What's the attraction?
The number of destinations you might visit in one trip, a high standard of accommodation and range of entertainment on board give a cruise pulling power. However, the cost of some might put you off – take a top suite with Cunard (0843 374 2224; cunard.com) on the Queen Mary 2 for the week-long crossing from Southampton to New York and you'll be looking at £12,139 a head. But there are more affordable options.
The sinking of the Costa Concordia marked a tragic start to the year and bookings have been hit: the rate of £100 per person per night has been typical, but some cruise firms are now selling at £80 or less.
Keep your eye out for deals. Costa Cruises (0845 351 0552; sww.costacruises.co.uk) is selling the 2 May 10-night Mediterranean departure on Costa Magica, taking in Palermo, Athens, Izmir, Rhodes, Malta and Marseille, for £699 – though you need to get yourself to Livorno, where it starts and ends (It's an easy hop to nearby Pisa). Or you can get a seven-night cruise of the Norwegian fjords on the Ryndam with Holland America Line (0845 351 0557; hollandamerica.co.uk) for £498 per person, departing Dover on 30 June and calling at Eidfjord, Alesund, Geirangerfjord and Bergen. And a seven-night cruise of Venice and the Greek isles with Norwegian Cruise Line (0845 201 8900; ncl.co.uk), is £541 per person, with flights from Gatwick.
In the mainstream
Britain's big, mainstream tour operators started selling their own cruises in 1994, but now only Thomson (0871 231 3243; thomson.co.uk) caters for the middle market, on a range of mostly smaller, older ships that are well regarded by their clientele. Prices also include all tips. The company has a seven-night Moorish Delights tour on Thomson Spirit, visiting ports including Casablanca, Gibraltar and Tangier, for £550 per person with flights from Gatwick to Palma de Mallorca on 12 May and full board.
Windows of opportunity
Make the most of limited-period special offers. Royal Caribbean International (0844 493 4005; royalcaribbean.co.uk) is running a "Don't Wait – Book Now" promotion until 30 April, including deals such as a seven-night Western Mediterranean cruise on Adventure of the Seas from £599 per person, including flights. Also until 30 April, MSC Cruises (0844 561 7412; msccruises.co.uk) has a special "second passenger for £1" promotion. Deals include a Mediterranean Pearls cruise for £759 for the first passenger – or £760 for two people – which equates to just £380 per person.
Join the club
Making repeat cruises with the same operator is the key to unlocking more benefits. Most run loyalty schemes, enrolling guests to encourage them to return and amass points for rewards such as priority access to upgrades. Princess Cruises (0843 373 0333; princess.com) includes reduced deposits and extra discounts on sailings among the benefits enjoyed by its Captain's Circle members. Current best deals to which these can be applied include a 12-night Grand Mediterranean cruise, departing Venice on 11 June, from £898 per person (flights extra).
Let me entertain you
Cruise lines are offering innovative ways to pass the time between ports, often for free or a small supplement. Some offer learning programmes featuring eminent speakers. Celebrity Cruises (0844 493 2043; celebritycruises.co.uk) offers language lessons. Passengers can also enjoy fine dining for as little as £5 to £30 at restaurants run by Michelin-starred chefs, for example Nobu Matsuhisa on Crystal. A four-night trip on P&O Ventura, departing Southampton for Zeebrugge, Le Havre and St Peter Port, costs from £449, with an extra £25 to dine in The White Room by Marco Pierre White.
Who said that?
"A life on the ocean wave." – Henry Russell.
"Cruising has two pleasures. One is to go out in wider waters from a sheltered place. The other is to go into a sheltered place from wider waters." – Howard Bloomfield, author.
"It isn't that life ashore is distasteful to me. But life at sea is better." – Sir Francis Drake
Time is money
Cruise companies want their ships filled and early booking is often rewarded with the best deals. Crystal Cruises (020-7287 9040; crystalcruises.co.uk) has introduced "Book Now" fares, giving a two-month window to buy a 2012 cruise on Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity at the lowest price available at that time. Booking your next cruise while you're still aboard is another way companies try to tempt travellers. It wins an extra 5 per cent discount with Oceania Cruises (0845 505 1920; oceaniacruises.com), knocking a further £44.95 off the £899 price of its 13 August 10-day cruise from Rome to Venice.
Look who's talking
Experts and celebrities frequently give talks on cruises. Florist Paula Pryke, who counts the actress Kate Winslet as a client, will be on Crystal Serenity in July (crystalcruies.com). Jean-Michel Cousteau, oceanographer and environmentalist, will speak and join guests on dives on four sailings in the South Pacific with Paul Gauguin Cruises (020-7434 0089; pgcruises.com). The ornithologist and wildlife expert Peter Holden will be with Saga Cruises (0800 096 0079; saga.co.uk). And award-winning TV director and producer Terry Hughes will sail with Silversea Cruises (0844 251 0837; silversea.co.uk) in December.
The generation game
Attempts to woo families are being met with value-added services that go beyond kids' clubs and discounts. P&O (0845 355 4444; pocruises.co.uk) admits children on board some of its sailings and has a free nursery from 6pm to 2am for under-fives. Disney Cruise Line (0800 028 3179; disneycruise.disney.go.com) has just launched its "World Moms Panel", where mothers from around the world offer advice about family cruises, with a specific section on budgeting. It offers seven nights cruising the Caribbean, departing Port Canaveral on 21 July for £4,463 per family of four sharing.
"Consider what's going on in the rest of the world. Thanksgiving week is a really good time for Brits to travel to the Caribbean, because there's low-occupancy as Americans stay at home. And if you're trying to save money on a cruise and want to try a nicer ship than you might ordinarily afford, choose an unpopular route." Sue Bryant, UK contributing editor, Cruise Critic (cruisecritic.co.uk)