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Cruise bookings are back – three important things you need to know right now

Cruise is on its way back. Sailings are picking up around the world and Royal Caribbean has confidently scheduled December sailings out of Sydney. The Australian government has finally set vaccine threshold goals for international travel to resume.

So things are definitely looking up.

Can we expect cruising to be the same experience we all knew before the pandemic?

While accounts coming from around the world suggest the actual onboard experience, bar new health and safety measures, is amply living up to expectations, there are a few important questions for Australia, the last major country to continue to bar cruising for its shores.

Three questions loom, and the first is a bit of a surprise:

What cruises are left?

Seems an odd dilemma but just as we are putting cruise back on our consideration list, so is everyone else. Cruises are selling out. A recent Regent Seven Seas world cruise with prices around $100,000 per person sold out in hours!

Cruise Passenger was recently told by one leading international line that only have 20 per cent of cabins remain for 2022. A luxury line told us $500,000 state rooms for a world tour were flying out the door.

Celebrity Cruises  has more than 10 European itineraries for 2022 that are already well over 50% capacity and many close to selling out.

And popular luxury line Scenic, which has just restarted river cruises, told us “We are seeing significant demand and bookings from our US, UK and Canadian markets for 2021 and 2022.”

However, Anthony Laver, Scenic Group GM, Sales and Marketing, assured Australian passengers: “Whilst we wait for the Australian borders to re-open in 2022, we will ensure there are allocations for our valued Australian & NZ guests, for both ocean and river cruises – to make sure they have a choice of departures.”

Cruises are moving fast at home as well.

Royal Caribbean announced Ovation of the Seas would be sailing from Sydney from December 13 just a week ago.

The line told Cruise Passenger: “We have been thrilled by the positive response from our loyal guests who understand the current operating environment from the impacts of COVID-19.

“Demand for Royal Caribbean’s newly announced domestic Australia itineraries has been strong, driven by guests moving across to our new domestic sailings, as well as a welcome increase in new booking requests.

“Sailings to the Great Barrier Reef, Tasmania and South Australia, as well as Christmas breaks along the South Coast of New South Wales have so far proven most popular for guests eager to get back on board.

“Royal Caribbean’s summer 2022/2023 sailings from Australia have also seen a surge in bookings, driven by the many existing guests who have opted to “Lift & Shift” from the cancelled 2021/2022 sailings. The most popular itineraries are sailings to New Zealand, the trans-Pacific and across Christmas and the New Year.”

Royal Caribbean is not alone. Silversea’s Kimberley season is nearly sold out. Norwegian Cruise Lines announced it hoped to be sailing in Australia in early February 2022. The line, which is sailing around the world, has already been experiencing strong bookings.

“Whether you call it ‘revenge travel’ or simply an unleashing of close to 18 months’ worth of pent-up demand, our forward bookings for 2022 reflect consistent signs of improving confidence amongst Australian and New Zealand travellers,” said Norwegian Cruise Line Managing Director APAC, Ben Angell.

“Guests from our region have always tended towards booking in advance of their desired sail dates in order to secure their preferred stateroom and itinerary, and the strength of forward bookings for 2022 is testament to this.”

“Whether you’re looking to sail close to home or further afield, I highly recommend those considering a 2022 voyage book ahead to secure the itinerary and stateroom of their choice.”

This creates a real dilemma for Australians who aren’t looking to book anything again until they can do it with more confidence.  They could miss out.

Are cruise prices going up?

Cruise prices seem to have stayed on a steady incline ever since the pause of operations as lines look to make up profit. There is less supply of itineraries and cruisers are still clamouring to get back on board.

Travel agent and cruise specialist Kathy Pavlidis says she’s noticed the prices creeping up.

“I have noticed a shift trending upwards. As revenue managers around the world try to recoup some lost revenue I’d say that some are still trying to find that magical formula. I don’t foresee levels dropping to what we saw in 2019.”

Ms Pavlidis also points out that other countries are pinching the cruises that Aussie’s can’t yet commit to.

“Demand is driving pricing and for the Australian who have not had a European cruise since the 2019 season they will notice prices in 2022/23 not quite at the same level.”

“As the Americans and Europeans are free to cruise they are taking up the bulk of inventory for season 2022.  I encourage everyone who is holding onto a future cruise credit to either use it or lose it.”

Cruise Passenger’s regular sentiment survey shows, however, that Australians aren’t that worried about price. Only just over five per cent put price as a major contributor when deciding which cruise to choose.  Much more important were mandatory vaccinations of crew and passengers, health and safety protocols and flexible booking arrangements.

Will airline prices rise?

Many Aussie cruise passengers are keen to take cruises overseas as soon as they can. Our sentiment survey shows, next to Australia and New Zealand, Europe remains an enduring aspirational destination. Furthermore, plenty of cruisers will have future cruise credits for lines that don’t operate in Australia.

However, the world’s airline carriers, like their cruise counterparts, have been grounded for over a year. Many feel the old days of price discounting and cheap travel may have to wait while these carriers pay off their debts, refurbish their aircraft and re-employ their staff.

So there are worries that airline prices may see a post-travel ban hike and demand will be so high that it will be difficult to snap up a ticket at your preferred time –  which is a particular worry as cruisers with overseas itineraries have less flexibility than most.

CNBC reported on the US experiencing this, as shortly after their restrictions were eased, international flights rose by 17% in price in one month. Many commentators are tipping them to continue rising.

Chrystal Zhang, an associate professor at RMIT and air travel expert, warns it won’t be as easy to hop on a flight out of the country as we’re used to.

Ms Zhang says the build-up of people wanting to travel will make capacity tight and potentially drive up prices: “The demand has been extremely suppressed, so it’s very likely to be boosted immediately after the travel ban has lifted. That could drive the demand for particular routes and this can lead to airlines running out of capacity.

“Airlines will perhaps be prepared for relatively higher fares because at the end of the day it’s a market economy and the demand can drive up the price.”

Ms Zhang says this will make it difficult to plan a trip as the lifting of restrictions and rush to travel could be quite sudden.

“It definitely poses some uncertainty and challenges for anyone that’s planning a trip, apart from those who are prepared to say, ‘whatever the fare I’ll take it.”

Essentially, Aussies face the tough situation of fares either being high, or if they go lower, getting snapped up extremely quickly, which can make it even more difficult for Aussie cruisers to plan ahead.

Ms Pavlidis got it right when she advised: “As the Americans and Europeans are free to cruise they are taking up the bulk of inventory for season 2022.  I encourage everyone who is holding onto a future cruise credit to either use it or lose it.”