Travel, especially cruising, is a bright spot in a year full of dismal economic news. Some of the best deals in a decade are still out there, and 14 new ships will be launched worldwide before the year is over.
Carnival is launching its biggest ship ever. And Royal Caribbean International is putting the final touches on the biggest cruise ship in the world — Oasis of the Seas, which has even longtime cruise insiders buzzing.
The economic instability has meant a wild ride for the cruise industry that has resulted in some jaw-dropping prices for consumers.
“The pricing wasn’t as low as post-9/11, but it was pretty close,” says Tom Baker of CruiseCenter in Houston.
Here are the trends to watch.
When the economy took a turn, cruise lines started lowering fares to lure travelers back, say the experts. “You can cruise for the cheapest prices I’ve ever seen in my life in many cases,” says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of the popular cruise Web site Cruise Critic.
Even better: Brown says in many cases travelers can cruise on newer, more luxurious ships for almost the same fares that used to apply only on older ships. For example, she said she’s seen seven-day Caribbean cruises as low as $249 — but the same cruise on a new ship for just $299.
Baker says the ships are nearly filled for summer, but look for deals to continue in fall and winter.
Last-minute bookings have been hot so far this year — cruise lines want ships to sail full. Now they’re offering incentives to book early. Carnival, for example, has an Early Saver rate that slashes fares by as much as $200 per person for booking three to five months early, says company spokesman Vance Gulliksen. That translates into, for example, a seven-day Alaska cruise for as low as $449. For more about bargain fares, contact a travel agent or go to www.carnival.com. Remember that a travel agent is your friend when it comes to cruises. You won’t be charged extra for cruise bookings, and a good agent can ferret out the best rates and keep a close eye on them, requesting a lower fare for you if prices drop.
Big – really big – new ships.
Baker and Brown are seasoned experts who have seen it all and cruised on most of it. And both of them are all gaga about the Oasis of the Seas.
What’s the fuss about?
The ship will accommodate 5,400 passengers (by comparison, the Carnival Ecstasy holds 2,052).
The design divides it into “neighborhoods,” including Central Park, which is longer than a football field, open to the sky and will be planted with trees and seasonal flowers. Cabins will be available overlooking the neighborhoods, as well as the usual balcony and standard rooms. And the “loft” cabins high on the ship’s sides will have floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the ocean.
An aquatheater will have underwater shows including synchronized swimming and more.
The Broadway musical “Hairspray” is among the entertainment options.
The Oasis’ home port will be Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and the inaugural cruise is set for Dec. 12. In late May, interior cabins for a December cruise to Labadee, Haiti, were available for $889. (www.royalcaribbean.com). For more about the Oasis, visit www.oasisoftheseas.com.
Also new this year: The Carnival Dream, being built in Italy and launching on a 12-day Mediterranean cruise in September, is Carnival’s largest ship, holding 3,646 passengers. The Dream will later sail to New York and then reposition at its new home, Port Canaveral in Florida. The Dream has a 2-day “Cruise to Nowhere” from New York to New York, starting at $364 on Nov. 13, if you want to check her out (www.carnival.com).
The Caribbean is hot.
Texans have always favored the islands, and the rest of the nation is all over them too this year, staying closer to home to save money.
The upshot, says Baker, is that you might consider looking at last-minute fares to Alaska, where fewer people are sailing and cruise lines want to fill up ships.
A new exotic destination to consider.
Cruisers are saving money and booking fewer Australia-New Zealand cruises this year. But the Middle East has surfaced as a hot destination for global travelers. More and better-quality ships are sailing from Dubai, says Brown, fresh from a Singapore-Dubai cruise herself.
She says it’s a good way to see the Middle East for travelers who might have trepidation about going there. “You can make your first trip a cruise where you stop in six ports in seven days,” she says, “and the accommodations are more North American or European in sensibility.”
Both Costa Cruises and Royal Caribbean sail from Dubai. A seven-night cruise on Royal Caribbean from Dubai through some of the United Arab Emirates and back starts at $689 (www.royalcaribbean.com). Costa offers a similar cruise for $799 and one to Egypt from Dubai for $1,439 (www.costacruises.com). Cruises to India from Dubai also are in the works, says Brown.
Even more food.
Cruises are known for the constant availability of food, but the industry has upped the ante with specialty restaurants that go beyond the formal dining and buffets usually offered. The exclusive experiences, such as steakhouses, come with a fee, though — as much as $30 per seating. Be sure to keep an eye on fees in general. Brown says that some amenities that used to be part of the package, such as late-night room service, now come with a service charge on some cruises.