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Tag Archives: cruise travel

New from Norwegian: 1 cruise, 3 embarkation ports

Passengers opting for seven-night Mediterranean cruises on Norwegian Cruise Line’s 4,100-passenger, 155,873-ton Norwegian Epic next summer will for the first time be able to choose where they embark.

In a departure from the traditional model of everybody boarding and disembarking at the same port, Norwegian has followed the example of Italian lines MSC and Costa Cruises and opted for multiple embarkation ports in 2012.

For example, a cruise leaving Barcelona, Epic’s summer home port, on July 1 will embark some passengers in Barcelona, some on July 4 in Civitavecchia (the port for Rome) and yet more in Marseille on July 7.

Everybody has to stay on board for seven nights, so you can’t get on in Barcelona and off in Marseille, but this new move does mean that guests buying cruise-only can shop around for the best flight deals, and if they want to extend their stay, will not necessarily be restricted to Barcelona.

As an added bonus, British cruisers have the option of taking the high-speed Eurostar and TGV trains to Marseille, a journey of just seven hours with one easy change at Lille, effectively turning a week on Epic into a no-fly cruise.

Multiple embarkation points in the Mediterranean is standard practice now for MSC Cruises, which also operates seven-night voyages out of Barcelona, boarding further passengers at ports including Genoa, Civitavecchia and even Messina in Sicily. Costa Cruises does the same.

With several ships carrying 3,000 or more passengers all departing Barcelona simultaneously on busy days in summer, spreading the load makes sense, as it takes pressure off flights. But it does bust the traditional rhythm of a seven-night cruise, as there’s no longer a common ‘first night’ or ‘last night’, a concept more traditionally-minded cruisers may find unsettling.

More from Cruise Critic:

Reading the vague fine print on cruise transfers

Q: My wife and I are booked on a Viking River Cruise. We plan to go from Washington to Moscow three days early, take the river cruise to St. Petersburg and remain there for three days before going on to a four-day stopover in Paris en route home. It is because of the diversions and deviation that Viking is attempting to set aside its responsibility to comply with what its literature apparently states.

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The problem: Viking does not want to be responsible for the ground transfers in Moscow and St. Petersburg, despite the fact that we have purchased a Viking Air Package.

At the outset — this trip was booked nearly a year ago — Viking summarily denied any responsibility for transfers and stated that we must make transfer arrangements on our own, even though the cruise line’s literature states that if air is not purchased from Viking, transfers may be purchased separately.

Furthermore, it has been difficult to get anyone on the phone at Viking at a level to discuss the matter further. Shouldn’t Viking’s literature mean what it says?

Robert Brown, Silver Spring, Md.

A: If Viking includes ground transfers with its air packages, then you should have received them. But I’m not sure if it explicitly promises the transfers.

At the time you made your purchase (the language has since been modified, but I’ll get to that in a moment) the promotional copy might have left you with the impression that transfers were included. But anyone with a working knowledge of the cruise industry, like a competent travel agent, would have known that’s not necessarily the case.

A closer reading of Viking’s terms would have revealed that transfers do not apply on non-embarkation days or dates that don’t coincide with tour dates. Nor do they apply to non-Viking-related hotels, such as the properties you planned to visit in Russia.

You had two things in your favor: First, the vagueness of the promotional language, and second, the apparent difficulty you had getting a clear answer to your request.

I think this could have been avoided by reading Viking’s terms closely or working with a qualified travel agent, who could have advised you about the transfers. In reviewing your correspondence, I see you spent a fair amount of time on the phone, too. When dealing with this type of request, it’s usually best to make your request in writing. That way, you’ll have a paper trail if there’s ever any disagreement with the company.

I contacted Viking on your behalf. In addition to taking care of your transfers as “an exception” to its policy, a spokeswoman told me Viking is reviewing its terms and conditions as it applies to transfers and will “update it accordingly to ensure the verbiage is as clear as possible.”

