The 10 Big Trends in Cruise Ship Vacations
The use of more American ports, additional costs while at sea, the growth of discounters, and more
As the cool weather approaches, and visions of tropical islands dance in our heads, a great many Americans are finally aware that the cheapest way to achieve those dreams is on a cruise.
For as little as $1,400 to $1600 per person (if you're paying the standard catalogue price), and sometimes averaging out to cost less than $75 a day (if you're lucky enough to find a discount), the cruise lines will fly you to Miami or San Juan, place you in a modest but thoroughly comfortable cabin (you'll scarcely spend any time there), and then sail you from island to island for seven days as they ply you with constant food and entertainment.
Even more affordable are the drive-cruise vacations, which have seen considerable growth in the post-9/11 world. For at least the short term (the trend will likely end in spring 2003), many cruise lines upped the number of cruises departing from ports that are easy for huge populations to drive to: New York, Boston, Charleston, Baltimore, Galveston, San Francisco, Seattle, Tampa, New Orleans, and the like. This way, people who prefer not to fly can still take a cruise, often for less than the price of the traditional fly-cruise vacation. No matter whether you fly or drive before beginning your cruise, often what you'll find is a remarkable, rub-your-eyes value, available at that level nowhere else in travel.
Put aside the possibility that these low prices are the product of substandard wages paid to the Emerging World sailors who staff the ships (see "Slave labor on the loveboats?" in the "Testy Opinions" area of this Web site or that massive government subsidies to European shipbuilders permit the vessels to be built for costs no U.S. shipyard can currently match. However they do it, more than 100 large cruiseships are not only offering low and moderate rates (even in the luxury class,) but a broad variety of bargain rates for every purse, and an even broader array of new, low-cost travel itineraries or themes, both colorful and complex. Consider ten separate cruise developments:
1. The continued erratic appearance of secret discounts
As if we were a broken record, we've been pointing out for a dozen years that it's exceedingly unwise (polite understatement) to pay the published price for a cruise. There has been a major "sea change", so to speak in this regard, thanks to a crackdown by the cruiselines on cruise discounters. Norwegian Cruise Lines, Celebrity, and Carnival all announced in the fall of 2004 that they would no longer be allowing travel agents to rebate their commissions; or to buy group cabins at a discount and then resell them to the public. This has led to a severe diminuition of discounts, especially on these lines. But many discounters are still doing what they've always done for sailings on the other lines, and there are still major price breaks to be had.
Where do you get the discounted rates? From retail travel agents specializing or heavily into cruises or from so-called cruise-brokers; they all offer unpublished rates. As well, an online site called Cruise Compete serves as a reverse auction site for many of these agencies, allowing users to put in which dates they wish to cruise and various travel agents to bid for their business. The system works quite well actually.
Why do the cruiselines, unlike the airlines, handle their discounting in that clandestine manner? Beats me. But if you'd like examples of the savings available from favored outlets, call such travel agents as the ones listed in our Top Cruise Consolidators section of this chapter.
2. A growing variety of ships
Hard on the heels of several mega-monster cruiseships carrying as many as 2,600 passengers apiece, comes a newer wave of small ships limited to between 100 and 250 passengers, "exploration" cruiseships (capable of entering small coves) of such as the Seaquest company, the sleek vessels of Windstar Cruises, and a number of others. (Some say the trend is a backlash against the oversized ships, with their atrium lobbies more resembling a hotel at sea than a boat.) Though the small new ships aren't rock-bottom in price, they're generally less expensive than the larger luxury ships whose standards they emulate. Even on an ultra-deluxe, one-week cruise, suites sell for as little as $350 and $450 a night per person (published) and occasionally for as little as $250 to $350 a night per person (through discounters). Thus, in just about any reasonable price range, you now have a choice of tiny, small, medium-sized, large, and monstrous vessels.
3. The growth of "drive market" cruises