Passengers say they don’t want cruise lines to adopt “a la carte” fares

By | February 27th, 2011

Cruise lines are charting a course similar to airlines, which charge a low base fare and then add optional extras to the price of the ticket, routinely doubling the cost of transportation.

But it’s the wrong path, according to a new survey.

The poll of more than 800 travelers asked if cruise lines should adopt an airline-like fare structure in exchange for a lower ticket price. Only 11 percent of passengers said they welcomed new ancillary fees. A vast majority (89 percent) said they would prefer a more inclusive cruise fare.

The survey was conducted in association with the Consumer Travel Alliance.

Margie Dolgin, a travel agent, said moving away from an all-inclusive product — which some cruise lines are already doing — is the industry’s single “biggest mistake.”

“That is why clients like all inclusive resorts over cruises,” she adds. “I could get alot more clients to go on cruises if the cruise lines would offer a package that included tips, soda, liquor as an additional charge if the clients wanted that type of package. They could offer this package as optional for those that wanted it.”

But cruise lines won’t do that because they stand to make more money by charging extra for every item, as opposed to including it in a package.

Passengers say the extras make it harder to budget for a vacation.

“A lot of people take cruises in part because they want some predictability on travel costs,” says Bunnee Butterfield. “The notion of getting to go someplace and not have to pay for meals or towels for the swimming pool or entertainment is more appealing than being told to ante up every time you step outside your cabin, I would think.”

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Bill Delaney, who was on the inaugural cruise of Royal Caribbean’s megaship, the Oasis, was surprised when he boarded the vessel and was hit by a wave of fees.

When I walked into a bistro-type eating place, I was appalled at the fact that it was not free, but that the cost was extremely high to boot. Walking around this “City at Sea” I was continually appalled at the food establishments and the fact that they cost extra to eat there.

But I think the most disturbing part was the half-empty tables in the dining areas at dinner and the poor food offered to the “all inclusive” cruiser.

The dining room on most ships is where people meet and talk about what they did during the shore part of their day as well as establish lifetime friendships with cruise mates. I still am in contact with people I cruised with and established friendships around the dinner table 40 years ago. These carry with them lifetime memories and include each party going to weddings of children of the other party.

Cruising is slowly drifting away from the relaxing, all inclusive trip people need for a vacation. It is a packaged deal now that is more and more determined by the individual cruise operators. Money drives the engine, not the interest of the cruiser.

Other passengers say while they don’t like the new system, they’ve learned to work around it. Mary counts herself among them. She asked me to not use her last name because she’s afraid a cruise line will blacklist her.

I am probably a cruise line’s worst customer. I routinely only sail when there are really good prices to be had (less than $100 per person per day), prefer interior cabins, book my own shore excursions, spend almost nothing in the casino and shops, and don’t overimbibe. If I can drive to the port, even better.

It does mean doing your homework and keeping an constant eye on fares, but cruising can be a very cost-efficient and pleasurable way to vacation — especially if you’re a repeat customer and take advantage of those perks, too.

But industry experts say unbundling is a key to the industry’s future profitability and will help it better meet the needs of its customers.

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“Cruise companies are faced with the same challenge as airlines,” says technology consultant Richard Eastman. “They need to unbundle their packages so that the packages can be rebundled to fit specific traveler’s needs or desires. The unbundling must take place to enable the re-bundling.”

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