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Carnival offering big discounts after flood of bad PR

While shipworkers in Mobile, Ala., are busy scrubbing and sanitizing the ill-fated Carnival Triumph, it seems cruise passengers are cleaning up with big discounts.

“It’s definitely a reaction to the crisis,” said John David, president of David PR Group, a Miami-based public relations company. “Ships that go out without people don’t generate any money so they’re going to do whatever it takes to get them on board.”

And, if Carnival’s current prices are any indication, “whatever it takes” translates into rates that rival the discounts offered during the depths of the recession. Sign on for the April 29 sailing of the Carnival Imagination and you can enjoy four days in the Western Caribbean for as little as $43 per night.

“Their prices are definitely running lower than normal for this time of year,” said Mike Driscoll, editor in chief of Cruise Week, an industry publication. “It really is an unexpected hit to the degree we’re seeing.”

According to Driscoll, prices initially dropped after the Triumph broke down in February, stranding 3,100 passengers for several days with limited food and backed-up toilets, but then rebounded after the ship was towed to port and passengers disembarked.

Subsequent problems with the Carnival Dream and Carnival Legend, however, put the company back in the spotlight — the Dream cut short a cruise in March while the Legend had to skip a port call — and a soon-to-end sale was extended for another week.

“The word I would use is ‘desperate,’” said Jay Caulk, general manager of The Travel Experts in Pompano Beach, Fla. “They have a lot to do to get rid of the black eye.”

That’s not the reason for the discounts, says Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen: “These prices apply to just a handful of close-in sailings,” he told NBC News. “We’re trying to top off the voyages.”

"Carnival's model is they're making money when you're on the ship," Nilou Motamed, features director for Travel + Leisure, told TODAY. "That's when you buy alcohol, got to the casino, and go on shore excursions."

Furthermore, the deepest discounts only apply to the lowest grade of cabin, an inside unit with one twin bed on the floor and a Pullman-style drop-down bed, and the advertised prices don’t include taxes and mandatory fees. When those are factored in, that 4-night cruise costs $247 per person, not $169 and the daily rate rises from $43 to $62. Not to mention, noted Motamed, that these rates require a double-occupancy booking.

That, suggests David, will attract bargain-hunters but doesn’t qualify as "we’ll-leave-the-light-on-for-you" pricing. “There are so many little cruise lines that try to get you out for a few hours; those guys have the Motel 6 niche,” he told NBC News.

“People will look at the Carnival situation and go, yeah, they’ve had their problems and am I willing to take the risk that my vacation will be screwed up? But when a family of four can save $500, a lot of people will say yes.”

Others, however, are more likely to say no, with an underscore. “No way in hell would I want to be on any ship that offered fares that low,” said Brad Fenn, a former travel agency owner and veteran of 70+ cruises. “I can see wanting to fill the ships but not selling your soul to do it. All this is doing is making a mockery of the industry.”

Mockery or not, Driscoll, for one, suspects there will be more deals to come from Carnival as long as the company’s misfortunes remain in the public eye.

“They have no choice,” he told NBC News. “They have to fill their ships with quote, unquote, 102-percent occupancy [i.e., more than two people per cabin]. It’s not like a hotel; they can’t just close a wing.”

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.