Wednesday, June 23, 2010

To Track Traveling Teens, Just Follow the Money

Associated Press

You could wait a long time for a teenager who's traveling to call home or even text. But there's another way to see what your kid is up to: Follow the money.

Before sending teens off on a trip, make sure you have online access to any bank and credit card accounts they'll be using. You'll want to monitor their transactions anyway, to see that they're staying on budget, and to make sure their accounts haven't been hijacked by thieves. But there's another reason to monitor how the kids are spending their money: It will give you some clues as to their whereabouts and activities.

Last summer, I sent my 16-year-old son and two other teenagers - without an adult - to six countries in Europe. They stayed in hostels, traveled by train, and none of them had cell phones. But by monitoring their ATM and credit card activity online, I could get a sense of their whereabouts.

Did they make the overnight train from Barcelona to Paris? A record of a cash withdrawal from the Banque Nationale de Paris at a branch near the Eiffel Tower told me everything I needed to know.

When their itinerary called for them to be in Germany, I saw a withdrawal from a Deutsche Bank ATM near the Berlin Zoo. On the day they were to travel by ferry to Denmark, there was a credit card charge in kroner.

If I had to do it again, I would make sure, when sending a teenager abroad, that he or she did have a phone. But following the money gave me some peace of mind. Here are some other tips and advice for parents sending kids overseas, both from my own experience and from some experts.

MONEY: Book and prepay lodging, trains and planes in advance to cut down on the need for cash and credit.

But kids will need some local currency in their pockets when they arrive, as well as a way to get more cash and charge expenses later on.

Shop around for the best deals on foreign currency at home. My local savings bank offered the best conversion rate and no fee on the transaction. I sent each teen with cash to cover food and local transportation for three days. After that, they used ATM cards to get local currency wherever they were. Withdrawals should be made every few days instead of daily to cut down on transaction fees.

Many parents buy prepaid, preloaded cards from credit card companies and other outlets that limit how much money teens have access to at any one time. Parents can reload the cards electronically from home.

That way, teens "only have the money they need for the next day or two at most," said Mike Bowers, senior director of health and safety for People to People Ambassador youth programs and a member of the Student Youth & Travel Association (SYTA). "And I have the added comfort of knowing where they're spending it, because I can see online where the expenditures are being made."

Another option: You can get a credit card on your account, with your teen's name on it. Just remember, you are responsible for all charges. Can you trust your teenager to refrain from a shopping spree?

Remember to advise banks and credit card companies well in advance about cards that will be used overseas. If cards are not authorized for use in a given country at a given time, transactions may be blocked. Some countries now require PIN numbers with credit card transactions, and it can take a few weeks for credit card companies to process those PIN requests.

COMMUNICATION: Your domestic cell phone carrier may offer a good short-term international plan or an international SIM card for your phone.

Another option is to buy a cheap international phone. STA Travel sells international phones for $39, with $20 worth of call time.

But these days, "most kids don't actually talk on their phones," observed Patrick Connor, a vice president of SYTA and president of Director's Choice Tour & Travel, which coordinates performance tours for student musical groups. Instead, many teens prefer to text and post updates on Facebook, Foursquare or Twitter.

That's a great way for parents to see what they're up to - as long as you don't mind not hearing their voices. Just make sure you inquire about international data rates for cell phones to cover texting and Internet service overseas.

"If someone doesn't get an international data or texting plan, they can end up with a multi-hundred dollar bill," Connor said.

PERSONAL SAFETY: Bowers tells students on People to People tours to "dress down and blend in. Leave your bling at home."

Connor tells his travelers to "make sure your purse and backpack are zipped; don't keep things in your back pocket or an open pocket."

DOCUMENTS: Make copies of passports, credit cards and the like so that if they are lost or stolen, account and serial numbers can easily be located and the loss can be reported.

Make a master list of itineraries, including flights, trains and lodging, for both parents and travelers. Specify the names of train stations and airports, since some cities have more than one.

STA Travel sells an International Student ID card for $22 that not only offers discounts to 40,000 museums, stores and other sites around the world, but also provides access to a password-protected website where you can upload copies of important travel documents in case you need to refer to them during your trip.

INSURANCE: Mandatory summer school, sports injuries, family emergencies - there are so many things that can disrupt a teenager's life. For $130 a person, I bought cancel-for-any-reason trip insurance from TravelGuard and kept my sanity. James Bell, commercial vice president for STA Travel, says STA sells insurance that covers everything from medical expenses to a lost iPod. Insurance rates start as low as $6 a day.

LODGING: Tour groups will arrange for lodging, but for students traveling on their own, hostels are a good option in many countries.

Yet booking a hostel online, site unseen, can be confusing, even when using sites with customer reviews. For example, I wanted my son and his friends to stay in hostels that were not only safe and clean, but that were also centrally located. And in some cities, I wanted to make sure they were located away from red-light districts.

In this case, a travel agent's advice was invaluable. STA Travel has contracts with hostels around the world that it inspects a half-dozen times a year, and the STA agent I used was knowledgeable enough to book hostels that were fun for young travelers, while offering environments that met mom's standards.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Shipboard Dance Class Keeps Cruisers in Step

Miami Herald

Whirling, I was actually whirling across the dance floor in a Spanish bolero, with handsome Arturo Garcia Melo from Mexico.

I imagined myself on Dancing with the Stars. Bruno (Tonioli) would be excited. Len (Goodman) would say we ``sizzle.'' Carrie Ann (Inaba) would call me graceful. We would get respectable scores on the judge's paddles, and the audience voting at home would love us.

Back to reality: This was not competitive dancing. Melo was among instructors teaching passengers to dance on the 2,550-passenger MSC Poesia, on a Latin dance-theme cruise departing from Fort Lauderdale to the Eastern Caribbean. He had just picked me, a true novice, to help demonstrate a move.

But I was very much part of a craze hitting the high seas, the opportunity to learn to dance on a cruise ship.

A ship is a nice, non-judgmental place for such experimentation. For one, the other passengers are strangers, so no worries about embarrassing yourself. Plus, shipboard classes are suitable for everyone from beginners to those who know the steps. You are not expected to be a pro.

Italian line MSC Cruises is among several lines -- Crystal Cruises, Cunard and Holland America Line are others --jumping on the dance bandwagon, offering dance classes as part of their activities rosters at a time when TV shows like Dancing with the Stars have made knowing at least a few ballroom steps a very in thing.

The lines also offer occasional dance-themed sailings with additional tutorage, like the cruise I was on. Tour operators specializing in dance (including salsa and tango) book space on ships as well, bringing instructors onboard for those who cruise as part of their groups.

Nino Torre, a hustle and salsa dance pro and DJ from Richmond, Virginia, for instance, helps organize an annual Hustle & Salsa Dance Cruise. Now in its 11th year, the group attracts about 275 participants per cruise, most from the East Coast, a third from Florida.

Instructors are dance champions, most still competing, who do workshops in both hustle and salsa as well as in tango and cha cha and other steps, Torre said. ``We survey guests before the cruise and offer classes in what they request,'' he added. Participants range in age from their late 20s to early 60s with a desire to learn a few steps and show them off on the ship's dance floor.

On the Poesia cruise, our special instructors were a competitive ballroom pair, from Cleveland, Ohio, onboard to teach several classes specifically in Latin dances. Instruction included a half-hour class after dinner each evening so those who wanted could stay on the dance floor afterward.

Melo, a former pro dancer in Mexico, and other members of the entertainment team also offered instruction once or twice a day, as they do on every cruise.

At the pool, there were casual classes in dances like bachata (a four-step dance with origins in the Dominican Republic), come-in-your-bikini affairs that attracted a decent crowd.

But the ``serious'' learning on Poesia took place indoors on the dance floor of the Zebra Lounge, all done up in black and white stripes and a sexy space to learn dances like rumba and salsa and tango. Classes here attracted about 60 regulars, which meant a crowded dance floor, sometimes dancers spilling onto the carpet. There were couples and single women and occasionally a lone man too, the group varying in age from 30s on up.

 No need to sign up in advance. If you wanted to dance, you just showed up.

In one class, ballroom pro Minas Katsantouris demonstrated a sexy salsa move, the kind that's supposed to show meaning in every wiggle -- and in his tight jeans and a fitted black T-shirt, his wiggles did just that.

``The dance floor is our place, where guys can feel strong,'' Minas proclaimed, as the men in the lounge practiced their steps on one side of the dance floor, women on the other.

I did my best with a butt-out, wiggle-down with your hips move, with Minas instructing us women to ``Make the guy go, `Oh my god, that's exciting, what's happening.' '' Except my partner was my reluctant 78-year-old mom.

