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    Christopher Elliott: Do fake travel reviews really matter?

    Don't believe everything you read online, especially on user-generated review websites such as TripAdvisor or Yelp, which claim to help you find the best hotels and restaurants.

    At least that's the standard warning issued repeatedly by travel experts for the last decade. The ratings are rigged by hotel or restaurant operatives, or by unhappy patrons trying to shame a business, they say. Since the sites make no meaningful efforts to stop these bogus posts, all the so-called user-generated sites should be ignored when you're planning your next trip.

    That's wrong.

    I'm not suggesting the problem of unverified reviews has been fixed. If anything, it's a bigger issue than ever as Americans begin planning for the upcoming winter holidays. More companies are trying to manage their online reputations. Nor have any of the sites developed an effective fraud-detection algorithm that red-flags every bogus rating, as far as I can tell.

    I'm convinced that you should believe what you read, or at least some of it, because the reviews might be written by real hotel guests and restaurant patrons, and they can be useful when you're planning your next vacation. I know, because unlike the sites, I've taken the trouble to speak with the reviewers. And I know many are real.

    As a "senior contributor" to TripAdvisor, Karin Ross has received luggage tags and water bottles from the company to thank her for her contributions, but she's never been asked to verify if she actually stayed in one of the hotels and restaurants she reviewed. That doesn't bother her at all.

    "I take the reviews I read with a grain of salt," says Ross, a volunteer for a health organization in Phoenix. "If you read carefully, you can see if it's falsely inflated or defamed."

    A majority of the other write-ups she sees are "relatively accurate" and as long as she disregards the hypercritical one-star ratings and the exuberant five-star reviews, she's confident she'll arrive somewhere close to the truth.

    And getting close seems to be good enough for most travelers.

    "I've been a TripAdvisor user for years," says Mary Bruels, a retired insurance manager from Gulfport, Fla. "I have rarely been burned."

    She says the trick is to learn to spot "trolls" — users who intentionally post views with extreme views that are meant to antagonize readers — and simply ignore them. That's sound advice online, no matter what you're doing. Like Ross, it usually means disregarding the extreme reviews.

    "I've been pleased with the results," she says.

    More than 9 in 10 global travelers admit their booking decisions are influenced by online reviews, and just over half refuse to do business with a hotel that isn't rated, according to online analytics firm Market Metrix. Alas, it doesn't mention anything about whether those reviews are truthful, or whether the prospective guests even care.

    I've asked both Yelp and TripAdvisor about the accuracy of their content on many occasions. The answers alternate between defensive and defiant. The sites are nothing more than platforms for travelers and restaurant guests to leave their opinion, they insist. Besides, they have fraud-detection programs to ferret out the fake reviews placed by reputation management operatives and so-called sock puppets, or employees pretending to be customers.

    But when I ask them to share even the most basic details of how the algorithms work, they refuse. To reveal that information would be to help the bad guys game the system, they say. That may or may not be true, but it's also a self-serving response.

    The companies also seem dismissive when anyone points out that contributors like Ross, who on a recent day posted 10 reviews (oddly, it didn't trip any of TripAdvisor's vaunted fraud-detection alarms), are essentially unpaid workers upon whose labor they've built a multimillion-dollar, publicly traded business. I wonder how their shareholders would feel if they sent them water bottles instead of dividends?

    It turns out I've been asking the wrong questions. People don't necessarily expect the truth when they click on a review site. Truthy is good enough.

    Just ask Susan Biederman, a retired fifth-grade teacher from Coral Springs, Fla., and a devoted TripAdvisor user. She says she's "very careful" about the advice she takes from the site. Since the site either can't or won't catch all of the fakes, she conducts her own verification process, which includes reviewing a contributor's social media profiles and reading other reviews by the same author.

    A few days ago, when searching for hotels in London, Biederman found an obviously scammy poster who had written "glowing and superlative" reviews of five different hotels in the city. She summarily ignored them. But using the same process, she also connected with a resident of Istanbul when she needed a restaurant recommendation. He turned out to be the real deal, and even helped her by calling the restaurant to make a reservation for her.

    "I was just overwhelmed, and that dinner was one of the nicest we've ever enjoyed," she recalls. "What a great memory, not only for the restaurant but also for the kindness of strangers."

    Perhaps we should be looking at user-generated sites not for what they aren't, but for what they are. They're useful travel guides that will do the trick until technology delivers a better solution.

