When the big cruise ships move to new, seasonal destinations, they're taking along increasing numbers of passengers who want to see more of the sea and less on their bills. They're called repositioning cruises...

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Taking a repositioning cruise is like hitching a ride on a nautical moving van.

With a few notable exceptions, most cruises don’t really go anywhere. They start at a port, bop around the sea for a set number of days, make a few port calls, then return from whence they came. And repeat the same itinerary for months at a time.

The repositioning cruise is a throwback to an earlier time, when sailings actually went somewhere. Many cruise lines operate their ships on split-year schedules: summers in Alaska or the Mediterranean, winters in Mexico and the Caribbean.

Repositioning cruises are moving days for the ships and crews. Each autumn, when the air turns cold in Alaska, the squadrons of cruise ships migrate south like pods of steel whales. In the spring, the course is reversed.

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Most months Cunard Line’s new Queen Mary 2 will have the once-bustling North Atlantic run to itself. But in May and October, it’s joined by dozens of ships — from sleek, tall-masted Windstar schooners to the gigantic liners of Holland America — making the move between Europe and North America.

Repositioning trips can be long: two weeks and more for ships moving from Alaska to the Caribbean via the Panama Canal, a week or more to cross the Atlantic.

But on the West Coast, they can be very short — three nights from Vancouver to Los Angeles, or in the case of my cruise, two nights from the Canadian city to San Francisco.

MINDY SCHAUER / ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
A tanker accompanies the Island Princess as the San Francisco Bay Bridge comes into view at sunrise.


Repo cruises aren’t for everyone. For many cruise fans, the best parts of a trip are the port calls, for shopping and sightseeing.

The repositioning cruise has few if any stops. Long days at sea gazing at the ocean are the main draws. It’s also important to check with the cruise lines to make sure all the usual amenities of ships are open during a repositioning. On the shorter West Coast jaunts, there’s usually little if any difference. But some ships making the longer voyage across the Atlantic will shut down some operations while sailing with reduced crews.

Because they require travel between two points and usually include few if any ports of call, repositioning cruises are heavily discounted by cruise lines happy to have some warm bodies at the slot machines while they move ships from one city to another.

Discounts of up to 50 percent or more are common, and it’s also a good chance to get single-occupancy accommodations without having to pay a supplement.