Massive discounts on cruises were exposed as a con last week after leading line Fred Olsen admitted it had not sold a single cruise at full price for a year. The closest the operator had come was a Christmas voyage sold at a whopping 37.5% off the brochure rate.
Fred Olsen argued that it was forced to offer the bogus discounts because the practice was so widespread. “It’s become prevalent across the industry,” said the company’s managing director, Mike Rodwell. “Back in the mists of time, we did sell at brochure prices, but the market expected more and more early-bird discounts, then late deals, and eventually they met in the middle. The big American operators started it and the rest had to follow.”
The company made the admission after the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that an agent had sold Fred Olsen cruises at misleading prices. “The ruling is pretty clear and we will be altering our price structure,” Rodwell said. “But the whole industry needs to move on, too. The practice of quoting high prices so you can then offer a huge discount implies that the consumer isn’t very sophisticated, which isn’t true these days.”
As Fred Olsen came clean, other lines clammed up. P&O, which has been offering “up to 47.5% off the full brochure fare” on its website, said, “We can confirm that we have sold cruises at full price” — but was unable to say how many. The American cruise giant NCL declined to comment. Silversea, which has been offering “savings of up to 50% on previously published fares”, was unable to find an official to comment — as was Crystal, which has been advertising savings of 35%.
Regent Seven Seas was prepared to speak and told us: “We publish two prices in our brochure — a ‘brochure fare’, which is used as a benchmark but never actually charged, and an ‘offer fare’, which is. This has been our strategy for the past few years.”
The company said that when further reductions were advertised in the press, the higher price had been previously charged to customers.
Just one line, Royal Caribbean, categorically denied the practice, saying it did not publish a maximum rate “and therefore customers do not buy our cruises at what appear to be heavily discounted prices”.
The Passenger Shipping Association, which represents the cruise industry, was no more forthcoming than most of its members. “This is a commercial matter for individual lines,” it said. “We are unable to comment.”
Consumer watchdogs were more vocal. “This sort of pricing — what we call ‘baited advertising’ — is a breach of the law,” said Bruce Treloar, of the Trading Standards Institute. “Published prices must be accurate, and if nobody actually pays them, they clearly aren’t. Repeat offenders could be fined or even imprisoned. If it really is the industry norm, we’re going to stamp it out — because consumers are being misled.”