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Cruise Trends: What's In for '08

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By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 20, 2008

Last year was a very good one for the cruise industry, with a spike in passenger numbers and a flurry of ship construction. But now it's time to look ahead to the top sailing trends for 2008. Oh, Caribbean, we shall miss you, but we'll think of you while basking in the Mediterranean sun.

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The cruising world started '08 with a strong push. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 2.5 million passengers sailed on 1,063 North American cruises in the second quarter of 2007, the highest level in the past four years. That number, by the way, is a mere fifth of all 2007 cruisers -- 12.6 million, per estimates by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which represents the major cruise lines. To accommodate these vacationers, at least a dozen new ships hit the fair seas.

For this year, the industry had better keep its hammers handy. CLIA forecasts passenger figures to grow by 1.6 percent, to 12.8 million. "Overall, the cruise industry is still reaching out to people who haven't cruised before," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of Cruise Critic, which publishes an online cruising magazine ( http://www.cruisecritic.com). "Cruising is definitely going to grow."

So what can the Cruising Class of 2008 expect? Here are some upcoming developments.

Destinations

Air travelers from the United States may be souring on Europe, but those arriving by sea are just gearing up for the Continent. "Europe is so hot this year," said Paul Motter, editor of CruiseMates, an online cruising guide ( www.cruisemates.com). "The farther the dollar drops, the more popular [seeing Europe by cruise] becomes." Specifically, the most scorching itineraries are in the Mediterranean and Baltic.

One of the biggest reasons to cruise Europe is the industry's booking arrangement, which allows Americans to pay in dollars and therefore avoid the weak currency exchange rate. Unlike ground travelers who feel the pain every time they pay for a meal, hotel or transportation, cruisers pay one lump sum that covers all of their major expenses.

"This is a contemporary variation on 'If it's Tuesday, we must be in Belgium,' " Spencer Brown said. "It's a great way to sample Europe. You pack once and sleep in the same bed."

Of course, as Europe's popularity grows, so do the cruise prices. Rates can be high, and cabins sell out fast. Experts suggest booking six to nine months out. To save money, Motter recommends sailing in May or September. "As the boat fills, it gets more expensive," he said. "Check for a ship that is not full and be flexible with dates. In the Baltic and Mediterranean, the same itinerary can be 30 or 40 percent less early or late in the season."

Fortunately, many lines are addressing the demand by increasing supply. Some lines are deploying ships from the Caribbean to Europe (Carnival will have one vessel each in the Mediterranean and the Baltic, the first time ever) or are docking them in Europe year-round, as Royal Caribbean and Costa are doing.

On this side of the Atlantic, the Caribbean isn't necessarily out, but travelers are seeking islands with fewer hordes and more variety.

Spencer Brown gives as an example St. Maarten, which can welcome as many as six 3,000-passenger ships on a typical high-season day.

"The western Caribbean is overly congested, and cruisers are tired of going to the same old places," she said. "The beaches are packed. People want a change."


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