If you have always dreamed of vacationing on the open seas but been afraid of the cost, you may want to rethink those preconceptions. If you plan ahead and make the right decisions, a cruise vacation can actually be a better value than a traditional trip at home or abroad.

The key is to shop around carefully. As with any vacation, you can spend as much or as little as you want. Learning about the cruise industry before you start shopping is the best way to make sure you are getting great value for your vacation dollars.

1. Know When to Go

Knowing when to go is half the battle when it comes to cruising. Just like vacation resorts, cruise destinations have their high and low seasons. Booking your trip during the off season can come with some unpleasant surprises, from bad weather to closed attractions. A better bet is to book your trip for the shoulder season. This is when the discounts are great and the destinations you choose are likely to be warm and welcoming.

If you have always dreamed of a Caribbean cruise vacation, aim for the shoulder season of September through early January. This is a great time to enjoy the beauty and warmth of the Caribbean for a much lower cost.

If the rivers and ports of Europe have been calling, look at booking at trip from October through December. If Hawaii is your dream destination, try booking your trip from the beginning of September through the middle of December. You can escape the cold of winter, soak up the beauty of the beach and save money at the same time.

2. Plan Ahead

While there are some great last minute bargains out there from time to time, you will generally save the most money by planning ahead as far as possible. If you are thinking about a cruise sometime next summer, it is not too early to start shopping around and looking for a great cabin.

Shopping far in advance gives you a number of important benefits. For one thing, it allows you to compare cruise lines and look at what is and is not included in the price of the cabin. In addition, that early planning makes it easy to compare prices, research destinations and choose the cruise that best meets your needs.

3. Do Not Assume an All-Inclusive is Out of Reach

Many first-time cruisers, and some experienced ones, simply assume that a trip on one of those all-inclusive luxury cruise lines is out of their price range. That is not always the case, so it pays to include those luxury brands on your shopping list.

Those all-inclusive cruise vacations can make sense, especially if you would rack up a lot of extra charges on a standard cruise trip. You may know that discount cruise lines charge extra for alcoholic beverages, but many charge for soft drinks as well. Other charges, from reservation fees for the best onboard restaurants to tickets to the hottest shows and shore excursions, can really add up on a discount cruise line. You may find that booking an all-inclusive cruise vacation can actually save you money.

4. Consider Your Insurance Options

Travel insurance is often a bad investment, but it can be a smart idea if you are booking an expensive cruise. So many things can go wrong when planning a cruise, from an ill-timed illness or injury to a cancelled flight or lost luggage. Travel insurance protects you from those eventualities and gives you real peace of mind.

If you do decide to buy travel insurance, be sure to read the fine print carefully. You will need to clearly understand what is and is not covered by the policy. Knowing what the various policies cover is also the best way to get the most protection at the lowest price.

5. Work with an Agent

This is the age of do-it-yourself travel planning, but going it alone is not always the best — or the wisest — choice. Putting together the perfect cruise is a complicated matter, and it helps to have a professional in your corner.

An experienced travel agent will be able to recommend the best cruise lines based on your individual tastes. Even more importantly, that experienced cruise planner will be able to tell you which lines to avoid. If you have always dreamed of a relaxing vacation at sea with your spouse, the last thing you want is to be trapped in a floating city with a bunch of screaming kids. A travel agent can steer you in the right direction and help you avoid those situations.

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