Having completed its maiden voyage along the French and Italian Riviera last summer, EasyCruiseOne--the orange ship owned by EasyEntrepreneur Stelios Haji-Ioannou--is now sailing among the Caribbean islands of Barbados, St. Vincent, Martinique, Bequia, Grenada, and St. Lucia. Cabins start at $16 a night, and while a typical cruise lasts one week, passengers can book anywhere from 2 to 14 nights (easycruise.com).
Don't miss the boat
EasyCruise docks by day and sails by night. The ship is supposed to stay in port until midnight. But sometimes it leaves earlier, due to weather; a sign next to the security officer on the boarding deck has the day's return time. There's a half-hour window before the boat pushes off.
Ask for deck five or six
You choose the class of cabin when you book--there are four--but specific cabins aren't assigned until check-in (it's first come, first served). Decks five and six are tops, mostly because they're farthest from deck three--where people gather late at night at the reception desk in the lobby.
Don't forget to bring . . . everything
The only products you can count on are liquid soap, sheets, and towels. Here's what there isn't: an alarm clock; Internet access; magazines, books, or newspapers; a radio; or a single phone. Not all cell phones work at sea, either, so it's wise to consider a GSM model.
Redecorate as necessary
The $16 fare is for double occupancy in a standard cabin: a closet-size room with a shower, toilet, sink, and two single mattresses on the floor. "If you're cruising alone, stack one mattress on top of the other," suggests Sarah Freethy, a TV producer who spent last summer filming the ship's Mediterranean cruise and is now onboard shooting for the Travel Channel. "You'll double the floor space, plus the bottom mattress becomes a box spring."
Get to the hot tub early
Upon returning each evening, everyone makes a beeline for the Jacuzzi. Problem is, it only seats six. "Board the ship an hour before everyone is supposed to be back," says cruise director Neil Kelly. "You'll get a nice, long soak before the party gets started."
Local island food is far better, and cheaper, than the ship's pub fare. A plate of conch fritters at Dawn's Creole, a beach bar in Bequia's Lower Bay, costs only $4 (784/458-3154).
Smuggle in alcohol
All passengers are told to declare liquor upon boarding. In theory, a security officer takes your booze and returns it when you leave. But they rarely check. So he may not find that 25-ounce bottle of Eclipse rum you bought for $6 at the Mount Gay factory in Barbados (246/425-8757).
Create your own excursions
All cruise lines, including EasyCruise, charge a lot for excursions anyone can book onshore for less. Consider the ship's Friday Party Night event in Anse La Raye, St. Lucia. The fishing village on the island's west coast hosts a street party, with reggae, lobster, and rum galore. EasyCruise charges $43 to bring passengers there; alternatively, you can take the 3C bus to town for only $2, and eat and drink well for under $10.
Don't count on hand-holding
Joyce Bentzmen, a marketer from Washington, D.C., read up on which public buses to take on each island instead of taxis. In Martinique, for example, she saved $38. "EasyCruise provides an empty framework," she says. "You have to fill it in yourself."
European River Cruises
What's the experience like? Because the boats rarely carry more than 200 people--10 times fewer passengers than the average ocean liner--river cruises are decidedly more intimate. They're also less frenzied; the main activities are relaxing on deck and low-impact sightseeing. "It's neat to sit and watch people fishing, kids playing, and other boats going by," says Shirley Linde, author of The World's Most Intimate Cruises. Some of the newer riverboats do have gyms or pools, but most are without the bells and whistles of ocean cruisers. Entertainment, such as it is, comes in the form of a piano bar, cultural lectures, or the crew doing cute song-and-dance routines from their homelands. You'll be fed well, but not constantly (no 24-hour buffets). Typically there's a single restaurant serving a buffet breakfast and lunch, and a multicourse dinner with a choice of entrées. Dress is almost always casual. Can a river cruise sub for a traditional tour? Whereas big-ship cruises in Europe often stop far from the actual destination--the port of Civitavecchia, for example, is an hour from Rome--the major plus of a riverboat is that it pulls right into the middle of preserved medieval towns such as Bamberg, Germany. The downside is that these aren't big-ticket destinations. If you have your mind set on seeing the Parthenon or Big Ben, then no, a river cruise doesn't work. River cruises explore smaller towns and villages, and give a terrific feel for the Old World. Like traditional guided tours, river cruises sometimes offer special-interest itineraries that focus on wine, gardens, or classical music. But on a boat you don't have to switch hotels every few days. "It's a great way to experience different cultures," says Eike Grabowski, a travel agent from Shallotte, N.C. "I'm not crazy about getting up at 6 a.m. and putting my luggage outside the door." Where are cruises offered? Popular options are the Danube, often combined with the Main and featuring visits to castles and