In this month’s One-on-One blog, ExpertFlyer talks with Douglas Ward, author of Berlitz Cruising and Cruise Ships guides, about some of the positive and not so positive trends affecting the cruise industry, and where leisure travelers should look for the best value and quality experiences on the high seas.
Douglas fell in love with cruising in 1965 when he worked on Cunard Line’s largest cruise ship, the RMS Queen Elizabeth. Since then, he has logged more than 5,900 days at sea and participated in more than 1,000 cruises, including 158 trans-Atlantic crossings.
— Douglas Ward, author, Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships 2013
Cruising has always been an attractive vacation option for folks who are budget conscious, but many questions concerning safety, quality control and maintenance have been raised lately based on several incidents of ship breakdowns. Should potential cruisers be concerned and what are the cruise lines doing to prevent these unfortunate vacation disasters?
Cruise lines don’t plan disasters or mechanical breakdowns, but they can happen, just as they can to your automobile, computer or mobile phone. Potential cruisers should not be concerned, but should be aware that things can go wrong, but rarely do. The cruise industry carries more than 20 million passengers each year and few experience inconveniences, like the complete breakdown of Carnival Triumph in 2012. Over the past 48 years of cruising, I have experienced several such breakdowns and mishaps, but I always find they are merely inconveniences, like luggage lost by airlines.
What advice do you give to potential cruisers? What should cruisers be aware of in advance of booking?
First, think of where you want to go, your time frame, your personal preferences for the size of ship and facilities (large resort ship, mid-size, small, or boutique) and then prepare a budget (remember to include insurance). Then, find a cruise specialist agency to match you to the right ship, for the right reasons.
While the Internet is popular for research, it pays to find a specialist cruise agent with a physical location. Some Internet-only “agencies” with slick websites have been known to disappear without trace – with your money.
Will cruise ships ever get telecommunications down right and stop charging exceedingly high access fees?
It’s not as simple as it sounds. Actually, cruise lines have huge investments in equipment (satellite dishes, digital bandwidth systems, etc.) and additional IT staff. Passengers must share the bandwidth with the ship, i.e., company communications, weather, safety and navigational aids, and often this can lead to slowed connections. Because all communication is by satellite, upload and download times will be a bit more sluggish than you may be used to on land. Also, ships at sea constantly move out of the narrow beam of a satellite and cannot ‘track’ the signal as accurately as a land-based facility. As an example, river ships lose internet signals when they pass under bridges.
Cruise lines strive to make their internet-connectivity a better experience for passengers. Charges vary because a number of service providers are involved, but some cruise lines do not pass on reduced charges as quickly as they could.
It’s been reported that cruise lines are leaning toward bundling more services and amenities onboard. Can you confirm that and how might that play out positively for travelers?
In the early days of modern cruising (c. 1970s), almost everything was included. Cruise lines have lowered their prices enabling more people to cruise, but have been slowly adding charges for items, like bottled mineral water, movies on demand, golf simulator use and internet connectivity. Now that more cruise lines (with their larger ships) are competing for passengers, some have been including more amenities and items – particularly for ‘suite’-grade occupants.
It’s all a question of balance, but in the quest for profits (and dividends for investors), we can expect more of the same in the future. In other words, passengers need to be savvy to avoid all the extra charges for everything from bottled water to extra-cost dining.
River cruising is on the rise. Can you talk a little about this option and how it is different/better than traditional ocean cruising?
Indeed it is – around 1 million people took a river cruise last year. River cruises provide a unique way of seeing the interior of a country rather than by its coastline. The scenery aboard a rivership is at eye level; on an ocean-going ship it isn’t — you may have to take an elevator to go up and out to see the scenery. Although the majority of river cruises are taken in Europe, and the Russian rivers, there are plenty of river cruises available in China and southeast Asia, plus Egypt’s Nile, and the USA’s Mississippi, Columbia and Snake rivers.
Because you pay in advance, you know what you will spend on your holiday without any hidden surprises. River cruises provide up-close cruising that is impossible aboard large resort ships. There are no casinos, no bingo or horse-racing, wet tee-shirt contests or other mindless parlor games, no art auctions or other revenue-generating items. When your rivership docks, you simply walk off – there are no shore tenders to take and wait for. However, there may be times when the water level is so low that even a shallow-draft rivership, cannot travel. Finally, you won’t get seasick! Now is as good time a time as any to start your own collection of river cruise experiences. The most trusted names in European river cruises: AMA Waterways, Uniworld, and Viking River Cruises.
What are some new interesting offerings that we can look forward to from the cruise lines?
Lots of choices: dining venues, casual or more formal, large family-friendly resort ships or mid-size ship, small ships or ‘boutique’ (very small) sized ships. The latest large resort ships have all the bells and whistles for today’s younger, active passengers, including several dining venues (some cost extra), aqua parks (great for kids), huge water slides, and more. But then there’s the stunning new small ship Europa 2 – truly luxurious yet relaxed and casual, with a choice of eight restaurants/dining venues (all at no extra cost). Some of the ships about to debut this and next year have some stunning, innovative features. As for pricing, I don’t think cruise prices will dip any more – and are a great value today.
