A record number of cruise ships -- with 90 scheduled already -- will sail into and out of the Port of Charleston this year, possibly at drastically lower rates.
Charleston's cruises booked so far cost 41 percent less than the previous year's sailings, according to information from the online travel service Orbitz. The company found that the average cruise passenger has paid $1,220 for a fun ship vacation this year, compared with $2,062 in 2010.
The cruise news coincides with the exact opposite change in local airfares. Charleston International Airport marked the nation's highest average price increase with a 27 percent jump between the third quarters of 2009 and last year, according to the U.S. Transportation Department.
The average cost of a flight rose to about $450 during that time, federal figures show, though Southwest Airlines' arrival next month is expected to push that figure down.
Charleston's cruise calendar includes home port turnaround calls to the Bahamas on the Carnival Fantasy at least once a week. Carnival in May launches a sailing to Bermuda, the company's first ever voyages between Charleston and the British overseas territory.
Contrary to the Orbitz index, Carnival Cruise Lines forecasts a price increase in 2011. In a 2010 year-end earnings report, the company predicted a 3 percent to 4 percent rise in revenues this year.
Carnival officials declined to comment directly on the Orbitz report.
Orbitz representatives say the company's "Cruise Index" is based on confirmed bookings made through Jan. 13 for any 2011 sailing. Cruises account for four of every 10 bookings that Kathy Torino handles at North Charleston-based Travel Leaders. She said the Orbitz figure likely will change as the year goes on.
The prices now take into account the least expensive bunk cabins, early purchase discounts, plus cut-rate fall deals -- after students return to school and families become less likely to vacation.
"Are they 40 percent off? Yes," Torino said. "It's a legitimate rate, but it's got a lot of restrictions."
Torino said travelers seem to be booking earlier this year. One repeat customer came into her office Thursday looking to repeat a spring break vacation with two side-by-side cruise cabins in April.
"We couldn't find two cabins next to each other, let alone at a desirable rate," Torino said.
Charleston not only showed the greatest year over year price drop, according to Orbitz, but left a wide gap between the second-place ports. Galveston, Texas, and Baltimore tied at a 27 percent decrease.
Florida remained the most popular state for sailings, with Miami, Port Canaveral and Fort Lauderdale taking the top three spots, respectively. Those ports also showed little to no change in prices between 2010 and 2011, according to Orbitz.
The company predicts that cruising to the Caribbean will reach all-time highs in the next six months.