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IT ISN’T HARD TO FIND DISCOUNTED FARES

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Pssst. Want a cheap cruise?

The number of discounters is growing almost as fast as the number of mega-ships, and with cruise lines trumpeting frequent sales of their own to fill all these floating resorts, it's hard to know the true bargains from the bluster.Price comparisons can be difficult because each ship is different - at least in small ways. But sometimes the differences lie in the ways they are described by each cruise line. The bottom line you should be looking for is this: the cost per day after you factor in all amenities, shore excursions and transportation to and from the departure port.

Here are a few key tips to help ensure you get the best value for your cruise dollar:

- Don't be taken in by offers that sound better than they are. Two-for-one deals, for example, are among the most commonly advertised cruise bargains. But you need to compare the base prices for various ships offering similar itineraries and facilities to see if you've found a true value. In one day's paper recently, I found seven-night Caribbean cruises advertised at anywhere from $325 to $749. Differences ranged from cabin location to activities aboard. Also, one cruise line may have decided to target first-time cruisers by featuring its rock-bottom price - which may be for a windowless cell above the engine room. Another line may have been trying to capture the fancy of the splurge set by promoting a terraced outside cabin - which, naturally, is more expensive.

- When comparing ships, ask about activities ashore as well as aboard. Land packages usually cost extra - even more if they're bought through the cruise line than if you just walk into the local tour office at each port. But when you book through the line you're paying for the convenience of being picked up at the ship and returned there. How much is that worth to you? It may depend on both your budget and the destination. In Aruba, for example, cruise ships dock right in the middle of town so it's quick and easy to find an island tour on your own. In Jamaica, though, ships dock a lengthy cab ride from the resort area of Montego Bay.

- Get a rate quote on cruises both with and without airfare, then look for ways to get to the departure city more cheaply yourself. Frequent-flier freebies are one obvious alternative. But if you don't want to use up your hard-earned mileage on a flight to a Florida cruise port, look for a fare sale. It may take several stabs - and some flexibility - to match the dates of your voyage. But the prices are almost always better than the "low air add-ons" advertised with cruises - especially to major departure ports such as Miami, Los Angeles and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Again, though, you're paying the cruise line a little more to guarantee convenient connections. When a flight you booked yourself gets delayed and you miss the boat, you're on shaky ground if you seek a refund. But if you were stuck on a charter flight loaded with cruise passengers, chances are the ship will wait for you.