gothic cathedrals in Hungary, Austria, and Germany; the Elbe, which meanders through Germany and the Czech Republic and stops at Dresden, completely rebuilt from the notorious bombing in World War II; France's Rhône and Saône, taking clients through the scenic regions of Provence and Burgundy; the Seine, for Paris as well as Claude Monet's hometown of Giverny; the Po in northern Italy, frequently themed around opera; and Russia's Volga River, connecting Moscow and St. Petersburg. A more unusual choice is Portugal's Douro River, where vineyards and wild, undeveloped landscapes are the backdrop. What about barges? Barges are smaller (6 to 50 passengers), slower (max of around 5 mph vs. 12 mph on a river cruise), and are usually seen on narrow waterways, notably in France. Private groups often rent an entire barge, and because the vessels are so easy to navigate, self-drives are possible. Brokers such as The Barge Connection book self-drives starting at around $2,000 a week for a six-berth barge, as well as crewed voyages that, depending on cabin sizes, amenities, menu, and staff, cost $1,600 to $5,000 per person per week. Who's onboard? For journeys lasting 10 days or longer, the average passenger is educated, well-traveled, and over 60. Weeklong cruises attract more folks in their 40s and 50s, as well as occasional young couples. Families with children are uncommon, and some lines don't even allow anyone under 12 onboard. Will everyone speak English? Crews on all ships will speak some English, and the staff on lines such as Viking River Cruises, Uniworld, and Avalon Waterways, all of which cater to the North American market, will be fluent. Operators based on the Continent, such as CroisiEurope, attract mostly European passengers, so you may not be able to communicate with everyone. What are cabins like? Standard cabins on ships built in the 1980s can be as small as 90 square feet, while the average room on many new boats is 200 square feet. Nearly all lines offer only outside cabins, so you can expect a window and a view. The cheapest rooms are just above water level, where the scenery isn't as good. Riverboats are narrow, so they rarely have room to provide balconies. It's standard for cabins to come with a hair dryer, air-conditioning, and TV. When should I go? The peak seasons are late spring and early fall, when temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold. You'll find the cheapest prices during the iffy periods of early spring and late autumn, and some lines have discounts during the hottest weeks of July and August. (The savings might be negated because that's when airfare costs the most.) Many passengers plan their cruises according to the agricultural cycle. "If you're interested in wine, you may want to go when the grapes are being harvested in the fall," says author Linde. "And if you want to see tulips in Holland, go in April." How much? It depends on the cruise line and the season. Avalon, a middle-of-the-pack line, has a seven-night "Tulip Time" cruise through Holland and Belgium starting at $1,600 per person. Viking, which offers a similar level of luxury, lists promotions on its website, sometimes bringing rates down to less than $1,000 for a week. Grand Circle Travel, a general tour operator that markets to Americans 50 and older, offers nine different river cruises in Europe, sometimes for as little as $1,000 with airfare from New York. The international clientele of Sea Cloud Cruises are used to paying over $3,000 a week for outstanding food, sophisticated atmosphere, and huge cabins with marble floors in the bathrooms. What costs extra? The cruise price covers three meals per day, and oftentimes afternoon tea, wine at dinner, and guided excursions. Tips are not included. There'll be an envelope in your cabin for gratuities; the standard is for each passenger to leave around $10 per day--preferably in the local currency. The Barge Connection 888/550-8580, bargeconnection.com Viking River Cruises 877/668-4546, vikingrivercruises.com Uniworld 800/360-9550, uniworld.com Avalon Waterways 877/797-8791, avalonwaterways.com CroisiEurope 888/863-1212, croisieurope.com Grand Circle Travel 800/248-3737, gct.com Sea Cloud Cruises 888/732-2568, seacloud.com Peter Deilmann Cruises 800/348-8287, deilmann-cruises.com
How to Plan the Perfect Family Cruise
Before our first cruise, my husband and I wondered whether seven days in the same cabin with our children was sane or sadistic; if the kids could forgo T-shirts and sibling rivalry at our formal dinner seatings; and if we'd return fat, bored, and broke. Instead, we had one of our best vacations ever. Since then, more than eighteen years ago, we've been on many cruises together. Cruising's not perfect--the ports get flooded with "boat people," shore tours can be expensive, and the food can be mediocre--but being on a ship frees us from the usual family nemeses: packing, unpacking, schlepping suitcases and dealing with cranky children in a hot car. "Cruising is a very easy way to travel," says Barbara Koltun, a Potomac, MD clinical social worker. "Life is simple and fun. All you have to do is pick your shore tour. The rest is taken care of. You do not have to worry about what the evening's entertainment will be or how much dinner will cost and there's something for everyone to do." Last