This year, however, cruises on mainstream lines are routinely topping $100 a night (seven-night Oasis of the Seas cruises are at their cheapest at $1,049, or $150 per night, and can be priced over $2,000 for an inside cabin), and extra-value promotions are stingy, offering meager two-category upgrades or coupon booklets.
So what's going on with 2010 pricing? As travelers perceive the economy rebounding and people who skipped their big vacation in 2009 are getting ready to hit the road again, the cruise climate is changing. Here are the trends we're seeing for the coming year.
Cruise Lines Are Bullish on the Economy: Cruise lines are optimistic that a pent-up demand for cruise vacations will lead to stronger pricing for them (and fewer deals for you). For example, in their last earnings call, Royal Caribbean executives noted a growing interest once more in more far-flung and expensive destinations, such as Europe, and claimed a surprise profit double that of the same period in 2009. With more people ready to book a cruise, the cruise lines don't need to offer bargain-basement rates to entice wary spenders -- plus they're ready to make up for 2009's lackluster numbers. All that means that fares are way up from last year's amazing deals.
Is Wave Season All Washed Up?: In the past, cruise bookings spiked during the first few months of the year, leading agencies and lines to offer extra perks for bookings during this period, but agents and even cruise lines have told us they get steady business year-round. Norwegian Cruise Line CEO Kevin Sheehan, for one, told us that the line basically does 25 percent of its bookings in each quarter (you do the math). So, perhaps this de-emphasis on early booking is the reason for 2009's particularly lackluster collection of Wave Season deals. Some of the biggest lines, like Carnival and Royal Caribbean, haven't even bothered to come out with Wave Season promotions and the ones we've seen tend to focus on higher-category (read: pricey) cabins -- like free balcony upgrades on Princess or onboard credit reserved for villas and suites on NCL. So the extra-value perks we've come to look for January through March just aren't out in abundance. New Ships Are Driving Up Prices: Cruising fans have been excited about recent introductions of innovative new ships, including Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, the biggest ship ever built; Seabourn Odyssey, the most modern luxury vessel afloat; and Celebrity's Solstice-class ships, with their live grass, glass-blowing shows and multiple dining venues. Unfortunately for deal hunters, the cruise lines are capitalizing on the buzz by raising prices on these hot new ships. For example, Oasis of the Seas' Caribbean cruises are going for roughly double the price of Caribbean sailings on older ships, and when Oceania's Marina (debuting in 2011) went on sale in January, 50 percent of the ship's inventory sold out in just 12 hours. So the cruise lines are feeling no need to discount on new ships.
Where the Deals Are: With cruise lines showing more pricing optimism than we've seen since 2007, deal hunters will need to be strategic to find some good deals in 2010. Our advice? Look for struggling or undersold destinations like the Eastern Mediterranean and Mexican Riviera, where an imbalance of interest versus berths is keeping fares low. And stay tuned for last-minute deals this spring. If dull Wave Season promotions don't attract enough bookings, you can be sure that spring and summer sailings will start dropping in price as the cruise lines scramble to fill remaining cabins.
--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor