As the cool weather approaches, and visions of tropical islands dance in our heads, a great many Americans are finally aware that the cheapest way to achieve those dreams is on a cruise.
For as little as $1,400 to $1600 per person (if you're paying the standard catalogue price), and sometimes averaging out to cost less than $75 a day (if you're lucky enough to find a discount), the cruise lines will fly you to Miami or San Juan, place you in a modest but thoroughly comfortable cabin (you'll scarcely spend any time there), and then sail you from island to island for seven days as they ply you with constant food and entertainment.
Even more affordable are the drive-cruise vacations, which have seen considerable growth in the post-9/11 world. For at least the short term (the trend will likely end in spring 2003), many cruise lines upped the number of cruises departing from ports that are easy for huge populations to drive to: New York, Boston, Charleston, Baltimore, Galveston, San Francisco, Seattle, Tampa, New Orleans, and the like. This way, people who prefer not to fly can still take a cruise, often for less than the price of the traditional fly-cruise vacation. No matter whether you fly or drive before beginning your cruise, often what you'll find is a remarkable, rub-your-eyes value, available at that level nowhere else in travel.
Put aside the possibility that these low prices are the product of substandard wages paid to the Emerging World sailors who staff the ships (see "Slave labor on the loveboats?" in the "Testy Opinions" area of this Web site or that massive government subsidies to European shipbuilders permit the vessels to be built for costs no U.S. shipyard can currently match. However they do it, more than 100 large cruiseships are not only offering low and moderate rates (even in the luxury class,) but a broad variety of bargain rates for every purse, and an even broader array of new, low-cost travel itineraries or themes, both colorful and complex. Consider ten separate cruise developments:
1. The continued erratic appearance of secret discounts
As if we were a broken record, we've been pointing out for a dozen years that it's exceedingly unwise (polite understatement) to pay the published price for a cruise. There has been a major "sea change", so to speak in this regard, thanks to a crackdown by the cruiselines on cruise discounters. Norwegian Cruise Lines, Celebrity, and Carnival all announced in the fall of 2004 that they would no longer be allowing travel agents to rebate their commissions; or to buy group cabins at a discount and then resell them to the public. This has led to a severe diminuition of discounts, especially on these lines. But many discounters are still doing what they've always done for sailings on the other lines, and there are still major price breaks to be had.
Where do you get the discounted rates? From retail travel agents specializing or heavily into cruises or from so-called cruise-brokers; they all offer unpublished rates. As well, an online site called Cruise Compete serves as a reverse auction site for many of these agencies, allowing users to put in which dates they wish to cruise and various travel agents to bid for their business. The system works quite well actually.
Why do the cruiselines, unlike the airlines, handle their discounting in that clandestine manner? Beats me. But if you'd like examples of the savings available from favored outlets, call such travel agents as the ones listed in our Top Cruise Consolidators section of this chapter.
2. A growing variety of ships
Hard on the heels of several mega-monster cruiseships carrying as many as 2,600 passengers apiece, comes a newer wave of small ships limited to between 100 and 250 passengers, "exploration" cruiseships (capable of entering small coves) of such as the Seaquest company, the sleek vessels of Windstar Cruises, and a number of others. (Some say the trend is a backlash against the oversized ships, with their atrium lobbies more resembling a hotel at sea than a boat.) Though the small new ships aren't rock-bottom in price, they're generally less expensive than the larger luxury ships whose standards they emulate. Even on an ultra-deluxe, one-week cruise, suites sell for as little as $350 and $450 a night per person (published) and occasionally for as little as $250 to $350 a night per person (through discounters). Thus, in just about any reasonable price range, you now have a choice of tiny, small, medium-sized, large, and monstrous vessels.
3. The growth of "drive market" cruises
As spelled out above, many cruise lines post-9/11 have adjusted their itineraries allowing more ships to depart from drive-friendly ports such as New York, Boston, Mobile, New Orleans, and Galveston, to accommodate travelers preferring not to fly. It make take longer to get the more popular cruise destinations, but the cruise lines have tapped into an eager market who'd rather drive over fly before hopping aboard a ship.
4. The rebirth of the passenger-carrying freighter
There's yet another cruise alternative. Having all but disappeared about a decade ago, freighter sailings have made a remarkable comeback and are now available on no fewer than forty vessels going to all inhabited areas of the world. The reason: Increasing computerization of freighter operation has lessened the need for crew and made their cabins available for passengers, at rates that can run as low as $80 a day per person, but more usually hover around $100 to $110. For a totally comprehensive list of all such ships, their dates of departure, prices, and destinations, contact Freighter World Cruises, Inc., (180 South Lake Avenue, Suite 335, Pasadena, CA 91101, 626/449-3106 or 800/531-7774, Web: freighterworld.com).