With regulars in the classes it was easy to make friends. In my case, they included Canadians Carol and Owen Rhodenizer, both age 69, and dance enthusiasts, who have done 39 cruises and take lessons at home several times a week.

During a salsa class taught by Katsantouris' professional partner, Rachel Neilson, Carol was such a pal she lent me Owen.

We were doing great for a few dances, Owen a strong leader. But when Neilson showed us a move involving the woman stretching her leg under and through the man's spread legs, I decided it was time to give Carol her husband back.

Katsantouris and Neilson admitted in an interview that they were teaching us steps on our weeklong cruise in a different way than they would on land. ``I am trying to give a basic foundation. It's more quickly than we'd do in regular circumstances, but these are steps that really do exist,'' Neilson said.

And we did learn. Of the steps I picked up, my favorite was the cha cha, which I practiced with mom and other female partners and did eventually get to try with a male passenger as well. I got to the point where I was really feeling the beat, as the instructor suggested, and my feet were actually responding.

I know there was no judge's panel, or viewers watching me at home. But I still think I made it to the next round.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Barenaked Ladies to Host Another Norwegian Cruise Line Voyage

USA Today

It's official: Barenaked Ladies will be back on the high seas in 2011 hosting a music-themed voyage on Norwegian Cruise Line.

Themed-cruise organizer Sixthman says the Canadian alternative rock band will headline a new "Ships and Dip" cruise scheduled for Feb. 6-11, 2011 in the Western Caribbean.

The five-night voyage on the Norwegian Dawn will kick off in Miami and include stops in Costa Maya, Mexico and Belize City, Belize. It goes on sale to the public on June 30, with rates starting at $799 per person, based on double occupancy.

This is the fourth time Barenaked Ladies has hosted a Sixthman music cruise. As in the past, the Norwegian Cruise Lines voyage will include a headline concert by the band as well as performances by a number of other groups that will be announced in the coming months.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Competition Heats up for Port

Florida Today

Carnival Cruise Lines' plan to homeport its 2,056-passenger Fantasy at Port Charleston in South Carolina starting this year is causing a few ripples of concern 400 miles to the south in Port Canaveral.

The move is another indication that Port Canaveral, considered the world's second-busiest cruise port, must be prepared for growing pockets of competition in areas where it has traditionally drawn passengers.

Port Charleston, for example, is a six-hour drive from Port Canaveral and there's the distinct possibility that its Carnival service could siphon passengers who might otherwise come here. The Fantasy is expected to attract passengers from the Atlanta area, both Carolinas, Tennessee -- and possibly even North Florida.

"Unfortunately, that's some of our prime markets," said J. Stanley Payne, chief executive officer of Port Canaveral.

And Payne said the competition could grow as more ships are deployed along the East Coast. "I don't think it's going to stop at Charleston."

Fantasy's presence in South Carolina likely will lead to Port Canaveral beefing up its outreach and marketing efforts there touting its cruise offerings, which include seven-day and three- to four-day Eastern and Western Caribbean cruises offered by Carnival, Disney Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International and Norwegian Cruise Lines.

Carnival, Disney and Royal Caribbean have invested millions of dollars at Port Canaveral.

Payne didn't specify what additional efforts might be used to market cruises departing from Port Canaveral, saying only that "we're going to get a little more aggressive about the advantages of this port."

Port Canaveral's Central Florida location allows it to attract customers who live within a day's drive of the Space Coast -- more than 30 million people live within an 8-hour drive -- or fly into Orlando International Airport, the 11th largest airport in the United States. According the latest figures, Port Canaveral attracts about 2 million cruise passengers annually.

Even with expected price increases this year, cruises continue to be considered vacation bargains, and that popularity has the attention of many communities eager to sign deals with one of the major players.

Officials in Savannah, Ga., have commissioned a study about the possibility of offering cruises. The Jacksonville Port Authority is considering a new cruise terminal to get more business. Carnival's Fascination sails for five-day cruises out of the Jacksonville port, called Jaxport, but because of the port's design it's difficult now for larger cruise ships to negotiate its waters.

"Definitely home-port cruising is a hot industry trend again," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of the website "What's happening is that smaller markets are getting very aggressive about competing with the big guys, meaning Miami, Fort Lauderdale cruises and Port Canaveral. Charleston is just the newest entrant on the scene and Carnival is just seeing if it's going to work."

One way to tell if a market is good is if the cruise company sends in a bigger ship with more amenities, Brown said. That has happened several times with cruise lines serving Port Canaveral.

Robert Giangrisostomi, the Canaveral Port Authority's deputy executive director/business development, said the port continues to work with travel agents to promote Port Canaveral and its cruise offerings. Cruise ships are running 112 percent to 115 percent passenger capacity, Giangrisostomi said, and the port has to continue to ensure future numbers remain that healthy

The port also is lobbying the cruise lines to offer excursions to Bermuda and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

"The key is to keep these (current) cruise ships filled," Giangrisostomi said. "Everybody needs to sell Port Canaveral."

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Airlines Fill Seats with Summer, Holiday Travelers

USA Today

Holiday travel is making a comeback, for both airline and cruise passengers, seeking discounted flights and cheap Mexico cruises.

The downside for Memorial Day weekend fliers, though: higher fares and packed flights.

"People seem to feel more confident about travel and the economy in general," says Genevieve Brown, senior editor of travel website Travelocity.

Airfares booked on Travelocity for travel from May 27 to May 31 average $332 round trip (including taxes and fees) this year, up 16% from Memorial Day weekend of 2009. International fares are 21% higher this year, averaging $742 round trip. Bing Travel, another airfare search engine, reported a similar rate of increase for domestic fares, at 18%.

Few expect travel volume to return to the pre-recession levels of mid-2008. But pent-up customer demand is driving fares up following a grim 2009, in which belt-tightening occurred across all travel segments, including corporate and vacation travel.

"Last year, they (bypassed) all trips. Demand was abysmal. This year, they're going to travel come hell or high water. There's no 'staycation' this year," says Rick Seaney, CEO of, which is also seeing a jump in Memorial Day fares.

A Travelocity poll of more than 2,000 travelers says about half of respondents plan to travel more this year, while only 7% plan to travel less.

According to the U.S. Travel Association, leisure travel is expected to rise 2%; business travel, 2.5%; and international travel into the U.S., 3% this year. "Projected growth in leisure travel is an indicator of rising consumer confidence and disposable income," says Suzanne Cook, senior vice president of research for the Travel Association.

Airlines deeply cut capacity in recent years, and will not restore seats quickly enough to match the anticipated rise in demand for the summer season that's ushered in by Memorial Day. The number of seats scheduled to fly domestically in late May is generally flat from the year-ago period, according to a USA TODAY analysis of OAG (Official Airline Guide) airline schedules data.

"Flights are going to be completely full this summer. I haven't seen airlines smile about any seasons recently. But they're smiling about summer," Seaney says. "Almost any cheap seats are sold out."

Travelers should also be mindful of peak holiday travel surcharges, Seaney says. Those boarding Memorial Day weekend flights are assessed a $30 fee each way, compared with $10 each way on most other summer days. "You're going to pay $40 more for a (round-trip) flight."

A silver lining? Hotels are still cheaper than last year. For domestic hotels, room rates are 4% lower for Memorial Day weekend than a year ago, Travelocity's Brown says.

And some beach destinations are still struggling and bucking the trend of higher airfares and cruise fares. They include Jamaica (fares down 5% from Memorial Day weekend 2009), the Dominican Republic (down 3%) Maui (down 5%), and discounted Alaska cruises.

Nine of the top 10 beach destinations are also showing declines in hotel room rates for the holiday weekend, Brown says.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Cruise Lines Lure with Frills and Luxury

Taft Midway Driller

Planning a cruise? The days of $25-a-night cruises are long gone, but savvy shoppers can still find bargain prices, luxury travel or eye opening, on-the-water experiences.

What do seniors want in a cruise?

“That depends on the senior,” said Melissa Paloti, managing editor of, an online news and reviews website.

“Enrichment programs are especially sought-after by seniors,” Paloti said. “Seniors want to be stimulated — food for the mind as well as the body.”

That may include salsa lessons when visiting Argentina or local history lessons on a cruise down the Danube.

Additionally, seniors want to have fun. They want to be pampered a bit and may have accessibility or dietary considerations. They want a comfortable experience of visiting multiple locations without the hassle of having to unpack at different hotels, said Ken Budd, executive editor of AARP Magazine.

“They like the convenience of being taken care of, the idea of a floating hotel,” he said.

But safety is also a concern. A recent AARP study showed that 90 percent of baby boomers are concerned about travel safety.

