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Cruise Bargains: Save on Air to Europe and Hawaii

Oahu, Hawaii

Global political unrest is making it more daunting to plan a European or Mediterranean cruise. Most of the more exotic port calls -- the ruins of Carthage in Tunisia and the pyramids in Egypt, for example -- have been cancelled for the rest of 2011 and replaced with safer destinations.

Understandably, sales of European cruises are soft as people wait to see what happens next, causing prices to drop a little. But waiting much longer to book your European getaway can be risky as summer flights to Europe should be booked as early as possible to secure the lowest fares.

Round-trip June flights between New York and Rome currently range between $1,150 to $1,400 per person. Prices go higher as flights sell out, and the spike in oil prices is likely to bring additional fuel surcharges as well. 

When the price of oil reaches $100 a barrel (which it briefly topped on Feb.23), airlines and cruise lines have less wiggle room. Fuel is one of their biggest expenses, and as their supplies dwindle they will be forced to raise rates to make up the difference. 

So here is an “outside the box” solution: Right now you can book a transatlantic crossing on Celebrity Solstice for as little as $699 per person. The 13-day crossing leaves Fort Lauderdale on May 1 and stops in the Azores, followed by Lisbon, and then continues on to Seville, Malaga and finally, Barcelona.

An even better transatlantic option is the newer sister ship to Solstice, Celebrity Equinox, which leaves Fort Lauderdale on May 2 with stops in the Azores; Cartagena and Barcelona; the French city of Provence; Florence; and finally Rome. This cruise starts at $799, with balcony staterooms available for just $1,199 per person. You get a one-way crossing of the Atlantic and a European cruise for less than round-trip airfare from JFK to Rome.

The West Coast Version

Unfortunately, West Coast cruise options are more limited if you don’t want to fly. Most cruises from California go to Mexico, while cruises from Seattle head to Alaska. There would be more West coast cruises except for a pair of arcane federal laws that limit the cruise lines’ options.

The Passenger Vessel Services Act (1886) and the Jones Act (1920) together limit “foreign” cruise ships from sailing from one U.S. destination to another without a stop in a foreign port along the way. These destination restrictions even prohibit cruises from the U.S. mainland to Hawaii.

A “foreign” cruise ship is defined as one not built or registered in the U.S., and one that hires non-U.S.crew members. Unfortunately, these laws affect most major cruise lines including Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess, Holland America and Celebrity, for example. All of the lines are technically “foreign carriers.”

There is just one ship that is an exception, and if you want to fly to Hawaii and spend seven days cruising among the Hawaiian Islands, this is your only choice: the NCL cruise ship “Pride of America.”

The seven-day Hawaii cruise on Pride of America departs Honolulu at 7:00 p.m. and arrives at Kahului, Maui, at 8:00 a.m. It stays in Maui for days two and three. On day four, cruisers enjoy  Hilo and day five is spent on Kona, both on the Big Island. Travelers arrive at Kauai on day six,  stay overnight, and leave at 2:00 p.m. the next day to sail along the beautiful Napali coast line at sunset.

A flight to Los Angeles to Honolulu currently costs about $510 per person. The seven-day cruise on Pride of America is about $1,049 per person in an oceanview stateroom or $1,449 in a balcony cabin. You should arrive a few days early to see Honolulu before you sail away, and if you arrive on Friday you can stay at the Sheraton for about $127 per night. Total cost for two people including flights, hotel and balcony stateroom is $4,250 plus various taxes, fees, transfers, etc.

If you don’t want to fly to Hawaii, there is a 17-day cruise on the Holland America Zaandam leaving Vancouver, B.C. (Canada –fulfilling the foreign port requirement) on Sept. 25, 2011. It spends five full days at sea before arriving at Hilo on day six. It stays in Honolulu for two days, followed by a day each in Kauai, Maui and Kona. Five more days at sea brings you to San Diego. The cost is $1,999 per person in an oceanview cabin, or $3,999 per person in a verandah stateroom.

A cruise on Holland America’s Oosterdam is similar, but starts in San Diego with a stop in Ensenada Mexico to fulfill the foreign port requirement. The cruise runs 14-days with eight days at sea and only four days in Hawaii.

Bottom line – your choice will depend on how much free time you have to cross large bodies of water in a cruise ship. Flying is faster, but cruising is cheaper.

Paul Motter is the editor of CruiseMates.com, an online cruise guide. Follow him on Twitter @cruisemates.