A sea of cruise ship bargains

LA Times | Travel

Pop open the Champagne and break out the streamers: If you have ever contemplated taking a cruise, 2009 is your lucky year. Prices are stunning, experts say. \"Discounting for cruises hasn't been seen on this scale since right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks,\" said Dennis Schaal, Travel Week...

By Rosemary McClure // 01.21.09

Pop open the Champagne and break out the streamers: If you have ever contemplated taking a cruise, 2009 is your lucky year. Prices are stunning, experts say.

"Discounting for cruises hasn't been seen on this scale since right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks," said Dennis Schaal, Travel Weekly editor and Ask.com online travel expert.

He calls it "a buyer's market" that doesn't end with deals: Cruise lines are sweetening the pot by reducing deposits, suspending fuel supplements, including free stateroom upgrades and offering kids-sail-free deals, onboard credits, free excursions and special rates for single travelers.

How low do the prices go? Check out these recent deals (prices exclude taxes and fees):

* For $32 a day, explore the Chilean fiords, sail the Strait of Magellan and round Cape Horn on a 14-night Norwegian Sun South American cruise from Buenos Aires to Santiago, Chile (from $449 per person).

* For $44.75 a day, sail from San Diego to Baja on a four-night, round-trip cruise on Carnival Elation (from $179 per person).

* For $63 a day, take a 14-night, round-trip cruise on the Golden Princess from Los Angeles to Hawaii (from $882 per person).

One of the bonuses of taking a cruise is how far your dollar stretches. That $32- or $45-per-day cost buys a vacation that includes lodging, transportation, entertainment and food. It's one of the best buys available in travel, experts say.

Travelocity recently compared a seven-night Caribbean land vacation with a seven-night cruise, matching costs for each. The result: The land-based trip cost $1,000 to $1,500 more per person, said Genevieve Shaw Brown, senior editor for the Internet travel giant.

"So take advantage of the silver lining in this economic mess if you're planning a getaway," Brown said.

Nearly one-third of all cruise bookings for the year are usually made during the January-through-March period, traditionally called the wave season. Cruise lines hope a buoyant season will make up for the decline in bookings last fall, and they're peppering the market with special deals and incentives to successfully launch 2009 sales.

"Most industries have been impacted by the economy; the travel industry is no exception," Brown said. "But what's bad for the industry is good for the consumer.

"Pricing is so attractive right now that it's a good time for people who have never been on a cruise to take a shot and see if they like it. You're not going to lose much."

Some of the better buys are on Norwegian Cruise Lines, which has offered space on three- and four-night trips to the Bahamas for as little as $99 a person, less than $25 a day. It also has listed cabins on a 12-night Mediterranean cruise for as low as $39.91 per day, a total of $479 per person.

Will such prices continue? No one is sure.

"This year is anything but predictable," said Valencia-based travel agent Barbara Oliver, who specializes in cruises. "My sense is that the industry doesn't have any idea where it's going yet."

She said most of the current sales campaigns were designed before the dramatic autumn economic downturn, so the cruise companies are testing the waters with winter and spring deals.

"They're determining how far they need to go to stimulate bookings, while at the same time not giving away the store," said Oliver, owner of All Together Now Travel.

It's a balancing act, agreed Gabe Saglie, senior editor for the deals website Travelzoo.com. "Everyone is taking a wait-and-see approach. Cruise companies are concerned about getting consumers to feel comfortable enough in this economy to invest thousands on a vacation months down the road."

If it seems as though the deals being offered are working -- that consumers begin buying cruises again -- the special prices will probably evaporate and summer cruise fares will creep back up to their usual, not-discounted level, Saglie said.

"The cruise lines are kick-starting the booking process with great buys that need to be booked sooner rather than later -- some as soon as Jan. 31 or Feb. 1." His advice: To score the best deals, book a trip soon, before the end of the winter sailing season.

Would-be cruisers don't have to look far to find the specials. The major travel websites are advertising them. Schaal, of Travel Weekly, says some of the best deals can be found in subscription online e-letters, such as Travelzoo's Top 20 newsletter, which comes out on Wednesdays.

He also recommends similar newsletters from Smarter Travel, www.smartertravel.com, and Sherman's Travel, www.shermanstravel.com.

"But you have to book a trip fast, or it's gone," he added.

If you're less flexible or less familiar with the market, a travel agent who specializes in cruises might be your best bet. He or she can compare costs and special enticements, such as cabin upgrades.

"Someone who knows the ships and destinations may be able to save you money and heartaches," said Schaal. "You could try to do the research yourself, but it would take days and you may still be disappointed. Besides, if something goes wrong and you have an agent, they can be an advocate for you."

Agents are also helpful in booking higher-end cruises, such as Crystal Cruises, Regent Seven Seas and Oceania, which also are offering some surprising buys this year.

Among the special offers: Regent is throwing in free airfare and excursions on some cruises; Oceania is giving $1,000 per-person discounts on some European voyages; Crystal is offering cabin upgrades and free airfare on some bookings, and has established a Save-Now, Save-Later program that provides a 20% discount on 2010 voyages.

"Even the most affluent travelers are seeking strong value now," said Bill Smith, senior vice president with Crystal. "This is the broadest scope of savings opportunities we've ever offered."

Specifically, that means a savvy traveler can book an 11-day Baltic sailing on Crystal for $4,590 per person this year; last year a traveler would have paid $5,010 for the same trip.

The experts agree that great buys are available across the board. But if you're not ready to book, will the deals still be there tomorrow?

Schaal thinks it's risky, but you may be able to chance it.

"I'm going out on a limb here, but I think you can wait. At the end of the first quarter [March], I think the cruise lines will make a push to fill up those summer cruises. I'd be tempted to see how good the deals will be later."