With the non-stop media coverage of the Costa Concordia tragedy and the image of the capsized ship bombarding screens, monitors and mobile devices for several weeks, it probably comes as no surprise that people may think twice before booking a cruise.
Both Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean International reported bookings declines in the low-to-mid-teens in the weeks immediately following the accident compared with a year earlier. Carnival is the parent company of Costa Cruises, Holland America, Princess Cruises and Seabourn Cruise Line. Royal Caribbean is the parent company to Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises, among others.
But for better or worse, one person's tragedy can be another's opportunity. As travelers reconsider cruise vacations, deals will surface. "When demand is soft, the cruise lines will either reduce prices or add additional incentives to entice customers to book," said Matt Lee, Vice president of cruises for Travelocity. "Typically, they'll add incentives like free upgrades, onboard credit and reduced deposits before they'll decrease the price of the cruise."
Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of popular cruise review website CruiseCritic.com, said that last-minute opportunities are robust right now, especially for the Caribbean in February and March, peak times to cruise in the region. "I haven't seen so many deals for seven-night cruises under $600 in a long time, especially for these months," she said.
But bargain hunters need to act fast. Though several cruise lines have launched new short-term sales to spur demand, said Lee, he expects bookings to bounce back and the window to close quickly.
"Now may truly be the best time to book all year. Take advantage of these deals before the demand catches up with supply," he said.
For example, Carnival launched a three-day sale Tuesday with up to $400 cash back and free stateroom upgrades. Travelocity is in the midst of its own annual Cruise Super Sale, which highlights deals across all major lines.
And in fact, Royal Caribbean reports that bookings, especially in North America, have already started to recover. European bookings took a harder hit than those in North America, which may translate to the best deals on those itineraries. A check by ABCNews.com of pricing on Mediterranean itineraries across cruise lines in March revealed several lines offering deals from under $100 per person, per night.
In its fourth-quarter earnings report, released Thursday, Royal Caribbean stated, "Spring and summer sailings are showing the largest declines in new bookings, while longer term bookings remain healthy." Carnival echoed the relative health of the long-term business in a regulatory 10-K filing on Jan. 30 in which it stated that despite the decline in bookings, "we believe the incident will not have a significant long-term impact on our business."
Translation for travelers: if you're interested in a cruise deal, the best time to find one will likely be soon, for sailings in spring time. Concentrate efforts on looking a few weeks out -- Royal Caribbean reported no material change in cancellations, meaning those who had booked winter cruises are still planning on taking them.
Despite it being "wave season," – the time of year when cruise lines aggressively promote deals in an effort to lock in bookings for the year -- Carnival, Royal and others scaled back marketing activities in the wake of the accident, but are now are, according to Lee, "aggressively promoting their product in an effort to get the first time cruisers off the fence."
Royal Caribbean noted that the bookings decline was primarily attributed to the loss of bookings from would-be first-time cruisers. Presumably, experienced cruisers know that the Costa accident was very unusual and feel safe enough to book. "While most experienced cruise travelers understand that what happened with Costa Concordia is an anomaly, for people who've been tempted to cruise, but haven't yet tried it, the story is quite terrifying," said Brown. But, she said "Ultimately, I believe the first-timers will come back."