Tips for cruising on a budget
NEW YORK (AP) - The cruise industry bills cruising as a great value. For one upfront price, your accommodations, meals and trip are paid for.
But most cruisers end up spending more. Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of CruiseCritic.com, says her rule of thumb is to assume she'll spend half the amount of the cruise fare on incidentals. She recommends an online cruise budget calculator to help estimate all your costs at www.independenttraveler.com/travel-budget-calculator/.
Wendy Perrin, consumer news editor at Conde Nast Traveler magazine, also cautions that ''the cruise fare you see advertised is not the price you'll end up paying. The advertised fare, which is usually for the smallest, windowless cabin, does not include mandatory taxes and port fees, mandatory gratuities, or highly recommended additional charges, such as cruise insurance.'' Perrin blogs about travel at perrinpost.com.
You'll also have to buy plane tickets to the departure port if it's not within driving distance. But there are ways to keep costs down. Here are a few:
The cheapest cabins will be inside - no balcony, no windows. This might sound depressing, but on many cruise ships, public spaces are so vast and appealing that you won't want to be in you're room unless you're sleeping.
There are multiple decks with pools, atriums and libraries - all to be enjoyed for free - not to mention the scenic views. On an Alaska trip, you'll spend part of a day at sea cruising past an enormous glacier - an incredible sight, no extra charge.
Plenty of things to do on a cruise ship are free, like using the fitness center or catching live performances, from comedy to musical variety.
The Celebrity Solstice, which launched in November, features the first ''Hot Glass Show'' at sea, where glassblowers from New York's Corning Museum of Glass give free glassblowing demonstrations. The Solstice also has a deck with real grass called the ''Lawn Club'' where you can play bocce or croquet or putt golf balls for free.
On Princess Cruises, one way to lure you out of your room is a giant poolside screen, 300 square feet, that shows feature films (including first-run movies and family shows), concerts and even telecasts of events, from the inauguration to the Super Bowl to the Oscars. Princess calls the program ''Movies Under the Stars'' but there are broadcasts all day as well as at night. The screens are now on Caribbean Princess, Crown Princess, Emerald Princess, Ruby Princess, Grand Princess, Star Princess and Sea Princess, and they'll be installed in 2009 on Golden Princess, Dawn Princess and Coral Princess.
Heidi Allison-Shane of CruiseCompete.com notes that on many lines, if you book a suite, you get additional freebies, for example complimentary passes to thermal lounges in spas.
If you're counting pennies, skip the casino, spa, specialty restaurants that charge extra, the gift shop, art auction, fitness classes, lattes in the cafe and cocktails at the bar.
But don't underestimate how hard it is to resist the repeated announcements and flyers promoting these things and others. Additional pressure comes from hearing other passengers rave about massages, yoga class, or in-port helicopter tours.
''You kind of feel like maybe you're missing out if you don't try this or that,'' Perrin said.
One compromise: Give yourself a daily budget for extras, and if you skip a day, you'll have that much more to spend the next day.
Do your homework about different types of cruises. For fun in the sun, cruise to a beach destination or warm island. A cruise can be a ''wonderful way of island-hopping,'' Perrin said.
But to explore a destination in depth, a cruise may not leave you feeling satisfied, and could entail hundreds of dollars extra for ground transportation and tours, Perrin said.
''You might have eight hours in port or 11 hours in port, but depending on the destination, it could take hours to get from the port to the city,'' leaving much less time for sightseeing, Perrin said. For example, on a Mediterranean cruise, getting from the port nearest Rome to the city center and back can take four hours.
Shore excursions booked through cruise lines are also usually priced higher than if you made arrangements yourself. ''You can often have a better time for less money hiring a car and driver,'' Perrin said.
But there are advantages to booking excursions through the ship. Cruise lines screen tour companies for quality, and if there's a delay in ground transportation, the ship will wait for you if you've booked the tour through them.
Want a cheap vacation? Try a short cruise
MIAMI (AP) - Seeking a getaway despite the downturn, Olivia Gonzalez called her travel agent with an agenda.
''I said, what kind of deals do you have?'' said the Miami resident, who is in her 60s, standing outside the Port of Miami. What she found was a six-day, five-night cruise through the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos for $299 a person.
That was all the convincing Gonzalez and thousands of other passengers have needed lately to set sail. Though vacations are disposable when money gets tight, the cruise industry has kept ships full with deep discounts and some itinerary changes to shorter, cheaper voyages. Norwegian Cruise Line is sailing three-and four-day swings for the first time since 2004. Carnival Corp. is offering free state room upgrades and more Caribbean choices - a quick skip from the Miami port - in 2009 to accommodate demand.
''Consumers are looking for more value for their vacation dollar,'' said Howard Frank, Carnival's chief operating officer, on a recent conference call with analysts. ''And our shorter, less expensive Caribbean cruise products are performing much better than our premium and luxury, longer cruise products. So we are seeing a consumer trade-down to value.''
The major cruise lines are also seeing vacationers wait longer to commit. Before the downturn, bookings averaged about six months in advance, maybe eight months for luxury trips, said Bob Sharak, executive director of the Cruise Lines International Association.
