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Family cruises, easy as 1-2-3

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Budget Travel

(Budget Travel) -- It's increasingly popular--and surprisingly affordable--to set sail with the kids in tow. Find out ways to save when planning, booking, and cruising.

Pre-cruise planning
There are many options these days when it comes to cruising. If a bargain price is your top priority (rather than a specific destination or time of year), consider sailing during the off-season. Many cruises offer their best rates from September through mid-November in the Caribbean, partly because that period is hurricane season. While older kids are already in school then, for families with infants or toddlers, it can be a very affordable, if less predictable, time to cruise.

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Cruising can make for a great family vacation.

Another way to save is to target cruise lines that offer kids-cruise-free promotions. Children 17 and under cruise for free on many of Costa Cruises, Caribbean sailings from November through April. This year, youngsters can also sail for free on Costa's two late-April cruises to Bermuda. Similarly, MSC Cruises is expanding its promotion and allowing those 17 and under to sail free not only on Caribbean voyages but those to Europe in the summer as well. Children 6 and older sail free on Windjammer Barefoot Cruises' two family-oriented ships, the Polynesia and the Legacy, each summer.

Since 9/11, cruise lines have greatly expanded the number of domestic home ports (ports from which a ship departs) so that passengers who don't want to fly have more flexibility. When traveling with a family, you will save a bundle by selecting a ship and itinerary that departs from a port you can drive to, so you don't have to pay multiple airfares. Some of the latest developments include two ports in Seattle, operating from late April through November; B Street Pier in downtown San Diego, which begins a year-round cruise schedule this May; a new 80,000-square-foot cruise terminal in Norfolk, Va.; and year-round sailings from the Cape Liberty Cruise Port in Bayonne, N.J.

Booking your cruise
Now that major websites such as Expedia and Kayak have entered the cruise market, there tends to be less of a difference in the prices quoted by cruise agencies, consolidators, and cruise lines. Be sure to do your research and compare prices--and read the fine print.

Paul Motter, editor of CruiseMates.com, suggests booking through an online cruise-only agency (such as cruises-n-more.com) and calling the agency beforehand, for two reasons. By calling first, you can ascertain the quality of customer service in case you have a problem down the road. Also, you may also be offered a lower rate on the phone than what's listed online. The reason is that large travel and cruise agencies were traditionally able to provide the best discounted cruise fares due to their large volume, but there has been an effort to level the playing field. Most cruise lines now prohibit agencies to advertise--online or in print--discount fares below the lines' approved rate.

The exception is that savings, often in the form of rebated commissions or free travel insurance, can be offered verbally over the phone or via e-mail if a potential client makes the initial contact.

E-mail newsletters are another exception. Since they are not considered advertisements, large volume agencies and cruise websites (such as CruiseStar.com) can promote discounts in their newsletters. Travel and cruise informational websites that do not sell cruises, such as CruiseMates.com, have free newsletters, that are e-mailed weekly with the best deals, along with daily promotional updates online.

You may also want to check out CruiseCompete.com. This online service allows you to specify which cruise ship you want to sail on and when. Cruise-only agencies then get back to you with the best deals they have for that particular cruise.

When making a reservation, it's worth considering a "family cabin," which is an alternative to a costly large suite. The rooms vary in design but are generally more accommodating to family needs. Some have either distinct alcoves or separate bedrooms, while others have two bathrooms. Family cabins often come with other perks, such as kid-friendly interior decorating and free room-service delivery. They are available on some ships run by Disney, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, MSC Cruises, and Royal Caribbean. Ask your cruise representative to find out which ships are offering these cabins. Prices are roughly the same for family cabins as for purchasing two separate interior rooms with a connecting interior door. To see an example from Disney Cruise Lines, click here.

Doing your homework
Cruise lines encourage travelers to book a huge array of shore excursions directly through them. It's a no-brainer way to explore on land, but is also a huge assault on your piggy bank--especially for families. Instead, you should do some online research before your cruise by contacting sites, such as PortPromotions.com, that offer some of the same excursions as many cruise lines for up to 25 percent less. You can book online and meet the tours in port at a specified time. (One word of caution: If you don't book your excursion through the cruise line and are late returning to port, the ship won't necessarily wait for you.)

A good rule of thumb is to look over the cruise line's shore excursions ahead of time and choose one "must-do" and then find things you'd like to explore independently in the other ports. For example, in Alaska, cruise lines offer one-of-a-kind excursions such as walking on a glacier or dogsledding. If you splurge on one, explore other ports and more accessible attractions on your own to help offset the cost. Keep in mind that a few cruise lines have children's rates for select excursions that can provide savings of $5-$25 off the adult rate.

Other pre-trip research should include finding out how close the port is to the main town or city, names of beaches you'd like to explore, and what attractions your kids might enjoy. For families, it's much more affordable to hop in a cab portside and go to a beach independently than to buy a shore excursion in which the operator and the cruise line are both making money from your purchase.

Once aboard
The cruise line will start an account for you once you're aboard ship that you'll pay by credit card at the end of your cruise. The account typically covers your drink bill (both alcoholic and nonalcoholic), shop purchases, specialty restaurant tabs, spa services, and shore excursions.

If your kids can't live without electronic games, they'll be happy that the majority of large ships catering to families have extensive game arcades. However, the cost of these video games can really add up. Set a limit ahead of time so that there won't be any tears on your kids' part when you say no and on your part when you receive the bill.

When cruising in the hot Caribbean, drinks of all kinds will also raise your final bill. If your kids are big soda drinkers, purchase a soda card for them (which usually costs around $30 for a week) so that they can get all the drinks they want during the cruise for one lump sum. Additionally, juice bars--which make frosty, nonalcoholic fruit drinks your kids will love--are popping up a lot at sea. They will cost you extra, so you may want to set a limit on these with your youngsters, too. Ice tea served at meals is generally free.

Many teens, and parents, have a hard time disconnecting from their e-mail. The beauty of a cruise is that you don't have to. However, you will pay the price. Most cruise lines offer a package fee for Internet access, which I strongly suggest you opt for. Otherwise, you will pay at least 50 cents per minute, even for connection time, which is slow while at sea.

With some pre-trip preparation and shipboard savvy, your family can save money and still have a memorable experience. Once your kids have a taste of all the fun activities there are to do--with and without you--we suspect they'll be asking you to cruise again. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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Copyright 2007 Newsweek Budget Travel, Inc., all rights reserved.

Note: This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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