(7:31 p.m. EDT) -- If 2009 was a watershed year for great deals on luxury cruises, 2010 may be just as good -- if an announcement today by Crystal Cruises is any kind of bellwether.
At a press conference in New York Friday, Crystal Cruises' Senior Vice President William Smith announced that, starting Monday, every 2010 sailing -- including the 108-night world cruise that departs on January 11 -- will feature two-for-one fares and an all-inclusive "As You Wish" spending credit of $500 or $1,000 per person (depending on cruise and cabin booked), which can be used toward just about anything onboard: spa treatments, wine, excursions and shopping sprees at the boutique.
Let us emphasize: This applies to every 2010 voyage (not just those that are slow sellers).
And, there's more. Most of Crystal's cruise deals also include free roundtrip economy airfare from more than 20 North American gateways (any two back-to-back world cruise segments are also eligible for free air as well). On Europe cruises, penthouse guests will receive free business-class air. The offer applies to all U.S. travelers.
Package deals like these aren't necessarily new. Throughout the year, lines like Seabourn, Silversea and Regent Seven Seas Cruises have all offered value-added amenities in addition to cutting prices by up to 65 percent.
And the deals have been extending into 2010. Oceania -- a "luxury lite" line (balancing high-end aspects of cruising, such as exceptional food and service, with smaller cabins and lots of a la carte charges) -- is now offering two-for-one fares on select sailings next year, plus perks like onboard credit and prepaid gratuities. Regent Seven Seas Cruises continues its unique "free shore excursions" offer, again on select 2010 sailings, even as it also is touting two-for-one fares, additional savings of $1,000 per passenger and free air.
However, there are several ways in which Crystal is doing things differently -- and making this new sales model its standard. For one, the perks aren't just for new bookings; Crystal will be retroactively extending the same savings and offers to those travelers who've already committed to a cruise in 2010. There's no expiration date or "act now" clause, commonly found in the other, similar deals. And, again, we're talking every sailing -- everywhere in the world -- all year long.
Interestingly, travel agents and cruise lines are noting a slight uptick in pricing for mass-market trips in 2010 on lines such as Carnival, Holland America, Princess and Celebrity. But Crystal's vast program indicates that the luxury market is still in the doldrums and expects to stay extremely competitive through the next year.
Perhaps such deals on luxury cruising are now the new normal?
They are, at least for the foreseeable future, according to a handful of travel agents we surveyed. "There's been a paradigm shift in how people book travel," says Brad Anderson, co-president of America's Vacation Center. Travel-savvy consumers are looking for added value and all-inclusive vacations, without the hassle of constantly reaching for their wallets on their relaxing getaways. Plus, more modern ships and innovative pricing strategies are attracting new, younger cruisers to luxury ships, once the domain of retirees.
And if the new deals are enticing people to book, it would make sense that Crystal would want to continue a successful venture. "The luxury lines are still making money," says Anderson. "After running focus groups and assessing the new data, they're addressing the current needs of their target market." And if those needs involve two-for-one fares, onboard credit and free airfare -- who are we to argue?
--by Melissa Paloti, Managing Editor, with reporting by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor