MIAMI -- For airlines, e-tickets are old hat. For cruise lines, they could be the next big thing.

Royal Caribbean Cruises (RCCL) last month began sending cruise tickets via e-mail; its so-called "e-docs" now are the norm for clients who book within 21 days of sailing.

Lines like Carnival and Princess, meanwhile, could be just a few months away from rolling out e-ticket programs of their own. Holland America Line also is studying the e-tickets issue.

Princess is targeting first-quarter 2004 for its e-ticketing launch.

A Carnival spokeswoman, meanwhile, said a plan to automate much of the check-in procedure is coming "within the next couple of months."

Cruise e-documents won't usurp paper ones, at least not yet. Princess executive vice president Dean Brown said the line will continue to mail a package with an air schedule, a shore-excursion booklet and other forms after final payment. But the ticket package, which contains tickets and other final details, will be distributed via e-mail.

"I'm sure both [paper documents and e-docs] will be the rule for several years to come," said Dan Bohan, chief operating officer of Fairfax, Va.-based Omega World Travel, which owns Cruise.com. "But they'll change, and agents already are changing.

"This is something all cruise lines are going to have to go along with," he said.

A conversion to e-documents would save the lines money, Bohan said, but it also will benefit agents, who often receive their clients' documents from the cruise line and forward them.

Bohan's agency, for example, has a department that "does nothing but documentation. They put all the stuff together, put our stuff in there. It's a job."

The documents typically are then sent via overnight mail to the clients, at the agency's expense.

And, that process that can cost quite a bit, according to Bohan.

RCCL already is making an effort to persuade agents and clients to accept e-tickets. On Nov. 1, RCCL brands Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises will begin adding a $35 "rush fee" when agents who book a cruise within 21 days of sailing request those clients' documents by mail.

"When you're 21 days in, it's easier to send an electronic ticket booklet," a spokeswoman said.

The RCCL e-documents contain the same information as a regular cruise-document package except for baggage tags, which clients pick up pier-side.

The line also requests that clients with e-mailed documents print them and bring them to the pier.

To contact reporter Rebecca Tobin, send e-mail to [email protected].

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