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Cruises


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Jan 06, 2008

This is it. The year you finally get off the couch and take that long-awaited cruise.

To find out what the industry has new for this year, we caught up with Alan Wilson, editor of Cruise News Daily, who, fittingly, was getting off the Norwegian Gem.

"The two newest ships in the U.S. market are Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Gem, which just arrived in the U.S. for its winter season, and Cunard's Queen Victoria, which will replace QE2," Wilson said.

The Norwegian Gem holds 2,384 passengers and a crew of 1,154, and features the line's "freestyle" cruising concept, in which guests can dine in any of the 12 restaurants, in casual attire, at times of their own choosing. The ship sails out of New York, with cruises to the Bahamas, Florida and the southern Caribbean.

The 90,000-ton Queen Victoria has room for 2,250 passengers and a crew of 1,253, adding to the fleet of mega-ships circling the globe. To check out the ship's spectacular interiors, take a virtual tour with Capt. Paul Wright at cunard.com.

Carnival's latest addition, Carnival Splendor, is the largest Fun Ship, with room for 3,006 passengers. It also boasts the largest spa and fitness facility in the Carnival fleet, with 21,000 square feet.

Which brings a rookie cruiser to his first question. Is a bigger ship better?

"Bigger might be better for some people," Wilson replied. "Others prefer the smaller ships. It's just a matter of personal preference, like the difference between big hotels and small hotels.

"The bigger ships have more facilities, but smaller ships are more intimate. Often the appeal of smaller ships is that the staff gets to know you, and you get to know other passengers."

While a bigger ship may offer ice skating, rock climbing and live theater and music shows, a smaller ship can maneuver into less crowded ports of call. Visiting, say, Ketchikan in Alaska when three ships are docked side by side often means that cruisers outnumber residents in the city of about 8,000.

Wilson suggested reading up on the industry before deciding on a ship and itinerary. He recommended Fodor's cruise-related guide books, which are published by region, and Stern's Guide to the Cruise Vacation (Steven B. Stern, Pelican Publishing Co., 832 pages, $22.50)

"From there, I'd make a couple of choices and go to a travel agent who specializes in cruises," he said. "You can discuss your choices and compare prices and value. The agent can handle all the details of booking and make sure you understand what you are buying."

An experienced agent can help you decide whether to pay extra for a balcony, or go with the cheapest inside stateroom, and explain the range and cost of shore excursions, which can add considerably to the price of a cruise.

CRUISING WITH

the blues

While cruising is often a bargain when compared to a vacation at a land-based resort, Wilson said the trend in pricing seems to be going up. He offered two strategies for getting the best deals.

If you have specific dates or want to get on a specific ship, he advised to book as early as possible. "As each sailing fills, the cruise lines keep raising the price, so the early bookers tend to get the best prices overall," he said.

But if you are flexible on the dates, a cruise line often will drop prices on a sailing as its departure nears and rooms are still available. "This usually happens at about the 60- and 30-day mark before sailing," Wilson said. "But you have to keep in mind that these cabins are the leftovers."

And the wait-and-see strategy can result in no discounts if the ship fills up. "You could end up with paying a lot higher price than you would have nine months earlier, or end up with nothing at all," Wilson said.

While some cruisers pick an itinerary based on the ports visited, others may opt for a theme-oriented cruise, which can include anything from culinary classes and ballroom dancing to sailing with the stars.

The Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise (bluescruise.com) recently released the lineup for its Oct. 5-12 cruise and it included Etta James, Dr. John, Los Lobos, Koko Taylor and Elvin Bishop. Sixthman (sixthman.net), which specializes in entertainment cruises, has a Caribbean cruise Feb. 4-10 with Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin, John Hiatt and Patty Griffin onboard, and ocean-view rooms starting at $974 a person, based on double occupancy.

For the well-to-do in search of enrichment, Crystal Cruises (crystalcruises.com) is offering a 108-day world cruise that visits 45 ports in 22 countries with "how to" lectures along the way on improving your memory, practicing yoga, sleeping better and money management. The cost starts at $49,800 a person, based on double occupancy.

STRETCHING THE DOLLAR

Wilson said the biggest industry trend this year is globalization — the rest of the world has caught on to cruising, and the lines are reaching out to customers in Europe, Asia, Australia and South America.

Carnival Corp, the largest cruise company in the world, is putting most of its new ships in its European brands, and Royal Caribbean, another major player, is also basing more ships in faraway ports.

"The North American market is still growing, and getting some new ships," Wilson said. "But other parts of the world are growing faster and willing to pay more for their cruises. Ultimately, this will mean Americans will be paying more for their cruises."

Because of the decline of the dollar, Americans who want to visit Europe are finding cruises to be the most economical method. They have paid for their room and board in dollars before leaving, and find no currency surprises overseas.

"Not only is there the convenience of the ship taking them from port to port and only having to unpack once, but everything is paid for in dollars," Wilson said. "Currently, it's a much less expensive way to tour Europe."

The lines also are looking elsewhere for ports because popular destinations like Grand Cayman, Jamaica and Cozumel in Mexico are becoming crowded with ships. Carnival, for example, has opened a port at Grand Turk in the eastern Caribbean and brought in tour operators who offer shore activities like dune buggy excursions and horseback riding in the ocean.

Costa Cruises is offering new itineraries in the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. "You can be the first on your block to sail from Mauritius," Wilson said.

stltoday.com

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