

If you're ready to hit the high seas with the family this summer, you'll find some bargains bobbing on the waves -- and a few rocks beneath. This is no time to throw away the compass.

Sure, you can find fares under $100 a day, double occupancy, or even less for a third or fourth passenger sharing a cabin, as cruise lines try to tempt recession-shocked Americans aboard.

Delve deeper into the math, and you hit a problem.

"Do you want to stay in a 180-square-foot cabin with four people?" asked Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of CruiseCritic.com, a consumer information website. "It's a really, really tight space."

Scarce inventory on last-minute discounts can wreak havoc too.

"Don't get so excited if the fare is $249 and you find out you have to book cabins in two separate parts of the ship," Spencer Brown said.

Fortunately, on many newer ships, you'll find connecting cabins or, even better, oversized family cabins that can cost less than two regular cabins. You just have to look for them and, often, book early.

Doing your homework can pay off big for families, said Mike Driscoll, editor of Cruise Week, an industry newsletter.

Compared with a typical resort, "cruises are so much cheaper because the food is included and so are many of the activities," said Driscoll, who has taken his children, now 17 and 15, on more than 25 cruises.

As cruise lines head into the prime family travel season with empty berths, certain destinations are less expensive than ever.

"For the first time, Alaska is becoming affordable for mass-market family vacations," Driscoll said.

Fares for summer Alaska cruises were recently 30% to 40% less than last year, he added, with a few drifting under $400 per week. One reason, he said, is that nearly every sailing had some space.

As much as regular fares have fallen in the last few months, children's fares may be even less: half the adult fare, or as little as $99 in some recent promotions. Shipboard credits can pile up hundreds in savings.

It's hard to figure how long these deals will last. Early discounting has filled some cabins, and Spencer Brown thinks the market may be on the upswing

"If you haven't gotten a great deal by now, you'll miss out in a month or two or find the great deals are harder to come by," she said.

One "wild card" that could affect pricing, she added, was the recent swine flu outbreak, which could depress travel demand or shift it to new destinations.

To keep on top of the changes, engage a travel agent who specializes in cruises, said Pauline Frommer, creator of Pauline Frommer's Travel Guides, a new series aimed at adult budget travelers.

When fares drop, agents can rebook you at the lower fare. "No one is going to alert you unless you have an agent," Frommer said.

Because agents earn commissions from cruise lines, their services typically cost you nothing.

Agents can also help you find ships with a plethora of activities to keep your offspring out of mischief.

Once onboard, safeguard the family budget by taking several steps:

Control key cards: These cards typically give you and your children access to your credit line as well as your cabin. In young hands, Spencer Brown said, they are "a loaded weapon" that can add hundreds of dollars to your bill when kids buy soft drinks, gifts and more.

"Kids are so naive," she said. "They don't understand that someone will have to pay for this at the end of the day."

Educate them. For extra insurance, keep the key card with you whenever possible, or ask the ship's purser to put dollar limits on your child's card.

Buy a beverage package: Often costing less than $10 a day, this covers the purchase of nonalcoholic drinks and can save you a bundle.

Beware of game arcades: "They're like casinos for kids," Spencer Brown said. One mother on Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas reported that her children blew $10 in about 3 1/2 minutes, she said. Set limits.

Be your own tour guide: Shore excursions organized by cruise lines, while often worthwhile, can be pricey, Driscoll said. And bus tours can try a child's patience.

Instead, he suggested you plot your own shore excursions, especially in kid-friendly ports in Alaska.

Striking out on your own takes research, but it's family time well spent.