© 2011 Christopher Elliott …
Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Cruises lead strong revival of New Orleans tourism

Mark and Glenda Dodd of Panama City Beach, Florida, could have booked a Mexico-bound cruise out of Miami, but on Monday they stood among hundreds of other passengers lining up to board the Carnival Cruise Line ship Elation in New Orleans.

“We wanted to come to New Orleans and spend a night in the French Quarter,” Mark Dodd said. “This way we get the cruise and we get New Orleans.”

His words are music to the ears of local tourism marketers, who have spent the past six years trying to persuade the traveling public that New Orleans has retained its appeal as a visitor destination despite the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

That storm and the massive flooding that followed all but destroyed large sections of New Orleans, striking a huge blow to tourism and shutting down the passenger cruise business, which before the storm was growing faster than that of any other cruise port in the country.

On Monday, cruise industry and local port officials gathered aboard the 2,000-passenger Elation to announce that local cruise passenger capacity has reached pre-Katrina levels.

“New Orleans has been revitalized and it’s one of the most popular cities in the country,” Robert Huffman Jr., a regional vice president of sales for Carnival, told Reuters. “The city sells itself.”

Carnival, which initially returned to New Orleans with a smaller ship, this week began a year-round cruising schedule by the Elation and a 3,000-passenger vessel, Conquest. New Orleans is now the home port for both.

On Sunday, Royal Caribbean International also launched regular service from New Orleans to the Caribbean aboard the 3,100-passenger Voyager of the Seas, the largest passenger vessel ever based in New Orleans.

Along with ships from Norwegian Cruise Lines, these will likely pull more than a million cruise passengers into the city annually, Port of New Orleans President Gary LaGrange said.

“I hope this will quiet some of New Orleans’ critics,” he said while aboard the Elation.

LaGrange said the port has begun preliminary design work for a new $35 million cruise terminal just down the Mississippi River from the city’s two existing terminals.

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Kelly Schulz, a spokeswoman for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau Inc., said that the road to tourism recovery has been tough.

After Katrina, the city’s average annual tourist trade of almost 9 million visitors fell by about 60 percent, she said.

But funding from Federal grants supported the major tourism recovery effort that helped grow the visitor market steadily in subsequent years, she said.

Then, in 2010, came the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which once again sent marketers scrambling to overcome negative publicity, this time about the possible effects of the spill on seafood and the local environment.

“Our marketing efforts worked,” Schultz said. “Last year, New Orleans had 8.3 million visitors – the most we’ve seen since Katrina.”

Schultz said one benefit the city enjoys from the cruise business is the boost it gives to local hotels.

Passengers typically drive or fly into New Orleans and spend two nights taking in local attractions before or after their cruise, she said.

As tourism marketers celebrate the growth in local cruises, though, they do so with a wary eye on local crime.

While the overall incidence of crime is within average rates for cities of similar size, the murder rate in New Orleans is 10 times higher than the national average, according to a U.S. Justice Department analysis released last spring.

Concerns about violence spiked early this month following a bloody Halloween night during which a man was killed and several others injured in a shooting on Bourbon Street as costumed revelers filled the city’s French Quarter. A second man was killed and three people were wounded in a separate downtown shooting that same night on neighboring Canal Street.

“Those incidents made international headlines, so we did get questions. But we try to put it into context,” Shultz said. “It was very rare to have that kind of violence in a crowded tourist area.”

Copyright 2011 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.

Cruise line lowers minimum drinking age for international cruises

Effective spring 2012, the minimum drinking age for all alcoholic beverages on Royal Caribbean ships sailing from South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia and New Zealand will be 18.

To be clear, the current policy does allow 18- to 20-year-old passengers cruising in the aforementioned regions to purchase alcohol onboard — as long as their parents sign a waiver. Under the new policy, parents will no longer be required to sign the waver. The minimum drinking age on Royal Caribbean ships sailing from North America will remain at 21.

In a statement, the line said the change is being made to “better accommodate the cultural norms in the regions of the world where Royal Caribbean ships sail.” According to Adam Goldstein, the line’s president and CEO, Royal Caribbean sources roughly half of its passengers from outside the United States.