“Cruises offer a secure, self-contained environment,” Budd said. “You can visit exotic locales and then come back to the safety of the ship.”

In terms of dining, cruising now offers the best of both worlds. Freestyle dining, the ability to dine whenever the mood strikes you, is common, with almost all cruise lines offering it.

Traditional dining — sitting with the same folks each seating — is also an option.

If you’re thinking about taking a cruise, Paloti and Budd offer some ideas for how to make your experience a memorable one.

Let's make a deal

Is it possible to save money on a cruise? The answer is yes. Here are some tips:

Choose fall or off-peak Cruise ships dot the Caribbean in the peak winter, spring break and summer seasons. Deals are better in fall, which is hurricane season, but that shouldn’t necessarily scare you off. Cruises are rarely canceled, though you may have to change ports of call.

Peak season in Alaska is May to September, so deals will be found at the beginning or end of those months. The Mediterranean is a year-round destination, with winter sailings on a handful of cruise lines -- though summer is prime time. Baltic season is generally May through September, and summer is prime time for the British Isles and Western Europe.

School’s out Avoid dates where families with children may be traveling. Better times are immediately after Labor Day or the week after Thanksgiving.

Plan ahead If you do aim to travel during peak season or have your heart set on a specific cabin, book your cruise nine months to a year in advance.

Be spontaneous Last-minute deals are always a possibility, especially if you are flexible about when or where you cruise.

Back-to-back weeks If you have the time stringing together two weeks on the same ship adds up to savings and will be cheaper than adding individual trips together.

Do your homework Research Internet sites. If you haven’t cruised before, consider using a travel agent who can match a traveler to an ideal ship, negotiate deals or offer group space at a lower price. Also be sure to check for special travel discounts.

A few deal examples

Here are a few cruise deals Paloti found, but take note that prices change, sometimes drastically, very quickly. This is only a guide to what was available at press time.

Holland America Cruises

Holland America in Europe

- The brand-new, soon-to-launch Nieuw Amsterdam offers a 10-night roundtrip from Venice to Eastern European sites such as Croatia departing July 4; it starts at $1,799 per person for an inside cabin.

- A 12-night east and west Mediterranean cruise trip departing Aug. 31 from Barcelona to Venice starts at $1,999.

- A 10-night Barcelona to Rome, western Mediterranean and North Africa trip departing Aug. 2 starts at $1,499 on the ship Noordam.

Holland America in Alaska

Seven-night July 2010 sailings range from $799 to $949; seven-night September sailings range from $599 to $749. May and September are cheaper and can be booked closer to the date of sail. For Alaska airfare savings, book a roundtrip Seattle cruise.

Holland America in the Mediterranean

Even fall is pricy for these cruises. Aim for less than $200 a night for an inside cabin. Remember, summer can be an extremely hot time of year for seniors.

Princess Cruises

- A seven-night Alaska cruise ranges from $799 to $899 in July; in September it can be as low as $599.

- In Europe, a 10-night cruise of the Baltic, departing Aug. 20, costs $1,790 on the Star Princess.

Carnival Cruises

- A seven-night trip on the Carnival Liberty through the western Mediterranean departing Aug. 28 costs $489.

Cruise lines seniors love

Discount Holland America Cruises

The award-winning Holland America attracts a senior crowd looking for luxury and wanting their money’s worth.

A traditional line, Holland America is known for pioneering new dining concepts, such as the reservations-only Pinnacle Grill and open walk-in seating.

Since Holland America skews toward a senior set, it offers such extras as fold-down seats in elevators and wheelchair accessible staterooms.

Crystal Cruises

Bigger is better with Crystal Cruises, a line that has become synonymous with larger vessels. Big-ship options paired with exemplarily service are what attract repeat customers to Crystal.

Celebrity Cruises

Once known as a cruise line with premium, smaller ships, Celebrity is branching out with larger ships and has undergone an aggressive rebuilding and remodeling in recent years. The move adds upgraded services and amenities, plus enhancements such as a glass-blowing show and a Lawn Club on the highest deck with real grass. Celebrity is famous for its personal service — from greeting customers by name to bringing travelers their favorite dessert without being asked.

On a budget?

If you’re looking for a deal, Carnival and Cheap Royal Caribbean Cruises can be good for seniors on a budget, and both lines offer senior discounts. If you’re not in the mood for families with children, cruise off-season.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Madonna AND Elvis? Only on NCL

USA Today

And the first three headliners will be ... Madonna, Tina Turner and, yes, Elvis.

That's the word today from Norwegian Cruise Line, which says the much-ballyhooed Legends in Concert show planned for its next ship, Norwegian Epic, will kick off with (lookalikes of) the three musical giants.

Norwegian announced in November that Legends in Concert -- a staple of the Las Vegas Strip for more than 25 years -- would be one of several big name shows to have a home on Epic when the ship debuts in June, but it didn't release which tribute artists would be performing.

Norwegian Cruise Lines has said the Legends cast members will perform regularly in two venues on the 153,000-ton Epic -- the line's largest ship ever. The celebrity lookalikes will take the stage in the ship's 685-seat Epic Theater for six 45-minute shows over three days during each seven-day cruise.  In addition, a cabaret-style show will be performed on three additional nights in the Manhattan Room, the ship's New York-inspired supper club.

The celebrity performers will change every four months.

Norwegian is promising to take cruise ship entertainment to a new level with Epic, which also will feature performances by another well-known icon of Las Vegas, the Blue Man Group, as well as the dueling piano show Howl at the Moon and a comedy show by Chicago's Second City.

The ship also will be home to an unusual circus-and-dinner show called Cirque Dreams located in what's billed as the first big top at sea (click HERE for a sneak peek, including video).

Bigger than all but a handful of Royal Caribbean Cruise ships, Epic will be more than 60% larger than the largest NCL ship currently at sea and dwarf the biggest vessels operated by such big-ship lines as Carnival, Princess and Celebrity.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas Makes a Huge Impression

USA Today

ABOARD THE OASIS OF THE SEAS — It takes exactly 20 minutes after boarding the world's largest cruise ship to hear the dreaded L-word.

"The line starts there," snaps a fellow passenger waiting to book show reservations for the seven-night Caribbean cruise. That it takes that long to encounter a wait is the surprising part. After all, when you're sailing with a crowd of 5,800 passengers and 2,100 crew, you expect, well, crowds.

By now, you'd have to be a cave dweller not to have heard of Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, which made its debut in December. The subject of breathless, exclamation-point-laden coverage (6.7 million Google results!), the ship is all about excess, from its 6,296-passenger capacity to its $1.4 billion price tag. On this late February sailing, it will pause for a day in St. Thomas and St. Maarten and a half-day in Nassau, Bahamas.

But this cruise isn't about ports. Heck, it isn't even really about the ocean, which seems a mere backdrop to the whiz-bang onboard spectacle — the wave pool, zip line and ice rink; Broadway musical, dive show and ice-skating extravaganza; the 23 eating venues, 17 bars and 37 cabin categories.

As the behemoth takes its place alongside cruises departing from Fort Lauderdale past 2,000- and 3,000-passenger vessels that seem dinky in comparison, its horn emits a guttural mine-is-bigger-than-yours blast. Inside on the Royal Promenade, one of seven onboard "neighborhoods" and a cross between Disney's Main Street USA and a shopping mall food court, waiters hawk $7.20 piña coladas in commemorative glasses. Stunned newcomers gaze around the three-story expanse. And "Cruise Director Richard" Spacey, a manic cheerleader whose amplified voice will be ubiquitous this week, booms: "Ladies and gentlemen, you're officially on vacation! Somebody sccrreeaamm!!" Let the cacophony begin.

'Decadent' experience

The people behind the Oasis of the Seas are masters of crowd control. Yes, there are waits — 20 minutes for a table in the main dining room the first night; 17 minutes to reboard in St. Maarten. But, happily, those are exceptions on this sailing.

Among congestion-busting measures: Passengers are encouraged to make pre-cruise reservations, not only for the specialty restaurants but for major performances. Initial boarding is a breeze, thanks to an army of check-in personnel. And in most ports, multiple security portals ease logjams. Besides, in a space this vast, it's not hard to find serene spots.

Still, the unrelenting sensory input creates a frenetic atmosphere. It's virtually impossible to escape the piped-in music. Trivia questions flash on giant screens in the open-air theater. On the Royal Promenade, an electronic ticker tape emits non-stop factoids reminding just how wondrous the Oasis is. It has the deepest (17.9 feet) pool afloat, the first carousel at sea and a 12,000-plant "Central Park." If that's not enough to wow you, a bagpiper inexplicably appears around dinner time each night.