summer the Koltun's sailed to Alaska with 13-year-old Sarah and her grandparents. Like many cruisers Wayne Poverstein, a Morris Plains, NJ, high school teacher appreciates the freedom cruising affords parents and kids to do things together and apart, including eating. "Kids can get whatever they want to eat whenever they want it. Most of the time on a cruise, Shaun, at 12, 14, and 16, didn't want to be stuck in a 1 ½ to two hour dinner with us. He was interested in eating hot dogs and pizza with his new friends. And that was fine with Mary Jane and me." It's no wonder that the family market, according to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), has grown nearly 200 percent in the past five years. In 2004, CLIA projects that 1.1 million children, age 17 and younger, will have sailed, up from 1 million in 2003. But to sail on the ship of your dreams, plan ahead. You need to pick the voyage as well as the vessel that's right for your family. And so that you don't go overboard on your budget, you need to book wisely, choose shore tours carefully, and be mindful of all the extra ways cruise lines in recent years have come up with to separate you from your dollars. Choosing the right destination and cruise length Part of cruising's allure is getting what you wish for, so be honest about practical issues and whether your family prefers sand and sun, rainforests, glaciers or European capitals with 17th century churches. Caribbean cruises work well for all ages, especially with tag-alongs tots or teenagers. Give a pail and shovel to a 2-5-year-old, sit him on the sand near the water's edge, and he can dig and play for hours. Give a teen some dollars to try WaveRunners, and parasailing, and she'll be back to beg for more money before you've even read three pages of your novel. Caribbean and Scandinavian cruises can be budget-stretchers because you can forego the cost of organized shore tours and still have fun. In Jamaica, Aruba, Curacao, and other islands, simply take a taxi to a nearby beach. In Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, and Helsinki the ships dock within an easy walk or short cab ride to the city center, making it easy to stroll, window shop and find the museums. Most lines also run either complimentary or inexpensive shuttles to town. European/Scandinavian capitals, however, go over best with history-oriented pre-teens and teens. They tend to like browsing the boulevards, touring the castles, and of course, shopping the trendy stores for sweaters, jeans, and jackets. However, beware of voyages that promise London, Paris, Rome, and Florence. You'll get there but only after a 1 ½-2 hour bus ride from the port. That not only adds transportation costs, but lots of opportunity for scowls, as few tweens and teens willingly get up early then sit quietly when stuck in traffic. Alaska's best for nature loving kids age 10 plus who want to hike a glacier, dog sled, fly over an ice field, sea kayak through bays populated with seals, or take a float trip through a Bald Eagle preserve. Such active outings, on average, cost $100 or more per person, per port. Despite the expense, doing at least one of these gets you beyond the tacky port areas and into America's last, great wilderness. Feeling tentative about cruising? Then, book a three-to-four day sail, a less costly option that enables you to sample ocean life and convince yourself that you really can stomach undulating waves. However, on a short voyage you might miss one of cruising's great lures: lazy sea days for lounging and admiring the limitless horizon. Choose a children's program that fits your family's needs Children's facilities and activities not only vary from line to line but also may differ among ships flying the same flag. Most programs operate at sea from 9am to 10 pm except for meal breaks. From 10 pm to about 1:00am most lines offer group babysitting for a fee. Before you book, be sure that the kids' program functions for your age child and for your sailing. Pre-schoolers: With a non-potty-trained two-year-old, choose Carnival because their counselors change diapers. Norwegian Cruise Line's program accepts two-year-olds but counselors beep when it's time to redo the Pampers, a situation that may leave your tot wet and whining. Disney's children's program divides into a group for ages 3-4 and another for ages 4-5, a system that works well for timid youngsters who may be unused to group play. On each ship, Flounder's Reef, one of the few nurseries at sea, tends to infants as young as twelve weeks for an hourly fee. The facility has limited capacity and hours. For kids still young enough to believe in fairy dust, Disney offers dream encounters. On no other line can your kids take tea with Wendy, dance with Snow White, kiss Belle, or figure out how to help Peter Pan foil the dastardly Captain Hook. Gradeschoolers: Kids ages 6 to 12, the easiest cruisers to please, like most any program as long as they meet a new buddy. Scavenger hunts, art and crafts, and big-screen computer games play well with this crowd. Good options: Disney because of its innovative sessions in cartooning and science fun, and its sensitive grouping of ages 5-7, 8-9, and 10-12; RCI because of its caring and counselors and separate programs for six to eight year-olds and nine to eleven