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Cruising in 2011: What to Expect

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Overall, 2011 should be a good year for cruising. Other than an occasional and unpredictable weather or mechanical problem, a cruise should remain an enjoyable and reasonably priced vacation option. But if you haven’t cruised recently, you may see a few surprises next year.

A la Carte Pricing

The biggest change in cruise pricing is that I expect to see more a la carte pricing. The mass-market cruise lines have seen the huge profits that airlines are reaping from various fees and charges, and I think they’d like some of the same.

You can blame the basic trend on the Internet. Online comparison sites have made it easy for you to compare various cruise options side by side, and coming out on the low end of a price search has become essential to many travel suppliers. Most airlines have kept their base prices low by charging fees for features that were once free or included in the base price: meals, beverages, pillows and blankets, checked baggage, even carry-on baggage on one line, paper tickets, talking with a real person on the phone, advance seat assignment, priority boarding—you name it, some airline is charging for it.

I believe the mass-market cruise lines will sense the same pressures—and see the same opportunities. They already charge for dining in some premium shipboard venues, and a few charge for special entrees (notably steak and lobster) even in their regular dining rooms. I expect to see that pattern continue—in a few years, mac and cheese may be the only free entree remaining on main dining room menus, with surcharges for almost everything else. You also already see extra charges for special desserts—and “special” can have elastic coverage. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some surcharges for “special” onboard entertainment features, too.

Fuel Surcharges

Fuel surcharges may stage a comeback, especially if the price of oil climbs above current levels. Historically, those surcharges have been small compared with airline charges, but you can expect to see some. Also historically, some lines tried to carve out a portion of the true price and tack it on later as port charges. I’m not sure whether this will re-emerge: Initially, the Florida attorney general’s office stepped in to protect consumers against this particular deception, but attorneys general change, and you might see this scam again.

Mandatory Tipping

If you haven’t cruised in a while, you might be surprised to see that most mass-market lines now add a mandatory tipping charge to your bill, typically $10 to $12 per person per day. Many cruisers seem to like this idea—it simplifies what once was a big mystery about whom to tip and how much to tip them. Although the cruise lines set the tipping rates, they generally allow you to adjust your total payment, up or down, through the purser’s office. The mandatory tipping programs cover only cabin stewards and dining room staff. Most lines add a standard 15 percent to all bar bills.

Mandatory tipping is most prevalent among the mass-market lines serving North America. Cruises in Europe, Asia, and the South Pacific are more likely to adhere to the older system. According to my friends at Cruise Critic (a sister site of Smarter Travel), Disney and Royal Caribbean are the only two mass-market lines that still adhere to the old system: They suggest amounts, but leave it to you to hand each tipped staffer the traditional white envelope with cash at the end of the cruise, and even these lines have some standard-tipping options.

Luxury Lines

I do not expect a la carte pricing to hit the upmarket lines as it will the less expensive operators. As far as I can tell, the high-end cruise lines will continue to bundle most onboard services, including tipping, in the base daily rates. But, of course, these rates are much higher than on the mass-market lines.

All in all, I expect base rates to remain steady. But, one way or another, you’ll probably pay a bit more.

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