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IT'S TIME TO BOOK

Value-conscious cruise passengers look beyond the Caribbean to destinations in Europe, Asia and South America.

Holiday glitter is but a memory, and for some travelers that can mean only one thing: It's time to choose this year's cruise. Or maybe past time if you want the best deals.

These days, half of cruise passengers book their voyages more than seven months ahead, according to a new report from Cruise Lines International Association. And you won't believe where they're going in this contrarian year: Asia and South America, the Mediterranean and riverboats in Europe.

Those are hot destinations as the annual "wave season," peak time for cruise bookings, gets under way, say travel agents and other experts. Ships, too, are shaping up in new ways, with spa suites, adult-only zones and more dining alternatives than you can shake a fork at. Here's what's happening:

Popular destinations

The Caribbean still sees more cruise passengers than anywhere else, but the Mediterranean is the fastest-growing destination, say the cruise lines association and others.

So far, the Mediterranean is the fourth-most-booked itinerary for 2008, just behind the Mexican Riviera, according to agents surveyed by Cruise Holidays, a Minneapolis-based network of more than 100 cruise retailers. The Caribbean is No. 1, and Alaska No. 2.

Overall, the survey found, the network's agents last year took 42 percent more bookings for Europe than in the previous year.

"People are looking for strategies to maximize the value of the dollar against a tough euro," said Steve Loucks, spokesman for Carlson Wagonlit Travel Associates, an international network of travel agencies.

Cruising can be cheaper than seeing Europe on your own, because you pay most costs up front in dollars. Instead of visiting one or two cities, you can sample several, such as Rome; Barcelona, Spain; and Dubrovnik, Croatia - which is "just taking off," Loucks said.

River cruising is another popular European option. Kathy Gerhardt, spokeswoman for Cruise Holidays, said some river departures were nearly sold out.

The dipping U.S. dollar also is sending more cruisers and ships to South America, where the greenback buys more. This year, Carnival Cruise Lines is going there for the first time, and Holland America and Princess Cruises have added sailings.

"At least 1 in 10 phone calls is about South America," said Donna Ratte, owner of Cruise Holidays of Palm Springs, Calif.

Ratte's customers especially like Ecuador's Galapagos Islands, but much of South America's appeal is variety, from the Andes to the jumping-off point for Antarctica.

Both ships at Crystal Cruises, a small luxury line, will visit Asia in 2008, reflecting surging interest in China, host of this year's Summer Olympics; India; and newly chic Dubai, said spokeswoman Julie Dibble.

Closer to home, if you're thinking about Alaska, act now, said Mike Driscoll, editor of "Cruise Week," an industry newsletter in Brookfield, Ill. Alaska capacity is limited, and group bookings, a bellwether of demand, have been strong, he said.

Deals to be found

Caribbean cruises are still relative bargains, but the free fall in fares is over. You may even pay a bit more this summer.

"The biggest change we're seeing in 2008 is, for the first time, there are fewer cabins in the Caribbean," as lines shift ships to Europe and other regions they hope are more lucrative, Driscoll said. With supply down, some prices have edged up.

Overall, several experts said, it's too early to predict where fares are headed, because the big booking season has just begun. The cruise lines association expects traffic to grow more slowly in 2008 but still be up 1.6 percent from 2007.

The uncertain U.S. economic outlook is a wild card. Already, though, you can count on paying fuel surcharges of $5 and up per person per day on many ships because of soaring oil costs.

Cruise lines still give deals on early bookings. Crystal Cruises, for one, recently was offering half off on some Asia cruises. On other lines, seven-night European cruises in late fall can cost as little as $699 per person, double occupancy, said Laura Christian, manager of cruise marketing and merchandising for Travelocity.com.

Season's deck scene

Think sophisticated. Suites and staterooms on two new ships this year, CarnivalSplendor and CelebritySolstice, will cater to spa enthusiasts with special access and priority appointments. Carnival is phasing in "Serenity" areas on aft decks as adult-only retreats. Almost everywhere, you'll find more restaurant choices.

Debuts, departures

Among ships making their first voyages this year, besides Carnival Splendor and Celebrity Solstice, will be Holland America's Eurodam, Princess Cruises' Ruby Princess, Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas and MSC's Fantasia and Poesia. Two boutique lines will make debuts: Jewel River Cruises (sailing in France) and Pearl Seas Cruises (Canada and the Great Lakes).

Cunard's Queen Elizabeth 2 will sail off into the sunset - actually to Dubai, as a floating hotel - and so, too, may Majestic America's Delta Queen, unless the U.S. Congress extends a safety waiver for the historic riverboat.

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