Deep Discounts on the High Seas
IF you’ve ever considered taking a cruise vacation, now may be the time to try it out. Practically all cruise lines are offering significant discounts to just about anywhere they sail.
Holland America Line is running a vacation stimulus plan with rates as low as $499 a person for 7-day Alaska cruises, $549 for 7-day Caribbean sailings and $999 for 12-day Europe and Panama Canal voyages. MSC Cruises, which already allows children ages 17 and under to sail free, has savings of up to 50 percent for baby boomers at least 50 years old and seniors on Caribbean sailings with rates from $499 a person for seven nights, and 60 percent off European cruises for seniors. And Norwegian Cruise Line has just introduced rates for kids, or any third guest or more sharing a cabin, as low as $99, down from $499 normally, and will offer up to $250 in on-board credit good toward shore excursions, specialty dinners, spa treatments or other extras on bookings made by March 15.
On top of all these discounts, cruise lines have largely done away with fuel surcharges, and many lines from Azamara to Windstar Cruises have reduced booking deposits by half.
It’s all an effort to fill berths as travelers cut back. The Carnival Corporation, the largest cruise company — comprising Carnival Cruise Lines, Holland America, Princess Cruises, Yachts of Seabourn, Costa Cruises, Cunard and others — reported in December that advance bookings for 2009 cruises were running behind last year’s level, with ticket prices also lower.
The company’s Carnival brand recently introduced an early saver program to encourage travelers to book at least three months in advance for short voyages and five months for longer trips. If a lower rate advertised by Carnival becomes available for the same itinerary after the booking is made, travelers can request the difference in the form of a shipboard credit.
Some of the best offers are coming from the luxury lines, said Bob Miller, co-owner of Cruise Holidays in Alexandria, Va. For example, he said, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, which is is including airfare, shore excursions and free sailing for children on many summer Europe cruises, “becomes a feasible alternative for many families who might otherwise sail a mass market cruise line.” A seven-night cruise departing on July 10 from Monte Carlo to Athens, for instance, begins at $5,280 a person for an ocean view suite, including all taxes, airfare and shore excursions.
Crystal Cruises, another upscale line, has a save-now-save-later promotion that offers 20 percent off a 2010 cruise to travelers who book a 2009 cruise by March 31. It’s also offering cut rates on select European cruises of anywhere from $750 to $1,500 a person depending on the room category. Cunard is offering trans-Atlantic crossings on the Queen Mary 2 starting at $795 a person, down from $999 last year, as well as upgrades to its top-level accommodation — a Queens Grill suite — for the price of a Princess Grill suite when traveling on a six-day crossing. Prices for the upgrade offer start at $3,545 a person based on double occupancy.
And Oceania Cruises, another upscale line, has cut prices on more than a dozen European itineraries by $1,000 a person. Rates on these cruises, including airfare, begin at $1,299 a person, not including tax, for departures on Nov. 15. But it’s also possible to get a deal in peak season. A popular 12-day Rome-to-Athens cruise departing on Aug. 16, with airfare and all taxes included, begins at $3,305 a person — down from $4,305.
It’s too early to tell if the reduced rates are working, but cruise lines are optimistic.
“The industry is still poised to do very well,” said Richard E. Sasso, the president of MSC Cruises USA and chairman of the Cruise Lines International Association Marketing Committee. Passenger growth has been relatively steady, even amid past economic challenges, with an average growth rate of 7.4 percent from 1980 to 2007.
In 2008, the association’s cruise lines achieved 104 percent occupancy levels, with some cabins able to accommodate multiple guests, and hosted an estimated 13.2 million cruisers worldwide, up from 12.56 million in 2007. The association is projecting 13.5 million passengers for 2009. “We’re not recession proof, but we’re certainly recession resistant,” Mr. Sasso said.
Part of the reason the cruise lines expect to do well in tough economic times is their value message. Because your lodging is also your transportation, a cruise can cost less than touring by land. Cruise lines are also quick to point out the all-inclusive nature of the trip, with one price covering accommodations, entertainment and food in the main restaurant.
But when searching for deals, keep in mind that the lowest price often means the worst rooms on the ship — often without any windows — and anything beyond the basics, like spa treatments, shore excursions, drinks and specialty restaurants, will cost extra.
Also, cruise message boards are abuzz over a growing trend toward charging for things that used to be included in the cruise rate. Last month, Royal Caribbean Cruises started tacking on a $4 fee for late-night room service, sparking a 31-page discussion on the message boards of CruiseCritic.com, which tracks the industry and features cruise reviews. More recently, the cruise line said it would also be offering a $14.95 filet mignon in the main dining room where entrees are typically included in the cruise fare.
“The dining room is sacred,” said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of CruiseCritic. “We had 100,000 page views in a week on that. That tells you it’s crazy.” Besides, she added, referring to the $4 surcharge for room service, “this isn’t really the time to start charging for things like that.”
In a statement about the new charge, Royal Caribbean pointed out that the steak, normally offered only in the Chops Grille, a specialty restaurant on 10 of its ships for which there is a $25-a-person service charge, “has not replaced any menu items” or “cut anything out of the dinner menu.”
For travelers looking to work out a budget, CruiseCritic’s sister site, IndependentTraveler.com, offers a calculator with a list of all the costs you’re likely to face on a cruise (www.independenttraveler.com/travel-budget-calculator)