River Cruises Return to the Mississippi
This year, river cruising returns to the Mississippi River in a big way. Since 2008, river cruises on the Miss have been nearly non-existent. But recently three companies have brought the concept back to life, launching new and refurbished ships on a broad array of Southern and Midwest routes.
In April, an American Queen paddleboat will resume service, carrying up to 436 passengers. In more good news, its owner The Great American Steamboat Company, announced this week that construction has started on a 150-passenger paddlewheel ship. One sample deal is a 6-night voyage May roundtrip from New Orleans, plus 1 hotel night, from $1,695 per guest. greatamericansteamboatcompany.com
In August, American Cruise Lines' new 150-passenger Queen of the Mississippi will introduce a range of cruises, with a few lasting up to 14 days and sailing up to St. Paul, Minn., or Pittsburgh (via the Ohio River), and typically starting in Memphis. It’s been 15 years since the last new ship came into service on the Mississippi. americancruiselines.com
Give credit where credit is due: This trend in Mississippi cruising was kickstarted last year by Blount Small Ship Adventures, which ran three departures on the 96-passenger Grand Caribe. This year, the company is back, offering double the number of cruises over last year. One current offer is for a twelve-day cruise from New Orleans to Nashville, from $3,699 per couple. blountsmallshipadventures.com
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Disney Fantasy Cruise Ship Becoming Reality: A First Look
The 4,000–passenger Disney Fantasy cruise ship is under construction at the Meyer Werft shipyard in Papenburg, Germany. Budget Travel was invited to see the work in progress. The ship debuts in March, cruising from Port Canaveral (near Orlando). CLICK HERE FOR A SNEAK PEEK INSIDE THE NEW CRUISE SHIP The Disney Fantasy is a sister ship to last-year's Disney Dream. And let's face it, it's hard to top a ship (Dream) that received much–deserved fanfare for its first–ever water coaster at sea and such high tech innovations as cabins with Magical Portholes for virtual views and artwork that springs to life with animation. All that good stuff remains—including the Aqua Duck coaster, a 765-foot long twisting ride above the upper decks. But Fantasy also stands alone as the first Disney Cruise Line ship built specifically for week–long itineraries—Dream as well as the earlier 1,754–passenger Disney Magic and Disney Wonder were designed for three- and four-day cruises, which passengers would combine with a theme park stay. The tweaks on Fantasy mostly reflect the ship as its own destination—with more for passengers to do on their shipboard vacation. Here's what's new: FUN FOR KIDS Kids of course will get star treatment on the ship with activities day and night including at the Oceaneer Club and Oceaneer Lab (for kids ages 3–11). There are separate clubs for 'tweens and teens, and the ship also has a nursery. Little is changed in these spaces from Dream—but it was fun touring a construction site with giant "Toy Story" characters already in place. On the open decks, new features include AquaLab, a wet play area for families with two–dozen water jets, leaking walls with holes kids can try to plug, a leaky boat and spill buckets. Despite the fact most of the features weren't yet in place on our shipyard tour, it was easy to imagine squeals of delight from kids. Cleverly, there's a parental viewing area above for any adults who don't want to get wet. At the popular Animator's Palette, where the dinner show features animation, including a talking "Crush," we got a preview of a cool new feature that will allow guests to create a cartoon character on their placemats and see it automated as part of the show—your creation will march, dance and wave with Mickey and other animated Disney characters on the restaurant's video screens. This will no doubt awe the kiddies, and many adults too (pre–debut the software has already won a peer award). DISNEY CHARACTERS Of course there will be plenty of opportunity for kids to spot Mickey and Minnie et al around the ship including in the fanciful Art Nouveau–inspired atrium lobby—where a bronze statue of Mademoiselle Minnie in vintage attire will provide the must–do photo opp. Lest you think Disney would miss a marketing opportunity, "The Muppets," including Fozzie and Gonzo, will be shipboard too—as part of an interactive video game that has kids uncovering clues hidden in animated artwork around the ship to solve a mystery. ADULTS-ONLY Across the ship, above the adults–only pool (there are also pools for families and kids) is another new wet spot, a small family wading pool that will entertain with mist and bubbles. New shaded areas nearby will hold loungers for those who want ocean breezes without sun. Above that is a new wet schmoozing spot for adults, a 24–inch deep pool with a waterfall feature and circular bench where you can enjoy a drink from the nearby bar while soaking your legs. It's cleverly located around the ship's real TV satellite. RESTAURANTS / NIGHTCLUBS As on the earlier ships, the Disney Fantasy will feature the line's unique rotation dining system, which