A sinking feeling

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Cruise lines are looking nervously at bookings for the first half of 2012, amid fears that hefty discounts might be needed to keep demand steady in the recession.

Around 1.7 million Britons are believed to have taken a cruise in 2011, combining sea and river voyages. While the fly-cruise market is declining slightly, the number of passengers sailing from UK ports is expected to top one million this year.

Unofficially, however, some cruise industry sources say that bookings have slowed since October. The 50-plus age group is seeing savings eroded by inflation, so there’s a growing tendency to leave bookings to the last moment.

Claire Trevis, managing director at Ideal Cruising, says: “With prices as low as £899 for a nine-night cruise, late Christmas cruise prices were remarkably low and we think the trend is likely to continue into the New Year.

“Some late bookers on the 29-night luxury Cunard Caribbean cruise on the Queen Mary 2, which left Southampton this week, paid £1,899 against a brochure price of £4,449.”

Leading lines including Royal Caribbean and P&O have launched campaigns, mostly running to January 31 or February 28, offering attractive deals and extras to those who commit early for summer next year.

Cruise Thomas Cook, the biggest independent cruise agent, is challenging customers to “beat any cruise quote”, incorporating savings of up to 20 per cent on Royal Caribbean, P&O Cruises and Cunard, and up to £1,600 off per couple on Princess Cruises, plus free cabin upgrades, parking and transfers.

Cruise Thomas Cook offers a 10-night Western Mediterranean Cruise on P&O’s Adonia from £599, which includes a flight ex-Gatwick on January3 and a voyage ex-Rome to Palma, Valencia, Almeria, Cadiz, Lisbon and Southampton.

The company’s Jenny Ellis says: “More than ever, customers are demanding increased value for money, so we expect all-inclusive family cruises and ‘cruise and stays’ to grow in popularity next year.

“For families, there’s now a choice of ships with great family facilities: RCCL’s Independence of the Seas and P&O’s Oceana offer specialist children’s entertainment, while the value for money of all-inclusive cruises means the draw for families is larger than ever.”

The Big Princess Sale, launched by Princess Cruises, features a seven-night voyage ex-Southampton in June from £699, and a 14-night Mediterranean voyage from May 19 from £999, along with big savings on launch fares on all ships and stateroom grades across the year, including peak season.