Not long after the Costa Concordia fiasco, a Carnival cruise ship became disabled in the Gulf of Mexico and had to be towed to shore. But when it comes to cruise safety, don't get too worked up. Cruise disasters grab headlines but are relatively rare. If you're still nervous, avoid the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico and consider a close-to-shore river or Alaskan cruise instead.
-- Defy hurricane season. June 1 to November 30 is hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean, and that's when cruise lines offer the most enticing deals. Cruises are rarely canceled, because ships can circumvent storms with creative rerouting or a few days' delay. But delays that force you to shell out for extra hotel nights or itinerary changes that make your cruise unrecognizable from the one you booked aren't reimbursed by the cruise company, so cover your bases by booking travel insurance through a third-party provider, such as Travel Guard. (If your cruise is canceled, you'll receive a refund or credit toward a future cruise.)
-- Use an agent. A good cruise agent can land you solid deals, cabin upgrades and other extras. Find one through a cruise line's website or at http://www.cruisecompete.com, where more than 300 agencies vie for your business. Agents typically receive a commission from the cruise line, so it's in their best interest if you book a cruise bundle that includes airfare and hotel. Think twice -- and research flights and hotels on your own -- before purchasing one.
-- For all-inclusive, go luxury. Cruise lines are starting to nickel-and-dime passengers. Expect to pay an extra $25 to $35 for the fanciest onboard restaurants and to pony up for other extras. Luxury liners tend to include amenities, such as shore excursions and gratuities, in their prices. A luxury line might even cover airfare -- often a good deal if you're considering a Mediterranean cruise. Plus, you'll typically have the run of a smaller ship, with a roomier cabin and more one-on-one service.
-- Avoid last-minute bookings. Impulse cruise bookings may seem wise when dreary weather has you craving sunny beaches and poolside cocktails. But with eleventh-hour bookings, you could find yourself squeezed into an uncomfortable cabin or on a ship where all the shore excursions are booked up. That said, veteran cruisers who know the ins and outs of the cruise line reservation process may want to take advantage of aggressive discounts on last-minute bookings.
Check out Cruise Critic's "Hurricane Zone," which provides storm updates and links to hurricane-season deals (http://www.cruisecritic.com/news/hurricane.cfm).
(Susannah Snider is a staff writer at Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. Send your questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. And for more on this and similar money topics, visit http://www.Kiplinger.com.)Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun