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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Royal Caribbean Ship Rescues Sailors in Distress

The most "heroic" thing most cruise ship staff members get to do is carry a buffet tray for an elderly guest or bring a smile to a child's face with a towel animal. But occasionally a ship's crew gets the chance to exercise their true emergency training -- as was the case with the crew of Royal Caribbean's Explorer of the Seas, who made a difference in the lives of three men just last week.

On February 16, the ship was steaming toward the Caribbean from Cape Liberty Cruise Port when it picked up a distress signal. The entire bridge team was on hand to search for a disabled craft. Within an hour, they spotted a sailboat adrift at sea. Despite heavy swells, a small rescue boat from the Explorer managed to reach the sailboat and rescue the three men onboard and their luggage.

Apparently, these men had set sail from Baltimore to Key West on a 39-ft. sailboat. A week into their voyage, they encountered high winds and heavy seas, which destroyed the boat's sails, mast and radio antenna. When the engine failed and the boat started taking on water, they issued their distress call.

Cruise ship rescue missions are not entirely uncommon (in 2006, Holland America's Noordam picked up 22 people after their boat capsized in the Aegean Sea; the year before that, Ryndam plucked three people -- and a cat -- from a sailboat caught in rough seas off the coast of Mexico). However, Royal Caribbean went above and beyond the call of duty for these men. After being checked by the Explorer's doctor, the men were given cabins, food and clothing. When the ship reached San Juan, Royal Caribbean paid for the men to fly to Key West, their original destination.

Cruising in Europe This Summer - Bring Lots of Dollars


That's all we have to say about the continuing decline of the U.S. dollar, which hit yet another all-time low against the euro today as it breached the psychologically important $1.50 to the euro mark for the first time.

The dollar now has lost 40% of its value in Europe since 2001, when it took just 91 cents to buy a euro. The dollar's purchasing power in Europe has dropped 12% in just the last year alone.

What does this all mean for you, dear reader? For starters, if you're planning a cruise in Europe this summer, be prepared for sticker shock when you get off the ship.

Everything from tickets to the Vatican in Rome to that cafe au lait along the waterfront of Cannes, France will cost dollar-toting cruisers more than a year ago. The 14 euro per person ticket to the Vatican, for instance, translates to $21 per person at today's exchange rate. A year ago, the same 14 euro ticket would have equaled $18.50 per person. In 2001, the same ticket would have set you back just $13 per person.

The good news for cruisers, of course, is that the biggest cost of a cruise vacation in Europe, the cruise itself, isn't all that affected by the gyrations of the dollar. Major lines catering to North Americans set prices in dollars, not euros, and since much of their fixed costs are in dollars (including shipbuilding costs and crew salaries), they aren't forced to increase pricing when the dollar drops.

Indeed, cruising as a way to see Europe is looking ever better in comparison to staying in hotels on land as the dollar sags. When calculated in dollars, European hotel and land tour prices have shot through the roof in recent years while European cruise costs have grown more modestly.

Another factor keeping European cruise prices in check: Cruise ship capacity in Europe is soaring -- up 23% this year -- forcing lines to offer deals to fill all the extra space.

Headphone System for Passengers Going on Shore Tours

It's bad enough that cruisers travel in packs through port towns. Now they'll be traveling in packs and wearing goofy looking headphones.

That's right, Regent Seven Seas Cruises is launching what it thinks is a first for a major cruise line: A headphone system for passengers going on shore tours.

Designed to let passengers hear their guides more clearly, the new Regent system will be used on tours of historic and religious sites where loud conversation is forbidden.

The system is pretty straightforward. Guides will wear a small microphone through which they'll be able to speak directly to passengers wearing individual, lightweight headsets. The headsets are individually packaged and disposable, so passengers will get a new one with each tour.

The system will debut on June cruises to the Baltic and Europe aboard the 700-passenger Seven Seas Voyager and the 490-passenger Seven Seas Navigator. It launches in September in Asia on the 700-passenger Seven Seas Mariner.

Cruise Lines Ready to Pounce on Cuba

Cruise lines that cater to Americans could be calling on Cuba within months of getting the go-ahead from U.S. lawmakers.

At least, that's the word from industry watchers such as Robin Farley of UBS, who notes that major lines such as Carnival are ready to pounce should the U.S. lift its embargo on the Caribbean nation.

"Havana is a natural deep-water port, and we believe operators could build dockside infrastructure on a much faster time line than it would take to build U.S. branded hotel product," notes Farley. "Itineraries could be sold with just several months advance notice."

Few industry watchers expect the USA to lift its embargo on Cuba anytime soon. But the resignation of longtime leader Fidel Castro has raised the possibility that changes in the country -- and in the USA's relationship with it -- could be coming.

"While reports of Castro having resigned as Cuba’s president do not mean that the US will end its economic embargo in the near future, new leadership could be a positive event for the cruise industry if diplomatic relations resulted in the opening of Cuba to American tourism," says Farley.

Farley says the lack of extensive hotel infrastructure in Cuba would give cruise lines a big advantage in the early years after the U.S. lifts its embargo.

"Cuba would represent a new itinerary with significant pent-up demand from American tourists," she adds. Only 230 miles from Miami, the largest of Caribbean islands "has long been in the cross-hairs of the American cruise lines."

So far the major cruise lines are staying mum on their plans. A spokesperson for Royal Caribbean says that while the line hopes to have its ships visiting Cuba in the future, "it's premature to judge how events will unfold there, and (we) don't have anything to say at this time."

Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliken also deflected questions. "Until there is fundamental change in that government that would lead to a change in the U.S. government's policy, there's really nothing we can discuss at this time," he tells us.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Gorge Yourself on a Seven-Night 'Chocolate Cruise'

European line MSC Cruises and Nestlé Perugina have joined forces to offer what they're calling the Chocolate Cruise -- a seven-day sailing that celebrates 100 years of Italian chocolate.

The March trip on the MSC Orchestra will feature the maestro of the School of Perugina Chocolate -- the first Italian school entirely dedicated to chocolate -- who will hold regular demonstrations on the yummy stuff's best uses (alas, the maestro speaks Italian, we're told, which could make following along a bit difficult for Americans).

Other chocolate-themed events include a “Dinner for Lovers" that features Italian Baci chocolates, and chocolate tastings with wine pairings. The line also will offer chocolate massages in the ship's spa, and turn-down service will include a Baci kiss on pillows.

If it all sounds too scrumptious to resist, and you think you might book it, you better get moving. The trip is scheduled to depart from Genoa, Italy on March 30. The ship will follow a Western Caribbean itinerary with stops in Tunis, Palma de Mallorca, Barcelona, Marseille, Naples and Palermo.

Keep in mind that MSC Cruises mostly draws Europeans (though they're increasingly marketing to Americans), so you'll have to endure announcements in multiple languages.

Prices for inside cabins on the voyage start at $849 per person, based on double occupancy. Ocean-view cabins start at $999 per person. Children under 17 cruise free when sharing a stateroom with two full-fare-paying adults.

For more information, visit us at or call us at 1-800-788-2545.

Work on Genesis May Fall Behind Schedule

A newspaper in Finland reports today that the country's Aker shipyard is in danger of falling behind on the construction of Genesis, the much-ballyhooed Royal Caribbean ship scheduled to launch next year.

The Finnish-language publication Talous Sanomat cites information obtained from Aker subcontrators, according to an English-language synopsis by Thomson Financial News published on

At 220,000 tons, Genesis will be by far the largest cruise ship ever built, and its construction is being closely watched by cruise industry officials and Royal Caribbean fans alike. The history-making vessel will have room for a record-breaking 5,400 passengers at double occupancy (and even more when you add in children sleeping as "thirds" and "fourths" in cabins).

The Thomson report on says Aker Yards has dismissed the Talous Sanomat story. An Aker spokeswoman told Thomson the shipbuilder is still on course to have the first Genesis ship ready by the fall of 2009. But Thomson notes the company has had difficulty finding enough skilled workers for its shipyards in Finland and has had trouble with subcontractors.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Carnival Launches New Program for Tweens

Got tweens? It's not easy keeping them entertained on a cruise ship, is it?

After all, they're too old for the traditional kiddie programs that your eight-year-old loves. But they're too young to hang out with the High Schoolers in the teen discos that are a mainstay of many big ships.

Enter Carnival, which is launching a new program for children ages 12 to 14.

Dubbed Circle C, the program will center around new dedicated tween clubs that are being installed on all Carnival ships. The facilities already are in place on Carnival Legend, Carnival Pride, Carnival Victory and Carnival Valor, and will roll out on six more ships by the end of the year. All Carnival ships will have the tween centers by 2010.

Designed as a hip place for 12- to 14-year-olds to hang out, the tween clubs will feature a dance floor with a high-tech sound and lighting system. They'll also have 42-inch plasma-screen TVs displaying movies and music videos, and a touch-screen jukebox stocked with the latest hits. Tweens also will find gaming pods with the latest video games and consoles.

Carnival says the clubs will offer a sleek modern design created especially to appeal to younger teens, with a vibrant motif, over-sized picture windows and plush comfortable seating.

The Circle C program also will include a schedule of daily activities, everything from sports such as basketball, volleyball, ping-pong and various water games to late-night movies and “swimming under the stars” pool parties.

The announcement of new tween areas comes as Carnival also upgrades its deck-top pool areas with more kid-focused amenities. Several ships already have gotten what Carnival is calling Carnival WaterWorks, an "aqua park" with a 300-foot-long twister water slide and dual-lane racing slides. Carnival Splendor, set to debut in July, will boast Carnival’s largest play area to date and a water spray park.

Carnival ships carry about 600,000 children a year, the most of any line.

NCL Yanks Another Cruise Ship from Hawaii

The unraveling of NCL's four-year effort to dominate cruising in Hawaii continued today with the line's surprise announcement that will transfer the 2,002-passenger Pride of Aloha to Star Cruises, its Asia-based sister company. The pullout will take place in just three months, on May 11.

The announcement comes just days after the departure of another NCL ship from the Aloha State, the 2,224-passenger Pride of Hawaii. After a brief overhaul to strip away its Hawaii theming, the vessel will be transferred to Europe where it will sail as the Norwegian Jade.

The departure of Pride of Aloha on the heels of Pride of Hawaii will leave NCL with just one ship in Hawaii year-round, the Pride of America. The company says the three-year-old ship will remain in the islands sailing seven-night trips out of Honolulu.

NCL had high hopes for Hawaii when it began rolling out its three Hawaii-themed "Pride" ships in 2004. Executives even talked about Hawaii becoming as big a cruise destination as Alaska. But right from the beginning there were troubles, most notably service snafus that became the talk of the cruise world. Bookings suffered, and the line struggled financially.

“Withdrawing Pride of Aloha was an extremely difficult but necessary commercial decision," Andy Stuart, the line's executive vice president, said in a statement accompanying the announcement.

Stuart said the company eventually hopes to bring the Pride of Hawaii back to the state if business improves, but he made no mention of the Pride of Aloha ever returning.

NCL says passengers booked on Pride of Aloha after May 11 can transfer their booking to the Pride of America. The company says it is holding space on the ship and will offer passengers the same cruise fare they have paid for the Pride of Aloha cruise to sail on the Pride of America.

In addition, passengers affected will receive a $100 per person on-board credit (up to $200 per cabin). In the case of passengers who made their air and/or hotel arrangements through NCL, NCL will honor the rates they had paid and cover any air or hotel change fees. In the case of passengers who purchased their own air, NCL will cover up to the first $100 per person of any increase in air costs and cover up to $75 per person in air change fees. In the case of passengers who made independent hotel arrangements, NCL will cover any hotel change fees up to $25 per person.

Passengers also can book another NCL cruise and receive a $100 per person on-board credit (up to $200 per stateroom) if they rebook by March 7, 2008. In addition, NCL will cover up to $75 per person in air change fees and up to $25 per person in hotel change fees.

Passengers also may cancel their Pride of Aloha cruise and receive a full refund if NCL is notified by March 7, 2008. In that case, NCL will cover up to $75 per person in air change fees and up to $25 per person in hotel change fees. After March 7, 2008 cancellation fees will apply in accordance with NCL’s cancellation policy.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Florida Investigates Cruise Line Fuel Surcharges

You're not alone if you're angry about the fuel surcharges cruise lines have begun adding to bills.

More than 150 cruisers have filed complaints about the practice with Florida's attorney general's office, prompting the agency to open an investigation.

