As news spread of this past weekend's tragic Costa Concordia accident, you could hear the groans floating up from landlubbers everywhere.
"That's why you won't find me on some fancy cruise ship."
"There has got to be an easier way to see Europe."
"I had a great time on a cruise last summer, but I'm never setting foot on a boat again."
Carnival's (CCL) luxury liner tipping over after running aground on a rock off the Tuscan coast was horrific. Fatal travel accidents always are. And while such events are extremely rare on the major cruise lines, even one is enough to scare people away from taking a floating getaway. But that's not the only reason why now may be the best time to book a cruise.
1. It's a Cruiser's Market
Cruise lines know they have a set number of cabins to fill, so deals appear when demand is low. If the devastating Concordia accident is enough to scare off many of your potential fellow passengers, now's a great time to see what bargains are available.
Cruises sail year round, but now is the time when folks typically book their berths for the peak travel season. If the phones in call centers aren't ringing off the hook -- and there's a good chance that some of the calls that they're receiving now are actually to cancel bookings -- now is the time to begin asking for their best promotions.
Yes, the Concordia accident is scary, but the very fact that people are comparing it to the Titanic sinking -- which took place 100 years ago -- should tell you how rare these tragic occurrences are. These are huge, high-tech cruise ships on well-plotted routes. They aren't small pleasure boats blithely sailing into the arms of Somali pirates.
2. Fuel Costs Are Likely Heading Higher
Analysts generally see gas prices inching higher in the coming months. It's usually a seasonal thing as we head toward the peak summer road-trip season, but political unrest in Iran and the potential for increased demand driven by an economic recovery are likely to send oil and gas prices upward.
Some analysts think that retail gas prices may approach 2008's peak of roughly $4 a gallon. If fuel prices continue to inch higher, the cruise lines will have little choice but to pass the costs on. Lock in a better deal now.
3. New Ships Translate Into Discounts on Older Ships
Disney's (DIS) fourth cruise ship just left the shipyard, ready to begin taking on passengers come March -- and Disney Fantasy is actually just one of the seven new major cruise ships going online this year. The industry has responded to its growing popularity by moving older ships out to newer home ports.
The newer ships have the fanciest diversions. From carousels to zip lines to water coasters, it's easy to fall in love with the shiny new vessels. However, this also provides the opportunity for cheaper excursions on boats that were the fleets' star attractions a couple of years ago.
The industry's extra capacity arriving at a time when the public's desire to hit the open seas is waning should lead to even better deals.
4. The Economy Is Taking Baby Steps Toward a Recovery
No one is going to tell you that good times are here to stay. But, both gradually rising consumer confidence and the slowly shrinking unemployment rate may point to 2012 as the year that we actually begin feeling economic improvement.
As discretionary income increases -- and memories of the Costa disaster fade -- more people will be booking cruises. Getting in ahead of the economic recovery is also your best shot at securing one of the better cabins on your boat of choice.
Before You Hit the Ocean Blue
Cruising obviously isn't for everyone. Some folks get seasick, even on the huge modern ships, on which the rocking is almost imperceptible. As big as the ships may be, the rooms can be pretty cramped. For some, even getting a passport may be a major hassle.
However, more people are discovering the joys of cruising and finding it harder to resist the siren's call.
Royal Caribbean (RCL) rolled out a new marketing campaign earlier this month. The ad's "The Sea is Calling. Answer it Royally" tag line may seem unfortunate in light of the Concordia incident, but otherwise, it's a great approach to remind us of the mysterious allure of the ocean.
You won't be alone in thinking about a cruise vacation later this year, so you may as well act now while the rates are reasonable. Holding out for last-minute bargains may pan out, or you may find that the ship has sailed without you.
Longtime Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz does not own shares in any of the stocks in this article, except for Disney. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Walt Disney.
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