Direct Answers to your Luxury Cruise Questions
Q - We are planning our first luxury cruise in Europe next summer. We like to research our vacations but finding the right cruise line was really challenging until we came across this site. Then, yesterday, we received the November Awards Issue from Conde Nast Traveler with whom, we believe, you have some sort of relationship. In the Ratings from Conde Nast we were surprised that Viking was rated above Regent and again in a list of smaller ships, Windstar was rated above Regent. This is in direct conflict with the ratings on your site where you have Viking and Windstar near the bottom. Our inclination is to trust you based on all of the great information you provide but we wonder why your rankings are so different that the rankings in the same magazine that has been recommending your services for year. Trust others may be confused by this "disconnect".
A - Many are confused. You are correct. People in the industry who have been studying, selling, and writing about these competing products for decades, have a clear idea as to which brands are best in terms of overall quality. We know what they spend on crew, on food, how inclusive their pricing tends to be, the size and structure of their staterooms, just how creative their itineraries are, and their level of customer service when something goes wrong. We also know that they vary in terms of safety issues and the demographics of typical guests. But then along come the annual awards from a host of consumer travel magazines and all rankings seem to be up for grabs.
The Conde Nast Ratings are called the "Reader's Choice Awards". They are not compiled by a knowledgeable team of industry editors - they are simply a tabulation of the opinions expressed by the magazine's readership. This is a practice that has been adapted by virtually every consumer travel publication. Readers like to feel included - they appreciate the opportunity to vote for their favorites. But the results of all of these polls is a collection of meaningless data. Many lines contact their past guests and ask them to vote. We have no idea about how qualified voters are - how many of the available lines have they actually sailed. In fact, there is no way to prove they have ever sailed at all. They have no means of comparison.
Viking Cruises and Windstar are two lines we are looking at closely. They are excellent lower-cost options to the ranks of top-tier cruise lines. Viking's ships are new, sleek Scandinavian minimalist beauties. They will get lots of votes in a Reader's Choice poll because their sister line dominates the river cruise segment and there is lots of brand loyalty. But neither Viking or Windstar is all-inclusive. Many services included on the better lines are not included in the fare and, quite frankly, the ships carry a different clientele.
Finally, you say that we list Viking and Windstar "near the bottom" in our ratings. They are on a very select list of the world's best cruise lines. True that more luxurious, all inclusive, products rank above them; but they are still in a very select group that does not include the three lines that represent the vast majority of cruise bookings in the United States.
We launched Cruisetruth.com because we were frustrated by the consumer's inability to find professional, untainted evaluations of the world's top ten cruise lines. We think that reader polls do a major disservice to travelers seeking objective cruise information.
Finally, we have been named to the list of "The World's Best Travel Specialists" by the Editors of Conde Nast Traveler. since 1999. We have no business relationship with the publication and we do not pay to be included on the list.
Q - I am an amateur architect, model builder, and avid reader of Scientific American. The construction of these new cruise ships has me really intrigued but I am curious about a starting point to learn more about the process. I am not expecting a lot of details but was wondering if someone on your staff could give me an overview so I have a feel for how to approach this subject. By the way, I'm 16 years old.
A - Shocking as it may seem, we do not employ any engineers with shipbuilding expertise eon our staff. We do, however, have someone who makes a decent Osso Buco. As you are the first reader under the age of 70 to correspond with us, we feel an obligation to respond as best we can. But this will be very general:
The ship is really a giant tube and so cutting holes through the tube while you are building can be risky. That is one of the major challenges faced by a team of perhaps 15-30 nautical architects working on any single project. How do you cut the tube without weakening the superstructure?
Some architects liken the ship-building process to constructing a spider web that starts in the hull section and comes up through the ship's beams. But every third or fourth web has to be supported by a huge piece of steel.
Ships are, of course, built on land and then transferred to the water. But, strange as it seems, this usually requires that separate sections of the ship are actually built upside down. This allows the workers to weld downward instead of lying down with their backs toward the ground. Finally, the entire ship is pulled out of the dry dock where it is flipped over. The ship sits within gates and once construction reaches a certain point, the gates are opened, water enters, and the ship begins to float. At this point in the process, mistakes are rather easily noted. Hope this little bit helps. Thank you for reading our site.
Q - Just when I had it all figured out and convinced our dear friends from grad school to join us, I read in the Financial Times yesterday that my first-ever, carefully selected, cruise line, Silversea, has been sold to Royal Caribbean. As Royal does not appear in the rankings of the top ten cruise lines on this site, we are extremely concerned about the possible impact of this purchase. Will Silversea ships be equipped with ferris wheels or go-kart tracks? We are prepared to cancel if that is your recommendation. We did book with Silversea so not sure we'd get a straight answer from them. I wish they had told us about this before we booked.
A - Royal Caribbean paid $1 Billion for a 66% share of Silversea. This was a mutually beneficial strategic move with the purchase of enhancing Silversea's growth int he luxury segment, particularly in the fast-growing expedition cruise market. No shipboard or management changes are going to take place anytime soon. Silversea has an experienced management team in place with two new luxury ships on order and a solid position as one of the very top luxury lines in the world. You should have zero concerns. The only direct result guests will see will likely involve an accelerated schedule of on-board upgrades and some new-build announcements. Silversea now has the financial backing to achieve a great many of its goals. There were things it could not achieve as a privately-held, family-owned business. Now, Royal Caribbean will have the funding to make some of Silversea's luxury market dreams come true.
As we mention in our announcement of this purchase in our Silversea review, RCCL paid the same price for all of Silversea that it would pay (about $1 Billion) to build one of its mega-liners. So this is seen as industry experts as a likely win-win. There is precedent for this sort of purchase. Carnival owns Seabourn and Norwegian Cruise line owns Regent Seven Seas, The lass market lines want to be in the five-star game so their guests can progress through the company to more deluxe and higher yield products. Our suggestion is that you all sleep soundly secure in the knowledge that Silversea has a lot more money in the cash register than it had one week ago. This purchase is a reason to book Silversea - not a reason to cancel.
Q - We love the San Juan round-trip itinerary announced by Sea Dream for next year. It also seems like a fantastic price given that the line is so highly-rated. We are concerned about, what others have described" as a "tired look" to the ships in terms of bedding and carpeting. We are in our late sixties, have sailed Royal Caribbean, and were wondering what you think of Sea Dream for us. In some ways it seems almost too good to be true in terms of size and what they are charging.
A - The truth is that we don;t know enough about you to render an accurate judgement. We would want you to fill out our cruise Profile and then follow-up with a discussion to determine if this is the best option for you. We can tell you that two cruise lines could not be more different than the one you have sailed and the one you are anticipating sailing. We spend a good deal of time qualifying guests who are considering Sea Dream. We would want to know how comfortable you would be in contemporary but smallish staterooms and a ship with only 100 guests when it sails full, The ships are not new. But they are regularly upgraded by their Norwegian owners. They will not win any design awards given their steady but boring contours. But the on-board service, the food, and the feeling that you are on your own private yacht, makes Sea Dream a viable option for those seeking a really excellent small ship experience.. We think of Sea Dream as a small ship but you have to imagine that their twins carry fewer guests than even the smaller size riverboats in Europe. Those who have owned their own yachts or who have friends who do are prime candidates for the Sea Dream experience. If you own a carpet store you may have some quality/design issues with the flooring in Sea Dream's public space. But, given the excellent itineraries these ships are able to sail given their size, it is more likely you will be looking out rather than down. There are no bedding issues at all based on our latest CSI inspections.
Sea Dream tends to raise the price as a sailing gets closer. Their introductory fares are often, we would agree, extremely competitive with inclusive ships carrying five or six times as many guests. Sea Dream is among the one or two best values in contemporary small-ship cruising. We can tell you that the line has a significantly higher repeat guest statistic than many other of the top-tier lines.
Q - My brother-in-law books his cruises online with Expedia and feels he gets a pretty good deal. Of course he felt that way when he paid about $2,000 over blue book for the Corvette he bought last year. I've got an agent in Dearborn (Michigan) I've been booking with for the past sixteen years. So my question is this: He got a quote for a cruise I had booked the day before. But he claims he is getting his cruise for $300 less than my agent's invoice. Any suggestions as to what I should do? I'm not as cheap as he is but still, $600 is real money. No way I would trust booking online or giving them my credit card. So any advice would be appreciated.
A - It really is not complicated. The chances are good that the "deal" is not authentic. Have Mr. Brother-in-Law get you a copy of the quote in writing. Seeing it on a web site means absolutely nothing. It must be presented to him in writing.
Turn it over to your travel agent and she should be able to get the cruise line to match it. In this scenario, it sometimes happens that the pricing is legitimate because the online agency has formed a group and there may be group pricing benefits. But your travel agent will know how to protect you at the same rates. The better cruise lines do all possible to see to it that agents sell on a level playing field. The cruise line will not want to disappoint your agent and lose her support for $300. Your agent, by the way, will not have to go to a lot of work to get this done for you. Every agency has an assigned sales manager from each cruise line. That person will usually own the pricing dispute until it is settled.
A - Alaska is an extremely profitable destination compared to other parts of the world where ships can be based. For this reason, the season has been extended to include May and September. But it is true that weather in the Gulf of Alaska does vary from month-to-month and you could be subject to a rough ride and rain showers if you go on the edge of the season. We would suggest you consider July 1st through September 5th as prime, prime season. When it comes to Alaska, you always want to book by date rather than by price.
Q - We are extremely fond of this site, or at least we were, until we discovered that you are ignoring one of the biggest news stories of the year, the disaster of a cruise on the Norwegian Line that saw a two-week cruise ruined by on-going construction. It seems that you only cover the good news and just don't print anything that would reflect negatively on the industry. If you are going to be "truthful" you have to cover the truth that might not look good for those who sell and manage these cruises from hell. My husband and I are really interested in why you ignore these really upsetting stories about these ships and the awful experiences so many of their passengers seem to have. It is all over the news - but it is not on "cruisetruth". A - Some of the cruise executives who read our site would be surprised to hear that we don't print negative reviews or commentary. But understand, we are not a news site. We have not previously addressed the NCL Sun situation because this is a Q&A section and you are the first to ask us about it. We are a site totally devoted to providing objective information to the world's top-ten rated cruise lines. Shocking as it may be, these behemoths sailing with a few thousand guests who expect a luxury experience for under $200 a day, are not even close to being ranked among the top ten - or top fifteen. That would include NCL, Carnival, MSC, and Royal Caribbean. If you want coverage of the issues with those lines you may want to visit cruiselawnews.com, a compendium of problems at sea operated by an attorney who often represents clients in lawsuits against the offending lines. Or, you may want to read the "boards" and the self-appointed "critics" who populate them.
This is not that. We had no clients on the NCL cruise. We do not sell NCL. It is a mass market cruise line and, like all of its multi-thousand passenger bloated sisters, guests are booking at the lowest possible pricing and then being asked to pay for almost everything aboard. The economic model for these low-cost mega-ships is all about getting the unsuspecting to pay significantly more once they are aboard the ship than they paid for the cruise itself.
That said - it seems clear that communication with the agents who booked their clients on this March 16th cruise was either non-existent or totally dishonest. Who was advised that large construction crews would be working from the day the ship sailed out of Miami. Why did no one at NCL imagine that passengers traveling with their children might be furious about construction debris and dust swirling about them for two weeks?
It is easy to say "you get what you pay for." And some travel industry folks will smirk and quietly say that privately. But that is not at all the case.Once they know what they are getting for their money, NCL guests have been generally happy with their cruise experience. There is no way they could have anticipated the kind of at-sea debacle they experienced. They received a full credit for a future cruise on NCL, meaning NCL did not return any of the revenue they made on this sailing. What should have happened was that top executives should have flown to meet the ship when it arrived in Los Angeles. They should have had full refund checks or cash in their possession to hand out on the pier to guests leaving the ship. They should have also included a gift certificate for a free cruise of the guest's choosing. That didn't happen. Now it will be in the courts for years.
It is important to note that NCL also owns both Oceania and Regent Seven Seas Cruises. The publicly-traded company controls 8% of the total cruise market berths.
It is a fact that some of the same folks who once traveled via Greyhound bus are now taking cruises. There are lines that cater to budget travelers. Cuts have to be made in many areas to turn a profit on these ships. It should not surprise anyone that this did not occur on one of the "real" five-star lines such as the ones profiled on this site. There are thousands of web sites that deal with mass market products and treat them as though they are luxury brands. We started cruisetruth to set the record straight. The very best cruise lines generally have the smallest advertising budgets. The public has been grossly misinformed and this "luxury cruise" "construction at sea" incident is just the latest example.
Q - We came to your site purely by accident, or shall we say luck. We were searching Bing for some information that might help us plan our first cruise and we happened to insert the word "truth" into our search, since so much of what we had been reading was marketing manure. So here we are, with one specific question. We can afford to sail any cruise line I suppose. But my sense is that I should not start what could easily turn into a retirement of several cruises a year, at the very top of the cruise plateau. We don't really drink that much and we can manage our own gratuities. We are looking for your guidance in breaking down our search for a European cruise, our first, into the two best "not everything included" lines that still have lovely ships, a sense of chic, and some decent to very good food. But most of all, we want to go above the mass market shopping centers that float and settle into a really good cruise line that is somewhere between the big ships with families, and the luxury ships that cater to the most sophisticated people. We know you will name names so we will thank you in advance. We are mid-fifties, I am a pediatric dentist, and my wife is a claims adjuster. We're never been to Europe but intend to go often in the years ahead. We'd love to do this first cruise vacation in the $10,000 range for both of us not including airfare. Possible? Thanks so much.
A - Thank you Doctor and may we suggest that you really have a sound approach to this. We think one of the better "Tweens" is definitely going to meet your needs. You will be able to do a ten-twelve night cruise within your budget as long as you are aware that the "Tweens" are set up to maximize on-board spending in the same way as their larger, more tee-shirted sailing relatives.
Look at Viking Cruises and Oceania. Each offers excellent value. Oceania has food that rivals the 5-Star lines while Viking's ships are all new-builds with a real sense of modern Scandinavian style. Viking tends to avoid days and gives you more time in port, although other lines are starting to jump on that particular bandwagon. We don't know too many people who go to Europe so they can sit in a lounge during a day at sea. There are people like that, but they are all from certain locations in England.
When you read the online self-appointed critic sites and the glossy travel magazines, they will all have fanciful names for the segment of the industry occupied by Viking and Oceania. But they are, at heart, Tween products that are destination oriented and casual in dress while still offering the kind of overall cruise experience one might aspire to have their first time out. They are also, in our opinion, the two best current overall value lines in the industry. Really hope this helps.
Q - I am a financial analyst and I just saw a column indicating that Disney Cruise Line will be adding three-new 2,500 ships tot heir fleet. This could give the company more than a million guests annually according to the report. The ships are all going to be LNG types and I am wondering just what that means and is it a good thing. I have only taken one cruise with my partner but we are already addicted and becoming more and more interested in the industry. Love your site and the attitude that comes with it. Wish you would talk more about financials and how these various cruise lines operate a profit - and which ones don;t.
A - LNG-fueled ships are vessels powered by a new, as yet untested, in our opinion, propulsion system using Liqued Natural Gas. The first major ships using this brand-new technology will be the AIDAova and the Costa Smeralda.
Cruise ships once used heavy oil as their major source of fuel. In the early sixties, ships were built that could use either the heavy oil, which was becoming very expensive, or diesel oil. LNG technology was designed to save money on fuel but also to put new ships in the position of being able to pass increasingly rigid environmental standards. Disney is joined by Carnival, MSC, and Royal Caribbean, among others, with announcements of new Liquid Gas-powered ship construction.
There are some skeptics who are concerned about the security implications of ships resting atop huge tanks of liquid gas. What would happen, for instance, if a rocket were to hit one of those tanks? The first ship to call on ports using the new technology will be the AIDAnova sailing the Canary Islands this December. It looks as though the industry, led by the Myer-Werf yard in Germany, has hedged its bets on this new technology. Many cruise executives will be watching the new ship-building announcements closely to see, if like Disney, the new technology will be fully embraced.
As to your suggestion that we talk more about financials - not sure we're qualified to do that. We try to include financial information that is important for the consumer to understand but we do not employ people with the financial industry background necessary to provide detailed analysis of the subject. You might find a publication called "Cruise Industry News" of benefit in that regard.
Q - We will be departing for Asia in two weeks. We've just received our final documents and we spent the weekend reviewing them carefully. Everything checks out but we are really upset to see that our overnight call in Bangkok on the Regent Mariner puts us almost two hours away from the city. No one at Regent reservations discussed this with us. Had we known, we would have booked the extra-cost overnight in Bangkok sold by Regent. When we called, they referred us to the fine print instead of offering any kind of refund or credit. It seems to us that we are being "parked" way out of the city and then being offered, at the last minute, an overnight package at a very high cost. Last night, I started reading some of the cruise boards and I discover that the port Regent is using can be two hours away from Bangkok's center meaning four hours of bus rides each of the two days - eight hours on a bus. Had we known this we never would have booked this cruise as my wife gets sick on buses. Anything we can/should do at this point and wish you would advise your readers about this scam.
A - This is not a scam. It is a decision by the Thai Port Authority to not allow passenger ships above a certain size to dock at Klong Toey, the pier within the city. Currently, only smaller ships, generally under 600 guests, are given authority to use this facility. Azamara, Oceania, Seabourn, Silversea, Ponant, and Windstar have been authorized to use Klong Toey. The vast majority of larger ships, including all of those of the mass market lines are assigned berths at Laem Chabang, a port about two hours away from Bangkok in an industrial area.
Regent's documents make it clear that you will be docking at Laem Chabang and their pre-documents clearly indicate the offering of an overnight in Bangkok on your specific itinerary. This should have been discussed with your professional cruise consultant. Your special VIP Pre-Document Package would have outlined this. But you never received that package because you booked directly with the line, speaking to a commission-based representative in a call center. Your call - your problem.
You could have gone online to review your sailing months ago. You could have decided this trip was important enough and even complicated enough to warrant the involvement of a professional on a totally complimentary basis. You didn't do that and now we see little recourse. But we still want to help you - if we can. Immediately draft a letter to Regent's Customer Service department. See of they can still book you on the overnight in Bangkok - and don't worry about the cost -it is well worth it. Get it to them via e-mail tonight. See if the person you worked with in the call center will provide pricing from for private sightseeing with a driver leaving from the pier. That will keep you off buses. If you don't get anyone sympathetic to your handling of this on the phone, end the call, have a decaf, and call back.
You are trusting people on the phone to look out for your best interests. When it comes to travel, you just can't assume they will. By the way, you are on an excellent itinerary, so you made at least one very important decision correctly.
Q - We are seriously thinking about taking our first cruise to Europe to see the Fjords on a Viking Cruise. Their ads look great but the one thing we can't quite determine is who actually sails the line. They are rather new so we can't quite determine if we will be sharing the ship with a lot of overseas guests, families etc? We're about nervous about this and wonder if there is any advice or information you might provide? Our travel agent does more Las Vegas and Hawaii than cruises so she has not been able to provide a lot of information.
A - Given your agent's expertise, we don't think you should travel at all until they open a full-blown casino resort on the Big Island with Carrot Top headlining.. We always try to be supportive of travel agents here - but let us suggest that for something as expensive as a European cruise, you might want to search out a genuine cruise specialist. You really don't want a podiatrist doing your open-heart surgery.
Viking tends to attract Americans over the age of fifty who are more interested in time in port than in late-night partying and days at sea. There is relatively little marketing of the product overseas. The line does not accept children under the age of eighteen so this is never going to be a family cruise line. Dress is always "casual", one shore excursion is included each day, and wine and beer are offered at meals. We think that Viking Cruises new ships are drop-dead gorgeous if you are into modern and somewhat minimalist Scandinavian design. Viking Cruises is hitting on all cylinders when it comes to a cruise product that is attractive to a wide-base of older Americans looking for good value and a real sense of style at sea. Be prepared for extra charges aboard and for anything like a decent shore excursion.,This line has some of the big boys worried - and they are on an ambitious building program. As competitors have learned on Europe's rivers, their CEO is a gambler and he likes to win. We would book this line with confidence if you have ruled out the five-star, all-inclusive, smaller ships.
Q - We have just returned from a Crystal cruise in the Caribbean. It was our first experience with Crystal and we loved the experience - feeling they offer more in the way of entertainment, food, and shore excursion options than the smaller ships they compete with. Our only other experiences have been aboard Windstar (3 times) and Celebrity. We've enjoyed all of our cruises but it all came together on Crystal. We were so impressed with staff and our fellow passengers that we went to the on-board travel agent and booked a Baltic Cruise for the summer of next year. We got the full discounts and an additional incentive for booking on the ship of $400.
If we keep using Crystal, is there any reason to book with an agent back home since everything seems to have been handled on the ship by their agent?
A - We're not sure if you booked your original cruise directly or through a travel agent or consultant (two very different things). We do think it makes sense to book future cruises aboard the ship you are sailing because that, almost always, results in some inducement to book. The standard you should look for is between 5-10% after all other discounts for which you qualify are offered. But understand that, no matter what they call themselves, on-board booking agents are nothing more than commissioned sales people for the line whose income is largely based on the amount of future stuff they sell on-board. They are not capable of fulfilling most of the responsibilities of a good agent yet they will still charge you the travel agent commission as if you were using one back home.
If, on the other hand, you booked your original cruise with a consultant back home, no worries at all. Crystal, and any other line, will automatically notify the agent who made your booking and all of your paperwork/invoice will be forwarded to them. So you get the benefits of the on-board booking discount plus the counseling and personalized oversight of your agent. On-board booking incentives can also be combined with consortium benefits offered by your agent - so it is a win-win. But onbly book on-board oif you know exactly what you want. If you aren't sure, most lines will allow you to make a deposit which will get you the on-board incentive, without the need to pick a specific sailing. That should be thoroughly discussed with a consultant back home who knows you and who really has your back.
Q - We were having dinner with friends when someone asked about the Virgin Cruise Project. Haven't heard much about it but we would be very interested. We are in our early forties and some of our friends have younger children. Will this ship ever sail and will they have family cabins?
A - This is not so much a "project" as it is an exciting new cruise line, extremely well-funded, that is launching three new "Lady Ship" class 2,860 passenger vessels. This is a "definite" with delivery from the Italian Fincantieri yard scheduled for February 2020. This will be followed by two additional launches. The first ship will sail from Miami to the Caribbean but there are plans to base at least one Virgin Voyages ship in Europe.
Virgin Voyages is an adults-only environment. No one under the age of 18 may sail with the line. Look for entertainment and music options that appeal to a a younger than normal cruise vibe. Shore excursion options will be active and adventure-oriented although traditional sightseeing will still be available. As the photo of Chairman Sir Richard Branson taken at Virgin's recent press conference announcing the name change from "Cruises" to "Voyages" shows, doing things in moderation is not the philosophy behind this new line., Plan on booking at the end of this year - but tell your friends to leave the kids at home.
Q - We are planning early for a Christmas Cruise for about ten days. Our agent has highly recommended the Oceania Serena 10-Night Holiday cruise which includes Cuba. The ship seems smaller than what we've sailed, which is what we want, and the fact that we can easily drive to Miami for the round-trip sailing makes it really attractive. We're less concerned with cost than we are the quality of the program and our overall cultural experience. Always wanted to visit Cuba. Wondering if you think this is one we should book? (We're in our 70's and have done three previous cruises - all on Celebrity)
A - We would have reservations regarding the advice to proceed with reservations on this sailing. If you want to experience Cuba, one day in Havana sandwiched between Key West and Honduras may be disappointing. This is really a seven-night cruise with two days at sea and a half-day on a private Bahamian island. We think there are better options. We suggest you keep looking. Have your agent give you a few more itineraries including, perhaps, Sea Dream and Windstar. And if you really want to look at an inclusive Cuba cruise, look at Ponant's immersive itineraries.
Q - Having sailed once on NCL with almost five thousand new friends sporting tee-shirts and tats (and that could be for dinner), we had decided that mega-ship vacations, how great their value, are not for us. But now, we have our hearts set on the South Pacific. We are looking at your reviews of the Gauguin and we think this is right for us. We'd love the water platform, the all-inclusive aspects, and, of course, the itinerary. But we've been burned once on the water and we can't decide between the seven-night "Tahiti & Society Islands" itinerary or the 11-night Cook Islands & Society Islands program. Our gut is that we should get back into cruising with a one week before considering something longer. Are we on the right track in our thinking on this?
A - Probably not. First of all, you've got an eight hour plus flight from Los Angeles. That is a long way to travel for a week. The 11-day is the better of the itineraries by a fairly wide margin. The Society Islands are, in our opinion, one island with luxury accommodations (Bora Bora) and a number of sister islands where there has been minimal luxury development and infrastructure improvements. We think you will find The Cook Islands to be the highlight of your entire vacation. You will go out by boat to incredibly clear waters where you can snorkel and even walk across the water on a narrow sand bar out to a private, uninhabited island. It is the ultimate South Pacific introduction. As we have said elsewhere, the biggest mistake made by new cruisers is the "test" itinerary which is shorter than it ought to be. The only reason to do any seven-night cruise is if work requirements or family issues require a shorter vacation. There is also the issue of value - many of the same costs, including air, are built into both a seven-night and ten or eleven-night sailing. The air program is still built into the fare. As a result, the eleven-night program is the better value.
Q - Thank you for the opportunity to ask a question involving our 40th Wedding Anniversary and, potentially, our first cruise. We have twice traveled with Tauck Tours and everything folks say about them seems to be true. But now, we are looking at several programs Tauck is doing in Europe that are using Ponant ships for a cruise and tour combination. It sounds ideal but we don't know Ponant, are they in business for a long time and what kind of track record do they have? I imagine Tauck would not use them if they were not good but would appreciate any reassurances before we make this decision. Very few people seem to know this line and any insights would be truly appreciated.
A - You are about to make a wonderful decision. And, yes, Ponant Yacht Cruises and Expeditions is not a well-known company but is it one of our personal favorites. Tauck has partnered with Ponant since 1993 and their collaboration has created some of the fastest selling series of tour programs in the world.
Ponant has five yachts and will be introducing four more in the next 24 months. There are expansion plans beyond 2020. The company is owned by the French Luxury brand company Artemis and the line has a new partnership with famed Chef Alain Ducasse. One of the things that Ponant is doing, which runs counter to cruise industry trends, is reducing the number of guests each yacht holds from 260 guests to only 184. They are doing this without reducing the size of their new vessels. Ponant is inclusive and sleek. The crew is mostly French and we love the fact that there are actual French chefs on-board. Decor tends toward the modern, minimalist with sharp lines. These truly are large yachts. They are also true expedition vessels so among the 81 countries the line visits Antarctica, Greenland and the Arctic, and Europe are among their most popular programs.
We do not mean to sound gushy - that is not why people come to Cruisetruth. But the fact is that this is a relatively unknown luxury small ship company with an outstanding product and steady, well-funded leadership. The non-Tauck partnered programs will feature a higher percentage of European guests. The Tauck programs enable hassle-free sightseeing with full Tauck staffing and tour quality in some fascinating parts of the world. The biggest problem with the Tauck-Ponant itineraries in that they often sell out as much as a year in advance. Book immediately and don't ask questions is our advice. This one is that good. Sorry again for the gush. For a moment there, we were concerned we were starting to read like those other sites that have never seen a ship they have not liked.
Q - We have taken more than a dozen lines, including the ones you might rate the worst to the best. As we get older we are leaning far more to the best because, when all is said and done, what no one ever says in a brochure is "the passengers on a five-star line are better educated, more accomplished, and, therefore, more interesting. And, it seems to us that the more expensive lines discount the most. I enjoy your site(s) a great deal and they have educated us and our travel agent I would guess. But there is one big question I need to really have you-all address. When is the absolute best time to book one of the top ten lines. The internet has all kinds of conflicting advise. I'm a cruise gunslinger looking for the best value and I am confused as to when the best time to pull the trigger might be.
A - Dear Gunslinger: There is a short answer and a longer one. We'll give you both lest you shoot us for an inadequate response. You should book your cruise whenever you have decided to take the trip. That's the best advice we can offer. Here's why: The so-called "Contemporary" or mass market mega-ships are constantly changing their deals and base pricing. They may have promotions for residents of certain states or upgrade offers. With several thousand guests they can usually find a place to put you on an upgrade offer. The idea is to get you aboard at any cost, even if they lose a bit of money, because once they get you on-board they will have you in an a-la-carte spending environment where you will likely be forced to spend more than you paid for your cabin. Most importantly, the larger, mass market ships do not feel any obligation to honor their pricing.
