Avoiding the dreaded single supplement

By Lew Toulmin
This item appears on page 53 of the January 2014 issue.
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Back in the good old days of the 1950s, most ocean liners had a few single cabins available for their single customers. The builders of those ships realized that, yes, there actually were single people in the population! 

Since then, however, all cruise ships have standardized on double cabins, and payment is virtually always based on double occupancy. Persons occupying a double cabin alone are generally forced to pay a single supplement, which is usually 50 to 100 percent of the price of the unfilled half of the cabin. In cruising lingo, these latter figures would be described (somewhat confusingly) as a “single supplement of 150 to 200 percent.” 

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Back in the good old days of the 1950s, most ocean liners had a few single cabins available for their single customers. The builders of those ships realized that, yes, there actually were single people in the population! 

Since then, however, all cruise ships have standardized on double cabins, and payment is virtually always based on double occupancy. Persons occupying a double cabin alone are generally forced to pay a single supplement, which is usually 50 to 100 percent of the price of the unfilled half of the cabin. In cruising lingo, these latter figures would be described (somewhat confusingly) as a “single supplement of 150 to 200 percent.” 

One way to avoid the single supplement is to try to find an actual single cabin, like ships had 60 years ago. Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) has led the way in reviving this concept, first by installing 128 single cabins (called “studios”) on Norwegian Epic, then four studios on Pride of America and 59 studios each on the new Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway

Each studio is an inside cabin measuring 100 square feet and having a full-sized bed, which takes up most of the cabin, plus a chair and very small desk, a small refrigerator and a separate sink, shower and toilet. Amazingly, there also is a large porthole, with one-way glass, that looks out onto a corridor. 

Of course, the key question is ‘Is an NCL studio as cheap as the double-occupancy rate for one person for a similar cabin?’ 

Generally, the answer is ‘No,’ but the excess cost depends on the voyage. For example, on the day I was researching, I found a 7-day voyage on Breakaway leaving the next day (!) from Florida to the Bahamas in which the price for a studio, still available, was $849 and the double-occupancy rate for one passenger in a similar inside cabin was $798. Thus, the effective “single supplement” for the studio was only $51 ($849 minus $798), a modest six-percent premium. Quite reasonable!

Some of you may not like paying any premium at all, and I agree completely, in principle, but, as I’ll point out shortly, $51 is actually pretty cheap.

By contrast, for a 7-day voyage on Breakaway in June 2014 from New York City to Bermuda, the studio rate was listed as $1,549, while the double-occupancy rate for one passenger in a similar inside cabin was $949, a substantial difference of $600, or 63 percent! This is 10 times higher than the six-percent premium paid for the sailing to the Bahamas. 

What is going on? Clearly, the cruise line owners, with their expert computer programs designed to maximize revenue, have decided that the cabin on the Bermuda-bound ship, embarking many months in the future, is much more likely to be sold at a high price. By contrast, the “distressed” rate of the cabin on the Bahamas cruise leaving the very next day must be sold with a very small premium to attract a last-minute buyer and avoid the financial disaster of sailing with an empty cabin.

For the higher-priced Bermuda cruise, you might consider paying just $350 more than the fare for the small studio and, instead, get a full inside double cabin for $1,898. You would have more space and could just leave the second bed empty. 

NCL partially justifies these premium prices by stating that singles in the studios have exclusive key card access to a nearby special singles lounge, which has a bar, a quiet reading area, large TVs and a concierge. But the real reason for much higher prices on nondistressed trips is revenue maximization.

NCL is planning on installing single cabins on its two upcoming vessels, Norwegian Escape and Norwegian Bliss, although the exact number has not yet been revealed. 

Royal Caribbean International is following NCL’s lead and has installed 28 studios on its new Quantum of the Seas. Twelve of these studios each have a balcony, while (amazingly) the inside cabins each have a “virtual outside view” — a very large, almost floor-to-ceiling, flat TV screen that shows the changing, real landscape outside! 

The inside cabins each measure 99 square feet, while the balcony singles each measure 119 square feet. 

These single cabins are extremely popular and on some sailings 1½ years off are already sold out. Furthermore, the cabins are actually rising in price, with the current single fare for most future sailings being five to fifteen percent higher than the originally listed price.

Some other lines are starting to see the advantages of single cabins. P&O Cruises currently has eighteen single cabins aboard Azura (six interior and 12 with balconies) and will refurbish its vessel Ventura in the spring of 2014 to add eighteen single cabins. 

Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, a very traditional British line, has 64 single cabins on its Balmoral, 40 on Braemar and 42 each on Boudicca and Black Watch

Saga Cruises has 58 singles on Saga Sapphire, 92 on Saga Ruby and 60 singles on Quest for Adventure

The vessel Aegean Odyssey, of the Voyages to Antiquity line, has sixteen single cabins. 

And some lines have lower single supplements, especially if you pay early. Try Star Clippers, Crystal, Regent Seven Seas and Seabourn cruise lines. Star Clippers sometimes waives the single supplement altogether for selected sailings.

Despite the new single cabins, it’s still fair to say that 99 percent of the nonsuite cabins in the cruising fleet are doubles and that the cruise industry has a long way to go before it satisfies the needs of the many singles in the population. 

If you are keen to snag one of these few studio cabins at a reasonable price, try some of the vessels listed above on repositioning cruises or in the off season or for voyages over twelve days. Try for “distressed” sailings less than 90 days off. You might get lucky. 

Given the fact that there are not many single cabins available, one other way to beat the dreaded single supplement is to stop being single, at least for the length of the voyage. 

Through various singles organizations, you can be matched up with a roommate of the same gender as you who also has the same smoking preference. When you share a cabin with this (hopefully, compatible) stranger, you will qualify for the low double-occupancy rate. (Take earplugs in case roomie snores!) 

For example, Singles Travel International (Boca Raton, FL; 877/765-6874) organized a group of singles to sail on Norwegian Epic for seven days in January 2014 from Barcelona to Naples, Florence, Majorca and back to Barcelona for a “share and save” fare of only $1,339 per person, double occupancy, for a balcony cabin. If you purchased that cabin yourself, with no roommate, you would have paid $2,549, an effective single supplement of 190 percent. 

You two strangers together will have to pay $1,339 times two, or $2,678, for the cabin, which is more than if just one of you booked the cabin alone at $2,549. But, by putting up with a stranger, and possibly making a friend, you just saved $1,210 ($2,549 minus $1,339).

STI also provides its members with several icebreaker and meet-and-greet events and three formal parties on board. 

So what can we conclude from all this analysis?

First, after a 60-year absence, single cabins are gradually coming back, but they are generally more expensive than the double-occupancy fare for one person. 

Second, you can get a better deal on a single cabin if you find a “distressed”-fare cabin on a ship sailing soon or if you search out an off-season voyage. 

But, third, it will be hard to find that good deal, since, considering the high demand, the number of single cabins remains quite small compared to the total number of cabins in the fleet. 

Fourth, while you wait for the supply curve to meet the demand curve, you may wish to explore a singles cruise. 

Fifth and last, if you get really lucky there, you may not need that single cabin in the future!