Cut-Rate Cruising

British entrepreneur seeks to apply no-frills concept to holidays at sea

By: Theresa Norton Masek

The founder of easyJet wants to apply the pay-as-you-go concept of his no-frills airline to cruising.

Stelios Haji-Ioannou, a Cypriot shipping and discount retail entrepreneur, is laying the groundwork for easyCruise, a hop-on, hop-off operation with nightly rates as low as £29 pounds (about $48).

As easyJet charges about £1.50 for a cup of tea or 50 pence for a bag of crisps, easyCruise would charge extra for everything from clean sheets to a chicken sandwich to a bar of soap.

The goal is to offer a travel product as cheaply as possible.

“This is the unbundling of the package of the cruise industry,” said James Rothnie, director of corporate affairs for London-based easyGroup, which owns the easyJet and easyCruise brands.

On a typical cruise, “Every whim is catered to, so cruising tends to be the domain of wealthier and older clientele with time on their hands. By unbundling, we hope to expand that market, using price as the incentive,” he said.

On easyCruise, passengers would sleep on a “Japanese-style mattress” on the floor of a 90-square-foot, fiberglass cubicle, he said. There would be a private shower and toilet, but no couch or easy chair.

“The sitting area will be on the mattress,” Rothnie said.

Passengers will have to pay for the comforts normally taken for granted on cruise ships.

“We do intend to sell sheets and toiletries to people, as they board, as commodity items,” Rothnie said. “If they want us to come in and remove the sheets and clean up, there’ll be an extra charge.”

As you might expect for such a cut-rate operation, bookings will be taken almost exclusively through the Internet direct from customers.

“Absolutely, the Internet distribution is the cornerstone of easyGroup. This is a low-cost company; we can’t afford to be paying middlemen,” Rothnie said. “This is another nail in the coffin of travel agents.”

Under the tentative plans, easyCruise would start operations as early as summer 2004, offering a regular itinerary in the Western Mediterranean. While some reports said that an easyCruise ship would stop at eight ports in Spain, France and Italy, Rothnie said no itinerary had been set yet.

Passengers would be allowed to hop on and off at whichever ports they choose, depending on berth availability.

EasyCruise plans to lease a ship in the beginning, Rothnie said, but hasn’t found one yet.

“We want to move away from a floating city image with thousands of passengers,” Rothnie said. “We want something with hundreds of passengers, rather than thousands.”

The staff-to-passenger ratio will be reduced from the typical 2-to-1 to something like eight crew members per passenger.

The target market sounds like backpackers doing the post-college-summer Grand European Tour on a budget, with a Eurailpass in hand.

“That is part of it, but also young families who spend a lot of time in the Med,” Rothnie said. “They typically stay in hotels, but now they might go on a cruise a couple of nights, as well as stay in a hotel. There are a lot of people who want to go on a cruise and only eat one meal a day. Not everyone wants to wear ball gowns or tuxes every night. Some just want to go on a nice, gentle boat trip.”

Haji-Ioannou is also applying his low-budget concept to hotels, and is planning to open easyDorm in central London, early next year. The nightly rate: £5, or about $8 and change.