New Cruise Fees Being Tested

Carnival Cruise Line is testing out a new fee, one that would, among other things, allow priority seating at dinner.

Sound familiar?

It should. While it may seem the airlines have cornered the market on fees, they may have a little competition from hotels and at least one cruise line.

Carnival's $49.95 Faster to the Fun fee is being tested on two ships starting later this month – the Imagination and the Liberty. The program is an industry first, according to cruise experts.

"We've never seen anything like this," said Dan Askin, senior editor at CruiseCritic.com. "There are a couple tangentially related fee-for-perks programs, but they focus on late debarkation."

The charge is per cabin, regardless of the number of passengers. It includes the aforementioned priority dinner seating, plus early embarkation and choice of debarkation time, cabin availability and access to the ships' guest services desk during the cruise.

"If the trials are successful, it wouldn't surprise me to see others experimenting with similar programs," said Askin. "Lines have shown time and again their penchant for sharing ideas."

Opinion on the site's popular message boards is mixed. Many wonder how Carnival will execute the plan and how it will impact tendering (how you board or leave the ship if it's too big to dock), embarkation and guest services for the rest of the passengers. Others seem to think it's much ado about nothing and will have no impact on the vast majority of cruisers' experiences.

The cruise line has not disclosed how many packages it will sell, possibly a key component, Askin said, in the impact on cruisers who choose not to pay the fee.

Hotels, on the other hand, have charged resort fees for ages, but those, while not included in the base price of your stay, are not optional. But there are small signs that change is in the air.

EasyHotel, a London-based budget hotel chain with 12 properties across Europe and the United Arab Emirates, offers no-frills hotel rooms where travelers can opt to pay extra for everything from a remote control to early arrival to room cleaning to bag storage.

Starwood, which owns such brands as W, St Regis, Westin and Sheraton, gives a discount for every day a person opts out of maid service. The Make a Green Choice program gives guests a $5 voucher for food and beverage or 500 Starwood Preferred Guest points for every night they decline housekeeping services.

While Starwood's discount plan seems to be dipping a toe into the pool of hotel fees, the question is whether travelers will actually pay for them. Travelocity's 2012 Traveler Confidence Report found that travelers are highly unlikely to pay for services like cleaning, towels, concierge service or personal check in.

If hotels and cruise lines are indeed trying to mimic the airlines, it's a no-brainer from a financial perspective: The airlines raked in $22.6 billion in fees in 2011, according to a study by IdeaWorks, an airline ancillary revenue consultant, and Amadeus, a transaction processor for the travel industry.

But at what expense? "Public opinion of the airlines is at an all-time low. People feel completely nickeled and dimed, and many are limiting the times they fly or are foregoing flying all together," said Anne Banas, executive editor of Smarter Travel.

But, she points out, flying is sometimes necessary, and there are far fewer airlines to pick from than there are hotels and cruise lines. "Hotels and cruise lines potentially run a greater risk of losing business since customers have more choice. In other words, there are many more cruise lines and hotels to pick from than there are airlines. If a given hotel charges fees, consumers can more easily give their dollars to another down the street."

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