    Something tells me our wait is almost over.

  • 10 cruise itineraries you didn't know existed

    We've all heard of Caribbean cruises to the Bahamas, Mexico, and Jamaica aboard mega-ships like Carnival and Royal Caribbean, but hundreds of other exotic itineraries await on smaller vessels. From the United States to Patagonia and Australia, we've rounded up the 10 best cruise itineraries you didn't know existed.


    For a lengthier adventure through Australia, Micronesia, and Papua New Guinea, Orion Expeditions offers a 19-night cruise from Cairns, Australia. The cruise is packed with unique ports of call like Rabaul, the "Pacific Pompeii," and Pulap (Micronesia), and includes snorkeling, local dances and demonstrations of thatching, loom weaving, and rope making.

    Kerala, India

    As part of the luxury group, Oberoi Hotels and Resorts, the motor vessel Vrinda cruiser navigates the backwaters of Kerala, India on a three-night itinerary. The ship coasts through Vembanad Lake and enters the Alleppey canal, while guests have a chance to meet local fisherman, take a rice boat excursion, and observe a "Kathakali" dance which tells ancient Hindu legends.

    The Great Lakes

    From June through October, the Great Lakes Cruise Company offers voyages through legendary waterways in the United States, including the Erie Canal, Hudson River and St. Lawrence Seaway. Embarking from Chicago, the ship calls on under-the-radar gems like car-free Mackinac Island, Michigan; Lake Huron; Buffalo, New York (Niagara Falls); Lake Ontario, Rochester, NY; and Warren, Rhode Island.


    Kick your shoes off on Island Windjammers' barefoot cruises through the Windward islands of the Caribbean. The 12-passenger schooner sails through Carriacou, Union Island, Bequia, Tobago Cays and Mayreau on six-night voyages. Passengers can take the kayaks for a spin, assist the crew in sailing or organize an impromptu picnic on the beach.

    Scotland and Ireland

    The luxury vessel, Hebridean Princess makes her home in the waterways of Ireland and Scotland and offers several voyages that combine the two. The eight-night Gaelic Trilogy itinerary begins in Oban, Scotland's seafood capital, and calls on Jura, Bangor, the Isle of Man, and Tynwald island. Cruises include tours of distilleries, villages and castles.

    West Africa

    In West Africa, the Greek-owned Variety Cruises operates seven-night voyages on the M/Y Harmony along the rivers of West Africa. Embarking from Dakar, the ship sails to a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Senegal, St. James Island in the Gambia River and the Gambia National Park. Wildlife viewing opportunities include baboons, warthogs, chimpanzees, crocodiles and hippos.


    Follow the path of Charles Darwin on a four-night cruise from Punta Arenas, Chile to Cape Horn, Argentina. Cruceros Australis specializes in expeditions throughout Patagonia that include zodiac excursions through glaciers and national parks. Learn about the flora and fauna of Patagonia with expert guides and onboard lecturers.


    Boutique river cruise line, Uniworld offers an "Imperial Waterways of Russia" journey from Moscow to St. Petersburg. The 15-night adventure takes passengers along the Volga, Neva and Svir Rivers to Goritsy and Yaroslavl to experience palaces, armories, 15th- and 17th-century cathedrals and medieval fortresses.

    Labrador, Canada

    Tucked away in Belfast, Maine is the family-owned Wanderbird, a Dutch trawler that embarks on research trips to Greenland, Newfoundland and Labrador. In 2014, Rick and Karen Miles welcome passengers to join them on three different Arctic dogsled and showshoe expeditions in Canada. Journeys include visits to a cultural village in Oujé-Bougoumou, snowshoeing and dogsledding in Labrador with Inuit guides.

    Myanmar (Burma)

    Set sail with Pandaw River Cruise Expeditions for 14 nights through the middle of Burma, and explore Pagan, known for its 3,000 monuments, and the culturally-rich Lower Chindwinth. Visit local markets in the colonial town of Thayetmyo, teak monasteries in Sale and the ancient center of the Pyu civilization.

    ADVENTURERS: Try these wild expeditions 

  • 10 TRIPS OF A LIFE TIME...We can make it happen for you..ALL AT GREAT PRICES!


    10 once-in-a-lifetime trips.

    Bora Bora, French Polynesia
  • Luxury Cruises Well Worth the Extra Cost


    Luxury Cruises Carry Hefty Price Tag, But You Get Much More

     PHOTO: ABC News producer Tom Giusto's spacious cabin aboard the Regent Seven Seas Mariner.

