It's wave season, the time of year when travelers typically book the most cruises. And there's good news for cruise-loving consumers: Discounts abound, more than a dozen new ships are being introduced this year, and booking windows are shrinking, which means you don't have to plan quite so far ahead.
As a result, some companies are seeing a surge in cruise bookings. Princess Cruises reported its biggest booking day ever Jan. 12, with volume up 17 percent over the best previous day. Expedia CruiseShipCenters had an 18 percent increase in cruise sales in 2008, and bookings made this year are already ahead of last January by 14 percent.
Consumers "cannot pass up a deal," said Heidi Allison-Shane of CruiseCompete.com, which has also experienced an upswing in bookings since Jan. 1. She estimated that prices for cruises are down 15 percent to 20 percent.
"It is the year of the deal," agreed Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of CruiseCritic.com.
"Companies with big resort ships to fill find that consumers are not booking as far ahead as normal," said Douglas Ward, author of the Berlitz "Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships" and Insight Guides' "Cruising: All Questions Answered." "But, booking late means less choice of cabin types and location to choose from. Cruise lines, therefore, are offering greater discounts and incentives to book ahead."
Fuel supplements, which some cruise companies added last year to their fares as the price of oil surged, have also been dropped. But at least one line added a small fee for something that used to be free. Royal Caribbean now charges $3.95 for room service orders between midnight and 5 a.m.
In a Jan. 15 report on the finances of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and Carnival Corp., Goldman Sachs analyst Steven Kent predicted that cruise prices will keep dropping, along with onboard spending.
The low prices are the result of "deteriorating" consumer demand, "massive supply" of cruises hitting the market and cruise operators' "desire to fill these ships at any price," according to Kent.
Despite that gloomy assessment of the industry, the Cruise Lines International Association gave its usual rosy outlook at its annual January press conference in New York. CLIA, which represents 23 cruise lines and 97 percent of the North American market, reported 13.2 million people taking cruises in 2008, up from 12.56 million in 2007 and 9.53 million in 2003.
Here are some other cruise trends:
Part of the increase in the number of cruisers is driven by increased supply. More ships enter the market each year and more berths get filled. Among the new vessels getting attention this year is Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, which is scheduled to arrive in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in December.
"It's not a cruise ship, it's a feat of engineering and creativity," said Spencer Brown. "It's an amazing, creative, fabulous ship that will get the lion's share of attention in the next year."
Spencer Brown said she toured the ship recently in Finland, where it was under construction in drydock.
"I forgot I was on a ship," she said. "It's that different."
Oasis of the Seas' features include a boardwalk with carnival games and the first-ever at-sea carousel; a zip-line suspended nine decks above the boardwalk; a mini-Central Park with real grass and trees; an AquaTheater with diving and other performances; and a moving bar that allows guests to have a cocktail while the slowly descend three decks. The ship will also be the largest cruise ship yet, accommodating 5,400 guests.
Other new CLIA ships coming onto the market in 2008 include Carnival Cruise Lines' Carnival Dream, Celebrity's Celebrity Equinox, MSC Cruises' MSC Splendida, Costa Cruises' Costa Luminosa and Costa Pacifica, Pearl Seas' Pearl Mist, Silversea Cruises' Silver Spirit and Seabourn Cruise Lines' Seabourn Odyssey. Newly refurbished ships making their debut include Regent Seven Seas Cruises' Seven Seas Voyager and Seven Seas Mariner, which have just completed a $40 million overhaul.
The Seabourn Odyssey, which launches in June, will accommodate 450 guests, and 90 percent of its 225 suites will offer verandahs. It will also host Seabourn's first world cruise, a 108-day trip departing January 2010 from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with a 42-port itinerary in 26 countries. Seabourn is offering $1,000 off early bookings on Odyssey.
"Cruises in the Middle East, and river cruises particularly in Europe — are gaining in popularity," said Ward, the Berlitz cruise book expert.
Ships sailing these itineraries are often smaller and more intimate than the mega-vessels most American cruisers are familiar with, because they have to fit into river locks and under bridges. The U.S.-based company Tauck World Discovery, for example, has ships on European river tours with a maximum capacity of 118 guests. In April in Europe, Tauck launches its third new riverboat in three years, the MS Swiss Jewel.
No new cities are scheduled to be added this year to the list of more than 30 North American homeports, but some cities will be welcoming additional ships. Carnival, for example, starts year-round service from Baltimore beginning in April with two different weeklong Caribbean itineraries. In November, Carnival is also expanding cruises from Mobile, Ala., and New Orleans.
Asked to name this year's "hot" cruise destinations, 900 CLIA travel agents surveyed in January cited the Caribbean/Bahamas, Alaska and the Mediterranean, with increased interest in Canada/New England, European river tours, Hawaii and South America.
The agents also said the Caribbean, including Eastern Mexico, is expected to get the most bookings this year, followed by Alaska, the Mediterranean and Europe, and Mexico.