Plan Now for 2004

| August 11, 2003

The dog days of summer are here, so it must be time to start thinking about 2004 cruise vacations, right? Brochures for next year are out. Itineraries are set. Fares are published. So here are some things to consider and to talk over with your travel agent as you begin the planning process.

Where to go in 2004?

Surprise! No new countries or destination areas have been invented for next year. On a year-round basis, the most popular area for cruising will still be the Caribbean. And why not? It's full of great islands and places to see. This year, for example (and it won't be very different next year), Royal Caribbean and Celebrity, the two brands that make up the second-largest cruise company, have more than 40 percent of their total capacity in the seven-night Caribbean market. They also have just over 20 percent in shorter and longer Caribbean cruises. So if you want to sail on either Celebrity or Royal Caribbean, nearly two-thirds of their capacity next year will be in the Caribbean, providing cruisers an incredible array of cruise length and island options.

But ships go to a whole lot more places than the Caribbean. If you are planning a summer vacation, you have the option of a European or Alaskan cruise. The Alaskan season used to be primarily from mid-June to early September, but now ships are up there in late May and stay until much later in September, due to increased demand for these popular cruises. There are two main itinerary options: the Inside Passage, which is a roundtrip sailing from Vancouver or Seattle or one-way sailings north or south beginning or ending in one of the access ports for Anchorage. Either one makes for a great cruise. As for Europe, you could virtually hop from one cruise to another from the eastern edge of the Black Sea to the very top of Norway, stopping at port after port with almost no duplication. Pick your cruise area and length, and have a ball.

Of course you can branch out further and go to the South Pacific for Australia and New Zealand, the Mid-Pacific for Hawaii and the Society Islands (meaning Tahiti and more), Asia and Southeast Asia, even Africa. Some of these cruises used to be the province of the very rich and those people who had tons of time on their hands. Not true any more. There are cruise lines in those regions now with reasonable price structures and very attractive advance purchase fares. There are seven-night itineraries that make the cruises work comfortably within a one-week vacation schedule.

Where to sail from in 2004?

When NCL started Houston departures in 1997, other cruise lines scoffed at the idea of sailing out of Texas. Well, not any more. Other lines that are now (or soon will be) sailing down the channel from Houston or out of Galveston are Carnival, Princess, Celebrity and Royal Caribbean. And these two cities are just part of a rapidly growing list of convenient U.S. departure ports that cruisers can fly or drive to, including Anchorage, Baltimore, Boston, Charleston, Fort Lauderdale, Honolulu, Jacksonville, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York, Port Canaveral, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco, San Juan, Seattle, Tampa and West Palm Beach.

According to a recent study by Cruise Industry News, about a third of all North American cruisers in 2002 drove to their port of embarkation. With the above port list growing rapidly (and also in the number of ships deployed there), that figure is only going to grow. And here's a suggestion. If you want to get the most out of your cruise vacation, don't just fly in the day of your cruise and go home the day it ends. Go in early or stay a couple of days when it's over. Your embarkation and debarkation ports (double the possibility when they're different) each have something to offer. Let's presume you have a week's vacation. OK, add a day or two at the beginning or end and you're still only taking one or two extra days off work. It will be well worth it in the long run.

How much will it cost in 2004?

Cruise prices may very well be higher in 2004 than they have been in 2003. Recent reports indicate that booking activity in recent months has been high. While this has been tempered by lots of cautious optimism, primarily based on uncertain world conditions and the steady introduction of new ships, it probably will encourage cruise lines to start raising rates. And this would only be appropriate after a couple of years of seriously depressed fares.

This is a big reason why you should book now rather than later. In addition, there's no doubt the industry has fallen into an extraordinary close-in booking pattern. Cruise execs do not like this. Travel agents profess not to like, this but can be drawn into it if their clients simply do not want to book.

But if you have a good idea when you want to cruise and know the line, the category, etc., why not consider it booking far in advance? You're going to get the advance purchase rate every cruise line offers, you may get upgrades now you won't get later, and you only have to put down a refundable deposit. You can keep track of the rates for the category you've booked very easily these days (your travel agent should be able to do it for you) so that as you get closer to the date your deposit is not refundable and/or you have to make further payment, you can see if better rates are available. If they are, prevail upon the cruise line for the better rate. If they won't give it to you, you have the option of canceling and rebooking.

What else should I look for in 2004?

In my last column, I talked about alternate types of cruises (for example, transatlantic crossings and repositioning cruises) and theme/learning cruises. Feedback has been excellent. If you have an interest in anything specific from cooking to race cars to history to computers, have your travel agent find out which cruise lines offer courses or lecturers or programs that may be of interest to you. It certainly is a way to make a cruise that much more special.

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