Free Birthday Cruise! Great Deal or Nothing to Celebrate?

October 28, 2010
MSC-Poesia- Free-Birthday-Cruise (1:07 p.m. EDT) -- What's better than celebrating your birthday on a cruise? Celebrating your birthday on a cruise you didn't pay for. Italy-based MSC Cruises is offering a "free" seven-night Caribbean cruise on MSC Poesia for those who sail during a birthday falling between November 14 and December 19, 2010.

But should we really throw a party over this birthday deal?

First the details: The free cruise is not exactly free. The birthday boy or girl must pay government taxes and fees, and his or her companion must pay for their space in the cabin. Companion rates start at $529 (plus taxes), and you can opt for an Eastern or Western Caribbean cruise taking place on five departure dates in November and December. Snagging the cheapest offering could mean paying $264.50 per person for a seven-night cruise on a relatively new ship (Poesia debuted in 2008). That's $38 per person, per night.

A great deal to be sure, but why aren't we celebrating? First off, a quick glance around the industry shows a number of deals with comparable pricing. (Note: Deals are subject to availability, and prices do not include government taxes and fees.) For example:

NCL has a seven-night Eastern Caribbean cruise aboard Norwegian Pearl, the fleet's third youngest ship, from $299 per person. The cruise leaves on November 28.

On the Carnival Web site, there's a seven-night Western Caribbean cruise on Carnival Valor, departing from Miami on November 28, that starts at $329 per person.

We found a last-second MSC 10-night Caribbean cruise -- also on MSC Poesia -- for $299 on Vacations to Go's 90-Day Ticker. The cruise is roundtrip from Fort Lauderdale and leaves on November 11. That's a cheaper per diem than even MSC's birthday deal.

For a shorter getaway, Celebrity Cruises' Web site shows a four-night Western Caribbean cruise on Celebrity Century starting at $179. The cruise leaves from Miami on November 18.

There are a few reasons for the glut of great deals. November is the Caribbean's shoulder season, that period between summer vacation and the winter holidays when the kids are desk-bound, and lines have a harder time filling ships. It's also the final month of hurricane season in the Atlantic. Finally, this year's winter Caribbean market is super-saturated with the world's largest cruise ships -- the 5,400-passenger Oasis of the Seas, the 4,100-passenger Norwegian Epic, the 3,646-passenger Carnival Dream -- which are all vying for your attention. During a recent Carnival Corp. earnings call, an executive reported a 15 percent increase in Caribbean capacity this winter.

All that said, MSC's birthday deal is still the cheapest of an excellent crop. So if you want to celebrate at sea, don't take us for party poopers.

--by Dan Askin, Associate Editor