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10 things to know before you book a cruise

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By Brandon Ballenger/MoneyTalksNews

More than 20 million people went on cruises last year, spending an average of $1,770 per passenger per week, according to statistics from the American Association of Port Authorities. The advantages people find in this type of travel include the opportunity to explore multiple destinations without checking in and out of hotels, having amenities and entertainment all in one place, and the chance to make friends with fellow travelers. Because the price covers transportation, lodging and at least some of the food, it's not cheap, but it can be reasonable.

But before you say "anchors aweigh," it will pay to learn a little about cruising. Because while an all-inclusive bundle sounds great, you could encounter fishy pricing structures within the cruise world that you need to understand.

To find out how to best enjoy smooth sailing and good value, we checked in with Stewart Chiron. He's taken more than 100 cruises in the past 25 years and maintains CruiseGuy.com.

Click ahead for his top 10 tips.

​Research online, book through an agent

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It's always a good idea to do some comparison shopping and find interesting itineraries at decent rates -- but Chiron says book through an agent, not a website. That way, you're sure to get the most current deals, plus any insider discounts. "There may be resident discounts, military discounts, discounts based on the part of the country you live in, and last-minute deals," Chiron says. "An experienced cruise agent can get you the right trip in the right cabin at the right price."

The "experienced" part is important, Chiron says. You want someone with "real-world experience" and who's been on the specific ship you're considering, so you can ask about the quality of the food and entertainment, get an idea of what's included in the ticket price, and learn about the atmosphere -- some cruises are intimate and formal, some are more family friendly, and others are just big party boats.

​Book ASAP

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While many cruise destinations are available year-round, the best rooms aren't. The top rooms on the top ships are usually booked up to two years in advance. Booking early has other perks, too. "If the price drops before you make the final payment, you'll have the cabin at the lower price," Chiron says. "When you have this mad rush of people looking to book that last-minute space, you end up with the better cabin and you save the money."

​Join loyalty programs

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Before you book a cruise, make sure you're signed up for the line's rewards program. It's usually free, and there's no reason not to start racking up free benefits. It's not like you have to be loyal to any one cruise line either. That's just the fastest way to get perks like free gifts and food, priority reservations and service, and on-board discounts. CruiseCritic.com has a fairly complete rundown of the various cruise line loyalty programs.

​Book ship and flight separately

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This isn't always cheaper -- you should definitely compare -- but it usually costs less to pay your own way to the port of departure. This is because cruise lines have to look at air rates much further out than you do. Sometimes, though, they offer "free air" -- in other words, the airfare cost is bundled into the ticket price, and you're paying for it whether you use it or not. So when you talk to an agent, ask for a comparison of the cruise only and cruise and air rates.

"Less than 30 percent of all airline tickets are booked direct [through the cruise]," Chiron says, and going around them could save you hundreds, "especially when you're going for more exotic itineraries, like to Europe."

Self-bookings also mean you have control over the times and number of connecting flights. But on the downside, flight delays may be your problem to deal with. When the flight comes with the cruise, they make sure you get on the boat.

​Budget for extras

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"All-inclusive" is often a little misleading. The basics are covered, but if you want better dining, specialty services like massages, some forms of entertainment -- including gambling, merchandise and alcohol -- you better bring extra cash. "On the newer ships you have specialty restaurants," Chiron says. "The beauty is the sky's the limit: There's incredible options for you to customize your experience your way, which makes a whole lot of difference."

​Tip less

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Don't feel guilty about not tipping everybody who serves you. A per-day gratuity is usually built into the ticket price to cover tips. On the other hand, a lot of these guys and gals aren't paid that well, so a little extra tip might mean a big boost in the service you get. Remember you're going to be seeing these people for several days, not just for one meal or one night at a hotel. For advice on who and how to tip, ask.

​Check with the government

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There are at least two government-run websites to check when booking a cruise. One is travel.state.gov, which has the latest travel advisories about dangerous destinations and rules about visa and immunization requirements. Many countries are on good terms with the United States and are eligible for a visa waiver, but some aren't. And if you have any issues with your passport -- or don't have one -- this is your first resource. The site also has plenty of info about country-specific crime, laws, medical facilities, and other stuff travelers need to know.

The second site to check is the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which has cruise ship inspection results, tips on staying healthy, and outbreak updates. You may have heard it's common to get sick on cruises, and it's true there are a lot of people in close quarters on board. Of course, it's possible to get sick anywhere, but things like norvoviruses are often associated with cruises because health officials require the industry to make reports. "They have to report anything over 3 percent of the passenger crew count," Chiron says.

​DIY excursions

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If you're cruising for a bruising, look no further than the added expense of excursions. Guided exploration and tours in foreign countries can be a lot of fun, but it's also pricey, and the cruise lines make a lot of their profit this way. However, like airfare, you don't have to book your adventures through the cruise, and it's often cheaper not to.

"I always recommend people go on the cruise lines' websites and see what's being offered in the ports on your cruise," Chiron says. "At a lot of ports, you can do it yourself, see more, and have it be a lot less expensive. Eight people on a short excursion in Europe for $200 a person? That's $1,600 you could use to plan a very personable, private VIP tour for significantly less money that's going to be much more memorable for you and your friends."

​Look at travel insurance

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Like everything else, you could get your insurance through the cruise. But, like everything else, it's often cheaper to shop around and buy elsewhere. Especially if you're touring through a port that's risky for whatever reason -- seasonal weather, political instability, violent crime, disease -- you may want coverage for illness, cancellations or evacuations. Check out a site like InsureMyTrip.com for comparison rates.

​Check for repositioning cruises

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As we mentioned, many destinations in the Mediterranean and Caribbean are available year-round. Others aren't, and when cruise ships are switching routes, you can score big. "It's all weather-related, and some ships are offering repositioning cruises when they're going to or from Europe or to or from Alaska," Chiron says. "They have incredible itineraries that are usually combinations of three or four itineraries and cruise lines are just giving that away" at the regular rates. These route changes usually occur during or after September.

Bottom line? Cruising can be an extraordinary adventure but can come with an extraordinary price tag. Plan well, and you can sail the seas without worrying about buried treasure. And as Chiron puts it: "It's a great way to see the world because you're not packing and unpacking, not checking out of hotels, and not waiting in airports. My favorite part is you're not waking up in the same boring place every day."

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