These days, half of passengers book their voyages more than seven months ahead, the industry's Cruise Lines International Assn. reported last week. And you won't believe where they're going in this contrarian year: faraway Asia and South America, the glitzy Mediterranean and onto riverboats in Europe.
Those are hot destinations as the annual "wave season," peak time for cruise bookings, gets underway, travel agents and other experts say. Ships too are shaping up in new ways, with spa suites, adult-only zones and more dining alternatives than you can shake a fork at. Here's what's happening:
The Caribbean still sees more cruise passengers than anywhere else, but the Mediterranean is the fastest-growing destination, the cruise lines association and others say.
So far, the Med is the fourth-most-booked itinerary for 2008, just behind the Mexican Riviera, according to agents surveyed by Cruise Holidays, a Minneapolis-based network of more than 100 cruise retailers. (The Caribbean is No. 1 and Alaska No. 2.) Overall, the survey found, the network's agents last year took 42% more bookings for Europe than in the previous year.
"People are looking for strategies to maximize the value of the dollar against a tough euro," said Steve Loucks, spokesman for Carlson Wagonlit Travel Associates, an international network of travel agencies.
Cruising can be cheaper than seeing Europe on your own because you pay most costs up front in dollars. And instead of visiting one or two cities, you can sample several, such as Rome; Barcelona, Spain; and Dubrovnik, Croatia (which is "just taking off," Loucks said).
River cruising is another popular European option. Kathy Gerhardt, spokeswoman for Cruise Holidays, said some river departures were nearly sold out.
The dipping U.S. dollar is also sending more cruisers and ships to South America, where it goes further. This year, Carnival Cruise Lines is going there for the first time, and Holland America and Princess Cruises have added sailings.
"At least one in 10 phone calls is about South America," said Donna Ratte, owner of Cruise Holidays of Palm Springs. Ratte's customers especially like Ecuador's Galápagos Islands, but much of South America's appeal is variety, from the Andes to the jumping-off point for Antarctica.
Both ships of Crystal Cruises, a small luxury line, will visit Asia this year, reflecting surging interest in China, host of this year's Summer Olympics; India; and newly chic Dubai, said spokeswoman Julie Dibble.
Closer to home, if you're thinking about Alaska, act now, said Mike Driscoll, editor of Cruise Week, an industry newsletter based in Brookfield, Ill. Alaska capacity is limited, and group bookings, a bellwether of demand, have been strong, he said.
Caribbean cruises are still relative bargains, but the free fall in fares is over. You may even pay a bit more this summer.
"The biggest change we're seeing in 2008 is, for the first time, there are fewer cabins in the Caribbean," said Driscoll, as lines shift ships to Europe and other regions they hope are more lucrative. With supply down, some prices have edged up.
But overall, several experts said, it's too early to predict where fares are headed because the big booking season has just begun. The Cruise Lines International Assn. expects traffic to grow more slowly in 2008 but still be up 1.6% from last year. The uncertain U.S. economic outlook is a wild card.
Already, though, you can count on paying fuel surcharges of $5 and up per person per day on many ships because of soaring oil costs.
And cruise lines still give deals on early bookings. Crystal Cruises, for one, was recently offering half off on some Asia cruises. On other lines, seven-night European cruises in late fall can cost as little as $699 a person, double occupancy, said Laura Christian, manager of cruise marketing and merchandising for Travelocity.com.
Think sophisticated. Suites and staterooms on two new ships this year, Carnival Splendor and Celebrity Solstice, will cater to spa enthusiasts with special access and priority appointments. Carnival is phasing in "Serenity" areas on aft decks as adult-only retreats.
And most everywhere, you'll find more restaurant choices.
Among ships making maiden voyages this year, besides Carnival Splendor and Celebrity Solstice, will be Holland America's Eurodam, Princess Cruises' Ruby Princess, Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas and MSC's Fantasia and Poesia. Two boutique lines will make debuts: Jewel River Cruises (sailing in France) and Pearl Seas Cruises (Canada and the Great Lakes).
Cunard's Queen Elizabeth 2 will sail off into the sunset (actually to Dubai, as a floating hotel) and so too may Majestic America's Delta Queen, unless Congress extends a safety waiver for the historic riverboat.