Aboard Disney Fantasy, Off the Coast of Portugal - The cruise ship industry has seen explosive growth in the last decade as ever-larger ships have been added along with more amenities to attract a new breed of vacationers beyond the traditional market of honeymooners and retirees.
According to Carnival Corp., the largest cruise operator, total cruise industry passengers grew from 15.1 million annually in 2006 to 19.7 million last year, a growth rate of 5.4 percent a year. That's all the more impressive considering much of that growth occured during a worldwide recession.
Yet the cruise industry has barely scratched the surface of the market. North America, which accounts for about 60 percent of all cruisers, still only has a penetration rate of 3.4 percent - 97 percent of those in the US and Canada don"t cruise - the rate in Europe, Asia and other regions is a fraction of that.
The vast potential of the market and the value for the vacation dollar has emboldened all the major lines to add ships at a rate that's never been seen before. Disney Cruise Line, for example, has more than doubled its capacity with the addition of Dream last year and Fantasy, which debuts in March.
Guests report extremely high satisfaction with their cruises - Carnival says their rate of satisfaction is 94 percent. The reasons for the high satisfaction are many but the heart of it may be bang for the buck. It's hard to find a comparable land-based vacation that offers as much value as crusing, especially when compared with a cruise that leaves from a port within driving distance of your home.
Rates vary widely but it's possible to snag per-person, per-day rates of $50 and even lower. A family of four can find a 7-day cruise from Florida in an inside cabin for $1,500 to $1,800 and that includes all lodging, entertainment and lavish multi-couse meals. Most mainstream lines have a crew to passenger ratio of 3 to 1, insuring a level of service not found in many land-based resorts. A budget for lodging alone at a popular resort for a week can easily total $1,500.
Of course, crusing can cost much more depending on the ship and itinerary and extras such as shore tours and specialty restuarants. Many lines, led by Norweigian, have stepped up efforts in recent years to entice guests to spend more on board for dining, spa services, reserved areas of the ship and even shows.
So how do you find the cruise that's right for you? Mega-search sites like Kayak let you sort all the cruises by region, price and number of days to help narrow your search and specialty cruise sites abound such as cruisesonly.com and vacationstogo.com. Travel agents are a valuable resource as well - they can help you narrow the search to the ship and itinerary where you'll be most comfortable. The cruise lines pay commissions to the agents, so there's usually no cost to you, though agents do get incentives to recommend certain ships.
As far as cost is concerned, nearly all the major lines have set uniform pricing - you'll pay about the same whether you book through an online agency, a traditional agent or through the cruise line's website. Agents, however, not only offer advice and troubleshooting, but free upgrades, onboard credits, wine and other goodies. A number of agencies will even rebate part of their commission - you can find these on Cruisecompete.com.
Cruises are strictly a supply and demand business and are priced accordingly. Expect to pay more for a stateroom on new ships, some megaships, or for an unusual itinery or onboard event. Pricing tends to be lowest for bookings many months away and some lines will guarantee the best price if uou book early. But you can find good deals for bookings a month to six weeks away if reservations for a particular ship are soft. Shoulder season is a good time for deals - think Alaska in May and September. Ships that are repositioning from one region to another offer fantastic deals though there may be many sea days.
Families can find even better deals, depending on the cruiseline, ship and itinerary. Prices for third, fourth and sometimes fifth passengers in the same cabin are often substantially lower. MSC has for years allowed extra passengers to sail free in the same cabin, just paying taxes.
Here's a snapshot of prices taken Feb.12, using Kayak.com. For one-week sailings leaving Florida ports to the Caribbean March 23-25, a balcony cabin for two adults ranged from $1,791 to more than $5,000. But that covers a wide range of ships and itineraries, from the least expensive on Carnival to a cruise on Azamara, a luxury line where the pricing includes a much higher level of service and wine, tips and specialty dining. Note that this is also a prime week for winter and spring break vacationers - the same ships on off-peak weeks may be much cheaper.
The author is an editor for ABCNews.com, owned by Walt Disney Co. , which also owns the Disney Cruise Line. Any opinions expressed here are those of the author only.