From scuba certification to scrapbooking, there are dozens of daily seminars and activities (though some turn out to be shameless sales pitches). And, as Cruise Director Richard announces on Day 1, "It is possible to eat 36 meals a day!"

"It's decadent, but I love it," says Dorene Benuck of Chicago, who with her husband, Irwin, paid about $1,800 each for a stateroom overlooking the ship's "Boardwalk," meant to evoke the ambience of a seaside resort. That's double or so the cost of sailing on a similar, smaller-ship Royal Caribbean itinerary. Not only is the Oasis commanding premium rates, onboard spending is "handily above other ships," Royal Caribbean chairman Richard Fain told Wall Street analysts in late January.

Pitch perfected

And no wonder. There's a lot to separate you from your money on this ship. Nine specialty restaurants charge premiums (from $4.95 for burgers at Johnny Rockets to $75 for a seat at the Chef's Table dining room). In-room movies cost $11.99 (more for the adult stuff). And the spa hawks everything from 24-karat gold facials ($325) to Botox injections (from $330).

At the moment, Sarip Hamid is merely seeking free advice on how to flatten his stomach. The chirpy Sea Spa receptionist invites him to join the acupuncture lecture. (It may be free, but a treatment costs $150.)

Hamid, a retiree from Kuala Lumpur, moves on to the fitness center, where a standing-room-only crowd is focused on a piece of Germanic beefcake who promises to cure everything from constipation to aging — without exercise! The personal trainer doubles as a pitchman for a product containing algae and seaweed that supposedly detoxes your body.

The infomercial continues for an agonizing 65 minutes, ending with an invitation for a $35 consultation. Hamid does it, but later, he's disgusted. "He tried to sell me $800 or $900 worth of supplements," he says. "That guy isn't even a doctor."

Of course, Royal Caribbean Cruises offers plenty of free activities. Some, like zip lining, surfing and ice skating, are novelties in the cruise world. A stargazing session from the ship's bow turns out to be a standout event (partly because only two people show up).

Bob Kozell is joining in many of the onboard high jinks, including the Sexiest Legs Contest, from which he has emerged victorious. Departing the stage to make way for the Thriller dance lesson, the seventh-grade teacher from Fort Lauderdale says he didn't come on this cruise to lie in the sun. "I came for fun and foolishness. Today is about foolishness," he says.

Giving in to excess

But not everyone is so easily amused. Donna Carrasquillo of New York complains of the dearth of port calls. "It's confining. When are we getting off already?" she says. "Of course, my son loves it. He's drinking, partying, out picking up girls."

Many, like Scott and Sabrina Blackburn of Denver, are here precisely because size matters. "We didn't come for the ports. We came for the ship," he says.

Indeed, as the week progresses, even passengers who are tepid about cruising find themselves embracing the sometimes peculiar aspects of shipboard life.

By Tuesday, you're ordering two entrees and multiple desserts at dinner. By Wednesday, the karaoke singers in the On Air lounge are sounding like American Idol finalists. By Thursday, you're tuning into a video rerun of Cruise Director Richard emceeing the Love and Marriage Game Show. By Friday, you're stopping by the pizza parlor for a late-night slice — just because you can.

First-time cruisers Bill Lewis and his wife, Lou, of Kerrville, Texas, certainly have no regrets. "It's fabulous — if that's a big enough word for this ship," she says.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Danube Cruise is an Opportunity to see the new Eastern Europe


Usually, I'm too busy getting ready for a trip to actually get excited about it beforehand. I think about bailing out because I can't get everything done in time. Invariably, I realize how stupid that would have been, when I'm on the plane, and it's heading for the clouds, and I finally think about where I'm getting to go.

The routine was proceeding as usual until the FedEx guy rapped at my back door last week. He handed me the Viking River Cruises package, which contained the documents for the 15-day "Eastern European Odyssey" sailing I'm scheduled for, starting Saturday .

I tossed it on the kitchen table. Later, maybe. It took a couple of days of later, but during a cereal snack break I needed some reading material. The envelope was within reach. And I needed to get some particulars on the trip, actually, because I wanted to let you guys know about this latest escapade, to let you know you can follow along, moment to moment (or at least mishap to musing to epiphany) on my blog at

So I opened the envelope and pulled out the itinerary and turned to a random page; which turned out to be the details of the Bucharest and Transylvania Post-Cruise extension I'd added. My eyes slid down the day-by-day information. …. Bucharest … Brasov … "mysterious Transylvania"…. Sighisoara, a UNESCO World Heritage site and birthplace of Vlad Tepes …. Carpathian Mountains, Sinaia ...

I noticed, after a while, that my cereal spoon had disappeared into a mush of soymilk-bloated flakes and overpuffed berries. I relocated to the couch, to the side closest to the reading light. I decided to read from the beginning, from Day 1, embarking in Munich. The cruise itinerary started with places I'd been to before: Passau, Melk, Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest. But by Day 3, my heart was speeding up just a little. Cesky Krumlov, among the best-preserved cities in the Czech Republic, is a World Heritage Site, a place I'd never heard of and the first of many places on the itinerary with accents on letters I'd never known could be accented (Cesky features a convex curve, like a parenthesis on its back, arms up – called a hacek, or hook – atop the C, and an accent aigu over the y). From there to the neighboring Budweis — original home of that all-American, day-at-the-stadium staple, Budweiser, the King of Beers.

I kept reading, to Kalocsa, Hungary's red-paprika capital; Vukovar and Osijek, Croatia, the latter full of art nouveau architecture; Kostolac, Serbia, "the Balkan Pompeii" with Roman ruins dating back 2,000 years; the Iron Gate of the Danube — not a gate but a treacherous (once, not now) stretch consisting of four gorges in a row; Belgradoshick, whose weird red rock formations sounded to me like Bulgaria's version of Sedona; Rousse (aka "the small Vienna" because of its architecture and location on the Danube) and Veliko Tarnovo, with ancient castle ruins and serious handcrafts; Constanta, not only Romania's oldest settlement (originally founded by the Greeks in the sixth century BC) with an art nouveau casino, but yet another surprise accent – a cedilla/comma sort of thing under the second "t." Ending on Day 15 in Oltenita (one more accent note: another cedilla-esque second "t").

Don't you just love going to places you can't pronounce, much less type?

Of course, this cruise along the Danube and ancillary waterways etc. wasn't an actual surprise. I had become intrigued by this particular cruise itinerary last October, as the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall drew near. Though there were other cruises to Eastern Europe, they usually hit the most popular cities and sites. I'd been to quite a few of these places myself, and the rest were so well-explored I felt like I'd been.

So I was stuck on Viking's "Eastern European Odyssey," with its unfamiliar, unpronounceable and even unlocatable (at least to me) destinations.

Alas! It was apparently intriguing enough for all 2009 departures to be sold out. So I booked quickly for 2010. In fact, I made the first payment two months ago – an unfathomable act of advance planning for me. Since then, when friends asked, "Where are you off to next?" I've answered, "Eastern Europe, to places I can't pronounce and probably couldn't pick out on a map." I couldn't give any more detail than that, because, as I said, I was too busy getting ready to go away to prepare for where I was going. The only other information I could say with certainty was, "I can't wait." Because it's one of travel's basic truths: All that as-of-now unknown will, soon enough, reveal more surprise and discovery than you could ever have imagined. I imagined this to be especially true in Eastern Europe.

Did I – do I – sound jaded? Like I've been traveling for so long the only parts of the world that remain intriguing are the completely unpronounceable and barely known?

I'll admit, there is some fun in the outré. But the main attraction of this Eastern Europe itinerary has to do with the definition of "Eastern Europe" these days. Sure, once upon a time the label was valid for those countries behind the Iron Curtain – Soviet images of landscapes, breadlines, a babushka on a street corner selling one lace collar, newspaper cut into squares for use as toilet paper.

But much has changed in the past 20 years. And in some countries, the stereotypes and the stereotypical division between Eastern and Western Europe no longer apply. Some of the countries involved have insisted that the broader (more descriptive) term "Central and Eastern Europe" be used instead. The meltdown of the Iron Curtain and the fall of the wall broke the barriers to new freedoms and opportunities. At first, there was chaos, and confusion and corruption, and deer-in-the-headlights what's next. But there was determination, and experimentation, and a palpable spark of excitement, ignited by a future filled with possibilities.

I visited several Eastern European countries early on – and felt that sense of possibility and change. I also saw, in Russia, and to a lesser extent in Budapest, some of the corruption and fear still lingering.

