pig-save-money.jpg  While the economy has strengthened over the past five years, many of us are more conservative when it comes to vacation spending.  And in order to afford a vacation, it may  be tempting to pick a ship because it has the cheapest price.

What we tend to forget is that our time is the most precious commodity of all.  To spend precious vacation time on a ship where we dislike the food, service, our accommodations or fellow passenger is being penny wise and pound foolish.  In the end, it’s a huge waste of money.

For example,  I’ve seen complaints about MSC Cruises from dissatisfied passengers.  The company touts itself as a “premium” cruise line and too many travel agents parrot that description to clients attracted by low ticket prices.  Keep in mind that “premium” is strictly an advertising term first introduced by Celebrity Cruises in the mid 1990’s.

Now plenty of people enjoy MSC’s ships but chances are they weren’t over-sold a bill of goods or think the $50 per person, per day price tag translates into refined dining and great creature comforts.  The best agents will undersell a ship so high expectations don’t spoil your vacation but there aren’t enough of them to go around.

This year your vacation budget may be lower but you still want to take a cruise.  Here are my suggestions for cutting costs while still having a wonderful cruise vacation.

1)  Some cruising regions are more affordable than others. In 2011/12,  the price of a cruise will largely be affected by cruising region.  You’ll find the lowest fares on Caribbean, Bahamas and Mexico itineraries where there is an over-capacity of ships.  Add to that, there’s an oversupply of ships making three-, four- and five-day cruises; you’ll find some of your best deals here.  But last year Europe bombed so prices should be much lower this year; again, it’s over-capacity.

2)  There’s a good reason why homeland cruising continues to be popular.   With cancelled and delayed flights on the rise, not to mention high fuel surcharges, you can save an enormous amount of aggravation and money by sailing from a nearby port.  For example a million people sailed from the three ports of New York (Manhattan, Brooklyn and Bayonne, NJ) and you’ll find three cruise lines offering year-round cruises to the Caribbean.

3) The very best travel agents can frequently steer you to bargains you never knew existed and, with some cruise lines, offer you a lower price than competitors.  If you don’t have a wonderful agent, ask friends for referrals.  However you do it, find an agent who has lots of experience in the cruise industry.  It can make all the difference in getting the biggest bang for your buck.

4)  The newest vessels typically command the highest prices so opt for one that’s been around for a few years, especially if you prefer one cruise line over another.  The food, service and entertainment will be the same and, in most cases, cabin sizes don’t vary by category.  Allure/Oasis of the Seas are still getting top dollar as is NCL’s Norwegian Epic.

5)  As any cruiser knows, it’s easy to run up a hefty tab aboard ship.  Since cruise lines consider on-board spending to be their primary source of revenue,  expect to be bombarded with ads urging you to attend art auctions, purchase items in the gift shops and buy overpriced spa treatments, gamble and buy shore excursions.  Before you board the ship, decide which expenditures to eliminate and, in the case of shore excursions, research shore-side activities you plan on your own.

6) In terms of family vacations, it’s nearly impossible to top a cruise in terms of affordability.  Cruise lines don’t charge for wonderful, fully-staffed children’s programs that will keep the kids entertained throughout the day.

Do you plan on economizing on vacation plans this year?  If so, how will you cut back?