Vacationers who hit the high seas in 2009 will find a treasure-trove of bargains - and that's not all. At least 14 new ships, including the world's biggest behemoth and two intimate luxury vessels, plus innovative facilities and more U.S. departures, are on the way.
Unlike your stock portfolio and many businesses these days, cruising is a growing enterprise. Cruise Lines International Association, the industry's largest North American organization, says its members expect to carry 13.5 million passengers this year, up from 13.2 million in 2008 and 12.6 million in 2007.
A few trends, such as more fees for onboard activities and dining, might inflict mal de mer on the budget-minded, and fans of American river cruising will mourn the decline of their small niche, but overall, there's much to anticipate in 2009. Here's a look at new and recent changes:
New pricing: : Cruise fares went into free-fall after last year's stock market meltdown, so deals abound. Berths for less than $100 per day, a benchmark for bargains, are not hard to find.
Besides fare discounts, some sailings come with free airfare, cabin upgrades, onboard credit and other money-saving extras. Many lines have relaxed deposit and cancellation rules, making it easier to obtain a refund if you decide not to go.
For the best deals, steer toward older vessels, longer itineraries and distant destinations. New ships and departures from some U.S. ports can still command top dollar, said Mike Driscoll, editor of Cruise Week, an industry newsletter based in Brookfield, Ill. "The farther away you go, the more the rates have dropped," he said.
Look out for fees. Although fuel surcharges, which many big lines imposed last year, have been tossed overboard, new charges are floating in.
"We're seeing more a la carte pricing," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of CruiseCritic, a consumer information Web site.
Royal Caribbean International this month, for instance, began charging a $3.95 cabin service fee to deliver food between midnight and 5 a.m. The line also has been testing a $14.95 surcharge for "premium" steak (in some dining rooms but, as of last week, hadn't decided whether to make it permanent, spokeswoman Tracy Quan said.
New ships: : Think big. Think small. Cruise lines are doing both this year as they put ships into service that were conceived in headier times.
The splashiest debut will be Oasis of the Seas, the world's largest cruise ship, which will sail the Caribbean out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for Royal Caribbean starting in December.
At 220,000 gross registered tons and space for a maximum of 6,296 guests, this oceangoing Hummer is about 40 percent bigger than any cruise ship afloat. Guests can stroll through tropical foliage in an open-air Central Park, view water acrobatics and diving shows in a special amphitheater, ride a carousel and zoom down a zip line, among other amusements.
For devotees of smallish luxury vessels, the big news is that luxury lines Seabourn and Silversea are adding new ships, a rare event. The 450-passenger Seabourn Odyssey and 540-passenger Silver Spirit will emphasize cabin verandas and swanky spas. The Odyssey will also host Seabourn's first world cruise, a 108-day trip departing January 2010 from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with a 42-port itinerary in 26 countries. Seabourn is offering $1,000 off early bookings on Odyssey.
Among bigger lines, notable 2009 debuts include the 3,646-passenger Carnival Dream, with the line's largest spa, water slide and children's facilities; two ships from Costa Cruises and one from MSC Cruises; and Celebrity Cruises' 2,850-passenger Equinox, sister to the Solstice, which made its debut last year and drew positive reviews for its stylish design, spa cabins, solarium and glass-blowing studio.
It might be a good time to book last year's star ships. They include Holland America's Eurodam, the first in its new Signature class, with private cabanas to rent and spa staterooms; the Carnival Splendor, with a "sky dome" over the pool; and Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas, with its surfing simulator, boxing ring and ice-skating rink.
New places: : For cruisers on a budget, there's no place like home. So let's start here.
"Home porting is a very big deal," Spencer Brown said.
Driving to your cruise instead of flying can save hundreds or thousands of dollars, plus hours of hassle. Members of Cruise Lines International Association sail from more than 30 North American ports. Many places have added departures for 2009, including Baltimore, which will add sailings to the Bahamas aboard the Carnival Pride beginning in April. The Celebrity Mercury will begin cruises to the Caribbean from Baltimore in November. And Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean will continue cruises from Baltimore this year.
Aided by home-port convenience, the Caribbean is being rediscovered, Spencer Brown and Driscoll said, and Mexico's western coast, dubbed the Mexican Riviera, is also popular. The Baltic Sea region, which Disney will cruise in summer 2010, is a hit with veterans who already have "done" Europe, and it's a good family destination, Spencer Brown said.
South America, where fares have fallen steeply, is great for bargain-hunters who can spare a couple of weeks, Driscoll said. If you have more time, check out world cruises; most still have openings, he said.
Although Driscoll has his doubts, given the Mideast's instability, Spencer Brown said she sees the region as a cutting-edge destination. Dubai, with glitzy, ambitious tourist projects, is relatively insulated from the region's troubles; Royal Caribbean will have a ship there next winter. "It's Vegas by the sea," Spencer Brown said. "People love it."
Shrinking niche: : Talk about missing the boat. If you have never set foot on the historic Delta Queen paddle-wheeler, you might not get the chance.
"River cruising in America has imploded," Spencer Brown said.
The Queen stopped sailing last year after Congress declined to renew its exemption from fire-safety laws. Its owner, Majestic America Line, which ran river cruises in the South, Midwest and Pacific Northwest, was put up for sale and stopped sailing. Citing rising costs and skimpy bookings, another company, RiverBarge Excursions, with offerings in the Midwest and South, suspended 2009 operations.
River cruising survives in several U.S. regions and Canada and, of course, it thrives abroad, notably in Europe. The U.S.-based company Tauck World Discovery, for one, has ships on European river tours with a maximum capacity of 118 guests. In April in Europe, Tauck will launch its third new riverboat in three years, the MS Swiss Jewel. Also, Amawaterways and Uniworld each will add two vessels this year to their world fleets. But rolling down the river remains a tough sell to Americans, especially younger adults.
New worries: : Hurricanes, piracy and bankruptcies. OK, bad weather isn't a new threat, and unlike a hotel or theme park, a ship can sail away from trouble. But the 2008 Atlantic hurricane season set records for consecutive storms that hit the U.S., and cruise reroutings and cancellations are no fun for customers. Think before you book in hurricane season.
Pirate attacks? As last year's aborted attempt on the Nautica in the Gulf of Aden showed, cruise ships are not immune to the raids that have troubled commercial shipping off Somalia and environs. But historically, attacks on cruise ships have been rare.
Given the shaky economy, bankruptcies are more likely. Book with a credit card, and your deposits will receive extra protection under the federal Fair Credit Billing Act, which can help you obtain a refund if your ship's operator drowns in red ink.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.