NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) -
Super-low cruise prices, which were the norm in the post-9/11 travel lull, have sailed off into the sunset. Among other reasons: Travelers started taking notice of the growing number of ships departing port cities that were previously unassociated with cruising, like Baltimore and Seattle.
But don't let that keep you ashore this winter. There are still impressive deals to be had -- only now, you need to be a little more savvy about where and how to find them. In another story, we'll give you all the tips you need for getting the most from your cruise dollars. We'll also list some fun "special interest" cruises.
If you're a first-time cruise shopper, here are some key points to look for.
If you're thinking about a cruise for the first time, call a travel agent. CLIA, the Cruise Line International Association, trains travel agents to answer prospective cruisers' questions, from what line to choose to what you should pack. To find a CLIA-affiliated travel agent, go to www.cruising.org/TravelAgents.
"Someone who has never booked a cruise before shouldn't book their trip online; they should consult with a CLIA-affiliated agent," said Karen Bohning, a spokesperson for CLIA. "It's not like booking a plane ticket -- there's more involved than just arriving at your destination."
What celebrity chefs did for Las Vegas, they've now done for cruises. Crystal has signed up Wolfgang Puck and Nobu Matsuhisa. Cunard has Todd English and Daniel Boulud. Sure, these arrangements -- in which the chefs design menus and sometimes train other chefs -- are at least 50 percent marketing gimmickry. But their involvement has elevated the overall sophistication of cruise food -- and, hey, it's not like these guys actually cook your food at their restaurants either.
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Leaving that trend aside, we found that the Radisson Seven Seas line has earned a reputation for consistently great food. The all-suite Radisson Mariner, in particular, has a new restaurant, Signatures, that's staffed by the famous Cordon Bleu school of Paris.
The chefs shop for fresh produce, meat and fish during port calls. Some itineraries offer cooking classes for a fee. Judy Lucas, an agent at Tucson's Concierge Cruises, found a two-for-one fare on the Mariner's 14-day trip leaving Fort Lauderdale on Jan. 7 for Los Angeles, traveling through the Panama Canal and stopping in Grand Cayman, Costa Rica and Mexico, for $4,243 per person.
Ports of call
Not interested in knickknack bazaars? Windstar's four-masted, 148-passenger Wind Song sails year round through the islands of Tahiti, starting from Papeete and stopping at places that large ships can't, including Raiatea, Moorea, Huahine, the tiny island of Taha'a and the spectacular atoll of Bora Bora. Passengers can sign up for any of dozens of onshore activities.
On Bora Bora, for example, you can take an outrigger canoe to feed small sharks or drive into Moorea to visit the first Christian church in French Polynesia. The shore excursions cost extra, but most water sports from the ship's pop-down marina are included in the price.
Windstar has reduced rates by 45 percent from its brochure rate to $2,795 per person, and travel agents can often do better. Windstar is also throwing in free air fare to Papeete from 31 U.S. cities if you book any of its weekly cruises through Dec. 13.
Time to set the mood. You can choose a cruise geared to singles, honeymooners, or seniors; classic vessels that evoke old-fashioned cruise ships or contemporary ships; adventure destinations like the Serengeti, or tropical destinations like Hawaii or Jamaica, among other options, said Marcella Rappoport, a travel agent at World Travel Specialists in Harrison, NY.
|Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Dream
You also want to consider how you like to organize your vacation time, said Michael Hannon, who worked with Princess Cruises before opening San Marin Travel in Novato, Calif. Type A personalities, take note: old-school cruises have schedules with specific times and seats for mealtimes, for example.
Many cruises still do, but an increasing number of cruise lines have moved away from regimented schedules, and lots of people go for unstructured cruises, which let you sit down and eat whenever you want and spend your days without an entertainment schedule, Hannon said.
"Some people like unplanned, unstructured time. Norwegian Cruise Lines offer totally unstructured cruising, and Princess Cruises let you select what they call 'personal choice cruising' and 'seating and scheduling'," Hannon said.
If you have more specific interests, try looking for a specialty cruise. We also have some tips for getting the most out of your cruise dollars.
CNN/Money staff writer Annelena Lobb contributed additional material for this story.