Travel Smarter 2012: Your best cruise values in 2012

Looking for the best cruise values, many travelers check the Internet in a click-to-buy way, much like they might an airline ticket or hotel room. Like airfare search engines, some online cruise booking sources are better than others. Some people turn to travel agents who keep up on the latest industry trends, current pricing, and special offers not always available to consumers. In 2012 and into 2013, finding the best cruise value will take knowing what to look for first, then using a variety of sources to bring home a package that is way more than just the lowest price.

Forget the Concordia effect
January’s grounding of the Costa Concordia in Italy sent shock waves through the cruise industry and a call to take a closer look at cruise safety. What the grounding of the Concordia did not do was lower cruise prices. Consumers expected it, the press reported that bookings were down, but nothing happened. Travel agents knew this because business was generally unaffected. Instead of looking for prices to tumble, agents took advantage of existing offers and promotions for their clients, reaping huge values, but not due to a ship accident.

Ships that linger a while
Hot on the horizon are itineraries that linger a bit longer, if not overnight, at popular ports of call. Travelers are becoming increasingly weary of quick pit stops at popular destinations and want more time to explore. Cruise lines are answering the call and those sailings will be priced to fill ships. This offer is becoming especially popular on high-end cruise lines.

River Cruising grows even more
Also, look for the river cruising craze in Europe to continue, for many of the same reasons: travelers want more time at ports and want more of an up-close-and-personal experience ashore. River cruise ships with far fewer passengers on board will deliver that, and at reduced rates, in competition to mega liners. However, that pricing won’t last. Once they catch on, prices will go up.

Discounts on seven-day or longer sailings
Still, the mega liners need to sail full ships, so look for discounts on seven-night and longer sailings as a best value in 2012. A recovering global economy in many nations will entice old travelers into the booking pool and cruise lines will vie for their business.

The dollar is looking better
More outstanding values for sailing from North America may be affected by the weaker Euro, which has almost reversed the exchange situation it was in last year when the dollar was weak. Now, cruise lines who made massive deployments to Europe, in anticipation of sailing their floating assets to more profitable waters, are bringing ships back to the more reliable North American market, though it still needs some encouragement to book. Pricing, especially in the fall of 2012, will be excellent.

Refurbished ships are where the action is
Probably the best value in 2012 will be refurbished ships, priced nicely to sail full. Slowing down a bit on bringing out new ships, cruise lines are taking a step back, looking at what worked on the new ships and adding those popular features to old ships, usually during routine dry-dock maintenance work.

Adding features that might not have existed when the ship was built, cruise lines are transforming older ships into vibrant, relevant floating hotels, competitive with the newest at-sea, or land, vacation options.

A dry dock period usually means routine maintenance and we don’t hear much about it, but with improvements becoming a priority, expect new carpets, upgraded stateroom amenities, and more stuff they can’t do with the ship full of guests. Sometimes these things are part of a grand plan to roll out popular features to older ships in a big way.

Past projects with much more than normal dry dock maintenance were spearheaded by Carnival Corporation brands and their Evolutions Of Fun program on Carnival Cruise Line ships. They brought an array of improvements to older ships including a new water park and an adult serenity area. Sister-line Holland America soon followed, spreading the Signature of Excellence program around the fleet.

More recently, Royal Caribbean focused on Radiance of the Seas. By applying the updated Royal Advantage programming to the older ship, they brought about a makeover of incredible proportions that were made possible, at least in part, by importing popular features from giant sisters Oasis and Allure of the Seas.

The most significant transformation of a Princess Cruises ship occurred not long ago aboard Grand Princess. During a 24-day makeover, the first of Princess’ workhorse Grand class ships had a massive renovation to receive many of Princess’ trademark features, introduced since the ship’s 1998 debut, including the wildly popular Piazza atrium.

“This is the largest makeover we’ve ever undertaken for any of our ships,” said Jan Swartz, Princess Cruises‘ executive vice president. “When Grand Princess was launched she was the most innovative ship at sea, and now we’re adding some of the later innovations we introduced on subsequent ships.”

The king daddy of all remodeling programs, though, has to be Carnival Cruise Line‘s Fun Ship 2.0 initiative, an intense array of onboard programming, brand infusion, and signature “fun” that is consistent with their industry-leading position. They have defined cruise vacations for decades and will lead the way to a future generation of cruise passengers.

The $500 million remodeling program is much more than just a new coat of paint and new carpets. Branded elements of the initiative include: Guy’s Burger Joint developed in tandem with Food Network personality Guy Fieri; the Punchliner Comedy Club presented by George Lopez; and “Hasbro, the Game Show.” On Carnival Liberty right now is the Blue Iguana Cantina and Tequila Bar, and the Red Frog Rum Bar, both receiving rave reviews from passengers on the ship.

“Carnival Liberty is the first ship in the fleet to feature many of our Fun Ship 2.0 enhancements and guest response has been tremendous, exceeding our expectations,” said Lania Rittenhouse, Carnival’s vice president of product development. “From the EA SPORTS Bar to the RedFrog Rum Bar and BlueIguana Tequila Bar to Guy’s Burger Joint developed in tandem with Food Network personality Guy Fieri, guests are really enjoying the wide array of innovations. We are looking forward to rolling out additional elements of Fun Ship 2.0 such as the Punchliner Comedy Club Presented by George Lopez and ‘Hasbro, The Game Show,’ later this year as the implementation of this exciting project continues.”

Look for remodeled ships, which are way less expensive than building new ones, to be a best value in 2012 and beyond. Start searching via cruise line websites, check Internet cruise brokers to get an idea of where pricing is, and then call or email a travel agent that specializes in cruise vacations. A good travel agent’s expertise in booking should yield great value, if not immediately then down the road if new discounts, promotions, and offers come into play.

It’s something travel agents do that will not happen when booking directly with a cruise line. (Seriously, they are not going to call you up and let you know they just lowered your fare, trust us.) Click-to-buy methods can’t touch the perks that will keep us sailing smoothly into the future with the best possible value.

[flickr image via joiseyshowaa]