Italian cruise operator Costa Cruises is changing the way it sells cruise vacations in a way that might look familiar to anyone who has booked a plane ticket recently.

The cruise line, part of industry giant Carnival Corp., has restructured its fares into four categories, ranging from a no-frills version, Basic, to the Deluxe level that includes just about every amenity. Costa, which operates 15 ships, announced the new pricing plan in North America this week after rolling it out earlier in core European markets. It will not apply to several Asia-based ships or world cruises.

Unlike airlines, Costa says, the cruise line is not going to start charging for things that used to be free, with one exception: The cheapest level will not include the ability to choose a cabin. Scott Knutson, vice president of sales and marketing for Costa Cruises North America, said any resemblance to airline branded fares is coincidental.

“They seem to be going more toward how to take away versus how to provide more,” Knutson said. But sounding much like an airline executive, he said the cruise operator wants to charge passengers for the services they plan to use while guaranteeing the basics.

“You’re still going to get everything the other passengers would get,” Knutson said. “If you’re not a drinker, you don’t have to pay for it. If you don’t care about your cabin number, you don’t have to pay for it. If you’re not particular about your dining time, you don’t have to pay for it.”

 

The least expensive option, the Basic level, includes dining in restaurants that have always been included in the fare, onboard entertainment activities, and use of fitness areas and pools. Passengers who choose the Basic option do not get to choose their cabin assignment.

Total Comfort Classic includes the basics plus a choice of cabin and unlimited wine, beer, and soft drinks during lunch and dinner. A step up from that is Total Comfort Premium, which offers choice of cabin in a prime location, the ability to select first or second dinner seating, and unlimited drinks anytime.

The top option is Deluxe, which includes a suite, spa access, unlimited drinks, invitations to special events on board, daily fruit in the suite, a free minibar, and other amenities.

Passengers can choose which type of cabin they want within categories, including staterooms without windows or more expensive ocean view or balcony rooms.

Costa said it was making the change in part to give passengers the opportunity to choose from base options or inclusive packages and to reward early bookings.

The operator is making the change, good for cruises starting in April 2018, as cruise lines have sought to sweeten the deal for passengers not by lowering prices too much but by offering incentives such as beverage, specialty dining, or Internet packages.

And cruise lines have been diversifying their range of options on one ship for different budgets as ships have grown in size, said Bob Levinstein, CEO of the cruise shopping site CruiseCompete.

While other cruise lines may not be bundling packages into different levels of fares, they are offering packages and more-inclusive options, as well as high-end accommodations within large ships, Levinstein said.

“It’s a question of trying to serve different types of customers,” he said, from the traveler on a budget to the big spender for whom money is no object. “How do you give them both the experience that they’re looking for?”

MSC Cruises, a privately owned Switzerland-based line that competes with Costa in Europe, rearranged its fares into a handful of experiences a few years ago. The operator sells — in order from least to most expensive — Bella, Fantastica, Wellness, Aurea, and MSC Yacht Club fares.

Knutson said Costa considered how other brands, including MSC, sell cruises, and wanted to make things simpler.

“We got a lot of feedback that said many lines — but I won’t name any — have made this so complicated that it’s almost frustrating,” he said.

Cruise industry expert and broker Stewart Chiron, who is known as The Cruise Guy, said he still thinks there will be some frustration with the new Costa fares.

“I think it’s going to make the process even more confusing for passengers,” he said in an email. “There are certain people that want certain cabin types and service levels and desire to have flexibility of making choices according to their preferences. For U.S.-based passengers, this type of plan could prove undesirable because of its complexity and rigidness.”

But Knutson said those who want flexibility can just book the cheapest option and then buy any extras that they want separately.

“It’s important to realize that these are options,” he said.

Photo Credit: Costa Fortuna is shown at sea during a Baltic cruise. The cruise line is introducing branded fares. Joe deSousa / Flickr