Bargains galore entice travelers to take to the sea

`CRUISE passengers don't want to pay retail,'' says Richard Revnes, president of Royal Cruise Line. ``Today they're shopping around to get the best deal they can.'' Royal and other major cruise lines are offering substantial discounts these days. Cruise ships are being built at a frantic pace, and the prospect of more than 9,000 new staterooms coming on line in the next three years has forced down fares and given rise to a bewildering array of early-booking savings, group fares, packages, and last-minute bargains.

``Over the past six years, there has been a 35 to 40 percent increase in capacity,'' says Michael Grossman, president of Cruises of Distinction, a brokering company in Montclair, N.J.

``But at the same time, there has been only an 8 to 11 percent increase in demand,'' he says. ``This means that for several years there will be a lot more capacity than there will be people cruising. This provides a real opportunity for the broker of discounted space.''

Mr. Grossman and other cruise brokers buy or contract for large blocks of cabins on various cruise lines. Because they are buying in volume, they get the space at reduced rates and can pass the savings on to their customers, much the same way tour operators obtain reduced hotel rates for groups.

Discounts can be as much as 40 percent. Cruises of Distinction may discount a seven-day cruise to Alaska, for instance, from $1,595 per person to $1,360, or a 10-day cruise from $2,635 to $2,035. Similarly, Cruise Line Inc., a Miami-based brokering company, offers a 7-day Caribbean cruise, normally priced at $1,560 per person, for $1,049.

Savings are also available through travel agencies that specialize in cruising. ``We might sell a $1,400 cruise for $870,'' says Robert L. Taylor, president and chief executive officer of All Cruise Travel Inc. in San Francisco. ``Most quality lines know six to nine months ahead if they're having trouble selling a cruise. They'll contact us, and we'll immediately print a brochure and do a mailing to our customers throughout the country.''

Apart from savings, brokers and cruise-only agencies offer expertise. ``The most important thing I think we offer is knowledge,'' says Lawrence Fishkin, president of Cruise line Inc. ``We are an objective source. Since we work with all the major lines, we have no particular interest in any one line. We can steer a person to the cruise that is right for him or her.''

Mr. Taylor concurs. ``We know what people to put on what ships,'' he says. ``If a farmer from the Midwest came to us and wanted a casual cruising experience, I wouldn't put him on Royal Viking Line, where he'd have to wear a tuxedo.''

No such counseling is given by companies that offer discounts for booking at the last minute. When a prospective passenger calls Los Angeles-based Spur of the Moment, he or she gets a six-minute-long recorded message itemizing the week's cruise offerings. The customer calls another machine to book the cruise, then sends in a cashier's check. Passengers must be ready to leave on as little as two weeks' notice, and cruises are given out on a first-paid-for basis.

All of these companies offer savings, but are they for everyone?

``There are some problems with the brokers and cruise-only agencies,'' says an industry official. ``Unlike full-service travel agencies, these companies are not required to put up an ARC [Airlines Reporting Corporation] bond [a $1 million bond required by air carriers], and can't handle airline arrangements. A full-service agency can also make hotel and transportation arrangements for pre- or post-cruise stays, make sightseeing arrangements in ports of call, and arrange special `perks' for passengers.''

Jerry Brown, West Coast bureau chief of Travel Weekly, a trade publication, points out that discount organizations don't offer the full range of options a travel agency can. ``These consolidators can't guarantee a cabin category. They're basically selling distressed merchandise. And not all cruise lines will work with them.''

On balance, however, customers seem satisfied with the discounters. ``We have not received a lot of public complaints about them,'' says Sharon Dirlam, writer of the weekly ``Tours and Cruises'' column for the Los Angeles Times.

``My only advice,'' she says, ``would be to check if the company has been in business for a while. Some fold after only a year or so, but others have been in business for five or six years and have good reputations.''

Taylor recommends choosing a company affiliated with either the Cruise Line International Association, the industry's trade organization, or the National Association of Cruise-Only Agencies, a group of travel agents who specialize in cruises. ``Both organizations have requirements that ensure quality,'' he says.

Almost everyone agrees that discounting will be around for a while. ``It's going to be a consumer's market for another four or five years,'' says Grossman. ``Nobody wants to sail with empty berths.''

If you go

For information, contact All Cruise Travel, 800-TO-A-SHIP (or in California, 800-2-CRUISE); Cruises of Distinction, 800-634-3445; the Cruise Line Inc., 800-327-3021 (or in Florida, 800-777-0707); Spur of the Moment, (213) 838-9329; or your local travel agent.

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