Are Cruise Ship Deals as Good as They Seem?

Waiting for a real deal on a Caribbean or Mediterranean cruise? Keep your eyes open. This may be your year. According to a report in The Telegraph, MSC Cruises is now offering holidays for as little at 1 British pound ($1.47 US) for a second passenger accompanying someone paying the full fare.

The deals are available for selected cruises in the Mediterranean between March and November 2009.

Though this is a very limited market segment, the cruise business is ferociously competitive so that what one cruise line does, others might well emulate. So keep your eyes out for copycat deals out of North American ports, but don’t be misled into thinking that cruise lines are giving away their profits with this offer.

One cruise ship executive told me several years ago that cruise ships could well afford to give away some free tickets because they make their real money once the passengers have boarded. That’s when the free spending, fueled by “carefree signing privileges,” turns the cruise ship into a cash cow. Except for the meals, which have always been part of the tariff, nothing on a cruise ship is free—not the soft drinks, the ice cream specials, the beer, the wine, the souvenirs, the T-shirts, the land excursions, the trips to the infirmary, the visits by a nurse, and on and on. And unlike earlier cruise traditions, the prices for these “extras” are no cheaper than they are on land. More and more ships are also now adding charges for “upgraded” dining in specialty restaurants. Then there are the tips, which largely pay for the staff, all of whom expect passengers to stand up and do their bit on the last night of the cruise. There are plenty of passengers who on this last night realize they are paying more for their on-board sustenance than for their tickets. That final tab often comes as a shock to the uninitiated, as 7 to 18 days of uninterrupted “carefree signing” in a euphoric environment can leave a crushing hangover.

This is not to say you should forego cruising. It’s the fastest-growing segment in the tourism industry and most passengers who have been on one cruise say they want to go again. There are also some 12.5 million passengers who will book cruises sold out of North America in 2009, almost 750,000 of them Canadians. In fact, Canadians and Europeans comprise the fastest-growing segment of the world’s cruise business.

Just understand that all is not as it seems on the surface. And the costs you are quoted by a cruise or travel agent only reveal the part you see. But, like an iceberg, there’s a whole lot you don’t see.

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