Terror in parts of the world, the uncertainty of the U.S. election and shaky global economies kept some travelers home in 2016. But don’t expect them to skip a vacation two years in a row.
If the annual cruise deal season, also known as “wave season,” is any indication, travel and consumer confidence is back in a big way. This year’s wave season, which runs from January to March, is the strongest in recent memory, experts say, and that spells good news for consumers.
Local travel agent, Ralph Santisteban, a Dream Vacations franchise owner, noticed the trend in December when the first deals were announced. After an election-season slowdown, cruisers seemed ready to jump on board.
“It was like a small wave that kept going and now we are practically in tsunami phase,” Santisteban said.
Now, a bump in consumer confidence is pushing lines to compete for travelers.
“The cruise lines are offering more now in incentives than they’ve ever offered,” Santisteban said. “The more you purchase, the more you get.” Sweeteners include cabin upgrades, open bar passes and free air.
And the earlier, the better. As ships book up, the cruise lines cut back on deals, said Michelle Fee, CEO and co-founder of Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel Representative.
But with so many deals, identifying the best option can be complicated. What constitutes a good deal?
The answer changes year to year, but a peak into global and industry trends in 2017 reveals the best places to look for a steal. Here are some tips:
1. For the price conscious, the best offers are in the Caribbean
Most deals are in the Caribbean, where cruise lines have added ships in the last year, said David Crooks, senior vice president of product & operations for World Travel Holdings, the world’s largest cruise agency.
More ships in one location means more competition, Crooks said.
Four of the region’s newest ships debuted in South Florida this winter. Among them is the world’s largest, Royal Caribbean International’s Harmony of the Seas. Balcony rates on select Caribbean sailings from September to November on Harmony, for instance, start at $799 per person — less than half the lowest rates this winter. Three- to five-night Caribbean voyages on other Royal Caribbean ships are as low as $241.
Doral-based Carnival Cruise Line has Caribbean deals starting at $179. Early birds get 20 percent off select fares and reduced deposits — $50 per person, versus the usual $250 for a weeklong cruise — for sailings through April 2019.
And Miami-based Norwegian Cruise Line is packing on the perks. About 75 Caribbean voyages through May 2020 qualify for Norwegian’s “Free At Sea” offer, which allows travelers to pick up to five perks — unlimited open bar, free specialty dining, credit toward shore excursions, free WiFi or free fares for third and fourth guests — depending on the stateroom they book.
2. The time to sail in Europe is now
The Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015 kept travelers away from Europe last year. But 2017 is looking like a comeback year for Europe’s tourism industry, experts said, partly thanks to ultra-low airfares.
“There are really competitive airfares out there so we are really thinking that Europe is going to turn it on,” said Fee of Cruise Planners.
The British Isles, the Baltic region and transatlantic sailings, as well as river cruises, are doing particularly well, said Uf Tukel, co-founder of Delray Beach-based WMPH Vacations and iCruise.com, thanks to the strong U.S. dollar.
British Cunard Line, of parent company Carnival Corp., is offering double-category stateroom upgrades for the first time on selected fares in 2017 and 2018 in Europe and other regions. Balcony rooms will be available for the cost of an entry-level interior cabin.
“We decided to do it this year because we heard from our guests that what they value is additional incentives that will make their lives on ship that much more enjoyable,” said Josh Leibowitz, senior vice president for Cunard in North America. Europe promotions have been particularly popular, he said.
On Viking River Cruises, the line is offering the Grand European Tour, which stops in 14 ports over 15 days, is offering two-for-one cruise fares and free airfare plus a choice of a free beverage package, $400 onboard credit or prepaid gratuities on seven voyages between June and October.
3. Alaska fares are up
Alaska’s popularity has been heating up and the fares attest to it: Prices for Alaska cruises are nearly 4 percent higher than they were during last year’s wave season, Crooks said.
Don Walker, co-founder WMPH Vacations and iCruise.com along with Tukel, said fares for Alaska are the highest he’s ever seen, too.
But some deals may soften the blow. Princess Cruises, which has long been the leader in Alaska, is sweetening its Alaska deals with up to $600 in onboard credit, depending on the stateroom category, and free specialty dining for up to four guests in balcony, mini-suites and suites. Interior cabins on seven-day Alaska trips start at $799.
Gordon Ho, Princess’ senior vice president of global marketing and North American sales, said in a statement that the line wants to offer guests flexibility.
“For our wave season offers we try to focus on meaningful value-adds, to give our guest more choices during their cruise vacation,” Ho said.
4. Choose extras that are important to you
When parsing through promotions that include additional perks, prioritizing the add-ons can help narrow the selection, said avid cruiser Larry Lowenthal.
Lowenthal, who lives in Cooper City and has been on more than two dozen cruises, said he weighs the value of packages depending on what he likes most, not the perceived savings. He’d skip a deal with a drink package, for instance.
“For some people it’s really important …but we are not drinkers,” Lowenthal said. “Draws for me would be included excursions. Even if I paid more, if they include the tipping, that’s [another] draw for me.”
Value-added packages, or deals that include free drinks or WiFi, for example, have been popular in recent years and even more so this year, said Santisteban of Dream Vacations.
“People really don’t want to buy on price, they want to buy on value,” Santisteban said. “The cruise lines have really driven that by offering value to their prices. Where in the end are you getting the most for your money?”
Fee of Cruise Planners offers similar advice.
“Sit down and decide what’s most important to you,” she said. “It might be a little bit more expense, but at the end of the day the value is so rich.”
5. Look for bundled options in luxury lines
The bump in consumer confidence means travelers who may have sailed on a mass market line are moving up to a premium or a luxury cruise line, Santisteban said. In response, those higher-end lines are beefing up their selections.
Luxury lines have become more all-inclusive, a trend consumers like, said Tukel of WMPH Vacations and iCruise.com. When all the perks are added up, the jump to a higher-end line can be more cost-effective.
“You look at cruise lines like Regent [Seven Seas]. For the cost of the suite, they are including free business class air to Europe and all meals, gratuities and shore excursions,” Tukel said. “When compared to junior suite on a mass market line, you’re basically paying about the same thing.”
Premium line Celebrity Cruises, for instance, is throwing in four perks for the first two guests in a suite — a premium beverage package, unlimited WiFi, prepaid tips and $150 onboard credit — plus a non-alcoholic beverage package and 40 minute of free WiFi for additional guests. High-end Azamara Club Cruises is offering buy-one, get-one-half off fares and complimentary WiFi on 2017 and 2018 trips. And luxury line Seabourn’s deals include suite upgrades, up to $1,000 in onboard credit and discounted round trip airfares on select sailings.
6. Never underestimate the value of a travel agent
Apart from helping travelers meandering through a sea of discounts, travel agents can also throw in extra savings that can’t be found elsewhere.
Earlier this year, Santisteban’s agency was offering onboard credits based on how much a person spent on a trip.
“The cruise lines are offering incentives and you double that up by the agency offering incentives, it creates a very favorable situation for the consumer,” he said.
Tukel and Walker’s WMPH Vacations offers a tool called Cruise Tracker that notifies travelers via email when the price of a cruise they’re interested in goes up or down.
Ultimately, the travel agent is going to know what is historically a good price — or not, said Fee of Cruise Planners.
“There are tall weeds and it’s very hard to see through them,” she said. “The travel agents knows what all the deals are that would best suit you as a traveler.”