Travel Bargain: Repositioning Cruises Offer Great Deals

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Could you use a little pampering at sea? A nice, long, luxurious time afloat? Then you're in luck. Fall is the perfect time to book a so-called repositioning cruise, and thereby bag one of the biggest bargains in the travel industry.

Every fall and every spring, the major cruise lines move their ships around the globe like chess pieces, repositioning them to take advantage of the changing seasons. Starting in September, when travelers' fancies turn to warmer climes, ships begin to migrate from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean, from Alaska to Mexico or to the South Pacific. The reverse occurs in spring.

These are voyages, says Robert Sharak, executive vice president of marketing for the Cruise Lines International Association, tend to be both longer and significantly cheaper than a standard cruise.

A 16-day transatlantic crossing from Barcelona, Spain, to Galveston, Texas, onboard Carnival Cruises' newest ship, the Magic, costs (drum roll here, please) $864. Not $864 a day. That's a total of $864,inclusive of all fees. That's $54 a day. Ports of call include Palma de Mallorca and Malaga, Spain; Las Palmas, Canary Islands; and Grand Turk, Turks & Caicos.

Why so cheap? The trips occur off-season, says travel expert Aaron Saunders, who writes about cruising at "How do you fill a ship in late September or mid-October?" he asks. "You price it so that people can't say no."

Because the cruise lines are shifting their fleets, passengers also have the opportunity to visit ports that might otherwise not be accessible.

"Travelers can really get a fantastic deal," said Emerson Hankamer, president and COO of travel website, "especially if they're willing to begin and end their trip in an atypical port."

He cites a 14-night trip on Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas departing from Mallorca, Spain, and finishing at Colon, Panama. Price: $36.92 a day.

Because of the low price, there's sometimes a misconception, says Saunders, that these trips are somehow "lesser cruises." The reverse is true. The low price doesn't denote second-rate service or reduced amenities. If anything, travelers may find that extra services and enhancements have been added to keep them happy and amused during the extra-long voyage.

"What's great about this trip," Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen said of Carnival's Barcelona-to-Galveston crossing, "is that it's our newest ship, with extra activities scheduled."

Carnival will offer two other repositioning cruises this season, both 14-day ocean-to-ocean transits of the Panama Canal: One departs from Long Beach to Tampa Nov. 28; the other from Tampa to Long Beach Dec. 17. Ports of call on these cruises include Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; Puntarenas, Costa Rica; Cartagena, Columbia; and George Town, Grand Cayman.

It used to be that repositioning cruises went begging for passengers, but that's changing.

"Until recently, people didn't take advantage of these cruises," said Jeffrey Laign, editorial director of Porthole magazine, which covers the consumer cruise industry. "But now repositioning cruises have started to catch on."

The Carnival Paradise has only 50 cabins still available (at the bargain rate) for its November sailing.

"The per diems are often half of what you'd pay for a regular cruise," Laign said, "and they tend to have itineraries with ports of call not regularly visited."

Because these trips have many more days at sea than a standard cruise, they tend to appeal to seasoned travelers who "really like to sail," he said, "cruise veterans who are looking for something a little different."

Mike Driscoll, editor of cruise industry newsletter Cruise Week, says that with long stretches of sea time between ports, these are trips "where you want to bring your 1,000-page Ken Follett novel."

If you can't spend a full 14 days afloat, are you out of luck? Not necessarily. While Carnival requires that its repositioning passengers book the entire trip, policies of other cruise lines vary. Some allow passengers to book segments as short as a single day.

Saunders cites the example of a 17-night cruise departing Vancouver Sept. 25 for San Diego by way of Hawaii. Passengers can book the whole trip or just, say, the one-day jaunt between Vancouver and Seattle.

Hankamer, of Vacations To Go, says he's seen per diems as low as $35, "and that includes all meals, entertainment, and your room."

His site lists some 27 upcoming repositioning cruises, all scheduled for September to November. He says that while the popularity of these cruises has increased, so has the number of ships, which has kept prices from rising.