Teresa McUsic

Glut of cruise ships leads to bargains in Galveston

The Caribbean is chock-full of cruise ships right now, and that’s good news for consumers, with rates falling to as low as $41 a day.

Cruise ships in the Caribbean numbered a record 235 this year, up from 212 in 2011, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. Next year shows even more capacity, with 239 ships scheduled to cruise the Caribbean, the world’s most popular cruising area, with almost 40 percent of the market share.

The glut of ships this year forced many lines to drop their prices to fill cabins, particularly during the summer and fall low season, according to Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief at CruiseCritic.com, a leading cruise review and information site owned by TripAdvisor.

“That $41-a-day fare is insane,” said Spencer Brown, who called from the Norwegian Breakaway cruise ship in the Bahamas. “There has always been a glut of ships in the Caribbean, but now the ships are bigger so there is a large supply of rooms. This ship has 4,600 people on it.”

The ships cruising the Caribbean this year had a capacity of 367,000 beds, according to the cruise association. Next year, there will be 378,256 beds.

“Historically, this is definitely a low-cost time of year,” said Heidi-Allison Shane, spokeswoman for CruiseComplete.com, a website that compiles competing cruise offers for consumers. “But bad publicity and a weakened economy has been part of the problem. There are too many cabins and not enough people wanting to go.”

The bad publicity was sparked by outbreaks of gastrointestinal viruses that affected hundreds of passengers, as well as an engine fire aboard a ship that left passengers stranded in the Gulf for several days last year.

A Harris Poll released in April showed that half of Americans are less likely to take a cruise than a year earlier, with the sentiment stronger among those who have never taken a cruise (58 percent) than among those who have (44 percent).

In Texas, a cruise can make for a low-cost vacation. This fall, the state has two choices for ports — Galveston and Houston. Vacationers from this area can take a half-day drive, park for cheap near the port and walk onto one of five ships.

“It is appealing to drive to a port,” Spencer Brown said. “Once when I did that, I bought something big on the trip and realized, I don’t have to try to pack this into my suitcase.”

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Prices right now are attractive. Carnival is offering Texas residents five- and seven-day cruises from Galveston for as low as $229 for five days and $289 for seven days for interior cabins, including port fees and taxes, according to GalvestonCruises.com, a travel agency based in Galveston. Royal Caribbean also sails from Galveston and offers interior cabins on a seven-day cruise starting at $392.

Out of Houston, Norwegian has a seven-day cruise for $359 and Princess a five-day cruise as low as $299. Special rates are also available for past guests, seniors, EMTs, and military, police and fire personnel.

“The special rates are one of the reasons it’s good to use a travel agent,” said Claire Johnson, spokeswoman for GalvestonCruises.com. “The rates are the same as if you went through the cruise line, but we may ask a few more questions to get the best rate.”

Right now, all the cruise lines are offering a special rate for Texas residents, she said.

“But that is not always the case,” she said. “Sometimes they offer that rate for people in another state.”

Johnson said she encourages her customers to take out trip insurance to safeguard against an illness in the family or a school program that can’t be missed.

“It’s not expensive, usually $50-$75, depending on their age and cost of the cruise,” she said. “They can typically buy it through their cruise line, but we also have a third-party insurer they can use.”

Gratuities are another add-on, Johnson said. Most lines recommend adding a fee of $12 per day per traveler when the tickets are bought that will be split among the staff.

“That’s the way most people are doing it,” Johnson said. “That way, they don’t have to worry about it during their trip. And you can adjust it if, for example, you never ate in the dining room. Just go to the front desk and ask for a partial refund.”

For those with flexibility, booking at the last minute could bring even lower cabin prices, Shane said. Her website has a blog that lists deals as they are activated, she said.

It’s important to know what is and isn’t included in your fare, Shane said. Most ships include 24-hour room service. Royal Caribbean fares now include a stocked minibar in the cabin, while Norwegian includes free butler service.

Not included in fares out of Texas are alcohol and soda, port excursions, spa services and some specialty restaurants.

A recent Carnival cruise from Galveston with my family cost us around $130 extra after the fare. We spent $50 for two of us to go snorkeling in Cozumel after making our own excursion plans; $30 on gambling; $25 on drinks (after bringing a few bottles of wine aboard in our carry-on); and $25 on a shopping coupon book. The beach at Progreso and sunsets at sea were free.

Shane said Caribbean cruise prices should go up next year.

“Prices will rise,” she said. “The lines have already told us that, and we’re not seeing early promotions for next year like we usually do this time of year.”

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