WITH so many cruise ships and mighty superliners bound for European waters this summer, prices are plunging and customers are being offered upgraded facilities as the leading lines chase bookings.
Though it led the revival of cruising in the 1990s with a whole new generation of ships like Oriana, market leader P&O Cruises wants - Elevation, a three-year, 14m upgrade of all five ships in its fleet including new bedding, restaurants, entertainment and more children's facilities on family-friendly ships - "to provide an even more refined and luxurious cruise holiday".
Says P&0 commercial director Nigel Esdale: "Though prices of our cruises may have fallen in real terms, customer expectations have risen.
"Things once seen as luxuries are now the norm for our customers in their everyday lives, such as going to a Michelin-starred restaurant, drinking fine wines and watching TV on 36-inch flat panel screens."
Officially P&O, part of US giant Carnival, wants the new push to strengthen ties with agents. However, the move can also be seen as the latest salvo in P&O's fierce tussle with main rival Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines (RCCL).
Trade whispers suggest RCCL has outpointed the pride of P&O so far in 2007 bookings, thanks partly to its first TV/ newspaper campaign in Britain for its highly-rated Celebrity Cruise brand.
It is also pulverising prices, with week-long packages starting with a 5 instead of a more usual 6 or 7.
As cruise prices plunge, ships must squeeze more cash from passengers once they get on-board. Says one leading cruise agent: "Many of Britain's cruise enthusiasts have retired on good pensions; some take three or four cruises a year, spending possibly 15,000-plus. A small, influential group of clients who know the market inside out, and discuss each ship with friends.
A big test of P&O's new approach comes in 2008 with the launch of Ventura. Ventura's family cabins and suites will have family funpacks with toys and games for younger children, MP3 players and speakers for teenagers, and even Noddy and his friends booked for some voyages.
Meanwhile, at Celebrity Cruises, UK managing director Robin Shaw claims advance bookings for 2007 are up 20 per cent after a 40 per cent surge in 2006 to around 40,000.
And Royal Caribbean is taking the fight to P&O with two night "taster cruises" from Southampton from 329, from late April.
To give a taste of Celebrity style-cruising, RCCL six night Western Caribbean fly-cruises in mid-April start at 1083.
Meanwhile, the much smaller Fred Olsen Lines is scoring highly with older people, with smaller ships, regional departures from ports like Leith, Dover, Liverpool and Greenock, and service standards which mean the crew recall passengers' first names after a day or two at sea.
Late deals and special offers
• DORSET: Dorset Coastal Cottages (0800-980 4070) offers a cottage sleeping six on the edge of Winfrith Newburgh, near Lulworth Cove, until the end of February for 395 per week (saving 75) or 238 for three nights (saving 35).
• WICKED IN WEST END: Travel Counsellors (0800-195 8852) offers overnight at a four-star hotel and ticket to new hit musical Wicked from 93.50, based on a midweek stay with rear dress circle seat.
• CORNWALL: Bedruthan Steps Hotel (01637-860 860) offers Seaview room for parents and two children for 181 per night, saving 70, including breakfast and dinner.
• MADRID: Flight Centre (0870-499 0042) offers two nights' B&B at a three-star hotel until March 31 from 159, including flights.
• PALERMO: Simpson Travel (0845-811 6504) offers three nights for the price of two at Hotel Vecchio Borgo from 459, on departures until February 28, including flights.
• BOSTON: Continental Airlines Vacations (0870-942 1010) offers four nights' room-only from 415 until March 28, with a choice of departures on daily services from Edinburgh and Glasgow. Package includes Macy's 11 per cent discount shopping card.
• VENICE: Venetian Apartments (020-8878 1130) offers an apartment sleeping four on up-and-coming island Guidecca for seven nights from February 28 for a total 1180. Lido and beach within easy reach.
• LANZAROTE: Flight Centre (0870-499 0042) offers seven nights' self-catering from 217 until March 31, in three-star Club Sirocco apartments. Book by February 28 for travel until March 31.
• ALGARVE: Travel Counsellors (0800-195 8852) offers seven nights' all-inclusive at four-star hotel in Albufeira from London or Manchester on May 5 from 555.
• TURKEY: Simply Travel (0870-166 4988) offers stone-built villa sleeping six on Bodrum peninsula from 285 per person, including flights and car hire, if booked by February 15.
• TENERIFE: Prestige (01425- 480 400) offers seven nights' B&B at the four-star Jardin Tropical through February from 688, saving 72, including flights from Gatwick/Manchester and taxi transfers. Same operator offers seven nights' hotel half-board in Madeira through to March 31 starting at 597, including B&B accommodation and transfers.
• GRAN CANARIA: Cosmos (0870-443 1823) offers seven nights' self-catering from February 19 from Manchester, Birmingham or Gatwick for 209 per adult, 169 per child.
• GOA: Jewel in Crown (0870- 067 2352) offers 14-nights' B&B at a two-star hotel near centre of Calangute for 451, from Gatwick on February 8, with Jungle Book.
• NEW ZEALAND: Austravel (0870-166 2070) offers ten days on North Island from 1132, including return flights into Auckland with Royal Brunei, four-day self-drive Far North Highlights tour from Auckland and six nights at a five-star hotel in heart of city. For departures until March 31.
• RED SEA: Olympic Tropical & Exotic (0870-429 5090) offers 14-nights' half-board at a three-star hotel in Sharm el Sheikh from February 10 for 389, saving 184, including return flights and transfers. Accommodation website www.somewhere2stay. com offers all-inclusive accommodation from 19 per person per night through February at the five-star Oriental Resort.
• BARBADOS: Virgin (0870- 220 2757) offers seven nights' four-star all-inclusive for 1289, saving 110 on departures through February. Package includes seven nights' all-inclusive at adults-only Almond Beach Club & Spa, or family friendly Almond Beach Village, with return flights and transfers.
• GAMBIA: Olympic (0870-429 5090) offers 14-nights' B&B from February 16 at four-star Corinthia Atlantic Hotel on Banjul Beach overlooking Gambia River for 459, saving 100, including flights and transfers.
• CUBA: Captivating Cuba (0870-887 0124) offers seven nights' all-inclusive from February 8 at the five-star Sandals Royal Hicacos Hotel in Varadero, transfers, Virgin flights and tourist card (visa) for entry to Cuba for 1095.
• JAMAICA: Tropical Sky (0870-907 9600) offers seven nights' all-inclusive at one of four Couples Resorts for 959 through March, including Virgin Atlantic flights, transfers. All Couples resorts offer extensive sporting facilities.
• ROMANCE IN FIJI: Transpacific (01293-567 722) offers ten-day full-board stays at Tokoriki Island Resort until the end of April from 1999, including Korean Air flights via Seoul, and all transfers, saving around 700 per couple.
• WALKING IN ANDALUCIA: Exodus (0870- 950 0029) offers an eight-day escorted tour from February 24 for 735, on journey through olive groves, hills and Moorish cities. Highlights include Grazalema National Park and Seville day tour. Package includes flights, seven nights' accommodation in farmhouse with breakfasts, five packed lunches and seven dinners.
• TURKEY GRAND TOUR: Archers Direct (0870-460 3648) offers 13-day escorted tour from Heathrow/Manchester on March 11 via Troy, Gallipoli, Istanbul and Izmir. Package at 634 includes flights, accommodation, most meals and excursions.