By Mitch Lipka
Feb 6 With news of two big ships cutting short
their journeys last week because so many passengers got sick,
the idea of booking a vacation on a cruise ship might be looking
But the thought of missing out on a great deal might also
make you queasy. The prices of current offers are lower than
usual for the industry's so-called wave season, when cruises are
heavily marketed. You can even grab fares well under $150 per
person on cruises that typically cost more than double that
Potential travelers need to weigh the odds they'll get sick
against the amount of money they might save now, and see what
they can stomach.
What are the odds you'll be stricken with an illness while
aboard a cruise ship? So far this year, Princess Cruise Lines'
Caribbean Princess, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line's Explorer of
the Seas and Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Star
have had outbreaks involving a total of 945 passengers,
but the odds are quite low.
More than 20 million people in 2013 traveled on ships that
are part of the Cruise Lines International Association's fleet
of more than 400.
The percentage of passengers infected by illness on a ship
that has an outbreak is often 5 percent or less, according to
the Centers for Disease Control.
Compared to how many people get norovirus in other
circumstances, cruise ships' rates are low. The CDC estimates
there are 19 million to 21 million cases a year in the U.S.
Cruise ship outbreaks tend to get more attention because
sick passengers could be stuck at sea for days before they can
seek treatment on land, giving the illness an opportunity to
spread and create ugly situations. Big ships have medical
facilities and a physician on board, but services are limited
and it can be overwhelming when the number of those sickened
When it comes to evaluating your chances of getting sick
against your chances of having a nice, cheap vacation, does risk
Not really, says David Ropeik, a Harvard University
instructor and an expert on the perception of risk.
What a person defines as bad is subjective, so risk is an
emotional calculation, he says. That's why the cruise industry
offers discounts and tries to override negative feelings by
taking a chance with positive ones about saving money.
The deals being offered at the start of 2014 aren't a
reaction to the latest cruise illnesses, because the offers were
there before the news broke. Instead, they are being driven by
factors such as increased capacity in the industry and a
traditional push at the beginning of the year to sell cruises in
"The prices you see now are what you'd typically expect
during the fall season," Ryan Rose, cruise content director for
the deal site Travelzoo.com, says, referring to the
time of year when prices fall as hurricane season begins in the
But getting the best of the offers takes flexibility.
For example, if you want to head to the Bahamas from Miami
for a three- or four-night cruise, you can book a
double-occupancy interior room for as low as $129 per person on
Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Sky. Or you could get a
four-night cruise on Carnival Cruise Lines from Long
Beach, California, to Mexico also for $129.
The catch? The lowest prices tend to be for trips that are
coming up soon, as in the next week or two. And a room at that
rate is going to be in the least desirable location, without a
window. Many cruise lines, however, will offer free upgrades to
passengers when there's a lot of availability, so that an
improvement can be made on a less-desirable room.
Guaranteeing a better room by paying for a higher-class
cabin ahead of time could cost another $100 or more on the
lowest-priced cruises. And waiting to travel at the most popular
cruising times could triple a price or more. That same trip to
the Bahamas starts at $519 in August.
READ THE FINE PRINT
Consumer also need to know that super-low advertised rates
are usually based on double occupancy, explains Travelzoo's
The prices include the room, food and entertainment, but add
in taxes and fees, which could run $80-130 per person, plus tips
of about $12 per person per day, Rose says.
The prices typically do not include alcohol and shore
excursions. The total for that $129 Bahamas trip for a couple
really starts at price closer to $550, but that same itinerary
in August would total more than $1,300 a couple.
Some deals include add-ons that could help reduce some of
the costs for extras. Onboard credits, which you can spend on
the ship, are common, Rose says. Celebrity Cruises even offered
an unlimited drink deal.
Rose also suggests keeping an eye out for offers such as
free sailing for children who share a cabin with two adults and
discounts for certain groups, such as seniors, residents of
certain states, members of the military and first responders.
Just remember that different deal sites and different
cruises lines can have very different offers.