If you're looking for a good deal on a cruise, think about the rest of this year. Even cruise line execs admit that the industry is currently doing a lot of discounting, while, at the same time, they tout efforts to "discipline" the marketplace next year. Even though those execs routinely promise to end discounting, however, their track record has been notoriously poor. Still, as with so many travel services, when you see some really great prices, buy; don't wait for even more price drops.
I don't often look to the business pages for guidance about the best deals, but Carnival's CEO's conference call for investment analysts last week provided some fascinating tidbits. He blamed competitors for "aggressive discounting" in the Caribbean this year, adding that his own company was trying to limit the bargains, even to the extent of "holding the price and giving up occupancy," anathema to many lines. But, on a more positive note, he noted that the excess capacity in that primary cruise market should ease by the end of this year and that the number of ships in the Caribbean will drop, leading to higher prices. Carnival's views are obviously important; it's the world's largest cruise line, with 11 individual brands, including Carnival, Cunard, Holland America, and Princess, that account for almost half the worldwide cruise market.
Cruise discounting takes three major forms:
-- Straight price-cutting--selling cabins for less than the list or "brochure" price. You see a lot of this, the purest form of discounting, especially with last-minute sales and promotions.
-- Cabin upgrades -- offering better cabins to buyers at the lowest prices. Keep in mind, however, that the megaships have so many cabin classes that even a "two- or three-class upgrade" may not be much of a change.
-- Onboard credit -- offering credits to be spent in shipboard shops, casinos, and food venues not included in the base rate. Credit, of course, beats an equivalent dollars-off discount, because the cost of providing whatever you use your shipboard credit on is a lot less than the cash price.
Some discounting employs two or even all three of these forms on the same promotion.
Beyond looking at the various forms of discounting, consider a few basic "rules" of cruise deals.
-- The best discounts -- along with the lowest starting prices -- are with the giant mass-market cruise lines and on the large megaships. Cruise brands with the lowest ratio of revenues to passengers include Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and MSC. Smaller "boutique" cruise lines don't typically discount as much, and even after discounts, their rates can be several times those of the mass-market lines.
-- The best discounts are also in the most popular mass-market cruising areas; the Caribbean, Mexico, and Alaska.
-- As a special case, the lowest per-day cabin prices are on transatlantic repositioning cruises, as cruise lines move their megaships from summers in Europe to winters in warm weather areas and back to Europe in the spring.
-- The fourth quarter of the year is traditionally the slowest for all U.S. and Canadian tourism to the nearby warm-water areas. This is partly due to seasonal work/school schedules and partly because that's in the hurricane season.
-- Cruise lines still sell mainly through travel agents, from online giants such as cruisesonly.com and cruise.com to mom-and-pop local agencies. AAA agencies have traditionally had some good deals. And you don't have to worry about agency fees: Cruise agencies still work on commission.
-- If you have a special requirement -- a good solo traveler rate, for example, or a family -- don't limit your search to the Internet. Instead, call or visit an agency, even an online agency, to check out your options.
-- If you're interested in cruising, visit cruisecritic.com and other online information sources.
I won't promise that discount prices will be scarce next year: The cruise industry almost always promises that "next year we'll stop discounting," and they rarely come through on that pledge. Still, prices should be good for the rest of 2014, so go for it.
(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins(at)mind.net. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through http://www.mybusinesstravel.com or http://www.amazon.com)
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