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As companies bring their full fleets back online, many ships still have room. That means bargains are being offered outside the winter “wave season,” making some sailings unexpectedly cheap, even in an era of inflation.
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By Elaine Glusac
A $50-a-day offer to sail on a Caribbean cruise ship with pools, water slides, restaurants and Broadway-style entertainment says a lot about the turbulence some cruise companies are facing.
But for thrifty travelers, it means deal season — or “wave season” in industry parlance, usually a first-quarter phenomenon — is back. Normally, cruise lines fill their ships during the winter, when they typically offer discounts and generous perks, a pattern disrupted this year by the Omicron variant. Now, many cruise companies have put their trips on sale again relatively late in the year.
“Omicron knocked a lot of business off the books,” said Anthony Hamawy, the president of the travel agency Cruise.com. “Then Ukraine and the situation with the international policy of retesting all returning travelers for Covid affected bookings abroad.”
Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently rescinded the requirement to test travelers flying to the United States from abroad, the damage was already done and the discounts are a patch. In addition, cabin availability grew as cruise lines dropped occupancy limits and returned entire fleets back to service, flooding the market.
“You have thousands of cabins that really in the 11th hour they’re trying to fill,” Mr. Hamawy added.
Some agents note that promotions directed to families are not uncommon on Caribbean cruises in the summer, which is high season for families to cruise, but this year’s sales are bigger and include more regions of the world.
“The Caribbean tends to book closer in than Europe and Alaska,” said Michelle Fee, the founder and chief executive of Cruise Planners, a travel agency based in Coral Springs, Fla. “I think people were just waiting to see and by waiting there are better deals happening.”
Prepandemic, many bookings were made a year or more in advance; now, a few months out is not uncommon.
“More people are booking last minute,” said Colleen McDaniel, the editor of CruiseCritic, a cruise review website. “They want to make sure they’re able to do what they plan to do, knowing that variants can happen, so they’re being careful and not planning too far ahead.”
The world on sale
Most big cruise lines are sweetening their offers with discounts and freebies available through June for cruises this summer and beyond, with many deals running less than $100 a person a day for a vacation that includes lodging, meals and entertainment.
By comparison, the average hotel room in the United States in May ran about $149 a night, according to the hospitality benchmarking firm STR.
Ms. Fee calls the extras “value adds,” which include perks like free airfare, children sailing free, specialty dining at no extra fee, open bars and a percentage off companion fares.
Norwegian Cruise Line’s current sale demonstrates multitiered incentives with 35 percent off its cruises plus complimentary open bar, discounted shore excursions, free Wi-Fi, free airfare for a second guest and more until June 30. The deals bring a weeklong Mediterranean cruise leaving from Barcelona to $649 a person, or about $97 a day.
Royal Caribbean’s promotion, good through June 30 for cruises on or after July 1, offers 30 percent off and no charge for children 12 and under.
Since most deals end in July, procrastinators must act fast. Through June 30, Celebrity Cruises has companion fares at 60 percent off for North American travelers who book a trip on nearly all itineraries through April 2024. This includes summer trips in Alaska and the Mediterranean. A nine-night sailing in Italy and Montenegro in August starts at $899 a person before any discounts.
Cruise lines would like to see booking windows expand again and some are incentivizing it. Virgin Voyages, which operates in the Caribbean and Mediterranean, is offering 10 percent off bookings made 180 days or more in advance, and five percent off those more than 120 days out.
High-end ships are filling up
Luxury ocean, river and expedition ships, which tend to be much smaller than those run by the mass-market cruise lines, are having less trouble filling space.
“Luxury has been off the charts since Covid,” Ms. Fee said, noting that many are filled with bookings pushed from canceled trips over the past two years. “Those are people that travel and realize if I don’t rebook, I will lose the chance because the ships are smaller.”
Still, there are some immediate deals for the few remaining vacancies. Through June, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises is offering half-off fares on 20 European river itineraries, such as an eight-day sailing on the Rhine from Basel to Amsterdam from $2,999 a person in August, which includes open bar and excursions, after the discount.