has passengers dining in three different themed restaurants, their wait staff moving along with them. A surprise when the Disney Dream debuted last year was how much space was dedicated to adult passengers—the pool area, a fancy spa, two adults–only alternative restaurants (Palo and Remy) and a nightclub area. The nighttime area is expanded even more on Fantasy, where it's Europe–themed and called Europa. Adults will beable to mingle at night in a posh champagne bar called Oooh La La, an Irish pub/sports bar called O'Gills, a Skyline bar boasting virtual skylines of major European cities and a London subway–themed disco, The Tube. You enter the district via the La Piazza lounge with a carousel bar as the centerpiece (nope, the carousel does not move). ENTERTAINMENT Moving to a seven–day cruise focus, Disney is enhancing entertainment offerings on Fantasy to include a new 45–minute Broadway–style musical, "Wishes," about the importance of adults recognizing their inner child, and featuring original music as well as numbers from "Tangled," "Pinocchio," "The Little Mermaid," and other Disney movies and TV shows. Fantasy will also debut shipboard "Disney's Aladdin—A Musical Spectacular," from Disneyland. The shows are in The Walt Disney Theatre, equipped for all sorts of stage wizardry and creative use of animation. Cruise line officials told us on the shipyard tour you'd be hard–pressed to find a more technologically advanced theatre anywhere. Another new feature may not appeal to parents on a budget. At the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique and The Pirates League (inspired by similar venues at the Disney parks), kids will be able to get a complete Disney princess or pirate makeover including costume, hair, makeup and accessories–paying for each item you say "yes" to. As on the other ships, "Mickey's Pirates IN the Caribbean" is a highlight deck party with fireworks—costumes optional. ITINERARY/PRICES The Disney Fantasy will sail from Port Canaveral on week–long cruises alternating eastern (St. Maarten and St. Thomas) and western (Grand Cayman, Costa Maya, Cozumel, Mexico) Caribbean itineraries. All the cruises stop at Castaway Cay, Disney's private islands in the Bahamas. Fares are from $959 per person for the first two in a cabin, less for 3rd and 4th passengers. 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"Voluncruising" Options to Consider When Booking Your Next Vacation
This week is National Cruise Vacation Week, a time for special offers and big discounts in the cruise industry. This year, it's especially fitting that Make A Difference Day (the fourth Saturday in October) closes out Cruise Week, because, as of late, increased social awareness has sparked a number of opportunities for cruisers to contribute to the communities they visit—and the volunteer options are still wide open for the last few months of 2011. Last January, Crystal Cruises began offering complimentary Crystal Cruises Voluntourism Adventure excursions as part of their "You Care, We Care" program. Projects still available in 2011 include grooming and feeding donkeys in the Donkey Sanctuary at the Antigua & Barbuda Humane Society, picking fruit for Israel's largest food bank to help feed the hungry, and assisting with daily care of turtles at the Turtle Rescue Center in Greece. Availability is extremely limited, so advance booking is highly recommended. Holland America has a similar program called Cruise With Purpose, which promotes environmental responsibility through tours and excursions. For visitors hoping to get their hands dirty (literally), the trip through Brisbane's Koala Sanctuary gives volunteers the chance to plant gum trees and to hand-feed kangaroos. Prices and availability vary, although their site indicates that several Holland ships through the end of the year will dock at Cruise With Purpose sites. Their Mexico excursion, departing from Acapulco, is from $50 for a four-hour tour that includes snacks, a drink, and the release of a baby turtle back into the ocean. A start-up called Hope Floats will make volunteer excursion arrangements for any visitor from any cruise line docking in Tortola, Antigua, St. Thomas, Barbados and St. Lucia. Activities range from cooking to beach clean-up, collaborating with 13 different charities including the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, and the Salvation Army. The administrative fee for many of their excursions is only $25 per group (up to six people), plus transportation. Founder Cathleen Huckaby has said that their website will be revamped before the end of the month, but online booking is still available. For more experienced cruise vacationers, there are plenty of resources to help volunteers design their own excursions. Together For Good has a list of organizations in popular cruise destinations all over the Caribbean—but recommend that visitors contact their chosen organization well in advance when planning their trip. —Chabli Bravo Have inside information on other voluncruising options? Tell us about it below. MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL National Cruise Vacation Week Brings Fare Deals News for Solo Cruisers Your Money-Saving Cruise Questions—Answered!
