Thinking about a cruise in 2009? You might want to lock it in sooner rather than later.

Travel agents say the massive discounts cruise lines have been offering to fill ships in recent months are starting to disappear.

“Prices are noticeably lower than last year,” says Rich Tucker of “But each week the prices are going up, especially on the traditional three to seven night cruises.”

Indeed, Tucker says consumers already may have “missed the boat” if they hoped to snag the lowest rates for a seven-night cruises for 2009. Still, it remains a buyer’s market.

“Exotic (cruises), trans-Atlantics, some Alaska and a lot of cruises between 10-14 nights are still at extremely low rates,” he notes. And “overall what the consumer is paying today is about 25% less than last year, thanks in part to the removal of fuel surcharges.”

The cruise industry has resorted to steep discounts in recent months to reverse a sharp slide in bookings that began in September.

Industry watcher Stewart Chiron, president of, says the latest crop of cruise deals are similar to what was available in the fall — a little lower than normal but nothing close to what was available in the industry’s darkest days after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

Still, “multiple value add-ons make some of the deals too good to be true,” he says, adding that at times they’re quite confusing. “Current offers from multiple lines include shipboard credits, kids cruise free, free or reduced shore excursions, cabin upgrades and cruise fares with savings up to 70% off.”

Chiron says the best deals in the marketplace are for cruises in the Caribbean, Mexican Riviera and Alaska. So far, “most cruise lines haven’t made worthwhile offers on 2009 European sailings,” he notes. Deluxe and luxury lines, meanwhile, are offering some particularly good discounts.

Among Chiron’s favorite deluxe cruise deal: A 16-night trans-Atlantic voyage on Azamara Cruises’ Azamara Journey departing March 20 that is priced at $1,799 per person (down for $3,699), including round-trip airfare from select U.S. cities, prepaid gratuity and a $200 shipboard credit.

Among mass-market lines, Chiron cites seven-night Eastern and Western Caribbean voyages on the Carnival Liberty and Valor priced from $499 per person. He also notes consumers can snag cabins on the newest, most innovative Royal Caribbean and Celebrity ships in the Caribbean at great rates.

Pricing is unusually low for Alaska, says California-based Carrie Finley-Bajak, president of Cruise Holidays of Mission Viejo. She cites a seven-night Seward to Vancouver voyage on Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas, departing May 29, priced from just $499.

“For West Coast cruisers the best deals are on the newer ships serving the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Diego,” says Finley-Bajak. “The brand new Carnival Splendor is offering a seven-day Mexican Riviera cruise on June 2 for $599 plus tax for an inside cabin.”

Both Finley-Bajak and Tucker also say South America cruises are an extreme value these days as lines struggle to fill ships in the region. Tucker cites a 14-night Princess cruise around Cape Horn, departing March 16, priced from just $688 with free upgrades.

A caveat: It’s difficult to find affordable airfare to get to vessels in South America.

So is now really the time to book for 2009? Or should consumers hold out for better offers? The answer depends partly on the future of the economy. If it continues to worsen, bookings likely will slump, forcing cruise lines to slash prices even more. But there’s a risk in waiting.

“I can not predict the overall economy, but looking at cruise pricing alone, the trend is (that) pricing for cruises is headed higher,” says Tucker, who advises locking in rates now. “Rates are still close to historical lows so (you) are still getting awesome deals.”