Not even the most successful element of the travel industry's past quarter century — the cruise vacation — is recession-proof. The result: You can't quite name your price, but the discounting of fares is rampant.
This time of year, when winter grips the North and Midwest, should be the time of greatest demand — and highest prices — for a few days spent gliding through Caribbean sunshine with umbrella drinks.
Instead, one online travel site that listed 22 departures from Tampa for this month is advertising cabins with private balconies on those sailings priced from $126 to $184 a night per person.
Those prices include all meals, Vegas-style musical shows, movies and more.
And cruisers who figure the cabin is merely the place to eat and change clothes could have sailed the same itineraries for $62 to $93 a night. Veteran cruisers and bargain hunters consider anything less than $100 a day a good deal.
If you can be gone from home for 13 nights in early May, you can sail from Miami to England, stopping in Bermuda, Portugal, Spain and France, in a balcony cabin, for less than $70 a night.
Cruise prices are down 50 percent for South America, down 18 percent to Europe and down 10 to 15 percent for the Caribbean, according to Mike Driscoll, editor of the industry journal Cruise Week. The Caribbean cruise discounts should be attractive to Floridians who save airfare with five nearby ports (Tampa, Jacksonville, Port Canaveral, Fort Lauderdale and Miami).
Some prices that are offered now extend to next year. For instance, Royal Caribbean is pricing an outside cabin for a seven-night western Caribbean swing for $1,049 in April. That price is good for 2010 April sailings, too. After the down payment, you'll have more than a year to save for the trip and can be relatively certain the price won't go up.
Though these fares — based on double occupancy and not including port fees and taxes — are for ships marketed to the masses, even luxury lines are discounting.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises recently sent a mailer advertising seven-night trips in Alaskan waters. Most wouldn't consider the starting price of $3,350 a bargain, but that was for a deluxe suite and included:
• Round-trip airfare to the West Coast.
• Unlimited shore excursions, which can cost hundreds of dollars.
• Alcoholic beverages.
• Tips for the crew.
• On eight departures, children can sail free.
• And booking by March 31 could bring as much as a 50 percent fare discount.
Another major change: Though cruise companies were used to selling reservations roughly five months before departure, this month procrastinators could have bought a balcony cabin on a weeklong cruise for as little as $80 a night, just three days before sailing from Miami.
The lure of the sea
The reasons for such pricing and reservation changes are supply and demand. The cruise industry has been accustomed to annual increases in passenger loads of more than 10 percent, and, consequently, built more ships.
But suddenly, the disposable income that pays for a vacation has become scarce.
Knowing that unfilled cabins mean lost revenue, industry executives reasoned it's better to slash prices to gain some income.
The discounting began in late 2008.
"Summer sailing prices have dropped three times," says Robin Smith, co-owner of Caladesi Travel in Dunedin and an agent for 32 years. "Fares had been rising pretty steadily; now the same cabins for spring and summer cruises are $50 to $100 less per person."
Insiders think the discounts won't go lower, though it's unclear how much longer they will be offered. Meanwhile, one new "guarantee" to lure passengers has drawn attention.
Norwegian Cruise Line will refund some of the deposit by passengers who have been laid off from a job they worked for at least one year.
In addition to cutting ticket prices, the lines are offering shipboard credits, to be spent on spa treatments, specialty restaurants, drinks and sometimes in the casino. Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., the industry's second-largest company, is offering credits of $50 to $300 for bookings into April.
The credits are an alternative to cutting prices further. As industry newsletter Seatrade Insider reported, RCCL chief financial officer Brian Rice says the line sees diminishing returns when it slashes rates to fill every bed.
Despite the grim economy, RCCL expects that its average passenger load this year will be greater than filling every lower berth — many cabins, throughout the industry, have more than two beds, or berths, per cabin.
Rice said that between the discounts and credit offers, he did not expect a "fundamental change" in that occupancy rate.
His forecast may be coming true. Last December the chairman and CEO of the big sea dog of the industry, Carnival Corp., which operates 88 ships, said that occupancy levels for advance bookings were running behind the comparable 2008 numbers.
"As expected," said Mickey Arison, "2009 is shaping up to be a challenging year in the travel industry."
But on March 3, a Carnival Corp. press release trumpeted that, "For the one-week period ended March 1, Carnival (which operates 22 of the parent company's ships) recorded the highest number of weekly bookings in its history. (And) since mid January, bookings are up 10 percent compared to the same period in 2008."
Robert N. Jenkins is the Times' former travel editor. Information from McClatchy-Tribune Newspapers was used in this report.