year-olds. Avoid NCL with children ages 8 through 12, particularly if they've sailed before. These junior cruisers will rebel against NCL's policy of only allowing teens 13- and older to sign themselves into and out of the children's program. Most lines start this self-policing policy with eight-year-olds and junior cruisers relish their new-found freedom to roam in mini-bands from the pool deck to ping pong to the pizza parlor. Unless large numbers of kids participate, both Holland America and Princess lump ages 3 to 7 together, a strategy that could make shy little ones feel overwhelmed and older kids selfconscious about being with "babies." Teens: RCI offers the best program and facilities for teenagers, the hardest passengers to keep happy. First of all, RCI separates 12-14 and 15-17-year-olds, a philosophy that acknowledges a pre-teen's non-kid status without forcing a shy eighth-grader to keep up with a seen-it-all high school junior. Secondly, RCI gives teens ample territory to meet. They can gather at the Living Room, a hang-out, or dance at Fuel, the non-alcoholic disco. The Navigator, Mariner, Monarch and Sovereign of the Seas also add the Back Deck, a teen--only fun and sun spot. Disney's also added more space for teens. Ages 13-17 years-old hang-out and dance in the Stack on the Magic, and, beginning Oct. 17, in a similar top deck club called Aloft on the Wonder. Unless large numbers of teens sign-up, Disney, Princess and Holland America mix thirteen year-olds with seventeen year-olds, an often undesirable situation. Be savvy about pricing and extra costs Brochure rates are deceptive. Often high-volume, cruise only agencies can get you the same cabin for less. Often, but not always, especially now that RCI and, starting January, Carnival, require travel agencies to offer only those rates approved by the line. "We're trying to level the playing field by offering the same rates to big agencies as well as to small agencies" says Carnival spokesperson Jennifer de la Cruz. >For the lowest rates, book with a high-volume, cruise only travel agency, whether online or over the phone, and always shop around. "We still get volume discounts from some lines," says Tara Rogers, World Wide Cruises, cruises.com. "On an NCL seven-day Caribbean cruise we can generally save a couple $250 on an inside cabin and more on a deluxe cabin. RCI still offers us discounted happy hour rates' on Tuesdays, when they try to unload inventory." High volume agencies also can often get their clients upgraded on a space available basis. "We play by the rules," notes Mark Venezia, CruisesOnly, cruisesonly.com, "but by partnering with other companies we provide added value often in the form of upgrades or cash back or shipboard credit. For example, through the end of the year if you book an NCL cruise from a port near you, you get a free $100 gas card so you can drive to the dock. And with us, you always get someone on the line. We're here 24/7." Extra Fees: It used to be that except for drinks, shore tours, gambling, spa treatments and the occasional specialty coffee, everything else onboard came with your cabin price. Not any longer. Although cruise lines haven't "unbundled" these items, charging for services and amenities once included for free, the ships now offer a range of new possibilities, each at a add-on. To avoid busting your budget, simply say "No" or just be selective. A firm talk ahead of time and a family limit on such extras as Hagen Daz ice cream Sundaes, specialty dinners, wine tastings, computer workshops, and intensive Yoga may head off some on-board conflict. Candyce H. Stapen has written 24 family travel books, including National Geographic Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations.
Confessions Of... A Cruise Agent
Does your travel agent hand out rebates? Do they have the clout to get you an upgrade? If not you may be with the wrong agency. Straight from an industry source, here are the things you need to know before you book your next cruise. Choose specialists, with special deals: When you book a cruise, it almost never pays to go to the cruise line or a regular travel agent. Sure, I'm a bit biased, but cruise specialists have what amounts to insider deals: They're responsible for 90 percent of all bookings, they have access to special blocks of rooms, and their commissions are already built into the price. What some brokers will do, if you ask, is rebate a portion of their commission to lower your fare. Cruise lines rarely discount rooms directly but still charge a 10 percent commission. It pays to wait: Travelers often look at sailing the same way they view flying--they book early, thinking they'll save. But cruise lines would rather give rooms away than sail with vacancies. Think of ships as floating Las Vegas hotels: Empty rooms mean less money spent at shops, bars, and casinos, which are where cruise ships really make their profits. If you're flexible about dates and staterooms, you can have extra poker chips in your pocket when your ship departs. Perks and changing prices: When it appears a ship might sail half empty, out come the promotions, including free upgrades and prepaid gratuities. After booking, look for even lower fares. If rates go down, call your broker. They can often get you the better price, even after you've paid.