Eventually, there was progress, prosperity. But it has come in different ways and not evenly paced. Slovenia and the Czech Republic were clear winners, as far as freedom and the Westernization and economic development are concerned; the Ukraine, Belarus, Romania and Bulgaria are still far behind.

As far as tourism goes, the progress has similarly run the spectrum. While Eastern Europe was once synonymous with "emerging tourist destination," and "unbelievably inexpensive," the stereotypes no longer apply. Prague has basically become part of mainstream European tourism. It is one stop in the triangle of Eastern Europe's three most popular destinations, which also include Budapest and Krakow.

Today, Prague, where I was basically able to steal gorgeous crafts and glass and see black-light puppet performances for next to nothing, is as expensive as many Western European cities.

I remember visiting Krakow 20 years ago, strolling the Old Town and being stunned by the beauty of it, but also feeling thwarted by the language: The only English-speakers I found were two university students, and there wasn't a translated sign in sight. I particularly remember buying a soda from a street vendor; I opened the unlabeled bottle (no opener needed) and found rust around the top. I can't be sure, but I believe I dumped it.

I bet they've dealt with the bottling process by now in Poland.

Eastern Europe was, and remains, a vast laboratory in freedom, in human nature, in the best and worst of human beings. Upsetting, frustrating, and exhilarating.

So what I wanted was an overview, a broad range that would sample the spectrum. An Eastern European experience that confronted stereotypes, a snapshot of life in this part of the world right now. Granted, a cruise doesn't provide the ideal situation for really digging in, getting to the nuances of a place. But it's a good start. Especially if the cruise is designed with educational opportunities along the way. Which is something Viking River Cruises is known for, through its Culture Curriculum and hands-on Old World Highlights immersive experiences.

So starting Saturday, I'll be hitting the road – and the river. And reporting back in my blog, as often as events – and technology – permit. Follow along.

And if you would like to really follow along, sign up at and you'll hear from me when I post a new entry to the blog, or find myself held captive by some count with disturbingly prominent canines.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Repositioning Voyages a Big Hit with Travelers

The Ponte Vedra Recorder

Transocean and transatlantic voyages are in vogue among today’s cruise ship travelers.

Some companies, like Princess, Royal Caribbean and Holland America Line have numerous ships crossing the Atlantic or the Pacific this spring, from ports in North and South America.

Azamara Club Cruises

Azamara Journey — From Miami to Barcelona, departing April 11; from Rome to Miami, departing Nov. 15.

Celebrity Cruises

Celebrity Century — 14 nights from Miami to Barcelona departing May 20; 14 nights from Barcelona to Miami departing Oct. 25; Celebrity Equinox — 14 nights from Fort Lauderdale to Rome departing April 19; from Rome to Fort Lauderdale sailing Oct. 31; Celebrity Constellation — 14 nights from Barcelona to Fort Lauderdale departing Nov. 6; Celebrity Eclipse — 13 nights from Southampton to Miami departing Oct. 31.

Costa Cruises

Costa Atlantica — 17 nights from New York City to Copenhagen departing May 5.

Disney Cruise Line

Disney Magic — 14 nights cruises departing from Port Canaveral to Barcelona departing April 10; 14 nights from Barcelona to Port Canaveral, sailing Sept. 18.

Holland America Line

Eurodam — 16 days from Fort Lauderdale to Rome departing April 3; Noordam — 13 days from Fort Lauderdale to Barcelona departing May 14.

MSC Cruises

MSC Poesia — 18 nights from Fort Lauderdale to Hamburg departing April 27; 18 nights from Kiel to New York departing Sept. 4.

Norwegian Cruise Lines

Norwegian Epic — Seven day transatlantic crossing, a maiden voyage, from Southampton to New York departing June 24.

Oceania Cruises

Insignia — 15 nights from Rio de Janeiro to Barcelona departing April 3; 15 nights from Barcelona to Rio de Janeiro departing Dec. 6; Nautica — 24 nights from Bangkok to Beijing departing March 1; 35 nights from Cape Town to Singapore departing Dec. 11; Regatta — 14 nights cruises from Miami Florida to Barcelona departing March 21; 14 nights from Barcelona to Miami departing Nov. 13.

Princess Cruises

Crown Princess — 14 days from Fort Lauderdale to Rome departing May; 14 days from London on to New York departing Sept. 3; Grand Princess — 15 days cruises departing from Fort Lauderdale to London departing April 9; 16 days from London to Ft. Lauderdale departing Sept. 25; Ruby Princess — 16 days from Ft. Lauderdale to Barcelona departing April 19; 16 days from Venice to Fort Lauderdale departing Oct. 8; Star Princess — 18 days from Ft. Lauderdale to Copenhagen departing April 24.

Royal Caribbean Cruises International

Navigator of the Seas — 14 nights cruises departing from Miami to Rome departing April 10; 14 nights from Rome to Fort Lauderdale departing Oct. 23; Independence of the Seas — 14 nights from Fort Lauderdale to Southampton departing April 11; Voyager of the Seas — 14 nights from Galveston to Barcelona departing April 18; 14 nights from Barcelona to Galveston departing Nov. 7; Adventure of the Seas — 13 nights from San Juan to Barcelona departing May 2; 14 nights from Barcelona to San Juan departing November 28; Jewel of the Seas — 13 nights from Miami to Harwich departing May 6; 14 nights from Harwich to Boston departing Sept. 4.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Wedding Cruises Increase by 60 Percent

Hartford Courant

More brides are going to sea than ever before. Some even take along a lot more than the groom.

One New York bride plans to sail in May with more than 100 guests, according to Norwegian Cruise Line spokeswoman Courtney Recht.

On the briny, wedding business has increased by as much as 60 percent in the last decade, the 21 maritime members of Cruise Lines International Association report. The attraction, presciently noted years ago in a Royal Caribbean International survey, was that 95 percent of vacationers rated cruises as "extremely or very romantic," compared with landlubber vacations.

Another reason is convenience. According to the cruise association, almost 35 percent of the group's 16,000 agents say their clients want to combine a wedding with a honeymoon; more than 23 percent say the top reason for a cruise wedding is value.

As a setting for romance, more than 80 percent of agents say nothing beats the Caribbean and Bahamas as favorite wedding destinations.

Today it's a lot easier to tie the knot at sea or in ports around the globe. More cruise lines now offer shipboard wedding packages, amenities and wedding-planning services, including legal marriages performed by ships' captains.

The notion of nautical nuptials practically was codified in 1998, when Princess Cruises, the "Love Boat" line, launched bona fide weddings at sea, performed by a ship's captain. According to spokeswoman Carol Maglione, more than 6,000 couples have taken vows at sea or in port since then. Princess' weddings at sea are official, because the line's vessels are registered in Bermuda, which recognizes all marriages in international waters.

Besides weddings, many lines also offer honeymoon and vow-renewal packages, bachelor and bachelorette parties, even programs for "popping the question," the ultimate engagement party at sea.

Carnival Cruises, which saw a 60 percent increase in wedding packages in the last decade, anticipates that 2,400 couples will marry aboard its "Fun Ships" this year, according to the line's spokesman, Vance Gulliksen.

And options on all lines can read like a vast menu of choices.

Shipboard ceremonies on Carnival, for instance, are available on embarkation day in U.S. ports and many Caribbean cruises. Prices for Carnival's Just for the Bride & Groom package start at $1,195 and include an official civil ceremony, a champagne toast with keepsake flutes, flowers for both bride and groom, a wedding cake with cake topper, pre-recorded wedding music, a decorated bridal aisle and photographic services.

Add some guests, an hourlong open bar and hot and cold hors d'oeuvres, a traditional two-tiered wedding cake and coffee service, and the cost increases to $1,635.

Celebrity Cruises' most popular wedding package is the Nautical Nuptials program, featuring a captain-led wedding ceremony at sea offered on all Celebrity ships except Celebrity Xpedition.

Since 2008, even intimate Azamara Cruise Lines' vessels have made marriage at sea legal on their ships with captain-led wedding ceremonies. Couples tying the knot with Azamara and Celebrity captains can choose from packages that include anything from private receptions in the ship's specialty restaurant to cake, champagne and more. Basic captain-performed wedding packages start at $2,500.

Costa Cruises' weddings take place while the ship is in port, either onboard or on land, with the company's wedding planners taking care of all the details.

Crystal Cruises' romantic options include a candlelight dinner on the veranda of the couple's suite, onboard florists, a portrait studio and private shore excursions.

Brides and grooms on Disney Cruises Line can exchange vows aboard the ship or step ashore for a romantic beach-side ceremony on the line's private island paradise, Castaway Cay.

