We've got six clever ways to save hundreds of dollars on cruises. How about a 14-day cruise for a mere $800?

TRAVELERS LOOKING for a bargain can do no better than a cruise. Most land resorts can't even begin to compete. This helps explain why cruising is more popular than ever with a record-breaking 10.6 million people expected to find their sea legs this year, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. That's an 11% increase from 2003's stellar year.

To find the absolute best deals, however, you need nothing less than a pirate's cunning. Here are some tips on how to secure a first-class voyage at a stowaway's price.

1. Book Early
As cruising has increased in popularity — many peak-season voyages now quickly sell out — the strategies for cutting costs have changed. Just two or three years ago the best deals were often found at the last minute as operators scrambled to fill cabins at a time when consumers were reluctant to travel. Today, cruise lines offer some of their best discounts, including free airfare and two-for-one tickets, more than a year before scheduled departures, says Anne Banas, executive editor for SmarterLiving.com.

What happens if your particular cruise doesn't sell out and the operator starts offering discounts to last-minute travelers? Chances are those deals are reserved for the inside state rooms that are placed in inconvenient and noisy locations. That's not most folk's idea of a vacation. But if low cost is your main objective, you may be able to get a refund for the difference between your rate and the new one, says cruise broker Stewart Chiron, a.k.a. "the Cruise Guy." As a general rule, cruise operators will honor the latest pricing before you make your final payment some 90 days before departure. After that, a good travel agent should still be able to swing you a free room upgrade or shipboard credits, says Chiron.

2. Perfect Timing
The experts agree: The best time of year to find a cheap cruise is during the fall. As soon as the kids go back to school, the cruise lines start offering all sorts of incentives to fill their cabins, ranging from free room upgrades and discounted air fares to bargain-basement rates. How much can you save? A 10-night cruise through the Mediterranean can easily run $2,000 during the summer, says Jason Sheets, a cruise expert with Travelocity.com. In October, expect to pay half that, he says.

If you can't get away in autumn, consider booking your passage during what the industry calls the "shoulder season". That's the first and last few weeks of a boat's run in a certain location. For an Alaskan cruise, for example, you can find some great deals during early May and late September. And while it might be a chilly in the spring, you just may see more wildlife, says Travelocity.com's Sheets.

3. Repositioning Cruises
The cruise industry is not one to waste an opportunity to fill their cabins — even when ships migrate between their winter and summer home ports. That's why cruise lines offer terrific deals to entice people to hop aboard these so-called repositioning cruises. What kind of vacation can you expect? Consider this: a 14-night Celebrity Cruises transatlantic voyage from Civitavecchia, Italy, to Galveston, Texas, for only $800. Or, a seven night Princess cruise from New York to San Juan for only $479. Both set sail in October, so don't forget to pack a sweater.

4. Cruise Consolidators
When it comes to cruising, those mom and pop travel agents just can't compete with the large consolidators. "Cruise lines will tell you everyone is on the same playing field," says Chiron. "They are not." Large agencies have special relationships with the cruise operators and can, for example, negotiate lower bulk rates that they then pass along to the consumer. They are also able to score free room upgrades and shipboard credits. Best of all, as rates rise for coveted trips, a high-volume broker may still have cheap rooms left that he bought as part of a block of cabins earlier in the season.

5. Let Them Come to You
It used to be difficult to know if you were getting a good deal on a cruise. While sites like Travelocity.com and Expedia.com have made the process of shopping around easier, there's always the possibility that a large consolidator could beat any published rate. But what are you going to do? Call every agency in the country?

Now there's a solution: CruiseCompete.com allows you to reach over 100 large agencies and simultaneously request a quote for a particular cruise. All you have to do is send out an email with the name of the cruise line and ship, date of departure and destination, and then ask the brokers to beat the most competitive price you found. If any of them have something better, they'll email you a response.

Most travelers receive five or six quotes, says Bob Levinstein, CruiseCompete.com's chief executive. The best part is that this is a free service and there's no obligation to book your trip with one of these brokers.

6. Additional Discounts
Lots of other discounts are available, of course. Here are some of the most common:

If you're looking for free room upgrades or to save up to a few hundred dollars off your trip, look for past guest and state-resident specials. These pop up most often in places like Florida, where there are many ships departing, or in cities, like New York, where the cruise line prepurchases airline tickets in bulk to help transport folks to their ship, says Chiron, the Cruise Guy.

Yet another way to score an ocean view or balcony room for an inside cabin price is to qualify for a group rate. So if you can round up enough friends and family to fill eight cabins you and your guests can save hundreds of dollars.

Finally, consider how you'll spend your vacation dollars once you hop aboard, says Mark Kammerer, a cruise expert at Expedia.com. Buying an unlimited soda pass for the kiddies can save you money. And if you plan on indulging in some spa amenities, consider booking your rub down while the ship is in port. The spas offer cheaper massages when people typically aren't banging down their doors.