(6:08 p.m. EDT) -- Savvy cruise travelers have known for a long time that if you see a price drop on your booked cruise, you should ask for a refund from the cruise line. While some lines have been willing to offer cash back, onboard credit or upgrades, the policies have typically been hush-hush and not set in stone. Today, Royal Caribbean has made its program official, announcing a best price guarantee. But is the program really a boon for consumers?
Here's the skinny: The best price guarantee is available to anyone booked on a Royal Caribbean cruise up to 72 hours prior to departure. If booked passengers find lower prices advertised for their sailings, all they must do is call up Royal Caribbean or their travel agent, and they will receive the price difference as onboard credit or, if they have not yet paid in full, as a cash refund or reduction to their outstanding balance. Any unused onboard credit at the end of the cruise will also be returned to the cruise traveler as a refund.
Sounds good, no? Travelers who debate whether to book early to get the best availability of cabins, itineraries and departure dates or to wait for a last-minute, rock-bottom fare now have the possibility of getting the best of both worlds. Travel agents tell us that the only difference between the previous policy and this one is that in the past, Royal Caribbean has simply adjusted the rate or offered the typical "use it or lose it" onboard credit. With the new policy, passengers will receive cash back if they don't spend the entire credit onboard.
The only other cruise line to publicly announce a fare guarantee is Carnival, as part of its Early Saver fares. These fares can only be booked in advance with nonrefundable deposits, but if the price drops, you can request the difference in onboard credit.
But beware: These programs might come back to haunt you. Royal Caribbean and Carnival -- like all cruise lines this year -- have seen booking windows shrink and ships filling up more slowly. The result was more great last-minute deals for consumers. However, if more people begin to book early because of price guarantees, it's likely the cruise lines won't need to lower prices later to sell out ships. That's great for the cruise lines -- but if you gamble that the cruise fare will drop after you book, you might never see that refund or onboard credit.
Our advice: Book at a price you are willing to pay at a time when you're comfortable putting down a deposit. And if the price drops after you've booked, consider it a happy surprise -- rather than a guaranteed windfall.
And don't miss reading the fine print. As far as Royal Caribbean's deal is concerned, only residents of the United States and Canada are eligible for the guarantee. The lower fare must be applicable to the ship, departure date and cabin category booked and cannot be a rate limited to new bookings. Certain bookings are ineligible for this program altogether, including Royal Sales Event and Exciting Deals; Travel Agent, Interline or Industry Reduced Rates; employee rate programs; and group or charter bookings.
--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor
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Best Price Guarantees: Good or Bad for Cruisers?
September 23, 2009