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.Play

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.

Stay Up to Date on the Latest Travel Trends from ABC News on Twitter

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.

No. 2: Use a travel agent. There isn't one advantage to booking directly with a cruise line. You'll never receive the professional and, most importantly, objective advice that an experienced cruise agent can provide. A true cruise specialist will be able to match you with the best ship and deal.

Best Dates for Cruises

No. 3: Be flexible with your dates. Cruise prices may vary by sailing date. If possible, check a few dates before and after your desired sailing date to ensure maximum savings.

No. 4: Book early. Don't wait. Book your cruise as soon as possible. Some of the most desired specialty itineraries such as Europe and Alaska require you to book in advance to avoid paying higher air and cruise fares. The difference can easily be thousands of dollars.

No. 5: Consider travel insurance. A cruise is an investment of money and time and should be protected. Besides providing protection against cancellation, policies also cover interruption and travel delay, and are worth serious consideration.

Purchasing travel insurance isn't necessary on most cruises until final payment time because there is no risk up until that point. Consult your agent for specific details. Insurance can be purchased through the cruise lines or separate, third party companies. Consider both options because prices for similar coverage may differ significantly.

Buying a cruise is like buying a car. It's an investment not only of money but also your time. You'll be on these ships for three, four, seven nights or longer, so you need to make the right decisions. Do your research and these can be vacations of a lifetime that can be repeated over and over to your dream destinations. Why not save a few bucks along the way, too?

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Stewart Chiron, the Cruise Guy, is one of the world's leading cruise industry experts. He has been in the industry for more than 20 years and a regular contributor on trends and deals for leading news organizations, including ABC News. His Web site,, offers details, deals and tips aboard all of the major cruise lines to destinations around the world.