Cruise industry analysis: Why it pays to book early

Hapag Lloyd Europa 2

As cruise lines release their itineraries further and further ahead, Sam Ballard looks at the various incentives for agents to book their customers onto cruises as early as possible


When it comes to booking a cruise, does it really benefit the consumer to commit as early as possible? We are often told that it’s the case. Lines are releasing their itineraries further and further ahead – giving competitors a unique insight into their programming and putting pressure on themselves to sell cruises across two or even three years’ worth of itineraries. So, what incentive is there for agents to book their customers out as early as possible?

The answer lies in cruise lines following a model similar to airlines, whereby the price of your ticket is only going to rise. Or, at least that’s the theory. The reality is there is much more to it than cruise price alone.

One cruise line which follows the airline model is Saga. The firm, which is due to launch its first new-build vessel, Spirit of Discovery, in July, pioneers its very own Price Promise. The idea is that a certain number of cabins from each grade are put aside at a discount – these are then sold on a first come first served basis. As time goes on, the discount reduces – thus the price you pay directly corresponds to when you book. If a cheaper fare is brought in then Saga will return the difference.

“We’re very proud of our Price Promise at Saga Cruises, which guarantees that, should we ever cut our prices or bring in a new special offer later on, we’ll work out the difference and pass the value of the saving back to your customers,” explains Iain Powell, Saga’s head of trade sales. “This means booking early with us guarantees the best deals as well as cabin selection. To my knowledge, we’re one of the only cruise lines offering this promise, which is a massive selling point for travel agents when talking to their customers.”

Ultra-luxury line Crystal Cruises has a programme that provides travellers with a two-month window for the lowest prices possible on ocean, river and yacht. The Book Now Savings offer as much as £1,500 per suite on select 2019 ocean sailings, up to £3,100 per suite on 2020 and 2021 ocean sailings, £1,500 per suite on Crystal River Cruises and up to £785 per suite on Crystal Yacht Expedition Cruises. Once expiry dates are reached the savings are no longer available.

“It is because of our incredible travel agent partners and the strong demand they continue to generate among the world’s most discerning travellers that such enticing savings are possible on such a grand scale of luxury sailings across the globe,” explains Carmen Roig, Crystal’s senior vice president of marketing and sales. “We are confident that the immense value proposition of Book Now Savings instil a sense of urgency in travellers who might otherwise wait to book their dream holiday and prove that it literally pays to plan ahead.”

It’s not just the luxury players that offer hefty discounts to those who book well in advance of the sailing date, as Alla Mozharova, the marketing director of Poseidon Expeditions, explains.

“There are a lot of advantages in booking a Poseidon Expeditions polar cruise well in advance of the actual departure,” she says. “First of all, you benefit from the Early Booking discount and save up to 15 per cent from the regular cruise cost. Secondly, if you book early you can usually find space on your preferred departure date, and have your choice of the most popular cabin categories, which usually sell out quickly. Last but not least, when reserving your cruise well in advance, you can book the flights with the most convenient connections and typically at the most reasonable rates. On top of it all, reserving your voyage in advance allows you to relax and enjoy the planning of your trip to the polar regions.”

Mozhaarova’s point about customers securing a favoured cabin category is one that came up time and time again while researching this topic, especially for those lines that have smaller ships. It’s self-explanatory but the fewer cabins there are, the quicker those cabins will book up. It’s something that sounds obvious but might not immediately spring to mind when your customers are thinking about making a booking.

“Whenever a customer is booking with a small cruise line with smaller vessels, they always need to remember that cabin numbers are very limited,” explains Fay McCormack, general manager of Star Clippers UK. “Sailings will sell out very quickly for us as, unlike larger cruise companies, capacity is limited to begin with, so early booking is essential now.”

Mike Hall, head of marketing for Cruise & Maritime Voyages, agrees and with good reason: “With 40 per cent of CMV’s customers being repeats, they want to be able to get their first choice of cabin grade and position. CMV operate fluid pricing and have developed a pricing model where we aim to offer the best deal to those who book early. The model benefits travel agents as it encourages early booking with attractive fares and a strong marketing offer.

“CMV’s Summer 2019 programme, which originally launched in March 2018, is already over 75 per cent sold. Fares have now increased for most of the remaining capacity.”

Booking ahead is also crucial for customers who are looking to utilise less busy air routes, for instance when taking an expedition cruise.

“When it comes to booking expedition tours, booking early definitely has its advantages,” says Brian Young, managing director of G Adventures. “When operating departures in regions such as Svalbard in the Arctic and Ushuaia to Antarctica, we often see that, due to limited carriers, the flight costs to these regions increase significantly the closer you get to departure.”

National Geographic Expeditions, which runs cruises on board the French luxury line Ponant, offers a 30 per cent discount as part of its Ponant Bonus. In a statement the company said: “As it is based on cruise availability, it is likely to change without notice. The Ponant Bonuses for cabins and suites are now separate in order to favour the most discerning customers and those that book the earliest, particularly on exceptional itineraries.”

For Jane Atkins, the managing director of Shearings Holidays, it is about a combination of all of the above: “At Shearings Holidays, we offer great value as standard, but we recommend booking early so that customers get the cruise they want. Customers that book early will not only secure the cabin, transport options, dates and destinations that are best for them, but often, booking early will also give them access to our best deals.”

This is essentially true of all holidays and it is the message you should pass on to your customers. The price of the holiday is only one component of a much larger equation. For one, the longer you wait, the more expensive your airfare will be. Then there’s the fact that the longer you wait, the more likely that your chosen room category or cabin won’t be available – especially if it’s a small ship or your clients are booking a suite (with only one or two on board). Also, if you’re wanting to depart on a popular date during peak season then there’s every chance the whole sailing could book up, too.

When it all comes down to it, why risk it by waiting?

Read the latest issue of Cruise Adviser

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Read the February 2019 issue of Cruise AdviserIn a recent survey of holidaymakers’ habits, 48 per cent of Britons put the northern lights at the top of their bucket list – placing the natural phenomenon above the Pyramids, African safaris and the Great Barrier Reef. We sent Sara Macefield on Viking Cruises’ very first In Search of the Northern Lights sailing from London Tilbury to Bergen to find out why it’s so high on so many lists – read her feature hereElsewhere in the magazine, we have an interview with Larry Pimentel, president and CEO of Azamara Club Cruises; plus we look at why it pays to book early.

Sam Ballard

Sam Ballard is the publisher of CRUISE ADVISER and has been writing about the cruise industry for a number of years. His CV includes the likes of shipping magazine International Cruise & Ferry Review and the digital publication Cruise News. He can be contacted on:sam@cruise-adviser.com.

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