Q. The newspaper travel sections are full of what look like fantastic cruise deals, especially to Alaska and the Caribbean. How do I pick out a true bargain among all of them?
A. You're not alone in noting those deals - more than 8 million Americans took a cruise last year and analysts project future sizable growth as friendlier prices and extensive marketing diversify the industry beyond its traditional base.
A week (or longer) floating around the Caribbean this winter can be had for under $500 - provided you remember a few important points about such prices.
For one thing, you're not going to have a balcony, luxury suite or probably even a glimpse of the sea from your berth. The bargain-basement prices are typically for rooms without a view, generally on the largest lines for destinations with the most year-round capacity, the Caribbean and Bahamas.
Once aboard, the cruise line will try to chip away at your bargain with a broad array of revenue-boosting enticements - endless photo opportunities, casinos, art auctions, steep soft drink and alcohol prices, "alternative dining" at specialty restaurants and shore excursions that average $35 to $150 per person.
"And don't forget the 'drink-of-the-day,' where you get to take home the cocktail glass for $8.95, not including the 15 percent tip," quipped Sharon Dodd, editor of CruiseCritic.com, a New Jersey-based advertiser-supported site that reviews ships and reports on industry news.
Government fees and port charges also can add a hefty chunk to the total - some itineraries sport port charges well above $100, said Janet Lanterman, president of Cruise Specialists Inc., a Seattle travel agency.
Tours and other shore excursions - horseback riding on the Mexican Riviera, for example - also add to your final tally.
Cruise ship employees make most of their income from tips, which average $70 to $75 per person per week, counting the room steward, dining staff and bartenders. Some cruise lines automatically include tips on your bill.
All of these costs, however, don't negate the current discounts. Prices have never been lower, and most experts don't expect the super deals to become permanent.
The bargains have been produced by a glut of behemoth new ships combined with a weak economy and terror fears depressing travel since even before the 2001 attacks.
There is also a certain "lure" factor at work in some cruise pricing. Research has shown the cruise companies that once you go, you're likely to return - 80 percent of us who do it once take a second cruise.
Forecasts show the heavy stream of new mega-ships slowing in the next two years, and any recovery in the U.S. economy will bring prices up, experts say.
However, with some planning and fiscal discipline, you can minimize the extra spending on your cruise. There is plenty to do that's already included in your fare - see a musical show, check out the ship's library or even watch the sunset.
Limit your alcohol consumption, avoid pricey Internet browsing, skip the casino, have a massage when you get home.
Optional activities are just that, and no crew member is going to twist your arm, noted Jennifer De la Cruz, a spokeswoman for Carnival Cruise Lines, a subsidiary of Miami-based Carnival Corp., the world's largest cruise company.
So if the prices have you itching to take to the seas, do some research, query a travel agent, consider the full costs and then decide whether a cruise fits your budget.
"It's like going to Nordstrom and getting your favorite leather jacket at 70 percent off," Lanterman said. "There are prices of $299, $399 for seven days. If you can get one of those, grab it - because you will never see it again."