ORLANDO — Despite higher airfares that sometimes exceed the cost of a cruise, Europe remains one of the best money-making opportunities for cruise agents, according to top cruise executives attending the CruiseOne/Cruises Inc. annual conference.
“Air transportation to Europe is a killer,” said Joni Rein, vice president of worldwide sales at Carnival Cruise Lines. “If you’re going to sell Europe, you’ve got to become an expert.”
Rein said Carnival will have two ships in Europe next summer, including the renovated Carnival Destiny, which will sail April to October in the Mediterranean after a $155 million makeover and being rechristened as the Carnival Sunshine.
European cruises are a chance for Carnival agents to sell higher-yielding cabins, Rein said.
David Crooks, senior vice president of product and operations for CruiseOne, said 2013 bookings are up 54% for Europe and 15% for the Mediterranean for all brands owned by CruiseOne’s parent, World Travel Holdings. The figures compare advance bookings year over year for October.
Several executives emphasized that cheaper airfares disappear as airlines start to fill planes.
“The good business in Europe is bought early,” Andy Stuart, executive vice president of sales for Norwegian Cruise Line, told about 765 agents attending the four-day conference.
Stuart said Norwegian is making “a ton” of air credit available for flights to Europe. He said agents trying to capitalize on higher-yielding European trips should pick a partner cruise line that knows Europe and can find money-saving alternatives.
Celebrity Cruises’ senior vice president of sales, Dondra Ritzenthaler, said itinerary changes are coming for Celebrity.
“I think you’re going to see Europe getting a little more creative,” with shorter and longer itineraries than the current average nine days, she said.
Royal Caribbean International will sail nine ships in Europe in 2013, a total of 121 voyages.
Vicki Freed, senior vice president of sales, said agents need to avoid conveying a negative message about air.
“We have to make sure we’re not driving away people who have Europe on their bucket list,” she said. “The cruise price is way too low, and the airfare is way too high, but when you put them together it’s a great deal.”
Some cruise executives challenged the conventional wisdom. Kristin Karst, co-owner of Ama Waterways, said she has found fares to Europe lower than a year ago. And she said that air as a portion of the cruise fare is less an issue for luxury river cruise lines than it is for mass-market ships.
“The airfares are not that much up,” agreed Rick Sasso, president of MSC Cruises USA.
While admitting that average fares to Europe might be $200 more than in 2011, Sasso called them “attainable.”
Sasso said strong U.S. bookings for Europe in 2013 have been aided by weak demand in Spain, Italy and France. “Americans are getting the advantage of the weakness going on in Europe,” he said.
Beyond booking early, agents have several ways of trimming air costs on European cruises, he said. One is to pick a leisure-oriented airline over a business carrier. Or use a country’s secondary airline rather than its primary. If a cruise has multiple departure points, pick the one with the best airfare.
Finally, Sasso suggested trying Mediterranean cruises from November through February. “It’s the same itinerary,” he said, but “the airfares are definitely cheaper.”
Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly.
Royal Caribbean International will sail nine ships in Europe in 2013, not five as this article previously stated.