Cruising Through "Wave Season"

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The "wave season" is upon us - the time when cruise lines offer some of their best promotions and incentives. Not only can you get cheaper rates, but extra perks like cabin upgrades and prepaid gratuities.

Consumers often wonder how and when they might get the best value for a vacation — understandable, especially now when money is tight. A cruise is usually a big ticket item so it’s no surprise to find cruisers confused by conflicting stories of people who got a cruise for the proverbial song because they waited until the last minute versus the tales of those who put a large percentage of their money up front to book a cruise and were protected when fuel went up in price and charges rose accordingly.

A leading travel insurance company called Travel Guard, which also provides a wide range of global travel emergency services decided (after the Costa Concordia incident dominated headlines in early 2012) to find out more about how consumers were responding to unsettling situations.

The company did the obvious — it polled travel agents to find out if the accident had affected bookings. Forty five percent of the agents polled felt enough time had passed so that the incident no longer affected bookings, although it seemed 23% of cruisers were now buying travel insurance. We feel ourselves that, for expensive vacations, it’s a mistake not to be covered that way.

The poll of travel agents gave further interesting information: the “wave season” is upon us! Agents claim the majority of cruises for 2013 will be booked within the next three months when cruise lines offer some of their best promotions and incentives.

Repeat cruisers find the discounts fast in their first mailings of the years: cruise lines go to extraordinary lengths to build up brand loyalties. But even first timers find promotions. For example, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises — named by the editors of online magazine Cruise Critic as “The Best River Cruise Line in 2012” — is offering $500 per couple off its ”Splendors of Italy” cruises in the first three weeks of April 2013 although the offer expires on February 28.

Other travel tour companies follow a similar path for those “Early Settlers.” The upscale tour operator, Insight Vacations, runs a nine-day tour around “Glorious Switzerland” with prices of $3,050 per person for, say, the tour starting May 11; but the operator also offers travelers 7.5% off that price if they book and pay in full by February 28. There are other offers.

The travel agents’ poll showed travelers are more aware of costs than previously.

“In fact, 41% of agents polled feel that the most significant cruise trend this year will be bookings made primarily based upon affordability. Agents also anticipate that no-fly cruises from local ports will become increasingly more popular (34%) and, supporting the ongoing trend in multigenerational travel, agents feel more people will choose cruises based upon what is offered for multiple generations of their family (12%).”

The Caribbean is a perennial hotspot, say the agents, followed by the Mediterranean and now 41% of agents are saying Alaska is creating the most interest among their clients.

“The demand for river cruising continues to rise, growing by 10% in the last five years, and that most business is driven by the destination,” according to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).

Agents polled by Travel Guard echoed this sentiment with 40% reporting that European river cruising was generating the most interest among clients, compared with only 4% who noted U.S. river cruising as generating the most interest.

Travel agents say that booking a cruise during this wave season often equals perks for their clients such as on-board credits, cabin upgrades, prepaid gratuities and sometimes free airfare.

Travel Guard offers some common sense pointers for travelers as well. Keep an eye on the weather as your flight day approaches. Give yourself adequate time between connecting flights and between when your flight arrives and your cruise departs. Consider flying the day before. Perhaps buy travel insurance. Carry not only the essentials in your carry-on luggage but a change of clothing and a swim suit, too. Keep your passport safe. On the ship wash your hands frequently. Watch your sun exposure. Don’t overindulge in food or alcohol. Listen to your body.

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The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.