Here it is:
Posted on Sun, Sep. 19, 2004
The line forms here
Cruising's popularity is soaring -- book those cabins early
By Michael Martinez
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
The best bargain in vacation travel might be getting costlier.
Cruising, although still considered a good deal for its all-inclusive prices, is expected to get more expensive beginning this fall.
And bargain shoppers who used to wait until the last minute to book an outside cabin to Mexico or the Caribbean could find themselves paying more than they expected -- or being left out completely.
"It's about supply and demand, as always," said Terrance Zepke, author of "The Encyclopedia of Cheap Travel." "Demand has increased, so supply has decreased. Many cruises are already sold out for 2005."
For consumers, it means booking passage several months in advance of a voyage rather than hoping to get a deal a couple of weeks before a cruise departs, when cruise lines had often typically dropped prices in order to fill cabin space.
Cruise crowd grows
The reason is simple: While demand for cruising continues to rise, fewer ships are being built. From 2000 to 2004, cruise lines introduced 62 new vessels to the North American market, including Cunard's 2,620-passenger Queen Mary 2, the world's largest ocean liner, which debuted in January. But only three new ships are scheduled to set sail in 2005, and six are on order for 2006.
Most orders for new ships take from four to six years to fill, but cruise bookings have remained high, in part because cruise lines reduced prices to fill cabins and also because many vacationers who insisted on long-distance travel opted to sail rather than fly.
"The cruising industry is indeed at the end of a massive building cycle," said Brian Major, a spokesman for the Cruise Lines International Association, a trade group that represents most of the cruise-ship operators in the world. "The pace will dramatically slow beginning next year."
Crazy for cruisin'
At the same time, however, interest in cruising keeps growing. According to the International Council of Cruise Lines, there were 7.1 million embarcations at U.S. ports in 2003, a 9.4 percent increase over the previous year. Major said that CLIA estimates 10.6 million North Americans will take a cruise this year.
"Cruise lines weren't ordering ships in 2002 and 2003 because they were uncertain about the market," said Mike Driscoll, editor of Cruise Week, an industry newsletter. "But the market is still growing. They were able to fill fall Caribbean cruises, which are notoriously cheap, at reasonable prices.
"You have to assume that's going to continue in 2005 when there's very little capacity."
Book early for bargain
It doesn't mean there aren't affordable prices. It just means consumers will have to plan earlier, especially if they're hoping to set sail during popular holiday periods.
How much earlier? Probably as much as four to six months, said Sean Comey, a spokesman for AAA, the country's largest leisure travel agency.
"What a lot of cruise lines are doing is offering deals to people who book early, then raising their prices the closer they get to sailing, Comey said. "If people wait until the last couple of days and drive a hard bargain, they might be able to capitalize on one of the few remaining cabins. But they're more likely to pay more."
One way to save money is by departing from a home port. The Port of San Francisco is handling more ships than in previous years as cruise lines try to take advantage of home-port sailing -- giving vacationers the option of driving, rather than flying, to their ship's departure city.
"It used to be that there were only a few U.S. cruise embarkation points," said Zepke. "Nowadays, there are 24 home ports in 15 states with more being added every year or two. This saves on airline fares and hotel stays."
Cruisers can also save by choosing repositioning cruises and voyages that sail during off-peak periods, such as the fall. Celebrity Cruises, for instance, has three sailings from Vancouver that will carry passengers to San Francisco, Honolulu or San Diego. Norwegian Cruise Lines offers a 15-day sailing from Los Angeles to Miami through the Panama Canal with calls in Mexico, Costa Rica and Aruba in October.
"If people are willing to take a different itinerary, they can get good deals," said Amy Bohutinsky, Hotwire.com's consumer travel expert. She cited a four-night cruise from Vancouver to San Diego, with a stop in San Francisco, for $330 on Holland America.
Highly booked holidays
Experts also advise being flexible with travel plans. Cheaper prices are available from September to mid-December, but they tend to be higher during Thanksgiving week and the Christmas holidays. For example, a three-day cruise from Long Beach to Ensenada on Carnival's Paradise will cost $329 per person during Thanksgiving week; that same cruise, taken two weeks later, will cost $259 per person.
And the cost of cruising is virtually certain continue rising come spring. A three-day cruise from Los Angeles to Baja on Royal Caribbean's Monarch of the Sea sells for $259 per person in early December on Hotwire.com but increases to $429 per person in the spring.
Fall is hot
Some fall cruises, though, are already close to full.
"It's normally one of the most economical times to take a cruise," said Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer De La Cruz. "However, we put those bargains out there at the beginning of the year. We wanted to come into fall with a lot of business on the books so it wouldn't be such a challenge" to fill cabins at this point in the year. Cruises to the Caribbean on Princess and Royal Caribbean are almost sold out for October.
Prices "are going to be higher next summer than they were this summer," he said. "Rates went up this summer about eight percent over the previous year, and that was with a 12 percent capacity increase. Next summer, the capacity increase will be less than five percent, but the demand is going to continue."