Cruise trends: discounts, new ships, shorter booking windows

It’s wave season, the time of year when travellers typically book the most cruises.

NEW YORK — It’s wave season, the time of year when travellers typically book the most cruises.

And there’s good news for cruise-loving consumers: Discounts abound, more than a dozen new ships are being introduced this year, and booking windows are shrinking, which means you don’t have to plan quite so far ahead.

As a result, some companies are seeing a surge in cruise bookings.

Princess Cruises reported its biggest booking day ever Jan. 12, with volume up 17 per cent over the best previous day. Expedia CruiseShipCenters had an 18 per cent increase in cruise sales in 2008, and bookings made this year are already ahead of last January by 14 per cent.

Consumers “cannot pass up a deal,” said Heidi Allison-Shane of CruiseCompete.com, which has also experienced an upswing in bookings since Jan. 1.

She estimated that prices for cruises are down 15 to 20 per cent.

“It is the year of the deal,” agreed Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of CruiseCritic.com.

“Companies with big resort ships to fill find that consumers are not booking as far ahead as normal,” said Douglas Ward, author of the Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships and Insight Guides’ Cruising: All Questions Answered.

“But, booking late means less choice of cabin types and location to choose from. Cruise lines, therefore, are offering greater discounts and incentives to book ahead.”

Fuel supplements, which some cruise companies added last year to their fares as the price of oil surged, have also been dropped. But at least one line added a small fee for something that used to be free. Royal Caribbean now charges $3.95 for room service orders between midnight and 5 a.m.

In a Jan. 15 report on the finances of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and Carnival Corp., Goldman Sachs analyst Steven Kent predicted that cruise prices will keep dropping, along with onboard spending.

The low prices are the result of “deteriorating” consumer demand, “massive supply” of cruises hitting the market, and cruise operators’ “desire to fill these ships at any price,” according to Kent.

Despite that gloomy assessment of the industry, the Cruise Lines International Association gave its usual rosy outlook at its annual January press conference in New York. CLIA, which represents 23 cruise lines and 97 per cent of the North American market, reported 13.2 million people taking cruises in 2008, up from 12.56 million in 2007 and 9.53 million in 2003.

Here are some other cruise trends and news:

NEW SHIPS: Part of the increase in the number of cruisers is driven by increased supply.

More ships enter the market each year and more berths get filled.

Among the new vessels getting attention this year is Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, which is scheduled to arrive in Fort Lauderdale in December. “It’s not a cruise ship, it’s a feat of engineering and creativity,” said Spencer Brown. “It’s an amazing, creative, fabulous ship that will get the lion’s share of attention in the next year.”

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