Like celebrities, rundown houses and reality TV show participants, cruise lines are getting makeovers. Demand is at its highest since Sept. 11, 2001, and prices are on the rise. Here's what's new this year.
New destinations. As the cost of the euro continues to climb, European cruises purchased in U.S. dollars are an exceptional value, cruise specialists say. Cruise lines are positioning more ships in the Mediterranean and along the coasts of northern Europe, and are selling those cruises faster than ever.
Cruise lines are targeting teens with new activities and hangouts, such as the Stack, an underage spot on Disney Cruise Line's Magic.
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Carnival Cruise Lines will sail the Mediterranean for the first time, with eight trips scheduled from July to October. Crystal Cruises has added seven new ports of call. Radisson Seven Seas has a new series of "Top of the World" trips, focusing on northern Europe.
Meanwhile, Disney Cruise Line is doing a first: It will sail from Los Angeles to Mexico this year as part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Disneyland. Twelve cruises will go from Los Angeles to Mexico, then sail through the Panama Canal to the Caribbean.
Passengers are also booking 2006 trips to Asia, a budding destination for American cruisers. Several cruise lines, including Celebrity, are debuting new South Pacific and Asian itineraries.
Higher prices/earlier bookings. Cruise prices are creeping up. And generally, when prices rise, advance booking times increase, too. Cruise bookings are resuming their pre-Sept. 11 levels, as Americans have more confidence in traveling the seas. Travel agents are reporting that top tiers of cabins and suites are being booked six months to a year -- even 18 months -- out.
As a result, this year will probably see fewer cruise discounts, aside from last-minute deals to fill ships and bargains available on specialty Web sites, such as Cruise411.com and Cruise.com. If you don't mind a small lower-deck cabin, you can still find good deals. Also look for special deals, such as free Alaskan cruises for children under 12 (with two paying adults) aboard Crystal, or Radisson Seven Seas' offer of free round-trip air travel (or $1,000 off your cruise fare) for its northern European cruises.
New ships. Given that 12 new cruise ships debuted in 2004 (and 15 the year before), 2005 is a sluggish year for the building of new vessels. Just three are scheduled to launch this year. The biggest is Norwegian Cruise Line's Pride of America, which was supposed to cruise the Hawaiian islands starting last year before major hull repairs delayed its debut. The ship, which begins sailing in June, was designed with Hawaii's vistas in mind, meaning more cabins with balconies, lots of windows and al fresco dining.
The other two launches are Carnival's Liberty (July), which will be the line's first ship in Europe, and a second NCL ship, the Norwegian Jewel (August).
Royal Caribbean International is scheduled to start accepting reservations this spring for the Freedom of the Seas, which is expected to be 20,000 tons larger than the world's current largest ocean liner (Cunard Line's Queen Mary 2). It is slated to start sailing in April 2006 from Miami to the Caribbean.