"European cruising this year is about as hot as I've ever seen it," said Anne Campbell, co-owner of vwww.cruisemates.com, an online cruise magazine. "I've never seen so many ships there."
Many Americans are eager to catch up on the foreign travel they've bypassed since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the Iraq war. But with the euro worth about $1.29 and the British pound about $1.88, a European jaunt can be steep.
Enter the cruise ship. You pay upfront in dollars for your lodging, food, transportation and entertainment. You're spared exchange-rate surprises, plus it may prove cheaper than staying at a hotel and buying meals in the local currency. Although usually more expensive than sailing the Caribbean, doing the Continent by ship can cost $145 or less per person per day.
"It's a very good deal," Campbell said, depending on your travel style. Backpackers and budget hounds in Europe can survive on much less than $145 per day, of course, whereas stylish tourists may faint from sticker shock. "I was amazed at the prices," said Campbell, a self-confessed "big shopper" in Italy for 25 years. "The last time I was there, last year, all I could afford was a bottle of olive oil at the Milan airport."
No wonder tourists are signing up to ship out.
At Crystal Cruises, Europe is the bestselling destination, said spokeswoman Mimi Weisband. The luxury line's bookings for the Continent, through April 12, were up 48% from the same time last year, compared with a 25% increase for Alaska.
When Crystal recently learned its parent company would redeploy Crystal Harmony to Asia, it decided to suspend Alaskan and Mexican Riviera cruises next year and put both its remaining ships in Europe for summer 2006.
That's a big decision. Crystal has run San Francisco-to-Alaska cruises for a decade and this fall is to launch its first full season of L.A.-to-Mexico itineraries. But Europe is so hot that the company can't afford to do anything else for next year, Weisband said. (It will still sail to Mexico out of L.A. during the Christmas-New Year's holiday period.)
Some European dates this summer are already sold out, she added, which wasn't true this time last year. Prices for 12-day Mediterranean sailings start at $3,995 per person, double occupancy. Next year, Baltic itineraries will be offered.
Whatever cruise line you choose, you already may be out of luck if you want a particular date or vessel this summer. But if you're flexible, you can still find berths to book. That's partly because so many cruise lines are expanding their European armadas. Among them:
Carnival Cruise Lines: Carnival, known for its party-boat itineraries to the Caribbean and Mexico, is taking its first big plunge across the Pond. (It ran two European voyages in 2002.)
The new Carnival Liberty will do 12-day round trips in the Mediterranean from Civitavecchia, near Rome, from July 20 to mid-October.
Cruise-only prices start at $1,699 per person, double occupancy; with air, they start at $2,918 from Los Angeles. As of the Travel section's deadline Tuesday, there was still space on all voyages, said spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz.
Princess Cruises: Four vessels will regularly sail Europe.
That's up from three ships and 39 departures last year.
More than half the voyages are sold out. Space is "extremely tight" for Mediterranean and Scandinavian-Russian itineraries, and there is some availability on British Isles-Western European Capitals sailings, said Jan Swartz, senior vice president of sales and customer service. Prices begin at $1,590 per person, double occupancy, for 10 days in the British Isles.
Celebrity Cruises: This line decided in late December to redeploy its 1,750-passenger Century from the Caribbean to Europe to do 12-night Baltic cruises and 10- and 11-night Mediterranean cruises. That will put four of its 10 ships in Europe this summer, up from three last year.
Demand for summer Caribbean sailings has fallen as demand for Europe has risen, said spokeswoman Elizabeth Jakeway. There's decent availability on the Century, she added, partly because of the late redeployment. Prices start at $1,690 per person, double occupancy, for ocean-view accommodations..
Silversea Cruises: This luxury line will put all four of its ships in Europe this summer, after shifting the Silver Shadow from Alaska. Some cruises are sold out. Prices begin at $4,895 for seven-day Mediterranean voyages in May; a 50% discount is available on some.
Meanwhile, some lines are already getting European bookings for 2006 and are expanding their offerings for next year. Norwegian Cruise Line, for instance, which will debut its Norwegian Jewel in August in Europe, will have two ships sailing the Continent next summer. The other will be the Norwegian Dream, now assigned to U.S. ports.
Prices are up this year throughout much of the cruise industry, including European sailings. But there are ways to save. Some tips from Campbell:
Go in the fall: "This is the best time of year to cruise in Europe, especially southern Europe," Campbell said. "You've got the place to yourself. You don't have hordes of tourists from all over Europe. The weather is wonderful." Cruise fares are usually lower too.
Skip the shore excursions: "In a lot of places in Europe, you don't need to take them," Campbell said. "The ship docks right in town." (Instead, do some research and take your own self-guided walking or transit tour.
Shop with the locals: "Go where the middle-class shops: department stores," Campbell said. "Avoid whatever the equivalent of New York's Fifth Avenue is." Quiz the cruise staff about where to go.
Hear more tips from Jane Engle on Travel Insider topics at latimes.com/engle. She welcomes comments but can't respond individually to letters and calls. Write to Travel Insider, L.A. Times, 202 W. 1st St., L.A., CA 90012, or e-mail email@example.com.