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Cruise deals in bad times

Josh Noel

Tribune Travels

6:51 PM EDT, April 4, 2013

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If it seems the cruise industry has had a rough year, it has. And plenty of people agree.

In a poll released by Harris Interactive last month, more than half of the 2,230 U.S. adults surveyed — 53 percent — said they were less likely to take a cruise than they were a year earlier. Just 35 percent said they view cruises as "worry-free" vacations, which has always been a prime selling point of the industry: Show up, and we'll take care of the rest. Half of respondents said they perceived air travel as "much safer" than cruises.

Perhaps most damning: 57 percent of those polled said airlines are more reliable than cruise ships. Ouch.

Carnival, in particular, took a hit in the eyes of those polled. Its perceived "quality score" dropped 18 percent (a "significant" drop, according to Harris), and its "trust score" dropped 17 percent. Perceived quality also dropped for Disney Cruise Line, Holland America Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International and Norwegian Cruise Line, Harris said.

The problems are self-evident and began with the Costa Concordia disaster in January 2012: The ship ran aground off the Italian coast, leading to the deaths of 32 passengers. It was followed by a run of industry mishaps that recently included Carnival Triumph losing power and drifting for four days in the Gulf of Mexico.

As a result, the industry has drawn some critics, including Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, who told the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail that the cruise companies are "living off the taxpayer, not paying their fair share and not properly monitoring themselves."

Ouch again.

Ross Klein, a professor of social work at Memorial University in Newfoundland who studies the cruise industry and blogs about it at cruisejunkie.com, said that, despite recent perceptions, not much has changed; people are just paying more attention.

"There have always been a fair number of incidents that just haven't caught anybody's attention," Klein said. "What's new is that people are taking note, and we're seeing it in the media."

The turning point, many agree, was the Concordia disaster.

Mike Driscoll, editor of Cruise Week, an industry trade publication, agreed that "cruising" — as aficionados call it — is inevitably "an industry where things go bump in the night every so often." But he said the industry has grown larger, and so have the ships, which makes mishaps both more sensational and harder to solve.

"The ships are bigger, and that makes dealing with these things more difficult," he said.

The good news for travelers is that bad press can lead to good deals. Prices went down last year across the industry to stimulate sales, though those prices have largely crept back up. Carnival remains a place to look for good deals, however, because of its recent troubles.

The people most likely to cash in are veteran cruisers. According to the Harris poll, 58 percent of people who had never cruised are less likely to cruise now, while just 43 percent of people who had been on cruises said they were less inclined to return.

"People who cruise understand things do happen once in a while," Driscoll said. "They just don't think it will happen to them."

The Travel Mechanic is dedicated to better, smarter, more fulfilling travel. Thoughts, comments and suggestions can be sent to jbnoel@tribune.com. Include "Travel Mechanic" in the subject line. Follow him on Twitter: @traveljosh.