The policy tweak comes as little surprise. Across the industry, onboard drinking ages generally mirror laws in the region in which the ship is sailing. For instance, the minimum drinking age for Costa Cruises, which deploys its ships globally, is 18 for any vessel leaving from a non-U.S. port and 21 for any cruise leaving from the United States. Princess Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Lines and others have similar policies.

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The fun and pitfalls of taking a cruise

Among European travelers, more and more people are cruising. Of course, cruising is, in many ways, an anathema to the “back door travel” philosophy that I’ve been preaching for 30 years. But I’ve learned it can be done thoughtfully and independently. This fall I gave my new guidebook on cruising a shakedown cruise of its own. I sailed in the western Mediterranean on Royal Caribbean and in the eastern Mediterranean on Celebrity.

I admit that I’d thought cruising was some kind of Vegas-on-the-Sea experience. Sure, there’s hedonism, gambling and folks who never seem to leave the ship. But I found that there’s a good side to these massive ships as they keep a graceful rhythm at sea: sailing through the night, docking in major ports at dawn, and letting their passengers off to frolic on land until about 6 p.m.

I watched carefully to see how the cruise industry makes its money. While the initial cost of a cruise vacation may seem too good to be true, operators earn their gravy with extra profit centers: mostly drinks, gambling, on board shopping, kickbacks from shops on land, and excursion tours to places of interest within an easy bus ride from the port. I was struck by how most cruisers are happy to pay the inflated prices ($150 to $200) for an excursion. But anyone willing to hop the shuttle bus to the main square of the port town and survey the options for local sightseeing tours could easily plan his or her own day trip — and save around 50 percent.

In most ports, I found a very healthy and efficient “find a need and fill it” energy for whatever cruise travelers might want: Internet access, taxi service, hats to provide shade, electric car or bike rentals, and small tour operators. But I also discovered a major downside to cruising: limited time in each port. Still, you can accomplish a lot in eight hours.

Because there are so few ports where cruises can start or finish, there are almost always days at sea. While it was hard for me to relax on the ship when we were in port, I loved a day at sea. I was continuously inspired by the simple vastness of the Mediterranean, and how we could spend an entire day and see no land and almost no boats. There’s a clean, dramatic, screensaver beauty to a two-tone-blue world of sea and sky.

No one goes hungry

Even relaxing on the ship is not always easy; there are always people to meet — and people to avoid — massive amounts of food to eat, and more than enough entertainment scheduled. In fact, an important skill for cruising is to pace yourself and not try to do everything.

On board, I took every chance possible to get behind the scenes. The typical cruise ship is an amazing machine — a nearly billion-dollar investment that is impressively automated. I listened to the crew explain how the heat of the engines distills 25,000 gallons of salt water into fresh water every hour, and how the newfangled Azipods (with 18-foot-wide propellers turning a hundred times a minute) propel the ship without a standard shaft.

With 3,000 passengers, I had expected congestion and waiting in line to be a daily part of the cruise routine. But even though our ship was sold out, I never noticed congestion. Both on board the ship and on shore, if you make a point to get away from the mobs, you can. I enjoyed being all alone on the bow of the ship at night under the moon. After dinner, the top deck was all mine.

A few ports (like Dubrovnik) can be inundated by cruisers when several ships are in port at the same time. Everyone seems to do about the same things at roughly the same time. But in each of the ports on my cruises, I could be on my own — without a hint of the cruise industry — within an hour of finishing my on-board breakfast buffet.

So can independent travelers enjoy cruising? For some, my answer is yes. But independent types who take cruises need to prepare themselves with the information necessary to enjoy the best of both worlds — the economy, ease, and glorious hedonism of cruising with the joy and challenge of dipping into the cultural wonders of Europe on your own.

I’m actually neither pro- nor anti-cruising, any more than I’m pro- or anti-eating Thai food. I’m just doing my best to keep an open mind, not be “elitist” as an independent traveler, and share what I’ve learned: Cruising is an option that works for a lot of people.

(Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at rick@ricksteves.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.)

© 2011 Rick Steves …
Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.