    ABOARD THE REGENT SEVEN SEAS MARINER CROSSING THE ATLANTIC OCEAN EN ROUTE RECIFE, BRAZIL: If a cruise vacation is a dream, then a true luxury cruise is more like a fantasy. Twenty million people will take a cruise this year, based on industry figures, but only a few percent will sail a top luxury line. Is the ultra-pampering worth all the extra money, sometimes five times the price of a regular cruise? After all, how much lobster and caviar can you eat?

    Like all lines, the luxury cruise lines are growing and they need new passengers to fill their suites. That's what they're called on a luxury ship by the way: Suites. Not cabins. So the luxury lines are trying their best to get you to make the jump to the world of small ships and big prices. But is it worth all that extra money?

    Taking a luxury cruise is a bit like going to the "Cheers" bar, everybody knows your name; except this bar is at the Ritz-Carlton.

    PHOTOS: The Best Cruise Ships of 2012

    I'm writing this story from my cruise vacation, a 17-night Atlantic crossing from Monte Carlo to Rio de Janeiro on the Regent Seven Seas Mariner. Regent Seven Seas Cruises is one of the four top-rated luxury cruise lines along with Silversea, Seabourn, and Crystal. In 20 years of cruising and more than 30 cruises I've sailed about 10 times on Regent. Most of the other cruises have been on Princess and Holland America, two very popular premium cruise lines, the ones that fall just below the luxury classification and include most of the lines on which Americans like to sail. Regent is the only luxury line I have taken, although all four luxury brands are excellent and have loyal followings.

    Tom Giusto, ABC News
    ABC News producer Tom Giusto's spacious cabin aboard the Regent Seven Seas Mariner.

    Sailing on a luxury line usually costs anywhere from $400-$900 per person, per day depending on the itinerary. A similar cabin on Princess would cost half as much or less. So what's the difference?

    "At the end of the day it's not what you pay to get on those ships, it's what you pay to get off," said Regent president Mark Conroy, a pioneer in the concept of all-inclusive cruising. Regent is a small line with only three ships and a line-wide capacity of 2,000 passengers, equal to just one Holland America ship. Regent carries 65,000 passengers a year, less than one half of one percent of all cruise passengers.

    Conroy likes to use a Holland America Alaska cruise as an example of the price comparison with Regent, noting a comparable cabin for a one-week cruise would cost $2499 on Holland America and $4999 on Regent. Since Regent's fare is double, Conroy acknowledged someone shopping price alone would never buy the more expensive cruise. Then he pointed out his cruises included all drinks, shore excursions and gratuities. And in what many travelers would see as an added bonus, his ship in Alaska had 490 passengers while Holland America's had 2,000.

    When you break down the actual daily cost of cruising, Conroy's point is the price difference becomes much less. "Instead of being twice as much we're anywhere from $5-$30 per person per day more," Conroy said. "And then the question is would you rather be with a smaller group or a larger group?"

    The cost of a shore excursion, six drinks and gratuities can add up to $200 per person a day. You'd be surprised how easy is to have six drinks a day including wine with lunch and dinner, and some people double that.

    Conroy believes all-inclusive sells cruises. "We have expanded the luxury market because of the all-inclusive nature of our product," he said. All-inclusive makes the price of a luxury cruise more attractive, although it will always cost more than a cruise on a premium line.

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    Every cruise claims to be a luxury cruise and every ship claims to be a luxury ship. Indeed, some newer, larger mass-market cruise ships have dining rooms and public areas much more opulent and luxurious than you will find on a luxury cruise ship.


    It has a lot to do with size. The mega cruise ships have bars, restaurants, artwork and public areas that are designed to wow. Holland America's Eurodam has a beautiful Asian-themed restaurant and bar with stunning views. The mainstream cruise lines can provide "grand." You'll never get that on a small luxury ship.

    The primary difference is smaller luxury cruise ships provide more personal service and more personal space. It's more about you than it is the ship. The cabins are larger and usually all have balconies; dining is usually open seating; drinks and wine are usually included. If you want a shrimp cocktail and steak delivered to your room and midnight you can probably get it.

    The advantage of a luxury cruise comes down to four basic points:

    1. No waiting in lines and more space for passengers.

    2. More personal attention from a proportionately larger staff. On a luxury cruise there are usually two crew members for every three passengers. On a regular cruise it's one crew member for every two passengers.