How to Avoid Flights That May Get Canceled
Anyone who says it's about the journey, not just the destination, has never stood at an airport gate and learned that their flight is canceled. Last month, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report about whether airlines are canceling more flights now than before. The answer: Yes. Federal number crunchers looked at airline cancellation records for the heavy travel months of May through September of 2010 and compared them with the records for May through September 2009. The GAO findings: Cancellations have been becoming more frequent. Last summer, flights parked at the gate were 24 percent more likely to be canceled than during the previous summer. Even worse, flights stuck on the tarmac for about one hour were 31 percent more likely to be canceled. Airlines usually blame the weather because bad weather is a "get out of jail free" card for the airlines: government regulation allows them to do pretty much whatever they want with a passenger if the weather goes bad—or the airline claims that the weather goes bad. That said, only one out of every 100 flights gets canceled, on average, according to the Department of Transportation. Yet if you're in that one percent, you're out of luck, because most flights are fully booked these days: It can take a long time for an airline to find an open seat for you on another flight and rebook you. So, how do you avoid getting stuck on a flight that will get canceled? Some guidelines: •When shopping for flights, compare the on-time arrival statistics for the flights you're considering. If your online travel agency or airline website doesn't reveal that information, you can look it up flight by flight at FlightStats. Say you're planning to take American (AA) flight 1012 from Miami to Washington, D.C.,'s Reagan National Airport and want to see how often it is delayed. Punch in the airline and flight number, and voilà—flight 1012 was delayed last year an average of half the time and canceled 3 percent of the time (much higher than the industry average of 1 percent). Be willing to pay a little more for a flight with a better track record. Think of it as an insurance premium for a stress-free trip. • Opt for the nonstop flight, even if it costs more—because nonstops are less likely to be canceled Some past research by the academic Jing Xiong has shown that airlines are less likely to cancel longer distance flights. • The best time to fly domestically is nine in the morning. Because morning flights are less likely to be delayed or canceled than later ones, because you miss rush hour, and because you don't have to wake up before your dog needs walking. • Avoid flights at "feeder" airports. In Budget Travel's experience, major US airlines tend to cancel flights from smaller airports, such as Albany, NY, that head into major hubs, such as Newark, when they have had a backlog of flights at the major hub. • The best time to fly internationally is several hours before your departure airport closes for the night. Flying to Europe? Try and catch a flight leaving the US at 6 in the evening instead of at 10 in the evening. Because late night flights are more likely to be delayed than earlier ones. The reason: Some airports stop flying after a certain hour to lower the noise volume for local residents. • Be on a full flight with lots of business-class passengers instead of a half-empty flight with mostly economy-class passengers. True, this tip isn't all that helpful if you don't know much information about the route you're flying. Here's why this information matters: A doctoral student at the University of California at Berkeley, Jing Xiong, studied 8,269 delayed domestic flights and found that half-empty flights are much more likely to be canceled during foul weather than full flights. Your flight is even more likely to be canceled during a storm if you have fewer business class passengers on board than other planes at the gate do. If poor weather forces an airline to choose between flying two different planes, it will typically choose the one with bigger spending passengers. • Avoid hubs at "rush hour," whenever possible. Skip the peak travel times at America's largest airports—Atlanta Hartsfield, Chicago O'Hare, Boston Logan, Dallas-Fort Worth, and all three New York City airports. At La Guardia, for instance, airlines were recently scheduling dozens more flight operations in each 15-minute period during peak periods than federal authorities would allow air traffic control to handle. Despite following all the above strategies, your flight may still be canceled. (As the saying goes, "If I didn't have bad luck, I wouldn't have any luck at all.") What do you do then? • Travelers with only carry-on bags will be rebooked more quickly. Don't check a bag if you want to be able to switch flights at the last minute. Because trying to get your bag off one plane and onto another is a hassle for the airline. • Be ready to call your airline. Savvy travelers know to program into their cell phone the toll-free number for their airline before their trip. (Traveling overseas? Know that you may not be able to dial a US-based toll free number, such as a 800 or 888 number, from a cell phone overseas and will need to know the special number the airline has for international callers.) Then, when you find out your flight is canceled jump into line for rebooking but also whip out your cell phone and call customer service for quick alternatives on other airlines. If all goes to well, you'll reach someone on the phone who isn't facing an angry mob and can rebook you before anyone else. • Insist on same-day standby. If your flight is cancelled, and you're told you can be booked on the same flight the next day, ask to be put on the standby list—even if you're told they're full for the rest of the flights that day. • Flying in Europe? Be sure to collect your full benefits if your flight is canceled from meals to phone calls to lodging. Last week, the European Union fattened the amount of compensation that airline passengers are entitled to as compensation for canceled flights to include taxi rides and housing their pets in kennels. • Stay polite. Outrage will get you nowhere when it comes to coping with cancellations. Have any thoughts on canceled flights and lessons learned the hard way? Share them in the comments. If we learn tips from each other, we will someday truly be able to say with a smile, "it's about the journey, not just the destination." SEE MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL: World's Weirdest Hotels World's Weirdest Hotels, Part Deux World's Weirdest Hotels 3.0
Why You Should Consider a Shoulder-Season Cruise
Shoulder season, n. 1. A brief period when weather conditions and travel costs fall between the highs of high season and the lows of low season. 2. In other words: nice weather, fewer crowds, great prices. 3. Start packing. There is no off-season in the cruise world, at least there's not supposed to be. That's why twice a year, in early spring and late fall, cruise lines move their fleets—from Alaska to the Caribbean, say, or from the Mediterranean to the Middle East—to ensure that it's always sunny (or at least warm) on deck. Ten years ago, these "deadhead" sailings rushed from one high-season destination to another, often without passengers. Now slowed down and known as repositioning cruises, they have become a leisurely genre for folks in search of unusual itineraries. You'll spend fewer days in port than on a traditional cruise—speed is still paramount, after all—but the trips are hardly bare bones. Lines often add special guest lectures and performers to keep passengers from going stir-crazy—Carol Channing sang on a Royal Caribbean repositioning cruise in 2009. And the reduced rates will give you a warm feeling, even if it is a tad chilly outside. MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL: Your Top 5 Money-Saving Cruise Questions—Answered! Introducing the New "All You Can Drink" Cruise Confessions of...A Cruise Ship Musician
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