5. The "explosion" of itineraries
Time was (and not that many years ago) when nearly all cruise ships went to Bermuda and the Bahamas in winter, and to the Caribbean in summer. Then came the discovery--probably by a junior cruiseline employee--that it costs no more to operate ships in other seas of the world; only the airfare for getting there rises by a relatively insignificant amount. And thus it came about that cruiselines today, in their fierce competitive struggle, vie with one another in offering exotic cruise destinations for not much more than they charge for the standard one-weeker to St. Thomas/St. Croix/St. Kitts. Southeast Asia is coming on strong (four lines now cruise there), as are cruises to the lengthy coastlines of Africa and India, the Antarctic, South America and the South Seas. Europe's Mediterranean has returned to popularity, but this time supplemented by cruises of the North and Baltic Seas, especially to port cities of Eastern Europe. If you've "had it" with steel bands, straw hat souvenirs, and tours of the "Governor's Mansion"--the staple of Caribbean cruising--you now have countless cruise alternatives to areas far less heavily touristed.
6. The boom in "theme cruises"
Along with this expansion in itineraries has come a vastly greater schedule of activities at sea, almost always at no extra charge to the basic tariff. Movies have been joined by full-scale stage shows; ocean skeet shooting now takes a rear seat to spa-style aerobics and yoga meditation; and "theme" cruises--extra heavy attention to styles of music, historical periods, food specialties, murder-mystery, square dancing, lectures by athletes, chefs, poets, and inspirational psychologists--are numbered in the dozens. Another popular theme cruise in recent times, even though it carries an extra fee? Sailings for spouses of either sex who really don't enjoy cruises, and therefore spend their time on board learning computer software programs.
7. The bonanza of wind-driven cruises
Low-cost cruising (a current average of $110 to $150 a day per person) with 80-or-so other passengers in a sail-powered "tall ship" was the breakthrough idea of Windjammer Barefoot Cruises in the early 1960s; it presently operates seven 200-to-230-foot ships. When competition arrived in the late 1980s, it took the form of high-priced and extremely elegant ships (upwards of $350 and $400 a day per person). Wonder of wonders, a mid-priced line ($200 to $225 a day, on average) operating the Star Clipper and Star Flyer has recently emerged on the scene for unpretentious people who nevertheless crave the creature comforts that Windjammer doesn't always provide. Here's the beginning of what may become a major segment of the cruiseship industry, best analyzed by phoning "Star Clippers" at 800/442-0551 or go online to starclippers.com for literature.
8. The "slightly longer" cruise
The length of the voyage is also undergoing change. After years of almost exclusively operating 3-night, 4-night and 7-night cruises some lines are clearly moving toward a 10-night and 11-night pattern, at prices that capitalize on the obvious economies involved in such a step (for one thing, air fare to the embarkation point is amortized over more days). The now defunct Fantasy Cruises was among the first to experiment in 10- and 11-nighters followed by its sister company Celebrity Cruises whose Mercury, Galaxy and Zenith periodically traverse the Panama Canal and surrounding areas on 14- and 15-night stints (the line's Horizon also takes 10- and 11-night sails through the Caribbean in Spring). For that matter, the number of four- and five-night cruises has also increased over the past two years, so overall there is more of a variety out there in terms of cruise length than in the past.
9. A rush to the Antarctica
In a spurt of new activity, a handful of cruise lines (including Holland America, Orient, and Society Expeditions) now take hardy adventurers to that frigid continent during its relatively "warm" time of late December, January and February; and for the first time, they include larger vessels normally carrying from 400 to 800 passengers apiece. Use of so large a ship drops the cost to starting at around $5,500-plus-airfare per person for a two-week Antarctic expedition. Note, though, that environmentalists have decried the introduction of that many people to a largely untouched and undisturbed terrain.
10. All (not) inclusive cruises
In the past, cruisers could be reasonably sure that nearly everything onboard (except drinks) was included in a "one-time" price. Not so anymore. Some cruisers now pay one price for their cruise and port fees, which includes accommodations and standard dining, and then they are charged extra for other optionals onboard. Eating in certain upscale restaurants onboard costs extra on some cruises. Also, many of the trendy new activities on cruises, such as the rock-climbing wall or miniature golf, often incur a fee. So, before booking, ask questions about what is, and what isn't, included in the "one-time" price.
What makes cruising so popular? No daily packing and unpacking, one price for everything, multiple destinations, remarkable value. But there can be too much of a good thing. That's why cruiselines have taken a once-simple activity and added a multitude of complex options, alternatives, and formats. In the process, they've now created a custom-cruise for everyone, and I find that good news.