    3. A more sophisticated group of fellow passengers.

    4. No nickel and diming.

    The last point seems to make the biggest difference for most luxury cruisers. Passengers hate taking out that cruise card to charge anything, whether it be drinks, wine, tours, or activities.

    The luxury cruise lines are pretty much all-inclusive, if not totally all-inclusive. Regent, the line I'm sailing, is completely all-inclusive. Once on board you don't have to charge anything and you don't have to tip anything, unless you buy something in the shops or the spa. It's possible to complete your cruise and have a final bill of zero. With booking promotions and incentives you will often have a credit on your account when you begin the cruise, forcing you to spend money buying things on the cruise to use up your credit. For example, my on board credit was $950.

    The all-inclusive nature of a luxury cruise changes the dynamic of the cruise experience. Since drinks are already included, there is much more socializing in the bars and lounges before and after dinner. You can invite friends for drinks without worrying about who is paying. It really is a very different atmosphere from a cruise where you pay as you go. Some passengers will tell you this is why they will never take a regular cruise again.

    The food on a luxury cruise is somewhat better than a regular cruise but the service and dining atmosphere are much better. Luxury cruise lines have several choices for dinner, all usually included in the fare; no surcharges. There are four gourmet dinner restaurants on my ship, plus room service.

    Luxury lines also have anytime dining. In the main dinner restaurant you can walk in and be seated whenever you wish and there is enough seating capacity to handle it. The premium lines have also moved in this direction but if you arrive for dinner at a peak time you may have to wait for a table.

    All of the dinner restaurants on luxury cruise ships would be comparable to the specialty restaurants on regular cruise ships where you would have to pay extra to dine. And if you want something that's not on the menu, if you let them know a day in advance and they'll make it for you as long as they have the ingredients on board, Grand Marnier soufflé, no problem. If you want a special dish such as Beef Wellington, they'll prepare it for you whenever you want it.


    Everything doesn't always go perfectly, even on a luxury ship. When there are problems the staff will usually make a prompt effort to fix them. I had some concerns about the service in the dining room the first couple of nights of the cruise. When I wrote them on a comment card I heard immediately from the dining room manager, head waiter and head sommelier. There was a noticeable improvement in the service.

    The cabins, sorry, suites, on luxury ships tend to be larger. Regent's minimum size suite is 300 sq. ft., the size of a mini suite on Princess. A basic cabin on a regular cruise ship is about 175-200 sq. ft. My cabin is called a Penthouse Suite (about 375 sq. ft.), although there are many of them on several decks, none of which is actually the penthouse deck. It does come with Hermes brand toiletries in the bathroom if that sort of thing would be important. Some cabins have butlers, although you can find butlers in the top suites on premium lines as well.

    But there are some things you're not going to get on a luxury cruise. Do not expect a "hairy chest" contest by the pool (although the equator crossing ceremony came pretty close), and there is no "Inch of Gold" day at the boutique.

    Luxury ships tend to have an older, quieter clientele. Very few passengers are under 50 but most everyone is quite active. By midnight everyone is pretty much in bed. While luxury cruise passengers tend to be financially secure, I have never seen anyone showing off or bragging about their financial or social status.

    You usually won't find big entertainment on small ships. There is one main show a night and some lounge entertainment but it's all on a smaller scale than you would find on larger ships. On occasion, some luxury lines do have themed entertainment cruises with famous entertainers, or notable lecturers.

    What sort of seas are ahead for luxury cruising? Conroy, who will be stepping aside as Regent president at the end of January to consult, believes passengers can continue to expect greater value, even at high fares. "The premium and contemporary guys keep getting better and better all the time," he said. "It raises the level so it's forced us to continue to try to improve the business."

    One point everyone agrees on, the key to a strong cruising future is world peace, so cruise ships can call on more ports. "There's an aging population that's aging affluently. It used to be they were all about acquiring stuff," Conroy said. "Today they're about acquiring memories and we're in the memory business at the end of the day."

  • Best cruise ships for winter 2013

    This was the first year in many that no cruise line introduced a brand new ship model. The reason for this is that so many incredible new ships were produced the preceding four years, from 2008 to 2011, that we are still getting to know them.

    The last few years the “early adopters” paid premium prices to cruise on those newest ships. But now the "new ship premium" has mostly worn off – so everyone can enjoy these new wonders of the sea at more reasonable prices.

