Going out to sea? Hurry aboard

Times Staff Writer

WannaBE cruisers had best get their surfboards in the water soon, figuratively speaking, or they may miss the wave.

A surge in bookings, the biggest in at least two years, means some cruise ships sailing in Alaska, Europe and other destinations this summer are already filled. Reserving early is back in fashion.

"More people who do close-in bookings are being disappointed," said Andy Stuart, executive vice president of marketing and sales for Norwegian Cruise Line. Weeklong Hawaiian island sailings of the company's Pride of Aloha, for instance, are mostly sold out from July 4 to mid-August, he said.

Silversea Cruises' summer schedule in Alaska is 60% booked, Brad Ball, spokesman for the luxury line, said last week. Radisson Seven Seas Cruises expects its ships in Europe to fill up for peak summer sailings in the next two or three weeks, said Chief Executive Mark Conroy. The company's Mediterranean ships are already two-thirds filled, and "Baltic cruises are just flying out the door," he added.

Bookings are up at least 30% from this time last year, when uncertainty over the impending Iraqi conflict depressed sales, some companies said; at Crystal, they were recently up 100%, spokeswoman Mimi Weisband said.

Even more surprising, several cruise lines, including Radisson Seven Seas, Royal Caribbean Cruises and Silversea, have set all-time weekly sales records. (Carnival Corp., whose brands include Carnival, Cunard, Holland America and Princess, declined to comment on its sales.)

Experts cited several reasons for travelers' rush to sea: pent-up demand by passengers who postponed distant trips during two years of economic, terrorist and war worries; hefty cruise fare discounts at the end of 2003; and the U.S. dollar's slide against the euro and the pound.

Ball also sees demand for Mediterranean cruises growing "as consumers grow weary and bored of 'close-to-home' cruising."

There are still decent cruise discounts, especially for Europe. But if you delay, you may find yourself high and dry.

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