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Originally published March 16, 2012 at 10:00 PM | Page modified March 18, 2012 at 11:23 PM

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Cruise lines offer freebies and more to get you aboard

Cruise lines are offering last-minute deals and incentives to jump-start business as they cope with a string of bad news. After the Caribbean, Europe and Alaska are the most popular destinations.

Seattle Times travel writer

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Cruise lines are using two-for-one deals, onboard ship credits, discounted airfares, "free" gratuities, even chocolate-dipped strawberries to jump-start business as they cope with a tsunami of bad news this year.

First came safety fears raised by the January shipwreck of the Costa Concordia in Italy, then a fire aboard a sister ship, the Costa Allegra, in the Indian Ocean in late February.

An outbreak of the norovirus forced a Princess Cruises ship to return to port. A group of cruise-ship passengers were robbed while on a nature hike near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

Meanwhile, summer airfares to Europe are soaring and riots in Greece are giving travelers the jitters — cutting into European cruise sales.

As "wave season," the January-March period when cruise lines offer their best deals, draws to a close, lines are replacing across-the-board sales with what Rich Skinner, co-owner of Cruise Holidays, of Woodinville, calls "the special du jour."

"We're seeing a lot of cruise lines doing spot promotions, one or two-day sales targeted to very specific departures," he said.

Care to spend the December holidays in Asia? Azamara Club Cruises recently advertised an 11-day December sailing from Chennai, India, to Singapore, starting at $2,632 per person, including taxes. The price included round-trip airfare from Seattle, pre- and post-cruise hotel stays, free gratuities, free wine with lunch and dinner and a $100-per-cabin ship credit.

Thinking about cruising to Alaska but can't commit to a full week this summer? Princess Cruises recently dropped ocean-view-cabin fares from $899 per person to $549, plus $118 in taxes, for its five-day "sampler" cruise starting in Vancouver, B.C., May 15 and ending in Seattle May 20.

Planning way ahead? Carnival Cruise Lines offers an "early saver" program with up to 20 percent discounts for sailings purchased three to five months in advance.

Sweeteners are common, says Clem Bason, president of Hotwire.com, which carries a running list of top cruise deals on its website.

Norwegian Cruise Line recently enticed passengers with free cabin upgrades, $150 onboard credits and free soda packages.

Carnival told investors recently that passengers holding out for deep discounts may be disappointed, but with bookings running far behind last year, Bason isn't so sure.

"Given the kind of news that keeps rolling in, I would tell people to really keep looking for value this year because I think you're going to be able to get it."

Popular destinations

After the Caribbean, Europe and Alaska are this year's most popular destinations, according to Cruise Holiday's 2012 Cruise Trends survey. Prices on Alaskan cruises are higher than they were last year, but travel agents say that could change in the coming months.

With European cruises, "They're trying not to lower actual rates as much as they are offering discounts on airfares and other amenities," said Lisa Anciaux, travel director for AAA Washington. Several lines offer $999 airfares to Europe, she said.

Mexico, slipping in popularity because of safety concerns over drug violence and a new, more detailed, U.S. government travel warning, offers good value for those who still want to go.

Ocean-view rooms aboard Carnival's Splendor for a seven-day Mexican Riviera trip in December, departing from Los Angeles, were selling recently for $655, or $93.50 per person, per day, including taxes.

"The lines have been continually cutting cruises to Mexico," said Hotwire's Bason.

Disney Cruise Lines will sail between Los Angeles and Mexico for the last time this year. Prices are averaging $115 per night plus taxes for spring and fall sailings, according to Hotwire's data.

You'll find last-minute deals on cruise-line websites and sites such as Hotwire, Expedia, Travelzoo and www.travelthemesanddreams.com. A new site, www.cruisewise.com, gathers cruises by date, departure port and destination and lists prices for comparison shopping.

But unless you're a veteran cruiser, it's wise to work through a travel agent who can walk you through all the details.

Know your rights

The Costa Concordia shipwreck, which left 32 people killed or missing when the cruise liner hit a reef near an Italian island Jan. 13, focused attention on cruise-ship safety and passenger rights.

"There's a lot of legalities. People should be aware of those and be aware of the fine print," says AAA's Anciaux.

Most passengers are unaware, for instance, that their ticket is their contract, and when paying for a cruise, they automatically "sign" away many rights even though they don't actually sign anything.

One of the most important is that passengers forfeit the right to compensation if the cruise line changes the itinerary or drops a port of call.

Carnival's contract (Carnival also owns Princess and Seattle-based Seabourn and Holland America cruise lines) gives the lines the right to use for marketing purposes any personal information you may have provided as well as videos or photos of you taken aboard ship "without any limitations whatsoever."

Best advice: Take time to read the guest-ticket contract posted on your cruise line's website, or ask your travel agent to go over it with you. And wear a modest bathing suit.

Safety

The Cruise Lines International Association, a trade group representing 25 major lines, has come up with a new emergency-drill policy as a result of the Concordia disaster.

Passengers can expect to get instruction before sailing, rather than within the first 24 hours. Hundreds who boarded the Costa Concordia near Rome did not get the instruction before the ship hit the reef about three hours later.

Arabella Bowen, executive editorial director for Fodor's Travel, recommends asking in advance for a copy of the ship's emergency plan, the results and date of the last safety inspection and where your cabin is located on emergency-evacuation routes.

Check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sanitation-inspection reports of ships that call in the U.S. at www.cdc.gov/nceh/vsp/.

Shore excursions

Cruise lines urge passengers to sign up for expensive shore excursions in advance. Before you do, consider putting together a do-it-yourself tour.

"If you want to see Pompeii or the Amalfi Coast, it would probably make sense to take the excursion," says independent travel expert and public-television host Rick Steves. "But if you want to have an adventure in a beautiful city, I would encourage you to just go on your own."

Steves' new "Mediterranean Cruise Ports" book is a how-to hand-holder for cruise passengers who want to explore cities such as Barcelona, Venice or Naples.

In Naples, for instance, he tells you which way you'll be facing when you walk out of the cruise-ship terminal and how to use public transportation to reach the main sights, how to take a walking tour or find cheap pizza.

Travel insurance

Buy it from a third-party, not the cruise line itself since those policies won't cover you if the line suddenly goes out of business.

Basic policies cover lost valuables, vacation interruptions or cancellations for reasons such as illness or death of a family member.

"Cancel for any reason" coverage covers circumstances outside the normal coverage (such as fear of traveling due to a virus outbreak or a Concordia-type incident), but it's expensive and may only provide a 60 to 75 percent refund. Only a few in Washington are authorized to sell it. Compare policies at www.insuremytrip.com. or www.quotewright.com

Carol Pucci:

cpucci@ seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @carolpucci.

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About Travel Wise

Travel Wise is aimed at helping people travel smart, especially independent travelers seeking good value. Drawing on her own experiences and readers', Carol Pucci covers everything from the best resources to how to tap into the local culture. Her column runs each Sunday in the Travel section.

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