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Top Winter Cruise Deals

Sailing the high seas—rather than hopping aboard a plane, train, or automobile—is becoming a preferred way to travel. After all, your meals, entertainment, and accommodations are all included in the initial price. But discerning cruisers also know that a watery holiday can leave a sizeable dent in your savings. And with the variety of package options available, it's hard to know if you’re getting the best bang for your buck.

To help steer you in the right direction, we sought advice from Clem Bason, president and CEO of the Hotwire Group. With his help, U.S. News Travel has compiled a list of the season's best cruise lines for your wallet and some clever tips to help you save big on your next trip.

[In Pictures: Top Winter Cruise Deals]

Norwegian Cruise Line

Unlike other cruise lines that require formal dress codes and stick to fixed meal times and assigned tables, Norwegian features a "freestyle cruising" philosophy. That means you can eat when you want, where you want, wearing whatever you want. And with an endless assortment of specialty dining options—including Asian fusion, French gourmet, and classic Italian—you certainly won't go hungry. When you're ready for some entertainment, you'll find a variety of on-board activities to occupy your time. Mingle with other passengers at a beer and wine tasting, head to the spa for a replenishing treatment, or even test your luck at the on-board casino. But the best part about cruising on Norwegian is that you know you'll be getting an excellent value. Norwegian's Best Price Guarantee ensures that if you find a lower published price, they will re-price your cruise or provide 110 percent of the difference in on-board credit.

Best deal: If you're looking to explore Europe, Hotwire.com lists a 10-night cruise, in a balcony cabin on the Norwegian Jade bound from Rome on December 12 to the Mediterranean at $749 per person, with an onboard credit of $250 if you book before October 13. That's $100 less than the price advertised for the same cruise departing on Feb. 13, 2013.

How to save: "Most people have a budget in mind, but they don't know the best time to buy and when prices drop. Find an itinerary or a particular ship that you're interested in and then start monitoring prices over time. You can literally save hundreds of dollars," says Bason.

Disney Cruise Line

Courtesy of Disney Cruise Line News [more photos]

If your dream cruise itinerary includes quality time with your kids and one-on-one time with your sweetie, Disney is your best bet. This cruise line takes pride in delivering a true Disney experience that allows all its guests to feel the magic. Colorful deck parties and Walt Disney Theatre performances appeal to the younger set, while adult-only pools and world-class spas cater to adult interests. As Bason notes, "Maybe Disney doesn't have all the bells and whistles [of other cruise lines], but I've never met a single soul that didn't have rave reviews."

Best deal: As of October 9, Hotwire.com lists seven nights in a balcony suite on a December 2 cruise from Los Angeles to Mexico at $898 per person. The same cruise was priced at $1,232 per person two weeks earlier.

How to save: "Stay in touch with a local travel agent. Stick with them […] and watch them drop the prices for you," suggests Bason.

[In Pictures: Best Affordable Caribbean Destinations]

Carnival Cruise Lines

Carnival Cruise Lines offers an extensive area of seaside entertainment. While at sea, you can party on the deck, practice your short game with a round of mini golf, or even belt out lyrics at a karaoke club. This cruise company draws a younger crowd, with lively entertainment venues and budget-friendly rates, but if you're looking for a quiet place to unwind, you'll also find plenty of tranquil bar and lounge areas.

Best deal: As of October 9, Carnival lists a seven-day cruise in a balcony suite aboard the Carnival Glory, leaving from Miami on December 8 and sailing to Cozumel, Belize, and Grand Cayman at $589 per person. That's several hundred dollars less than the same cruise departing in March and April 2013.

How to save: Bason highlights Carnival's Early Saver tool. By booking more than three months in advance, you can save up to 20 percent on your cruise cost. "They'll give you a good discount very far in advance if you make a non-refundable booking with them," he says.

Celebrity Cruises

Courtesy of Celebrity Cruises [more photos]

If you're looking for a get-away-from-it-all cruise experience, Celebrity Cruises offers the perfect setting. These massive ships feature elegant casinos, lavish spas, trendy lounges, and tranquil outdoor green spaces. While at sea, you can take ballroom dance classes and mixology workshops while your youngsters venture to game rooms and karaoke areas. Though Celebrity's on-board activities meet the needs of cruisers of all ages, its upscale reputation draws an older crowd. Don't expect to find toddlers racing around the pool deck.

Best deal: Just because you'll be living like a celebrity doesn't mean you'll be spending like one. As of October 9, Hotwire.com lists a 15-night cruise in an interior suite on the Celebrity Century—leaving San Diego on December 4 and sailing through Mexico, Costa Rica, and the Panama Canal—at $999 per person. That means you'll have an extra eight days on board for the price of most seven-day cruises departing at this time of year.

How to save: "Watch all the different cabin types. I've seen suites' and balconies' prices, especially at the last minute, drop by 50 or 60 percent," says Bason.

[In Pictures: Best Hotels on and Under the Water]

Royal Caribbean International

Courtesy of Royal Caribbean International [more photos]

The beauty of Royal Caribbean isn't just the massive size of its fleet. Apart from rolling out one-of-a-kind features—ice skating rinks, rock climbing walls, boxing rings, and lush parks, to name a few—Royal Caribbean also limits the number of passengers per voyage to maximize comfort. As Bason puts it, "They're so neat because they're massive, but they're really designed to make you feel that you're not on board with that many people." You can learn how to zipline or attend a wine-tasting by day and retreat to a glass-canopied, adults-only swimming pool in the evening. Another perk: versatile dining choices and nightlife venues.

Best deal: According to Hotwire.com, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line generally sets a high price early on. About a month or two before the sailing date, rates become significantly reduced. As of October 9, Hotwire lists a suite on the 10-night Serenade of the Seas cruise through the Mediterranean (leaving from Barcelona in November) at $1,599, down 47 percent from its usual price. (Hotwire lists a suite on the same cruise departing December 14 at $1,899 per person.)

How to save: According to Bason, "The best value maybe in travel globally is European cruising." The weather is still nice, and the prices are reasonable due to the European economy.

For the most up-to-date price drops on popular cruises, visit Hotwire.com or follow @HotwireCruise on Twitter.

[In Pictures: Top Winter Cruise Deals]

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