The top-tier cruise, such as those in the Top Ten, do not and cannot operate this way. Their ships are smaller, much smaller and word of a last-minute deal would spread quickly. On the five-star lines, guests who book earliest, say the first 30-40% of the ship tend to get the best rates and most lines will their pricing in the event of a later price decline. That is the big difference. No one on a deluxe line who is booked in a suite wants to hear that someone got a better price because they waited until the last moment. In fact, in the vast majority of cases, pricing is controlled by computer programs designed to favor those who book earliest with the highest fees paid by those who wait until the last minute. Not luxury line wants to lower prices close in and then have to go back to every booked guest and their agent to re-invoice a lower price invoice and lower their overall profit. So - if you are booking a mass market ship - always watch your price changes. If you are booking one of the top all-inclusive small ship lines, book as soon as you have made up your mind for the best stateroom selection and, more often than not, the best pricing.
Q - It has been about ten years since we've sailed the Cunard Line in Queen's Grill accommodations. Now, dear friends are wondering if we might join them in Europe on the Silversea Muse. It appears to be a nice ship but we are concerned about continental cuisine overload. It seems like a lovely line but we can a small ship really have choices of dining options that might appeal to the culinary curious.?
A - You are going to be fine. The Muse is the largest ship in Silversea's fleet and carries just under 600 guests. She has a fair reputation of providing several eclectic dining choices including gourmet fare, a sushi bar and a pizza stall just above the swimming pool. Technically, there are eight dining venues if one includes luncheon spots. Many guests comment about the variety of dining on this ship as positive feature. If you want fewer than 600 guests and an unusually high proportion of dining choices, we think you could not do much better than the Muse.
Q - We are, I would say, professional foodies who read restaurant reviews from all over the world in bed each evening. We've been to just about half of the Michelin multi-starred restaurants in the United States and we are "Top Chef" addicts. So, imagine our delight to find that Thomas Keller is now affiliated with Seabourn and he will have a Grill on every Seabourn ship. Here's the thing - if we go on our first cruise we'd want to dine at Keller's restaurant every night of the cruise. Can you folks make that happen or can you put us in touch with someone who can?
A - You will be conformed for one or two nights at Thomas Keller's restaurant aboard your Seabourn ship. The reservations may be requested in advance after you have made deposit. Based on your level of accommodations, you may be able to secure a second reservation. The maitre'd may be able to accommodate you aboard ship if there are no-shows. But no one at Seabourn is going to deny other guests the opportunity to dine at Thomas Keller's on-board restaurant because you decided to want a table every night of your cruise. It just isn't going to happen unless you manage to somehow marry into Keller's family - and we're not at all certain that would work. So, you will need to look forward to dining at the restaurant just once or twice while playing nicely with the other kinds aboard ship who will also want their turn. Even Oprah couldn't get you seated each night of your cruise.
Q - We are starting our search for a long-delayed cruise in the area of the Adriatic. I have some concerns about choosing a stateroom with a bathtub. I really dislike the entire concept of showering, sticking my hair under the nozzle just doesn't suit me. Will I be able to request or even confirm a stateroom with a bathtub on one of the better lines listed in the Top Ten on your site?
A - In designing ships the issue of tubs versus showers is a serious concern. Many older Americans prefer the bat while European guests seem to prefer a shower with a hand-held nozzle for getting at their unmentionables. Large portions of the world actually look at fixed shower heads as unsanitary. Meanwhile, many affluent cruise travelers like nothing better than having their butler turn down the bed and fixing them a warm bath accompanied, usually, by sprinkled rose petals and an opened bottle of champagne iced and waiting. All of which is to say that, yes, on most of the ships constructed within the last several years you will have your choice, a combination bath and shower, or, increasingly, a separate bath and shower in your bathroom.
In order to help you along a bit, you will likely have both in your stateroom on Hapag-Lloyd, with choices and dual units on Seabourn, Silversea, and Regent Seven Seas. Some of the older ships with fewer than 200 guests such as Windstar and Sea Dream Yacht Club normally offer shower-only. On the newer Oceania ships, the Riviera and the Marina, Penthouse staterooms have a significantly larger bathroom than staterooms in categories below.Speak this over with your consultant. You should be able to get exactly what you want. We'll talk about how you wash your hair in a bathtub some other time.
Q - Like everyone else, I love the better things in life but I also like to feel that I am getting the best deal. Yesterday, I called Silversea and they said that they had 14 cabins still available ion the three categories we would want with a veranda. But we did not commit because we don;t know the procedure to take advantage of the pricing for last-minute cabins that they can;t sell. What is the trick and is there an agency that really specializes in this sort of thing. I see online come-ons for lots of them that say that they specialize in last-minute but when I would call it sounded a bit shady. What is the best strategy. I want to be smart about this thing.
A - You are falling for the oldest travel agency trick. "Oh my - what are we going to do with all of our leftover cabins? Oh, we know, we'll give them to you for less because you waited until the last minute." One large agency places fake news stories all over the internet claiming to offer special deals on last-minute space. They are insulting your intelligence. Here is what you need to know:
01 - Any travel firm that claims to have last-minute exclusive deals is clearly lying. The industry just doesn't work like that. Why would any sane person book a cruise months sometimes more than a year in advance to pay more?
02 - The fact is that cruise lines tend to regard those who book the first 25% of the ship with the best early-booking offers. Those who book later often pay more. The highest rates we see in the industry are those charged to guests who book their cruise between the time when final payment is collected and the actual sailing date.
03 - More than 90% of the cruises sold by Silversea and other top-tier cruise lines are booked by travel agents. No reputable travel agent would book a line that gave one agency different pricing than all of the other agencies that are top sellers of the brand. It just doesn't happen. If it ever did happen it would become big industry news and large segments of the travel agent community would likely boycott the brand.
04 - The consumer assumes that filling last-minute cabins is difficult and that the cruise lines agonize about selling every single bed. They don;t. On many more exotic itineraries, the lines do not want to operate at full capacity fearing this could diminish service. There are always waiting lists for travel consultants, travel writers, and stockholders who the line would like to accommodate on-board. Every cruise line sales manager has dozens of potential sellers of their product they would love to have experience their product. Filling cabins is quite easy.
05 - Finally, the last-minute deals are almost always phony because no quality cruise line is willing to go back to all of the guests who were already booked to inform them that "despite your faith in us and the fact that you booked eight months ago and gave us your deposit money, we're now going to punish you for doing so by giving some folks who waited until a week before sailing to book the same space you are holding at far less." Cruise line executives are not idiots. They will never intentionally anger their best clients.
Our firm sells and represents every one of the top ten cruise brands in the world. Every one of them practices pricing integrity. All of the top agencies receive exactly the same price. But the online call center boiler room operatives keep telling the consumer otherwise. You say you want to be "smart about this" so we would advise you to book 8-10 months in advance next time you travel on the ocean or the rivers.
Q - The news that Ritz Carlton is launching a lux cruise line is leading us toward the conclusion that we will wait a year or two to take our first cruise. The preliminary information has been helpful bur we are concerned about the A-La-Carte restaurant on-board, the likely venue where we would dine most nights. Will this dining room be substantially better than existing top-rated lines like Crystal and Silversea? It looks like we will have to wait until 2019 or 2020 - do you think the wait is wise. We certainly can afford top suites on any of the current lines and we do vacation at least once each year. Does delay make sense?
A - No one can tell you about the quality of the food aboard an, as yet, unborn new cruise line. What we can tell you is that Sven Elverfield of Aqua, the restaurant in the Ritz Carlton in Wolfsburg, Germany will be the head chef. All you need to know about Sven is that his current restaurant has achieved three-star status, something that is rather difficult to do within a hotel setting. So we think your truffles and fois gras will be in good hands. Thew decision as to whether or not you should wait requires some further discussion. Feel free to give us a call. Our general response is that, unless you have something wonderful planned for 2018, you might want to consider cruising with one of the Ritz Carlton at-sea competitors such as Sea Dream, Silverseas, Regent, or Seabourn. You might also want to look at a larger ship like Crystal with more amenities and options. Crystal would enable you to make some important comparisons between a mid-size luxury cruise ship and the smaller Ritz yachts. It might be nice to board the Ritz with some sort of personal benchmark.
Q - I greatly appreciate the tone of this site but my question is a bit more broad-based than many you deal with. I am involved in the investment market in England and was wondering how your team might respond to an inquiry regarding the growth potential of the cruise market (worldwide). Will new ships continue to be built and will they be profitable? Wondering what the cost of an average berth is, for instance, on a Carnival ship versus the new Ritz Carlton ships? Would appreciate any information you care to share in written form.A - The first part of your question is a bit beyond our expertise. Despite that, we would be willing to fake it and prepare a lovely written report for you for a substantial consulting fee.
As to the remainder of your inquiry: We know, for an absolute fact, that the cruise industry will be growing to the tune of more than $50 billion in new ship orders taking us through 2025. Seatrade UMB in the UK is currently forecasting the construction of 84 new ships under contract with many more to come. Carnival's per berth construction cost is estimated at between $200 and $225 thousand dollars per bed. The Ritz Carlton new ships will carry 298 guests at an estimated per berth cost of $705,000.Carnival's new ship scheduled for delivery in 2020 is slated to accommodate 5,200 guests. This gives you a sense of the economies of scale within the industry achieved by more tonnage and more berths generating income. If these construction costs sound high, remember that they are "per berth" or per lower bed passenger so you have to double the figure to get the cost to construct each cabin. All other shipbuilding costs including public space is included when computing the per berth cost. Cruise ships of any size are an expensive risk investment and one of the key components is the ability of the product to generate on-board purchases that equal or exceed the actual cost to book a cruise. The all-inclusive, smaller ship luxury lines do not have that cost offset with few "extras" available for purchase on-board. Hope this little bit is helpful. In the years to come, we will be trying to incorporate more of the financial side of the industry into our coverage as it seems to be a topic of broad interest.
Q - Enjoying your information and humor. Wondering if you might advise if one of the better cruise lines is offering a Crossword Puzzle cruise. I am an aficionado of the sport and would greatly enjoy a cruise that focused on this subject. We like to stretch our minds when we travel and there seem to be very few opportunities. We subscribe to the New York Times pretty much exclusively for the Crossword page. Thanks and hope you will do more for those readers who appreciate an intellectual challenge or two along the way.
A - The best of the cruises for Crossword fanatics is always offered by Cunard. There is a "Celebration of the 75th Anniversary of the Puzzles" on a Queen Mary 2 sailing this December 8th from New York to Southampton. It is being referred to as "The Crossword Crossing." This program is offered as one in a series of New York Times branded packages. Although you are late for this year's sailing, it is expected to be repeated in the future. Several Times Crossword pages editors will be on-board including famed, some might say notoriously difficult, puzzle master Will Shortz. It has been our experience that foul language is most often expressed by crossword fans in the middle of a Shortz puzzle. Shocking really. Crossings, with their days at sea, or longer voyages with a number of days at sea tend to have the best,most intellectually grounded lectures. Expect to hear little discussion of Proust over dinner on a one-week Caribbean jaunt.
Q - We are looking at several options including the Viking Sky in Europe next summer. After spending countless hours searching for some really helpful information we were led to your site. We are really glad we found you but we can't figure out why Viking Cruises does not appear at all in your ratings, leading us to assume that, for whatever reason, they do not merit placement in the "Top Ten". We would love to know your thoughts about this line and why they are notably absent from your ratings given the awards they have won, most recently from Travel + Leisure and Cruise Critic. Given all the advertising they do, we are sure there are others who would like to solve this mystery.
A - You have asked an excellent question. It is not anything sinister - it is just that we have been waiting until we have a sufficient amount of our own, certified, inspection reports to validate placement and a review. We are almost finished with this work and you will shortly see Viking Cruises added to the list of the world's top ten cruise lineS. We think Viking has an excellent feel for what its core customers want; modern, clean design, some complimentary shore excursions in every port, casual dress, and overnights at the beginning and the end of most itineraries. We also think it represents real value when compared to the five-star inclusive ships. The negatives seem to be that beverages are only included at meals, only one shore excursion is complimentary, and the ships hold close to 1,000 guests. But, quite frankly, we can address the other side of each of those perceived negatives.
Simply adding Viking to the Top Ten List is challenging for several reasons. First, if we place them on the list who do we eliminate? We have to be certain that they offer a better all-around cruise experience than one of the lines currently listed. Our ratings are going to change in the next 24 months for certain. We can assume that The Ritz Carlton cruise line will end up with a superior rating once inspections and our research overseas is completed. What about Virgin Voyages? We would be surprised if they did not merit consideration. Where will Crystal's new ship products place the line in the ratings? And what of the Cunard liners? If you are in Queen's Grill Class or above, it would seem that your cruise line is certainly worthy of being included in our list of the World's Top Ten Rated Cruise Lines.
Finally, the ranking given in reader's polls in a magazine or by self-professed "critics" with no professional background in the industry or means of comparison can't be taken too seriously. We do try to get it right and sometimes that is not a quick process. Thanks for your question and your understanding and, from what we are seeing to date, you should go ahead with Viking Cruises without hesitation.
Q - We have been collecting data on various two-week Caribbean itineraries next year on one of the top-rated smaller ships. There has been lots of information on the damage done by Irma, Maria and their friends in the Caribbean but we have not seen any listing of those islands unaffected. We're new to luxury cruising but this one will be celebrating our 30th Anniversary as well as my wife's retirement from government service in January. It would enable us to choose an itinerary we like if you might point us in the direction of a list of islands where "a destruction tour" is not part of the program. Don't mean to be insensitive but you know what we mean. Any help would be appreciated.
A - There is a list that we are currently sharing with our clients. Please find it below. We would make one comment and we trust you will take it in the spirit in which it is intended. You are looking at a longer than usual itinerary. There are very few two-week Caribbean itineraries. Consider 10-days or two back-to-back seven-night cruises that visit different islands. That would be ideal and you would have some new people to meet. But while you are spending about two weeks in the islands, please consier visiting one or two of the islands that got hot really badly. They need your support and your spending ashore to recover. They really do. Here is the best list available from Travel Weekly Magazine:
The following islands were outside the paths of Irma and Maria and suffered little or no damage from the storms:Aruba Barbados Belize Bonaire The Cayman Islands Curacao Guyana Grenada Haiti Jamaica Martinique Saba St. Eustatius St. Lucia St. Vincent Suriname Trinidad and Tobago
Q - We are scheduled to join friends on the Serenity next April sailing from India to Dubai. We are not as experienced with five-star cruising as our friends so we've been doing a great deal of reading. Your site seems to get glowing reviews so we've put some stock into what you've said. Yesterday, I was re-reading the review of Crystal and it seems that you've revised it with the news that the CEO is suddenly departing, that there are a bunch of missed deadlines and changes, that the company has expanded much too fast, and that they are bringing in someone from Disneyworld to fix it. As someone who has run several companies, I can tell you that if half of what you suggest has happened, I am concerned about my upcoming sailing. My biggest concern is why they let their CEO go when she's the one who had started on this exciting growth path. Is our concern justified?
A - It is highly likely that you will be both shocked and delighted with the quality of your upcoming Crystal experience. The line has some of the highest loyalty/repeat stats in the industry. We don't want to get into corporate intrigue or speculate. So just a few facts:
- Edie Rodriguez resigned while it is clear that discussions with Tom Wolber did not begin on the day he replaced her. So let's call it a mutual agreement.
- It is true that a number of economic factors have combined to cause some delays in the river boat segment and there have been well-documented delays in terms of Crystal's 1,000 Guest new-builds. But if you look over at one of our other consumer sites dedicated to river cruising, riverboatratings.com, you will note that Crystal very quickly launched the overall best product on Europe's rivers. That, from a company that had no river cruising experience before the launch. To us, this is a major and rather unexpected accomplishment. Genting, Crystal's owners, have set out to become the luxury experience brand in the US and around the world. They do not mind spending money to achieve that goal.
- Crystal has committed millions into the renovation and update of its two existing cruise ships. Every single independent ship ratings service rates Crystal at or near the top. We do have some reservations and concerns about the future path of the company but we certainly think you would have a hard time finding any ship with 1000 guests that has the food, entertainment, and staff training you will find aboard Crystal. When it comes to mid-size ships, they do own the five-star category. Some five-star cruisers, however, associate smaller and more intimate ships with a sense of exclusivity. But that is actually a plus for Crystal because it allows them to occupy the top-tier 1,000 guests, mid-ship category without without obvious competitors and with more amenities and dining options than its smaller competitors.
- Finally, as mentioned in our review, Crystal is on a major expansion trajectory. In Wolber they have found a leader who has the skill set and background to manage new-ship builds, yard coordination with headquarters, and the kind of operations background that a company like Crystal would seem to need badly at this time. We think the Disney background is only a plus. Don't look for Goofy to be welcoming you aboard the Crystal Serenity anytime soon.
Q - My husband and I are booked on an Eastern Caribbean cruise on Holland America. We are not scheduled to sail until late March but we are wondering what our options might be given the effects on the islands of the hurricanes? Given all the destruction, can we assume that prices will be coming down and how do we apply for those reductions?
A - Prices will likely not be coming down. The islands that were hit heaviest are in no position to host cruise passengers. There will be a major realignment of scheduled east coast cruises to new, western itineraries. The Caribbean cruises were already heavily booked for the fourth quarter so we would anticipate that many ships will sail full. You are also going to see fuel increases generated by the destruction of many of the oil refineries on the islands. You should, of course, ask your travel agent about re-pricing once your proposal for your revised itinerary arrives in their office. You may find that HAL has made you an attractive offer to remain booked. You do not need to do anything. Your agent will take care of these details and will re-invoice you with the new pricing after discussing options. By the way, we hope that someone told you that ships in the Caribbean during the last week in March are likely to be sailing with children at maximum capacity. You are traveling during Spring Break Week so don't trip over the kiddies on the dance floor.
Q - Down here in Greenville we're fixing to party. Just retired from Boeing and ready to do one or two cruises a year until I'm ninety. Been following following your information online and reading all I can. We've previously done two cruises - both on Norwegian. Our plan is to alternate a cruise on Oceania with a cruise on Sea Dream. Hear the food on Oceania is something worth experiencing. Sea Dream is totally casual and small. But my question has nothing to do with all that. We want to try to get into the best lounges before our flights. This is important to us and we're trying to devise a strategy. We like to get tot he airport early and then connect in Atlanta or another large city where we can relax before our long flights. So my real question is who has the best lounges in airports?
A - We like your plan. Especially the alternating larger and smaller ships. The Sea Dream fleet is well-maintained but the 100 guest ships are slowly approaching their own retirement years - so experience them as soon as you can.
Ordinarily, we would recommend the American Express Centurion Lounges. They are the class leader at the moment and you will find them in Dallas, Houston, New York.San Francisco and Miami. But airlines like Delta and American are really upping their game. Since it is likely you will be using Atlanta more than any other location, we would suggest that you purchase a one day pass at two or three of the clubs and compare before buying into the membership. Also check out "The Club" which operates in 11 US airports on a daily fee basis. Finally, savvy travelers like to use www.loungebuddy.com which makes it easy for flyers to locate and purchase access to more than 300 lounges worldwide. Our team congratulates you on your retirement.
Q - Our neighbor, who literally packs pennies to carry to his bank, keeps telling me I am nuts to be sailing the ships that I love like Windstar and Azamara. He is really happy with the pricing and amenities on Norwegian Cruise line and he told me on Saturday that he had been able to "bid up to a suite". I didn't quite get what he was talking about and was wondering if it made any sense to you. Enjoy this site immensely - so thank you for that.
A - Your friend is not exaggerating. Norwegian Cruise Line has designed a online auction system that allows booked passengers to bid on cabin upgrades prior to departure, Guests who win the bid process are notified by e-mail, along with their travel agent. The criteria include what the guest originally paid and the types of cabins on any given sailing, Once a bid is accepted, guests can change it again up to 48 hours prior to sailing. This is a way for NCL to maximize use of higher-revenue producing cabins. The guest does not bid on a specific cabin location. Instead, types of suites are described where available. This is the first online cabin bid system used by any major cruise line but it is fairly common for booked guests to be offered upgrade opportunities on light sailings by even the top-tier cruise lines. Most of these upgrade opportunities are rejected when offered as they represent a significant increase versus what the guest originally paid.
Q - We have avoided all cruise lines and have traveled extensively (4-6 months annually) on our own for the past fourteen years. Can you recommend a true, high-quality small cruise line that serves organic food at all meals? The destination is less important to us than the food offerings as we have seen most of where we want to go.
A - Until Whole Foods decides to enter the cruise business, we won't be seeing a cruise line meet the demands of those seeking a 100% Organic diet. Shipping organic food to each port would be a costly logistical nightmare and per diem costs would skyrocket. Research does not support the notion that there are enough people in the organic movement willing to support a costly cruise product.
Many restaurants are having difficulty sourcing organic food. Chefs in Paris have complained that they cannot find the amount of organic goods to sustain a menu on a daily basis. Then there is the concern about liability. If you advertise "all organic all the time" and are caught serving food that is not certified, the potential for a lawsuit exists. It sounds to us that you should continue foraging for yourself as you would likely be disappointed by the lack of certified organic products on-board any ship.
Q - We really like the approach of this site and we wish you would expand it to include the more popular cruise lines like Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, and Carnival. Our philosophy is to sail the larger ships because you can take two cruises for what one of the lines you review would cost. But the cruises we've taken have been on, what you would call, "mega-ships." I am wondering why the ships keep getting bigger and bigger. Are there safety issues related to size? Do you think you will ever make your site more popular by including the popular lines? I mean this as a serious question.
A - We take it that way. The safety issues are always being debated in the industry. It does theoretically take longer to evacuate a larger vessel and larger vessels are more prone to bump into things. But the largest lines understand what can happen when CNN is highlighting a cruise ship afloat without power somewhere in the world or a vessel that catches fire. Ships have their own specially-trained safety and security personnel on all ships and most have medical services on-board as well.
The ships keep getting bigger and bigger because management wants to offer so-called "signature features" that take up a lot of space. These costs have to be offset by additional passenger cabins. Carnival's new Vista ship, for example, will feature a top-deck SkyRide as guests pedal around an 800 foot track oval-shaped, while suspended beneath the track in a recumbent bicycle wrapped in an aerodynamic racing hull. There are dual tracks so riders can challenge one another. The newest Royal Caribbean ship, The Harmony of the Seas, has a bit more mass than previous ships which designers will utilize to include "The Perfect Storm" a trio of water slides that will overlook the outdoor garden area known as "Central Park." Mega-ships are designed to appeal to families and multiple age demographics. Luxury vessels have little interest in attracting the family market as they find that the presence of young children turns off their older, more reserved clientele.
As to making our site more popular by including the "more popular" lines: No. We are not trying to be popular. There are numerous sites that already cover the lines you mention. We felt there was a lack of honest coverage of the upscale portion of the cruise industry. That is our interest, that is what we sell, and that is the area of our expertise. We just got tired of all those deal-oriented web sites that play the cruise consumer for a fool.We sincerely appreciate your questions.
Q - As you might be able to tell, we're going on our first cruise, a 21-day sailing with Seabourn that will include cruising in portions of the Middle East. If I am going to be trusting my life and that of my wife to a ship's "pilot", I would like to know who he is and what his sailing experience in the region might be. So far, my agent has not been able to provide this information. Would you be able to get that information for us? If you think I am being paranoid please let me know.
A - You are - but that's OK. First-timers are allowed to be paranoid. Forget the passengers for a moment - you are going to be sailing on a luxurious $500 million vessel that can get damaged if not driven properly. Just as no airline would knowingly entrust one of its multi-million dollar aircraft to an inexperienced pilot, no cruise line would entrust such a major investment to anything but the best qualified Captain. But in cruising, it actually goes far beyond that. Each of these vessels must be insured. This is a very high stakes venture and insurance costs are, in part, determined by the qualifications of the Captain and the senior staff. The training and experience of the Captain is paramount - skills at cocktail party chatter do not really factor in to these kinds of hiring decisions. Cruise lines do not like to release the names of senior staff too far in advance as assignments and availability often change. But if your agent calls the line about a month prior to your scheduled departure, the name of the Captain and other senior officers is generally available. Have a safe trip - and don't bother to tip the Captain for safe driving.
Q - We have to tell you that your industry is really confusing. We get all these mailings with all these "deals" and it is impossible to tell which ones are really true deals and which are old, repackaged pricing. We want to book a cruise to the eastern Caribbean this fall. We've been on NCL twice and we're thinking we would do something much nicer, on a smaller line, this time. But when should we book to get the most favorable pricing? No one seems to tell you that. It is not that we are cheap. But like everyone else we like to feel that we've gotten the best price available.
A - You used a term we really like, "repackaged pricing". In the majority of cruise ads that is exactly what you are seeing. It is the same casserole but they've renamed it. The answer to your question involves a proper sit down or extended phone call. But fro our readers who might be wondering the same thing it is important to know one general rule: Mass market cruise lines do change their pricing, offer last-minute as well as Early Booking deals, and feel no obligation to pass any new offer on to all previously booked guests. In other words, it is a free market sales economy.
The cruise lines that have made our Top Ten list operate in a different sphere. Their cruises operate worldwide and they want to keep their guests happy and loyal. They generally would go back and offer all previously booked and deposited guests any new offers currently being advertised. This is costly for them and sometimes they do not let booked guests know there is a better offer. That is one of the functions of a good consultant - the monitoring of price changes applicable to clients already booked. In other words, guests will not get the new offer unless their agent specifically contacts the cruise line to request it.
Let us put it another way - On a four thousand passenger ship it is assumed that some folks paid a different price than you did. On a five-star vessel with several hundred guests it would cause a small insurrection if one of the suite guests discovered over dinner than someone in a similar suite had paid less than they did. The story would travel faster than a Trump tweet.
- Q - Several friends at church are pressuring us to join them on a cruise that would go to Scandinavia. The cruises we have looked at, on Celebrity and Silversea, all seem to include St. Petersburg. I have no interest in giving Putin money at this time so I am looking to see if there is a Baltic Cruise available that avoids stops in Russia. I am sure that a lot of people feel the way that I do.
A - Actually, when you spend three days in St. Petersburg it is unlikely you will actually see Putin or face the need to give him money. You will, instead, see a magnificent city filled with historic treasures and you will be free to form your own opinions about what you see and do. But it is easy to avoid going to Russia if you so choose. The problem is the nomenclature. A Baltic Cruise almost always departs and ends in a Scandinavian port with two or three days in St. Petersburg in the middle. This is one of the hottest selling cruise itineraries in the world and the luxury traveler has, as you will see on our database of sailings, a wide variety of cruise line options. Since this is a northern European sailing, the season tends to run from June through the end of September.
Given your concerns, we are not sure we should make a recommendation since you might be happiest hiding under your bed until Putin goes away. But we do want you to be happy - so let us point out that you don't want a Baltic Cruise. What you really want is a Norwegian Fjords itinerary. These sailings do not call on Russia, instead traveling up and down the beautiful coastline of Norway. The sailing season is quite limited to a 90-day window from the beginning of June to the end of August. The scenery on these cruises is magnificent - it is one of our favorite itineraries. The down side is that the major lux lines only offer it once or twice per year so you need to make early reservations.
Q - We are lucky enough to have friends who share our lives and travel - and have for the past 31 years. But just as we are ready to sit down and find the cruise itinerary of our dreams on one of the smaller, more deluxe ships described on this site, our friends have thrown some bugs into the mix. None of us has ever cruised. My girlfriend feels that norovirus on cruise ships is a real issue and she is trying to talk her husband out of going for fear she will be stricken. Our local news channel in Tampa had a short story about this happening on a Miami-based ship and she is freaking out with the possibilities.
A - Tell your dear friend she is ignoring the facts. The fact is that norovirus outbreaks are much more common in movie theaters, shopping centers, schools, and hospitals. We happen to have the figures for 2013 in front of us - 834 cruise passengers were affected out of 10.1 million sailed. That is a percentage of 0.008. Norovirus does exist on cruise ships but it appears most often on 5,000 passenger floating Petri dishes. Cost is related to cleanliness - unfortunately since the bulk of the American cruise industry involves mega-ship bookings, no one ever talks about this.
Q - My husband's 60th is coming up in November and I would love to book a really nice vacation that is, somehow, Apple-related. My husband owns seven or eight current Apple products, loves finding new uses for his stuff, has taken half our savings and invested it in the company, and he reads every book about the company and, of course Steve Jobs. Is there anything like an Apple theme cruise on a quality line like Crystal? Even if is just a collection of nerdy Mac fanatics - he would love it. We can get away for a maximum of three weeks and I really don't care what it costs since our Apple stock has been so good to us.