With 300 nuptials a year, Norwegian Cruise Lines boasts an array of options to turn the basic wedding into an extravaganza. The line offers two wedding packages — Onboard Aisles and On Shore Aisles — available in ports in the United States, Canada, Europe, the Caribbean, Mexico and Bermuda.

Both include a ceremony conducted by a local official plus all the features of a wedding: music, cake, wine.

Onboard Aisles packages start at $1,100 a couple (for shipboard weddings held in most Southern U.S., West Coast and ports of Canada cruises) to $1,450 (for Grand Cayman, St. Maarten and Northeast U.S. ports). The package includes priority embarkation for the couple and their guests (if the wedding is on embarkation day), snacks and refreshments upon embarkation, a ceremony conducted by a local official, recorded music, a wedding coordinator, a basic bouquet, a matching one-bloom boutonniere, professional photography service for one hour, one 8-by-10 photo, a private website to view and order photographs, gifts and favors, a wedding cake, one bottle of private-label Champagne and a keepsake certificate.

On Shore Aisles ranges from $1,450 in a colonial chapel in New Orleans to $2,450 in various locations in Florence, Rome or Venice.

On Royal Caribbean Cruises, betrothed couples can exchange vows while climbing the ships' rock walls or ice skating or even catching the waves on the shipboard surf simulator. The line's Royal Romance package features an hour wedding ceremony aboard ship or onshore on embarkation day.

Shoreside venues include hot-air balloons, the glaciers of Alaska cruises, medieval European castles and an Italian vineyard.

As if hand-holding for the nervous bride and groom weren't enough, some lines and travel agents now provide registry service. With all these options, it's not hard to see why brides are going overboard for onboard ceremonies.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Azamara Club Cruises Focuses on Exotic Destinations

Sun Sentinel

Cruise line changes its name, raises fares to include certain beverages and services

Mega cruise ships carrying thousands of passengers and offering extreme sports are all the rage, but they are not everyone's idea of a good time.

Some passengers are turned off by big ships. They have no interest in exploring crowded Caribbean ports, surfing on a Flow rider or dining at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Azamara Club Cruises is the latest company to go after older, affluent travelers who favor exotic port destinations and require all of the comforts of a boutique hotel.

"When you're a small ship you can get to places the big ships can't go," Azamara CEO Larry Pimentel said.

Other cruise lines, including Oceania Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Silversea Cruises specialize in small-ship cruising with a high level of service, including a butler who will cater to passengers' personal tastes.

Started in 2007, Azamara has two ships — the Journey and the Quest. In December, the company changed its name from Azamara Cruises to reflect the club-like atmosphere passengers will find onboard, Pimentel said.

The company's new direction hinges on what Pimentel calls "destination immersion."

"We're doing more overnights and longer stays," in ports of call, he said. Giving guests two, sometimes even three, consecutive days to tour cities will position Azamara to rival land-based tour companies, Pimentel added.

There's also an increased focus on offering tour excursions that passengers may not find on other lines, such as a Ferrari driving tour in Italy.

And starting next month, many amenities will be included within cruise fares, such as a lunch and dinner wine selection, in-cabin dining, gratuities, and shuttle buses to city centers in port.

Cruise fares average about $250 per person per day, with most itineraries ranging from seven to 14 nights.

To adjust for the now-included products and services, Pimentel said the company raised cruise fares about 24 percent over a 12-week period, a move met with criticism from some passengers and travel agents.

"The new price increases do not equate with the extras offered," said a member, known as frontrow487, on an Internet message board. "We feel priced out and wish you had kept the status quo."

Pimentel responded to the complaint during a recent Question and Answer forum he hosted on, a website for passengers, saying, "We regularly look at the pricing offered by our competitive set, and think Azamara Club Cruises represents an excellent value, which we find vital to retaining our valued guests."

Azamara Cruise Lines differs from some of its established competitors. It has fewer ships in its fleet. In many cases, rival lines visit more obscure ports of call and offer world cruise itineraries that give passengers the option of sailing for months at a time.

Pimentel says there's enough room in the small-ship market for one more. "We don't all go to the same destinations at the same time," he said.

What makes Azamara different, he says, is that "It's a little bit of a secret, and it's a newer line."

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Cruising Tradition Revived

Montreal Gazette

Passengers may bring guests on-board

Princess Cruises is bringing back an old tradition, but with a new twist.

Once you could bring your family and friends on-board to say goodbye in style before the cruise ship sailed. Princess's Bon Voyage Experience will allow passengers to invite friends and relatives on-board for a four-course lunch with wine, a ship tour and a souvenir photo.

Here is the part I like. The passengers and guests will have priority boarding and will be able to spend about four hours together before the ship sails.

But there will be a cost: each guest will be charged $39, which can be applied as a credit toward a future cruise.

For the guest, it's a good deal for the price. For Princess, it's a better deal. It may be the first time many guests step on a cruise ship, and they may become future customers for Princess Cruises.

The program will debut next month in Los Angeles and cruises departing from Fort Lauderdale before expanding to New York, San Francisco and Seattle.

The cruise ships will not have hundreds of guests roaming their decks just before departure. The number of guests is capped at 50. You can reserve spots well in advance or up to six days prior to departure.

In other Princess news, the cruise line's owners, Carnival Cruises Corp., have reached an agreement with Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri for two new prototype ships - 20 per cent larger than other Princess ships and with a capacity of 3,600 passengers in double occupancy, similar in size to the Carnival Dream, the largest ship in the Carnival fleet.

The first Princess ship will be launched in spring 2013, the second a year later. These will be the first new ships for Princess Cruises since the launch of the Ruby Princess in fall 2008. Princess caters more to an adult audience.

Norwegian Cruise Lines is getting ahead of the game when it comes to announcing ship deployments for 2011 and the winter of 2012. NCL will base its first ship in Copenhagen, in 2011 for nine-day Baltic cruises. The Danish port city was one of my favourite cities on my last Baltic cruise. It also is close to Scandinavian and Baltic ports, so you spend less time sailing to them.

NCL Cruises also announced plans to sail year-round out of New Orleans for destinations such as Costa Maya, Cozumel, Roatan Bay and Belize City.

Celebrity Cruise Lines will be opening an Internet café - it sounds more like an Apple store - on the Eclipse when it launches in April. The iLounge, as the line is calling it, will be set up with 26 computers, will offer courses and will sell Apple products. If it proves successful, I expect iLounges will be rolled out through the rest of the Celebrity Cruises fleet.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

New Luxury Ship from Seabourn to go Around the World in 109 Days

USA Today

Seabourn has announced plans for an unusually exotic world cruise to take place in 2012 on the 450-passenger Seabourn Quest.

The still-to-be-built ship, scheduled to debut in mid-2011, will set sail on Jan. 5, 2012 from Fort Lauderdale on the 109-night voyage, which will start with a trip down to South America followed by an eastbound crossing of the Atlantic Ocean to Africa and then Asia before  a loop back to the Middle East and Europe.

The voyage will include stops in a number of new-for-the-line ports, including Port Elizabeth, South Africa and remote St. Helena Island.

Other port calls scheduled for the voyage in South America and Africa include Devil's Island, French Guiana; Recife, Salvador Da Bahia and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil; Walvis Bay, Namibia; Cape Town and Durban in South Africa; and Maputo, Mozambique.

Among stops in Asia: Singapore; Ho Chi Minh City and Chan May in Vietnam; Keelung (Taipei); Shanghai; Hong Kong; Phuket, Thailand; and Port Kelang (for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia).

The ship also will call in Cochin, Mormugao (Goa) and Mumbai in India; Khasab, Salalah and Muscat in Oman; Dubai; Safaga (for Luxor), Sharm el-Sheikh and Alexandria, Egypt; Aqaba, Jordan;  and Corfu.

While global in its reach, the world cruise from Seabourn Cruises does not include a complete circumnavigation of the globe. It'll end in late April 2012 in Venice.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Cruise Lines Offering Boatloads of Enticements

Chicago Sun-Times

If you’re planning a cruise vacation this year, get ready for higher prices, better entertainment, water parks and one of the most innovative concepts to come along in a while: rooms designed for solo travelers on the Norwegian Epic, without the supplemental charge that single passengers on cruises have traditionally paid.

“I think it’s genius,” said Cynthia Boal Janssens, chief blogger at “I’m amazed with so many new ships coming on line that this hasn’t been done sooner. Lots of single people cruise and want to cruise, but right now, if you are going on a cruise as a single person and you occupy a double cabin, they charge you an additional fee for doing that, sometimes as much as 200 percent.”

The Epic, which launches this summer, will offer 128 studios for singles. The cabins open onto a lounge area where solo travelers can socialize.

