(The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)
By Mitch Lipka
(Reuters) - 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 risky.
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 price.
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 swells.
When it comes to evaluating your chances of getting sick against your chances of having a nice, cheap vacation, does risk matter?
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 advance.
“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 Atlantic Ocean.
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.
Consumer also need to know that super-low advertised rates are usually based on double occupancy, explains Travelzoo’s Rose.
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.
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Editing by Beth Pinsker and Amanda Kwan)