Cruise lines slash prices

Cruise lines, navigating a dreadful economy and tight-fisted consumers, are rolling out a bounty of bargain fares to fill their ships.

With many deals matching the sort of deep discounting the industry resorted to in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, travel agents say cruising has become almost cheaper than staying home.

Consider: a seven-night eastern Caribbean cruise on the Carnival Liberty for $299 plus taxes and fees.

The fall is always a good time to shop for cruise discounts because bookings slack off during the period. But this year — amid the dramatic downturn in the U.S. economy, punctuated by a credit crisis, rising unemployment and a slump in consumer spending — the cruise deals are better and more widespread than usual.

”We always say cruise lines are resilient to the economy, but we have seen a slowdown in the number of bookings compared to the same time last year,” said Harrison Liu, a spokesman for Miami-based Royal Caribbean International. “We’re working closely with travel agents and all our partners to entice consumers.”

Behind the discounts: Cruise lines have high fixed costs such as fuel, crew salaries and other operating expenses. The incremental cost of carrying each passenger — a little food and drink, a few bed linens and towels — is small.

That dictates that cruise ships sail full with two passengers per berth; often, they fill the third and fourth berths available in cabins.

For now, the special deals on many cruise lines extend well into 2009, and some into 2010. They run the gamut from short, budget-oriented weekend trips to long and exotic luxury voyages. Some of the industry’s hottest new ships, like the Celebrity Solstice and the Carnival Splendor, are available at a bargain.

Lured by the bargains, Lois Rosenthal, a frequent cruiser from Coral Springs, and her husband, certified public accountant Alan Rosenthal, just booked a four-night Bahamas cruise with an outside cabin for $150 per person.

”My husband said it costs more to go to the mall,” Rosenthal said.

The Rosenthals plan to sail from Jacksonville on the Carnival Fascination. While various fees and taxes bring the total price to about twice the $150 per person rate, Lois Rosenthal said, “You can’t go anywhere for that kind of money and have all your meals and entertainment.”

No one, it seems, is immune from discounting.

”Everyone, even the luxury lines, are doing things to try to fill ships. Free upgrades, shipboard credits,” said Michelle Fee, chief executive of Cruise Planners in Coral Springs. “It’s no holds barred.”

Even some Christmas and New Year’s Eve sailings — which usually fetch stiff premiums — are on sale, agents say.

”When I say unprecedented, I’ve been 20 years in the business and I’ve never seen holiday sailings at the prices they’re at this year,” said Stewart Chiron, a Miami cruise expert and chief executive of cruiseguy.com.

”NCL is really the one offering the most ridiculous deals,” he said. For instance, a seven-night western Caribbean cruise from Miami on NCL’s Norwegian Pearl is $369 per person, plus taxes and fees. The ship’s Dec. 20 Christmas cruise costs as little as $499 plus taxes and fees, and the Dec. 28 New Year’s sailing was as low as $699, plus taxes and fees.

Travel agents are urging customers to nail down bargains soon, especially since there is little risk. If prices drop lower before the final payment, most cruise lines refund the difference in price to passengers.

”But as soon as the economy starts to recover, the rates are going to change,” Fee said. “So it really behooves the traveler to select their vacation plans now, set a small deposit on it, and enjoy a low-cost vacation.”

Many of the best deals can be found through savvy cruise agents, who sell a large volume of cruises and can offer their customers incentives such as cabin upgrades or onboard credits to clinch the sale.

It’s not just cruises that are selling at a discount. Shares of both Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean Cruises have been battered recently. Carnival announced Oct. 31 it was suspending its quarterly dividend in a conservative move to conserve capital, and on Nov. 18 Royal Caribbean followed suit.

Industry insiders will be closely watching ”wave season,” which spans the first quarter and is typically the busiest booking period of the year, to see whether the cruise lines are forced to extend the cheap cruise prices. ”Right now, all the cruise lines have poker faces,” Chiron said.

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