A - We can't get him on a cruise with Steve Jobs. Sad to say. But there is a sailing on the 450-Guest Seabourn Quest to Antarctica December 20th, 2017 from Valparaiso that ends in Buenos Aires on January 13th 2018 that might possibly be of interest. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak will be on the cruise and The Woz will be delivering several lectures to the guests. This man has to be one of your husband's heroes so, hopefully this can work out for you.
Q - The latest news out of Trump Tower seems to be that only travel on the people-to-people programs will be allowed in Cuba. We are looking forward to doing a cruise next year where we might see Cuba in-depth. We are Swiss but we live in the States. Looking for a top-tier experience. Flexible as to date. Any suggestions would be appreciated. Should we even do the trip? We're extremely well traveled so third world issues don't really throw us so long as we can come home to a comfortable stateroom each evening.
A - The travel industry has been digesting and analyzing the new executive orders. It appears that cruise travel and established group tour operators will not really be affected by the new travel restrictions. Those who wish to travel to Cuba independently and unencumbered will find substantial hurdles in their path.
As a rule, travel to Cuba via cruise ship is currently highly overrated. The infrastructure ashore is inadequate to handle the crowds and local tours have not been receiving high marks. Many of the buses are not up to the standards travelers from the US might expect. The touring ashore is very much "packaged propaganda". Guides are not apt to point out problems or to discuss life on the island with any degree of openness. There are, of course, exceptions and people have returned from Cuba cruising with tales of dancing, mingling, and frank discussions. But most don't.
Given all of that, we would recommend that you see if you can still get space on the new Scenic expedition ship, the 228-guest Eclipse. It is going to be a true 5-star beauty with large cabins, on-board submarine, fine dining options, and a 14-Day "Cuba in Depth" itinerary departing October 18th 2018 that is better than any other we've seen to date.
Q - Now don't make fun of us - but my wife and I are birders and our dream has always been to do a Galapagos cruise. We are thinking we can budget about $15,000 per person and given our proclivities toward luxury, we were thinking we would bring our Audemars Piguet on the trip, and do it right on Silverseas. We are looking to book next fall. Can you give us an idea of price?
A - We think your budget is fairly accurate. A Veranda Suite on the 100-Guest Silver Galapagos will cost about $10,000 per person for a nice balcony accommodation. That price will include the air between mainland Ecuador and the islands. As long as you are there, we would suggest you consider adding a few pre-cruise days exploring the Andean region with time in Quite and Cotopaxi National Park and the exciting train ride through "Devil's Nose" (not a reference to Howard Stern) in the Andes. A six-day add-on with a good tour operator will cost you just under $3,000 per person - well worth it.
Of course all the luxury you experience on Silversea will not measure up to the feeling of exhilaration as you observe the mating rituals of the blue-footed boobies ashore. It will remind you of some specific segment of the "Housewives of New York" reality series.
Q - Last night I read an ad in a travel publication that sounded too good to be true. A 13-day cruise on the Crystal Symphony from Mauritius to Cape Town, South Africa departing this December was listed at a starting price of $3,695! They show the list price, which I realize no one pays, at $9,390. Our agent says she thinks it's a "good deal". What do you think?
A - You have found what we like to call a "Real Deal". Yes, you will have over $1,000 in port fees to be added, and the price does not include some very expensive air, but this still means that you can do this sailing for under $350 per day, far below Crystal's normal per diems. The price is far better than the normal major discount of two-for-one. We can assume this sailing is wide open. It is likely being discounted to that degree because it would be challenging for anyone booking at this time to find reasonably-priced air into Mauritius and out of Cape Town. But do note - port charges are not included and you are looking at the minimum category which you likely will not want on a two-week voyage.
Q - Greatly enjoy the honest-speak on this terrific site. We're rather newbies when it comes to cruising and, to celebrate my retirement, the Mrs. and I are seriously considering a cruise on the Seabourn Encore from Auckland to Sydney that runs 16-days departing on January 5th. Our goal is to see as much of these two "sister" countries as we can (we're Canadians) in just over two weeks. The cruising idea came to us as a way to see more in less time. I am much more interested in experiencing Australia while she is more interested in meeting Kiwis. Would appreciate your thoughts.
A - Well, first, we would suggest you not encourage your wife to meet too many Kiwi's - particular the ones who play for the All Blacks Rugby Team.
The Encore is a beautiful new ship and this itinerary is offered at the right time of the year. This is a rather unusual sailing down under int hat it offers far more ports in New Zealand than it does in Australia, so you may be really disappointed. The 16-day itinerary also gives you seven days at sea. So, we might argue that you are going to be seeing absolutely nothing 44% of your time. This one can be argued on several levels. If you really want to maximize your time ashore and see the most in 16-21 days, we would far prefer you looked at a well-modulated land tour that divides its time between both countries. This cruise makes sense if you have a strong desire to see New Zealand and then, perhaps, adding a week or so at the back end in Sydney. But we have a hard time dismissing those seven days at sea unless you are traveling with a collection of personal friends.
Q - We are, for many of the reasons stated in your reviews, anxious to take our first Crystal Cruise - likely to Scandinavia and Russia next year. My mother-in-law has taken ill and it could be a long haul. I am wondering about whether or not Crystal will be understanding should we need to cancel and how much, if any, of our deposit would we lose? I am also wondering about the best tome to pay for this cruise. It will be for next year and I wonder, with Putin and all, if the prices to Russia will come down and you would advise we wait? Very helpful site - the best we've found.
A - No cruise line we have ever worked with makes cancellation decisions based on need and levels of understanding and kindness. Instead, cancellation policies are adhered to in a manner dictated by the lawyers up on the fifth floor. Exceptions are almost never made. But the good news is that illness in the immediate family is almost always covered by any of the major cancellation policies available. Your agent is your advocate so we're gotten in insurance coverage fights on behalf of clients any number of times during the past three decades. The quote you always hear is "But that's why we offer insurance". Insurance is a huge profit center for the cruise lines and they do not want it known that some travel consultant can get them to change their brochure cancellation policy.
Crystal has special BOOK EARLY rates that go up when they reach capacity. You are always going to get the best pricing if you book the first 30% of the ship. Their deposits are refundable up to 90 days prior to sailing - a fairly generous policy as these things go.
Q - This is for my husband. He works very hard in the construction business based here in Passaic. A cruise to him is an opportunity to catch up on sleep. Our agent, who I think is part-time, has us looking at some of the top lines on your list and we are wondering, between Regent, Seabourn, and Silverseas, which of them actually has a pillow menu he can choose from. I would also like to know about the linens if you have any information. I know this may sound silly but setting himself up for a restful week of excellent sleep is really important. Are there any general rules about cabin location you could pass on?
A - Good sleep is important on any vacation. We all have to be tuned in to the needs of guests who seek work-related relaxation and sleep.
Each of the three lines you are looking at has a pillow menu. This can be requested by your agent in advance or from your butler/concierge aboard ship. Regent has an Elite slumber bed. Seabourn has Egyptian cotten linens while Silversea uses Pratesi luxury linens. Nod to Silversea.
Avoid staterooms on the top accommodation deck, next to laundry facilities, or directly above any music venue. Some guests avoid booking next to a triple cabin as they are sometimes reserved for families traveling with kids. Hopefully your "agent" can take it from here.
Q - When you look at the three largest cruise lines, NCL, Carnival, and Royal Caribbean, you see a lot of heavy discounting going on. At the end of the day, how much can they make per passenger? Is it 3% or is it actually higher? I'm just curious.
A - It really does vary quarter by quarter, year by year, and line by line. But if you think of the really big competing mega-lines with the ships carrying thousands of passengers each, we see per passenger revenues of around $1700 with total expenses around $1500. The goal is to get enough on-board spending from each passenger on a one week cruise to generate as close to $200 in profit as possible. In times of steep discounting and on-board amenity giveaways, this can be quite challenging. There certainly are sailing like repositioning cruises and off-season sailings where breaking even is a realistic business goal. When, for instance, you are moving a ship from Alaska to the Caribbean in late September or early October headed into hurricane season, ships do not generally sail full and profit expectations have to be adjusted downward.
The Top Ten lines on our annual list have to decline primarily on the price of each ticket as most provide largely inclusive on-board services without the myriad of profit centers you would see on mega-ships.
Q - We enjoyed your site - spent three hours on it last night. I suspect we are younger than your average reader and we have taste buds that are still in their prime. We work them out fairly regularly in the Santa Monica area. We are going to do our first cruise this summer and we really want to try the very best restaurant on any ship. If you know it, I know you won't be afraid to name names. Both my wife and I work in the technology field and we're both mystified about how you do business. It seems you give it all away. We couldn't find you on Linked-in or FB. No need to reply personally.
A - Oh, no worries, we won't be responding personally. The 2017 Best At Sea Awards name Regent Seven Seas Pacific Rim and Seabourn's The Grill by Thomas Keller as the current top two restaurants afloat. Either one would provide a sufficiently stimulating workout for your muscular taste buds.
As you work in technology and lack the wisdom of age, it is unlikely that you would be able to understand our business model.
Q - We are drilling down to make a decision on choosing a ship for a 2018 Around-The-World sailing. Can we book this through you and can you help us decide? We're looking for a sailing that might be really elegant, I've had a very good year in the market, a bit dressy from time to time, somewhat intimate, with interesting fellow guests who know where the salad fork is located. I suppose there are two important things about the itinerary - we want to really see Hawaii and the South Pacific by ship and we want to spend a few days in Australia and New Zealand. Everything else would be icing on the cake. We're really leaning toward one of the longer cruises but not the Oceania 180-day. Something between that and the typical 90-days would be ideal. We'd also want an inclusive experience as I'm not paying for this sort of cruise and putting up with being charged for drinks etc. We know we are late as these cruises are less than a year away. But, first and foremost, would you be our advisors on this one. We donlt mind paying fees for your services. Does one cruise seem best for us based on what I have told you so far?
A - We will be pleased to help you and we charge no fees of any kind for world cruises or any of the other escorted land and sea programs we recommend. We charge no fees for work involving any of our Top Ten Rated Lines. The cruise that seems to come closest to your description is the 121 sailing on January 6th of the Silver Whisper from Los Angeles to Rome. You will have ample time in the South Pacific as well as Southeast Asia. The cruise includes time in Tahiti, Hawaii, the Greek Islands, India, Singapore Vietnam, Hong Kong and other places too numerous to mention here.
We think that Silversea has the blend of sophistication, size, and elegant style that you are seeking. But we still will want to talk you through all of the options. Availability is an issue and several categories are sold out as of this writing. This will be the trip of a lifetime and, it will allow you to hit a great many places on your bucket list without the name to fly hassling with your luggage. As with any travel of this length, it also helps that a full-time physician and staff will be traveling with you.
By the way, you will be our first guest to ever refer to their World Cruise as "The Big Louie." It does have a certain ring.
Q - Good day and thank you for your efforts on this site. It is wonderful.. We work with an Ensemble agency and they have us on some great mailing lists so we see a lot of the new offers. We just received one announcing a series of upcoming sailings that will go to Cuba. We are wondering if you are recommending travel to Cuba at this time as everyone seems to feel it will be changing very quickly. I imagine you are going to say to do it so could you let us know the best months.
A - Oceania is owned by NCL, as is Regent Seven Seas. Their Chairman is a Cuban-American and has been a leader in establishing cruising authorization to call at Cuban ports. Oceania is a 4.5 star product with some of the best food at sea. Yet, because they are non-inclusive, they have excellent pricing. They also have several ships that carry fewer than 700 guests. We do think Oceania is a line that has the capability to show you aspects of the real Cuba.
That said, ours is one of the few "voices" urging careful consideration of travel to Cuba at this time. We just don't feel that the tourism infrastructure is adequate for the planned visits of several large US cruise ships per day.
Mid-winter is the time to go. We particularly like January and February. But as you plan ahead, be mindful of the fact that the Trump Administration has not yet sent clear signals as to what its Cuba policy will be. We also don't know what the Castro regime will do in terms of a reaction to a change in US-Cuban relations from a President who appears to be less inclined to remove travel barriers to the island. If you were a family member, we would suggest that there are other parts so the world where your travel dollars will produce a more satisfying experience. We think you should wait two years and then re-evaluate.
Q - We have close friends who want us to join them on a cruise that spends three days in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. We enjoy downtown Chicago, where we have retired, and, quite frankly, my wife has some safety concerns about traveling right now to Israel. I am wondering what your writers feel about the whole safety issue of visiting Israel aboard a cruise ship in the current environment?
A - Oy Vey! You live in downtown Chicago and you want to know if it is safe to visit Tel Aviv, Israel? It is safe for you to go almost anywhere. The United States is a statistically violent country with more people in prison than any other nation on earth, including China. Spend some time reading the overseas travel advisories for international visitors planning on visiting our country generally and Chicago specifically.
Go to Israel and learn why the most sophisticated Europeans have been heading there for years. Tel Aviv has incredible shopping, extraordinary beaches, and wonderful restaurants. It also has a young vibe with hundreds of outdoor cafes and a vibrant nightlife. We wish there were a few more absolutely top tier hotels but they are getting there. This notion that we should stay at home to be "safer" flies in the fact of a mass of statistical evidence to the contrary. Not only will you fall in love with Tel Aviv, you will marvel at the level of security you feel when true safety professionals are in charge. If the rest of the itinerary interests you and you are only concerned about the portion of the itinerary that includes Israel, we would say you should definitely join your friends. Just be careful driving out to O'Hare, it will be the most dangerous part of your journey.
Q - We have just booked our eighth cruise with Crystal. We'll be sailing to South America next winter. We've never used a travel agent before and we are wondering if there is a way to use one now. The problem is that we booked this upcoming cruise while we were on the cruise out of Hong Kong. So everything was done with the on-board cruise consultant. As you know, they give is a little incentive for booking on the ship. But now that we've read the information on cruisetruth we are wondering if we would have been better off all these years booking with an agent. I guess are questions are, should we, how much more will it cost, and how do we go about doing it?
A - If you get a bad agent, you might be better off booking directly with the cruise line. If you can find a knowledgeable, well-connected cruise specialist, it may well end up saving you money because most of the better agencies in America belong to groups that give the cruise lines millions and, in a few cases, billions of dollars in annual revenue. The cruise lines allow them to offer on-board credits, complimentary shore experiences or dinners, as amenities on certain sailings.
We can, for instance, tell you that if you have been booking Crystal directly for your past seven cruises you have likely missed out in several thousand dollars worth of on-board credits.
This is all a bit of hush-hush stuff because cruise lines do not want it known that they do not have the best pricing options for guests. They depend on a certain amount of direct bookings because every direct booking given them a double profit - one on the fare paid and the second on the travel agent commission they can now pocket. The goal of the industry is to keep the consumer in the dark about pricing. That allows everyone to make false pricing claims and it makes every cruise purchaser, those who book through agents and those who book with the cruise line's call center, feel like they've all scored the deal of the century. It is, if we may say so, all smoke and mirrors.
Unless you have paid in full for your cruise, you can always advise the cruise line that you will be "turning over my booking to "Madam and The Happy Bookers" Travel. Include their phone number and the reservations folks can pull up the agency information. As we've stated previously, booking directly with a cruise line and being charged for an agent's professional services without receiving any of those services is, at best, silly. It is also, in our view, fraudulent.
Q - We are looking at a Tauck Tours Program called Grand Alaska. We love Tauck but notice that the program includes a seven-night inside passage cruise on a Princess Ship. Since Princess is not on the Top-Ten Cruise Lines list, we wonder just how luxurious our experience will be and whether or not this should be a game-killer? We certainly have heard of Princess but we were somewhat surprised that Tauck was using them. In the past, we did a Tauck Mediterranean program but they used one of the French Ponant yachts which we absolutely loved. Will this trip be a disappointment because of the ship? We are also worried about the quality of the shore excursions and having to stand in line for everything we want to do like arrange dining in the evening.
A - You have asked a tough question because there are several elements involved here. Princess has some beautiful hardware, their ships are well planned and highly profitable. They tend to have better-then-average entertainment of the typical mega-ship variety. But Princess is not in oiur top ten lines, or the Top Fifteen, for that matter. These are high-octane mass market cruise ships that are not at all inclusive. Many cruisers are attracted by the line's low entry-level pricing. But will this bother you or impact your vacation in any major negative way? To answer we would need to know your cruising background. If you have sailed with the better luxury lines you will certainly note qualitative differences, sort of the difference between a pizza from Di Matteo in Naples, Italy and a home delivery from Papa John's.
But be assured that this Tauck itinerary is comprehensive, uses the best available hotels, and you will be in the care of specially-trained Tauck guides on-board with exclusive Tauck sightseeing programs.
Tauck travelers are not used to sharing accommodations with several thousand fellow guests. But the beauty of Alaska, the quality of Tauck land tours, and the options you will have on Princess would suggest this is an option worthy of your consideration. It really boils down to how you will handle the crowds and the constant pressures to have you spend more money aboard ship.
This is an extremely high-demand program and the season only lasts 90- days. The smaller luxury lines just cannot provide the inventory that Tauck requires for multiple departure dates.
Q - My wife and I are booked on a cruise that will spend three days in St. Petersburg, Russia. We are trying to decide whether or not to take a local tour or stay with cruise ship tours. Who would take better care of us if one of us became ill? We are both in pretty good health but I am 79 and my wife is 73. My wife is a little worried about taking a local tour.
A - There are several reasons why we would recommend private touring. Having your own driver and English-speaking guide will guarantee you personal attention should there be any unforseen medical issues. But there are other reasons that apply to virtually all cruisers anxious to make St. Petersburg the highlight of their Baltic cruise itinerary.
On a typical in season day, the Port of St. Petersburg, actually there are two ports - one way out of town requiring a bus ride and one right int he center of everything - welcomes between 12-14 cruise ships. About half of these ships are mega-liners carrying a minimum of 3,000 passengers. That means that you can expect 26,000, or so, cruise passengers expecting to see the same three paintings at about the same time in the Hermitage Museum. Since all of these tours tend to leave in the morning at 9:00 am. most of the guests on ship tours find themselves arriving at the same time. This is certainly not the way to get any true sense of life in St. Petersburg, any understanding of current issues, or an appreciation of the city's historical heritage.
But booking local tours can be challenging as the majority of the local operators use sub-standard equipment and guides. Private touring sold by the cruise lines comes with substantial mark-ups as these tours are a major profit center for the cruise lines.[caption id="attachment_2304" align="alignleft" width="229"] Illuminated bridge on white night in St Petersburg[/caption]
You need to sit down with your cruise consultant to plan something that is comfortable and satisfying. Your consultant will have an understanding of your health issues and will plan accordingly. Work with someone who books travel in Russia through a tested and approved on-site office that works with one of the better-regarded travel consortiums. This is your best guarantee of quality as these companies are vetted by the consortium and by the best travel consultants on the planet. Never book touring programs in Russia based on ratings provided on the major review sites. The Russians are, as demonstrated, quite talented at hacking and creating on-line identities that are often totally inaccurate. Russian tour scams are not unknown. Most of the better travel agents know their contacts in Russia personally and meet with them regularly. That is how you book private arrangements in Russia. The best guides will get you around the lines, through the back doors, and they will do all possible to earn your generous tip. But it isn't all about guides in Russia. There are also concerns about the quality of the cars used for transportation and the credentials of the drivers. Getting into someone's private car for touring abroad is just about the highest statistical risk the traveler faces. Sorry for the long response but we want you to get this right. By the way, avoid the water in St. Petersburg at all costs. Drink only carbonated water.
Q - Don't know if you can answer this but, as a CPA, I am really curious about the profit, if any, that cruise lines can make from the spending guests do once aboard the ship. My wife and I have never sailed any of the line son the Top Ten List, but we have sailed Carnival, Norwegian, and are interested in upgrading to Royal Caribbean. By the way - is this really an upgrade? If not, what do you recommend since we travel with our kids and we require a large ship with lid's facilities. Sorry, I digress, so I've looked over the public filings of these cruise lines but couldn't locate the information I was curious about. I'd really love to know how much profit these lines are making from their gift shops, drinks, shore excursions and the other intended profit centers on their ships. I've tried to discuss this with their on-board staff and got no where, as you might imagine. Sorry for rambling. Really enjoy cruisetruth. I wonder why no one knows about it.
A - Dear Rambles - There are, according to the experts at Price-Waterhouse, three questions here:
01 - Norwegian had the highest net revenue per passenger of the three lines at $67.88 per passenger. Royal Caribbean and Carnival were $46.65 and $41.46 respectively per day. All three lines were able to lower their per passenger operating expenses with Carnival coming in at $157.27 per passenger per day. These are all publicly held companies so their financials are available, as you know.
02 - We would recommend that your "upgrade" be to the Celebrity line, the upscale sister to Royal Caribbean.
03 - We don't advertise or hire PR representation so we remain fairly unknown. Sort of like the singer Rodriquez, who everyone should know.
Q - It seems like a lot of the cruise lines are cutting out the Midnight Buffets. We are working our way up to one of the five-star, inclusive small ships you write about but we're trying to find one that has midnight buffets.
A - Sorry - they have gone the way of Bingo and Horseracing. The top-tier lines just do not feel that their clientele is of a mind to eat heavily at midnight. But we think if you try one of the better lines you will find that the snacks served throughout the main lounges and the 24-hour room service will more than suffice. On most of these lines you can get pretty much what you want when you want it. We doubt you will disembark any of the top ten lines we cover looking like a contestant on Survivor.
- [caption id="attachment_1840" align="alignright" width="265"] Mid- Ocean[/caption]
Q - We love , absolutely love your site(s). Hope you can continue forever. But, sad to say, we haven't cruised since an awful big ship experience in 2012. We sailed a ship where our fellow passengers were rude and dressed like slobs. But the worst part was that we had an "assigned" table with a retired surgeon who was a drinker. He kept us "entertained" with stories of his emergency room traumas. Now, we want to do the southern Caribbean route out of San Juan or one of the islands with, shall we say, a more civilized population. Cost is really not an issue for us so your recommendation of the best would be appreciated.
A - Look closely at the itineraries of Seabourn and Regent Seven Seas. But for the best itineraries ands overall experience, we would suggest you concentrate on the 62-Guest Esprit Expedition yacht owned by Crystal Cruises. The Esprit will offer two itineraries out of Marigot Bay, St. Martin, beginning late 2017 and carrying through all of 2018. The "Yachting Escape" itinerary features destinations such as Jost Van Dyke, Virgin Gorda and Tortola, while the "Yachting Explorer" itinerary visits Anguilla, Saba and Nevis, among others. These are going to be the best sailings in the Caribbean based on service, staff to guest ratios, luxury, cuisine, and port selection.
Q - Our friends in Boise will be joining us for a nice cruise next year celebrating my husband's retirement as a school superintendent. He has always wanted to go to Dubai and our agent has come up with a sailing on Azamara aboard the Journey on November 14th next year. But I doubt she's ever been to "Middle" anywhere unless it's the midwest so I'd love to have you look over the itinerary. If someone is going to this part of the world, are there better itineraries? This seemed like both a good deal and the right amount of time but, I have to tell you, our only international travel has been to London and Scotland. Thanks so much.
A - We thought we would show everyone your proposed itinerary so they can be in on the conversation:
Day 1 Dubai Day 2 Dubai 10:00 PM Day 3 Khasab 7:30 AM 2:00 PM Day 4 Muscat 7:30 AM Day 5 Muscat 6:00 PM Day 6 At Sea Day 7 Al Manamah 7:00 AM 9:00 PM Day 8 Doha 7:00 AM 6:00 PM Day 9 Abu Dhabi 7:30 AM Day 10 Abu Dhabi 1:00 PM Continued Dubai 8:00 PM Day 11 Dubai
We particularly like the double overnight at each end in Dubai. This will likely save you money on pre/post cruise hotel nights. The overnights in Muscat and Abu Dhabi are also quite unusual and they will enable to you to see these fascinating locations at night without any transportation or security fears. We won't spoil what awaits you in Doha, but we expect it to be the highlight of your trip.
We think that the Journey is a good choice for your first Journey out of the comfort zone. You will be visiting countries with a significantly higher standard of living than our own country will much better roads, hotels, shopping, and infrastructure. Crime is pretty much a non-issue. We do suggest a reading of the Koran before the trip to gain an understanding of the underpinning religious belief in several of these Muslim nations. We suggest that you arrive two nights early and book the best hotel available - even if you feel it is too expensive. That is part of the Dubai experience and you need to both rest up after your long journey and then do some local exploring. Yes, there are more expensive, more inclusive five-star cruise options but we think, for this trip, your agent has placed you on a comfortable ship with a wonderful program that will enable you to arrive early and still be under two weeks. Try to fly up and back on Emirates with a connection to Boise. You will have several gateway options.
Best to avoid too many Jerry Seinfeld references while you are there.
Q - In researching a planned cruise to China, we've come across a line called Dream Cruises. They seem to be really under the radar and are not even reviewed on Cruisetruth. Is this a red flag or just an oversight? Wondering if we should include Dream on our "possible" list which currently includes Crystal and Silverseas? Any insights would be appreciated. By the way, I am curious - who funds this site? It would seem that you have a fair number of writers/employees and, with no advertising, I am wondering how you turn a profit?
A - Dream Cruises is a new venture launched by Genting Hong Kong, the company that bought Crystal Cruises in 2015. Genting took two new-builds that were going to be deployed by their Asia-based brand, Star Cruises. The two ships, including the Dream, are scheduled to sail a combination of two-five-and seven-night itineraries in China and Vietnam. Unlike virtually all other new China-based brands, Dream is catering to an upscale Chinese market. Let's call it four star luxury. It is not competing with Crystal int he five-star arena. On some sailings, guests coming in from abroad can sail out of Hong Kong.The new ship will have 35 food and bar venues as well as no less than five private Karaoke rooms. Daily room rates will average under $200 USD which is still higher than the per diems currently in place on less expensive competitors. Unless you are seeking a truly in-depth experience on a Chinese ship catering to guests from the Pearl River Delta area of China, we would suggest you seek out one of your alternative options.
This site is part of the Churchill & Turen Ltd. Media Group. We do not operate our sites on a for-profit basis. We do not accept any outside funding. and we pay all expenses, including salaries, for the maintenance and content of these consumer-sites.
So, you may ask, what is in it for us? Our sites do attract a rather surprising number of upscale, potential long-term clients who are compatible with our approach and values and who realize that, for 91% of our vacation-planning services in 2015, we charged no fees of any kind.
Q - We were assigned a three and a half-hour layover in Frankfort on a cruise we booked online that is due to depart in three weeks. Now, it turns out that the United flight we were promised is being flown on a Lufthansa airplane.
My wife and I are booked in an Oceania Suite and I am extremely upset about this air schedule to Venice. Who can we speak to at this point. I know you will likely pooh-pooh this question because I booked it online but I can tell you that my wife is traveling completely free except for her air cost so it was a pretty great deal. Just found this site and don't know if you answer such questions.
A - Thank you for your charming note. Of course we will respond as you have raised questions we see rather frequently. You are booked on a code-share flight. United and Lufthansa are partners. Of the two airlines, Lufthansa is somewhat higher-rated so be thankful for small blessings. In Frankfort you will be going through both passport control and security even though you are just "In Transit". Frankfort is an airport that does its best to destroy the myth of German efficiency so a three-four hour connection is what we normally recommend to our cruise guests. While it is true that a two-hour connection can usually work at virtually any European Airport, that would place pressure on you if your flight was delayed. But, quite frankly, we are more concerned with your luggage missing the connection. Starting a cruise without luggage is really stress-inducing and think how badly it would make your suitcases feel. It is best to enjoy the extremely high quality coffee and strudel available in the Frankfort airport. We think your basic assumption may be wrong. It is highly likely that you got this excellent flight connection specifically because you are booked in one of Oceania's premier suites. We do suggest that you have your online agent arrange for flight monitoring service for this trip. We are going to send you a report that explains how cruise line air programs really work with a number of recommended strategies.
As to your wife's "Free" Cruise. Oceania has featured "Two-For-One" Fares with a 50% reduction for each guest off the published or List price of the cabin for some time. That can be packaged by an agency as a "Free" cruise for the second guest if the first guest (you) pays the full fare. Although they made you feel great about our purchase, the fact is that the vast majority of your fellow on-board guests will have received the same offer. Enjoy Frankfort Airport.
