A growing fleet has cut cruise prices.
The cruise industry is in the midst of a building boom. Shipyards have been churning out floating Taj Mahals at an astounding rate since the late 1990s and the projected number of berths available from North American ports has hit 189,441— more than double the figure in 1990. According to Cruise Lines International Association, 14 new ships entered the market last year, and 25 more are slated to come into service by the end of 2004. For travelers, this means lower prices, more elbow room, fun new amenities, and innumerable rooms with balconies.
How low will they go? If you haven't yet taken advantage of the cruise deals, you can still hop on board for a bargain this year. "Prices are as low as they were in 1983," says Mike Driscoll, editor of the industry news-letter Cruise Week. But keep in mind that the lowest rates aren't usually offered on vessels' maiden voyages. "A new ship attracts attention and people want to get on it," says Steven Evanich, manager of travel product development at CSAA. "You'll probably get a better deal by looking to a line's older ships."
How long will the deals last? While prices likely won't continue to drop, they also aren't expected to increase substantially again until 2005. "The building boom is going to taper off in 2004 and 2005," Driscoll says. "By 2005, demand will catch up with capacity."
The bigger the better Cruise lines usually see a new ship as an opportunity to build a bigger vessel than any in their existing fleets. In 1999, Royal Caribbean introduced the world's largest ship, the Voyager of the Seas, weighing 142,000 tons and offering 3,114 berths. Since then, Royal has released two more comparably sized ships—with another two on the horizon. The trend reaches its ultimate expression with Cunard's Queen Mary II, which will take over the QE2's trans-atlantic route in 2004. Stretching the length of almost four football fields, the ship weighs 8,000 tons more than those in Royal's Voyager class.
Not only do these behemoths hold more people, they also offer more space per passenger. Holland America's ms Zuiderdam, whose maiden voyage was in December, is half again as big as the line's other ships, but it will accommodate only 25 percent more passengers.
Amenities galore The added space also allows for innovative features. On ships like Royal Caribbean's Voyager, you can scale a rock-climbing wall or glide around an ice skating rink. And the cruise industry's first Creole restaurant is one attraction on board the Coral Princess, which set sail this winter.
Even on older ships you'll find sexy, updated features. The trendy new amenity-packed ships are upping the ante—and the cruise lines are now cramming the latest features, such as computer rooms and restaurants, onto their more senior vessels to try to keep them competitive. Princess, for example, recently added deluxe steak houses to its Sun-class ships of the mid-1990s.
Rooms with views You're also more likely to get a balcony, simply because there are more of them. On Carnival's newest Spirit-class ships, 60 percent of the rooms have balconies. The line's Fantasy-class ships of the early '90s had balconies with just 5 percent of the cabins; the 1980s Holiday-class ships had even fewer.
To book a cruise, contact the AAA Travel Agency at (800) 922-8228.
Photography courtesy of Seven Seas Mariner
This article was first published in January 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.