Come Sail Away

At $40 a day, cruise operators are offering some of the best vacation deals in memory.

Are you dying to get away, without breaking the bank? Consider a cruise. Thanks to some incredible offers, you can bask in the sun and breathe in the refreshing sea air for as little as $40 a day.

It's called wave season.

Every winter, cruise operators try to jumpstart their bookings by offering superb deals for travel throughout the spring season. And this year, there's more than just cheap rates in store: Cruise lines, credit-card companies, airlines and travel sites are also tempting travelers with added incentives such as cash-back offers, shipboard credits, bonus miles and discounted airfares. The deals are so enticing that even the most ardent landlubbers are finding their sea legs. But consumers need to act quickly; the deals are likely to start drying up by the end of this month.

Part of what makes cruising so darn cheap compared with typical hotels is that all meals — and there's no shortage of food — and onboard activities are included, so travelers never have to worry about footing the bill for a $25 poolside turkey club. The only time cruisers must open their wallets onboard is to buy cocktails, gambling chips or knickknacks in the gift shop.

"Cruising is inherently a good value when compared with a land-based vacation," says Vance Gulliksen, a spokesman for Carnival Cruise Lines. "Then, when you get one of these deals, it just makes the value even more so."

So what kind of deals can you find? While searching, we found a seven-night Norwegian Sea cruise through the western Caribbean for a mere $259 per person, after redeeming a $150 cash back offer. That's just $37 a day. There's even a $50 shipboard credit that should help ease anyone's bar tab. This cruise leaves from Miami.

If you live closer to the West Coast, you might consider a seven-night Royal Caribbean cruise to the Mexican Riviera for $349 per person, after $150 in cash rebates when you book your trip with a MasterCard credit card. This boat sets sail from Los Angeles and stops in Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta. If you have just a few days to spare, you could hop on an abbreviated four-night Carnival Cruise Lines trip to Ensenada for just $249.

We won't lie: You get what you pay for. For these prices, you won't live like a rock star in a penthouse suite with a balcony; it'll be more like a standard stateroom with no windows. And cruise novices should note that rooms run about 150 square feet, on average. Claustrophobes might prefer to spend up for more spacious quarters.

Fortunately, some companies are offering discounts on rooms with views. Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises, for example, are offering $200 off ocean-view staterooms. (An ocean view room typically costs $100 to $150 per person more than a standard room, while rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows and a balcony cost $200 to $275 more per person, according to Carnival Cruise Lines.)

Of course, there's the airfare to consider, too. The good news is that ships are leaving from more ports than ever, including New Orleans, Galveston and Jacksonville. So if you can't get a cheap flight to, say, Miami, you can always try another destination. Moreover, Travelocity is offering airfare deals for cruise customers. The online travel site says its flights are up to 50% cheaper than those offered through cruise companies.

If you just can't stomach the notion of a week on water, however, you'll be happy to know that some all-inclusive beachside resorts are offering deals, too. For example, land-only deals at Club Med tend to start at $100 a night, including an open bar. But you can do better if you take advantage of some last-minute specials or are flexible on destination. Club Med offers a "Wild Card" promotion for adults that cost $1,090 to $1,190 (or roughly $155 a night) for a one week all-inclusive vacation including airfare. You pick the week, and the company assigns you to one of four different villages, based on availability. Club Med is also offering a "second person stays free" at its Columbus Isle, Bahamas, resort for those traveling from New York. This offer is good for travel through March 27.

Don't dawdle on these deals — experts say they're booking up fast. If you want to get a great bargain on a springtime cruise, reserve it now.