CRUISE fares have fallen so sharply in recent months that travelers waiting for their ship to come in may find that it's just on the horizon and sailing toward them at full speed.

"There are some fantastic deals out there," said Emerson Hankamer, president of discount agency Vacations to Go. "They're the lowest prices I've ever seen."

Many cruise experts agree that 2007 is shaping up as a banner year for budget travelers, with some trips costing as little as $55 to $70 a day — a surprisingly low figure given that cruises include a cabin, meals, entertainment and other amenities.

But you have to choose the right itinerary. And you won't find it in Europe. "If you can still find a cabin for a Mediterranean cruise this summer, you're lucky," said Jamie Hoff of Montrose Travel. "Especially Italy. Italy is hot, hot, hot."

Nor will you find it on cruises to exotic destinations. "South America, Asia, other unusual itineraries — they're all booking way in advance," said Filomena Andre of Signature Travel Network.

You will find it in the Caribbean and, to a lesser extent, in the Pacific. The jury's still out on how expensive Alaska will be this year.

But the big loss leader for the industry is the Caribbean, and that means deals abound. Carnival Cruise Lines has already had two one-day sales featuring Caribbean voyages. Among the bargains: a four-day cruise for $299, including a shipboard credit of $50.

Royal Caribbean is also slashing prices, especially on shorter Caribbean cruises. "There are some hot deals available," said Harrison Liu, manager of communications. "The company is looking to ensure that the beginning of the fall season will be strong."

It's not clear why the Caribbean has lost favor with the public. Some say cruisers, who often get their sea legs in the Caribbean, are tired of the destinations. Others say the large ships that sail there have overtaxed the ports, making those destinations less desirable.

A third theory blames the hurricanes of 2005; a fourth pins the problem on the new passport regulations, which have confused travelers. (U.S. travelers by ship don't need a passport until 2008, although visitors who fly into the same regions must carry a passport.)

Another blames economics.

"There are so many ships in the Caribbean that cruises there are mass-marketed to people with family incomes of $50,000 to $75,000 annually," said Michael Driscoll, editor of the industry newsletter Cruise Week. "These people have been affected by rising gas prices and problems with the housing market."

The biggest bargains are on low-end cruises, but luxury lines also have done some discounting this year, said Andre of Signature Travel Network. "Silver Sea had up to 50% off on some sailings, Regent Seven Seas offered free air or $1,000 off, Crystal had 10% savings on a variety of cruises, and Holland America had a three-day sale," she said.

Most cruise experts say Alaska, like Europe, is strong this year. But Vacations to Go's Hankamer doesn't think so. His agency features cruises that will get underway within 90 days. The reason? "Ninety days out is when cruise lines drop their prices to fill their ships," he says. And Alaska cruises are just beginning to appear on that radar: "I think we'll see more — and I think they'll be very good deals."


rosemary.mcclure@latimes.com



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