    Let’s take a closer look at these great new model ships and find the best prices for the cold winter months ahead.

    Oasis of the Seas

    Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas and her newer sister ship Allure of the Seas are the most amazing vessels yet. They are the biggest cruise ships in history (Allure is a few molecules larger than Oasis), but size alone is not the main attraction. It's design is another feature to behold.

    Some people liken a cruise ship to a small city -- but these ships feel like a small planet. The center of the ship is an outdoor, open air “Central Park” with live trees and grass, lined with al fresco restaurants and several tiers of staterooms with inward-facing verandas.

    Inside, entertainment abounds in a massive, three-deck tall atrium that hosts parades with hundreds of characters, including “Shrek” through a tie-in with DreamWorks. Guests can skate in the ice rink between shows by professionals. The main theater offers the Broadway versions of Hairspray (on Oasis) or Chicago (on Allure), as well as 3-D screenings of new releases from DreamWorks.

    The best price I found on Oasis for a March 2, 2013 seven-day sailing is just $899 per person, balcony cabin.

    Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy

    Disney is an entertainment juggernaut that could have dominated the cruise industry, but opted for quality over quantity. Disney built two smaller ships back in 1999, and added no more until 2011 when it debuted two new and far more elaborate ships.

    The attraction is the ingenuity of Disney entertainment. The stage shows are among the best at sea, and the massive Art Deco movie theater is fully 3D and shows nothing but Disney productions night and day.

    The ships have a “water raft” ride through a 765-foot tubular river that extends out over the top deck of the ship. The children’s areas are separated by age groups and feature appropriate activities -- real and virtual. You probably won’t see your kids until dinner, and even the meals are productions.

    The magic of Disney equally inspires the expansive adult-only areas; separate lounges themed to feature fine wines, ales, champagne, hors d’ oeuvres, martinis, dancing and sports. Two alternative gourmet restaurants have fine food by designed by award-winning chefs, children allowed but not encouraged. This is Disney, after all, so no casino.

    All staterooms have extra beds for third, fourth, or sometimes fifth guests. I recommend a longer cruise on these newer ships.

    The best price I found is $1,225 per person, balcony, for a seven-day February 2 cruise on Disney Fantasy.

    Norwegian Epic

    This is a one of a kind ship, and the best for young adults, especially solo cruisers. Although many regular cruisers do not like the stateroom design the ship excels in entertainment options; sophisticated comedy and high-caliber musical performances.

    The shows include the infamous Blue Man Group, an eclectic combination of high- and low-tech performance art; Legends in Concert, a tribute show to famous singers; a troupe from The Second City comedy group of Chicago; Fat Cats, a nightclub for live electric blues nightly; Howl at the Moon, a dueling piano sing-along; and Cirque Dreams and Dinner, a one-ring circus and dinner show. Be sure to make reservations for all shows before you sail; venue sizes are small.

    The food is decent with the “included in the cruise fare” options -- but much better if you spend a little extra for the specialty restaurants. The very reasonable cruise fares for this ship make it easy to afford the finer dining.

    Singles should take a “studio stateroom,” from a complex of specially designed cabins with no singles-supplement charges. The rooms share a common space where you can hang out and meet other solo cruisers. Amazingly, no other cruise ship has this.

    The best prices I found for Epic include balcony staterooms for just $699 on cruises in late January.

    Norwegian is bringing out a brand-new ship in April 2013 called Norwegian Breakaway. It appears to be a smaller version of Epic, with nicer staterooms but without the Legends at Sea shows. It has a wonderful approach to outside deck space: a “Waterfront” promenade deck where many public rooms will open to the fresh air outside. This ship will sail only out of New York City year-round. The best prices start next fall at $899 for a balcony cabin. This is the only new model ship in the Caribbean this winter.

    Carnival Cruises FunShip 2.0

    The new ships from Carnival are high value cruises with lively family entertainment and very reasonable prices. Carnival has a new entertainment concept called FunShip 2.0 where shipboard focal points offer access to a variety of venues for eating, drinking and entertainment.

    For example, the line's newest ship, Carnival Breeze, still has two dining rooms, but touts Guy’s Burger Joint for all-you-can-eat hamburgers designed by Food Network star Guy Fieri. Nearby are the Blue Iguana Cantina and Tequila Bar and the Red Frog Rum Bar. Additional new and smaller dining options include Fat Jimmy’s BBQ, Seadogs (hot dogs), Bonsai Sushi and Mongolian Wok.

