Troubled waters

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Although many leading cruise lines are beating the recession by slashing their prices to new lows, some passengers could be in line for shocks and surprises when they get on board, says a leading cruise expert.

Douglas Ward, author of the Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships 2013, says: “Although more than 22 million people worldwide will take a cruise next year, cruise companies are finding the economic waters unpleasantly choppy.

“When you see cruise prices falling towards £60 per day, you have to wonder how cruise lines can balance that with the cost of food, the wages bill, plus the rising cost of fuel and still make profits.”

During National Cruise Week (September 15-23) many cruise lines will have special offers to tempt early bookings for 2013 and even 2014.

The Guide says many cruise lines operate to impressively high standards: it names Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 (Grill Class) and the Celebrity ships Equinox and Solstice as the top large ships, with Crystal and Seabourn ships and the Europa, operated by Hapag Lloyd Cruises, as the best in the smaller categories.

However, Ward believes that many cruise lines can only afford to offer low fares, from £399 on some voyages from Britain, by boosting revenues in subtle ways elsewhere.

He identifies six key new areas for charges as:

Currency conversion: cruise lines take total control of your onboard credit card account and might switch your bill from euros to dollars when conversion charges work in their favour.

Extra gratuities: an additional gratuity line is often added to things like spa treatments and coffees.

Transfer buses: even airport transfers might be charged for in cities like Athens, Barcelona and Civitavecchia (Rome).

Mineral water: often charged per bottle on shore excursions, perhaps with a gratuity on top.

Navigational bridge tours: one cruise line charges passengers $150 to be entered into a raffle to win one of fairly few tickets to see the bridge.

Bingo cards: costs are “rising dramatically”, with one line charging $40 for four cards.

There are also numerous cost-cutting ploys, says Ward. These might include the reduction of food portions, the strength of the free coffee, the variety of green vegetables and in-cabin toiletries.

The removal of trays at self-service buffets means passengers can’t eat as much and ships often cut speeds between ports to save on fuel.

Other ploys used by cruise lines 
include charges for ship postcards and writing paper, which used to be free, and replacing live flowers with silk flowers.

Ward says: “Basic prices for cruises have never been better value, thanks 
in part to the economic downturn 
that has forced cruise lines to offer 
more booking incentives such as onboard credit and cabin upgrades. But cruise companies must push hard to earn more onboard revenue from extras.”