More accommodation is being built for solo travelers, who are often neglected, as in resort hotels, where everything is based on couples, and we will see more ships dedicated to individual language markets, as well as more bi-lingual ships.
Finally, look out for Viking Star, a new mid-size ship to debut in 2015, an almost all-inclusive 928-passenger ship with lead-in prices hovering around $300 per person per day. The company, Viking Ocean Cruises, plans a series of six ships.
Are there some cities that are better to cruise from than others? If so, why and where are they (US and abroad)?
Some simply have better access and connection to airports, rail stations, and roads, such as New York’s Manhattan Cruise Terminal or Brooklyn’s Red Hook Point. Ft. Lauderdale (Port Everglades) is also good, as are Seattle and San Francisco, and Canada’s Vancouver. I won’t include Los Angeles and Miami because I (and countless other passengers) mostly come across staff with ‘attitude’ – like the tip-seeking porters and check-in and security staff, more into the hostility business than the hospitality business.
There are so many good ports from which to cruise in the rest of the world that space would not permit listing them all. However, my choice would probably include (in alphabetical order) Auckland (New Zealand), Barcelona (Spain), Bergen (Norway), Cape Town (South Africa), Copenhagen (Denmark), Hong Kong (China), Istanbul (Turkey), Melbourne (Australia), Palma de Majorca (Spain), Singapore, Southampton (UK), and Stockholm (Sweden).
Least favorite check-in ports: Athens (Piraeus), Civitavecchia (Rome, Italy), San Juan (Puerto Rico), Rio de Janeiro, and Sydney (Australia), mainly due to a lack of hospitality or location.
Which cruise lines are consistently ranked best in quality and value?
As for value, I believe that you get what you pay for. And that’s precisely why, in automotive terms, Rolls Royce doesn’t discount! I am of the opinion that all cruise lines offer some perceived value for money.
For quality, the list should include Asuka Cruise, Crystal Cruises, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, SeaDream Yacht Club, Seabourn, and Silversea Cruises.
At the end of the day, what you get is a comfortable, hassle-free vacation – that’s value for money in itself.
What about luxury travel – who is offering the best in opulence?
Luxury is in the eye of the beholder. That said, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ Europa 2 sets the benchmark for luxe – in an informal, incredibly spacious brand new ship, and provides food and service that stands out from the crowd. Others with upscale cruise ships include Regent Seven Seas Cruises, SeaDream Yacht Club, Seabourn, and Silversea Cruises.
What are some of the more interesting niche or themed cruise options and how do people find specific cruises based on their hobbies, ethnicity or other special need?
Think of almost any theme, interest or hobby, and there’s probably a cruise dedicated to it. They usually follow the same itinerary as ‘normal’ cruises, but have additional programs. Theme cruises may also be linked to personalities. Perhaps the most popular of all are connected with music (classical, jazz, rock ‘n roll), food and wine, or sports. The possibilities are endless. You travel with people who have the same hobbies, interests, passions, or obsessions. Theme cruises are particularly good for solo travelers, who can meet like-minded individuals with similar interests.
Incidentally, one whole chapter of the 2014 Berlitz Cruising and Cruise Ships guidebook is dedicated to theme cruises.
What are your best tips for discount cruising?
I personally wouldn’t choose a ship based on discounts. To me discount price can equal discount quality. I would rather choose based on the itinerary, cruise region, and the time frame for a vacation. However, it’s always best to find out what’s on offer by reading newspaper advertising, and checking the Internet for offers in your local area, and then identify a travel agency that specializes in cruises.
A good specialist cruise agent will be able to get you the best price, as well as upgrades and other benefits you won’t get elsewhere. The smaller independent agencies can access extensive discounts, upgrades, and other benefits not available on the Internet, and will provide more personal service. Cruise lines consider travel agents as their principal distribution system, and can provide special discounts and value-added items not provided to Internet sites.
What’s your favorite cruise?
I don’t have one particular favorite – I have many. In terms of itineraries, ask me today and I might say the Antarctic Peninsula. Tomorrow, Papua New Guinea. The next day, the Norwegian fjords. The next day, Southeast Asia, and so on. I always enjoy cruising in the Mediterranean region, oh, and any trans-Atlantic crossing. And, in case you ask, my favorite cruise ship is always the one I’m on.
For more information about Berlitz Cruise and to keep up to date with the latest cruise news, visit the Insight Guides website or sign up for Douglas Ward’s CruiseLetter. “Like” us on Facebook and enter our Travel Giveaway Sweepstakes to win a copy of Berlitz Cruising and Cruise Ships 2013 in our June 28th drawing.