Several Florida newspapers, including the Miami Herald and South Florida Sun-Sentinel, report that the Florida attorney general is looking specifically into whether the lines accurately disclosed the latest round of fuel surcharges at the time customers booked their trips. Another issue: Do the fuel surcharges, which the lines are calling "supplements," violate a 1997 legal settlement in which the lines agreed not to put certain extra charges onto bills.

As mentioned here before, most major cruise lines have unveiled fuel surcharges over the past four months as oil prices have shot up. Carnival Corp., the parent company of Carnival, Princess, Holland America and more than half a dozen other lines, is charging passengers an extra $5 per day. Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Azamara also have started charging $5 per day, while Norwegian Cruise Line has begun charging $7 per day. A few lines are charging even more, including Windstar ($8.50 per day), Silversea ($10 per day); and Cruise West ($12 per day).

Carnival, in particular, has raised the ire of its customers because the line has applied its surcharge retroactively to those who already had booked and paid for cruises.

The Miami Herald notes that this isn't the first time the cruise industry's billing practices have drawn scrutiny from the Florida attorney general. In 1997, six lines agreed to revise their advertising policies to settle charges that they misled consumers about cruise costs. Under the settlement, the lines swore off charging customers extra fees other than those required by government-related agencies.

There still are a few holdouts in the rush to add fuel surcharges. Among major lines, Disney has yet to add one. And as we reported here in December, small ship and river cruise operator Tauck World Discovery has vowed not to add a fuel surcharge, despite soaring fuel costs.

"Our customers purchased a cruise experience from us (for a certain price), and that was our promise to them," Tauck CEO Dan Mahar told us at the time. "We just don’t feel right going back and changing it now, after the fact."

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Princess Cruises: No More Hassles Getting Off Ships

What's the worst part about vacationing on a cruise ship? You're not alone if you say the process of getting off the vessel on the last day of the voyage.

On many ships, the morning of "disembarkation," as they call it in Cruise Speak, is a hurry-up-and-wait nightmare where you have to rise far earlier than anyone would think reasonable, rush to get ready to leave the ship and then twiddle your thumbs for hours while you wait for an announcement on the public address system that says your color code to leave has been called.

Now Princess Cruises says that it'll banish the arcane system of blaring public announcements in favor of something more relaxed. In lieu of the wait-around-until-they-call-my-color rigmarole, the line says it will give each passenger an assigned time and place to assemble on the final morning of a cruise, eliminating the guesswork as to the actual time they'll be disembarking.

The new program, to be rolled out fleet wide, eliminates loudspeaker announcements entirely. Instead, passengers will get a letter in their cabin the day before the end of the cruise that outlines their designated time to meet in an assigned public room. There they will be met by a member of the ship's staff who will personally escort them to the gangway.

Princess says the revised system will let passengers plan their last morning on the ship better, since they'll know exactly when they'll need to be ready to get off. The line says it'll also eliminate passengers congregating in the ship's atrium near the gangway, a recurring problem on disembarkation days. It'll also result in less of an early-morning frenzy at breakfast.

Amadeus Waterways Unveils Big Expansion for 2009

Six year-old Amadeus Waterways unveiled its plans for 2009 this week, and they're as ambitious as ever, bringing an increase in voyages in central Europe, Russia, Portugal and Egypt.
The river ship operator's expansion includes the rollout of two new, 150-passenger luxury vessels, the fifth and six in a series the line began launching in 2006. The Amalyra will debut in March, 2009. The Amadolce will arrive in May, 2009.

The two new river ships are on top of two sister vessels the line will bring out this year, the Amadante and the Amacello. Amadeus launched the first two ships in the series in 2007 and 2006, respectively.

Amadeus says it will offer 17 itineraries in 2009. Among the highlights: A trip down the Mosel and Main River from Trier to Nuremberg; an epic voyage from Amsterdam all the way to Budapest; and a cruise through Eastern Europe to the Black Sea.

Like the earlier ships in the series, the new vessels arriving in 2009 will have luxury-appointed cabins with flat-screen TV and Internet access, among other amenities. Cabins on the top two decks of the ships will have French balconies. The vessels also will boast a sun deck with walking track, a whirlpool and a supply of bicycles that cruisers can use to explore the countryside during port calls.

The line is taking bookings for 2009 starting this week. Cruisers who book by Sept. 30 will get a 5% "early booking" discount.