Q - We were in a netherworld of fake reviews and reports by "critics" after their free trips - so really glad to stumble upon your site. (As a person who works in PR, I'd suggest you think about hiring someone to publicize you. Everyone knows Cruise Critic - but no one knows you) I've decided to come to you for advice and, if you'll have us, we'd love to work with you. Here's the issue - after doing whatever due diligence one can do on the various "all the cruise lines smell like roses" sites, I think we've narrowed it down to Sea Dream (yes, we understand the cabins are smallish and the ships are thirty years old) or Seabourn. My husband is a workaholic - the deal is that he won;t be bringing work along if I pack my Victoria Secrets favorites. I suppose this is a fourth or fifth "honeymoon" opportunity (don;t you dare use my name) and we need to choose the line that might be best suited to a sudden decision to "just stay in our cabin". Love the site, and thank you for editing out the inane and the mundane.
A - For a "honeymoon" we are going to recommend Sea Dream. It is a more private and intimate experience. You will be able to dine alone when you wish, and the beds are the same size as they are on Seabourn, although the cabin itself will be smaller. But given what you have described, either can work. Asie from the itineraries, we would suggest you think about your preference for a large yacht or a small cruise ship. If your answer is yacht, go with Sea Dream.
Thanks for your PR advice. In our 30-year history we've managed to grow entirely on word-of-mouth and we intend to keep it that way. We're not counting "likes".
Q - We've been entirely impressed with the ships and service on Silversea and we have an upcoming 20-Day sailing coming up with them this winter in the Orient. We booked on-board to get extra incentives so we were not able to use a consultant. On our last cruise, we used the Concierge on the Silver Whisper to make restaurant reservations for us several times. Although the line has a "no Tipping" policy I wonder what an average daily tip for the Concierge would be for such services booked on-board?
A - Normally, we would recommend a gratuity to the on-board concierge of between $10-$20 per day assuming special services or reservations ashore have been made on your behalf. The difficulty level determines the tip. Any of the Lines on our Top Ten cruisetruth.com site pay a salary with benefits to their Concierge Team. But gratuities for off-ship arrangements are entirely appropriate no matter what the policy. The best way to handle this is to shake hands with the Concierge prior to disembarkation with an envelope discreetly placed in your palm.
Savvy cruisers bring along a number of envelopes address to top-level management so they can slip in a note complimenting a particular member of the crew before getting off the ship.
Finally, we need to correct something you stated in your question. There is never, not once, an instance in which any booking made aboard a quality ship with the on-board cruise consultant can't be immediately turned over to a cruise consultant. This is something that happens with our firm on a daily basis and we encourage our clients to book on-board. The lines have our number and contact information in their on-board system and they know when we booked you originally. When we receive your confirmation from the line,usually while you are still on your original cruise, we check it for pricing accuracy, make certain that you have been booked in the best possible cabin location, and then certify you, sometimes lowering your price, to include unpublished consortium offers etc. There really isn;t any competition in all this. Cruise bookings are complex and involve any number of decisions related to pre/post, insurance, air etc. The on-board cruise consultant has no expertise in these areas. But they are equipped to reserve your stateroom on a future cruise. It sounds as though you have found a second home at sea. Enjoy your cruise.
Q - My husband and I were surprised, as were our friends Tad and Susie, with whom we have cruised six times, that Disney did not make your excellent list of the World's Ten Best Cruise Lines. You must be childless snobs or Disney has gone downhill as they are rated at or near the top on other sites. We have two kids, ages 11 and 14 and Tad and Suzie have three kids in the same general age group. We trust your information is the best and we respect your honesty but we need to know if we would be making a mistake booking a seven-night Disney cruise next May 27th to the Western Caribbean on the Fantasy. We've been on Royal Caribbean on four of our prior cruises and Crystal, which we loved, on non-family cruises.
A - Disney is tough to evaluate accurately because they are a true family-oriented cruise line whose on-board product is geared to the fact that a majority of guests are traveling with their children or grandchildren. We concur with the generally high ratings that Disney receives and with their new-ship building program, highly successful rehab program, and numerous awards, Disney deserves the accolades and is certainly in the running, along with Celebrity as the best of the mega-ship lines.
But this is a family resort at sea - a unique product. We are not "childless" and we've taken our family aboard Disney ships more than once. Disney ships have been sailed numerous times by our CSI (Certified Ship Inspectors) Team. They are not included in our top ten because they are not inclusive, they operate ships with high density ratios, and their policies are not always consumer-friendly. Their food is institutional and not cooked to order, their entertainment appeals to a rather limited mass market segment, and prices for drinks and other services come at additional cost. We also think they are sometimes overpriced for what they offer. Disney is certainly four-star, they are excellent at what they do, but they are not among the world's top ten cruise lines. If we expanded our Ratings to include the "Top Twenty" cruise lines Disney would surely be among them.
As to whether or not we are "snobs" - you better hope that we are. If we did not have high expectations on your behalf, our ratings and commentary would be worthless. If you are traveling with young children and you want to make them totally happy at sea, there is Disney and everyone else follows. When it comes to adults, that's a very different cartoon.
Q - We have done two cruises on NCL and one Costa. We are now ready to step up. As we read your excellent reviews and information we see no mention of Midnight Buffets, something we would always look forward to on our previous cruises. Which lines in the Top Ten have them.
A - Midnight Buffets are associated with mega-ships and traditional cruising. The better lines do not find that their guests want to be offered massive amounts of food at midnight. The chances are that they have been asleep for two hours by the time midnight rolls around. For those who are hungry, top-level lines offer decent 24-hour room service.
Sorry to be breaking this bad news. You will also need to accept the fact, while you will no doubt see fois gras and caviar, offered with champagne, the waiters will not be prancing through the dining room with "Baked Alaska" held aloft. It is a different reality. There are professional cruise psychologists who will help you make the adjustment.
Q - We had an absolutely awful cruise experience in 2012 and have not cruised since. The staff was often rude, and the passengers dressed like slobs, and no one seemed to have any sense of propriety and manners. But the worst part was that we were assigned a table with a retired, alcoholic surgeon who kept us "entertained" with stories of emergency room traumas. Now, we want to do the Southern Caribbean route from San Juan with, hopefully, a more civilized group of fellow passengers. Do any of these lines specialize in college educated guests?
A - Your question raises questions. Did a good cruise consultant place you on the wrong ship? Does your budget preclude sailing on a smaller, more upscale smaller ship? Why are you limiting your experiences to the Caribbean?
Here are some things you can do to assure an on-board environment that will likely meet your needs:
- Concentrate your search on one of our cruisetruth top-ten rated lines. If price is an issue, consider one of the less "tween" four-star lines like Azamara or Oceania.
- Try to do a ten-night rather than a seven-night cruise in the Caribbean. That will dramatically improve the education demographics of your fellow guests.
- Choose an itinerary out of San Juan that includes ports in both the British Virgin island chain and the French-speaking islands. Avoid a Western Caribbean itinerary.
- Choose a cruise consultant who has actually won production awards from the top-tier lines and is, therefore, in a position to counsel you on their differences.
- Do not cruise the Caribbean from June through September. The best ships avoid the Caribbean during this period.
- Buy up - look for a cruise in the $400 or more per day price range. That will substantially change the kind of guests attracted to the product. If you can't afford one of the better cruises we would advise you to delay your plans until you can. That sounds harsh, but we want you to understand that, despite all the deceptive marketing and beautiful photos, in cruising, you generally get what you pay for. The executives who operate these ships have yield and profits down to a science and you should always strive to avoid those travel products that are clearly appealing to the budget travelers. In marketing research they are often referred to by terms such as "Tattoos and Trailers". The fact is that you can make a ton of money with mass market products. Cruise lines do not speak about all of this openly but if you look closely at the photo models in their brochures, and the way they are dressed, you will get a sense of who they are really seeking as potential guests.
Q - We've relied on this site a great deal as we've planned for our first cruise to Europe. We did Azamara in the Caribbean and absolutely loved it. Your review was dead on. It seemed the decor was getting a bit tired but now that the Journey has been refurbished, we think the 11-night cruise from Venice to Civitavecchia sounds really interesting. As our previous experience is only with seven-night, and one disastrous four-night, jaunts in the Caribbean, we wonder if you can break this down for us and tell us if we're on the right track?
A - We like this itinerary and the October 3rd departure date gets you cooler temperatures and a 50% reduction in the crowds you will encounter during your journey on the Journey. You may encounter rain during the final week. But we think the trade-off for an excellent itinerary is well worth the risk. Here are some things we particularly like about this itinerary:
- Overnight in Venice
- Highlights of Croatia
- Nice selection of Greek island ports
- Two nights along Amalfi Coast in ports unavailable to larger ports
- 11-nights is, in our view, the right length for a cruise of this type.
- This itinerary illustrates Azamara's lack of interest in days at sea. There are none - perfect for those who enjoy actually experiencing Europe.
Q - This whole concept of a place where people can learn how things really work in the cruise industry is great but that is not what this site is. As an agent, I would love to use your material for my clients but you are intentionally listing only the most expensive lines when you know damn well that Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian dominate the industry. So you are really turning your backs on most of the agents and most of the lines they book to, instead, promote the most expensive lines. That may be one reason the big lines are not advertising on this site. Wise up. We're not stupid.
A - We are dreadfully sorry that we have not been following your guidelines so that you may have an easier time stealing our content to use with your clients. So just a few observations that might be helpful:
The material on our sites is copyright protected. Our sites are not written for travel agents or commissioned travel sales types. We are not a site that purports to cover the cruise industry. Our efforts are totally devoted to offering the consumer qualitative analysis of the top ten cruise lines in the world. There are thousands of sites that cover the lines you have mentioned. We are constantly being solicited by industry advertisers. We do not accept advertising of any kind so we can remain free to tell the Cruise Truth. Finally, cost is a relative thing. The mass market lines sell top level suites that cost as much or more than accommodations on the world's very best all-inclusive small ships. You remind us of the thief who broke into a home in an LA suburb and left a note complaining that there was no deli meat in the refrigerator for sandwiches.
Q - We have just returned from a cruise on Oceania, a line we really love. It is our third cruise with them and we can't imagine any other line having better food, as CruiseTruth points out. On our first cruise to New England/Canada we just walked around the towns on our own. On our second cruise sailing out of Miami, who hired three guides we found searching online and that did not work out all that well. On this last cruise, we signed up for the shore excursions offered by Oceania.
We had a mixed bag although our guide in Tallin, Estonia had to be the worst ever. She would not answer any questions about the government or lifestyle in her country and refused to discussed the immigration issues they have been experiencing. She never mentioned food and she brought us into a shop that was clearly a place where she was friends with the owners. Other people on our ship did a different version of our tour and had a totally different kind of experience. So what is the trick to getting one of the better guides when you book an excursion offered by the ship?
A - Booking shore excursions aboard ship is a form of travel roulette. Cruise passengers aboard the top-lines imagine that the cruise line carefully selects the best guides for each excursion. This is not true. Guides are assigned to the ships by the shore excursion company used by your cruise line. Oceania may, for instance, be using the same tour operator in Tallin that is used by Carnival, Royal Caribbean, or Silversea, Generally speaking, the most expensive ships get access to the best guides because the experienced guides with seniority want to work with the most affluent clients. The worst guides are those advertising their services on the internet. They are usually not affiliated with a leading company for a reason. And the very fact that they are "available" should raise suspicions, The best guides book up months in advance and the best of the best refuse to work with groups at all. They are only available through travel planners who are in contact with them through membership in one of the better consortium groups where privately-guided in port excursions are the rule rather than the exception.
If you are seeking a truly memorable cruise experience we would suggest two strategies, although this will increase your overall cost: First, choose pre/post hotels carefully - cruise lines book large numbers of guests and many of the best hotels will not work with cruise lines. Secondly, have a top cruise consultant choose a private guide in the ports that are most important to you. You will never regret this additional cost and the bus passengers aboard your ship will be envious when you come back tot he ship and tell them what you did. Ask yourself this question: "If I am not going on a mass market ship - why would I want to go on a mass market bus tour"?
Q - My father-in-law has an agent who is in love with Viking Cruises, which I understand is fairly new. We're loyal Holland America fans. We'd love to join them on a European capitals sailing but we're wondering if we will be really disappointed. Do they include as much as Holland America and are they really that great a value?
A - Lots of travel agents seem to be excited about the new Viking Cruise brand. The ships are sleek and have a minimalist Scandinavian vibe. But you have to dissect this line's marketing hype to get down to what is really being offered. For instance, yes drinks are "included" but not in the same way they would be, unconditionally" on our top-rated lines. Instead, Viking includes their limited selection of beer, wine, and soft drinks served only with lunch or dinner. They claim shore excursions are "included" but dig down and you will find that only one, rather basic, shore excursion is included in each port. The better tours come at a surcharge. That is still more than Holland America would typically include in their cruise fare. Viking Cruises is a "tween" niche cruise product. They are ideal for those seeking a moderately-priced cruise with a strong itinerary and generally weak shore offerings. We think they will compare quite favorably with your prior cruise experiences and we would suggest that you give them a try. In terms of the specifics of pricing, they will come in at about $442 per day which is fairly close to Holland America in entry-level veranda cabin. Viking is somewhat more inclusive and your stateroom would be larger at 270 sq. feet. If you really don't want to travel with your father-in-law do let us know and we'll write a more negative response.
Q - Three days ago I placed a call to an outfit called Quark Expeditions about a sailing to Antarctica. They have 10-12 day programs on an older expedition vessel operating through March. The salesperson I spoke with said that only a limited number of visitors can go ashore in zodiacs at any one time so it is always best to go on a ship with fewer than 200 guests. True or False? BTW - Great info.
A - True but the larger ships manage that particular issue quite well so we would not suggest making a decision on that basis.
Q - We have just started planning a Baltic cruise taking in Scandinavia and Russia. But we are getting wildly divergent opinions regarding the best month to go. Please let me know when we should do this trip?
A - The Scandinavians luxuriate in sunny days but they really love, along with the Russians, the evening light. They get out and about and they are fun to be around. We want you to do this trip between May 15th and July 20th. The very best time is around the 15th of June when the sun lingers and the nights do not get dark. In St. Petersburg they call these the famed "White Nights". Even Putin smiles in mid-June.
Q - We are anxious to book an Antarctica sailing on one of two new ships supposed to be launched in 2018 - the Crystal Endeavor and the Scenic Eclipse. As we want to start reading and getting ready for this trip, which will you be recommending to us in terms of overall quality and safety of operations. Also would love to know what your charges would be as we have not worked with you previously.
A - This is going to require some discussion. You are correct to plan ahead. Both ships will be Polar 6-rated so no worries there. We will want to look at pricing and your preferences in terms of the type and nationality of your fellow guests. We fully expect both ships to be nothing short of spectacular. The Eclipse is being built in Croatia while the Endeavor is being built in a German yard. Interestingly enough, both ships are currently scheduled to launch in August of 2018 so this will be a "title fight" worth watching. The Eclipse will carry two helicopters and a submarine while the Endeavor will have two helicopters plus two submarines. The Eclipse will have the more international mix of passengers.
We charge no fees in conjunction with our booking of cruises, river boats, or luxury escorted tour programs. Our services are complimentary. If you ask us to plan a unique private tour somewhere in the world we have to charge for those services. Hope this helps.
Q - Just returned from a sensational Silverseas cruise in Alaska. You don't praise this line enough as it is, based on our 13 prior cruises, the very best of the best. There was an interesting discussion one evening at our table about the rights of crew members like the lovely folks from the Philippine who served us. Are they protected by US law?
A - Complicated question which we are totally unqualified to answer. That said - here's our response: Crew legal rights, of which there are few, come under the Jones Act passed in 1920 to protect American seaman. The test case occurred in 2006 (Bautista vs. Star Cruises) in which it was ruled that Philippine nationals working on board cruise ships can only be employed if the employer signs a mandatory contract, This contract requires that legal matters be arbitrated in the Philippines where no-fault worker's compensation has been in place for many decades.
One of the questions that comes up often has to do with the rights of a crew member in international waters who is charged with a crime. In that scenario, the home country of a non-US citizen has the right to investigate an allegation of a serious crime.
Although the mouthpiece of the cruise industry, the Cruise line International Association, would disagree with the following conclusion, we are of the opinion that the average luxury cruise passenger would be shocked at the labor law restrictions placed via limited-term employment contracts on foreign national crew.It is not a coincidence that, except for certain areas in the Entertainment Department, American workers are rarely found working on upper end cruise ships. It is highly unlikely they would put up with the contractual working conditions.
Q - We're about ready to book our first cruise. We're read the online reviews, your stuff, and looked at the line's web sites. But now its time to pull the plug. Is there a way to work with you on getting this done?
We live in Los Angeles and we are foodies and steak and potatoes people. Cost is not an issue and we would want to start at or near the top. But I would want to know that the ship I was sailing had a great on-board restaurant where I could get a great steak. I would not want to be charged extra or see charges for cocktails etc. We've read enough to know there are many good restaurants at sea but, given what I've said, which one sounds like it might be right for us assuming we like the itinerary in Europe?
A - Not sure we would like a cut of beef to determine which floating boutique hotel is going to best float your boat. To work with us we would ask you to complete an application that includes profile information. We would then determine if the fit was good. We book millions of dollars of luxury cruises each year but we are not hungry for new clients as we work at capacity. So compatibility is important.
There are many opportunities such as Prime 7 on Regent's ships. But our single favorite restaurant of the moment is The Grill by three-star Michelin Chef Thomas Keller. The restaurant has opened on the Quest and will be opened on the other Seabourn ships during their annual dry dock. The new Seabourn Encore and Ovation will feature the restaurant. Caesar salad will be made tableside and lobster thermidor will also be available.
Q - We have been following your Q and A since you started and we thank you for such honest feedback. Our employment situation has changed and I've resigned from three Boards, so my wife and I can now start doing several cruises a year. Our plan is to start with one of the small middle-=range lines that offer personal services. In a few years we will work our way up to the more deluxe ships. Our reading is leading us to Windstar. Realizing they do not have new ships, their pricing seems to be extremely reasonable for what they offer in terms of intimate ships, good itineraries, and a reputation for good food. So what is the down side? And should we be looking at the "sail" boats or the ships they acquired from Seabourn?
A - Windstar does represent good value and you can do a one week cruise for under $8,000 per couple despite their ships small, yacht-like size. The down side would be that the line is not inclusive so there is no stocked mini-bar, wine is not included, and transfers, gratuities, and cocktails are all at additional cost.Shore excursions as well as drinks are expensive and airfare is normally not included. The price you pay for your cruise is not the price you will pay for your vacation with the potential that the initial cruise fare could double based on your on-board lifestyle.
Our Certified Ship Inspectors have enjoyed Windstar and they have pointed out that itinerary alone can often justify the choice of this line. Their ships can get to ports many of the larger ships have to skip. Drinkers, however, may be disappointed at the constant signing of chits. The food is good but it is not in the same class as the top-rated lines. Personally, we prefer the sailing yachts but do be aware that these ships are rarely under sail. A real plus is Windstar's staffing with British officers and Indonesian and Filipino crew the norm. Many guests feel that the crew is a significant part of the Windstar experience. We think your general plan makes sense as long as you are not expecting both five-star service and the type of fellow-passenger it attracts.
Q - The online reviews have all been quite positive for the new Regent Explorer. We're wondering if Regent will be ordering another one as I understand it takes three years to build? We missed the Inaugural of the Explorer but we may like to book the first sailing of any new ships they launch. By the way, how did all these "reviews" come out about the same time the ship made its first sailing? Do these people who write their evaluations actually sail on these ships?
A - Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, Regent's Owner, has formally announced that a sister ship to the Explorer will be built at the Fincantieri yard in Italy with scheduled delivery in 2020. She will be 54,000 GRT and carry 738 passengers. (GRT is gross registered tons. The ship will also carry approx. 500 crew)
As is often the case, the Explorer sailed a short voyage prior to the formal "Inaugural". Top agents and the cruise-specialized press were invited. It was a complimentary invitation and the result was immediate buzz online and in the press even before the first sailing was completed. When we say "press" we mean it in the traditional sense. Anyone can blog anything about anything without ever having been near a ship. It is maddening but it is where technology has led us.
By the way, you might note that our evaluation of the new Regent Explorer was not entirely positive. But then again, we didn't accept the free trip.
Q - We are already planning for a new life of cruising devoid of canned Gershwin tributes, scam art auctions, and silly dress requirements. We are active, adventure types and I suppose we are getting ready to "retire" from cruising (Crystal is our brand of choice) to something smaller and more adventurous. We love true five-star service and we prefer a comfortable sprinkling of guests from more civilized societies.
A - The leader in Expedition Luxury Cruising is Silversea. But a two new Expedition ships have been ordered for top-rated Hapag-Lloyd with the firsts hip scheduled for delivery in 2019. The new Scenic Eclipse will also be a game-changer in this market. These are the three lines we think ought to be the focus of your daydreams. There is something wonderful about cavorting with the penguins on their stretch of ice and returning to the mother-ship for a bit of iced champagne and caviar on ice. Try to keep that image alive as you wait out the ship construction process. Can't imagine what you don't like about the on-board art auctions - don't you have any appreciation for one of a kind, #117 in a series, premier prints run off a printing press?
Q - Cheers. My wife enjoys browsing boutique and secondhand shops, and we both enjoy a scenic or interesting walk. We live in a beautiful coastal town in Massachusetts so we don't feel the need to do much traveling, and have never done a cruise. We do go to London once a year for a week or so where we can stay in one place, usually the Royal Automobile Club, not pack and unpack, and have plenty to see and do. We are now interested in smaller boat cruising and river boating because it may offer the chance to see fun little towns and places without having to pack and unpack. We are both fit and enjoy at least a daily walk. We have no interest in large cruise ships. What do you suggest we investigate? Thank you.
A - It strikes us that you might enjoy river barging more than traditional river boating or small ship cruising. The daily meandering and ability to use the walking paths, no more than 12 couples, tying up just outside local villages, sounds like it might come closest to your expectations. We would also encourage you to look at Sea Dream Yachts, the smallest available cruise ships with some excellent itineraries and no more than 98 fellow guests. In terms of river boats, we would suggest that you concentrate on the smaller boats that navigate the seine river and the Bordeaux region. Look most seriously at Uniworld and AMA. There are normally several walking tours a day off the AMA river boats, each based on various levels of walking stamina. Or, then again, you might better spend your money renting a home for a few weeks in a lovely village in Maine and do what you love to do.
Q - We've just returned from a Sea Dream Cruise that your firm booked for us - thank you very much. While on-board, the crew was telling some of us that the line is building a new ship to be called Sea Dream carrying 200 guests, twice the size of the current vessels. What can you share about this new ship?
A - Only that it does not seem to exist. No yard has announced a contract signing and there has been no announcement from the Sea Dream press people so we have to imagine this is still int he wish list category. But the Norwegian shipping family that owns Sea Dream is certainly in a position to build a new ship and current pricing models would suggest that this is a good time to order a ship that might emerge in 2019. By simply building a 200-Guest ship, Sea Dream would be doubling its capacity. The line's current ships, Sea Dream 1 and 11, were built in 1984 and 1985 in Finland. They originally sailed as the Sea Goddess Yachts for Cunard.
With truly personalized service, excellent food, and a totally relaxed on-board style, Sea Dream has been racking up some impressive occupancy numbers as of late. Many cruisers are unaware that there is actually an inclusive cruise line whose ships carry fewer guests than the average European river boat.
Q - As we have learned,carefully reading (and enjoying) the information you have put together, what you see is not always what you get when you book a cruise. We are trying to figure out whether or not we should choose Windstar, Azamara, or Oceania. From your reviews, we are leaning toward Azamara, but are noticing that Oceania is offering "Free Air" and Azamara isn't. Windstar seems not to have an air program at all and we've kind of ruled it out. We're dealing with one of the online agencies, Expedia, and they are pushing Oceania. Just want you to sign off on the decision. The Free air seems to us to be a reason to tilt us in that direction.
A - It is hard to counsel you without many more specifics. If you have had an extensive interview with the agent you are working with, and feel that she knows you well, her advice might be worth something. Her personal cruise experience and expertise should weigh heavy on any recommendation. That said, we would suggest that you take similar cabin types and divide the total cost without air by the number of nights you will spend aboard the ship. This is the formula most pros use but few consumers seem aware of it. Once you get a per diem cost without including air, you will be in a position to compare value. Is Oceania's Free Air really free or is Oceania simply smarter at marketing their cruises? And then there's the ethical question - if you can buy a cruise without air for a significantly lower price than a cruise with "Free Air", just how free is the air? Oceania has generally creative itineraries and superior cuisine than either Azamara or Windstar. They are all in a unique category of cruise - neither luxury or mass market. Let's call them premium. The fact is you likely will not go wrong on any of your three final choices. If you trust your consultant, we would suggest that you consider her advice carefully.
Whatever happens - put it in perspective: You are about to make a $10,000 - $20,000 decision based on the influence of someone on the internet who may or may not have taken the time to talk to you several times in an attempt to know you well.
Q - We completed our first cruise on the Viking Star, which was highly recommended by our agent. Since this line does not appear to be in the Top Ten Ratings of cruise lines we were skeptical. We're in our mid-forties and were told that Viking had a younger clientele. We boarded in Venice and kept looking for the folks our age and never found them.
We thought the ship was absolutely beautiful and the food was as good as advertised. We particularly enjoyed Manfredi's, the "by-reservation only" Italian venue. The Spa was absolutely gorgeous and we really appreciated the well-designed Scandinavian decor. What we didn't like was the cancellation of our day in Istanbul, one of the main purposes of the trip. The substitution of Canakkale was not planned well and a waste of time. The port information was confusing and poorly planned. I suppose our question is did we receive the right advice about the ship in the first place and should we make a stick about the fact that they caved in to fear by eliminating Istanbul. It was pretty clear to us that they were afraid of lawsuits.
A - The Viking Star is making headlines and winning awards for its affordable package pricing and striking contemporary decor. It is not, however, a line that seems geared to attract forty-somethings. You are, truth be told, in an age group where the finer options in travel will be heavily populated by retirees. Our advice is just to accept that fact. If you don't, you will be sentencing yourselves to a self-imposed state of travel mediocrity.
Viking's new cruise product is still being inspected and evaluated by our staff. But initial reports would seem to indicate that Viking has a good chance to enter the world's "Top Ten", displacing one of the existing lines.
There are reports of confusion at the front desk and an inability to react quickly and with grace when things head south. Viking is not good at improvisation at sea, a characteristic of their river boat product as well.
You have absolutely no basis for complaining about the elimination of Istanbul on your itinerary. There have been attacks on tourist sites within the country and the government is in the process of striking down the opposition with a rather heavy hand. Viking made the absolutely correct decision of not placing their guests in harm's way. Every bit of fine print in every cruise line brochure explains that port substitutions may be made based on local conditions. If you wish to spend time in Istanbul we suggest you fly there for a few days. You will find that Turkish Air and local hotel rates are at their lowest point in years. And, the very best local guides are not all booked, as has previously been the case.
Q - As a frequent cruiser, I've been on eight of your top-ten rated lines, I am interested in the financials of some of these businesses. It seems to me that it is extremely difficult, with all of the discounting, to really make money in the cruise industry. The new Virgin ships won't be paid off for many, many years so I'm wondering where the money comes from and how much it really takes to get a venture like that off the ground. Is Richard Branson
A - Much of the financial details concerning investment and profits is shielded from public scrutiny with the exception of the larger, publicly held companies. This has, in recent years, had more to do with outstanding profits rather than the embarrassment of failure. In fact, many analysts are predicting a profit ranges of 8-10% going forward to 2020 when , it is projected, new ship construction will slow.
We don't know the financial specifics for Virgin. The "street" talk is that it is a total investment of about $800 million with Branson's Virgin Group putting up approximately $100 of that amount and Bain Capital, Mitt Romney's former firm, taking on the largest investment share. Virgin is still collecting data from Virgin fans and potential cruisers before releasing firm plans for the design of three 2,800 ships to begin entering service in 2020.
Q - Dear Sirs; I am writing to inform you that the politically correct have taken over Seabourn Cruise Lines. I sit here on my porch on a sparkling evening in Eugene, Ore. The stars are bright and I have a glass of cognac on the table next to me. In my hand I have a rather excellent Cuban cigar. I am comfortable and disturbed at the same time. I had booked a Seabourn cruise for this December on the Sojourn. Earlier this week I was advised by my travel agent that Seabourn has changed its smoking policy. I will no longer be able to smoke on my own balcony, even though I pay a small fortune for some of their top suites. I will also no longer be able to enjoy a smoke after dinner in the Observation Lounge. Much like a leper, I will be relegated to the open terrace that is right off Seabourn Square on Deck 7.
