04/06/00- Updated 06:58 PM ET

 

Published April 6, 2000

Get ready for a fall Caribbean fare war

By Laura Bly, USA TODAY

Faced with an armada of new ships, cruise lines are slashing prices on Caribbean sailings this fall. They're trying to pre-empt hurricane jitters and the trend toward last-minute booking with rates that start at less than $500 per person, per week, including port charges - and are setting the stage for what could be the region's biggest-ever fare war.

"Every year, cruise lines and travel agents contend it's a buyer's market. This time, it's actually the truth," says Cruise Week editor Mike Driscoll. He notes that companies are floating cut-rate deals much earlier than usual, and he predicts that prices will drop below last year's already-discounted rates for fall cruises in the Caribbean, the world's most popular cruising ground.

Behind the bargains: a classic case of supply vs. demand.

New arrivals such as Carnival's Victory, Celebrity's Millennium, Holland America's Zaandam and Royal Caribbean's Explorer of the Seas will all be based in Florida or San Juan this fall, contributing to a pool of about 3.2 million Caribbean cruise berths in 2000. That's up nearly a third from last year, at a time when cruise stocks are slumping and predicted bookings will increase by less than 10% worldwide.

Throw in a traditional dip in demand for warm-weather autumn trips and memories of past hurricanes that snarled flights and disrupted cruise itineraries, and "the Caribbean will go for a song," says Anne Campbell, editor of the Web site CruiseMates.

Though some Caribbean prices have plummeted this winter and spring - inside cabins on NCL's Norwegian Dream were advertised last month at an eye-popping $399 per person, per week for early April departures - rates seem to be holding steady for the summer season.

Still, "we're seeing a tremendous amount of last-minute, dump-the-space deals" for passengers who wait anywhere from a week to three months before deciding on a ship, says Patrick Webb of Galaxsea Cruises & Tours in Pomona, Calif. He adds that by supplying widespread access to prices, the Internet is creating better shoppers: "Customers are starting to look at cruises as a commodity, and prices are reflecting that."

Flexible, Caribbean-bound vacationers willing to play chicken may score big by waiting, but even steeper discounts may carry their own price tags - including higher airfares or sold-out flights to and from home ports, particularly San Juan.

"In most cases, our customers are spending more for a five-hour flight than they are for a seven-day cruise," says Jacquie Hurst of Uniglobe.com.