    Showroom entertainment now features short 30-minute musical vignettes (the Brits, Latin Nights, Motor City and The Divas) alternating with family games based on the Hasbro television network, featuring stage-adapted versions of “Yahtzee,” “Sorry,” “Operation,” and “Slam Dunk.”

    The now fleetwide Punchliner Comedy Club promotes TV personality George Lopez, although you won’t hear or see much of him beyond short recorded snippets before the shows start. The comedians are funny; family-appropriate during the day and adult-oriented late at night.

    The ship alternates between six- and eight-day cruises. Cruise for as little as $399 per person, or $599 for a balcony stateroom on a six-day cruise.

    FunShip 2.0 program has not yet been rolled out fleetwide. It is only on Carnival Breeze, Conquest, Glory and Liberty. The older Carnival Destiny is also getting a $155-million renovation and will emerge as Carnival Sunshine in April.


    Paul Motter is the editor of, an online cruise guide. Follow him on Twitter @cruisemates.

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    Love to SaveSomewhere out there is a seven-night cruise from $299, a luxury sailing at 75 percent off and an empty cabin on the soldout sailing you wish to book. Knowing where and when to search for the best fares could mean the difference between unearthing that deal or compromising on price and itinerary.

    You probably have a tried-and-true method of searching for cruise deals. Perhaps you wait for missives from your trusty travel agent, or maybe you're a tiger when it comes to prowling the Internet for low fares. You may book your cruise right when the brochure is first published, or you might bide your time until two weeks before sailing. But have you explored all possible ways of nabbing that steal?

    Let us share some of our favorite tips for finding cruise deals. While some may be old hat, others may catch you by surprise. Use them all, and you'll be ready to pounce when the right promotion comes along.

    Tweet Your Way to Savings. Tech-savvy shoppers may want to try Twitter, the wildly popular micro-blogging Web site where users have 140 characters to gossip about celebrities … or post last-minute cruise bargains. The cruise lines have gotten into the game, as well. For example, Royal Caribbean posts a daily deal -- like a 12-night Southern Caribbean cruise on Explorer of the Seas from $57 per person per night -- on its Royal Hot Deals feed (@RoyalHotDeals).

    Taking it a step further, you can customize a list of deal tweeters by using Twitter's list function, in essence creating your own deal aggregator.

    Send Deals to Your Inbox or Phone. E-mail may be passe at this point, but the vast majority of lines and agencies still rely on "e-letters" to help fill cruise ships. Celebrity Cruises, in particular, sends deals e-mails with special one-day sales that you wouldn't know about otherwise. We've seen deals like a seven-night Eastern Caribbean cruise on Celebrity Solstice from $749 for a balcony cabin, or four- and five-night sailings from $249. And, of course, there's Cruise Critic's own "Cruise Sails," a weekly rundown of inventory, priced to sell from a variety of our advertisers. For the hardcore deal-seekers who don't want e-deals cluttering up their personal inboxes, we suggest setting up a separate account just for bargains mailings.

    Keep an Eye on Boutique and Daily Deal Sites. If you love creative couponing, add cruises to the list of things you can find discounts for at boutique and daily deal sites. Jetsetter often features exotic cruises to the Galapagos, Antarctica, the Nile or Europe in its flash sales, offering up to 50 percent off. Look for expedition and luxury lines. Rue La La, an invitation-only site that offers luxury "boutiques" -- with a set number of upscale items for sale on a first come, first serve basis -- may also be worth a look. While the site mostly focuses on shoes and jewelry, Windstar Cruises sailings are occasionally on offer. As sites like Groupon start adding travel sections to their regular deals for local spas, restaurants and services, be on the lookout for the possibility of cruise deals of the day.

    Book Ahead for High-Season Cruising. For certain dates and destinations, last-minute bargains are a tough find -- especially if you want your pick of cabins. Summer travel and school holiday periods book up early, especially for cabins that sleep three or more and are in demand by families traveling together. The choicest digs on popular new ships will sell quickly, pushing fares higher the longer you wait. If you want what everyone else wants, or at least have a very specific cruise scenario in mind, we recommend booking early. Look for early-bird sales offering added value, like onboard credit or free upgrades. And rest assured knowing that most deposits are refundable prior to final payment, so if the price does drop, you can either rebook at the lower rate or request the difference in onboard credit.

