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Costs of cruises are sinking fast

The published prices of most cruises are higher this year than last, but competition for passengers remains fierce, resulting in widespread discounting. Last year there was an oversupply of berths: 26.6-million to meet a demand of only 16,695,000 passengers.

A recent issue of Cruise Travel magazine contained at least 30 advertisements by travel agencies offering discounts ranging from 10 percent to 60 percent.

A bit of skepticism is needed, though. The ads may be correct up to a point; one or two cabins on a ship might be half price, but what the average passenger ends up with is likely to be different.

One of the most widely used approaches is the offer of savings for early reservation and early payment.

Premier Cruise Lines, for example, offers free hotel rooms in the Disney World complex for passengers who reserve combined cruises and Disney World packages six months in advance.

Another example: Orient-Express Hotels offers up to a 13-percent saving in May, June and July on cabins aboard seven-night Orient-Express Mediterranean cruises when cabins are paid for three months in advance.DL:

Companies such as Carnival and

Norwegian Cruise Line sometimes offer as much as a 50-percent reduction, especially in slack fall periods.

Group discounts are another method.

Members of Club Perillo, Perillo Tours, 577 Chestnut Ridge Road, Woodcliff Lake, N.J. 07675; telephone (201) 307-1234; (800) 431-1515, for example, get a 20 percent discount off published rates on seven-night Costa Riviera cruises in the eastern and western Caribbean, and gratuities are included along with port taxes, wine with dinner and a cocktail party.

Each group is accompanied by a host. There is no membership fee.

Even bigger discounts might be obtained from agencies that buy blocks of cabins far in advance and offer the cabins at group rates.

One agent is South Florida Cruises, 3561 NW 53rd Court, Fort Lauderdale 33309; telephone (305) 739-7447; (800) 327-7447. According to Jim Bone, president, the company has placed 25,000 clients, saving them from $300 to $1,500 a cabin off published rates for seven-night cruises. No fee is charged.

Another agency, Cruises of Distinction, 460 Bloomfield Ave., Montclair, N.J. 07042; (201) 744-1331; (800) 634-3445 outside New Jersey, issues a quarterly catalog of discounted cruises.

There is no fee for being placed on the mailing list, but frequent updates can be obtained by subscribing to the company's Instant Notice Service, which costs $39. That fee is applied to the fare of a cruise booked through the company.

Spur of the Moment Cruises, 10780 Jefferson Blvd., Culver City, Calif. 90230; (213) 839-2418, (800) 343-1991 also serves as a clearinghouse for unsold cabins.

The owner, Duke Butler, said he buys space from the cruise lines and offers it to the public at discounts that might range from 25 percent to 65 percent. Anyone can call the agency to be placed on the mailing list at no charge.

Recorded information is offered on a 24-hour line (213) 838-9329. Butler said he had a seven-night Caribbean cruise coming up for $899 a person in double occupancy including round-trip air fare from the West Coast to Miami and an 11-night Mediterranean cruise at $1,599 a person including round-trip air fare from New York.

Senior citizen discounts are sometimes offered. Dirigo Cruises, 39 Waterside Lane, Clinton, Conn. 06413; (203) 669-7068; (800) 845-5520 deducts $100 from its $595 six-night cruises out of St. Thomas and along the New England coast for those ages 65 and older.

There is another technique for obtaining a substantial discount: dockside negotiation. For those who have a highly flexible schedule, it could prove rewarding.

Spokesmen for some companies confirm that if travelers appear shortly before sailing time and tell the embarkation supervisor that they are prepared to pay a considerably lower fare than that printed in the brochure for whatever space remains unfilled, they likely will be taken up on the offer.

After all, once the ship sails, unfilled cabins are no longer a source of revenue.

But price is not everything.

When travelers invest $1,000 or more in a vacation, the enjoyment of the trip can mean more than saving a few dollars. That's where a cruise consultant or a travel agency that specializes in cruises may be more helpful than a hot line listing.

A few years ago the term "cruise consultant" was virtually unknown.

One of the first was Landry & Kling, 1390 S Dixie Highway, Suite 1207, Coral Gables 33148; (305) 661-1880; (800) 431-4007, which started in New York in 1982. The concept: Match the client to the ship.

To do that the consultant asks questions about the passenger's likes and dislikes, the number of people traveling together, their desires for cabin configuration, shipboard activities and land excursions.

Like all travel agents, cruise consultants receive a commission from the cruise lines when they sell a ticket to a client; they do not charge their customers directly unless they provide some unusual service such as sending a cable to confirm space.

If you don't know a consultant, try the National Association of Cruise Only Agents.

Founded in 1985, the association will mail a list of some of its almost 800 member agents in up to three states to anyone who sends a self-addressed stamped envelope. The request, specifying the states for which information is wanted, should be mailed to P.

O. Box 7209, Freeport, N.Y. 11520.

A few tips on choosing an agent: Ask about filling out a client profile (if the agent doesn't use one, be skeptical of the amount of help you are likely to get); ask how much cruise experience the agent has had; pay attention to how fast the agent calls you back (if you don't get a speedy response, the agency is probably too busy to give individual service or is not well-organized), and ask for an evaluation of different cruise lines (which should give you an idea of the agent's criteria).

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