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]

Princess Cruises 2012-13 salings to open with a bang

Normally, cruise line ship deployment for upcoming seasons is a mysterious event that unfolds over time. Experienced travelers want to book as far in advance as possible but are often kept waiting this time of the year for next year’s deployment schedule to come out. This year, Princess Cruises, for the first time ever, is releasing all sailings for Summer 2012 through Spring 2013 at one time.

All sailings will be available to book starting March 17, 2011 at 3PM Eastern time. That is of particular interest to undecided travelers, trying to weigh options on where and when they might sail. Before, small pieces of the deployment puzzle would be doled out a little at a time over a period of months. Waiting for all options to consider might have meant losing out on the best stateroom selection or pricing.
Princess has good reason for this mass deployment schedule too. In the 2012-13 season, the line will have it’s biggest deployment ever in Europe with more than 125 voyages to the most popular places.

In addition, Princess will sail seven ships to Alaska with 21 cruisetour options. Normally we have to wait until the current season is almost over before knowing what will be offered for the next season. That’s huge and only Princess is doing it. That is a real testament to their commitment to the Alaska market that buyers should not forget when making a buying decision. No “wait and see what happens” attitude here, they’re ready to go right now. This is consistent with many reasons why Princess is the line to see Alaska with.

Earlier we reported that Crown Princess would be returning to Galveston….yes, Galveston, the home port with the fog problems but a hungry cruise audience. They have not sailed from there in years but join sister-line Carnival Cruise Lines who will debut shiny new Carnival Magic in the U.S. from the Texas port.

“We’ve received a great deal of feedback from cruisers interested in sailing from Galveston again,” said Jan Swartz, Princess Cruises executive vice president. “So we’re excited to be returning in 2012 to bring our Western Caribbean sailings back to Texas.”

There must be some good things happening in Galveston for these two cruise titans to put such fabulous hardware in a location that has been considered secondary to traditional Florida homeports, let alone debut ports.

Continuing their “we sail more ships to more places than anyone else” thing, Princess has more voyages than ever to South America, the exotic Amazon, Asia, Canada & New England, the Panama Canal, Tahiti, the South Pacific and even epic cruises around the whole world.

If that’s not enough, Princess also has special Launch Savings of up to $200 per couple for members of their Captains Circle past guest club and the line has sweetened the deal for groups too, offering some of the most generous benefits of all cruise lines.

There is a lot going on at Princess Cruises these days for sure. Your travel agent can sort through all the options and help you find the best values for you. Be it your first cruise or your 100th, Princess has set themselves up for a record year of great values like no other line.

Ten cruise tips for better vacation value that everyone can use

Travelers booking cruise vacations go about it a number of ways. Some click-to-book with a third-party website, others book directly with the cruise line. Some seek the help of a general travel agent while others use a Cruise Travel Expert. At one time or another, all of them get booked. Almost immediately after booking, without fail, most look back and wonder if they got the best value. Here are some good tips to insure you have the best value.

1. Concentrate on value, not price. Too many people focus on simply the lowest price without regard to what comes along with it. One of the most common mistakes made is to pick a ship, sailing date and category of cabin then go shopping online. There are way more variables in the equation that need to be considered to get the best value.

2. Use a Cruise Travel Expert You can start with a standard travel agent, one who books any sort of travel. But as soon as possible, that person needs to be identified as an expert on cruise vacations. There are a lot of them out there and with the major changes happening right now in what makes a cruise vacation, you need someone singly focused on cruise vacations.

3. Book a value-oriented fare. The exact same cruise you click-to-book online probably has a number of different fare codes, much like an airline ticket. The problem with booking online is that consumers can’t see these codes, only travel agents can. If travel agents know what to do with them or not depends much on if they have reached the Cruise Travel Expert level or fall short in their everyday working knowledge.

