Booking early gets you the best stateroom selection and time to book tours and treatments
The cruise industry's Wave Season (it used to be a week, then a month; now it's a season) is well underway. This is the time of year when most people book their cruises. After some initial sluggishness, perhaps due to such a high volume of bookings at the end of last year, Wave Season 2005 is off and running. And there are some exceptionally bullish projections about how strong the season is going to be. The highest level of optimism seems to be for Europe, where cruise capacity is up 17% over last year. It's so rosy that Celebrity Cruises made a late itinerary change, moving its ship Century to Europe well after most planning for the year had been completed. They certainly wouldn't do this if they didn't think demand for Europe cruises was going to be terrific.
There have been published reports in recent weeks about higher fares this year, about some sailings (especially for groups) being sold out, and a lower level of discounting than there has been since 9/11. That's great for an industry that underwent a significant static period, especially in Europe, since that event.
But what does it mean for the cruiser? Is it going to be difficult to get a room at the right price on the right sailing to the right place? Very likely, the answer is going to be ‘yes' for someone who wants a deep discount on a popular itinerary at the height of the season. Let's be practical: That's probably not going to happen.
Are there ways to get around this high booking level and find the right cruise? Or the right deal? Yes, quite possibly -- if certain shopping techniques are used.
First, if you are absolutely certain you want to take a cruise this year, book much sooner rather than later. Prices are probably not going to get lower than they are now -- especially when you consider that you can put down your deposit and have plenty of time to make your final payment (depending on your sailing date, of course). If prices were to drop, you will most likely have the chance to get a fare adjustment. But overall, you should pick your sailing, shop for the right deal, and book it now.
While Europe does seem to be leading the way in terms of booking intensity (meaning deals and availability may be scarce), there are lots of other places to go. And deals are very much out there. You can check virtually any cruise line website for current special offers. Lines like Holland America and Costa are promoting free upgrades to outside rooms or rooms with balconies. Cunard has special rates for Queen Mary 2's balcony rooms on spring crossings. NCL has its annual "Sail of all Sales" promotion going on now. Oceania is already promoting 2-for-1 deals with free air for exotic cruises later this year. Radisson has some discounts of up to 50% for spring Caribbean sailings. Seabourn has some special "guaranteed" rates for spring sailings in the Med.
So if you have some flexibility in terms of sailing date and destination, there certainly are deals out there. Let's be realistic -- not every room on every sailing is going to sell out by tomorrow. And cruise lines are always going to be actively promoting those sailings with significant open space.
What about pricing? It's true some lines have been putting clamps on the rebating practices of travel agencies. Carnival, Royal Caribbean, NCL and Crystal, for example, have new policies to try and level the playing field as much as possible, so that agencies aren't offering better deals than the lines themselves. And it seems to be working. However, there are loopholes that some agencies have found. Now, I am not advocating asking for rebates -- but when Expedia is actively offering consumers gift certificates at amounts that vary by the type of cruise booked, to me that is a rebate. I am also not advocating using an on-line booking service instead of a traditional travel agent, who is still going to be the best qualified to give you hands-on service and continuing help during the pre-cruise period (especially if there is a problem). But if this type of exception to the new rebating prohibition is allowed, many consumers will take advantage of it – and why shouldn't they? I've always felt anything that a travel agent offers that has a cost benefit to the cruiser (a limo, free wine, a gift certificate, or an out-and-out price reduction) is a rebate.
So, shop early if you know exactly when and where you want to go. If you have some flexibility in dates and destination, you should still shop now and book. It's going to be that kind of a year.