River cruise growth outpacing ocean cruises
In the past 10 years, the number of passengers taking river cruises has grown by 15 percent, and while the overall numbers (261,000 annually) pale in comparison to ocean cruising (10.7 million annually), the numbers of big-boat cruisers have only grown by 5.4 percent, according to Cruises Line International Association.
I recently had the chance to meet and talk with Torstein Hagen, the Chairman of Viking River Cruises, which won our annual Readers' Choice Award in 2010. (The 2011 poll is currently live through April 15 and you can cast your vote here; Viking is currently coming in second to Avalon Waterways.)
As ocean cruises have added on more and more services for customers (water slides, ice bars, zip lines), river cruises have had to be more selective with their offerings. On a 95-cabin boat there's only so much space, and there are very strict limitations in terms of length and depth. "We don't try to be everything to everyone," Hagen told me. (Viking, however, is forging a new path in 2012, with four new boats, the Longships, that have 200 square foot balconies attached to each and every cabin—an innovation in the river cruise world).
More central, perhaps, to the increasing appeal of river cruises is the true all-inclusive nature of the pricing structure. While ocean cruise lines sell their itineraries at a low cost, once you're aboard, you'll be upsold on everything from coffee beverages to merchandise. (The one exception is Royal Caribbean, which is now selling an 'all you can drink' cruise.) Meanwhile, a higher ticket price for a river cruise doesn't have any surprises: fuel surcharges, WiFi, daily shore excursions—they're all included.
When I asked Viking's Hagen if you could pick up your own bottle on one of your daily walks about a picturesque European town and bring it to dinner, he acknowledged that there technically is a $6 corkage fee, "but you'll never actually get charged. In fact," he said, waving his hand toward Richard Marnell, the Senior Vice President of Marketing for Viking, "let's just do away with that once and for all. Done!"
If you haven't yet voted for your favorite River Cruise Line, you can do so here.
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Once in a lifetime cruise, once in a lifetime price
Not to sound like a broken record, but Chile's can't-miss travel opportunities just keep on coming. The latest deal to catch our eye is a $690 three-night sail through Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego—the type of trip that generally qualifies as a major splurge—on Cruceros Australis's new 100-cabin Stella Australis vessel. (Let's call this, then, a minor splurge.) The trip departs from southern Chile's Punta Arenas and winds through the Strait of Magellan, Ainsworth Bay, and Alakaluf Fjord (among others), passing glaciers, waterfalls, and—if you're lucky—elephant seals en route to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. And while the relatively roomy cabins, starting around 178 square feet, have generously sized floor-to-ceiling windows for taking in all that dramatic scenery, the cruise also includes glacier-trekking excursions and guided wildlife-watching outings on tiny inflatable Zodiac boats, so you can really get the full frozen-ends-of-the-earth effect. The rate covers an external cabin and all meals and drinks on the 4-day trip—including local Chilean and Argentine wine—and is only available for this particular April 2 departure. (The lowest normal rate for a 4-day itinerary with Cruceros is $840, making this almost a 20% savings.) Still too steep for your vacation fund? Then enter our World's Best Cruiser contest! Send evidence of your cruising expertise (packing strategies, photo galleries, a collection of souvenir seashells from tropical ports of call—the wackier the better) to firstname.lastname@example.org by March 15. The winner will receive a free cruise!! See more from Budget Travel Top 5 Money-Saving Cruise Questions Answered How to Bring Wine Back From Abroad How to Take Great Vacation Photos
Cruises: New website predicts when you should book
Buy now or wait for a better price? Cayole.com is a travel agency that uses seven months' worth of pricing records to help you make an educated guess about whether a cruise is likely to go up in cost in the "short- to medium- term." Its predictions are similar to the forecasts that bing.com/travel provides for airfares. For example, the site predicted on Sunday that prices for ocean-view cabins on four-night Bahamas cruises from Orlando, Fla., on the Royal Caribbean Monarch of the Seas are expected to go down in the short- to medium term. That would mean a likely drop from their present prices, which start at $299. Caveat: Cayole covers only about 6,500 cruises, all of which depart from the United States. It's also worth noting that specialized travel agents still have access to more inventory and discounts for cruises than any website. That said, more and more online tools are empowering consumers to make savvier decisions. MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL Readers' Choice: Tell us your favorite cruise line! (100+ comments) Should tips be automatically added to cruise passenger bills? (100+ comments) Are we ready for another Titanic? (10 comments)
Cruises: Two die on-shore in Cozumel, Mexico
Cozumel, the gorgeous Mexican cruise port, has never been more popular, attracting more than 2 million visitors last year—a record. But in recent weeks, one crew member who debarked Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas appears to have been killed on-shore by someone she knew. A passenger on the trip died after she ingested a safety pin. These events have put this Western Caribbean beach resort destination back in the headlines. Cruise lines, including Disney, have recently pulled out of a different cruise port—Mazatlan—due to concerns about violent crime there. Yet Cozumel remains safe overall, as far as major cities go, according to this TripAdvisor safety report. In many parts of Mexico, standards of security, safety, and supervision may be lower than is customary in the United States. Citizens traveling internationally should consider registering in advance with the U.S. State Department's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. In event of an emergency, your whereabouts would be easier for officials in consular agencies to determine. That said, it's important to keep safety issues in context. Crime can happen anywhere. In Mexico, the number one cause of death for Americans has been automobile accidents, followed by falls from balconies, or into unmarked ditches, by drowning. The U.S. government has not updated its travel warning—less severe than travel alert—for Mexico since September. The warning still says that resort areas, such as Cozumel, are relatively safe—but American visitors should always exercise caution while on shore anywhere in the country, and particular in northern areas affected by drug violence. As a side note: Spring breakers, in particular, should know that Mexican law can impose tough penalties for excessive drinking, drug abuse, or drug purchasing, that might be considered relatively minor in the U.S., and U.S. citizenship doesn't get you off the hook from full prosecution under Mexican law. UPDATE: I regret that my original headline sounded sensationalistic to some readers. It was: "Safety questions for cruise passengers in Cozumel, Mexico" I have changed it to the new headline above. Do you think the hype about Mexico's safety for cruise passengers is overblown? MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL Mexico: The elusive truth about safety (250+ comments) It's a prime time to visit Mexico, says this expert Mexico's tourism officials say, "C'mon in, the water's fine"
Ask Trip Coach: River cruising
For a charming, laid-back, no-hassles tour of Europe, river cruising is hard to beat. If you've ever had questions about this elegant mode of travel, send them in to us now. River cruising, while growing rapidly in popularity, is new to a lot of travelers—and that's why we're devoting an upcoming Trip Coach column to the topic. You might be wondering: What are the most scenic rivers? What are the most interesting and fun riverside villages and towns to explore? Besides Europe, where are river cruises offered? What are the differences between Avalon Waterways, Viking River Cruises, Uniworld, and other companies operating river cruises? How different is river cruising from the big-ship ocean cruise experience? And of course, how do you get the best price on a cabin? Send in your questions about river cruising, and we'll do our best to clue readers in on everything they need to know about the experience in an upcoming issue of Budget Travel.