Throughout 2022, the cruise industry has been in transition—steadily recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic but not quite back to full capacity.
Just a few weeks ago, for example, Carnival Cruise Line’s parent company, Carnival Corporation released third-quarter results showing that occupancy levels among its brands averaged just 84 percent during June, July and August. The summer’s ticket revenues were also disappointing. And perhaps most notably as the year draws to a close, bookings for the fourth quarter are “below the historical range and at lower prices."
Amid these types of reports, the industry has been rolling out all manner of deals, discounts and special promotions in order to help fill cabins and strengthen relationships. It’s a practice that continues well into fall and winter.
“Cruise lines are bringing in strong offers and promotions at the moment to bring travelers back,” says John Mast, senior director of marketing, at Expedia Cruises.
Here’s a closer look at what’s on the table for those interested in a cruise getaway.
Buy Now, Pay Later
The buy now, pay later (BNPL) approach to making purchases that have been sweeping the online shopping world for the past few years now is also becoming increasingly prominent in the cruise booking process.
This approach, of course, allows people to book a cruise now and pay for it later via installment payments that are made over time—similar to an installment loan. At a time when empty cabins continue to be a challenge and consumers may be worried about spending money amid inflation and a looming recession, the option to book a cruise without immediately having to come up with the money, is certainly a draw.
“Cruise lines seem to be really focused on the buy now, pay later trend, using companies like Uplift to get people to book,” explains Jesse Morris, owner of We Book Travel, an independent agency in the Avoya Network. “It’s one of those things that’s been in the background for a while and I think it’s helping to move the needle a bit in the mass market space."
At this point, it's possible to book via BNPL on nearly all of the major cruise lines that consumers are familiar with including Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Viking, Princess Cruises, Holland America, and many more.
“There are tons of options out there. All of the major travel leaders are on it,” continues Morris. “You're going to see a lot more of that sort of stuff to help people who want to book.”
Air travel is hardly a bargain these days. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index, airline ticket costs increased by 42.9 percent between September 2021 and September 2022.
Making airfare less of an obstacle to booking a cruise is another tactic that has become increasingly popular in the cruise industry, experts say. “Airfare is a big pain point right now and some lines are offering free or discounted air inclusions,” says Morris. “This is more prevalent with the river cruise lines but popping up on a lot of the ocean lines as well."
On Norwegian Cruise Lines, for instance, if sailings aren’t necessarily generating as many bookings as hoped, the cruise line will offer two-for-one airfare deals in order to get travelers on the ship, says Corey Hargarther, a second-generation travel advisor, working for a family-owned Dream Vacations franchise.
“I have clients who just got back from a cruise. This was the craziest booking I ever sold. They got two-for-one air from Orlando, Florida to Athens, Greece for $899 total,” said Hargarther. “That’s for two round-trip tickets. And then when you add the cabin and dining for seven nights, the total cost was $3,201. That’s two airfare tickets and a cruise. I probably would not have booked that had the airfare promo not been there. But with the promo, it was ridiculously cheap.”
To be clear, however, these types of offers may not always be the bargain that they appear to be at first blush. The cruise lines, explains Morris, are often still making the money they’re spending on airfare—in one way or another.
“To be honest, they’re building it back in the price. It’s all marketing at the end of the day.”
Complimentary Land Programs
One of the more notable offerings Morris has seen lately from cruise lines is AmaWaterways’ complimentary pre- or post-river cruise land packages.
For travelers who may be flying to a far-flung European destination to join a cruise, this freebie is a big draw. It allows cruisers to spend two, three, or four nights extra in a destination before or after a cruise and the cruise line picks up the tab for such costs as hotel and tours. “You can come in four days early or stay three or four days late and the cruise line is going to take care of that,” says Morris.
Waived Solo Supplements
For solo travelers, having to pay a single supplement fee when booking land tours or cruises has long been an irksome experience. But the industry has slowly been acknowledging this issue and doing away with such fees. And it seems now more than ever, cruise lines are abolishing the solo supplement to ensure it doesn’t hold travelers back when ships are not full to capacity.
“It’s not totally new, but we’re seeing more of it as an incentive to go out there and cruise,” explains Morris. “It’s being used as a way to fill the ships. I don’t think anybody is doing anything truly brand new to draw folks in. In many ways cruise lines are going back to their tried and true processes to fill ships."