Regent Seven Seas Voyager, photo by NSL Photography

The new year has begun. We’re in “wave season” now. Leisure travelers are beginning to plan their upcoming vacations. Many are considering cruises to interesting and far away locations.

Cruising can be a great way to see many countries. It eliminates packing and unpacking as you move from port to port; typically has lots of meal choices, and often wonderful entertainment, making travel very easy. I often cruise. Over the years, I’ve found numerous ways to save on cruise vacations.

Here are my top ten ways to save and still take great cruises.

• Despite years of cruising, I still book every cruise through my “brick and mortar” travel agent. Great travel agents are invaluable. They knowing the ins and outs of cruising and travel generally. They can save you real cash, and help you with details that can turn a good cruise into a great cruise. Travel agents are sometimes able to offer discounts and promotions, etc., not available if you book it yourself, or through an Internet booking company.

Save during “wave season.” Cruise lines from January to March often offer heavy discounts for future cruises. While it’s possible to get a larger discount when booking at the last minute, by booking early you’re able to get the travel dates and stateroom of your choice, and often perks such as free airfare and on-board credits.

Avoid cruising during high season and major holidays. For example — late spring or early fall is a great time to travel in Europe or Alaska, when cruises there are generally less expensive. You’ll enjoy smaller crowds at your ports of calls then; in Europe, temperatures are cooler.

Consider booking your air separately. Unless the cruise line is offering free airfare, I’ve often found it comes at a higher cost. Check the airfare in advance of booking the cruise, so you’ll know which way to go.

Book excursions on your own, instead of through the cruise line. When on Alaskan cruises I’ve booked many excursions myself. I carefully check excursions and excursion companies’ reviews before making my reservation.

Major caveat: If you’re on an excursion booked by a cruise line, and it’s running late getting back to the dock, it’s unlikely your ship will depart before you return. If you book an excursion yourself, and you’re running late, all bets are off. If my excursion return time is close to the ship’s sailing, I book it through the cruise line.

Don’t reject “all inclusive” cruise lines as more expensive before you check them out. Your fare on non-inclusive cruise lines is just the start. On them, your stateroom, on-board meals at the main restaurant, as well as most of the entertainment on board is included, but almost everything else is extra — liquor, beverages not at meals, soda, excursions, meals at specialty restaurants and gratuities, etc. All those extras can really drain your wallet.

Before you book your cruise, consider those extras to determine the real cost of your cruise vacation. Then compare that total cost to the cost of traveling on an “all-inclusive cruise.” You could be pleasantly surprised.

Find out what beverages are included on your cruise and which ones cost extra. Find out if the cruise ship offers a beverage package. There may be various packages which include different amounts and types of soft drinks and/or alcoholic beverages. Many packages are priced attractively for adult cruisers, especially alcoholic beverage packages, but they often have some exclusions or limits, such as for premium brands. If you’re interested in a beverage package, don’t forget to find out if there’s a discount for purchasing it before boarding.

Don’t forget about “shareholder cruise credits.” If you own at least 100 shares of Carnival Corporation, or Royal Caribbean Cruises, for example, you can get as much as a $250 per stateroom on-board cruise credit (14 or more night cruise) on the various cruise lines these companies own.

Explore a port on your own. Some cities are easily explored on your own, and are extremely walkable. Rather than purchasing an expensive bus excursion for a guided tour, you might want to save money by exploring a port on your own, and it could be more fun. Many sights even offer guided tours. For locales out of walking range, a quick, inexpensive taxi ride can get you there and back. In Europe, cities like Venice and Copenhagen are perfect for touring on your own. Just do some research before you leave and know what you want to do, so you don’t waste your time.

Don’t forget travel insurance. While it adds to the base cost of your cruise, if an emergency occurs, your costs are kept under control. I never purchase my insurance from the cruise line, instead opting for an all-inclusive policy from a third party, which includes coverage on everything: cruise, airfare, hotels, etc.

Bon Voyage!