During “Wave Season” this year, a tsunami hit.
Let me translate. “Wave Season” is the period from January from March during which the cruise lines try to pin down the majority of their yearly bookings. They do so by ramping up advertising campaigns and offering incentives to passengers and travel agents.
But not even the sassiest TV ad could distract would-be travelers from the unfolding disaster—televised worldwide--aboard the Carnival Triumph. On February 10, an engine room fire disabled the ships’s power system and it drifted for days at sea, without flushing toilets or a/c. Two more Carnival Cruise ships had problems the very next week, driving home the messages that cruising had its perils (this despite the fact that millions cruise each year and never encounter extreme incidents of this kind).
Thanks to the bad PR, wave season didn’t go as smoothly as in years past.
Which is why consumers find themselves in the unusual position of seeing a, well, boatload of promotions right before the high summer season. “The rule of thumb used to be that $100 per day in summer was a very good price,” says Carolyn Spencer Brown, the Editor in Chief of CruiseCritic.com. “I think you can do better than that this summer. There’s plenty of inventory out there.”
The deals, however, might not be as straightforward as usual. “They don’t want to discount prices too much,” notes Brown “But they’ll throw in the kitchen sink to get you to buy.”
What Brown means is that a number of cruiselines are offering special perks that raise the overall value of the cruise. “Upgrades are being offered by almost all the major lines right now,” confirms Sherry Laskin, the travel agent and cruise expert behind the blog CruiseMaven.com. “I’ve seen them on Norwegian Cruise Lines, on Celebrity. On Royal Caribbean, for example, people who book ocean view cabins in May are being upgraded to balcony cabins, and those who buy inside cabins are getting portholes! Not only that, RCL is giving children free shore excursions on a number of European sailings.” On Princess and Holland America, those who book this month can expect to get shipboard credits (sometimes of $100 or more) towards onbard expenses; ask if they’re not offerred.
And what about the premium brands? They’re massaging their offers, too. “The luxury lines are bumping passengers who book air from economy to business class,” says Laskin. “I’ve even seen some give away shore excursions.”
Carnival, the company that, arguably, forced this rash of values is front and center when it comes discounting. Not only are some of its sailings going for as little as $279, its incentivizing travel agents to push its products. “Carnival is giving bonus commissions to travel agents through May 15, which is very unusual,” says Laskin. “I think they realize they need to give agents a shot in the arm to get them to move these cruises.”
So where should you cruise for the best rates? Brown notes that the prices for Mediterranean cruises are quite good this year. They have to be to off-set the high cost of getting there for those in North America; and the fact that many cash-strapped Europeans will be booking fewer vacations.
Alaska, too, can be a good deal, if you time it right. “It used to be that you got the best prices if you risked the weather in May and September,” explains Brown. “But this year, we’ve seen pockets of lower prices even in the high season. They go fast, so you have to be vigilant, but I’ve seen weeklong sailings to Alaska in July going for as little as $439.”
To snag these short-lived promotions, Brown recommends that consumers sign up for every e-letter that deals with cruise deals. “Move fast,” she warns. “The deals are out there, but sometimes they’re up for just a few days or a few hours.”