The best way to find a cruise bargain is the same way you should shop for everything: Be a careful consumer and don't grab for the first price tag you see.
But with cruises, you can also get expert help cheaply: a travel agent.
Those who want to do the research and even make their own reservations, should understand that it takes time to be thorough. Among the decisions that need to be made: cabin type (balcony, just a window, no window); position on the ship (high or low deck; bow, middle or stern; near elevators and stairs; close to restaurants, casino and public areas); sailing dates; and day-by-day itineraries.
And it will help if you know something of the cruise line's personality — mass market carrying 3,000-plus passengers per ship; catering to an older or younger clientele; reserved and elegant versus carefree and livelier.
That's more information to digest than you're going to find in any newspaper, magazine or TV ad. But those ads can be a starting point, because they typically are bought by travel agencies, many of which only sell cruises. And travel agents are paid to know what they are going to sell you. The best have cruised regularly and can offer comparisons as well as detailed brochure knowledge.
"People who come to us want consultation," explains Robin Smith of Caladesi Travel. "Internet sites are okay to a point."
All cruise lines have Web sites, but you will be reviewing only one brand at a time, with no objective comparison. Some travel agencies are only online, and these can be major players, having contracts with the various lines to automatically reserve large numbers of cabins on the most-popular itineraries. You benefit from their volume purchasing, resulting in cheaper fares and onboard perks.
But brick-and-mortar agencies can also have "preferred provider" deals with specific lines: The agencies promote these ships and can pass along special discounts or onboard benefits the cruise line has provided as a quid pro quo. In addition to discounts, agencies can give cabin upgrades, excursion discounts or shipboard credits to gain customer loyalty.
The newest player is the online comparison site. Just like Travelocity, Orbitz, Expedia and Kayak, which search for the cheapest airfares, hotel rooms and cruises, these sites include www.cruisecompete.com (at which hundreds of agencies will offer their rates for given sailings) and www.cruiseonly.com.
Also check the well-regarded www.cruisecritic.com, filled with articles on ships, lists of hot deals (this site does not sell trips, however) and busy bulletin boards, with posts from the most-frequent of cruisers.
Both these types of sites, as well as the cruise lines' own sites, offer to send free e-mail bulletins, which are worth receiving if you want to keep busy booking your trips.
Beyond the busy first quarter of the year — the "wave" period, in industry lingo — good deals are typically available within 90 days of departure, other than for popular winter holiday sailings. But when I checked the availability of a same-week discounted departure on the Norwegian site, I was told the site was updated hourly, as long as cabins were available.