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Senior discounts: More than meets your wallet

My sixtysomething friend Emily from Boca Raton would rather roam the remotest regions of Alaska on a run-down 12-passenger schooner than soak in a sauna on some luxury liner in the Caribbean.

So much for the notion that seniors are a sedentary lot or lack an itch for adventure.

Of course, not every senior is like Emily. In fact, seniors who cruise reflect as much variety in their preferences for their seagoing vacations as do passengers of any age. And if there's a bottom line when choosing a cruise, it isn't necessarily the literal, economic one. Picking the right cruise for you also means "know thyself."

"The most important decision in choosing a cruise is selecting a cruise line that matches your personal tastes and preferences," said Jennifer de la Cruz of Carnival Cruise Lines.

Ignore this credo and you could wind up as mismatched with a ship as you can with your tablemates; and even the deepest discount would end up buying you a disappointing cruise.

Of course, any cruise, by definition, offers a degree of universality: accommodations, meals, entertainment and destinations all rolled into one, a concept one cruise director summed up as "You just unpack and we move the scenery."

But your tastes might run to formal versus casual, big ship versus small or great food and service versus a great bargain. Because ships have different "personalities," be sure to use a knowledgeable travel agent who can help find the cruise best-suited for you, as well as the best bargains.

Several major cruise lines discount specifically for seniors: among them, Royal Caribbean International, Holland America and Carnival, a third of whose passengers, you may be surprised to learn, are older than 50.

In fact, Carnival (800 327-9501) recently expanded its senior discount program for members of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). AARP members can save $200 per state room on Carnival cruises of 10 days or longer, including trips to Alaska, Hawaii, the southern Caribbean, Mexican Riviera and the Panama Canal.

Carnival's senior discounts also lop $100 off seven-day cruises to the Caribbean and Mexican Riviera and $50 off three- and four-day sailings to the Bahamas and Baja Mexico. These offers also can be combined with Carnival's early booking discounts.

To get these discounts, AARP members need only present their membership card to any travel agent. Some restrictions apply.

Carnival's sister line, Holland America (800 426-0327), offers similar AARP-member discounts: $100 off on cruises of seven days or longer, including Alaska cruise/tours that combine cruise and land packages. HAL's Noordam sails every Saturday from Tampa on Western Caribbean itineraries to Guatemala, Cozumel and Grand Cayman.

Royal Caribbean's (800 327-6700) senior discounts, while not available across the board, still can be substantial. For example, the Nordic Empress' Jan. 19, four-night cruise from San Juan, normally $649, is $458 for seniors. And Sovereign of the Seas' three-night Bahamas sailings, from October through mid-November, normally $499 cruise only, are $299, including port charges.

This time of year also offers particularly good discounts for seniors, said RCI's Gloria Jacaruso. Sailings between the holidays traditionally do not sell out and can deliver deals: RCI's seven-night Caribbean sailings on Rhapsody from San Juan, normally $1,199, are only $799, for departures on Nov. 29 and Dec. 6.

Other lines offering senior fares on selected sailings include Costa (800 327-2537) and Premier (800 327-7113). Premier recently merged a disparate fleet of vessels under one banner, including those of Dolphin, Seawind and the Rotterdam V (renamed the Rembrandt). This line discounts for seniors throughout the year, with blackout dates only during holidays.

Because seniors represent an important slice of the cruise pie _ about 15 percent, according to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) _ senior-specific deals on far-flung destinations are rare. Even European river boats do not discount to seniors. However, KD River Cruises of Europe (800 346-6525), which sails on the Rhine, the Danube and the Elbe, shaves 25 percent off regular fares for passengers celebrating "special" anniversaries. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that such milestone anniversaries as ruby, golden and diamond pretty much make you a senior.

Want something even more adventurous? Bergenline's Norwegian Coastal Voyages (800 323-7436) offer discounts to passengers age 67 and older. Don't ask why that age in particular, but savings on 12-day, 1,250-mile journeys along Norway's spectacular west coast can be as much as $220. These vessels double as cargo ships and call at 34 ports.

Aside from senior-specific savings, savvy cruisers can eke out economic bonuses in other ways:

As most ships sail from Florida to the Caribbean in winter, Florida residents can take advantage of residents-only discounts. These can slash as much as 50 percent off regular published fares and are available on Celebrity Cruises, Holland America and Royal Caribbean.

If you're considering cruising with your grandchildren, many lines offer discounts in the form of third- and fourth-passenger fares free, when booked in the same cabin with two full-fare adults; among them, are World Explorer Cruises (800 854-3835) in Alaska and American Hawaii (800 765-7000).

Twice each year, usually in October and April, virtually every ship switches from sailing in one part of the world and heads for cruising grounds in another. These long, exotic sailings _ called "repositionings" _ are among cruising's most cherished open secrets. Often unadvertised, these sailings can be as much as 50 percent reduced.

Some cruise travel agencies independently sweeten the pie for seniors: Worldwide Cruises (800 882-9000) in Fort Lauderdale has "Club 55," offering seniors a $50 per cabin discount on cruises of seven days or longer anywhere in the world.

Noah preferred his passengers to bound up the gangway two-by-two; and so, too, it seems, do cruise lines, with fares always quoted "double occupancy." Most lines levy hefty supplements for passengers sailing solo. But let's face it: It's not uncommon for seniors to be single. Clipper Cruise Line (800 325-0010), a small niche adventure line with onboard naturalists and historians, offers a guaranteed share for single cruisers. If you agree to share your cabin with a compatible traveler but the line can't find you one, Clipper still will guarantee you the double occupancy rate. Other lines offering guaranteed single rates include Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Norwegian Cruise Line.

If you've never cruised, the task of choosing the right ship or getting the best deal can seem daunting. Perhaps these free resources can help: The Cruise Line Inc. (800 777-0707), a Miami-based cruise-only agency, publishes "Seniors' Guide to Cruising," a booklet that includes 15 money-saving tips. And CLIA publishes a 22-page brochure that answers the most commonly asked questions about cruising (send a 52-cent stamped, self-addressed envelope to CLIA, 500 Fifth Ave., Suite 1407, New York, NY 10110.

Finally, keep this tip in mind: Booking last minute no longer yields the best prices. Always book early for the best discounts and the cabin of your choice, particularly if easy access to, say, elevators or to public rooms is important to you. Also be sure to ask your travel agent about that less-tangible bonus, a cabin upgrade.

_ Arline Bleecker is a freelance travel writer who lives in New Jersey.