Standby Cruising: A New Option for Bargain Seekers

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In February, Barb McGowan took a seven-day cruise on Holland America Line, visiting the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, and the Dominican Republic for just $343, or $49 a day, excluding taxes, port fees and extras. By comparison, Holland America currently lists a seven-day Caribbean itinerary in October from about $700.

The catch: She had just 48 hours’ notice.

Ms. McGown, a 64-year-old from Naples, Fla., who runs a restaurant franchise, took one of the line’s new standby cruises, which are aimed at travelers who live near departure ports and intended to fill ship vacancies.

“I look for deals, and this was an especially good experience,” Ms. McGowan said, praising the food and entertainment. “I was impressed enough to put down a deposit on a future cruise.”

Holland America introduced its standby program last August to maximize ship occupancy, knowing that cancellations are inevitable. So far, the rest of the cruise industry has not followed its lead.

“If cancellations are within a week or two of sailing, it’s difficult to resell that space in the open market,” said Dan Rough, the vice president of revenue management at Holland America.

In the same way that airlines oversell seats, cruise lines may compensate for cancellations by overselling staterooms. Filling in with standbys, however, reduces Holland America’s reliance on overselling, which runs the risk of bumping passengers to distant departures or potentially offering generous cash incentives to coax volunteers to cancel.

Though the company does not heavily promote the new practice, it has attracted a following among the thrifty by dangling a bargain rate — $49 a person, whether sharing a cabin or traveling solo, before taxes and fees — on a web page that lists available departure dates to attract flexible travelers. Standbys should expect an inside cabin, according to the company, though ocean-view and veranda cabins have been assigned. (The company declined to say how many standby cabins it has offered.)

“Forty-nine dollars per person, per day is pretty exceptional,” said Colleen McDaniel, the editor of CruiseCritic.com, a website that reviews cruises, noting that the price covers all meals and entertainment. “You can’t find a cheaper rate at a land resort for what’s included.” (In 2023, the average nightly rate for a hotel room in the United States was nearly $156, according to STR, a data analytics firm that monitors the hospitality industry.)

To participate, travelers choose an itinerary from the standby list on the website — current embarkation ports include Boston; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Montreal; Quebec City; San Diego; Seattle; Vancouver, British Columbia; and Whittier, Alaska — and pay for the trip in advance by calling Holland America or booking through a travel adviser.

There are no refunds for standby cruisers who want to back out. However, if the gamble fails to pay off, and the cruise line cannot offer a cabin to someone on the standby list, it issues a refund.

The company says standby offerings are added on a rolling basis and usually lists itineraries within two to three months of departure. Current offerings include seven-day sailings in Alaska’s Inside Passage from April through September and seven-to-11-day trips cruising the coast of New England and Canada’s Maritime Provinces between May and October.

Standby cruisers don’t learn of their acceptance or denial until a week to two days before departure, complicating transportation arrangements.

“Last-minute airfare could offset the savings on a cruise,” wrote Crystal Seaton, the owner of Road to Relaxation Travel, a travel agency based in Raleigh, N.C., in an email. Though she has not booked a client on a standby sailing yet, she surmised that it is intended for travelers who can drive to a port.

“We were lucky; we found out Tuesday we were going on a Friday 3 p.m. sailing,” said Sheila Valloney, 66, of Clermont, Fla., who with her husband spent nine days aboard a Holland America ship in the southern Caribbean in February by going standby.

Before being cleared, she reserved a parking spot near the ship dock in Fort Lauderdale, which would have set her back about $6 if she canceled. She also kept their vacation clothes ready to go at the last minute for the three-and-a-half-hour drive to port.

Booking a refundable airline ticket — or at least one that guarantees a credit in loyalty points or cash in the event of cancellation — is one way travelers who must fly can take advantage of the deal.

For her standby sailing, Ms. McGowan drove 90 minutes from her home to the ship in Fort Lauderdale. But her travel companion was coming from Indiana, so when she joined the standby list a few months before the departure date, she booked her friend a Southwest Airlines flight using frequent flier points that would be refunded if the last-minute cruise didn’t come through.

Once on board, charges for extras like cabin upgrades, Wi-Fi, alcohol and shore excursions can inflate the bill, though the thriftiest travelers try to avoid them.

Ms. McGowan sprang for the $17.50-a-day charge for an upgraded drink package (basic nonalcoholic drinks are included in the cruise) and took one shore excursion, focused on coffee growing, which she deemed a good value at $89.

On their Caribbean cruise, the Valloneys asked around for recommendations for good beaches, where they went to relax on port days, and waited until they were on land to check emails, in order to avoid paying for Wi-Fi on the ship.

“We didn’t miss it at all,” Ms. Valloney said. “For beverages, we would wait until happy hour, when it was buy one, get one free.”

To date, no other cruise lines have adopted standby programs.

Princess Cruises said it did not plan to offer cabins on a standby basis, but noted that it already offers last-minute deals, which tend to run about $50 to $60 per passenger per day. For example, a seven-day Alaska sailing from Vancouver to Anchorage departing on May 8 is listed at $399 a person in a double-occupancy cabin.

Several other major cruise lines did not respond to inquiries about potentially adopting standby programs, though operators like Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line also offer last-minute deals on their websites.

“We would be surprised to see many mainstream cruise lines begin to adopt a similar model” to the standby system, wrote Kimberly Coyne, the head of sales and content strategy for Cruiseline.com, a cruise review site, in an email. She said the standby fares might be financially unsustainable for cruise lines and cited the potential that travelers might become too accustomed to late-booking deals.

With the recent surge in cruise bookings, companies are discounting less, said Ms. McDaniel of CruiseCritic.com.

She identified more reliable ways to get a deal compared with going standby, such as booking during “wave season,” a sales period that generally runs January through March, or taking a repositioning cruise, in which a ship relocates from one region to another seasonally. A repositioning itinerary might sail in the fall from Alaska to the Caribbean via the Panama Canal.

“It’s not unusual to see a repositioning cruise at less than $75 per night,” Ms. McDaniel, said, noting that other expenses such as an airline itinerary into one city and returning from another may cost more than a standard round-trip ticket.

Repositioning cruises tend to stop at fewer ports and add more shipboard enrichment programs, such as lectures and activities like cake decorating classes and craft spirits tastings.

“For a lot of people the ship is the destination and this is the perfect activity for people who like to be on the ship,” she said.

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