Don't these management types realize that I have other options? Don't they realize that a "gentleman", which I consider I am, wants to be able to indulge in a fine cigar in a proper setting with a cognac by his side? I will not be relegated or cast off to a hidden space outdoors. What will happen if I choose not to be politically correct and I continue my Seabourn lifestyle as I have been allowed to do for the last six years of sailing? Trust you will pass this on with the encouragement that the policy be changed.
A - Nicely written - poorly conceived. Smokers have no rights. They are mostly suicidal, which is fine with us as long as their stink does not reach our nostrils. You really don't have options. Smoking anything on a cruise ship is dangerous so restrictions such as those most recently adopted by Seabourn are now the norm. Our favorite part of your note was the fact that you see yourself as a "gentleman". A real gentleman would never light a cigar on an open cabin balcony given the odors it would emit to other portions of the ship and the obvious fire risk from errant ashes.
Q - We have a friend who once worked as a stevedore on the Cunard Line. He is 81 and still reads all he can about the cruise industry. The other night he told us that there are now lines where you board the ship and the passengers actually vote on where they are going. This sounds impossible but he insists it's true.
A - That would present any number of logistical problems, a few fistfights, dozens of lawsuits, and a fair amount of drama. But it did happen on May of this year year on the top-rated Europe 2. It had been tested the year before on the Europa, a ship largely marketed in Germany. The Europa 2 cruise sailed from Istanbul to Athens and passengers were given a list of 2o possible destinations. Each day, the Captain would consult the weather charts and guests were offered a number of port choices. The on-board destination experts would then do a "sell" for each port and the guests would decide by secret ballot. The vote outcome was first released to Hillary's e-mail server and then announced in the dining room during dinner. This actually worked out quite well and it did not present any real operational problems. Hapag-Lloyd will be doing it again and we expect a US-based cruise line to try this out on an experimental basis in the near future. The people who seem to have the hardest time with the concept are the marketing types who strangely feel that somehow listing where a ship will actually stop in a brochure is helpful tot he decision-making process. Please tell your friend we wish him the best.
Q - If I may offer a critique - you seem to really gloss over another luxury option for people like us. We are willing to pay for private, top-drawer accommodations with, perhaps, a private dining option, butler service. etc. But we are also interested in going to the on-board shows, art sales, lectures and classes, and the quick buffets. I know that some of these options are better than others. Who offers true luxury within the body of a mass market (to use your term) larger ship and who would you recommend? We're "players" - we like to sleep with the snobs but we like to play with the commoners.
A - Your choices really boil down to MSC's "Yacht Club", NCL's "Haven", and the Cunard Princess and Queen's Grill Suites. These are all luxury spots with unique accommodations for upper end travelers on top of a few thousand just plain folk. Of these, the Cunard brand is unique and Queen's Grill on an Atlantic Crossing is still recommended. But the line that seems to be pulling off this concept most successfully is Norwegian Cruise line with their Haven concept. Think butler service, a private dining enclave, and an absolutely off limits to any but Haven guests exclusivity. You are correct. We have not done it justice because of our feeling that if you are going to pay for something really excellent, it needn't be located directly above the rock-climbing wall or the bingo lounge.
The real advantage of The Haven and the top suite accommodations on Celebrity,, is the opportunity for families to enjoy top accommodations while their kids still have access to a full menu of organized games and activities.
Q - My husband and my sister and her husband have been cruising together for the past eight years on Crystal, Silversea, and Azamara. And while nothing comes close to Crystal in terms of service, food, and entertainment, they all seem to have one thing in common - a few real shore excursion clinkers. Do each of these lines plan their own excursions or is there some sharing? Is there any way to find out in advance which are the really better excursions ashore? Should there be savings when the four of us travel together?
A - Planning shore excursions is an extremely complicated project in any port. The cruise line must bring together port agents and local operators to try to craft a program that meets the needs of the port, the community, and an operator who have a very clearly defined number of available air-conditioned buses and guides. Cruise lines can try to create options and they can, where there is suitable operator competition, seek out bids. But as ships cruise to more and more exotic ports, options are often quite limited and cruise lines might love a destination while hating their inability to find a local tourism infrastructure that truly understands the expectations of the luxury traveler. Perhaps only "Uncle Phil" owns the required five air-conditioned buses. And he can charge what the traffic will allow.
Most of the contracts between a cruise line and a local tour operator are only of one or two years duration, so building up long-term relationships are often difficult. Cruise lines like to feel that they have another option should guest satisfaction scores in a port be low. The line's Port Agent is usually the go-between the line and local operators.
In developing countries, many of the best guides want to work a bus on a group tour, hoping for additional tips. In more sophisticated countries, however, the better guides pride themselves on not doing large bus tour groups so the very special guides normally work independently. A good guide in London, for instance, can easily earn $800 per day after the tour company is paid its share of the cost.
It is hard to know which are the better tours. Cruise lines do not look for exceptional tours. They look for generally pleasing tours for their specific demographics. On a Crystal cruise, for example, tours must be set up for those seeking an outdoor active experience while other guests have walking difficulty and prefer sightseeing overviews by bus. There are always art aficionados and foodies to content with. Your travel agent will have experience with previous guests who have booked the tours. Ask your agent to highlight the tours he recommends.
Finally, we would strongly urge you to arrange private shore excursions when your are traveling as a foursome. The total cost of a private experience in port only increases about 20% when a second couple is added. So it lowers your per person cost significantly and private begins to line up nicely against the charge a ship will charge for four full-day tours. Any guest working with a consultant who is a member of one of the leading consortium groups will have the distinct advantage of using their overseas office network. Sorry for the long response but your question(s) required it.
Q - I just found your site and think it is great. Thank you for some honest answers to questions. I will be retiring in soon and my wife and I are thinking of doing some cruising, both river and ocean, to see some of the world. We are even thinking about a world cruise, depending on how we feel after doing some shorter ones. I have spent my business life needing to dress for work, from jacket and tie to Friday casual and am tired of needing to play dress-up. I am a blue jeans and polo shirt person at heart. I have heard that Friday casual, dress pants, button shirt, no tie, is the minimum. I can do this if needed but was wondering if what I am told is correct. Can you please address for both river and ocean?
A - If you believe that it is appropriate to dress for evening dinner in "Friday Casual" attire, you might want to visit one of the thousands of web sites that cater to mass market cruising. But if you really are interested in sailing on the industry's top luxury products you need to expect that there will be times when,minimally, you will need to wear a sports jacket and/or a tie. Sophisticated travelers still enjoy dressing occasionally for a special gala dinner. Every study shows this is true. Regent Seven Seas does not have any formal nights on cruises of less than 16 days. Seabourn, Hapag-Lloyd, Crystal, and Silversea certainly do. Sea Dream is yachting-casual so you can do a cruise without bringing a sports jacket.
Lines that cater to European travelers tend to be dressier. There is a trend toward a more casual approach to dress and it is a fact that the new President of Silversea is the former President of Regent Seven Seas who introduced a relaxation in the dress codes. So, we expect, change is coming.
But we want you to be realistic. When you choose to vacation on a ship with sophisticated luxury travelers, there are going to be evenings when you need to dress up and people will judge you by your attire. The alternative is to simply say "it isn't worth it" and doom yourself to a travel life of mediocrity.
You would not want to do a world cruise without accepting the need to bring formal clothing. You would feel very much out-of-place, sort of like someone with a graduate degree attending a Trump rally.
These are the lines that currently have "Formal Evenings": Hapag-Lloyd - Silversea - Crystal - Seabourn
We hope we have not been too rough on you. We just want you to face these decisions realistically. Oceania is a fine non-inclusive line with some wonderful itineraries that offers the kind of casual dress code that we think you can embrace. But given that they must appeal to both an older American and European demographic, the five-star lines tend to be more formal than you might be anticipating. A good consultant will surely be able to help you further regarding matters of dress. If not, just contact one of the Kardashians.
Q - We have become regulars on your sites and trust the advice you share on so many topics of interest. My wife and I are in our early forties, we live in New York and both work in investment banking. We have traveled extensively in North America and Europe. We've sailed Seabourn and Sea Dream and loved them both and we're looking for a small ship experience next year to someplace accessible but different. We are wondering if there is a favorite itinerary of your editors that we should consider. We are active and have serious interests in exploring other cultures by small ship. That is our comfort zone and it allows us to relax from the stress of our everyday lives in Manhattan. We have no desire to drive around on our own or to be on a tour bus. Keep up the good work.
A - We are going to use your question to name our annual "Small Ship Cruise of The Year" award. Famed tour operator Abercrombie & Kent has leased the Le Ponant Yacht, L'Austral to operate a 13-Day "Wonders of Japan" cruise tour from Sapporo to Osaka on May 18th.
The ability to so a complete sailing along Japan's coast from North to south is rare - this is a totally rewarding itinerary that will take you to small ports, wilderness areas, and UNESCO World Sites. A complete Expedition team will be on-board so this will be a true learning experience particularly rewarding for those with an interest in the arts combined with active shore excursion options. Think great museums, tea ceremony in lovely gardens, local markets, and one of the world's great gold jewelry collections. There is even a five-day post cruise extension than takes in Kyoto and Tokyo for a simple flight home. This is our 2016 Small Ship Cruise of the Year.
Q - As an HR guy, I am curious about the salary levels of the more prominent executives at the largest cruise lines. I wonder if there is any information you might post that would give me an idea of what these people earn annually. I am sure that a lot of cruisers who share my enthusiasm for this site would also be interested. Even an educated guess would be appreciated.
A - Actually, the exact figures are available as the three largest cruise lines are publicly held companies and they file annual compensation reports. Arnold Donald, the CEO of Carnival Corporation was paid $9.3 million last year while the CEO of Royal Caribbean, Richard Fain, received a reported $9,388,000 The highest reported income in the cruise industry last year was paid to Frank Del Rio of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCl, Oceania, and Regent Seven Seas) who received $31,910,000.
The total incomes reported above included both salary, as well as stock and option awards. Each of the above CEO's is responsible for several brands. CEO and President compensation levels for specific cruise lines within the families of the big three generally received between $3 - $4 million in 2015. To put this compensation in some perspective, Norwegian Cruise Holdings reported First Quarter earnings this year of $1.1 Billion, a significant increase over the previous year.
Q - Although I can afford virtually all of the cruises described in your "Top Ten" List, I am essentially cheap, a holdover from my former life as a CFO at a large insurance group. I was scrolling the internet and I saw an article that explained how "Cruise Lines Fill All their Unsold Cabins." This is a popular article as I have seen it come up several times in my searches. The article says that most cruise lines offer unsold cabins at up to 70% off through certain travel agencies. My wife and I will be going on our 11th Crystal Cruise in September and I would like to start taking advantage of the pricing on the unsold cabin space and would even be willing to travel on short notice with Silversea, Sea Dream, Viking Cruises and, of course, our wonderful Crystal. My travel agent tells me she gets the best prices and she doesn't know anything about these articles and unsold cabin space. I'm certain many of your readers would like to know how to get in on these deals.
A - Wow - you were a CFO? We wonder if, in your executive capacity at an insurance company, you ever came upon fiction masquerading as truth?
We know the article. It is all over the internet and it is nothing more than a marketing scam by a large online web site. It is well written and it appears to be logical. But it is designed to take advantage of naive consumers. Here are the facts:
01 - No reputable cruise line discounts unsold space at the last -minute. They rarely have unsold space. Every ship is assigned an inventory control director. That person has the job of filling every cabin on every sailing, something that is relatively easy to do. They maintain lists of travel agents, travel writers, and company suppliers who they can contact to fill empty space. There is usually a long list of company employees who are waiting for open cabins to sample the product. Last-minute fire sales just don't exist. If a cruise line determines that it wants to fill every cabin that is not a difficult challenge. They can add lecturers or entertainers. They can pay off some of their bills by trading cabins for services.
02 - Cruise lines, particularly at the quality level you mention, would never upset their favorite customers - the ones who book earliest. They always receive the best offers and no quality line would alienate them by penalizing an early purchase. The lines are just not that stupid.
03 - Claiming savings of "Up to 70%" is easy. The way you do it is to use a mass market line that is doing an ocean crossing in the off/off season. Look at the list price of the minimum cabin and you will probably be able to secure a discount in the 70% range. Think of the advantages.
# 4 - Don't even assume that luxury cruise lines want to fill all of their cabins. On many longer sailings ships often base their accounting on a ship going out at 80-90% capacity. Antarctica cruises are one example. Ships bound for these waters rarely attempt to sell out every single cabin so they can enhance service levels and crew per guest ratios on itineraries where that is advisable.
05 - Finally, let's assume that there is a cruise that is light and there is unsold space that a luxury line would want to sell. Rather than upset the Americans on-board who booked early, it is far more likely that the line would offer last-minute pricing in one or more of their overseas offices where payments are made in another currency and thus not discernible tot he American guests on-board.
Many large online travel agencies cannot sell reliability, trust, or expertise. Those traits are hard to find in factory-like call centers manned by commission-based phone agents. The only thing they know how to sell is "price". But the fact is that none of the top-tier cruise lines would ever alienate their top-producing travel consultants by allowing some online bucket shop to receive preferencial pricing. It just doesn't happen. Unsold cabin discounts are a scam. Hope our response was not too subtle.
Q - We are huge fans of this and each of your other ad-free web travel sites. Appreciate the attitude and the honesty, We travel exclusively on five-star ships and stay in five-star hotels. We're planning two trips, one later this year to Asia, and one for next summer in Europe. But as we make our travel plans, we need your guidance on value. What is the best available value in the cruise industry currently for upscale travelers like ourselves. And keep up the good work.
A - The current best offer award must go to Regent Seven Seas which has announced Free Business Class Airfare on all international itineraries in 2017-18. We have never before seen an across-the-board offer like this since there are no black out dates and even the lowest category of stateroom qualifies for the Free Business Air Program. Perhaps as importantly, this is in addition to, not in place of, what was already the industry's most inclusive pricing with 2-1 rates, drinks and gratuities, and even included shore excursions in every port.
The Free Business Class Air announcement from Regent took many in the industry by surprise. It would appear that Regent has agreed to give its guests a significant enhanced value ticket without being able to specifically predict what it will cost the company since air costs not predictable. The consumer should assume that a Business Class ticket to Europe has a value of between $4,000-$5,000. These tickets for longer sailings in Asia, Africa, and the South Pacific, have values that can be twice that amount.
Getting Free Business Class Air on all intercontinental itineraries is a stunning offer and no one has matched it.
Q - We are long-time, rather devoted, fans of Seabourn cruise line. We have loved every single aspect of Seabourn although one or two of the smaller restaurants on the Odyssey and Sojourn seem to be geared a bit more toward European tastes. So we got rather excited when the Seabourn newsletter arrived at the house and we saw the photo with Carnival Corporation owner Mickey Arison, Seabourn's President Richard Meadows, and our favorite celebrity chef Thomas Keller of French Laundry fame. Do you think Keller will be playing a major role in Seabourn's menus and is this a good thing overall for the future of Seabourn? When will changes be taking place and do they only apply to the encore and other new ships in the pipeline?
A - We share your enthusiasm. Keller is a fabulous "catch" and he will be intimately involved in overseeing menus and the operation of "The Grill" his new signature restaurant. It will be opening on the Quest first this May and then move into space previously occupied by "Restaurant 2" fleet wide. The new Encore and Ovation will be launched with the classic American chophouse inspired cuisine.
A quick story: We were invited to sample several of the dishes being planned for the menu at Keller's restaurant in Las Vegas. There was a small group of five of us meeting with Seabourn executives in a private dining room. When the waiter came to take our order we asked him "what would Thomas want us to order", one of our favorite questions in restaurants with well-regarded chefs. The waiter didn't hesitate. "I think Chef would want you to order the roast chicken", he replied, "because he would love you to experience what can be done with such a simple, cliche dish." So we did. And it was, of course, the most memorable chicken dish any of us had ever had in our lives. And it was all about technique. Our only concern is that demand for the seats aboard the Seabourn fleet may not be met by the allocated number of seats.
Q - My girlfriend has invited me to join her on a cruise to the Caribbean aboard a line I never heard of, MSC. I Googled them but only got more confused. We are in our seventies and I have done eight previous cruises on Cunard Line, Princess, and, most recently, Crystal, which I liked best. My friend knows less than I do but someone she knows had been on this MSC and said they were really good. The cruise will not be until 2017 and I am also wondering if they will still be around if you know what I mean. Thanks so much.
A - MSC is a viable and large cruise line with an increasing presence in the US market. Their calling card is a mega-ship design featuring contemporary European aesthetics with Italian touches. The company is owned by the Mediterranean Shipping Company, a privately hold company rumored to have sales in the range of $27 billion last year. MSC is building its own island in the Caribbean and it recently announced plans for a new class of vessel it will call "World Class." The line will be building four of these World Class ships which will each be 200,000 Gross Tons and carry 5,400 guests. This will put place them among the largest floating anythings at sea. They will be fueled by natural gas. The first in the series is due in 2022. With these newly announced vessels, MSC will have a dozen new ships under construction or under contract at an estimated value of $10 billion. They are financially solid.
Based on what you have told us, we would suggest that MSC might not be appropriate for you given your positive experiences aboard Crystal, a five-star line catering to a far different clientele than MSC. MSC is not an inclusive line and their ratings scores are not high enough to place them among the world's Top Ten Cruise Lines - or even the top 15 cruise lines on LCR. They offer affordable cruising with a largely European group of guests and a nice spin on Italian flair. Some of their public rooms are absolutely gorgeous and we think they are an appropriate choice for those seeking a more Euro-version of Royal Caribbean or Norwegian.
Q - Our travel agent seems to be quite high on Viking Cruises and wants to book us on the Viking Star. The price seems good, very good, and they do include shore excursions. We know you don't give Viking's river cruises the highest ratings so we're wondering if this cruise to northern Europe is a good idea? We've done the larger ships but this would be the first time we're looking at something approaching a deluxe line, which our TA assures us it is. We do worry a bit that this is their first ship and we want to be sure that they know what they're doing.
A - The Viking Cruises product is substantially better than the river cruise product based on initial reports. The ship is a stunner and we love the infinity pool that take sup much of the aft contour of this vessel. The Viking Star is still a newbie and we feel that insufficient data is available to professionally rate the experience at this time. But we should tell you that we are encouraged by what we are hearing.
This is going to be a major product in the 4-5 Star Category. Viking has taken delivery of their second ship, the Viking Sky and, as we respond to you, they have already floated out their third 930 Guest vessel the Viking Sea which is due out in 2017.
On top of this growth, Viking recently announced that they have ordered three similar new ships for completion in 2010. They will all be built at the Fincantieri yard which has a reputation for building ships of a modern design.
We think this is a bit of a gamble but one worth taking. The ship has lovely minimalist decor and some truly gorgeous public spaces. The food is quite good from early reports with the Chef's Table and Mamsen's (Scandinavian cuisine) particularly noteworthy. The staff is well-trained and the level of on-board services seems high for a new cruise line. Where Viking has continuing problems is in the delivery of quality, comprehensive shore excursions which many guests feel are inadequate for the money they are paying. Ports are frequently substituted for a variety of operational or safety reasons, and some communications issues aboard the ship have come up.
Viking Cruises may well appear in our Top Ten in the near future. As long as you go into this with your eyes open we think you have the potential to have an excellent experience. We would also understand if you prefer to wait a year or two before committing to this new product. With a fast-growing fleet accommodating almost 6,000 guests, Viking has to get it right and they have to do it quickly. Based on what we've seen so far, they likely will. One concern we do have about both the river boat company and the cruise line is that Viking is a privately held company and very little is actually known about the company's current debt level. Viking River alone has 64 river boats and they are not exactly "Paid in Full".
Q - I have heard that there is a woman living aboard a Crystal Cruise ship. We've never sailed Crystal but we find the idea of spending our retirement at sea absolutely intriguing. Do you have any idea of how this would work and what this woman I read about is actually paying on a yearly basis? We're in our mid-sixties and quite healthy. Although we've never sailed Crystal, we've been on five of the Top Ten in your listings and we plan to sail them all. You are our bucket list!
A - Actually, there are between three and five guests living aboard Crystal ships at any one time and other lines have reported the same phenomenon. In most cases, these guests prefer to remain anonymous but the crew certainly knows who they are and treats them with special care.
The industry's , a best-known "live aboard" is "Mama Lee", a widow from Ft. Lauderdale who sold her five-bedroom home and decided to live on the Crystal Serenity. She has estimated her total cost to live aboard the ship for a year at $164,000. When you consider that this includes a five-star hotel with incredible food, entertainment, and some of the most gracious service at sea, you wonder why more retirees have not thought of this. When you factor in that she you have no need to ever fly again, that you never have to pack and unpack, that the hotel glides around the world with constant stimulation the option becomes particularly attractive. And then, when you consider that the price includes access to on-board medical facilities and staff with a trained doctor with shore side connections , one has to wonder why more people have never considered this option. Someone someday soon is going to reconfigure an existing cruise ship to become a floating cruise retirement center. Studies have been done to illustrate this would actually be less expensive than traditional retirement care. In the meantime, those who wish to live aboard a cruise ship make their arrangements through top tie cruise consultants who know how to negotiate long-term arrangements.
Q - A casual friend has put us on a Canadian mailing list that includes updates of cruise information for the Canadian market. He claims that you can save money if you book in Canadian dollars. Wondering iof that is true but moire interested in the headline of the last issue that said there was a deluxe cruise coming up where the guests pick the ports during the cruise. Is this true? Is it available on Crystal or Seabourn, two lines we absolutely adore.
A - You are referencing a specific sailing, May 14th from Istanbul to Athens, where Hapag-Lloyd's Europa 2 will be giving guests a list of more than 20 different ports in the Eastern Mediteranean from which they will choose the specific itinerary. The Cap[tain will provide guests with advanced weather information and destination experts will describe the port options as part of the ship's entertainment program. Passengers will vote via private ballot and the Captain will announce the selected upcoming port during dinner each evening.
This is, as far as we can research, a completely new concept. On the surface, we would have guessed that berthing rights and port clearances are usually handled far in advance of arrival so we were surprised this was even operationally possible. But it is a fascinating concept and lots of industry insiders will be watching to see how it turns out. That it will occur on the ship that leads our Top Ten Ratings makes it especially interesting.
We can only imagine if a similar policy were enacted on some of the three and four-night budget Caribbean cruises. The voting might direct the ship to the nearest bar.
Q - We hear good things from our friends in Austin about Celebrity and I'm not just talking about friends in cowboy hats. We don't see much about them on your site and are wondering why. Also wondering just how much is included on this line. I would hate being nickel and dimed for drinks, tips etc. Appreciate your time.
A - Celebrity is not one of the world's top ten cruise lines. The Celebrity experience includes three or four thousand fellow guests and the line is not inclusive. Guests in the Royal Suite, Penthouse, and Reflection Class Suites have a stocked cabin mini-bar and a complimentary drink package.Butler service is exclusive to suite level guests.
Celebrity is owned by Royal Caribbean and was, we believe, originally intended to be RCI's version of Crystal cruises. Royal Caribbean has loyal fans but they had no place to go for a more sophisticated cruise experience. Originally, Celebrity was going to cost significantly more than Royal Caribbean but that has not exactly worked out and Celebrity remains the highest-rated of the mass market lines as well as one of the best overall values in the non-inclusive category. In fact, were we to extend our ratings to the top fifteen lines, Celebrity would just barely make the cut, along with the mega-ships of Disney cruise line as well as large portions of the Holland America fleet. There are a great many so-called "critic" or "review" sites out there and virtually all of them concentrate on the most popular mega-ship brands. We are totally devoted to the literal Top Ten, all of which tend to be smaller vessels carrying fewer than 1,000 guests and most of them offering variations of an inclusive and elegant cruise experience. So nothing personal against Celebrity. We think the line has been carefully nurtured and offers a superior product for those seeking the best of the mega-ship experience albeit with doses of high design and sophistication. Celebrity's entertainment has improved a good deal but its cuisine and personal service levels do not compare to higher-rated cruise products.
Q - I am confused. Having migrated away from Holland America and Norwegian, we are now ready to do one of the top lines on a "try it out" Caribbean cruise. But your ratings list Hapag-Lloyd as the best while the Travel + Leisure and Conde Nast Ratings are completely different and barely mention the line. CNT, for instance, lists Regent Seven Seas in the large ship category with Crystal # 1, while you have Crystal down on the list behind lines like Seabourn and Silversea. So, on the one hand, we've got highly respected magazines with large staff saying one thing and your web site saying another. See why I'm a bit confused. I want to believe your ratings but ..........."
A - Fair enough and really glad you asked. Yes, no one else offers the same rating positions/scores that we do. Here is why: The so-called rankings in the major consumer travel magazines are the result of polling of the readership. They are almost always identified as "Reader's Choice" Ratings. Not surprisingly, those readers loyal to a line will vote for it. Sometimes, lines solicit votes via e-mail from their past guests when they know a reader's poll is in the works. Since those voting do not work in the industry and do not have a significant frame of reference when it comes to product differentiation, you get skewed results. When you see professional evaluations that seem to be unbiased, you might want to skim the publication or the web site to identify heavy advertisers.
The big ship, medium, and small ship debate has never been settled. From a consumer standpoint, it is wise to consider any ship with more than 999 guests a "large" ship. For practical purposes, any vessel under 1000 guests is small. By breaking down ratings into large, medium, and small categories, web sites and publications get to name more names and please more advertisers. The name of the game is to give out Reader's Choice awards so that a maximum number of cruise lines can use them in their advertising.
You've hit on some good points and when we started this massive project we put a great deal of thought into categories, size, and cruise type. Ultimately, we thought it would serve the consumer best to simply identify the world's ten best cruise lines based on industry-standard measurements.
Our self-imposed standards are not perfect. How, for instance, do you place Oceania with two highly-recommended 1200 passenger ships? How do you place the Cunard liners given that they operate several classes of service? Should you include a line like Hapag-Lloyd that serves a primarily upscale German market? These are some of the questions we've grappled with in designing our ratings systems.
A - Thanks so much for your warm note! Azamara and Oceania have both made our top ten list because of their overall quality. rather than their list of included amenities. They are not all-inclusive but they do value-add the experience. Azamara has a more consistent program featuring standard spirits, beer and wine throughout the ship's bars as well as shuttle service into town centers where practical.
Oceania has drink packages which are often included as an incentive. They do two-for-one fares as well as "Free" air.
These lines are very different with different management styles. Oceania is better at making the consumer feel they are getting a deal upfront while Azamara is better at hyping extra time in port and a destination curious clientele.
In fact, both lines offer an atmosphere of casual elegance with an emphasis on more time in port. We would suggest that you use our formula for calculating per diem rates so you can get past the hype and compare real pricing realities. They both offer excellent itinerary options with the edge going to Azamara. But Oceania has better overall cuisine. Each of these lines is, in our view, a generally superb value.
Q - Having just taken retirement from one of the large brokerage houses, my wife and I are ready to start traveling. As we approach some cruise plans, we will prefer voyages of several weeks or longer, we had one question we thought we'd ask you first. Are there any itineraries that really sell out so quickly that we ought to be booking them as soon as they are announced?
A - There are several really hot current itineraries. One or two actually sold out within 72 hours. Upscale guests who have the time to really explore the world on a ship of quality tend to know what they want to see. The itinerary you would need to jump on right away is Crystal Cruises repeat of its Northwest Passage cruise sailing from Seward (Anchorage) on August 15th and ending in New York City on September 16th.
This is every cruiser's dream "expedition" and it follows the footsteps of intrepid explorers sailing through incredible landscapes with stunning glaciers and fjords combined with rare wildlife sightings. This one is highly recommended and really the adventure of a lifetime in Crystal style with some superb on-board lecturers.
If you are looking for the best "deal" in cruising, you might want to consider the repeat of Oceania's "sold out in 48 hours" 180-Day Around The World Sailing on the Insignia Departing January 6th next year from Miami and ending on July 6th back in Miami. Although it sounds counter-intuitive, this is likely cruising's best overall value and guests booked in an inside stateroom are paying less than $45,000 per person. The cruise is sold with two-for-one pricing and free First Class Airfare plus additional perks and surprises.
There are any number of Around-The-World Voyages but almost all of them will be in the 85-95 Day range. No one has done 180 Days before Oceania and it is now an industry "classic". The marketing department at Oceania has not yet taken our suggestion that they advertise the added advantage of missing the "first six months" of the new President's term.
Q - Is this really the right time to be thinking about traveling to Europe? We have some concerns about traveling this summer but we really want to go on our planned cruise. What are you advising and how do you handle this question with your clients?
