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Cruising Into 2009 – My Ouija Board Says…

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Without a doubt, looking at what 2009 holds for the cruise industry is a guessing game, so a Ouija board is as good a tool to use as any.

2008 was a tumultuous year from an economic perspective in the United States, particularly during the last quarter of the year, when it seems it suddenly occurred to all the financial institutions at the same time that they were going broke. And it suddenly became clear to everyone having any dealings with financial institutions (basically everyone) that they were going broke as well. And it suddenly became clear to every industry which had dealings with financial institutions (basically all of them) that they were going broke. The United States has the largest economy in the world, so its ills quickly spread world wide. Incredible amounts of wealth throughout the world was dramatically reduced or even wiped out. On top of that, sadly hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs. Because I am not an economist I have no solutions to offer. I do, however, wonder how these situations will impact the cruise industry.

I begin with the premise that we cruisers are generally an optimistic lot, and want our cruise vacations despite obstacles and uncertainty. After-all many of us are willing book our vacations during hurricane season, when there’s a possibility the ship we’re on will be have to outrun a hurricane. We’re optimistic enough to believe our sailing won’t be affected, and we’ll simply see blue skies and smooth seas. Despite this optimism the economic woes will almost certainly impact the cruise industry.

The cruise industry is moving into “Wave Season”; generally the busiest time of year for cruise bookings.  During “Wave Season” many cruisers normally avidly pursue the best bargains they can find on cruises. The cruise lines seem to be in a constant state of offering “sale of sales”, “biggest one day sale ever”, “super saver rates”, etc. ’m inundated daily with email from the cruise lines I’ve previously sailed with, attempting to entice me with special offers for their “repeat cruisers”.

Honestly, at least to date, I’ve yet to find prices on any of these advertised sales offering pricing that are lower than I can find on my own, or a via email or phone call to a few trusted Travel Agents. But I think the real question is “what is going to happen to cruise pricing throughout the year?”

To this point I have been an advocate of booking early for the best prices. However, even this fall,  as we fell into the present economic uncertainty, I noticed prices closer to sailing dates being offered at much lower prices than they were 6 month to a year before.

Perhaps oddly, recently taking a peak at pricing on cruises six months to a year away, I’m noticing prices considerably higher than were available last year in the same time frames. Admittedly this was no scientific analysis of a large sampling; just a casual observation. But it does seem to me that the cruise lines are taking an overly optimistic view of the optimistic nature of their customer base.

With that in mind my recommendation to people now is to book later, rather than earlier — if price plays a major factor in your cruise plans, unless you can find a cruise line which will guarantee your pricing. All of the major cruise lines used to do this, even if it wasn’t in their written policies. Of late that’s changed quite significantly. Many run “specials” now with pricing designated for new bookings only, and the few who do have unwritten guarantees, still offering upgrades and onboard credits in lieu of lower prices can, and in some cases are, changing their policies in that regard with a moments notice.

Carnival Cruise Lines recently announced they will not offer price reductions, upgrades, or onboard credits to compensate for price reductions after final payments are made. This seems to be a pretty direct statement that they are prepared to protect themselves if they find it necessary to reduce prices on ships that are not selling as well as they’d like, and not have to compensate anyone. As they are the largest cruise line in the industry, I expect other cruise lines to follow suit, perhaps without the notice that Carnival provided.

While they are obviously acting in their own interests, as consumers we too need to act in our best interests. Surely there will be many cruises where a delay in booking will find you staring at higher prices, and situations where, though the prices are lower, cabin selection will be limited.

Overall though, if you’re price conscious, and you have some flexibility in your cruise vacation planning, I think you’ll be farther ahead looking booking cruises some time within 60 days of sailing. Doing so is going to be a gamble, but if you’re prepared to roll the dice on your vacation, I do believe that 2009 might be the year that your odds are good to hit the jackpot.

Of course, my opinions and advice are worth exactly what you paid for them. And, of course, I most likely won’t listen to a word I’ve said. Whatever scenario you choose, I wish you all a wonderful 2009, with the ability to sail on fabulous cruises, on calm seas, with clear blue skies, to great destinations!

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Comment from Jason
Time February 20, 2009 at 5:49 pm

I have been on 3 cruises and am booked for a 4th in March and have always found the best prices about 3 months prior to cruising. If you are flexible and not to picky about cabin location this is when cruise lines tend to really push to fill ships that are under booked. Once they get a good many people to take advantage of these specials they tend to begin increasing prices closer to the beginning of the cruise. I took my 1st cruise in 1996 and am taking my 4th in March and booking 3 months out has always offered me the lowest fair. I base this on following prices prior to booking and continuing to follow the prices after booking and talking to other people going on the same cruise with comparable rooms and have always found I got the lowest or within 2- 3% of the lowest price anyone else paid.

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