Paul Motter, editor at, said he thinks the single studios “will take off. We have a whole message board on CruiseMates for people seeking cruise companions. It’s a huge potential market.”

Motter said another emerging trend in cruises is more brand-name entertainment. For years, mediocre musical revues with names like “Salute to Broadway” were standard fare on ships, to the point where they “kind of became a joke,” Motter said.

In contrast, the Epic will feature Blue Man Group and Second City improv shows. Royal Caribbean Cruises' megaship, Oasis of the Seas, which launched last fall, offers a complete production of “Hairspray.”

Motter said “Hairspray” is “the first time a cruise ship has fully licensed a Broadway production. And it’s a really good production, on par with a national touring company.”

Oasis was the “it” ship of 2009, attracting enormous publicity as the largest cruise ship ever built. It carries up to 6,300 passengers and 2,100 crew members, with facilities that include an ice rink, golf course, volleyball and basketball courts, a 1,300-seat indoor theater and seven “neighborhoods,” including a boardwalk and a mini-Central Park. There’s so much to do onboard that when the ship pulls into a port, “a lot of people don’t get off,” said Carolyn Spencer Brown of

The cruise industry will launch a dozen new ships this year, but, Brown said, “Nothing will compete with Oasis.”

Ships debuting in 2010 include a sister ship of Oasis called Allure of the Seas, a new Queen Elizabeth from Cunard, and Celebrity Eclipse, the third in a series of Celebrity ships that started with the Solstice in 2008 and the Equinox in 2009.

Despite all these new ships coming onto the market during a recession, the cruise industry has managed to keep them full. In 2009, ships sailed at 104 percent capacity on average, meaning that every room was occupied and some rooms were shared by more than two people, according to Cruise Lines International Association, an industry group with 25 cruise lines representing 97 percent of cruise capacity in North America.

At the same time, the number of passengers keeps increasing: 13.01 million people cruised on CLIA ships in 2008, 13.44 million in 2009 and a projected 14.3 million will sail in 2010.

“Maybe we are not recession-proof, but we are recession-resistant,” said Richard Sasso, CEO of MSC Cruises and marketing director of CLIA.

One way cruises have kept ships full is by dramatically increasing the number of international passengers, to make up for slow growth in the North American market. The number of passengers from outside North America has doubled to more than 3 million a year since 2003, while the number of U.S. and Canada cruise passengers has increased by just 30 percent to 10.29 million.

Discounts have brought customers in, too. Cruise prices go down when demand is weak — just like airfare — until every cabin is filled.

But the low prices of 2009 are starting to disappear. “Fares are going up, for sure,” said Brown, the editor.

One sign of change: More passengers are booking further in advance. In 2009, the average booking window for a cruise was 4.6 months before the departure date, and 39 percent of passengers were booking their trips less than four months out, Sasso said. For 2010, the average booking window already has increased to five months out, and only 30 percent of clients are booking less than four months before their departure.

What does this mean for consumers?

“As the ship fills up, the prices go up,” said Motter, the editor. “They give you the best prices six months to a year out, and at the very end, if there are still empty cabins, they discount them. The best way to get the best deal on a cruise is to book early. Almost all the cruise lines offer price guarantees, so if you see a price lower than what you booked, they will honor that.”

On the other hand, you can still find last-minute bargains in places where the market is “really soft,” said Brown. “Eastern Mediterranean, Greek Isles, Turkey. For the Mexican Riviera, I’m still seeing $299 departures on seven-day trips.”

Don’t forget to check social media when planning a cruise. More cruise companies and cruise Web sites are using Twitter and Facebook to highlight deals and trips. Cunard Cruises even has a YouTube channel where fans can watch construction progress on the new Queen Elizabeth, as well as videos of James Taylor performing on another Cunard ship, Queen Mary 2.

Another long-term trend in cruising is the increase in family-friendly programs and attractions. In the last 10 years, the median age of cruisers has dropped from 57 to 47, according to Bob Sharak, CLIA’s executive director.

“Multigenerational groups — the groups that bring adults, kids and grandkids — are bringing down the average age,” said Mimi Weisband, spokeswoman for Crystal Cruises.

One feature on new ships that younger passengers are sure to love is the water park. Carnival Dream, which launched last year, has an aqua park called WaterWorks with a 300-foot-long water slide, the longest water slide at sea.

A new ship from Disney Cruises, the Dream, launching in January 2011, will have a 765-foot-long water coaster, the AquaDuck, that will wrap around the perimeter of the ship’s top deck, with one loop jutting 13 feet over the side of the ship, 150 feet above the ocean.

Other innovative features on the Disney Dream include virtual portholes for windowless staterooms that will offer live views of the sea and sky from video cameras mounted around the ship. The Dream also will have an adult lounge called Skyline with changing backdrops offering views of famous skylines around the world.

Cruises also keep offering more and more sophisticated programming. In late 2009, Celebrity Cruises' ships launched a series of enrichment seminars and activities called Celebrity Life. In addition to fitness classes and spa treatments, the programs include cooking classes, wine-tastings, stargazing, scrapbooking and lectures on art and history.

Cruise itineraries keep changing, too. Crystal Cruises’ new port calls include Kuwait City, Bandar Abbas in Iran, Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, Sevastopol in the Ukraine and Port Elizabeth in South Africa cruises, with new excursions that include South African wineries and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Princess Cruises will visit 17 new ports in the next two years, including Abu Dhabi, Tangiers in Morocco and Xiamen, on the southeastern coast of China. A “Highlights of Germany” tour offered by Princess this year will include two nights in the town of Oberammergau to see the famous Passion Play that villagers only perform once a decade.

Janssens, the All editor, says river tours of Europe are also increasingly popular. “They’re replacing the bus tour of Europe,” she said.

Brown of CruiseCritic agreed, adding that ships designed for river cruising are “much more stylish than they used to be,” with “much nicer cabins, tech toys like DVD players, French balconies, elaborate furnishings and better food.”

Janssens said the small and medium-size ships from lines like Silversea, Star Clippers and Crystal Cruises are especially appealing for older, more traditional travelers.

“They may not have big-name shows, you don’t have all the razzle-dazzle, but there’s a lot of elegance with this type of cruising — lovely dinners and you meet so many well-traveled people,” Janssens said. “They tend to be more luxurious, and you go to interesting places that the big ships can’t reach, where there aren’t 10,000 people in port.”

While megaships like Oasis may get the headlines, Janssens theorized that “people who like small ships are becoming even more loyal to them as big ships get bigger.”

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Fastest Growing Cruise Destination is . . . The Persian Gulf?

USA Today

It wasn't by accident that Costa Cruises chose Dubai in the Persian Gulf as the location for last week's naming of its newest ship, the Costa Deliziosa. The gleaming tourist and business hub is turning into a boom town of sorts for the cruise industry.

Costa CEO Pier Luigi Foschi noted at the event that the Carnival-owned line was moving 140,000 cruisers through the city this winter, a 40% increase from last year and more than three times the number of just three years ago.

"The business grew fast," says Foschi, ticking off details of the company's rapid, four-year expansion from one ship to three in the region.

Perpetually sunny and warm, the Persian Gulf is proving a popular winter getaway for cruise fans from Europe, in particular, as well as Middle Easterners and smaller numbers of Americans, despite its location near several troubled countries including Iraq and Yemen.

For a European cruiser, the Persian Gulf is closer than the Caribbean and offers an appealing mix of culture, history and modern conveniences, not to mention luxury (Dubai's sparkling new airport puts those in cruise hubs Miami and Fort Lauderdale to shame, and the beach-lined city boasts some of the world's most elaborate resorts).

Dubai's top tourism official, Hamad Bin Mejiren, told cruise writers in Dubai last week for the Costa event that the city expected to see 575,000 cruise passengers by 2015. That's more than double the 263,000 that arrived in 2009, he noted.

As recently as 2001, Dubai was getting just 7,000 cruise passengers a year.

The naming of the Costa Deliziosa last week was a first of its kind in an Arab city -- and, officials say, a harbinger of things to come.

Costa already is basing its two newest ships -- the Deliziosa and sister Luminosa -- in Dubai this winter (both vessels sailing seven-night Gulf voyages that include stops in ports such as Muscat, Oman). It also has been operating 18-night cruises between Dubai and Savona, Italy, on the Costa Europa, though the voyages came to an abrupt end last week after the ship was involved in an accident in Egypt.

The trend of cruises around the Middle East also got a big boost in January as industry giant Royal Caribbean began its first season of voyages in the region. Royal Caribbean's 2,112-passenger Brilliance of the Seas, now sailing weekly out of Dubai on seven-night trip to Oman, Bahrain and other parts of the United Arab Emirates, was docked next to the Costa Deliziosa during last week's ceremony.

