Read fine print when cruising for bargains

April 21, 1996|By Barbara Shea | Barbara Shea,NEWSDAY

Many cruise ships now wrap up their winter/spring itineraries in the Caribbean and then immediately beat it over to the Aegean and Mediterranean to offer summer voyages in the Greek islands.

Americans tend to know what they'll find when island-hopping in the Caribbean (notably palm-shaded beaches and duty-free shopping), but they're not sure what to expect on a cruise abroad. This uncertainty makes them more susceptible to a brochure's purple prose and more likely to say, "Let's go for it," without shopping for the best deal.

The first shopping tip is to make sure you're not comparing apples and kumquats. Two cruise lines, for example, may offer a "seven-day cruise program," but that may or may not mean you'll spend almost the entire week at sea. Some companies start the clock the minute you step aboard the plane in New York.

Check plane flights

You should determine whether the flight is even included in the cruise price -- perhaps along with a hotel room for the night of your arrival. Some lines schedule passengers' arrivals a day early, in case there's a flight delay that could cause someone to miss the boat. One brochure I looked at ambiguously noted in asterisked fine print, "Hotel may be post-cruise on some itineraries."

Asterisks invariably are expensive as well as elusive. It took me two run-throughs of one cruise line's eight-page brochure before I found the explanatory note for the starred "from only $1,995" on the cover. The note was masquerading as the tiny caption of an eight-tiered deck plan. As well as mentioning the usual caveats (subject to availability, based on double occupancy), it noted "port charges and other tariffs are $295 per person additional." That's pretty hefty. The note also said that full payment was required 90 days before departure -- a frequent barrier to discounted fares that you discover too late.

If diet matters a lot to you, make sure you know your options. Europeans have been slower to give up rich sauces, and so might a ship that's based there.

When comparing shore excursions, look for each day's schedule. Some travelers want a maximum of unescorted "at leisure" hours; others prefer to be accompanied by a group every minute.

If anything seems vague, ask for a clarification -- in advance and in writing.

Pub Date: 4/21/96

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