Bargain cruise packages are drying up
But budget travelers can still find sweet deals. Here's some help.
Travelers hunting for a low-priced cruise will find fewer fish in the sea this year.
All-inclusive cruise packages typically are less expensive than arranging a land stay with air, hotel, food and other costs. That perceived value kept cruise lines afloat during last year’s economic downturn, and continues to draw cost-conscious travelers, says Carolyn Spencer Brown, the editor of review site CruiseCritic.com. There has not only been a burst of publicity around newer luxury ships, like the Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, but more demand overall, which means lines have less incentive to broadly drop prices to fill up an itinerary. “I’m seeing fewer of those drop-dead-gotta-go deals we saw last year,” Brown says. For example, in 2009 consumers might have paid as little as $25 a day for a cruise to the Bahamas; this year, the average daily price is closer to $150, she says.
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Be sure to read the fine print when comparing current deals, many of which offer extras like shipboard credit, cabin upgrades or free excursions in lieu of a flat discount, says Stewart Chiron, a cruise broker known as The Cruise Guy. The add-on may simply offset expenses a competing cruise line already includes in its package. “Evaluate deals on merit, not hype,” he says.
Although there are fewer showcase deals, a glut of new ships means there are still good values -- if you know where to look. Here are four destinations to consider:
The Caribbean. Cruise lines are putting more of their new ships on Caribbean routes. To compete, operators have dropped prices, even on luxury ships. Celebrity Cruises will unveil the third of five new ships planned for the region in April, and Chiron gives the ships a high rating. Prices on a seven-night Eastern Caribbean cruise on the Celebrity Solstice from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., start at $849 a person for sailings in March and April. In previous years, a similar booking would cost $2,499, he says. You’ll save 66%.
Mexican Riviera. There are also too many ships sailing from California to Mexico. But in this case, interest from both operators and passengers has dwindled due to limited ports of call. “It’s an interesting inventory once, but you wouldn’t necessarily go back,” says Brown. “Cruise lines are going to pull ships out at the end of the year.” For now, prices are notably low, especially for consumers on the West Coast who don’t need airfare. For example, a seven-night cruise from Los Angeles on the Sapphire Princess in February or March starts at $363, or a little more than $50 per day.
Alaska. Alaska struggled last year to keep traffic high, says Alex Goldman, the vice president of cruises for travel booking site Travelocity. At the root of the problem: a $50-per-head fee on cruise visitors and higher airfares to the state. Prices are slightly higher this year, but there are deals, Goldman says. Holland America has seven-night Glacier Discovery cruises in May from Anchorage to Vancouver for as little as $499, or about $71 a day.
Panama Canal. Faster ships in the canal have allowed cruise operators to schedule more crossings in a season, as well as increased the allure for consumers. “In 14 nights, they can actually do a full transfer,” Chiron says. (Previously, a partial crossing took nearly that.) A 14-night crossing on Celebrity Infinity in March costs as little as $1,499 a person, including airfare and one night in a San Diego hotel. In previous years, you’d have paid closer to $4,599, he says. You’ll save 67%.
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Even those who don't like to shop are probably hitting the stores this month. Here's what to be on the lookout for and here's what to avoid.