Vacationers who hit the high seas this year will find a treasure trove of bargains - and that's not all. At least 14 new ships, including the world's biggest behemoth and two intimate luxury vessels, plus innovative facilities and more U.S. departures, are on the way.
Unlike your stock portfolio and many businesses these days, cruising is a growing enterprise. Cruise Lines International Association, the industry's largest North American organization, says its members expect to carry 13.5 million passengers this year, up from 13.2 million last year and 12.6 million in 2007.
A few trends, such as more fees for onboard activities and dining, might inflict mal de mer on the budget-minded, and fans of American river cruising will mourn the decline of their niche.
But overall, there's much to anticipate. Here's a look at new and recent changes:
Cruise fares went into free-fall after last year's stock market meltdown, so deals abound. Berths for less than $100 per day, a benchmark for bargains, are not hard to find.
Besides fare discounts, some sailings come with free airfare, cabin upgrades, onboard credit, and other money-saving extras. Many lines have relaxed deposit and cancellation rules, making it easier to obtain a refund should you decide not to go.
For the best deals, steer your shopping to older vessels, longer itineraries, and distant destinations. New ships and departures from some U.S. ports can still command top dollar, says Mike Driscoll, editor of Cruise Week, an industry newsletter.
"The farther away you go, the more the rates have dropped," he says.
Look out for fees. Although fuel surcharges, which many big lines imposed last year, have been tossed overboard, new charges are floating in.
"We're seeing more a la carte pricing," says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of CruiseCritic, a consumer information Web site.
Royal Caribbean International, for instance, has began charging a $3.95 cabin service fee to deliver food between midnight and 5 a.m. The line also is charging a $14.95 premium for filet mignon in its Chops Grille Steakhouse and some dining rooms.
Think big. Think small. Cruise lines are doing both this year as they put ships into service that were conceived in headier times.
The splashiest debut will be Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, the world's largest cruise ship, which is scheduled to sail the Caribbean out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., starting in December.
At 220,000 gross registered tons and space for a maximum of 6,296 guests, this oceangoing Hummer is about 40 percent bigger than any cruise ship afloat. And it comes fully loaded.
Guests can stroll through tropical foliage in an open-air Central Park, view water acrobatics and diving shows in an amphitheater, ride a carousel, and zoom down a zip line.
For devotees of smallish luxury vessels, luxury lines Seabourn and Silversea are adding new ships, a rare event. The 450-passenger Seabourn Odyssey and 540-passenger Silver Spirit will emphasize cabin verandas and swanky spas.
Among bigger lines, notable debuts include the 3,646-passenger Carnival Dream, with the line's largest spa, water slide, and children's facilities; two ships from Costa Cruises and one from MSC Cruises, and Celebrity Cruises' 2,850-passenger Equinox, sister to the Solstice, which drew raves last year for its stylish design, spa cabins, solarium, and glass-blowing studio.
With the spotlight moving on, it might be a good time to book last year's star ships. They include Holland America's Eurodam (see related story on N1), the first in its new Signature class, with private cabanas to rent and spa staterooms; the Carnival Splendor, with a "sky dome" over the pool; and Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas, with its surfing simulator, boxing ring, and ice-skating rink.
For cruisers on a budget, there's no place like home.
"Home porting is a very big deal," Spencer Brown says.
Driving to your cruise instead of flying can save hundreds or thousands of dollars, plus hours of hassle. There are also plenty of choices. CLIA members sail from more than 30 North American ports, and more than half of Americans live within driving distance of a port, the group says.
At the Philadelphia Cruise Terminal in the Philadelphia Navy Yard, the Norwegian Majesty will set sail on four cruises to Canada and New England and four cruises to Bermuda. The sailings are scheduled for Aug. 29 through Oct. 24.
Many places have added departures this year. In December, the West Coast got its biggest home-port ship. Shifting from Caribbean service, Royal Caribbean's 3,114-passenger Mariner of the Seas is sailing round trip from Los Angeles to Mexico, calling on Mazatlan, Cabo San Lucas, and Puerto Vallarta.
On the other hand, Disney Cruise Line, which made a splash with its Mexico sails out of Los Angeles last summer, has moved on; both of its ships will sail the Caribbean this year.
Aided by home-port convenience, the Caribbean is being rediscovered, Spencer Brown and Driscoll say, and Mexico's western coast, dubbed the Mexican Riviera, is also popular. The Baltic Sea region, which Disney will cruise next summer, is a hit with veterans who already have done Europe, and it's a good family destination, Spencer Brown says.
South America, where fares have fallen steeply, is a smart choice for bargain-hunters who can spare a couple of weeks, Driscoll says. If you have more time, check out world cruises; most still have openings, he says.
Although Driscoll has his doubts about the Mideast, given the region's instability, Spencer Brown says it's a cutting-edge destination. Dubai, which has pursued glitzy, ambitious tourist projects and is relatively insulated from the region's troubles, is a big draw; Royal Caribbean will deploy a ship there next winter.
"It's Vegas by the sea," Spencer Brown says. "People love it."
Talk about missing the boat. If you never set foot on the historic Delta Queen paddle-wheeler, you might not get the chance.
"River cruising in America has imploded," Spencer Brown says.
The Queen stopped sailing last year after Congress declined to renew its exemption from fire-safety laws. Its owner, Majestic America Line, which operated river cruises in the South, Midwest, and Pacific Northwest, was put up for sale and stopped sailing. Citing rising costs and skimpy bookings, another company, RiverBarge Excursions, with offerings in the Midwest and South, suspended operations this year.
River cruising survives in several U.S. regions and Canada, and it thrives abroad, notably in Europe. Amawaterways and Uniworld, for instance, each will add two vessels this year. But rolling down the river remains a tough sell to Americans, especially younger adults.
New worries Hurricanes.
OK, bad weather isn't a new threat, and unlike a hotel or theme park, a ship can sail away from trouble. But last year's Atlantic hurricane season set records for consecutive storms that hit the United States, and cruise reroutings and cancellations are no fun for customers. Think before you book in hurricane season.
Pirate attacks and bankruptcies? As last year's aborted attempt on the Nautica in the Gulf of Aden showed, cruise ships are not immune to the raids that have plagued commercial shipping off Somalia and environs. But historically, attacks on cruise ships have been rare.
More likely, given the shaky economy, are bankruptcies of cruise lines and travel agencies. Book with a credit card, and your deposits will receive extra protection under the federal Fair Credit Billing Act, which can help you obtain a refund if your ship's operator is swamped in red ink.