With summer just around the corner, cruise specialists are unanimously pointing to Europe sailings as the biggest bargain in town -- if you can find reasonably priced airfare.
"Given changing economic and global circumstances, the cruise industry wound up with too much capacity in the Mediterranean this year," says Mike Driscoll, editor of the Cruise Week newsletter (www.cruise-week.com).
The over-supply of cruise ships in Europe -- compounded by weaker-than-expected demand and higher airfares between North America and Europe -- has put the cruise lines in a real bind. But one man's bind is another's opportunity.
"In response, cruise lines have introduced numerous incentives to stimulate interest in Europe, including offering greatly reduced cruise prices and/or subsidized airfare," says Charlie Funk, co-owner of Just Cruisin' Plus (tel. 800/888-0922; www.jcp.travel).
Tip #1: Europe cruises have typically cost more than cruises in Alaska or Caribbean, but not this summer.
Travelers can expect to pay less than $100 per person a day for an inside cabin -- or as much as 30% cheaper than last summer. Plus, a raft of free extras are sweetening Europe cruise deals this summer.
Funk says Celebrity Cruises (www.celebrity.com) has some of the most attractive pricing out there, including a pair of 12-night Europe cruises round-trip from Barcelona on the Celebrity Solstice on May 14 and June 19 that start at $1,033 per person, including all taxes and fees (not including airfare). Fares go up to $1,329 for the July 13 sailing. The 10-night Celebrity Equinox sailing on June 17, round-trip from Civitavecchia (near Rome), starts at $984 per person including all taxes and fees; the 12-night June 27 sailing out of Civitavecchia starts at $1,107.
Funk also points out a 7-night Norwegian Cruise Line (www.ncl.com) sailing for as low as $937, including all taxes and fees, round-trip from Venice on June 11 aboard the Norwegian Jade. Fares start at $953 per person for a week aboard Norwegian Epic on June 12 out of Barcelona. You'll pay even less for a week aboard Royal Caribbean's (www.royalcaribbean.com) Liberty of the Seas, departing June 25 from Barcelona, with fares starting at $804, including all taxes and fees. For 10 nights aboard Royal Caribbean's Splendor of the Seas, prices start at $977 per person, including all taxes and fees, for a June 3 departure from Venice
Eric Maryanov, president of All-Travel (tel. 866/565-3214; www.all-travel.com), agrees with Funk about Celebrity Cruises being a great value in Europe this season. For example, a pair of 10- and 11-night eastern Mediterranean cruises departing Civitavecchia on Sept. 9 and Sept. 30 aboard the Equinox start at $1,199 per person (excluding taxes, fees, or airfare).
Tip #2: When booking airfare, request airfare quotes from your travel agent and look to cruise lines that add incentives for extra value and convenience.
"To mitigate the pricey airfare issue, the good news is that many skilled travel agents have working associations with airline consolidators and others holding bulk airfares that can save substantial amounts over published airfare," says Funk.
To complement its discounted cruise fares, Celebrity is offering reduced airfare, with round-trip air costing $999 per person between Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., and Rome or Barcelona, including transfers between the airport and ship (a $200 value). If you prefer to book these airfares independently, Funk says these economy-class airfares to Europe are ranging from about $1,300 to $2,000 per person this summer.
Tiffany Neidhardt, co-owner of Cruises-N-More (tel. 800/733-2048; www.cruises-n-more.com ) is also plugging Celebrity Cruises, citing an 11-night June 27 sailing aboard the Equinox. Departing from Civitavecchia, this eastern Mediterranean cruise starts at $2,298 per person, including Celebrity's $999 airfare promotion. Cruises-N-More is also throwing in onboard credits from $200 to $600 (depending on the type of cabin booked), plus a specialty dinner for two people at any of the restaurants.
Tip #3: Look at all-inclusive pricing, and consider companies that waive the single supplement for solo travelers.
It's not just the big ships of the major cruise lines that are on sale this summer. Travel agent Sherry Laskin, owner of the Vacation Shoppe (www.vacationshoppe.com), recommends a one-ship boutique line called Voyages To Antiquity (www.voyagestoantiquity.com). A 15-night Greece, Sicily, and Italy cruise from Athens departing Aug. 26 and Oct. 11 starts at $3,950 per person (plus $495 for port fees and taxes) -- and there is no single supplement for solo travelers. The fares include shore excursions in the major ports, plus gratuities; bottled water; wine, beer and soft drinks with dinner; free airfare from many major U.S. cities; and two nights pre-cruise hotel in Athens. The intimate 380-passenger Aegean Odyssey, built in 1973 and completely retrofitted in recent years, is able to navigate into smaller and more secluded ports in the southern Mediterranean, Red Sea, and Middle East.
Tip #4: Don't assume luxury cruise lines are out of reach.
Steven Gelfuso, President & CEO of Cruise Brothers (tel. 800/827-7779; www.cruisebrothers.com), says the luxury end of the market is offering great values this summer as well. For example, one of his agency's best promotions is a 7-night French Riviera cruise round-trip from Nice on Azamara Cruises' 700-passenger Azamara Journey starting at $1,999 per person for a Sept. 17 departure. Fares include gratuities and Cruise Brothers is also offering a $300 onboard credit for balconies and suites, $200 credit for ocean-view cabins, and $100 for inside cabins if booked by May 9. Lines like Regent Seven Seas (www.rssc.com) and Crystal Cruises (www.crystalcruises.com) are also offering appealing incentives for Europe cruises, from free hotel nights before or after the cruise to free shore excursions, cabin credits of $1,000 per cabin, and sometimes complimentary airfare, too.
Tip #5: Consider pairing two transatlantic crossings to get to Europe and back.
Still, high airfare to get to the ship can curtail an otherwise great Europe cruise price. Maybe skipping the round-trip flight is the best strategy of all. Laskin points out that Cunard (www.cunard.com) has transatlantic crossings that are a great deal in the coming months, with lead-in rates starting as low as $999 per person for a balcony stateroom for 7-night sailings between New York and Southampton, England. Though one-way airfare is still pricey, some avid cruisers have been known to combine two back-to-back transatlantic crossings.
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