Vacationers looking to escape on a cruise this winter are going to find a plethora on choices, thanks to the launching on several new ships, including the Oasis of the Seas, the largest cruise ship to ever hit the seas.
And thanks to the lingering recession, many cruise lines are still offering some steep discounts but not necessarily as generous as travelers saw last winter when free shore excursions and big onboard credits were being offered.
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"Those types of offers are not available anymore but the price points for cruises are still at a very good level," said Stewart Chiron, president of Cruiseguy.com, a travel marketing group specializing in the cruise industry.
The biggest thing -- literally -- hitting the cruise world this year is Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas.
This mammoth ship will have its maiden voyage Dec. 5. It has a shocking 2,706 staterooms (1,956 of them with balconies), 16 different passenger decks, 24 elevators, 21 swimming pools and whirlpools and a wide range of entertainment and dining options.
At maxim capacity, it will have 5,400 passengers and 2,100 crew members.
The ship also claims a number of firsts: The first zip line – an 82-foot ride suspended nine decks in the air – and the first ever park at sea with 12,175 plants, 62 vine plants, 56 trees and bamboo – some over 24 feet high.
Chiron said the ship will be a game changer.
"They outdid themselves," he said, adding that the ship is 40 percent larger than any other cruise ship ever built.
But don't expect any discounts on this hot new ship.
Chiron said tickets on it will be about 30 percent higher than similar itineraries on other ships. Still, some people will want to splurge just to be on this ship.
"Some people are going to be goo-goo ga, ga over sailing on the newest, largest ship in the world," he said.
New Cruise Ships
There are plenty of other new ships that have just been launched, or are about to come online this year. Carnival just launched Dream, its longest ship yet, which can accommodate 3,646 passengers. And in August, Celebrity launched Equinox, a 2,850- passenger ship. (That comes less than a year after the launch of sister ship Solstice.)
But not all new ships are giants. The luxury cruise lines are unveiling new, smaller upscale boats.
In December, Silversea Cruises is launching its first new ship in almost 10 years: Silver Spirit. Forgot thousands, this ship only accommodates 540 guests.
The Yachts of Seabourn just launched Odyssey in June, the smallest ship to launch this year about one-seventh the size of the Oasis' size. Odyssey holds up to 450 guests in 225 rooms. Seabourn notes that its smaller size will enable the vessel to access to unique ports, from Korea to Uruguay.
And other cruise lines, if not adding ships, are adding new amenities.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises has brought in luxury spa developer Canyon Ranch to run the spas, beauty salons and fitness facilities on all three of its ships.
All of these new moves -- many planned pre-recession -- mean savings or added value for travelers, even on the high end. For instance, Seabourn is offering up to 65 percent on its 14-day holiday cruise leaving Fort Lauderdale on Dec. 21 to St. Thomas, Grenada, Mayreau, Barbados, Prickly Pear Island, Jost Van Dyke and Grand Turk. Fares start at $6,999 per person, based on double occupancy.
Travelzoo's cruise specialist Lynn Nugent said that cruises in September through December (excluding the holidays) are normally deeply discounted. This year however, Nugent said, those deals are being extended through January and February. And instead of waiting until the last second to slash prices, the cruise lines are making deals now.
"This year the prices are just getting lower and lower and lower," Nugent said. "I think the ships will be full. I just think the cruise lines are going to have to do a ton of last-minute discounting to get people on those ships."
Nugent suggested that travelers look to the Caribbean for the best deals. If you have flexibility with your travel dates, check back every week for the latest deals.
"The Caribbean is a bloodbath and everybody is having trouble," she said. "It's deeply concerning to the cruise line executives, whether they admit it or not."
Chiron however the discounts are "certainly nowhere near" where they were last year. But the best of the deals out there now, he said, are in Mexico. Every cruise line, in recent earnings calls, has claimed Caribbean is doing better than expected.
Great Travel Deals This Winter
Travelzoo found some great deals, for instance, on a week-long Caribbean trip aboard Celebrity's Solstice. Prices there can normally run as high as $1,500 per person but now there are deals for January and one February sailing where a balcony cabin is going for $899 per person and comes with a $200 onboard credit for each cabin.
"That price for that caliber of ship is really impressive, especially for a balcony," Nugent said.
Chiron said that the biggest discounts are going to be in the luxury market.
For instance, he said lines like Regent are slashing prices, throwing in free airfare, free liquor, pre-paid gratuities and free or reduced shore excursions.
When planning a cruise, he said, research online but don't book online.
"You might not be aware that there is another ship with a better offer," Chiron said, urging the use of travel agents. He said that cruise lines offer many discounts through the bookers, including those for residents of certain states, military service or being a past passenger.
"And there could be discounts for wearing a red shirt on Tuesday," he said, half-joking.
Agents also know a lot about the cabins, quality of the food and the types of entertainment offered.
"This is not a six-hour flight cross country. This is three, four, five, seven days of your life," Chiron said. "You want to make sure they are experience and not just some order taker regurgitating information out of a brochure. You want to make sure they have first-hand experience with the ships."