How significant will cruising in the Persian Gulf become? Clearly, Dubai is betting big. The naming of the Costa Deliziosa last week coincided with the official unveiling of a new cruise terminal at Dubai's Port Rashid that can accommodate up to four cruise ships at a time.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Sushi Lollipops?

USA Today

Celebrity Cruises Unveils Plans for New Restaurant

Celebrity Cruises is going arty with its newest restaurant concept, a $30-a-person eatery called Qsine that will be as much about style and design as it is about food.

Among menu items at the venue -- announced late Wednesday for the soon-to-debut Celebrity Eclipse -- will be elaborately presented "Sushi Lollipops" and a Kobe beef "Slider Party" of mini-grilled burgers with Wisconsin cheddar served on brioche buns.

The 2,850-passenger Celebrity Eclipse -- the third ship in the line's much-heralded Solstice Class series -- will enter service in late April.

Celebrity Vice President of Culinary Operations Jacques Van Staden says Qsine is designed to present passengers with an unexpected, modern approach to familiar dishes from around the world.

"Our guests love new and different dining experiences, and we've designed Qsine to deliver that in a big way," Van Staden says. "Qsine is designed to offer a globally-influenced blend of nostalgic and contemporary favorites, artfully presented to the Celebrity Cruises diner with elements of surprise."

Among high-design touches: Qsine's menu will be a large, backlit square; wait staff will wear custom-made asymmetrical jackets with square buttons; desserts will be showcased in a menu described as a hinged, twistable cube.

Qsine will be open nightly on Celebrity Eclipse from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. There will be no age restriction for entry, as there is with some other Celebrity eateries, and the dress code will be smart casual and above.

The restaurant will be located in the space that houses Asian eatery Silk Harvest on earlier Solstice Class ships.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Carnival 'Glory' Returns to Duty after Major Refurbishment

Hotel Interactive

The 2,974-passenger Carnival Glory has resumed Caribbean service from Miami following a multi-million-dollar renovation that added a host of new facilities and features, including a Serenity adults-only retreat, a 270-square-foot Seaside Theatre poolside LED screen, and a Circle “C” facility for 12- to 14- year olds. 

Eighteen new balconies were also incorporated onto existing ocean view staterooms and a new Mongolian wok venue was added to the casual poolside restaurant.  Bow-to-stern Wi-Fi access was added, as well.

From February to May, Carnival Glory operates seasonal seven-day cruises departing from Miami, alternating weekly to the eastern and western Caribbean. Seven-day eastern Caribbean cruises visit Half Moon Cay, St. Thomas, San Juan and Grand Turk, while the western route features Grand Cayman, Isla Roatan, Belize and Cozumel.

The ship will then be deployed to New York where it will offer a series of four- and five-day Atlantic Canada cruises from June 6 – September 6, 2010, followed by a series of seven-day Canada/New England cruises, from September 11 – October 9. 

 “We are constantly looking for ways to improve and expand our product to deliver fun and memorable vacations to our guests while at the same time offering exceptional value,” said Gerry Cahill, Carnival’s president and CEO. “The new Seaside Theatre, adults-only area and Circle ‘C’ facility, which are all available to our guests on a complimentary basis, serve to enhance an already terrific, value-packed vacation choice,” he added.

New Seaside Theatre

Located poolside on Lido Deck is Carnival Cruises new “Seaside Theatre,” a massive 270-square-foot LED screen displaying movies, concerts, sporting events, and other programming, including the popular “Morning Show” hosted by the ship’s cruise director.  Utilizing the same technology featured in large stadiums and New York’s Times Square, the state-of-the-art entertainment system includes a 70,000-watt sound system, providing concert quality sound, even outdoors.

New Balcony Accommodations

During dry dock, 18 new balconies were added to existing Spa Deck accommodations, creating spacious 220-square-foot verandah staterooms. They are conveniently located next to the ship’s 14,500-square-foot “Spa Carnival” facility offering sophisticated exercise equipment, expansive workout facilities and a variety of soothing European-style treatments. 

With the addition of these newly reconfigured staterooms, nearly 40 percent of the Carnival Glory’s 1,487 cabins now feature private balconies.

New Adults-Only Retreat

Another popular feature added during the dry dock is Serenity, a two-level adults-only retreat located forward on Sun Deck and Sky Deck. Designed as an oceangoing oasis for relaxation, with decorative latticework and teak-style decking, this area features different styles of seating, including shaded sun loungers and hammocks, a full bar, and two oversized whirlpools.

Circle “C” Facility for 12- to 14-Year-Olds A new Circle “C” facility catering to 12- to 14-year-olds has been added as part of the line’s unique offerings for kids. The center features a high-tech sound and lighting system, plasma-screen TVs displaying movies and music videos, a touch-screen jukebox, and gaming pods with the latest video games and consoles.

Dining Enhancements

A new Mongolian wok option was added to the Carnival Glory’s Red Sail casual restaurant located poolside on Lido Deck. At the new venue, guests can select their favorite meat, sauce, vegetables and other ingredients and watch as a chef creates their custom-designed stir fry dish right before their eyes.

Additionally, the Golden dining room, located forward, was reconfigured for Your Time Dining providing guests the option of open seating between 5:45 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. nightly.  

Monday, February 22, 2010

Celebrity Cruises introduces 'Celebrity iLounge'

Travel Daily News

With the launch of its new brand platform, "Designed for you," last month, Celebrity Cruises reinforced its commitment to delivering the ultimate combination of ship design, service, cuisine and programs for cruise lovers. And today, it announced plans for a new venue whose design, products and programming are sure to appeal to today's cruisers.

When Celebrity Eclipse - the third in Celebrity Cruises' stylish Solstice Class fleet of ships - launches in April, guests will find the first "Celebrity iLounge." Designed to not only offer a hip, modern lounge ambience, Celebrity also created the space to offer what its guests said they wanted most in an Internet cafe: easy access to the Internet, inspiring classes and new products.

The Celebrity iLounge is composed of three main areas: a series of 26 contemporary workstations where guests can check their e-mail, retain their social media connections, or print boarding passes; a retail space offering cruisers the opportunity to see and try out the latest MacBooks(R), iPods(R) and accessories; and an enrichment center where certified staff will offer guests tips on Mac or iPod usage.

"Our new Celebrity iLounge is a direct outgrowth of our 'Designed for you' brand platform, and our commitment to listen to our guests and offer experiences and programs expressly designed for them," said Celebrity's President and CEO Dan Hanrahan. "Our surveys show that our guests rely heavily on the Internet for research, learning and staying in touch, so we think this new offering will be a big hit, as will the contemporary online classes offered through the 'Discover' series of our inspiring and enriching 'Celebrity Life' experiences."

Enhancing the "Discover" component of its "Celebrity Life" series of inspiring enrichment and entertainment experiences, Celebrity will offer in the Celebrity iLounge a series of engaging new courses designed to suit its guests' interests - including do-it-yourself photo books, movie editing and web design, through programs including iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD and iWeb. And whether guests are savvy or novice users of Mac or iPod products, Celebrity's certified staff will be well-equipped to assist, following more than 125 hours of training in operating systems, applications, and products. They also will be poised to illustrate to guests the differences between Macs and PCs.

Guests eager to expand their collection of merchandise will find the Celebrity iLounge an enticing venue, too. As an Authorized Apple Reseller, Celebrity will have products available for guests to purchase, including iPods, MacBooks, and essential accessories.

Located on deck six of Celebrity Eclipse, the Celebrity iLounge will house the 26 MacBook Pro's, classroom and retail area, in addition to display pods, a 56-inch flat-screen TV for use during classes, and an accessible workstation.

The Celebrity iLounge also will be presented on Celebrity Silhouette, which launches in 2011, and the fifth ship in the Solstice Class fleet, which sets sail in 2012.

Celebrity Cruises is designed for discerning cruisers, with modern, sophisticated environments, impeccable service, enriching and inspiring onboard programs, and world-class cuisine. The ultimate in premium cruising, Celebrity sails on Alaska, Bermuda, California, Canada/New England, Europe, the Pacific Coast, Panama Canal, South America cruises, and year-round in the Caribbean and the Galapagos Islands. Celebrity also offers immersive cruisetour experiences in Alaska, Canada, Europe and South America. Celebrity's mega-series of honors include being named the top mega-ship line in Conde Nast Traveler's annual Readers' Choice Awards (November 2009). Celebrity's fleet currently consists of nine ships. Its $3.7-billion investment in building five stylish Solstice Class ships between 2008-2012 represents the largest newbuild commitment for a single brand in industry history.