    Luxury cruises also put forth their best prices early. Oceania and Regent Seven Seas usually bump up rates every three months. Crystal's Book Now fares offer early-booking discounts up to $2,000 per couple for a limited time; when the deadline passes, the line dutifully increases the cruise price. These upscale lines make it clear -- the lowest rates will disappear if you wait.

    Book Last Minute. For those who can be spontaneous, flexibility can really pay. Check out our last-minute cruise deals section, which features bargains on a variety of sailings leaving within 90 days -- 90 days out being the typical point at which full deposits are due. There are always plenty of Caribbean deals.

    Other hard-to-fill cruises -- such as shoulder season cruises and one-way repositioning sailings, where open-jaw airfare is required -- can be dramatically reduced last minute. Of course, booking last minute airfare may wipe out any savings. Plus, you'll have a limited selection of cabin locations and dinner seatings. But, if you're flexible and can drive to a cruise port, it's a great way to save.

    Go for the Cabin Guarantee. If cabin location isn't important, you might want to opt for a "cabin guarantee," which basically means you're assured to get a cabin in at least the category specified -- and if you're lucky, you may even get an upgrade. However, you can't choose your exact stateroom. Lines like Carnival typically discount guaranteed cabin bookings about $50 to $100 per person off the advertised fares.

    Bring the WHOLE Family (Plus Friends and Coworkers). If you're willing to book in bulk, most cruise lines will offer free berths, depending on the number of passengers in the group. For instance, Princess Cruises offers a free berth for every 16 lower berths booked. The ratio is reduced for small-ship and luxury lines, so you might only have to get a group of 10 to earn a free berth. Group leaders can choose to spread the savings across the group or keep it for themselves without telling anyone. Groups can get other perks, as well. For example, in addition to offering a free berth for every 10 passengers booked, luxury line Crystal throws in group perks like onboard credit, free photos and discounts on select group excursions.

    Choose Shoulder-Season Sailings. If you've already honed in on a destination, the best way to save is to focus on travel dates just outside the peak season. This might mean picking May as the month to visit Alaska, April as your best bet to sail the Mediterranean and October for your Caribbean cruise -- before or after the summer swell of family vacations. In addition to low prices, you'll encounter fewer crowds; on the flip side, the weather may not be ideal for sightseeing.

    Make the Most of Past-Passenger Discounts. Like frequent fliers, frequent cruisers are able to benefit from brand loyalty. Sticking with one line means earning perks like nightly cocktails in private lounges, access to the spa's thermal suite, complimentary dinners in alternative restaurants and even free cruises once you've earned enough "credits" -- all things you'd typically have to pay for. Past passengers can also take advantage of special discounted sailings throughout the year.

    But know this: Past-passenger programs are not created equal. For a full list of offerings, check out our feature story.

    Access Military, Senior or Residency Rates. A number of lines have special programs for seniors, military personnel and even teachers. Norwegian Cruise Line provides discounts to U.S. and Canadian military vets on select sailings. And for AARP members, it offers a 5 percent discount on any cruise booked at least nine months in advance. Holland America even goes so far as to offer discounts on select sailings to teachers, EMT's, firefighters, police officers and active military. Erik Elvejord, Holland America's director of public relations, told us that, while fares vary, they've "typically been $50 to $100 below going rates."

    Many lines also offer residential discounts. Here's how it works: In essence, a line's revenue stream is based on a formula that requires a certain number of bookings from various cities, states and regions. So, if it's not getting enough bookings from one particular place, it'll drop the price slightly -- say, in Florida -- to entice more Floridians to book. There's no guarantee you'll get a residential discount, but it can't hurt to mention your home city and state during the booking process, just in case.

     Leave the Deals Search to the Experts. If you don't have time for Twitter, online cruise research or gathering up a group of 20 friends, nothing quite beats a good travel agent to help you score a deal. Because agents often book in bulk and work directly with the lines, they have access to deals that normal cruisers won't. Cruise lines will offer their top agencies special discounts that the agents can't promote on their Web sites, so even if you see a good deal online, it's best to talk to a real person and ask for the best fare.

    Even if savings aren't necessarily there for every sailing, agencies often offer deals with value-added perks like onboard credit or prepaid gratuities, which can amount to about $70 per person on a weeklong sailing.

    --by Dan Askin, News Editor, and Erica Silverstein, Features Editor