Breaking: Carnival booking record signals improving economy with eye on value

Carnival Cruise Lines set a one-week reservations record booking 165,308 guests between Feb. 7-13, 2011, topping the previous one-week reservations record set nearly four years ago. Recent moves made by the line suggest an improving economy but cautious consumers are still seeking value.

“Clearly, consumers are taking advantage of the incredible value that a Carnival cruise provides, not only in terms of our fun on-board experience but also our many convenient close-to-home departure points and wide variety of short itineraries,” Cahill said. “This activity reaffirms that even in today’s economic climate, consumers still want to have fun and view their vacations as an important part of their lives,” he added.

Carnival did not just stumble in to a record-breaking week. They have been working on it for quite some time.Kicking off the year in a socially engaging way, Carnival threw its signature “Fun” hat in the ring as official confetti sponsor of the Times Square New Years Eve 2011 celebration. The sponsorship included multiple opportunities for the line to infuse its version of fun into the festivities including a free-cruise giveaway.

Indeed, Carnival took the lead steering the cruise industry through uncharted social waters introducing their “Hey America, DidJa Ever?” campaign where the line is collecting the “Top 100 Firsts” from over 420,000 Facebook fans. Fans are encouraged to tighten up relationships by sharing experiences through photos and videos aimed to create events and memories. Carnival will help make those dreams come true for fans giving away anything from cruise vacations for four to appearing on stage with a favorite band.

Value is the name of the game when it comes to cruise pricing and Carnival’s Early Saver Fare, guaranteed by the line to be the lowest available, has become wildly popular. Ranking high on top cruise value lists, the fare is much like a restricted air fare. The Early Saver fare requires a non-refundable deposit and no changes can be made without penalty. But the trade-off is the best value offered by the line, even beating past-guest, military and senior rates.

The big question: Why don’t other lines offer a similar program?

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Does your cruise travel agent pass the test?

There’s an ongoing debate between consumers and those critical of the travel business which struggles to answer the question “Do I need a travel agent or not?”. They’re not required and cruise-related websites make it really easy to click and buy a cruise, much like you might buy an airline ticket. But a good travel agent, one that will bring great value to the table, will have certain qualities required to make the cut. Ask these simple questions to find an agent with the minimum qualifications that make them worthy of your business.

  1. Are you connected? Since you are reading this, you are connected. You need someone who speaks your language in the medium you prefer be that via email, facebook, twitter or maybe just an easy phone call away. Bonus tip: try communicating with an agent via email to provide a written record of what was said, promised or delivered.
  2. Have you been on many cruises? A good travel agent specializing in cruise vacations should have a rich cruise history on multiple cruise lines. You’re looking for their first-hand knowledge and experience dealing with cruise lines, they better have it
  3. Are you certified? They should be at least members of the Cruise Lines International Association and have a few letters after their name like ACC, MCC or ECC showing they went through basic training and then some. If they have one of those, odds are they will tell you about some specialized training they got from the cruise line too. Give big bonus points if they are members of other professional organizations or consortium’s.
  4. How long have you been selling cruises? If they say less than five years forget about them. That’s about the minimum amount of time it takes for agents to really know their way around cruise lines, establish contacts that can do you some good later and have enough bookings behind them to know what they’re doing.
  5. Will I be dealing directly with just you? This one has to be a “yes” answer or the whole thing is not worth your time. To a good agent, their job starts with making the booking and never ends as they work towards building a life-long business relationship with you. If they are not personally following your booking from beginning to end you have the wrong person.

Buying a cruise? Look at value, not price

Cruise vacations can be a good travel value because the fare paid includes much of what travelers might pay separately for with other vacation options. In recent years though, mainstream cruise lines have come under criticism for offering desirable options guests can buy on top of the cruise fare paid. The basic experience has not changed but upgrade options like special dining venues, might make it seem so. Some lines have gone a different direction, including more in the price.

Regent Seven Seas cruises
, used to charge for shore excursions, as most cruise lines do. Not long ago, they did away with that, making most shore excursions part of the deal for the premium line.

“We realized that the largest spend anyone had on board was shore excursions. So, we decided to give them away.” Regent’s President Mark Conroy told

Results have been good for the line that costs an average of $600 per person, per day. Guest feedback is that they like the more all-inclusive nature of Regent sailings as opposed to other lines.

“Our ticket price is probably more expensive than others, but the vacation in the end doesn’t cost much more … because so much is included.” Conroy added, noting that 2010 will be the company’s best year on record.

Another premium line, Seabourn, shares the more all-inclusive philosophy with complementary fine wines poured at lunch and dinner and open bars throughout their small yacht-sized fleet of six ships. Seabourn also promotes that tipping is neither required or expected, another area that can add up on other lines.

More than ever, finding the cruise line that is a good fit for you involves considering the entire experience. While the discount fares being offered by major lines may sound attractive, the end cost may actually be greater than a premium line that includes much more in the price.