Cruise ships tend to make appearances in the mainstream media for only one reason: Something went terribly wrong. So, considering that cruises have been a mainstay of cable news for the past few months, you might assume that ships are riddled with problems, and that the industry as a whole is sinking. Neither is true.
Lately, Carnival, the world’s largest cruise company, has been stuck struggling with the fallout of the “poop cruise,” the unfortunate nickname given to the Triumph, which stranded passengers at sea without working toilets for five days earlier this year. And Royal Caribbean, the world’s second-largest cruise company, had to evacuate 2,224 passengers from the Grandeur of the Seas in the Bahamas after a fire broke out on the ship earlier this week.
Clearly, Carnival Cruise Lines is experiencing a rough spell in the months after the Triumph mess, and understandably so. The company has recently been forced to cut earnings forecasts, as well as drop cruise prices in order to fill ships.
But even after this string of high-profile fiascos—which stretches back to the Costa Concordia disaster in early 2012 and includes periodic outbreaks of norovirus on ships—the cruise business is not collapsing. Just the opposite is true, in fact: Cruising as a whole appears to be, well, cruising along. The industry has been positively booming for more than a decade, and forecasts call for strong growth in the years ahead as South America, Asia, and Australia emerge as popular cruising destination. The number of Asian cruisers had tripled in the past decade. And even in the U.S., where the industry’s growth looks to be hitting a plateau, low prices and cruising’s perception as a great value are for the most part keeping ship cabins filled.
That consistency is to some extent a function of demographics: The U.S. population of retirees grows every day. “Cruising is the kind of vacation that caters to this group,” said Jaime Katz, an analyst at Morningstar. “You don’t have to be the most active person to enjoy the experience.” But cruise companies have also been able to entice younger travelers and families out to sea, in part by engaging in an arms race in terms of larger and larger ships and the newest, most exciting activities and restaurants.
These amenities not only attract customers who might not otherwise be interested in cruises, however; they also help boost revenues. Cruising is pushed as a terrific, one-stop-shopping value, in which a single price covers lodging, food, and entertainment. But the big reason that Carnival and its competitors can charge remarkably cheap up-front rates is that the majority of passengers will wind up gambling, drinking, shopping, taking excursions and spa treatments, dining at “premium” restaurants that cost extra, and otherwise dropping loads of dough after the ship leaves port.
Cruise ships have always tried to get passengers to spend more on board, of course, but lately the strategy has been kicked into a higher gear. Royal Caribbean’s 4,180-passenger Quantum of the Seas, due to launch next year, will include everything from a skydiving simulator to bumper cars to a mechanical arm that offers passengers a bird’s eye view from a glass capsule far above the top deck. Meanwhile, the Norwegian Breakaway, a new ship that began sailing out of New York City in early May, is generating loads of attention with its smorgasbord of specialty restaurants, shops, bars, and entertainment venues. And of course virtually all of these attractions cost extra.
So how can travelers choose the right ship, and also avoid breaking the budget? Here are a few tips, rounded up with the help of Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of CruiseCritic.com:
Forget about predicting the next problem. At first glance, it may seem like there’s some pattern to the recent cruise glitches. Carnival’s Triumph and Sunshine, as well as Royal Caribbean’s Grandeur of the Seas, are all slightly older ships, christened in the mid- to late-’90s. But the theory that older ships are more prone to mishaps is quickly busted when you factor in that the Carnival Dream, which experienced a backup generator malfunction in March, has only been sailing since 2009. And no one can say that the age of the Costa Concordia (christened 2006) had anything to do with the captain running the ship into the ground off the coast of Italy last year. The consensus is that all of these episodes are rare freak occurrences, and therefore it’s pointless to try to predict the next cruise debacle. “You’re not going to avoid problems by just going with newer ships,” said Brown.
Find a brand that’s a good fit. Every cruise brand has its own personality; some have reputations as low-brow party ships, others are sophisticated and genteel, and many others are somewhere in the middle. Read cruise forums and pick the brains of friends who have been on multiple cruises to find an appropriate match. If you have kids, find a travel agent that’s a parent and ask for recommendations. Another differentiator among brands is what’s included (or not) in base rates. Nearly all ships charge extra for things like alcohol and excursions, but some high-end brands, such as Regent, include these and many other “extras” at no additional charge.
Don’t defer to the cheapest option. By picking a cruise base strictly on price, you run the risk of being stuck on a ship where you hate the people and the atmosphere (see above). Another way to ensure misery is by selecting the cheapest cabin, which is likely to be an interior location with no view. That could be fine if you’re using the cabin solely as a place to crash. But most travelers like the idea of chilling out in their rooms from time to time, and without a window, fresh air, or a view of any sort, claustrophobia is likely to set in.
Book early or book late. Cruise companies like to fill cabins far in advance, and often offer “early bird” specials to travelers who book six months or more ahead. The other strategy for snagging a deal is to wait until the last minute, when ships are desperate to pack in as many passengers as possible at almost any price, with the idea that hopefully they’ll spend more once aboard. Departures during the off-peak “shoulder” seasons of spring and fall are when the best prices tend to pop up. Use a travel agent to book; agents have access to perks such as on-board credits and free airfare, and because they get commissions from the cruise companies, there’s generally no fee passed onto customers.
Limit on-board spending. Before heading aboard any ship, research what’s included in the base rate and what activities and restaurants cost extra. Set aside some cash for the extras you truly want, and then try to maintain discipline on board. If parents choose, children can have cards for charging things like soda and souvenirs, but it’s probably wise to set a per-day or total limit with the ship bursar. The bar tab is what can truly hit some cruise passengers hard. It could be worth considering the all-you-can-drink option offered by some lines: Royal Caribbean charges $45 per day for unlimited beer and house wine. Another option is to follow the lead of cruise ship employees, who head ashore at port stops and pay $1 at local bars for the same Coronas that cost $6 or $7 on the ship.
Sail from a port you can drive to. Baltimore, Seattle, Boston, Fort Lauderdale, San Diego, and Bayonne, N.J., are among the many ports hosting cruise departures. By driving to the port, you save the cost of airfare. If you must fly to a cruise departure, look into booking your own airfare—travel agents and cruise companies don’t always offer the cheapest flights—or use miles if you have them.
Don’t forget about tips. It’s standard practice for ships to add gratuities of $11 or $12 per person, per day, onto your final bill. This is another way that a cruise winds up being a lot more expensive than it may initially seem.