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Short trips, late bookings current trend

Seeking a getaway despite the downturn, Olivia Gonzalez called her travel agent with an agenda.

Seeking a getaway despite the downturn, Olivia Gonzalez called her travel agent with an agenda.

“I said, what kind of deals do you have?” said the Miami resident, who is in her 60s, standing outside the Port of Miami. What she found was a six-day, five-night cruise through the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos for US $299 a person.

That was all the convincing Gonzalez and thousands of other passengers have needed lately to set sail. Though vacations are disposable when money gets tight, the cruise industry has kept ships full with deep discounts and some itinerary changes to shorter, cheaper voyages. Norwegian Cruise Line is sailing three-and four-day swings for the first time since 2004. Carnival Corp. is offering free state room upgrades and more Caribbean choices — a quick skip from the Miami port — in 2009 to accommodate demand.

“Consumers ar looking for more value for their vacation dollar,” said Howard Frank, Carnival’s chief operating officer, on a recent conference call with analysts. “And our shorter, less expensive Caribbean cruise products are performing much better than our premium and luxury, longer cruise products. So we are seeing a consumer trade-down to value.”

The major cruise lines are also seeing vacationers wait longer to commit. Before the downturn, bookings averaged about six months in advance, maybe eight months for luxury trips, said Bob Sharak, executive director of the Cruise Lines International Association.

“People are deferring their purchases to the last minute,” he said. “They’re booking, but it causes the operators some degree of agitation, because it takes longer to put that sailing on the books.

“I don’t think that’s something unique to our cruise business right now. I think all travel is like that.”

Carnival is offering three- and four- day trips to Mexico and the Bahamas starting at $209 for the lowest-level rooms at the last minute, a nearly 50 per cent discount in some cases. A four-day Baja California, Mexico cruise sailing in February and now selling at that rate would cost $399 later, while a three-day Bahamas vacation leaving Jan. 23 is available for $219 instead of $349. Norwegian’s short Bahamas cruises were starting at $229 through mid-April.

 
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