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Ask the Editor: Choosing and Booking a Cruise

How far out should you wait for last-minute deals?

Is booking early the way to go?

How can we find the right theme cruise?

Are certain lines geared toward certain age groups?

Are certain cruises better for disabled persons?

We would like to try booking a cruise at the last minute to get a better price. My question is how long before a November or December cruise does one wait to get the best price? We're retired and flexible.

The era in which you could simply show up at the cruise pier on the day of departure and haggle for a cabin is pretty much over, alas (in North America, cruise lines must provide full passenger manifests to the government no later than 48 hours before sailing).

These days, the best time to find a last-minute deal is generally within 60 days of the cruise's departure date -- because that is when final payment is due and the cruise line can see just how many cabins remain empty. November and early December are the low season for Caribbean cruises, so you can often find availability and low rates with just a month to go. Because there aren't as many 10- to 14-night cruises as seven-night cruises, my guess is you'll find better deals on the shorter sailings, but prices should certainly be reasonable all around.

My recommendation: Come up with a price range you think represents a good deal and start checking rates every few days, starting 60 days out. You may also want to observe prices for October cruises just to see when the prices drop or when availability disappears, to give you a better idea of how November might play out. I'd say if you see something great between 60 and 30 days out, book it, but you have time to be choosy. At the one month mark, you may want to reevaluate your price range based on the past month's prices. Don't forget -- if you have to fly to your departure port, you may want to book slightly earlier so you have time to find decent airfare for your trip.

Be sure to check our Deals page frequently, as we often post both early booking discounts and last-minute deals. Also, you may want to read our article on last-minute cruising for additional tips.

I have booked a Carnival cruise to the Eastern Caribbean for a March sail date -- about nine months away. Do you think better deals will come out between now and then, or was I right to book early?

In your case, since the cruise takes place during high season in the Caribbean, you were smart to book early. Many schools and colleges have their spring breaks in March, so it's typically a crowded time in warm-weather vacation spots -- and cruises, hotels and airlines book up early. As well, if you are particular about your cabin type, room location and dining time, you don't want to take a chance on waiting at this time of year. You might get a low price at a later date, but for a less desirable stateroom.

If you're not so choosy, it can't hurt to keep an eye out for a better deal. Definitely hang on to your cabin until you have to cough up the final payment, though, so you don't get stuck with no cruise at all. But if I were you, I'd probably lock this one in.

For future reference, the best times to take a chance in the Caribbean -- to get the best possible value, which is a balance of cheap fares and good accommodations, without booking so far ahead -- is to cruise during prime hurricane season (mid-August to mid-November) and during the slow weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

A general rule of thumb for any destination is to book early for peak season itineraries and take a chance on shoulder season departures. Don't know when those sailing seasons start and end? Check out At Your Service: Best Time to Cruise.

We've heard so much about theme cruises, and it sounds like a great way to tailor a vacation to our interests. How can we find a cruise with a theme that's right for us?

Theme cruises are becoming more and more popular, and so there are many ways to find information about specific themed sailings.

If you've got a specific theme in mind, you might want to start by checking the Web sites and newsletters of organizations, bands or other groups you like to see if they're chartering a ship or participating in a theme cruise. You'd be surprised how many disparate groups jump on the cruising bandwagon -- for example, a singer-songwriter duo I like promoted their music cruise during a show at a folksy venue.

Or, if you've got a favorite cruise line, look on its Web site for cruise line-sponsored theme sailings. Crystal, MSC Cruises and Fred. Olsen are some of the lines that organize their own themed voyages and list them on the Web. You'll find everything from dance and healthy living to sports, food and music cruises -- often with celebrity guests.

Still can't find what you're looking for? Try Theme Cruise Finder, a Web site that lets you search for theme cruises by topic of interest. You can also search by keyword under Advanced Search, which means you can sort theme cruises by line or date. (For example, select "Dance" from the theme drop-down menu, and then type in "Carnival" or "April" to further refine your search.) You can also browse sailings by topic in the Ad section.

This site can also be useful for travelers looking to avoid large groups on their cruises. If you're interested in taking a voyage, but don't want half of your fellow passengers to be sci-fi fans, political or religious devotees or exuberant crafters, go to Advanced Search and type in the name of the cruise ship and the month of travel (or other identifying details). If there are any organized groups on that sailing who publicly promote their onboard gathering, you may just find them listed on Theme Cruise Finder. While this isn't a foolproof way of avoiding all groups -- such as private company retreats or business meetings -- it can help you identify certain large-scale events on your intended sail date.

I booked an Eastern Caribbean cruise on the Caribbean Princess. My friends say I made a mistake, that Princess is for old people and I should have booked on Carnival instead. Is it true that certain lines are geared toward certain ages?

To a certain extent different cruise lines target specific demographic segments of the population. The best known example of that attribution, arguably, is Holland America, which had -- and in some areas, still has -- a reputation for catering to older clientele. Consider this joke that's been around for years: Holland America passengers are so old the first cruise they took was on Noah's Ark! Really, this only applies to those people's parents.

There are some lines that cater to a limited slice of the demographic pie, but by and large these are smaller, more upscale or "niche" products. And while it is true that certain lines are better for some ages and lifestyle preferences than others, in truth, as ships' capacities swell, most large cruise lines find it necessary to widen the demographic window and attract passengers outside their original marketing niche. Likewise, destinations that were once associated with certain age groups now attract a broad spectrum of ages. Nowadays you are as likely to meet families as retirees on an Alaskan cruise.

There is, however, one rule of thumb that is still fairly valid. Generally speaking, the longer the cruise and the higher the fare, the older the passengers.

I would really like to go on a cruise, but I suffer from a disability that causes significant mobility issues. I have my better days, where I can go for a decent stretch with a walker, but more than often the wheelchair is my necessary mode of transport. Are there certain lines or itineraries that are better suited to persons with disabilities?

For any given cruise line, the answer may vary depending on destination and the actual abilities of the cruise passenger.

The first thing to look for is an itinerary without many tender ports. Tender ports -- such as Grand Cayman, Portofino, Cabo San Lucas, Sitka, to name a few -- don't have docks, so ships can't pull alongside. Instead, passengers are ferried to shore in smaller boats (usually those that also serve as lifeboats), and in many cases these are not terribly safe for wheelchair users or others with mobility issues.

Holland America is one cruise line that does offer a wheelchair-accessible tender system.

In port, there are many sightseeing tours that use motorcoaches to transport passengers. However, most of these have fairly steep steps -- and no wheelchair lifts. The buses can often store collapsible wheelchairs, but they are just not necessarily equipped with ramps or lifts. In many cases, this is something that's beyond cruise lines' control, though some do make more of an effort to work with tour companies that can provide lifts; Crystal Cruises, for one, arranges lifts whenever possible, but they're not always available.

Princess Cruises is another; its Alaska cruisetours, for instance, feature accessible railcars and hotels, and it does use an accessible trolley for a St. Thomas tour. But such features are not offered in every port.

I'd recommend taking a look at Cruise Critic's "Disabled Cruise Travel" message board. You can read through past threads that mention resources for various destinations for travelers with disabilities (this one is particularly useful) and ask questions of the other cruisers who have experience with the accessibility of the various ports and cruise lines. The posters often mention independent tour providers that are friendly to travelers with disabilities -- from what I've read, it's often better to arrange your own tours than rely on the cruise lines to give an accurate depiction as to how accessible the ship-sponsored tours are.

Ultimately, disabled travelers can enjoy most any cruise destination -- it just might take a little more advance planning.

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