With all the newer and bigger ocean ships being launched over the past few years, one had to wonder if supply was over-reaching demand.

Yet it seemed most of the cruises were sailing near or at full capacity.

Likewise, the explosion in river-cruising interest saw an unprecedented period of introductions in these long ships on rivers worldwide.

The average booking window on river cruises is more than 300 days, as they seem to fill their itineraries even faster than their ocean counterparts.

But a more thorough analysis highlights other realities, revealing marketing shifts that spell long- and short-term opportunities for cruise enthusiasts. The reality began to hit me when I discovered an offer by the Oceania cruise line that seemed too good to be true. Upon closer examination there in fact was no catch, no bait-and-switch, no fine print with warnings to heed. You could sail on a seven-day Caribbean voyage on the Oceania Regatta out of Miami leaving on Nov. 28, 2015 for only US$1,699. On top of that great price, air was included, as were prepaid gratuities, unlimited Internet access and a $500 shipboard credit. That was just the first of the bargains I spotted.

I found a promotion that listed a nine-day itinerary on the Caribbean Princess leaving at the end of November with prices starting at only $536, air extra. There were many other similar bargains.

It is during this off-peak period where the overcapacity issues are surfacing. Pre- and post-season prices have always been more attractive, but what is happening now is almost unprecedented.

The ocean cruise lines are able to charge premium prices for high season voyages and are still successfully filling their ships. But in the shoulder season, they are clawing at each other to capture as much of the smaller market as they can. In many ways the river cruise opportunities are even better, albeit with somewhat less attractive sailing dates.

River cruises can’t reposition themselves in new regions in the same way ocean sailing craft can. The one-way repositioning cruises that sail at season’s end from Europe to the Mediterranean, for example, have always been attractively priced, and for the most part fill up easily. River cruise ships tend to stay in the same rivers year-round. As a result, Christmas-shopping cruises on the Rhine or the Danube will sell for prices below $2,000, about half the price of high-season voyages.

Canadians have become accustomed to waiting for the coldest months of the year to take their holidays. But the reality is, our Novembers and Decembers can become quite intolerable as well.

Is it time to rethink what we want in a vacation?

Even during high-season travel, ocean cruise lines are trying to come up with strategies to keep guests on their cruises for longer durations.

While the one-week and 10-day cruise options were often standard cruise brochures, today’s itinerary offerings can be considerably longer — in part due to consumer demand.

As enjoyable as the on-board cruise experience has become, one of the prime complaints customers express post-cruise is the limited time available to explore and experience major tourist attractions around the world.

Ships would dock in the morning at a major destination, and by early evening the ship would depart for its next overnight port.

Now, cruise lines have expanded many of their itineraries to stay two or three nights in ports of call that are known to offer on-shore experiences that can keep their customers satisfied. This is particularly so on Asian and Mediterranean cruises, where multiple-night stops exist in Myanmar, Bangkok and Barcelona, to name a few. Your cruise ship becomes your hotel. You return every evening for entertainment and fine dining, plus a restful night’s sleep, before you continue your destination discoveries the next morning.

Just as river cruise lines seek new waterways and add new stops on existing ones, ocean cruise-line managers look for new places that will appeal to customers who want to stay a little longer.

This is more difficult for the mega-ships in the Oasis class of vessels. These companies are looking to build new destinations of their own, like Holland American has done at its Half Moon Cay.

Smaller ships, on the other hand, have few restrictions in their search for new and interesting ports. Unfortunately for the budget traveller, most of the smaller lines with 500 or fewer passengers tend to fall in the luxury category.

With the extra, all-inclusive price also comes more convenient access to ports and has significant appeal to many who have tired of feeling sticker-shock surprise at the end of their trip.

Balancing off the strategy of longer sailings, a number of cruise lines, especially during non-prime seasons, have added three- to five-day getaway packages.

Pricing becomes even more attractive as cruise planners target those who prefer the shorter multiple vacation escapes that are becoming popular, especially in North America.

 

I was pleased to have been recognized with an honourable mention for this article which was previously published in the Winnipeg Free Press.

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