Carnival Cruise Line’s Early Saver Fare, guaranteed to be the lowest published fare by the cruise line, is probably the best example of guaranteed value down the line. Much like a restricted-fare airline ticket, the Early Saver fare booking can not be modified, changed, canceled or re booked without paying a penalty. What scares too many people off of this fare is the “non-refundable” deposit which is not nearly as restrictive as it appears. True, if you cancel, even before final payment is due, you’re not going to get that deposit back. But Carnival allows you to use it toward a future cruise booked within two years, minus an administration fee.

4. Ask for the choice: Upgrade or price reduction Travel professionals booking your cruise vacation are often in a quandary when lower prices come along on a sailing they have booked for a client. Most often, the client does not even know the price went down.

Regular travel agents, paid by commission from the cruise line, are sometimes hesitant to lower prices which lowers their commission. They are not required to do so.

Cruise Travel Experts are also paid commission by the cruise line. One of the qualities that defines an agent as an expert is that they know the name of the game is value and what that might mean to you is important. Often, cruise lines will grant a complementary upgrade instead of a price reduction. The choice should be yours, not the agents.

5. Keep monitoring pricing and special promotions. When the booking is made is actually the beginning, not the end, of the pricing game. Watching for special promotions, discounts or offers that come along after booking and can be applied to your sailing is a good first step to insuring maximum value. Click-to-book website reservations will not consider added value offers down the line. Your Cruise Travel Expert will and so should you.

6. Get on the ship early That may seem a no-brainer but arriving at the port early for embarkation, being one of the first on the ship, can add great value to your overall cruise experience. The cruise is a limited-time vacation and getting on board as soon as possible allows you to learn your way around the ship before it fills with other passengers. Later, while others are bumping into walls, trying to figure out where everything is, you will have toured the ship, had lunch and settled in to have a fabulous vacation.

7. Research, Research, Research A lot of effort is done deciding on a ship and sailing date but often, cruise travelers fail to keep that research momentum going. As soon as the booking is made, attention should be focused on ports of call, memorizing the ship’s deck plans and learning as much as possible about how the cruise line operates. This mistake is most often made by people who have cruised before. Those new to cruise vacations most often do their homework but not in an organized manner. On most itineraries, you will be in any given port for one day and one day only. Some itineraries have overnight stays, but most are a matter of mere hours. Make the most of them by studying up on where you will be going and what you might be doing. AOLTravel guides are a no-brainer on this hunt.

8. Grease some palms You paid at least hundreds if not thousands or tens of thousands of dollars for this vacation. A $20 right up front slipped to your cabin steward will almost guarantee that they perform at peak efficiency. The same for the dining room’s Maitre ‘d or others who you will see frequently throughout the voyage. An understated green hand shake with the simple words “Take good care of us and we’ll take good care of you” sets the tone right up front. You seriously do not have time to go through the mediocre service/complaint/resolution process like you might on land. Cheap fares often bring cheap people to the ships and tips that make up the bulk of the crews pay suffer. They will appreciate your effort.

9. Say hello to the Captain A kind word to the master of the vessel never hurts anything. If you happen to see the Captain walking about the ship, walk right up to him and introduce yourself. Tell him “Thank you for this wonderful ship, the great crew and for all you do to keep us safe at sea” If that sounds corny, it is. But it has a world of impact on the number one person on the ship. Most people see the Captain walk by and think he is too busy to talk. He’s not. If he were too busy he would not be walking around the ship. He would be on the bridge, preparing to launch the Photon torpedos.

10. Go early to everything Like getting on the ship early gives you an advantage over those who come later, you will have many other opportunities to either stand in a line and wait or be one of the first to experience whatever it is you’re doing. While it’s not necessary or maybe even possible to do everything offered on a cruise vacation, the activities, shows or events you choose to attend should be looked at individual experiences and made the most of. Going early gives you the best seating for shows, best pick from buffets or sales and allows you to interact with crew members at their peak time of performance.

Cheap cruises: 14-nights for $549

Talk about a cheap cruises, this one from Royal Caribbean is great if you can swing the time on short notice. Departing from Miami on April 2, 2011, Liberty of the Seas will sail from Miami to Barcelona with prices starting at $549+ tax per person for an inside stateroom. That’s $39.21 per person, per day.

