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February 7, 2011

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'Wave season' of affordable cruises

THIS is "wave season" - the best time to book cruises worldwide -because most lines drop prices and offer deals. Beth J. Harpaz looks at cruising trends and new ships.

River cruising finds its niche as an alternative to mainstream cruises and megaships. Cruise lines think twice about port calls in Mazatlan, Mexico. And a new port is to open in Jamaica soon.

Those are some of the headlines from the cruise industry for 2011 as "wave season" - the most popular time to book a cruise - gets underway.

"I liken wave season to Black Friday," says Jennifer Gaines, contributing editor for Travelocity. "It's by far the most popular season to book a cruise because lines drop their prices. More than one-third of cruisers book during wave season."

A cruise sale at Travelocity through Thursday offers 65 percent off brochure prices on trips through August 31. Many other travel agents and cruise sellers also offer discounts and deals that may not be available later in the year.

Here's what's new in bookings, launchings and other cruise trends.


Travelocity's year-over-year data on cruise prices shows that overall, consumers will pay a little more to cruise this year than last. In 2009, the per-person price for a seven-night Caribbean cruise on Travelocity was US$922. The average price for a similar trip fell to US$844 last year, but is back up to US$874 for 2011.

Luxury cruising has become a little more affordable, with more deals being offered by high-end lines. For example, Regent Seven Seas Cruises includes free overnight accommodations at deluxe hotels before every European cruise.

Booking windows are about the same, with consumers on average reserving cruises about 5.8 months in advance, up from 4.5 months in 2009, according to a survey of more than 500 travel agents conducted by the Cruise Lines International Association. CLIA represents 25 cruise lines, including major brands such as Carnival, Celebrity, Cunard, Crystal, Holland America, Norwegian, Princess and Royal Caribbean.

CLIA's statistics also show that cruising continues to grow in popularity, with 15 million guests taking trips on its member lines in 2010, up from 13.4 million in 2009. CLIA's forecast for 2011 is 16 million cruise passengers, with 11.68 million North American guests and the rest international.

New ships

Fourteen ships are new to the CLIA fleet this year, including the just-launched Disney Dream, already praised for technology and design features like a water coaster and virtual portholes, which stream video of sea and sky to windowless staterooms. Also getting attention is its specialty restaurant, the Remy, which charges US$75 for meals. While many ships now feature fees for special meals, typically the cost is US$25 or US$30. editor in chief Carolyn Spencer Brown says US$75 is "the highest" such fee on any ship.

Also just launched is the 1,250-passenger Oceania Marina, which arrived in Miami last week. Paul Motter, editor of, says Marina sounds impressive, with "the largest staterooms at sea on average, 10 dining venues largely coordinated by culinary icon Jacques Pepin, a spa by Canyon Ranch and stateroom amenities by Ralph Lauren."

The Marina will help carve out a new category of ships, which are less expensive than high-end luxury cruising, but more upscale than a mainstream cruise, with smaller ships. Ten to 19-night sailings on the Marina in Europe and the Caribbean start at US$1,499 a person.

May will see the launch of Carnival Magic, a 3,690-passenger ship sailing the Mediterranean through October and Caribbean after that out of Galveston, Texas. Highlights include an extensive aqua park called WaterWorks and a pub with a private label beer brewed just for Carnival, ThirstyFrog Red.

Celebrity Silhouette, with room for 2,866 passengers and a July inaugural cruise, will offer an outdoor interactive grill restaurant; a space called The Hideaway, described as "a high-tech avant-garde treehouse-like spot" for relaxing with an iPad or a book; and a studio offering both art and culinary-themed instruction.

River cruises

River cruises carry about 300,000 people a year. That's just a fraction of the passengers who take mainstream cruises, but the industry has been growing about 10 percent a year since 2003, according to Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways. It's growing at 50 percent.

The appeal of the river ships, in part, is an experience that's completely different from a modern megaship. "It's gourmet-oriented, good service, nice accommodations," says Motter, of Instead of thousands of passengers, there might be a mere 150. And while mainstream cruises charge for excursions or activities in port, on European river cruises, excursions are included in the price, and might range from a walking tour of a small village to a cultural experience in Vienna to sightseeing in the south of France.

"They're fun; you get to know everybody," says Heidi Allison-Shane, spokeswoman for "On some trips, you can even rent a bike in port and meet the ship at the next port." One itinerary is offering for 2011 is a "Christmas market" river cruise on Ama Waterways, with holiday shopping stops in places like Vienna and Nuremberg, Germany.

Motter adds that "a whole new breed of river cruise boats has been built since 2005 and they are more beautiful than ever." Older river boats "rarely had windows that opened," but today's river boats may have sliding glass doors that bring in fresh air. All of Avalon's rooms offer French balconies; a sample fare on Avalon's seven-night Rhine cruise in April runs US$2,300-US$2,500, per person, double occupancy.


Disney Cruise Line is the latest to shift its Mexican itinerary due to concerns about violence. It's seven-night Mexican Riviera trips will no longer stop in Mazatlan. Holland America also canceled a port call in late January because of violence but made no commitment either way for the future. While some ships have pulled out of Mexico's west coast altogether, other Mexican destinations - like Cozumel in the Yucatan - remain popular.

Mazatlan, a picturesque Pacific port in northern Sinaloa state, is considered the cradle of Mexico's most powerful drug cartel. It has been safer than the rest of Sinaloa, but has been battered by occasional bouts of drug-related violence.

New terminals

Falmouth, Jamaica's new port, is to open late this month. It lies between the popular resort cities of Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, and its port will accommodate megaships like Royal Caribbean's massive 6,300-passenger Oasis of the Seas.


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