Why you can afford to cruise on the mighty Oasis of the Seas

Royal Caribbean's newest behemoth, the Oasis of the Seas, doesn't arrive in our waters for another couple of weeks, but pictures of the awesome cruise ship are already appearing in the news.

How could they not? She's the largest cruise ship on the planet, towering 20 stories over the waves and cutting a 1,180-foot-long profile against the horizon. On board, there's space for 6,300 paying guests, 2,000 crew members, a 1,300-seat theater (larger than some on Broadway), some duplex cabins, an ice rink, an indoor/outdoor park, and a cocktail bar that travels from deck to deck via an elevator system.

WalletPop will be on board for her maiden voyage out of Fort Lauderdale on Nov. 20, and our own Jason Cochran will bring you video proof of this astonishing new feat of engineering.

In the meantime, as she powers across the Atlantic from her Finnish birthplace, Royal Caribbean is faced with the daunting challenge of filling those 2,700 staterooms and paying off the mortgage on one of the biggest machines that mankind has ever built.

Critics have questioned the wisdom of launching a $1.4 billion ship in the middle of the recession, but in truth, the planning and construction of ships like the Oasis take years of planning, and the process was kicked off way before things got bad.

Normally, when flashy new ships are launched, it becomes the hottest ticket in the market, and prices reflect the tight demand. But with the Oasis, Royal Caribbean has the dual problem of filling a record number of cabins in a time when fewer people are paying lots of money for their vacations. Reports have circulated in the travel industry that bookings are not as brisk as they usually are for sexy new ships of this sort.

Royal Caribbean denies there's blood in the water, saying that bookings are meeting predictions and that although space is still available for its first paid sailing -- normally booked solid by cruise enthusiasts -- that's because some cabins were released the market late. But it's also a fact that for its first few sailings, prices are lower than you'd expect for such an in-demand vessel. There's also the fact that, according to its earnings report, bookings in general are down for the line, although it's still in profit.

Those lagging sales are your boon. Budget Travel has found quotes for as little as $699 for four-day sailings while the Oasis still has that new-ship smell.

While it's true that in this climate it's easy to find week-long cruises on other ships for hundreds less than that, it's unusually low for the hottest new boat in the biz. The cruise broker Cruise411.com has one-week sailings starting at just over $1,000, a typical price, but the fact it's available on Dec. 18, near the peak holiday season and less than a month after her maiden voyage, may indicate that discounts for this megaboat may be up for grabs sooner than you might think.

Update: Already turning to enticements for reservations, Royal Caribbean has announced that it will throw in a bunch of freebies for bookings, including $150 in shipboard spending credits and travel insurance.

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