A - For most travelers, whether or not to travel to any destination is a heady mix of emotion, anticipation, a bit of natural fear, and rational thinking about gain and loss. So we think there is no simple answer and we do not want to be seen as salesmen for the notion that you should always travel no matter what. If your fears reach the point where you find it impossible to truly look forward to your journey, we would suggest considering cancellation.
We have just had a terrorist event in Brussels at two locations that has resulted in more than 30 deaths and hundreds of injuries. Yet, the small restaurants that surround the Maelbeerk train station reopened in 24 hours and the streets of Brussels are filled with local residents who refuse to live their lives in fear. The people of Paris held huge banners that said “We are not afraid” immediately after the recent attacks in their city. We think we must never “Be Afraid” If we are, then those who would threaten us out of envy would win. Here is what we think you might consider before deciding “Should I Go or Should I Stay.”
THE FACTS: It is a head/heart thing. The 24-Hour News cycle thrives on tragedy. It gives the terrorists the kind of notoriety they seek. But we are always going to make the best decisions in an atmosphere of calm, using our heads to examine the facts. Here is one worth remembering. Right now, in the world as it exists, you are 1,052 times more likely to die in an automobile accident than you are in a terrorist act while traveling abroad. You are four times more likely to be struck by lightning than you are by a terrorist act. Your life expectancy actually goes up when you travel in Europe because you are not in the country with one of the highest murder rates in the world and one of the highest rates of fatal automobile accidents.
But some folks want even more specifics. So here are a few worth remembering although there are dozens of others that we could have listed:
- Your chance of dying in any kind of worldwide terrorist attack is 1 in 9.3 million
- Your chance of dying from a food poisoning is 1 in 3 million
- Your chance of dying from a dog bite is 1 in 700,000
- Your chance of dying from a car accident is 1 in 18,585
- Your chance of dying in your own bathtub is 1 in 685,000
CONCLUSION: Unless you plan to stay off American roads, not walk in our cities or suburbs, stay away from dogs and refuse to bathe, you might as well take that trip to Europe of wherever else you wish to travel. Staying home really is considerably more dangerous.
If you want to look at all this in another way consider: The reason that your life expectancy will increase if you travel to Europe, the statistical reason, is that life expectancy is based on the odds that an act that will kill you will occur. The major cause of death in America is Cancer and Heart Disease. They are travel "neutral" You must look at the other major causes of death in our country, dying in an automobile accident and being shot by our 2nd Amendment. Your life expectancy increases when you travel abroad because you are away from American drivers and gun-toting morons. You are considerably safer traveling than staying home. And that is a fact.PROTECTING YOURSELF WHEN YOU TRAVEL ABROAD: We want you to avoid bad neighborhoods. Every city has them – well not every city, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are virtually crime-free. You need to have a sense of neighborhood when working with your consultant to book hotels. Inexpensive hotels skimp on security – avoid them. If you are staying in a major city with a threat that concerns you, avoid US chain hotels and select a good five-star locally-owned property. INSURANCE: You can always take out a “Cancel for Any Reason” top-end policy. The best of these, in our view, is the Maxi-Policy issued by Travelex. But be aware that the premium for such coverage averages 10-11% of the total cost of your trip.
USE A TRAVEL CONSULTANT WHO IS A MEMBER OF ONE OF THE TOP CONSORTIUMS: They will have access to daily security updates from their on-site offices around-the-world. Using one of these consultants is your best chance of receiving updated, accurate information about your destination.
IF YOU WISH TO DO YOUR OWN RESEARCH THINK OF THE AUSSIES: Our own State Department memos and warnings are often over-stated and issued in an attempt to cover all bases. Savvy travelers, instead, look to security announcements online issued by the Australian Foreign Office for their own citizens. They tend to be more accurate than ours. The British Foreign Office also issued worthwhile reports updating local conditions abroad.
Q - Having sailed 11 times on some of the top brands such as Le Ponant, Silverseas, and Cunard, I wonder why we have never encountered a female ship captain. Don't you think it's about time. Tell me if I am wrong, but aren't about half of us on any ship women?
A - Actually more than half. And we think your ship has come in. A 42 year-old Captain from Tuscany, Serena Melani has just been named the new Captain of the 700-Guest Regent Seven Seas Mariner. She is on the ship now and is sailing in South America. There have been other female captains but it is still not common for women to be placed in charge of a large ocean-going vessel.
Q - We are considering our first cruise and, on the advice of good friends here in Ft. Collins, we are leaning toward the Azamara line. One of the cruise sites we visited said the ship was really showing its age and that carpeting was spotted and the decor was rather dated. We're in our early seventies and late sixties, and we're not exactly modernists but we don't want to spend two weeks on a ship that feels dated.
We have heard that Azamara is adding an Asian restaurant which we would appreciate. Their concept of more time in port also appeals to us. Is this the right line for first-timers?
A - Most experts put Azamara, aloing with rival Oceania, in the premium category. That means they offer a somewhat more inclusive and personalized cruising experience than the mega-ships but they are not five-star luxury, all-inclusive. Given their placement, we think that Azamara is an excellent first choice for those who want to try cruising, are itinerary oriented, and prefer the idea of a smaller (686 Guests) ship.
The concept of more time in port, although advertised as an Azamara exclusive, is really an upper-end luxury trend. Studies show that affluent cruisers are, increasingly, concerned with quality time in port. We think that Azamara's scheduling allowing dinner in port once or twice during most itineraries is a real product advantage.
There were initial plans to add an Asian restaurant to the Quest when she enters dry-dock in Singapore in three weeks. But that plan has been scrapped and the Sunset Bar will remain. The good news is that the ship, which looks somewhat like an English Gentleman's Club in some of its public space, will be lightened and modernized. Look for a ligher decor with new carpeting, drapes, and soft furnishings. There will be lots of creams and browns and, of course, the mandatory soft beiges. Azamara is going to change some of the dark wood to a lighter color in keeping with this modernization of a ship originally launched in 2000 as the Renaissance 7.
So we see no reason to look elsewhere. We think that Azamara, assuming you find an itinerary you love, is an excellent choice for first-timers seeking a smaller (686 Guests) ship with some inclusions, a good price point, and more time in port. And you can roll around with the Mrs. on new carpeting. By the way - as we caution all Colorado residents - be careful what you pack.
I do want to suggest a mild correction regarding Aussies consumption of Fosters. We (ie probably 99% of Australians) don’t drink Fosters in Australia! Yep – it’s not really drunk in Australia. In fact, I think they now export more than they sell here. But the marketing overseas has been excellent! It’s in the movies, advertised by ‘name’ people, etc. It’s was even on tap on the Royal Yacht Britannia! (Now in Edinburgh) But it is really not us! Bit like all that advertising showing kangaroos jumping down our suburban streets and koalas everywhere. Nup.
I have only drunk it when we’ve been overseas and it’s been comparatively cheap with not much else on offer which I like! (eg the ‘oil can’ on the Oasis of the Seas – Caribbean cruise out of Ft Lauderdale. Loved it.) Never drunk it here in Oz.
I have drunk a wide range of beers in Oz, UK, USA and Europe. I just love variety! Even brought home a Millers tin with screw top as a souvenir. Our tinnies all tab push ones. We have screw top wines (better sealing that cork, so used even on top quality wines.) but not screw top aluminium beer bottles.
Also love good wines. We have lots of those here in South Australia. Pay about $US10-20 in the bottle shop for something which is about twice that in the US for similar quality. In fact, if you are into real quality wines, order a Penfolds Grange Hermitage Shiraz. In a decent place with a decent waiter just say ‘Grange’. He might offer you a choice of vintage. Generally the older the better and dearer. A world renowned drop which only costs about the same as a day (or two or more for older vintages) on a top quality river cruise!
If you are a beer connoisseur, try the South Australian Coopers range. Hard to get sometimes, but we’ve found it overseas. A bit dearer than most, but an excellent family company with very strict standards and quality outlook. If you don’t mind a beer with a bit of body, try a Coopers Pale Ale. It’s naturally brewed and not filtered. The ‘dregs’ fall to the bottom of the bottle. Leave them there, or gently roll the bottle on its side before pouring. Either way, we’ve converted quite a few people to it.
Finally a cruise tip. We love quizzes and have found a mix of nationalities in a team works best. RCL & Princess tend to have US biased questions, so we love having ‘yanks’ in a team. ‘Win-win’ as we tend to do well on other than USA questions. On one cruise, even with rotating / different members, we won over six quizzes. As the host said, we won a ‘ship’ prize!
By the way, Aussies wouldn’t throw drink containers overboard. We’d collect them to get the 10 cent deposit back on them! LOL. Cheers.
A - This primer on Aussie drinking has rather little to do with luxury cruising and there is no discernible question to answer. But we felt we had to share this with you. Thank you John from Adelaide and do keep in touch.
Q - Although we cruise several times a year on some of the better lines appearing on the Top Ten List on LCR, I am fascinated by some of the deals we continually get in our mailbox and via e-mail. This latest one seems to be, what you like to call, "A Real Deal" but I'd like to know if that is the case. I am talking about the $495 per person price for Business Class Air in each direction on Regent in Europe this summer (2016). Real or hype?
A - That is actually a better question than you might imagine because you've identified one of the true "Real Deals" currently in the marketplace. Regent has not pulled back any of its existing offers and discounts. Instead, it allows you to pile on a new discount at truly significant savings, by offering free economy air and then allowing you to upgrade to Business Class round-trip for under $1,000. Yes, this has to be designated a "Real Deal." Of course, it doesn't apply to all sailings. If you read the fine print, this is what it says:
"You Americans seem to think that Europe is still too expensive even though the Euro is now worth about a quarter. Given your complete lack of geographic knowledge, you also seem to think that Aleppo is a suburb of Rome. As a result, we have ships that are not entirely booked so we've come up with an incentive designed to get you off your butts and into our cabins. We'll actually pay you, well actually we'll subsidize you, to fly business class assuming you live near an actual city with an international airport. Don't expect this offer to apply to everything we've got - we're not fools. It will only be offered on sailings where we would like a little bit of stimulus. So come take advantage of us. Watch CNN for five minutes - listen to our presidential candidates - can you think of a better time to leave the country."
Q - This is really a question of ethics in your industry so I don't know if you will respond. We went to visit a travel agent in St. Louis who we know sells a lot of cruises. We went in to ask about a Regent cruise, which we had been on before, but the agent, one that we hadn't worked with before, kept pushing us toward Silverseas. I don't know if she got some sort of kickback from that line but we had not really heard much about them.
We're retired and we have saved all of our lives so we can travel in style. We like getting dressed up from time to time, appreciate great food and wine, and, as a former CFO at a Fortune 500, we appreciate socializing with a generally well-educated crowd. Regent had served our needs on our two cruises very nicely. Despite this, we got the impression that our agent was really pushing Silversea and we couldn't figure out the motivation. We read her proposal, but we still felt something was wrong. Silversea was slightly more expensive and we wonder if that was it. Needless to say, we'll be dealing with someone else for our booking. May we contact you?
A - We'll take a pass on that. While we don't know all of the details, we suspect you may have actually encountered an agent who had your best interests in mind. Silverseas is a top-brand with exactly the kind of demographics you are describing. Instead of just taking your order, your agent tried to point you in a different direction most likely because she felt it would be a better fit for you. It is highly doubtful you received a recommendation based on commission. They really don't vary all that much. The easier path would have been to just take your deposit for Regent.
So, instead of calling us, call back your agent and apologize for making false assumptions. Learn as much as you can about Silversea and try to, mutually, determine if it might be a better fit than Regent. You haven't convinced us that you are the world's best listener, but here's a little factoid for you. The highly-respected former President of Regent Seven Seas, Mark Conroy, has accepted a new position with Silversea. He will now be managing all of their on-board service, sales, and marketing from their offices in Florida. Look for some innovations to be coming to Silverseas soon, along with their new ship the Muse, to be delivered next year.
Q - As a senior financial analyst with one of the nation's largest investment firms, I would like to pose a personal question or two as well as a question about industry pricing. Although I don't specialize in the travel sector, I am sometimes asked about major cruise line stocks and current pricing models. Wondering if you might provide some bullet points about the big picture in terms of cruise pricing going forward?
I am also wondering about your personal pricing model. How do you make money if you are not taking money from the cruise lines you review? Do you work with clients? I would prefer not to have my name used. Please feel free to respond online or privately. Congratulations on an engaging web site.
A - We will take your questions in order. These are some important takeaways regarding present and future cruise pricing models:
- Going forward between now and 2020, ocean-going cruise lines have placed 41 major new ship orders at a cost of just over $30 billion. This will represent 132,128 new berths. You do have to factor in the retirement and sale of older ships as that will affect growth rate substantially. It is fair to say that the industry is growing though continuing growth though not at the rate of the past five years in terms of new ship construction.
- Discounting will always be present but it will be more controlled. List prices will be raised to accommodate up to 2-1 level pricing on the top-rated lines. The largest players will have fewer deep discounts and more value-adds for purchase such as shore excursions, food, and drink packages. Last-minute discounts are seen now by virtually all lines as counter-productive. The larger lines are willing to sail with empty cabins rather than penalize the majority of already-booked passengers.
- About one-third of all travel agents have left the profession but the average sale of the average agent has increased and studies show that both the positive perception of the value of an agent and the percentage of cruise bookings originating with agents has increased. Consortium groups remain the largest single entity for cruise bookings and there are currently no lines that offer pricing that undercuts that offered by travel agents. It is a level playing field and cruise executives feel it will remain so in the foreseeable future.
- The cruise industry looks at the success of the big three US airlines and their efforts to end the bundling of all services under a price lead-in. Delta announced it made over $1 billion in additional revenues based on new charges for amenity upgrades. Look for the major cruise lines to copy this model so that the actual cost of a cruise will include numerous guest add-ons for purchase that do not have to be listed in the advertised price. Preferred dining seating and advance show-time reservations will be sold. More and more dining venues will involve extra charges. Drinks and shore excursions will be sold in packages to allow the guest to feel that they are having an "inclusive" vacation.
- Fuel cost savings have been significant but they are less impactful in the cruise sector than they are in the airline sector. What is really expanding the growth of the cruise industry is expansion in China (jury is still out on that one as China experiences some challenging economic times) and Cuba. While there is universal enthusiasm for cruises to Cuba, the focus of cruise line concerns has to do with the tourism infrastructure ashore on the island. There are currently not enough air-conditioned tour buses, highly developed shore excursion sites, or qualified guides to handle a dozen large ships arriving on a daily basis. Cruise lines are confident they will make money in Cuba on initial sales. They are worried about word-of-mouth once guests start returning home.
- The elephant in the financial room is the possibility of a terrorist attack on a passenger vessel and the ripple effects that might have throughout the industry. The industry has chosen not to talk much about security in the past but that will likely change.
- The top-ten cruise lines in the world represent less than 30% of the total cruise market and they operate in a different sphere. While the mega-lines believe they have a price point beyond which they cannot go, the top-tier cruise lines believe that their customer is driven by a refusal to be "nickel and dimed" while on vacation. So extra charge bundling is not something they are willing to pursue. The Alaska market has slowed and cruises to the central Med.. even among the very highest-rated lines, have now experienced a downturn. The top cruise lines are subsidizing air and pre/post hotel packages on top of their "one sails free" pricing formula. This is possible because of artificially high brochure pricing rates that virtually no one ever pays. This is a subject rarely discussed so consumers can feel that they are receiving a "deal" even at the highest end of the spectrum.
- The cruise industry is currently realizing record-breaking profits along with lower fuel costs. Their major problem is finding new destinations and creating the infrastructure ashore to serve the needs of their guests. On-board staffing is not really an industry problem despite rapid expansion.
- Cruise line accounting would be really interesting to the consumer because each area of a ship is broken down as a separate revenue-producing segment. Any cruise line CEO can, for example, explain in detail why drink revenues on a seven-night Alaska cruise are far lower than a comparable 7-night Caribbean cruise. That is one of many reasons that per-diems on an Alaska cruise are higher.
Now those are just some really broad generalizations. As to your questions about us: We are in a rather unique position in that we work with clients in 46 states and we are able to pick and choose our clients carefully. So no selling is necessary. If our sites are helpful and we never had a single reader contact us, we'd still be fine. Very fine. Last year we were named the top revenue producers in the entire $16.3 billion Virtuoso Network. So we are in a unique position to simply tell the truth, which has been our business model for three decades. We accept no money from cruise lines for this site and, as you can see, we do not permit advertising of any kind. Our sites cost us thousands of dollars a year to maintain - not to mention the time involved. But we hope we are helping consumers who are intentionally misled by phony travel hype, fake reviews, and advertising that is intellectually insulting. And every once in a while, we come across someone incredibly nice with whom we can enjoy a long-term business relationship. Really hope this helps explain some of what you asked and apologies to our readers for the length of this response.
Q - Eleven years ago this April, we went on a mega-ship cruise. We vowed we would never do it again. The people aboard our seven-day western Caribbean ship seemed determined to embarrass themselves by showing up in the dining room in jeans and tee-shirts, getting drunk each day in the pool area, and whistling loudly during the evening entertainment. Quite frankly, we couldn't believe it then and we still have nightmares about it now.
You would be doing some of us a great service if you would do a "Slob Rating" for each of the lines so we know where to turn for an educated group of fellow travelers, fine cuisine, and a generally educated and cultured environment. We may sound like snobs but we're not. We are, I suppose, looking for the "Country Club" set when we travel along with a staff that knows how to treat us. I sense your writers will know what we mean. But all these cruise web sites seem to push the bargains.
A - We understand. The fact is that many of the same people who vacationed on Greyhound are now on cruise ships with a few thousand of their friends. We don;t need to name names and make people feel bad who have limited income for their vacations or who are seeking a genuine party atmosphere. In many cases, families choose the mega-lines because they have excellent children's programs and extra-cost food options that keep getting better. So we'll decline the "Slob Index" - for now. But we will update our Cruise Sophistication Index if that will be helpful:
THE CRUISE LINE SOPHISTICATION INDEX# 1 - Hapag-Lloyd # 2 - Silversea # 3 - Seabourn # 4 - Cunard Liners # 5 - Regent Seven Seas
Q - This is a web site that appears to be unbiased. But I wonder why you have been strangely silent on the matter of the horrible conditions endured by passengers on Royal Caribbean's Anthem of the Seas. The Captain made some serious mistakes and people thought they were going to die in a storm that Royal Caribbean should have known was coming. It was widely predicted. It would appear that you are more interested in mosquitos than actual people. When you pay for a luxury cruise, you are entitled to safety at sea. I hope these passengers take appropriate action and I trust you will start covering these stories. If you don't, I will not be visiting this site in the future.
A - We thought we would run your comments because they demonstrate why this site, and each of our sister sites, does without silly user feedback and commentary. We don't generally cover Royal Caribbean or storms. We also don't cover hockey or Nascar. We cover the world's Top Ten Rated Cruise Lines exclusively - the floating shopping malls with their high-density throngs of thousands of passengers are extremely well covered elsewhere and they comprise well over 90% of what passes for a "cruise vacation".
That said, the extremely experienced Captain at the helm of the Anthem of the Seas, did not try to place his guests in harm's way intentionally. If you don't believe that then believe that he would not willingly risk damage to a ship that cost an estimated $940 million. Management might be a tad upset.
On the other hand, we would never advise clients to cruise the coastal waters of the eastern United States in February. That is just asking for weather-related challenges and every guest aboard that ship should have been warned by their agent that they were looking at an ill-timed itinerary.
Sorry to hear you may not be visiting our site again. Would you like us to refund your money? Oh, excuse us, we forgot - you didn't pay anything to be here.
Q - I have been interested in doing portions of a world cruise this year or next. But it seems as though the lines want their customers to book the full 90 days and only certain longer segments remain. I was wondering if there is any way to buy a section of a world cruise on a five-star line this winter or spring when I only have, at the most, 17 days of total time off?
A - Your assumptions are essentially true but full world cruise clients are not that plentiful. The lines that operate the ATW sailings generally do longer segments that are promoted to the various agent consortium groups. But this year there is a late-option that might possibly serve your needs. Crystal has had some difficulty filling their berths on the full ATW sailing on the Serenity so they are segmenting several shorter sailings. Here is the full list:
- February 29, 2016 – Bali to Port Kelang, 6 days
- March 6, 2016 – Port Kelang to Singapore, 6 days
- March 12, 2016 – Singapore to Ho Chi Minh City, 8 days
- March 20, 2016 – Ho Chi Minh City to Shanghai, 11 days
- March 31, 2016 – Shanghai to Incheon, 7 days
- April 7, 2016 – Incheon to Tokyo, 7 days
- January 22, 2017 – Colón to Callao 8 days
- January 30, 2017 – Callao to Valparaíso, 9 days
- February 8, 2017 – Valparaíso to Ushuaia, 10 days
- February 18, 2017 – Ushuaia to Buenos Aires, 13 days
- March 27, 2017 – Manaus to Bridgetown/Barbados, 9 days
Personally, we like combining the two 6-night sailings into a Bali to Singapore itinerary. The February Ushuaia to Buenos Aires itinerary is also a major winner and it is offered during absolute prime season.
Do expect a mature crowd. There will not be any repelling off the upper deck. Also expect some favorable pricing incentives as this space should have been sold out six months ago.
Q - We are booked on a Silverseas Cruise calling at a number of ports in the Caribbean next month. My wife has had some past medical issues including two bouts with cancer. I called the line to inquire about changes in itinerary and getting our money back and they referred me to a web site run by CLIA. What is CLIA? They are mostly suggesting the press is over-blowing this and we should contact the CDC. We need a breadth of fresh air and some honest answers.
A - CLIA won't do you much good. It stands for Cruise line International Association and it is the mouthpiece for the cruise industry and the major marketing arm for the industry. They are also responsible for training travel agents to sell their member products.
This virus is scary but the mosquito-borne illness is a danger specifically to pregnant women and women intending to conceive. That is where it gets a little hazy - what exactly is a woman "intending to conceive"? It would appear that phrase means that this is an activity that would take place while vacationing abroad.
There are some virologists who have strong warnings for tourists headed for the Caribbean. The NY Times quotes Dr. Peter Hotez the Dean of the National School of Tropical medicine at Baylor College of Medicine as saying "....if my daughter was planning get pregnant, I'd advise her not to go to the Caribbean." He also said that "this is going to decimate Caribbean tourism but we can't wait to act until nine months from now when congenital defects turn up in the labor and delivery suites."
This scare started when it was discovered that Brazil was experiencing a shocking rise in births of infants with microcephaly, a disease that is characterized by children with underdeveloped heads and brain, There have been more than 40 deaths attributed to the disease in Brazil alone with over 3,500 reported cases.
Now it has spread and is reported to have cropped up in 14 countries in North and South America including tourist destinations like Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Puerto Rico, Martinique, Panama, Paraguay and Venezuela.
Last week, the CDC upgraded its warning to a Level 2 Travel Advisory which means that they are advising pregnant women and women trying to become pregnant to avoid or consider avoiding travel in affected areas.
The vast majority, almost every single cruise line guest, who goes to the affected countries, will be advised by their cruise consultant (hopefully) to wear protective clothing and to take the best possible level of mosquito repellent. Cruise guests need to realize that mosquitos are a particular issue when a ship is in port and guests are using their balconies as mosquitos are attracted to the smell of food.
So what to do? Read the Australian travel alerts as well as the British Health Services reports. They tend to be more honest and less alarmist than the CDC. Do not take medical advice from us, or anyone you might encounter who has a vested interest in your continuing with your travel plans. Don't even bother reading the Cruise Line PR pieces on this subject. Start by following the Zika Virus reporting in the New York Times. They seem to be leading on this story. Expect normal cancellation policies and insurance coverage restrictions to be in place. Discuss cancellation options with your consultant.
This information is accurate as of January 20th, 2016. Obviously, we will be learning a great deal more about this virus. This is not a new disease. It was originally isolated in the Zika Forest of Uganda in a rhesus monkey. It later appeared in humans in Nigeria before spreading to other countries. This is not the sort of pandemic we've been warned about. In general Zika is considered a milder form of Dengue Fever, a more serious mosquito-borne virus that is prevalent in rural areas within the Caribbean islands.
The bottom line is read the NY Times on this subject and contact your personal physician with any questions related to your possible cancellation of this trip.
Cruise lines and tourism officials may dismiss the dangers, but we have a hard time dismissing the words of the dean of one of America's most respected tropical medicine medical institutions. Err on the side of caution and feel sorry for all the party cruise-goers who will visit some of these affected islands with no clue regarding the risks.
Q - We're in a similar situation to one of your recent letter writers. We're booked on Princess Cruises and we've really not heard anything yet about major itinerary changes, refunds etc. involving Istanbul. You seem to always miss Princess in your Q & A as well as your reviews and I wonder if you could make a greater effort to update those of us booked on this line? What is Princess likely to do with our cruise?
A - We really appreciate your comments but please understand this is not a mass market "Cruise Site." We devote all of our energies to the upper end of the cruise market, the world's top ten cruise lines. Lots of existing web sites claim to have "reviews", self-appointed "critics", and user forums where marketing folks pretending to be actual cruisers vent their views. This is not that. We have little interest in rating, reviewing, or recommending floating shopping malls that are totally dependent on generating on-board revenues to cover their costs. Think of us as dealing exclusively with ships that carry fewer than 1,000 guests in the top tier of product quality and service.
The attack in Istanbul and the reaction to it has really caught some of the cruise lines off guard. The Paris attacks did not generate a significant number of cancellations for travel within France, cruise or otherwise. In fact, from a business perspective, Paris was really a rather small blip and France remains the most visited tourist nation on earth. But the attack in Istanbul has generated a greater than anticipated level of concern and cancellations. The reach of ISIS into a Muslim country that is a centerpiece of Mediterranean cruising, has caused some high levels of travel anxiety. Ships that carry a few hundred guests can change itineraries faster, significantly faster, than mega-lines who have to find port clearance for a huge vessel as well as supportive shore facilities, available guides/tours/hotel/security/ and fuel and water.
At this point, and this is a rather fluid situation, we do think that given the challenges of moving four or five thousand people on flights in or out of Istanbul, some lines will maintain current itineraries. Look for tours of major tourist areas in Istanbul to be operated under guard.
Whether or not a cruise line will complete scheduled calls in Istanbul is going to end up being primarily a business decision.
Q - It is now six months prior to our scheduled cruise in Europe - our first ever, and we're getting a little nervous since the attack in Istanbul. That happens to be where our cruise begins and we're scheduled to go in a day early. We've done everything through the cruise line, Regent Seven Seas, so there hasn't been any communication at all about what happened in Turkey and our calls have not really been responded to with any details. Is there any advice you might offer as this whole situation is a bit frightening. This will only be our second time in Europe - the first time we visited England and Ireland.
A - Crystal Cruises has announced it will be altering all calls that had included ports in Turkey. As we are responding, Regent executives are in meetings to determine a policy concerned with guests, such as yourselves, who would like to change itineraries. We expect Regent to remove Istanbul as a port, likely substituting Athens in most cases given the available airlift.
You should follow the advice of your agent. Do nothing right now. Be patient. If you were to cancel; before the new policy was announced you would be liable for any cancellation charges. If Regent changes the itinerary, they will likely give you an option of accepting the new, non-Turkey itinerary or they may permit you to select any other 2016 itinerary based on availability without any cancel penalty.
The cruise lines are pulling out of Turkey in response to a January 14th memo from the State Department advising of an increased threat level specifically involving terrorist actions against government buildings and "major tourist sites."
This does not mean that Istanbul is truly dangerous. We would visit the city in a heartbeat as it is still statistically much safer than most American urban areas. But when the State Department does issue a warning of this type, cruise line legal departments have concerns about issues of liability. Be calm and don't worry. No major cruise line is going to place its half a billion dollar product in harm's way.
Since it appears you have not yet made your final payment, given the cruise is six months away, we would urge you to turn the booking over to the best cruise consultant in your area. This is easy to do and it may get you additional benefits and a significantly higher level of personal interest and care. We would like you to meet face-to-face with someone to discuss your concerns and we certainly want someone monitoring safety issues on your behalf. Keep in frequent touch with your travel agent for updates. It is best for you not to contact the cruise line directly as you will only get through to commission-based sales people.
Q - Another couple we met at our club wants us to join them for a cruise to Northern Europe aboard the Viking Star boat which I understand is new. You don't include Viking Cruise Line in your ratings at all and we wonder why? My main question concerns Spa Treatments. I have not cruised before but my friend has and she insists their spa is totally free. Does that sound right?
