Surfing Web best way to get deals on cruise lines

by Paul Motter/Special to the Boston Herald
Sunday, February 3, 2002

January marked the beginning of ``wave season'' for the cruise industry, the heaviest booking season of the year. Weather-weary Northerners flock to ships sailing the Caribbean, and savvy cruise buyers snap up early-booking discounts for the Alaskan and European summer cruising season - and this year, it seems, there are still bargains for almost everyone.

Wave season, which typically lasts through March, is important to the cruise industry every year, but in the wake of 9/11 this one is crucial. By continuing to offer unprecedented price-cutting, the cruise industry is hoping to restore passenger numbers to what they were before the terrorist attacks.

``It looked like business was going to dry up completely immediately after 9/11,'' Carnival Cruise Lines President Bob Dickinson said at the 2001 PhoCusWright Executive Conference for Internet Travel in Miami.

According to Dickinson, Carnival tried various measures in the wake of the tragedy to rebuild bookings, but initially met with little success. First it publicly donated a portion of each cruise fare to charity, then it raised travel agent commissions to 20 percent. But the final step - the one that worked - was to ``drop our fares until we found the point where customers just couldn't ignore us any longer,'' he said. ``The price we offered in October 2001 was the same price Carnival was charging for a cruise back in 1974.'' Other cruise lines were obliged to drop their fares to remain competitive.

But four months after the event, as passenger bookings are increasing with the onset of ``wave season,'' are the unprecedented cruise bargains of last fall slipping away?

``There are still bargains out there, but not like there were two months ago,'' said Brad Gerstner of National Leisure Group, a Woburn company that provides cruises for some of the largest travel Web sites, including Expedia, Yahoo Travel and Orbitz. ``Many travelers discovered that cruising had become a bigger bargain than other travel categories,'' he said, noting that, unlike the airlines, which chose to cut capacity by mothballing some planes, the cruise lines chose to fill all their ships by offering lower rates. Cruise lines make much of their revenue after people get onboard through tours, shipboard casinos and alcohol and souvenir sales.

``In the past, we sold about a 50/50 mix of cruises and land-based packages, but since the cruise lines lowered rates after 9/11 we are now selling closer to 60 percent cruises,'' said Gerstner. This is ``partly because of lower rates, and partly because the cruise lines re-deployed many ships to U.S. homeports, where people are more comfortable flying in,'' he said.

So where does the savvy cruiser look for the remaining bargains? According to PhoCusWright, the one segment of the travel industry whose business has actually increased since Sept. 11 is travel-related Web sites. And the No. 1 reason why more travel consumers are turning to the Web is to hunt for travel bargains.

Both Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Lines reported a marked increase in visitors to their Web sites after 9/11. And usage patterns indicate that, rather than looking up practical information about changed itineraries and security measures, most of these visitors were seeking the latest cruise bargains.

``If I were looking for a cruise today, first I would decide where I wanted to cruise, and then I would monitor the cruise agency Web sites for changing prices on a daily basis,'' said NLG's Gerstner. ``The cruise lines have introduced a lot of new ships recently, so they have a lot of cabins to fill; and while prices are slowly rising, there are still plenty of bargains to be found.''

According to Anne Campbell, editor of Internet-based consumer cruise magazine, ``Immediately after the event we were updating itinerary and departure time changes for dozens of ships, but now our news is all about the incredible cruise bargains that are available.''

Campbell believes the increasing number of megaliners entering service means steep discounting in Alaska and the Caribbean will continue. ``The cruise lines also tell me a sizeable number of potential passengers are still unwilling to fly. These two factors will keep prices below average for the time being,'' she adds.

Campbell recommends shopping for group cruises that locked in rates when they reached their lowest point a few months ago. ``We set the rates for our upcoming CruiseMates cruise to Hawaii in October. It's a real steal now,'' she said.