The ship will leave Miami on April 2nd, stop by Nassau, Bahamas the next day, then spend seven days at sea then stop at Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Another day at seas takes the ship to Seville then Malaga followed by Valencia before ending in Barcelona, Spain.

Check with your Travel Expert first before buying, they may have additional values to add on to your booking that add up to real dollars and cents savings to you. More importantly, having a Travel Expert on your side will insure you keep that best value, get you additional values that may come along over the life of your booking and maximize your vacation experience.

Top 10 cheap cruise extra values of the week

Every week, the major cruise lines have special offers that can mean extra value to us. They may be promoting cheap cruises, discount fares, bonus amenities, upgrades or some other extra value or promotion you may qualify for. It all adds up to getting more for the same or less than normal. Here are the upcoming week’s promotions from several of the major cruise lines.

Check with your Travel Expert first before buying, they may have additional values to add on to your booking that add up to real dollars and cents savings to you. More importantly, having a Travel Expert on your side will insure you keep that best value, get you additional values that may come along over the life of your booking and maximize your vacation experience.

  1. Guaranteed Low Fare– Carnival Cruise Lines is all about the Early Saver Fare, a popular program now in it’s second year that guarantees the lowest price. Much like a restricted airline ticket, the deposit is non-refundable and no changes can be made after booking without a $50 per person administrative fee being applied. This week’s special pricing includes a 3-day cruise from $169 per person + taxes and fees.
  2. Free Upgrade– Princess Cruises has what they call a Balcony Bonanza going on right now on select sailings that let guests book a balcony stateroom for the price of an ocean view.
  3. Onboard Credit– Another bonus from Princess Cruises for active or retired military members is a Military Onboard Credit, applicable to all sailings. The onboard credit amount is $50 for cruises 6 days or less, $100 for cruises of 7-13 days, or $250 for cruises of 14 days or longer, offered on a per stateroom basis
  4. Military Rate– Disney Cruise Lines has a special Military Rate available to book through Sunday, February 6, 2011. Rates are per person based on double occupancy on the categories noted. Other categories are available at higher prices. Rates are in U.S. dollars and are not combinable with other discounts or offers.
  5. Europe and Alaska– Special Offers from Carnival also include extra savings on European cruises on the new Carnival Magic and Alaska from $674 per person + taxes and fees
  6. Select sailings Royal Caribbean International has some limited-time offers on sailings from Baltimore starting at $65 per person, per day, cruises sailing from Florida ports starting at $80 a day and sailings from New Jersey from $85 per person, per day.
  7. Kids sail free- Disney Cruise Line has Kids for Free to Alaska AOL Travel reports “Disney Cruise Line is gong to Alaska for the first time this year and offering a discount on select sailings with a new “Kids Free” promotion.” On this one, kids are free when they share an Oceanview or Verandah stateroom with two adults, port charges and taxes are still due but the cruise fare is free. The Kids Sail Free program as well as other discount rates can be found any time on the Disney Cruise Lines website under Special Offers.
  8. Free Upgrade– Norwegian Cruise Line is offering Free Upgrades for All granting a balcony cabin for the price of an Oceanview through February 13Th.
  9. Free upgrade– Celebrity Cruises weekly sale next Tuesday only features 11 to 14-night Caribbean sailings on Celebrity Millennium or Infinity starting at $599 per person +tax. They also have an “Upgrade Your View” promotion going on that gets a balcony cabin for the price of an oceanview on some sailings
  10. Valentines Day– Costa Cruises has is offering several “sweetheart deals” throughout the month of February. Each week the “Month of Amore” will feature a different promotion on one of Costa’s romantic European itineraries.The “Month of Amore” launched this week with seven-night eastern Mediterranean itineraries from just $599 per person, double occupancy. The eligible cruises for this offer sail round-trip Venice, Italy, and call at ports in Greece, Turkey and Croatia.

Flickr photo by Nicholas RIVET