Cruise passengers might have to get used to the idea of nonrefundable deposits now that a second big cruise line has introduced them.

Starting this month, Royal Caribbean International added nonrefundable deposits to its deeply discounted fares. Consumers won't get back the deposit if they decide to drop the cruise before making the final payment.

The forfeited deposits could be as much as $900 for some suites on longer cruises.

Travel agents had mixed opinions about the spread of nonrefundable deposits from other travel segments, where they are common, to cruising, where they are not.

"It's certainly not helpful, but it's the way the world is going," said David Broth, manager of Caves Travel in Pikesville, Md.

Broth said agents would have to take time to explain the fares to customers. "It's another thing that I, as an agent, have to tell the client."

The upside, he said, is that lower fares should be attractive to clients and help sell the cruises.

Royal Caribbean announced several other changes along with what it is calling the Non-Refundable Deposit (NRD) fare. When booked at least six months in advance, customers will get an onboard spending credit of $100 as a reward. But the NRD fares also come with change fees, another first.

Royal Caribbean said that "in an effort to deter continual or late ship/sail date adjustments" it will assess a $100-per-person fee for changing the sailing date or ship on a booking made under an NRD fare.

Consumers can opt for traditional fares with refundable deposits on all cabin categories except Grand Suites and above, for which the NRD fares are the only option.

Several travel agents, including Broth, applauded that feature because under the current rules upper-end suites are often blocked in Royal Caribbean's booking system.

"There are [agencies] that lock the suites up. It will probably stop some of that," Broth said.

Royal Caribbean is the second large cruise line to introduce NRDs. Carnival Cruise Line has an Early Saver fare that comes with early booking incentives but also includes loss of deposit even before final payment.

A spokeswoman for Norwegian Cruise Line said its deposits are refundable except on last-minute bookings made within the full-penalty period.

Royal Caribbean said the NRDs are "an opportunity to simplify our promotional landscape, while also providing our guests with added confidence to book early and our travel partners the reassurance of more qualified, dependable business."

Susan Gannon, senior director for marketing and development of cruise products at Ensemble Travel Group, said that NRDs have been common in other segments of the travel industry, "certainly on the hotel and air side for quite some time."

Gannon said that the overall reaction of Ensemble group agents was that it is a good development.

"Our members feel that consumers don't have an unpleasant reaction to it, because it is somewhat common, and they understand that it exists, and they somewhat expect it," she said. "There's not a huge worry on that side."

Gannon said it will help get clients to commit to a booking further out.

"For the people who are ready to commit, you get better retention," she said. "It will help to alleviate some of the canceling and rebooking that goes on."

As for suite deposits being nonrefundable, Gannon said there was some feeling that it was unfriendly to Royal Caribbean's best customers, but he also expressed the hope that it might free up suites for more sales.

"We always hear that the suites are never available when people want to be booking suites, and a lot of times it's because they're being held," Gannon said. "And those suites may come back into inventory well past the time that suite purchaser was looking to buy. You can see the benefit there, just to have the better inventory available for those buyers ready to commit."


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