By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 12/5/2008 12:34:59 PM ET 2008-12-05T17:34:59

Cruise lines are determined to keep afloat in the weakened economy and are coming up with some very aggressive deals to entice consumers. That’s good news for those who are fortunate enough to maintain a vacation budget.

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Cruising for $25 a day
There’s a lot at stake for cruise lines right now as a growing number of new ships are being added to the fleet. With the growing capacity cruise lines are getting more creative to keep their ships full. It’s a buyer’s market out there. “What has happened in today’s economical situation is similar to what happened post-9/11 and the aftermath impact on cruising is very similar,” says Ben Catalina of Cruises Inc. in San Antonio.

Case in point: Costa Cruises’ “Moonlight Amore” sale on Black Friday that priced 7-day Caribbean cruises for $199 — that’s $25 a day! Royal Caribbean, Carnival, and Norwegian Cruise Line offered comparable deals as well. In the case of European-based Costa it was a way to attract new customers as the line is not widely known in North America. Indeed, consumers pounced on the deal. “Our Moonlight Amore sale was one of the most successful promotions we’ve ever ran,” said Linda Parrotta, vice president of marketing for Costa Cruises North America.

Parrotta adds, “Now more than ever, people are looking for value-based vacations.” Parrotta is one of many cruise executives who subscribe to the notion that instead of forgoing an annual vacation, consumers will look more closely at a cruise vacation because of the high value for the money.

They appear to be right. According to travel agents, people that have never taken a cruise are starting to book. “There are a lot of new consumers coming into the market because of the fares,” says Denver-area travel agent Amber Blecker of CruiseResource.com.

To find and attract a steady stream of customers cruise lines are utilizing the Web more than ever to get the message out. According to a report by Hitwise Intelligence, which tracks Internet usage, cruise lines are adapting search marketing campaigns and Web site content to reflect what consumers are actually looking for. Visits to cruise sites are up 7 percent from last year and are fueled by searches for ‘cruise deals’ and ‘discount cruises’.

Snagging the best fare
It’s clear that consumers are shopping but they’re also changing booking behavior as they try to stretch their dollars further. Many are holding off an actual cruise purchase hoping that fares will go even lower. Will they? Perhaps. But there’s also a risk of losing out on a good deal by waiting too long.

Stewart Chiron, a cruise industry expert who is nationally recognized as The Cruise Guy, says the cruise industry is in “the annual limbo zone” as it reconciles the previous European and Alaska seasons while at the same time evaluating booking levels for next year. He says the results will determine the “opening round” of discounts which may include free or reduced airfares and stateroom upgrades. “The cruise lines and passengers are both wearing their poker faces waiting to see who’ll blink first,” says Chiron.

Agents are advising customers to book deals now so they will get a better choice of sailings and staterooms. For those who are less flexible on dates or are restricted to the school holidays, it is more of a gamble as these cruises tend to sell out quicker. “People need to remember that this special pricing situation is temporary. How long it will last is about as predictable as the stock market,” adds Catalina.

Blecker of CruiseResource.com is seeing even more discounts that are based on past passenger status, state of residency, and for seniors, military, and solo travelers. For clients wanting to book well ahead of a sailing date, Blecker advises that they book on cruise lines that will adjust fares when they make price reductions, even after final payment. Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and Crystal are the most generous in adjusting fares she says.

On the other hand, by booking later, you may get a bargain, but, again, not a lot of choices in sailings or staterooms. Cruise lines cannot afford to sail with empty staterooms, and as the sailing date nears they will become more desperate. It becomes a game of chicken as it’s all about who can hold out the longest.

Blecker says consumers who are flexible and book 4-8 weeks prior to sailing can take advantage of a number of cruise line promotions. She cites Holland America Line and Princess Cruises “Flash Fares”; Carnival’s “Pack N Go Fares”; and “Happy Hours” deals with Royal Caribbean and Celebrity where she recently booked clients on a Celebrity 4-night Bahamas cruise for under $150 per person.

On top of the fare discounts there’s even better news of late. Most cruise lines are eliminating their fuel supplements due to drop in the price of oil. Catalina sums up the situation best: “If you have the time, funds, and flexibility, there has never been a better time to cruise.”

Sound off! Do you have a comment, an idea, a complaint or a problem for Anita to solve? Send her an e-mail and you might find yourself in her next column. And check out her blog, ExpertCruiser.com.

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