''People are deferring their purchases to the last minute,'' he said. ''They're booking, but it causes the operators some degree of agitation, because it takes longer to put that sailing on the books.
''I don't think that's something unique to our cruise business right now. I think all travel is like that.''
Carnival is offering three- and four- day trips to Mexico and the Bahamas starting at $209 for the lowest-level rooms at the last minute, a nearly 50 percent discount in some cases. A four-day Baja California, Mexico cruise sailing in February and now selling at that rate would cost $399 later, while a three-day Bahamas vacation leaving Jan. 23 is available for $219 instead of $349. Norwegian's short Bahamas cruises were starting at $229 through mid-April.
Long considered a good vacation value, the cruise industry is holding up better than some competitors in this climate. The Port of Miami saw record cruise traffic of 3.8 million passengers from January to November 2008, a 10.5 percent increase over the previous year. Sharak predicts overall occupancy will continue to increase, despite grim predictions for 2009 in the industry and economy overall.
Both Carnival and Royal Caribbean have suspended stock dividends, a sign of some distress, and last month Carnival lowered its revenue predictions for 2009.
''I'm not minimizing today's situation. We've not seen an economic situation like this in America or globally in my lifetime,'' Sharak said. ''However, if history is an indicator of the future, the business itself has been resilient in these varied markets, and I think right now we're showing that as well.''
Carnival has rolled out a new pricing scheme to entice further advance commitments. The ''Early Saver'' program offers 25 percent discounts for certain trips booked up to three months before departure, plus a guarantee those passengers will get the same savings if rates drop.
''The good news is that consumers are still taking their vacations, but the vacation decision is for next month, rather than next year,'' Frank told investors.
For consumers, the cruise lines' push to fill big ships can mean big savings. Shannon McClelland was shopping for a birthday gift for her boyfriend two months ago when she found a five-day cruise sailing out of Miami for $1,500 a couple, including airfare from New York.
''Today is his birthday, so this is his birthday present,'' said McClelland, of New York. ''I was just looking for something nice, it seemed doable, so we did it.''
Discounts and shorter windows for cruises
NEW YORK (AP) - It's wave season, the time of year when travelers 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 percent over the best previous day. Expedia CruiseShipCenters had an 18 percent increase in cruise sales in 2008, and bookings made this year are already ahead of last January by 14 percent.
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 percent.
''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 percent 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 is Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, which arrived in Fort Lauderdale in December 2008.
''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.''
Spencer Brown said she toured the ship recently in Finland, where it was under construction in drydock.
''I forgot I was on a ship,'' she said. ''It's that different.''
Oasis of the Seas' features include a boardwalk with carnival games and the first-ever at-sea carousel; a zip-line suspended nine decks above the boardwalk; a mini-Central Park with real grass and trees; an AquaTheater with diving and other performances; and a moving bar that allows guests to have a cocktail while the slowly descend three decks. The ship will also be the largest cruise ship yet, accommodating 5,400 guests.
Other new CLIA ships coming onto the market include Carnival Cruise Lines' Carnival Dream, Celebrity's Celebrity Equinox, MSC Cruises' MSC Splendida, Costa Cruises' Costa Luminosa and Costa Pacifica, Pearl Seas' Pearl Mist, Silversea Cruises' Silver Spirit and Seabourn Cruise Lines' Seabourn Odyssey. Newly refurbished ships making their debut include Regent Seven Seas Cruises' Seven Seas Voyager and Seven Seas Mariner, which have just completed a $40 million overhaul.
The Seabourn Odyssey, which launches in June, will accommodate 450 guests, and 90 percent of its 225 suites will offer verandahs. It 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.
ITINERARIES: ''Cruises in the Middle East, and river cruises particularly in Europe are gaining in popularity,'' said Ward, the Berlitz cruise book expert.
Ships sailing these itineraries are often smaller and more intimate than the mega-vessels most American cruisers are familiar with, because they have to fit into river locks and under bridges. The U.S.-based company Tauck World Discovery, for example, has ships on European river tours with a maximum capacity of 118 guests. In April in Europe, Tauck launches its third new riverboat in three years, the MS Swiss Jewel.
No new cities are scheduled to be added this year to the list of more than 30 North American homeports, but some cities will be welcoming additional ships. Carnival, for example, starts year-round service from Baltimore beginning in April with two different weeklong Caribbean itineraries. This past November, Carnival expanded cruises from Mobile, Ala., and New Orleans.
Asked to name this year's ''hot'' cruise destinations, 900 CLIA travel agents surveyed in January cited the Caribbean/Bahamas, Alaska, and the Mediterranean, with increased interest in Canada/New England, European river tours, Hawaii and South America.
The agents also said the Caribbean, including Eastern Mexico, is expected to get the most bookings this year, followed by Alaska, the Mediterranean and Europe, and Mexico.
HEADLINES: In 2008, what may be the world's most famous and beloved cruise ship, the Queen Elizabeth 2, took its final voyage to Dubai, where it will turn into a floating hotel moored off an artificial palm-shaped island. In 40 years at sea, the luxury liner traveled 6 million miles, carried 2.5 million passengers and crossed the Atlantic more than 800 times.
Discounts and shorter windows for cruises