There are ways to keep costs down when hitting the high seas. By Lisa Gerstner, Contributing Editor and Susannah Snider, Staff Writer From Kiplinger's Personal Finance, February 2014 After a series of high-profile disasters that forced cruises to discount fares, prices are headed up. You can still expect to score a lot of value for your dollar if you book early. Cruises are throwing in freebies, such as gratuities, drink cards and hotel stays, says Carolyn Spencer Brown, of CruiseCritic.com. Some luxury ships add free Internet access.See Also: Choose the Right Cruise for You 1. Plan ahead. Want to book a cruise this spring? You may already be too late. By the end of March, cruise lines will have sold 75% of their available cabins for the year, predicts Stewart Chiron, of CruiseGuy.com. Do your homework (vacation studying is fun!) and you’ll get first dibs on cabins, extra amenities and more cruise for your cash. On the flip side, last-minute fares are often the cheapest deals, but you’ll be stuck with the leftovers. 2. Know your seasons. Most vacation destinations have peak and off seasons. The same rule applies to cruises. If you travel during shoulder season, you’ll get big discounts. Sail the Caribbean between September and early January (excluding holidays), European rivers from October to December, and Hawaii between September and mid December. The possibility of less-than-ideal weather is balanced by smaller crowds and cheaper fares. Or go when school is in session to pay less and avoid other people’s kids. 3. Don’t dismiss luxury. You may be tempted to write off luxury lines, such as Crystal, Silversea and Regent Seven Seas, as too pricey. But with alcohol, gratuities and dining in specialty restaurants often included in the purchase price, they can rival the bargain brands. Regent makes a case for its luxury ships with its value comparison table. Or head to independenttraveler.com/travel-budget-calculator to input anticipated expenses. 4. Call an agent. In today’s do-it-yourself travel marketplace, you might think booking a cruise is as straightforward as renting a car. Wrong. You want an insider advocate to plan and book for you. A good agent can land you freebies and the best cabin, as well as offer expertise in whatever kind of cruise you’re taking. At www.cruisecompete.com, cruise agents vie to find you the best deal. Or search on www.travelsense.org/agents. 5. Consider insurance. Cruising is a big investment, and coverage can protect you if lost luggage, a sprained ankle or a canceled flight derails your cruising plans. Book through a third party, such as Travel Guard). One place where it makes sense to bite the bullet on insurance: the Caribbean during hurricane season (June 1 through November 30). A storm probably won’t endanger your vessel (ships can sail around them), but it could leave you stranded in a hotel or at an airport. The cost of insurance typically varies based on the cruiser’s age, destination and insurer. On Travel Guard, we found a $100 policy to cover a $1,500 cruise fare.