The Royal Caribbean cruise line is rolling out the world's largest cruise ship next fall, the Oasis of the Seas. Rock walls are passe; this 5,400-passenger colossus has its own zip line across the back of the boat. But if you fear that a voyage on the state-of-the-art Oasis will sink your wallet, think again: you can book a seven-night Caribbean trip in that brass ring of cruise deals, a cabin with a balcony, for less than $1,000 per person. Considering it includes three meals a day, it's like getting an Orlando resort at Travelodge rates.
Cruises have been an affordable luxury for a generation now, ever since Captain Steubing and the Love Boat first weighed anchor. Yet even Gopher would be amazed at the deals to be had this year: $50 per day, about a fivefold price cut, for a four-day trip from Miami to the Bahamas on Norwegian Cruise Lines; a seven-day Alaska cruise, usually more than $2,000 per person, for $499 on Holland America and $399 on Carnival; even $699 for seven days in Europe on the more upscale Celebrity. In fact, says Ken Heit, sales director at World Wide Cruises in Ft. Lauderdale, "If you live in an expensive city like San Francisco, Chicago or New York, it might be cheaper right now to spend a week on a cruise ship than to stay at home." (See pictures of the last voyage of the QE2)
The cruise industry, once thought recession-proof, is rolling out the deep-discount gangway in this crisis. Chicagoan Shirlee Yeary says she and her husband "were going to forget our winter getaway this year because of the economy." But her travel agency, Cruise Holidays, saw a deluxe cabin for a week in the Caribbean on a brand new ship, the Celebrity Solstice, at almost half price. For $1,100 per person, Yeary, who says she's never experienced the swank side of cruising, also gets a veranda, complimentary champagne, daily hors d'oeuvres and preferential treatment on shore excursions. "I wasn't expecting this," she says. "But it seems they have to do it to keep ships afloat in this scary state of affairs."
The cruise industry barely made it back to port last year. Miami-based Royal Caribbean reported a 98% drop in fourth-quarter earnings. The winter months, or "wave season," are its busiest period; yet onboard traffic at many lines is down at least 25%. But the more important reason cruise lines are desperate to sell tickets is that their real revenue comes not from fares but from onboard spending. The industry's dilemma, says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of CruiseCritic.com, is that "if it takes fares this low to get me onboard, am I really going to spend that much in the casino or on the bottle of wine at dinner?" Says Yeary, "I do plan to be a little more careful in that department." To help make up for the shortfall, Royal Caribbean now charges fees for services like late-night room service, traditionally free on cruises.
The fare deals may not last, however. "We are actually encouraged by the pace of our early bookings," says Royal Caribbean CEO Richard Fain. But "we're also finding that going to extreme price discounts in order to fill the very last cabin may not be as productive" as once thought. For one thing, the cruise lines still have to pay for all the new megaships they're launching these days. With more families and seniors forgoing cruises, Celebrity was smart to give its Solstice a more contemporary design for younger travelers, including a special bar for vodka-and-caviar tastings. That Russian delicacy might be out of synch with the economic times but at fares this cheap, nostrovya!