Secrets to Booking the Best Cruise Vacation

A new year is finally here and who doesn't need a vacation from 2009? The cruise industry fared extraordinarily well, all things considered. Belts were tightened, top-to-bottom expenses were reviewed and necessary adjustments were made. Unlike 2001, no major cruise lines filed for bankruptcy, went out of business or were acquired.

Many brand-new cruise ships, eight in fact, entered the North American-based fleets in 2009. This includes the first two luxury ships introduced in six years -- Yachts of Seabourn's Odyssey and Silversea's Silver Spirit -- as well as Celebrity's second ship in its Solstice Class, Equinox. The big cruise news in 2009, without a doubt, was the introduction of the largest, longest, widest, tallest most expensive cruise ship ever built, Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas.

Video: The cruise guy shares tips on how to find winter deals.

Expect nine cruise ships this year, including Oasis of the Seas' sister ship, Allure of the Seas, Celebrity's Eclipse and Seabourn's Sojourn. The most notable debut for 2010 will be Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Epic, which is 65 percent bigger than any ship in its fleet and the sixth-largest ship in the world when she debuts.

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Many people asked if this was the best time to make such pivotal debuts. Keep in mind that the ships were ordered during much different economic times and they couldn't just halt construction. Cruise ships are built for the next 30 years and not just the next three. They're coming whether we're ready for them or not!

The Right Cruise Ship at the Right Price

For cruising, it's vitally important to ensure you get the right ship at the right price. The overall enjoyment of your vacation depends on it, so choose wisely. There really is a cruise ship for everyone. January, February and March are typically the busiest months for cruise bookings and many "special" deals magically become available.

But not all sales are created equal.

Evaluate deals based on their merits, not their hype. Cruise lines and agents may use cabin upgrades, shipboard credits, prepaid gratuities, shore excursions, free airfare and "value added" coupon booklets that include discounts on shipboard purchases to entice bookings. Ascertain the true value of the offers by breaking down the costs, because there may be inclusions of no value to you but that could add hundreds or thousands of dollars to your cruise's cost.

One cruise line, for example, touted free shore excursions for most of 2009 and into 2010. Most of the tours they offered weren't (aren't) free. There were some free tours in each port but most were reduced, not free. Another cruise line touts two-for-one pricing, including free air. But when you separate the air and the cruise, you realize the air is far from free.

The coupon booklets offered by certain lines often don't include any valuable discounts and certainly not to the degree offered. Value, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

So to help guide you through the world of cruises, here are my top five tips for booking:

No. 1: Research online but don't book via the Web. There are many deals, including specials for residents, military, seniors, etc., that may not be available if booked online.

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