“A sale of this caliber is not common for us, but we are constantly monitoring booking trends and listening to our guests,” wrote Ellen Bettridge, the president and chief executive of Uniworld, in an email. “As a result of that, we are seeing shorter booking windows continue to spike for trips in the coming months.”
Selection is narrow on some of the offers. AmaWaterways, another river specialist, is selling select seven-night itineraries running through December from $5,499, including round-trip airfare and airport transfers, which are normally extra; the company says the inclusions represent more than $2,000 in value. The offer, good through June 30, is available in Provence, on the Rhine River and in Holland and Belgium.
Windstar Cruises, which operates ships carrying 350 passengers or fewer, has some European itineraries that include complimentary drinks, Wi-Fi and gratuities, a value of $79 a person each day. Some trips also include a $1,000 airline credit per person. In August, a seven-day circumnavigation of Iceland starts at $$3,599 a person, including perks and the additional flight credit.
Dates on sale from the Greece-based yacht company Variety Cruises, which carries no more than 72 passengers on a ship, includes the July 29 departure of an eight-day sailing from Athens to Mykonos, Santorini and Hydra. The sale, through July 1, offers two-for-one pricing, meaning a cabin for two costs $1,495, or half the normal price.
The select dates on sale with Hurtigruten, the expedition line, include departures in July and August that spend 11 days circumnavigating Iceland — and crossing the Arctic Circle to see the vast seabird colonies on Grimsey Island —from $5,812 a person and up to $1,000 in air credit, through June 29. The promotion covers itineraries in Greenland and Galápagos this summer, and Antarctica in the fall.
‘Rare’ sales in Alaska
If you’ve been pining to get to Alaska affordably, this might be the summer. In the first full-scale cruise season in the state since the pandemic, many ships still have room.
“We’re seeing deals in Alaska, which is a very rare thing, especially in the height of the Alaska season,” Ms. McDaniel said.
Princess Cruises has much of its portfolio on sale through Aug. 31, including Alaska sailings, starting at $399 for seven-day voyages, with many departures through mid-September.
Through June 30, Holland America Line is offering half-off select cruises this and next year, plus $50 a guest to spend onboard and 50 percent off required deposits. The sale covers virtually all regions, including the South Pacific, Antarctica and Alaska, where a seven-day Inside Passage cruise starts at $439 a person.
In a perk that seems to be appreciating daily, some lines are covering the airfare or providing an airfare credit, including Lindblad Expeditions, which will include round-trip airfare on select 2022 departures on their six-day Alaska sailing (from $4,660 a person) or a credit up to $350 a person.
UnCruise Adventures, which operates small ships in Alaska, is pricing its 12-night Inside Passage itinerary at a seven-night rate for $3,345 a person, saving more than $4,300, on three sailings in July and August.
Fall and beyond
Apart from encouraging sailing this summer, many cruise sales aim to get passengers to book for fall.
Princess’ sale, for example, includes fall departures such as a three-day California coastal cruise from $199 a person in September and 10 days in the Caribbean and Central America, including transiting the Panama Canal, from $649 in November.
Norwegian’s sale offers deals in the Caribbean over the winter holidays and into spring, including seven days departing from New Orleans for Mexico, Belize and Honduras for $398 a person.
Abercrombie & Kent, a high-end tour operator, says cancellations account for availability in the next three to nine months on itineraries in places like Italy, the British Isles and the South Pacific that are ordinarily sold out more than a year in advance. In December, a 13-day Antarctica cruise costs about $13,000 with the sale compared to roughly $16,000 normally.
Once those sales expire, future cruises are more expensive, though if low bookings continue you can be sure cruise lines will come out with new deals.
“This is a transitional year,” Mr. Hamawy said, noting 2023 prices are presently five to 10 percent higher than in 2019. “I tell all my family and friends to go now.”
Elaine Glusac writes the Frugal Traveler column. Follow her on Instagram @eglusac.
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