A - Well we thought we heard Donald Trump say that all shipboard Spa Services will be "terrific and free" if he is elected. But for now - No. But we can see your friend's confusion.There is an unusual relaxation space in the spa area on the Star that includes a hot and cold area with a heated thalassotherapy pool, a hot tub, a cold ice water plunge, and a Nordic snow grotto with snowflakes falling from the ceiling. The rest of the spa services aboard the Star come at an additional charge as they would on any other ship including those in the luxury category. Spa services are, for purposes of liability, almost always outsourced and come at a hefty charge.
Viking Cruises is owned by the same group that owns Viking River Cruises, a 60+ fleet making them the world's largest river boat operator. Their new cruise division is still in its infancy and the cruises are not at all inclusive. They are a company on our "Watch List" but there is just not enough empirical evidence to recommend them yet. We will say that there are aspects of their Scandinavian modernism that we just love. If truth be told, we would likely sail the Viking Star just for Mamsen's, a Norwegian Deli named after the mother of Tor Hagen, the line's owner.. You can get pea soup here with salmon and other appetizers at no additional charge. Perfect during a windy day in the Baltic.
Q - My wife and I have been following your stories about Crystal and its growth plans carefully. We're Crystal veterans and, although we've also sailed Oceania and Azamara, nothing compares to the service, food, and elegance of our Crystal experiences aboard the Serenity and Symphony. But this new yacht thing has us intrigued. How did Crystal get the ship so quickly, where will it be going, and are they building more? Is this a product you would be recommending?
A - Actually she is not a new ship. Her prior name was the Megastar Taurus and she was launched in 1989. During the acquisition process, when Crystal's CEO was visiting the offices of their new Hong Kong-based owners, the Chairman of Genting Tan Sri Lim Kok, asked if Crystal could use a 62-Guest Luxury Yacht. "Yes" was the immediate response and a new segment of luxury yacht cruising was born. Esprit will start sailing in December before heading for Europe to do 7/14 day cruises along the Adriatic coastline. There will be a number of adult "toys" on-board and the private submarine will likely be used for underwater wedding ceremonies.
This is going to be a rare chance for ordinary upscale cruisers to spend a week or two on a genuine "Billionaire's Yacht." Much of the dining options and entertainment you enjoyed on Crystal will be unavailable on this 272 foot yacht so only those familiar with small boat or yacht cruising should explore this option. And yes, there is a sister ship to the Esprit now sailing private charters for Star Cruises under the name The Taipan.
All of the scheduled sailings of the Crystal Esprit appear in our comprehensive cruise database just above this question. Our database is the world's first to be exclusively devoted to the World's Top Ten Luxury Lines. And no worries, if we see a "salesman" lurking there, we toss him overboard.
Q - This is a very good site, perhaps the best I've seen, but I wonder why you have never addressed a question about how these various cruise lines dodge taxes by registering their ships in other countries. If I lived in Florida, where most of the largest lines are based I'd be really upset. I also wonder each time we cruise (we've done eight cruises to date) how much the cruise line I am on is actually paying in taxes. Is the American taxpayer being ripped off?
A - The answer to your question is Yes! Yours is the first question we've received on this topic.
Here's the deal. You've got two mega-lines, Carnival and Royal Caribbean, that are publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange with Corporate Headquarters in the US and they had combined profits last year in excess of $2 billion. Together, these two behemoths control just about 75% of the total word cruise market.
Any impartial observer would have to include that these lines, and virtually all of their competitors including those in the upscale sectors of the industry, take full advantage of our current maritime laws and their loopholes. This means they escape most US taxation, they normally pay no attention to US labor laws creating some unbelievably bad workplace environments and they have a steady and surprisingly consistent record in fighting proposed new environmental regulations. They also consider themselves immune from US laws related to safety. Until very recently, for example, the reporting of alleged rape attacks by crew on passengers went largely unreported.
While it is true that the mega lines have to adhere to regulations from our Coast Guard and the Centers for Disease Control, their approach to taxes is quite clear. Royal Caribbean, for example, has stated in its SEC filings that "we and the majority of our subsidiaries are currently except from the United States corporate tax on income from the international operation of ships."
Carnival is incorporated in Panama. In the past, it has only paid corporate taxes on the income earned by subsidiaries Princess and Holland America on sales of domestic hotel packages.
If Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Lines did not take advantage of current Maritime Registration laws, your government would have earned an estimated $1 billion in corporate taxes yearly.
But let's be clear about something else. If all cruise lines sourcing primarily American guests were, somehow, forced to abide by US tax and labor laws, would you be willing to see the cost of cruising double overnight?
Q - We have friends who are interested in having us join them on the Oceania Sirena on a cruise from Rome to Istanbul on May 22nd. The only other cruise we have ever done was a Costa about five years ago and our friends are thinking this will be much nicer. Is this a ship you can recommend without reservation? What about the itinerary? Wondering what you think about Oceania's two-for-one pricing deal? We're in our mid sixties, both retired, and we have significant savings. But we don't like phony deals and you don't seem hesitant to point them out. Is this a phony deal?
A - You've crammed a lot in there but we'll attempt to respond with the caveat that we highly recommend that you try to establish a relationship with a trustworthy travel professional to assist with your pre-trip planning and questions. Oceania is not Costa and you need to be fully aware of the differences. Here are our brief responses to your several questions.
- We recommend the Sirena without reservations but you will need to make reservations quickly if you intend to sail her this coming May.
- The Sirena has been a ship Oceania has long wanted and they recently purchased her from Princess. She has undergone a $40 million renovation and is a true sister ship tot he line's Insignia and Regatta. All three ships were nearly identical and previously sailed under the now-defunct Renaissance Cruises flag. At 640 guests, she is country-club casual and passenger satisfactions cores are high.
- Oceania is 2015 Winner in The Best at Sea Awards in the Category "Best Overall Value in Non-Inclusive Category."
- As often happens with Oceania, we find the itinerary to be superior to that offered by many competitors. This cruise occurs during one of our most recommended cruising periods, late May, and during 13 days of superior ports in Italy, Greece, and Turkey, only one day is spent at sea. Six of the days on this itinerary are spent in 5-star rated ports. We love the fact that you will have full days in both Sorrento and Amalfi as well as stops in Sicily and Sardinia.
- Two-for-one pricing is rather meaningless and is designed to appeal to the majority of cruisers who make decisions devoid of information that is untainted and truthful. If you and I ran a cruise line, we could set any price we want as a "brochure price" and then cut it in half to be able to advertise two-for-one" deals. The only thing that matters is the price you pay on a cruise-only basis for the least expensive outside cabin with an unobstructed balcony. You them take that price and divide by the number of on-board cruise nights and you will arrive at an accurate per diem cost of your cruise. That is how the pros do it. You can then evaluate air costs, gratuities, and shore excursions separately.
Q - We are anxious for any news you might have about the new Seabourn ship. Will it mirror the Quest which we recently sailed in Europe? We found the Seabourn product to be sufficiently upscale to fit out tastes. Elegance at sea is still possible,it would appear. Hoping the new ship is the same size - 450 guests seemed ideal as per your full review.
A - The books are open for the new Seabourn Encore scheduled for delivery at the end of 2016. She is being built at Fincantieri's Marghera yard, the first of two identical ships under contract. The keel ceremony took place in September of 2015 for the41,700 Gross ton vessel. She will accommodate 150 more guests than the existing Seabourn fleet.
We have our doubts as to whether or not you are going to be seeing any new luxury ships designed for fewer than 600-700 guests in the future.
Those who really insist on smaller ships will have options like Sea Dream Yacht Club and the new Crystal Yacht product. These vessels carry fewer than 150 guests.
Q - We have sailed Crystal twice in the past, both times on the Symphony and we're really interested in the new ships currently under construction. When will they be ready and do you have any idea as to where they will be going? Also wondering about how they will differ from the existing ships. Can you tell us if they will be sailing the Orient? We really want to do Singapore and Vietnam and we're trying to make some decisions about sailing next year. We're planners. I guess our real question is does your team feel that these newer Crystal ships will be better than the current fleet, which we absolutely love?
A - Crystal has a firm commitment with their yard for three new 1,000 guest ships. The current delivery date for the first vessel is late 2018. It should not take that long for the second vessel which we expect to be delivered in mid-2019.
Given that the three ships will come out with a one-to-one crew to guest ratio, we expect these ships to be a definite upgrade to the current two-ship fleet. They will each be polar-class rated which will allow them to operate virtually anywhere in the world. Staterooms will be larger than those of their competitors and each deck will have higher than normal ceilings.
Deployment schedules will not be available for a while and it may well be that the existing ships, which are well known in the Asian market, will be doing the itineraries you are awaiting. It is general practice in the cruise industry to take the smallest ships and put them in the most exotic destinations. That reduces the downside risk if a new itinerary does not sell well.
We will be carefully watching the crewing for these ships, where are they sourced and what is their training? The upper deck apartments will likely sell out quickly which actually leaves less availability on the new ships than currently exists on the Symphony and Serenity.
Our opinion is that this is a game-changer in the luxury market. The question is how many potential Crystal guests will think that 1,000 passenger ships are too large to offer truly personalized service. From our vantage point, we would not bet against Crystal on this one. We think that, given their vision and precedent-setting financial commitment from their new owners, Crystal will likely become the premier luxury cruising brand in the next 36 months.
But their on-board product will need to stand up to the scrutiny of some of cruising's most sophisticated critics - current Crystal past guests.
Q - I enjoy your site and appreciate all of the valuable information I have encountered! I have not seen any questions on how to avoid motion sickness on a cruise. My husband and I will be first time cruisers celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary. I have heard that motion sickness is not much of an issue on much larger ships, however we will be sailing with Regent. We have upgraded to a room with a balcony in anticipation of this. What steps, if any, would you recommend I follow prior to our departure or even during the trip should I have issues? Thank you for your time.
A - The research shows that a surprisingly large segment of non-cruisers and first-time cruisers see this issue as a real concern. Since 94.3% of first-time cruisers book a second cruise within 36 months of their return, we have to assume that for the vast majority of cruisers, seasickness becomes a non-issue. So please don't be overly concerned.
Sea sickness is more likely to happen based on your itinerary rather than the design or size of your ship. There is a fair amount of urban myth concerning cabin placement and remedies you can take before hitting the high seas. But the primary determinant of sea sickness is the amount of rough water you will encounter based the time of year and the route the ship will follow. This is where your consultant will be helpful. We like to ease first-timers into an itinerary that is likely to produce smooth seas. You did not indicate your itinerary so we can't be as specific as we would like to be.
The most important thing to know about sea sickness is that you really don't need to put up with it if it occurs. Every one of the world's top ten cruise lines has a fully staffed medical facility. There are shots, several developed in Europe, that the on-board doctor can administer, that will take away that queasy feeling within minutes. One of the reasons these magic shots are available is that no cruise line can afford to have their crew immobilized by seasickness. Your travel consultant will advise you if your line has the shot available to passengers. Regent Seven Seas does.
We're not so keen on balconies during rough seas. You are likely going to be better off up on the top deck outdoors. The fresh air will be helpful.
In terms of known itineraries with potential churning seas we can point to any cruise around the tip of South America, cruises out of San Francisco Bay into the Pacific, the area on Panama Canal Cruises where the Gulf of Mexico flows into the Atlantic, and transatlantic sailings during shoulder season.
We do not believe in pre-trip anti-seasickness prep. If you like patching yourself up that's fine but it won't do much good. Some guests have success with Bonine, an over-the-counter motion sickness preventative. There are also advocates of ginger in its many forms. Toast and crackers are fine but we always try to avoid having a cassoulet during seachop.
A lower-deck, mid-ship outside cabin with a balcony is the safest place to be for handling sea turbulence. And yes, although we are strong advocates of avoiding obese mega-ships, with thousands of passengers, larger ships provide somewhat more stability. But don't read too much into it hat because smaller vessels are more maneuverable.
There are other considerations regarding the manner in which your ship handles rough seas. Will the Captain fully engage bow thrusters should the seas get unpleasant? You would think always but, in fact, these thrusters burn a lot of extra fuel and on some budget lines cost is always a consideration. So just how dedicated your cruise line is to seeing to its guests comfort is an important factor when it comes to smooth seas. How likely is it that the ship you are sailing will change direction or ports to avoid rough seas? You will find a close correlation between customer care and cost.
We were once sailing with the legendary Princess Cruises Captain, John Young. We hit some strong seas off the coast of Scotland and he came on the ships PA system and explained that:
"Ladies and Gentlemen, you are currently ensconced in the bosom of the deep. And as you may be aware, bosoms tend to rise and fall. So please join me in lying back and making the most of this rare experience."
Q - We received a mailing form Seabourn saying they are going to be building two new ships. Meanwhile, we've been looking at a cruise we really like on the Quest for next summer in the Baltic. We can wait a year or two if the new ships will be really special. We've tried Regent and Crystal and have become loyal Seabourn fans. How much of an up-grade will these new ships be? We're certainly willing to wait.
A - Seabourn, more than any other luxury cruise line, seems to know exactly who it is and what it wants to be. The sale of its three 10,000 GRT baby white ships to Windstar, began a new era for the company. There is a great consistency in the three 450-Guest sisters Seabourn has launched in recent years. The Odyssey, the Sojourn, and the Quest are considered to be extremely well-designed vessels that maintain the line's characteristic yacht-like feel while providing spacious creature comforts. Seabourn also seems to have hit the sweet spot in terms of profitability and intimacy - a difficult challenge for any small ship line. Finally, Seabourn guests seem to feel comfortable with the line's easing up on some of its earlier formality in the dining room. Service is still among the best at sea and there is no evidence, based on our inspections, that corners are being cut in either food or entertainment.
Our personal observation is that a 450 guest ship allows guests to run into newly-acquired friends without feeling hemmed in by too small a circle of fellow cruisers. This is, of course, a personal thing, but, again, Seabourn seems to have hit the sweet spot.
So Seabourn was open to criticism when it announced that its two new ships, the Encore and the Ovation will be 8,000 GRT larger than their current vessels and carry 600 guests. The two ships will launch in the fall of 2016 and the spring of 2018.
This new tonnage is based on the principle that Seabourn can still maintain its small ship feel and current service levels with more space and an increase of only 142 guests. There will likely be at least one additional dining venue and some creative use of public space but we see no reason to delay your cruise. This entire build project is based on Seabourn's philosophy that they got it right with the Odyssey class vessels and when their past guests board the new vessels they will want to see more of the same. Given the stability and lower pricing we are seeing from the European yards, the luxury sector is building new ships. But you will notice that, in virtually every case, long-term viability is based on getting guest capacity up, as even a little bit can make a huge difference to the bottom line.
Q - We are really excited about the changes at Crystal Cruises you describe. Our interest at the moment is centered around the new Crystal Yacht division and the Esprit. We want to know how to book the yacht and when the books will officially open? We are also wondering if you feel it is a good idea to do one of the first sailings. We are tending to want to wait until next summer. Are itineraries set? How big will the ship be and will she handle rough water well?
A - When Genting Hong Kong announced its purchase of Crystal and its ambitious new building program, the yacht was being completed in the yard. So Crystal got a 31-cabin luxury product it really wasn't expecting. The Esprit is now open for reservations through the summer of 2016. It will set out on sailings in the Seychelles from December 23rd 2015 through April 17th of next year. A land program in Dubai and Abu Dhabi will be combined with the seven-day sailings. Then, the boat will move to Europe where she will be doing seven-day sailings between Venice and Dubrovnik that are unusual in that they are going to spend the entire week visiting smaller ports along the Croatian coast. We love this new option to spend the entire week exploring ports that, for the most part, are still unspoiled and undiscovered by the tourist hordes.
You can book with any travel consultant but choose one who specializes in smaller luxury ships. We think that there are bound to be some initial glitches - there always are. But Crystal has always been the benchmark cruise brand when it comes to on-board services and we would expect that any problems would be solved within moments of being reported. We would endorse your plan to sail the boat next summer.
The boat is relatively small but extremely large given that only 62 guests will be aboard when boat is full. Yes, you will feel the sea, so, perhaps, you will want to think carefully about re-positioning cruises. But the Seychelles and the Dalmatian coast are safe, calm cruising grounds. We would certainly say you can book either of those itineraries without concern.
Early indications are that this may be the hottest, most difficult to obtain, cruise ticket in town. Take our suggestion to book early seriously.
Q - Hello - and fascinating approach. We're enjoying this informative site by the pool. It reads even better after a second daiquiri. My wife and I are going top plan something that will give us a week or two in the Galapagos along with a few days to see Machu Pichu - number one on our bucket list. By when to go? And how to go? Keep it up and don't cave in on the ads. It makes all the difference.
A - We won't. There are two best times to go - tax day through the first of June is best and the entire month of September up until about the 10th of October also work well.
The tricky part is not the Galapagos, which, based on their position along the equator are really open for business all year, but Machu Pichu. MP sits pretty much in the middle of a large tropical rain forest in the mountains of Peru. There is a long rainy season from October through the early part of April. The mud and the rain make a visit challenging so you really have a six-month window. Again, the best time to do this trip is May.In terms of options, we would highly recommend three:
01 - The year-round seven-night sailings on the Silverseas Silver Galapagos are luxurious while providing an authentic experience. You will sail round-trip out of Balta. There is a North Central and Western Itinerary. They can be combined for a 14-nigtht expedition. You can then add on Machi Pichi through a local land operator.
02 - Tauck does a credible 15-Day itinerary that combines exactly what you want. The Galapagos portion is done aboard the 40-Guest motor yacht, Isabella 11. This means that the boat is leased on an exclusive basis.
03 - Lindblad does a series of cruises to the Galapagos islands and pairs several of them with touring to Peru and Mach Pichu. These Lindblad - National Geographic Expeditions feature some of the best available lecturers. While not as luxurious as Silversea, Lindblad attracts a more studious clientele, the majority of whom are interested in high-level photographic experiences.
Q - I came across your web-site by accident while searching for information on Regent Cruise Lines. I discovered that Regent Cruise Lines, as of November 2015, will be taken over by NCL. Because of the buy-out/take-over would it be wise to book a cruise with Regent in September/October? We are concerned that the disruption that goes with take-overs would be a problem re service, etc.
Really enjoyed your very informative web-site!
A - No - you are right to question this but NCL is owned by Genting Hong Kong who just brought Crystal Cruises and they have significant financial support from the Apollo Group which funded Prestige Holdings the company that managed/owned both Regent Seven Seas as well as Oceania. Regent Seven Seas is now the luxury brand in the world's third largest cruise group and in Frank Del Rio, NCL's overall Chairman, there is extremely competent and strong leadership at the top.
The Carnival Group owns Seabourn, one of the top cruise lines in the world. The three major lines want mid-range (Azamara/Oceania) products their guests can "book up to" while also offering corporate products tot he luxury cruiser. We have some connection to the NCL Group and we would simply say that your concerns are ill-founded. Like Carnival and Royal Caribbean, NCL is setting up a series of brands at each of the major pricing levels. Regent Seven Seas has been making money of late and the likelihood is that some of the marketing strengths at the line will show up in other products. We are already seeing, for instance, that Oceania is beginning to offer free shore excursions, as Regent has been doing, on 2016 European sailings to early bookers. This will affect 146 Oceania sailings so it is a major step. Regent Seven Seas is in significantly better financial shape than it was even one year ago. Book them with confidence.
Q - We are booked, along with my semi-annoying brother-in-law and his lovely wife, on a Windstar cruise aboard the Star Breeze. My agent says this is a former Seabourn ship and they are fixing it up. This sort of worries me. Will I be getting a nice-looking ship or should we rethink this? The critic boards have been pretty negative online.
A - Well that could be because Windstar is not paying them enough in advertising fees. The Sea Breeze and the Star Legend have both come over from Seabourn after years of wonderful service. They needed major refurbishment and they have received it at the San Giorgio del Porto yard in Genoa. You can expect that the AmphoraA restaurant (sounds like the name of a mothball manufacturer) is going to be extremely impressive with new furniture, lights, and decor. There is now an outdoor dining area named "Candles" that should be very romantic. The old swimming pool has been replaced by weather-protected outdoor seating. The lounges have been redone as has the Starbar.
Your ship only carries 212 guests and has just gone through a $9 million rehab. That works out to about $90,000 per stateroom. Given Windstar's excellent price points, we think you will really enjoy your vacation. To make it really swell, you might tell your brother-in-law that the ship still belongs to Seabourn.
Q - We will be arriving in Barcelona on the day our ship, Sea Dream 11, sails at 5:00 pm. We're coming in from Orange County on a connection through Madrid and wondering how we should get to the ship terminal from the airport?
A - Not a big whoop. You'll be arriving at El Prat de Llobregat Airport, about a half hour drive to the main cruise terminals. There is no recommended public transportation. We suggest having your consultant arrange a private driver or, to save some money, simply hop into a taxi. Expect to pay about 50 Euro for two people and luggage. Do, however, be careful as Sea Dream's small ships are often able top dock at smaller piers in town that the big boys can't use.
Q - Interesting site with good information and one really strong prejudice. We book cruises at least twice a year and we always use the online sites. While the folks we work with are order-takers, they always seem to have better pricing than the catalogs. If its cheaper online, that is where we are going to book. Your recommendation to use a pricey travel agent is just not good advice.
A - Even though there is no discernible question in your comments, we'll respond briefly.
You are correct. We have a bias - but it is fact-based. You should definitely continue to book online, and intersperse your credit card information with questions about the current weather or traffic conditions in Mumbai.
We fully understand why you believe the propaganda you've been fed. As an educated person, you believe that call center order takers have you and your family's best interests at heart. You believe that all of the top cruise lines have a business philosophy that would lead them to offer internet calling centers a much better rate on their products than professional travel counselors. You are looking for the best deal, the cheapest price. We know where the cheapest cruise prices can be found. They can be found by working with a part-time "agent" working out of her house, who is willing to rebate a portion of her commission. Have they been anywhere, do they enjoy a personal relationship with cruise line management, will they be your advocates when you need one? And how will you feel holding tickets that are issued by an "agent" who is underselling the cruise line's pricing guidelines?
Sorry. It's all a sham. Every top consultant gets exactly the same pricing. Every top seller of luxury cruises gets an official Guest receipt for every booking. All of the deals and discounts are clearly shown on that receipt. If your "agent" can't produce a confirmation matching the price you are paying that is issued by the cruise line on its own stationary, book elsewhere. If they show you an invoice but say their price is different from what you have been given from the cruise line, book elsewhere. The official cruise line receipt matching what you are being asked to pay is your guarantee that you are working with a legitimate firm.
Yes, we have that prejudice. Too many consumers have been badly hurt by online transactions encouraged by offers available to every consultant but featured, erroneously, on web sites as "exclusive pricing". It is always a lie. Any deal is available anywhere. You need to pick your travel consultant in the same way that you choose other professional advisors whose services you might require.
We know that you and the majority of cruise consumers will not take our advice. It is easier to believe the big pricing lie. Sorry for the lecture.
Q - Having recently retired, and being terminally bored with nothing to do but hit the little ball in the hole, I've had time to do internet "research" on our next cruise. I am a former CFO for a major Fortune 500, but I confess to utter confusion about what is a real deal and which is absolute marketing hype, as you all describe it. Love to know what I am looking at in terms of the announcements about Silverseas spicing up the deal on their Asia cruises next year. Just found this site by accident and I'm still trying to find out if you're legit. I can't figure out how you make money. Are you guys broke? Do you take donations for the site?
A - Well, best to break down your questions a bit. You've got quite a lot in here. You have actually stumbled on a "Real Deal" from Silverseas in conjunction with their excellent Asian itineraries aboard the Silver Shadow in 2016. These sailings have had a light response and Silverseas has created a package that includes two complimentary pre-cruise hotel nights, Free shore excursions, Free round-trip economy air, and Free Wi-Fi.
This all looks good in print but let's break it down: The Free Wi-Fi assumes that users won't get totally frustrated by the slow speed of internet at sea. In fact, "slow internet" is one of the top two complaints received by five-star cruise line management. Truly high-speed internet will be a reality in 24 months aboard all of the top lines. But thus far, the technology is limited to just a handful of ships. The Free air offer is nice but it applies to economy air to Asia. Most guests on Silversea have never seen the rear two-thirds of an aircraft and are generally unaware that every passenger does not receive flat bed turn-down service. That said, this is still an excellent offer on a cruise line that is on an upward trajectory.
We do not take cash donations but you might want to send us some truffles to pass around in our offices. They must be from Elba. We've been in business for 30 years and we're not quite broke. We operate our web sites in the consumer's interest because that has always been our business strategy. We know that virtually every cruise review is either written by amateurs with little or no industry knowledge or by a "journalist" who has received a free trip. That path will never lead you to the truth. Our clients are in seven countries and 47 States. We are busy enough that it is unnecessary for us to advertise or solicit. We accept new clients from our sites only when we feel there is a real compatibility of interests. We have absolutely no interest in soliciting those who enjoy a professional relationship with a travel consultant. As to whether or not we are "legit" - no not at all - in the traditional travel agency sense.
Q - We've read a great deal about some of the programs using, I guess renting is the right term, boats from the Ponant Line. My lovely wife has agreed to join me on my dream trip to Antarctica in 2017. Is this the right line. I figure of Abercrombie & Kent and Tauck use them they must be OK, but I wonder about their financial stability this far out. By the way, my wife has absolutely no interest in this cruise. She feels we will be spending a great deal of money to stare at miles of ice. She will be reading your response, as will several of our friends in Ann Arbor.
A - Actually, Le Ponant is growing. They recently purchased the assets of Travel Dynamics and they now have a real office in Manhattan. Personally, we believe that this French-held company is one of the best financed of the small ship lines. So, no worries there. Your point about the quality of the companies that use these three nearly identical luxury yachts with ice-breaking hulls and the original, smaller sailing yacht, is extremely well taken. The top-end tour operators will not renew their contracts with any cruise supplier who does not rank extremely high in the matter of guest satisfaction. It is a sort of guarantee.
Ponant has offices in France and is now sourcing guests from the Asia-Pacific region via their new office in Australia. Cabins can be tight and some of the French-inspired service is a bit reserved. But they are among the world's Top Ten Cruise Lines currently and we expect them to remain on the list through our next series of evaluation reports.
Your wife may think she can get the same experience available on a cruise to Antarctica by staring at the ice-cube tray in the frig for a few hours a day. Our approach would be not to try to sell the destination. It will sell itself once she boards. Instead, we think that each spouse has to be allowed, with support from their loved ones, to live through their own, personal bucket list. That's what love is all about. She is right - you will be spending a lot of money. But it strikes us that you are on the right track. Be aware that the books for 2017 are now open. Antarctica generally requires a 14-16 month booking window.
Q - Congratulations on your site. It is extremely helpful but we'd like to reiterate a question I am sure you will be getting from many other confused cruisers. Is there one line or ship that is generally thought to be the best in the world?
A - We've tried to make that perfectly clear in our ratings. At the moment, the Europa I and the Europa 11 are regarded by industry professionals as the best ships afloat. They belong to Hapag-Lloyd, a line that did not even have a sales office in the United States until very recently. These German ships are not for everyone but there is little doubt that, advertising claims aside, they are the very best that cruising has to offer. The Europa 1 is a truly classical vessel with gala formal nights and old world, dignified service. The Europa 11 is a more casual vessel that still maintains the highest standards.
As we point out, however, there is only one best ship for you. Ratings serve as guideposts but there is, we suspect, one ship among the top ten lines that is absolutely the best choice for you. That may not be the top-rated or even the second or third best.
As for "certification", we're afraid there is no real industry organization that does impartial rankings. That is why we launched this site. Cruise lines never use the term "mass market" and the less expensive mega-ships have the largest advertising budgets. So the consumer really has no place to go to understand why some small ships cost $500-$700 per day while much larger ships, with more "facilities" cost $100-$300 per day. Despite phony pricing claims, silly claims about "luxury", no official ship certification, and rather self-serving health and safety standards, cruising is still a cleaner operation overall than professional soccer.
For most consumers, the best cruise line is often the one their travel agent has sailed on an inspection cruise.
Q – We will need to make a payment to Celebrity Cruises for our final payment for a two-week cruise to the Mediterranean. We booked it directly with Celebrity and there seems to be some confusion about the credits we were given when we booked with their agent, Joseph. I think we should be allowed to take the credit off the price but Celebrity is trying to get us to pay the full rate. Who can I turn to for help with this? Can I still get another travel agent involved with final payment only three weeks away?
