(The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)
By Mitch Lipka
NEW YORK (Reuters) - In the wake of the terrible tale of the stricken Carnival Triumph - and a Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd ship hit with norovirus in the news Friday - the cruise industry is delivering deep discounts and lots of extras. Potential travelers, with images of crippled ships and sickened passengers fresh in their minds, have a few things to consider before they jump at deals.
But even some of those who were on the ill-fated Triumph are having a hard time not cashing in. Travel agent and cruise blogger Jill Noble, 43, was aboard the Triumph and had an awful time. That didn't stop her from taking the free cruise and $500 credit she got for her ordeal and applying it toward a cruise she had previously booked. She also renegotiated the overall price based on a huge fare discount in Carnival's latest sale, which she says had price drops of up to $400 per cabin when the norm in a sale is $200-$250.
Noble now has four upgraded cabins for her extended family for a cruise from Galveston, Texas, to Belize and Mexico in June.
"It was awful," she says. "But I'm ready to get back on the horse."
Much of the discounting right now actually has little to do with distressing headlines. It is "wave season," as it is known in the industry, a time from January through March when sales and incentives are plentiful. There is also increased competition among cruise companies. That's because of the addition of more than a dozen new ships in 2012, giving them nearly 18,000 more beds to fill, according to the Cruise Lines International Association, a trade group.
While it's too soon to say whether the image of overflowing toilets while stranded at sea will, by itself, drive down prices, history does indicate that cruise lines counter bad publicity with good deals. "These type of incidents do give a lot of people pause, and this just sort of accelerates some of the values we were already anticipating," says Gabe Saglie, senior editor for the deal site TravelZoo.com.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Consumers should look for deals involving the cruise lines paying passenger gratuities (worth $200 or so per cabin), tossing in credits toward excursions (typically $200 or so), upgrades to better cabins, decreasing the required deposits and, periodically, price discounts, says Saglie.
"Between now and the end of March may end up being one of the best times to scout out and lock in the best prices and a bevy of other extras. Carnival has the most to gain by doing that," says Saglie.
Carnival Corp spokesman Vance Gulliksen says the company can't discuss what impact the Triumph episode could have on pricing because it is publicly traded. Carnival has already told investors to brace for a decline in anticipated revenue because of taking the Triumph off-line.
Cruise experts say the best deals they've been seeing are on cruises to Alaska and in Europe. Cruise lines are still pushing to gain passengers not only due to the 2012 Costa Concordia disaster but also expensive air travel from North America to Europe. There are also plenty of opportunities to sail around the Caribbean.
For travel in May, Alaska cruise prices start at $449 per person for a week in an inside cabin sailing from Vancouver, British Columbia, aboard the Norwegian Sun, owned by Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. The same room kicks up to $679 in mid-July. All sailings include offers of subsidized airfare, shipboard credits and excursion discounts.
Other recently offered deals: an 11-day cruise from Miami to Barcelona starting at $399 per person for an inside room and $649 for a balcony cabin. Carnival is promoting off-season winter cruises, offering a four-day sailing from Miami to Cozumel, Mexico, next January starting at $189, and an eight-day Bahamas cruise that leaves from New York in December with rates as low as $389 per person.
THE FINE PRINT
Cruise ship prices are typically stated as per person, based on double occupancy, and typically include all meals, on-ship activities and entertainment. The cheapest fares are for inside cabins without views and rise for cabins with views, balconies or an expanded room or suite.
Most cruises also allow passengers to cancel without penalty before their final payment is due - usually 60-75 days ahead of the sailing - which also gives them a chunk of time to watch sales and see if they can apply those discounts or upgrades to an already scheduled trip, as Noble did. Last-minute deals will require a full payment, but you can also find offers to upgrade from an inside cabin to an outside one for free or a nominal difference.
Prices are quite similar from website to website, says Geraldine Ree, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Expedia CruiseShipCenters. What varies are the relationships between the travel companies and the cruise lines. One site might be offering more significant incidentals, say, such as prepaid gratuities or credits toward excursions, she says.
Arabella Bowen, executive editorial director for Fodor's Travel, recommends signing up for various cruise line newsletters, as well as those offered by travel discounting sites, so you can get alerted when a new deal is offered.
Booking early and booking late both have their advantages. Last-minute booking opens the door to deep discounts, but only for the traveler with the flexibility to go with the flow. For those who know when and where they want to go, it's particularly important to book several months or even a year in advance, Ree says.
Booking further in advance - six months or more - and hitting the off-season of May or September can provide both the best prices and the best chance to book a cabin in the part of the ship you want.
(For more money-saving travel tips, read how hotel points are being downgraded here: http://reut.rs/WyGEDx)
(Follow us @ReutersMoney or at http://www.reuters.com/finance/personal-finance. Editing by Beth Pinsker and Prudence Crowther)
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