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How To Turn A Deal Into A Dream Trip

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Sometimes a "deal" is no deal at all. But sometimes it's just a few tweaks away from the trip of a lifetime. This is the story of how I turned a low-budget Caribbean cruise -- on a crowded megaship with a run-of-the-mill ­itinerary -- into my family's best vacation in years.

I needed a sunny, affordable getaway for my kids' February break. So, when an e-mail from Continental Airlines touting, "Escape at Sea from $45/night" popped into my in-box, I clicked. For one low price I could get a floating hotel room, three meals a day, child care and places to explore. There was a Western Caribbean sailing that fit my dates, on the cruise line that has my kids' favorite children's program and on a ship with balconied "mini-suites." But could I be happy on the Norwegian Star -- an older vessel that doesn't rank among Condé Nast Traveler readers' top 100 cruise ships? And was I willing to risk booking through a call center like Continental.com Cruises -- now renamed United ­Cruises -- even if it promised "EXCLUSIVE prices -- often HUNDREDS lower than competitors' "?

The quoted $45 per night turned out to be the price per person for the least expensive room on the least expensive cruise. The sailing and the mini-suite I wanted was $117 per person per night -- still not bad for an itinerary that hit three countries, a balcony with an ever-changing ocean view and seven date nights with my husband. I would also get 6,000 United miles and $100 in shipboard credit. I put down a deposit.

Transforming this "deal" into the trip of a lifetime ­required minimizing the drawbacks of a huge ship (and of booking through a call center) while maximizing the benefits of a vacation at sea. Here's what I did -- and what I learned:

Sign up for alerts, but book through an expert.
Continental.com Cruises' promise of the best price did not pan out, and the 6,000 miles were hardly worth the bad service and billing mistakes I had to endure to get them. Had I booked through a true cruise expert and advocate -- someone like Tom Baker, president of the Cruise Center in Houston -- I would have avoided a $25 booking fee, saved $87 on travel insurance, received an extra $100 in ­shipboard credit and my ­deposit would have been ­refundable. More cruise ­experts like Baker can be found in The Top Travel Specialists Collection.

Book far enough ahead to score the right cabin.
On the largest ships, where it can take 15 minutes to walk from bow to stern, cabin location is critical. So is a balcony -- a convenient outdoor slice of serenity. Because I had booked five months ahead, I was able to snag a balconied room with a 30-second commute to the kids' club, the kids' pool and the kids' buffet. A ship is a lot more pleasant when you can take the stairs everywhere and never have to wait for an elevator.

Buy plane tickets yourself rather than through the cruise line.
If you're booking a cruise many months in advance that departs from a U.S. port, wait to purchase your airline tickets. They typically don't go on sale until four months before a flight, at the earliest. I saved hundreds of dollars by waiting till two months before the cruise to buy our plane tickets to Tampa, the embarkation port -- I had set up airfare alerts on FareCompare.com and Yapta.com, which notified me when fares dropped. Passengers on our cruise -- and on most cruises I've taken -- who bought their airline tickets through the cruise line complained about inconvenient schedules, while I got the nonstops I wanted. To ensure that a canceled flight doesn't cause you to miss your sailing, fly to your embarkation port early.

Start your cruise relaxed.
Because flying in a day ahead and dealing with the considerable logistics of getting from airport to hotel to ship can leave you frazzled, consider flying in three days ahead, so you can decompress before your cruise starts. Arriving in Tampa three days before our sailing made all the difference to my husband's and my mental states during the cruise.

Escape the crowds.
The first line a cruisegoer encounters is at check-in. By arriving after lunch, we dodged it and the dreaded embarkation-day buffet line. Rather than waiting for our luggage to be delivered, we packed our swimsuits in our carry-ons so the kids could immediately jump in the pool. On board there was always a restaurant with no line, and there was always free room service.

Turn an ordinary ­itinerary into a remarkable one.
The only port I could get excited about was the one I'd never been to: Roatán, Honduras. The other three were Belize City, a pit; overbuilt Cozumel; and ­Costa Maya, Mexico, a tourist complex in the middle of nowhere constructed for cruise passengers. What these places have that's remarkable, though, is their undersea life. My mission: to get my family underwater to see things they couldn't experience elsewhere.

Research shore activities in advance.
On a conventional Caribbean cruise, if you wait till you're in port to plan your day or if you succumb to the group shore excursions that the cruise lines try to sell you, you'll have a tough time ­escaping the tourist traps. I got a sense of our options by looking at the excursions described by Norwegian Cruise Line, local tour agencies and CruiseCritic.com.

Do something you've never done before.
We managed to try -- and master -- a new activity in every port. This was invigorating, made our trip memorable and left us with a sense of accomplishment. In Roatán we tried snuba, a sport halfway between snorkeling and scuba. In Belize we snorkeled with stingrays and sharks, while in Costa Maya the kids drove golf carts down empty coastal roads. And in Cozumel, Tim, my husband, went scuba diving in a cenote for the first time.

Balance family time, couple time, and alone time.
In each port we did a morning activity as a family -- usually one that involved exploring the ocean floor. In the afternoons Tim got a break to scuba dive on his own. Back on board he would take the kids to the pool so I could have alone time, then at night the kids' club took over so that Tim and I could enjoy civilized dinners and moonlit strolls.

Splurge on an unforgettable trip highlight.
We saved hundreds of dollars by booking activities independently: In Roatán Tim paid $50 for his dive -- as opposed to the $119 that the cruise line was charging. In Cozumel snuba for four and a dive for one cost us $234, versus $335 via the cruise line. In Costa Maya our two-hour golf cart rental -- which the cruise line didn't even offer -- was $30.

Thus, in ­Belize I felt I had license to splurge so we could explore the world-famous Ambergris Caye reef -- Tim diving, the kids and me snorkeling. No company was offering such a shore excursion, and there was no way to get from Belize City to Ambergris Caye and back by boat with the limited shore time.

Continental.com Cruises was useless, so I e-mailed Meg Austin of the Travel Society, who specializes in dive trips. She organized one of the best excursions ever: In Belize City we were driven to a private plane for the scenic flight to Ambergris Caye. There we were delivered to our private boat, with a dive master and snorkel guide. First, we went to Shark Ray Alley, then the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. Next, we sailed to the Matachica ­Resort and Spa, where we ate lunch, luxuriated in hammocks, and fantasized about coming back as overnight guests. The resort's boat then sped us to our plane, and we were back on board with time to spare. The day cost $1,140 and was worth every penny.

End your trip having ­mastered a challenge.
Each family member came home with a sense of achievement. Tim dived five times -- quite an accomplishment for a family trip -- and encountered not only his first cenote but also his first sea horse. My kids turned their underwater photos and ­stories into a PowerPoint presentation for their classmates. And as for me, I had orchestrated my family's ultimate vacation.

--Wendy Perrin, Condé Nast Traveler

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This article originally appeared on Condé Nast Traveler: How to Turn a Cruise Deal Into a Dream Trip