There are many signs in the travel industry that the economy is improving, although most of them in the short run don’t feel like good news to travelers. Fuller planes and higher airfares, higher hotel and rental car prices and fewer bonus promotions. On the other hand, in the long run, travelers need healthy suppliers so they don’t go out of business.

Now, two cruise lines are tightening their late payment rules and threatening cancellation of the entire cruise.

Princess Cruises and Cunard Line apparently feel secure enough with their passengers that they are instituting a change that could be trivial for some, but catastrophic for others — an automatic cancellation for late payment.

As frequent cruisers have learned, bookings are always subject to deposit. If a deposit is not called in within a short time frame, usually one to three days, the booking cancels.

Final payment has always been a little more of a gray area. The cruise line statement says clearly when final payment is due, and when penalties kick in. Those penalties are pretty much absolute, and the first one usually is loss of deposit, steadily increasing to 100 percent for cancellations within a week (or sometimes sooner) before departure.

Some contract statements say payment not received by deadline can result in cancellation, but historically cruise lines have been pretty easygoing on this subject.

These days, interest rates are not such that hanging onto the money makes much of a difference, but final payment dates can often be over weekends, or when clients or their travel agents are out of town. (Not to mention the fact that a number of agents are part-time and don’t work every day.)

Also, and it happens with supplier emails in our office, a payment reminder from an online booking source could easily go into spam. Plus every once in a while I will have a client ask if I can delay final payment just a few days until the charge goes onto the next month’s credit card statement. It’s never been a problem.

One additional issue in the days of increasing credit card security is that increasingly suppliers are asking for a security code, which legally agents aren’t supposed to keep on file, along with billing address. So not having the code, or a change in that address, will keep a payment from going through.

The only serious issue in making final payment shortly after deadline has been when clients have not selected insurance. It may make it too late to add insurance, (Although any travel agent who lets a client delay final payment for any reason needs to remind them that doing so they are not avoiding cancellation penalties.)

Now all this may be changing. And of course it’s billed as an enhancement. Princess Cruises and Cunard Line announced today in a letter to travel agents that “in order to provide you with consistent and predictable final payment schedules for Princess Cruises and Cunard Line bookings,” they are changing final payment rules.

“Effective Wednesday, December 1, 2010, ALL Princess Cruises and Cunard Line bookings will automatically cancel as soon as the final payment is past due. Additionally, there will be no grace periods or extensions allowed for receipt of final payment. All Electronic Fund Transfers must be submitted and payments by check must be posted by the final payment date. This final payment policy will also apply to Group bookings.”

The new policies will be in effect for all voyages sailing March 1, 2011 and thereafter.”

(While they are at it, the cruise lines are also limiting extensions on the original deposit to one per booking, regardless of reason.)

Now, I completely understand why cruise lines would like a more hard and fast payment date, as my husband commented, “well, why haven’t they been calling it a ‘we would kind of like you to pay’ this date?”

But if that’s the case, wouldn’t a simple penalty for late payment, similar to credit card companies, also be effective? Instead of this rather draconian solution.

In fact, whether Princess and Cunard have thought of this or not, their new policy could result in a single day’s late payment resulting in a canceled cruise AND the loss of the original deposit.

(There’s no word in the announcement if that happens whether the canceled passengers might be able to rebook the next day and get the deposit back, presumably it would depend on how full the cruise was, if there was a waitlist, and the travel agent’s relationship with the line.)

In any case, it seems like this new automatic cancellation policy will cause a lot of stress and worse. Yes, it is a client’s and/or their travel agent’s responsibility to know when money is due. But it feels like Princess and Cunard are using a hammer to kill a gnat.