A – You have made a direct booking with a commissioned salesman in a cubicle whose job is to maximize revenue for his employer. Celebrity will charge you the commission meant to compensate your travel agent. That’s the bad news. You’ve been suckered. The good news is that you may still be able to turn this reservation over to a professional cruise consultant since you have not yet made final payment. Since the travel consultant commission is built into all cruise pricing, it is unlikely you will have to pay anything for professional services.
There are two kinds of credits. If a cruise line mails you a credit because something happened on your last sailing, you can take the amount of the credit off your final price. But if you have received an “On-Board Credit” you may not deduct the value from your cruise price. The on-board credit, which we suspect you have, is simply applied to your final expense account aboard the ship. It is deducted from the amount to be charged to your credit card for on-board activities, drinks, medical treatment, spa services, gift shops etc. Hope this is helpful. Probably best to never book directly again. You should always have an advocate when purchasing travel services – things can and do go wrong.
Q – Realize yours is not an airline site but I always wonder about the cleanliness of the blankets I find all wrapped up, nice and tidy, on my seat when I am flying Business Class internationally. I’d love to know how often those blankets are actually cleaned? I start itching just thinking about it.
A – It turns out that blankets used by airlines are far more sanitary than the blankets that adorn your hotel room bed. Our favorite frequent flyer web site, Viewfromthewing.com recently tackled this subject. In the case of American Airlines, blankets are not put back into cellophane. The blankets are collected and sent off to cleaning contractors in major hubs who clean them and then repackage them. It is safe to assume that any airline blanket sealed in cellophane has not been used by other passengers. Hope that helps with the itching.
Friendly Skies” was, alas, just an ad, not a statement of policy and practice.
Q – We have a rather unusual situation. We are traveling with friends on a Baltic cruise this July that includes three full days in St. Petersburg. My mother is quite ill and there is the remote possibility that I could be called during the cruise with the need to fly out of Russia in a hurry. Our travel consultant has set us up with a full itinerary of specially created tours. The Visa will be included. Is there any reason why I need to apply for a separate visa in addition to the one being provided?
A – Yes, in your specific set of circumstances you will need a separate visa. The documents issued by your consultant’s ground operator in Russia will cover you as long as you stick to the proscribed sightseeing program. But you are not covered for independent travel to the airport or, for that matter, for flights out of Russia. Your visa from the tour operator will only cover you for arrival and departure by ship. So, in the unlikely event that you get the call and have to fly out immediately, we do want you to have an independent visa covering such an eventuality.
Q – We will be leaving in three months for a two-week cruise to Greece and Turkey with Sea Dream 1. Picking the cruise was easy, the ship only has 50 cabins and 100 people. But choosing insurance is tougher. How do we find the best deals on travel insurance?
A – We’re not going to tell you because you are asking the wrong question. If this were the Mayo Clinic site would you be asking us to direct you to the cheapest heart surgeon? You don’t normally want the “cheapest” anything when it comes to vacation planning, a reality that applies in spades when looking at comprehensive travel insurance. In fact, the most expensive policy is often, usually, the one that will actually protect you in an emergency. There are several good insurance companies with very similar rates. Your insurance discussion should be held with the consultant who sold you your trip – knowing about insurance options is an important part of every travel consultant’s job.
Travel consultants are constantly updated on travel policies and they normally have vast experience dealing with issues related to insurance. You would need to know, for instance, which insurance companies are most active in fighting on your behalf and which firms will do a comprehensive review of a “coverage declined” decision at the request of a consultant. Look for two things upfront: Can you get the pre-existing condition waived? (Absolutely necessary for most travelers) and know exactly what amount of emergency evacuation is included. We would never recommend a policy that gave you a penny less than $50,000 of medical evacuation, the most likely serious expense travelers encounter.
As a general rule, although there are specific travel product exceptions, you want to avoid any policy sold by the tour operator or cruise line. You want to be represented by an independent insurance firm with solid long-term financial stability. That really narrows the field.
How many people fly the “cheapest” airline without ever considering the salaries paid to that airline’s pilots or the condition of the equipment they fly. This notion of “cheapest” is popular with the media but it is a silly way to approach something as serious as planning the best moments of your life – or insuring them.
Q – In late September we’ve booked a great itinerary on the Seabourn Spirit round-trip out of Venice for ten days. The cruise will visit ports in Greece and Croatia that we really want to see but it overnights at the end in Venice. The problem is we’ve been there twice before, once with a wonderful guide named Anna Ferrari. I wonder if you know her? Our question is, given that we feel we’ve seen Venice, is there anyplace nearby, something charming, that might have fewer tourists and would make a great day trip?
A – We don’t know Ms. Ferrari, although we suspect it is an assumed name. Many guides end their touring day making their guests feel like they have become fast friends. Some tourists will try to contact them at home, so some guides use, easy-to-remember, assumed names. If Venetian tour-guide Anna Ferrari exists, we can’t find her.
One of our favorite places to escape the predictable crowds in Venice is a fishing port called Chioggia, on a very small island on the southern end of the Venetian lagoon. There is a wonderful pedestrian street, Corso del Popolo, that runs through the center of town with some interesting small shops, cafes, and restaurants. If you stay overnight, you will love walking this street in the early evening as the locals enjoy their passeggiata. There are Adriatic beaches not far away in the Sottomarina district.
There is a boat service from St. Mark’s Square to Chioggia that runs from June through September, but it will not be operating in October when you arrive in Venice at the end of your cruise. Your best bet will be to use one of the direct buses that operate out of Venice. The rail trip involves several changes and will take two hours.
Q – I am a pediatrician here in Dallas and an avid reader of this space. Next summer (2016) Patti and I want to take our three children on a real quality cruise up to Alaska that might have children’s programs. I would love to know the best line to do this with and how I should book it since there are five of us (12, 14, 17). I keep getting recommendations from local agents for Princess and Holland America but I know they are not in your Top Ten and we can afford something more inclusive with better food and services, as well as fewer people. Any options that could work well to please every member of our family. Stares from old biddies cause we brought three young-uns with us won’t bother us a bit. (anticipating your response)
A – Well you’ve likely made the best itinerary choice. We would recommend the Crystal Serenity as your best option. They will be doing 7-night Alaska cruises beginning June 19th and then will end the season with several 10-night cruises ending August 6th. Crystal, not known as a line that loves the kiddies, has actually forged an excellent alliance with the National Park Service Ranger service. The trick is to make certain that your consultant verifies there are enough kids booked to operated the program. Crystal won’t offer it if the “biddies” are the only ones onboard.
You will likely need to book a double and adjacent triple. Given the daily temperatures, we don’t feel that a balcony is critical in Alaska. Your wife should be booked with two children in the triple. Once aboard, you can actually sleep with your wife. But the ship’s log must show an adult in each stateroom. This will work well and there’s a good chance everyone will love being aboard the Serenity. The staff will make the kids feel really special because they see so few of them.
Q – I thought I would see if luxurycruiseratingscom is going to give us the same blank stare we get when we ask a travel agent about cruising West Africa. I mean, Africa is a fairly large continent and, near as I can tell, it has both an East and a West Coast. We would for a nice cruise, particularly on an itinerary that includes Ghana, the land of our ancestors. Is there any decent ship that goes there and are there reasons that you would advise not going at all? I am a historian and my husband is a physician. We have never been to Africa before and we want to do it before children come along. We’re in our late thirties and early forties.
A – West Africa is high on our Bucket List so we are definitely not going to suggest you not go. You are smart enough to know that you will encounter depressing levels of poverty, some health risks in terms of prevalent viruses, and some governments for which the term “unstable” is a gross understatement.
That said, prepared to be amazed and enthralled. The trip you want to do is the 18-Night Voyage to West Africa itinerary from Accra to Casablanca on March 23rd next year. This rather epic sailing aboard the 148-Guest National Geographic Explorer is operated by the world-renowned expedition cruise line, Lindblad Expeditions. Lindblad features some of the best on-board lecturers in the industry and you will not be disappointed in either the boat or the intelligent approach to learning about local cultures. The nine country itinerary includes Senegal. the Gambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana, Togo, Benin and Morocco.
You will be among the youngest aboard but this rare itinerary (let’s face it – this is a tough sell for any cruise line), will attract hardy travelers who practice the kind of experiential journeys favored by Lindblad.
Q – I think it is fair to say that you have no bigger fans of this site but, sadly, we find little help from you in planning our upcoming cruise with our 8 and 11 year-old boys. I know, for example, that Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean are supposed to have the best kids programs at sea but couldn’t find any information about them on your site. Why is this? Just curious and is there anything you can offer that would be helpful about the new Norwegian Getaway? Understand that you write for the upscale traveler but when this family cruise is all over, I think we will have spent close to $10,000 on a one week vacation. This is not a typical blog attack, just an honest question as to why these lines are not covered?
A – And we take it as such. No harm – no foul. We neither sell or recommend ships that carry more than 1,000 passengers. We believe that megaships, with their institutional food, long lines, and constant haranguing of guests to spend more money, are not consistent with a sophisticated, carefully crafted vacation experience. Almost any travel agent is familiar with and can sell the megaships. You are correct, our niche is the upscale traveler. One reason for that is that there are numerous cruise blogs and so-called information sites that plug special deals and discounts on the megaships (almost all of those offers are phony since agents must adhere to price guidelines set by the cruise line) We felt that no one was really providing truthful travel information to more upscale travelers in an online setting coupled with one-on-one professional counseling by award-winning luxury consultants. Hope this makes sense. We don’t include the megaships in our Top Ten Ratings because they are nowhere near the Top Ten when it comes to overall quality and delivery of services.
We like the Getaway for you. Younger kids particularly are drawn to Norwegians partnership with Nickelodeon, the ship has a terrific Aqua Park, kids can learn circus skills from Cirque du Jour and then perform in a show of their own design. They will love it. The same can be true of Royal Caribbean and its incredible menu of kids activities. But the bottom line on kids programs at sea is that no one does it quite as well as Disney. They are totally dedicated to families, where the other mega-ship lines have family components to their programs. When it comes to traveling with kids under the age of sixteen, we recommend you look at Disney first. Really hope this is helpful and thanks so much for your comments.
Q – Forgive me, but I just don’t get it. My wife wants to bring the grandkids, ages 8-16 on a seven-night Disney cruise. I’ve heard they do some special things but have no sense of the experience. Wouldn’t the family have just as good a time on an adult line like Princess that also offers kid’s programs? I never bought into the mouse and the characters. It all seems so juvenile. If I see a fake pirate running around the ship I’m liable to shove him overboard.
A – But you won’t – because that would be juvenile. Then there’s the matter of “the hook”. If the cruise is really for the grandkids, and you’re not just bringing them along to accompany you on vacation, Disney is as good as it gets.
You will do rotational dining with the same waiter throughout. In Animator’s Palate, you draw characters that come to life onscreen. The Aqua tube is a big hit and it runs efficiently. Every cabin gets use of a cell phone/walkie talkie. You’ll always know where the grandkids are. The electronic wristbands for kids participating in the kids program works well and the staff can pinpoint the location of each child on a screen. The shows are professionally produced and truly memorable. The movies are fun and Disney puts their latest on the ships. The only nudity will be a quick shot of Tinkerbell.
Yes, you have to buy into the concept and yes, there is lots of cross-selling that kids find hard to resist. But Disney is all about families while other lines realize that too many kids will adversely affect the number of adult cruisers they will be able to attract. That is the crucial difference and the reason that we have to rate Disney as the ultimate experience for cruisers whose primary concern is the well being, the joy, and the memories, their children and grandchildren will take away from the experience. Oh, and do remember to bring a suitcase filled with Purell.
Q – We were directed to your site by another site. Looking for a ship or a company that supposedly will take you to Antarctica on an actual sailing boat. We can’t seem to find any information on this program and wondering if you could point us in the right direction. My wife and I are in our early fifties, we’re sailors, and we always select the most adventurous way to see a place. I think that doing Drake’s Passage on a sailboat would be just awesome.
A - This is a wild one but it does exist. Have your travel agent contact Natural Habitat Adventures. They have been using the 75-foot Australis, a true sailing vessel that is equipped for polar ice. The 17-Day trip normally goes out with eight passengers from Ushuaia down the Beagle Channel, along the coast of Argentina and then across the Drake Passage to the coast of Antarctica. There will be an on-board biologist and, if weather cooperates, you will be camping on absolutely deserted beaches. They charged $22,995 per person the last time they operated this voyage and that was not for the top accommodation. This is easily a $50,000 + adventure.
Q – This has been bothering me for years and I thought you might be able to help. Our best friends are absolute wine snobs. I am getting tired of my friends habit of insisting on doing all the wine tasting on our frequent forays abroad. He makes a big deal of swirling his glass, endlessly “aerating” his wine before tasting it as the hapless wine steward stands by anxiously awaiting his nod of approvals. My friend takes every available wine course offered in our city and I suppose he knows what he is doing but the tasting and, occasional spitting out the wine back in the glass is sometime embarrassing. How would you deal with this? They want us to join them on a Windstar Cruise.
Q – If he enjoys it we would say let him gargle his wine, spit into out, or put it behind his ears. But, in truth, we would likely not hold back and point out that truly knowledgeable wine connoisseurs never taste a wine. Taste is a very personal thing. It tells you nothing important about the wine except whether or not, on that day, at that time, your friend likes it.
When a wine steward presents a bottle of wine the proper response historically is to simply sniff the cork to determine if the wine is spoiled or rancid.
Q – I am taking our family on a really nice cruise. Fortunately for me, our children are gainfully employed and will need to be in touch with their offices, as will I. I went tot he Seabourn web site and got links to a satellite provider for the ship. Utterly useless. So what do we do? Will our smartphones likely work. We’re among the select few to own an iPhone.
A – We can see that you have gotten a bit of a run-around in terms of sites linking to sites – none of which really answers your question.
Seabourn has invested in satellite communication technology. But Internet service and Wi-Fi connections at sea are extremely problematic. No one can guarantee a clear connection unless you bring along a Satellite Phone and point it at the southern sky.
Here is what we recommend you do.
01 – Call Wireless Traveler – 866 – 700 – 3883. A human being will answer the phone. . They will ask what countries you are going to be visiting and what your needs are and they will overnight you the proper phone with sim card, along with detailed instructions. You don’t need to purchase a phone – just rent one for the length of your trip that will work in the countries you are visiting. Wireless Traveler will take care of all details.
02 – As an alternative, AT&T and Verizon rent overseas equipped phones to their customers. But you would need to have a nearby office for convenience.
03 – You will significantly better connections on land than you will have at sea so I would plan for that eventuality.
04 – If you have a serious need to be in telephone communication while aboard the ship, do seriously consider renting a satellite phone from Wireless Traveler. They are bulky but they always work as long as you are on a deck, outdoors aboard ship.
05 – Your current phones will not work abroad because they lack the proper Sim cards so one of the above steps is required.
Q -Need your advice and help on a possible trip for this December. Since we had to cancel our July Silverseas Baltic trip (which has been rescheduled for next year) I need to use or lose my airline credit by the end of the year. For many reasons, December would be the best month for us to travel (birthdays, anniversary, etc.)
Anyway, one of the things that we have wanted to do was to take a cross atlantic trip. If we do so we are thinking that the Queen Mary 2 would be the best given the possible rough weather. I see that there is a crossing from Southamption to NYC on December 15. We are thinking of going to Europe a week earlier, spending some time perhaps in Rome (which we haven’t been to in a long while (or maybe Spain???) then making our way to London for the sailing?
If we take the QM2 we would want a decent stateroom (Queens Grill category.) I haven’t really seen much on Traveltruth regarding the QM2 so your advice is, as always, my first choice.
Please let me know regarding this possible itinerary and whether Italy or Spain would be a better choice for December.
A – Thanks so much. Pretty straightforward.
You don’t want to be in the middle of the Atlantic in December in any class of service. We think it could be more of an adventure than you both require in your lives.
December is difficult – Spain would be marginally better than Italy but the weather will not be very different than, say, the Washington D.C. area at that time of year. We would think you might think more about someplace like St. Petersburg, Russia or Stockholm, where the winter weather could be fun.
To save some money and have a good experience, you might want to look at one of the Christmas Market river boat cruises in December to Germany. We love the experience but it helps if you would enjoy the beer and sausages.
When we think of December travel you could use your miles and be in prime season in:
The Orient/Southeast Asia Portions of Africa South America
The crossings are a wonder but we think that is a bucket list item that should be checked off in prime season.
Q – We’ve been asked to join friends on the Royal Caribbean Freedom of the Seas. They’re wonderful friends, great company, but we’re folks who enjoy fine dining on vacation. So how bad is this going to be?
A – There are specialty restaurants that you will likely find tolerable and perhaps even enjoyable. For the most part, dining aboard the mass market ships is very much a case of institutional catering. Passable, impressive presentation, but nothing to write home about.
There actually is a much-discussed article published by the New Yorker in which writer David Owen examines the inner-workings of the Royal Caribbean Oasis of the Seas. He points out that the vessel has 23 dining venues including a sushi-and-ishiyaki restaurant, an Italian Trattoria, and a cupcake shop. He was impressed with the on-board butcher shop, twenty galleys and the fact that “virtually everything that I ate had been prepared on the ship using fresh, unprocessed ingredients.” Go with an open attitude and we think you will be fine. Besides, good tablemates are half the battle.
Q = I suppose you could call us soft adventurers. But we’re in our early forties and extremely adventurous, having done several mountain treks including Nepal. We are looking for a small ship cruise line that really can take us to out of the way places, way off the tourist map. We’ve looked at Quark and Lindblad and some of the smaller adventure companies, but they don’t offer the level of comfort in terms of food and wine that we are seeking. Any suggestions – we live in Manhattan, by the way, and, if you haven’t guessed, we’re “A-Types”. Does adventure always equate to a “ship with no latte”?
A – Actually, we do have a recommendation. Look at the French company Le Ponant which owns four adventure expedition ships that are extremely sleek and yacht-like with some nice accommodations. Le Ponant travels the earth to regions like Melanesia and the Cape Verde islands. They sail, always in style, with French chefs and provisions yet they cater to a significant American audience. When reviewing their sailings with your consultant make certain that you specify that you will want one of their designated “Expedition Cruises”, the ones with zodiacs, lecturers, and lattes in spill-proof cups.
Q – Great site but no ratings of Viking Ocean cruises which our agent promised was the “top line in Europe” with sleek new ships.” Would we be making a mistake to book this line? We’re looking at a Med cruise next August.
A – Luxury Cruise Ratings identifies and evaluates the world’s top ten cruise lines. Viking Cruises is not yet in that category although she well may be going forward. The idea came from Tor Hagen the charismatic Founder of Viking River Cruises who thought he could design a cruise product based on his core beliefs that:
- Dress should be casual
- Décor should be Scandinavian Modern
- Excursions to the major sites should be included in the fare
- The ships should remain in port as long as possible
The Viking Star with 930 guests was launched in April of 2015. The Viking Star and Sky will launch next year.
Our advice is to wait and hold. This is a new product with a new crew and it is generally best to book such at sea “experiments” during their second year of operation. Early indications are that this new cruise line will hit a number of consumer hot buttons, particularly the casual dress and additional time in port. But studies show that more sophisticated travelers are put off by a lack of dress rules aboard ship and all lines are now aiming to increase their time in port. The problem with that concept is that while a ship is at sea, drinks, gift shops, and casinos are all generating substantial profits. When a ship is in port, the locals make money but since guests are off the ship, on-board “spend” is greatly reduced. So a cruise ship that has no days at sea and long stays in port would have to charge higher per diems to compensate for the loss in on-board revenues.
Viking River cruises is not a true luxury product but it offers good value and a series of new, contemporary Longboats. People have counted Hagen out before and it has been proven to be a mistake. Give this new line some breathing room, and Viking Cruises may well become a popular alternative in the small, mid-ship market.
Viking is nowhere near to being the “top line in Europe”. We doubt they will ever achieve that distinction. Think 4-stars at best. And August is the worst possible month to travel in the southern Med.
Q – We are trying to plan ahead and I wish to take our family of five on a Disney cruise for a week over the Thanksgiving Holiday in 2017. When will we need to get reservations and which accommodation do you recommend? Quite frankly, we are not concerned about cost. I should point out that the travel agent we talked to on one of the discount sites kept trying to talk us out of Disney in favor of Norwegian. Why would they do that when I specified we wanted Disney?
A – The books opened up 15 months in advance of sailing this year. For 2017, Disney estimates that you should have your agent contact them in March of 2016 to place you on a priority waiting list.
You will probably want one of the Royal Suites which include Concierge Service. These have one bedroom and sofas that convert to beds. There are two bathrooms and a dining area as well as a larger-than-usual wrap-around balcony. Really perfect for a family of five.
An excellent cruise consultant will get to know you and your family well and will offer recommendations without financial consideration. You may have run into a situation where one line was paying the agency an override commission in exchange for referrals. The consumer needs to get a feel for the expertise and ethics of the travel advisor. Does your agent place your interests above those of the firm in terms of potential commissions earned? We would also point out that some agents just find Disney extremely difficult to work with and so off-sell them whenever they can.
They may pay lower commissions and they may be difficult to work with, but we are of the opinion that no other line even comes close to Disney in terms of understanding the needs of its most honored guests – all of whom are under 18 years of age. Stay with Disney and get something in writing showing your preferred position on the request list for the time when the books open up.
Q – We are newcomers to cruising and we are thinking about Silverseas which was highly recommended by friends. We’re trying to figure out which shore excursions are included. The one that most interests us is the chance to go truffle-hunting in Slovenia. We understand that as one of the top lines nearly everything is included. I am a pastor in a small church in a suburb of Minneapolis so I guess I am also inquiring about the nature of the entertainment aboard the ship. May we assume it will be in keeping with good taste?
A – Silverseas includes a full menu of tours by bus that take its guests to the region’s most important attractions. That is called the Silver Shore Select Programs. Some of these tours are really excellent and they may include wine tastings or an art and architecture walking tour.
But Silversea also offers a program of select small group excursions for an additional fee. The truffle hunting is among them. Another example of these designated “Silver Shore Collection” tours would be sightseeing Malta on a Segway or a visit to the Corfu Golf Club.
So yes, at least one complimentary shore excursion is offered in every port and some really memorable experiences are available at additional cost.
As to the nightlife, we can assure you that the strippers wear pasties. Only joking. You will, we are sure, find the lectures and the entertainment aboard Silversea to be in keeping with the good taste of nearly everything this line does.
Q - After only a decade of talking about it, my procrastinating husband has finally agreed to take me on a crossing to or from Europe next year. Wait until he finds out he won't be able to get ESPN on the ship. We want the best itinerary and ship and we'd love to have as many ports as possible. The world's champion Pitt fan is retired now, so we can go anytime and we figure we can be away for about two weeks. Is there one particular sailing you would recommend?
A - Our favorite crossing in 2015 is going to be aboard the Crystal Symphony on August 30th from Amsterdam to New York City. This is before the Atlantic hurricane season on a five-star inclusive ship that can handle rough seas well. The 13-Night itinerary includes stops in Edinburgh (overnight), the Shetland Islands, the Farce Islands (Denmark), an overnight in wonderful Reykjavik, Iceland, and Nova Scotia. You can get an outside stateroom at heavily discounted pricing below $5,000 per person.
Q - My family is booked on a Holland America cruise to the Caribbean in January. We've sailed with them before and we have not yet made final payment. How are we notified if the price goes down? I've booked with some travel agents where cruise pricing was automatically adjusted. How does the system really work?
A - Like most policies in Travelworld, it really depends on the supplier. When it comes to cruise pricing stability, the bottom line is that the larger, mass market lines have none. They want to train consumers to use their web sites so they will often suggest that booked guests check "for lowered prices." In reality, most consumers are now aware that those who book the first half of almost any ship get the best pricing offer. The primary difference between cruise lines is really the difference between the top-ten rated lines luxurycruiseratings.com and the lines that are not in this category such as Holland America. Princess, Holland America, Costa, Carnival, and Royal Caribbean do not offer full price protection. The cost could go down and neither you or your travel agent would ever know it. These lines place the onus on the consumer to constantly check for lowered rates. However, even if you found a lower rate, you might discover that it is only available for new bookings. That would mean that you have to cancel your reservation and then re-book. When cancellations are made, someone else could easily be assigned the cabin you intend to re-book. The computer system fills cabins automatically off a wait-list. So canceling a reservation to get a lower rate is a tad risky and not advised.
The luxury lines do not treat their guests in this manner. Normally, the agent is advised if there is a rate decrease and most of the better lines will protect their guests. There are, of course, exceptions to nearly every travel generalization but you should proceed on the basis that a ship with over 1,000 guests assumes that guest A will not run into Guest B who got a better rate. So rates do vary based on a number of circumstances. But the quality lines with fewer than 1,000 guests make the opposite assumption. They assume that guests will meet and talk to one another and they are increasingly cautious about offending anyone who has paid a premium to sail their line - particularly the suite dwellers.
So how do you know what's really going on and how do you protect yourself? Read the ads in the Sunday Travel Section and work with an agency that automatically does a "final price review" before calling in your final payment. A good cruise consultant will have special VIP access to reservations inventory and will be able to give you the current state of reservations and pricing on any specific sailing. Always ask your consultant "if the price goes down, am I going to be protected?"
Q - We are currently booked on a Greek Islands cruise on Seabourn this summer. We’ve read about the changes at the line several years ago, and we're concerned. Should we change our plans given that the ship is now run by Carnival Cruises? We booked directly with Seabourn so they are not going to be very forthcoming with advice.
A – Every luxury cruise line suffers from, what we refer to as, the “past guest change reaction”. Old-timers on every line seem to think that new policies, new ships, and enlarged crews spell the end of cruising as they knew it. In fact, given injections of serious capital, just the opposite is often true.
The Carnival Corporation owns many cruise lines. Carnival ownership is a good thing because it carries with it a great deal of management expertise and unusually strong financial backing. Seabourn had been operated as an independent division. It has been moved to Holland America headquarters in Seattle. You should not notice any differences.
We see absolutely no reason to change your plans to sail Seabourn. However, since you have not yet made your final payment, we would recommend that you transfer your current booking to a consultant who is familiar with the Seabourn product. Like every other line, Seabourn charges the travel agent commission to consumers foolish enough to book with them directly. It makes sense to take advantage of the many benefits you will receive by working with an informed consultant. And the chances you’re your consultant’s services will be offered on a “No Fee” basis. The consultant comes free. If you book directly, the 10-15% commission is still charged and the line simply pockets it. Booking through a travel consultant will also keep you in the loop regarding any changes at Seabourn. As per our ratings, Seabourn remains one of the world’s top three cruise lines and we see it on an upward trajectory. They have two 450 guest ships on order scheduled for delivery in the next 36 months.
Q - We are thinking of going on a Crystal Cruise to Europe in 2016. But friends tell us that they read on the internet that Crystal is more expensive than some of the smaller ships. Price won’t be the main issue in our decision, but we were wondering if Crystal is generally more expensive then its competitors?
A - Actually, when you do cost-by-cost comparisons, Crystal is often less than many of the smaller luxury vessels. With 940 guests, Crystal has some economy of scale. There has always been a fair bit of misinformation about Crystal pricing because, during the past several years, it has sort of been a pricing anomaly in the luxury category, charging for drinks and gratuities and not touting its "inclusiveness." This has changed and Crystal is “inclusive” with drinks and gratuities included for all guests.
You are correct to avoid the price trap that dictates which vacation choice is really best for you. Consider Crystal if you like evening entertainment, a wonderful guest lecture program, and more options than you would find on a more yacht-like vessel.
We suggest you read our full review. There have been service lapses of late and the line’s wonderful Phillipino and Indonesian crew are slowly being replaced by eastern European staff.
Q - What a neat site. It's like talking with a friend, perhaps a friend in the business. We've done some nice cruising but we've left our 17 year-old daughter and 14 year-old son back home with relatives. We are looking at a Seabourn European cruise to Greece next summer and wondering if we should bring the kids. Is there anything to do aboard the ship, particularly the Quest.
A - Thank you. You make our hearts soar like that of an eagle. We are less worried about the kids than we are about you and Dad. How will you feel when a bunch of rich, retirees, stare at the kids as though aliens have suddenly appeared in the dining room? If your kids are polite and well-behaved, there will be few issues. You are going to be off the ship pretty much all day. If you are traveling in the summer, there could conceivably be other aliens aboard the Quest.
If the kids are willing to dress properly, and if they would enjoy using the water sports marina at the back of the ship, it could be a win-win. But there will be stares. Some folks go on cruises choosing lines like Seabourn specifically because they offer no kids programs and cater to adults. It is hard to be more specific without knowing your children well.