Tuesday, January 31, 2012

(No.186) Costa Concordia & cruising tips - Part 1

Because Pat and I have become what the tourist industry refers to as frequent cruisers we had more than a passing interest in the disaster on Jan.13 off the Italian coast involving the Costa Concordia cruise ship running aground. We have never cruised on a Costa ship (there are 20+ of them) but would not likely have done so even before the Concordia went aground. No safety/lifeboat drill for some Concordia passengers even 5 days after boarding was one indication of inadequacy.

Costa is Europe's largest cruise line and one of the eleven cruise line brands owned by Carnival.
Carnival Corporation controls more than fifth of the cruise ship market world wide. Costa is more European in passenger mix, service, multilingualism, atmosphere and orientation than are large cruise lines like Royal Caribbean, Norwegian or Holland America.

We do not regard ourselves as experts on cruising but we have accumulated some conclusions, advice and observations based on our cruise experience which includes a trio of trans-Atlantic crossings. However, unlike too much of what one reads about cruising these days, our views are untainted by financial self-interest.

These points or tips about cruising are not offered in any particular order but will take up at least two columns.

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As I have indicated in previous columns about travel on RickardsRead.com a great deal of what appears in Canadian newspaper travel sections is, rather than useful critical comment, thinly disguised advertising and promotional articles written by 'freelance' writers whose trips were 'subsidized' by whatever entity they were writing about. This is true generally of travel articles, often labelled as 'special' to the newspaper but masquerading as third party advice.

When it comes to writing for Canadian newspapers about cruising there is an honourable exception: Wallace Immen, a (Toronto) Globe and Mail journalist who has not only been writing about cruising for years but actually takes cruises himself (90+ cruises). I read his articles on the subject long before we took our first cruise. I recommend any of his well-informed articles about cruise ships and cruising.

The best travel guide to cruising, the most critically useful is The Unofficial Guide to Cruises published by Wiley. The latest edition, the 11th, was published in 2010. Among the numerous websites devoted to cruising, one of the most useful -- because of its ease of use, its comprehensiveness and up-to-dateness -- is vacationstogo.com. It is the site of a large American travel agency specializing in cruises.

Also, in terms of American newspapers The New York Times' travel articles are, like the newspaper itself, in a class by themselves in terms of reliability.

Although cruising is perhaps the last segment of tourist travel which remains predominantly in the hands of travel agents (who are therefore catered to by the cruise lines) wise prospective travellers will do their homework first whether they decide ultimately to book a cruise directly with the cruise line or through a travel agent or packager (who may or may not have their own agenda favouring a particular cruise line and/or may be less than well informed). If using a travel agency pick one that specializes in cruising.

Learn enough to be able to make an informed decision about what you would like in your cruise (e.g., size of ship, destinations and atmosphere). For example: if you do not want to share your cruise with lots of children, do not book a cruise on a Disney ship. The reality is that cruise lines, specific cruises and cruise itineraries differ as does the profile of the passengers most likely to form the majority of those on a particular ship and/or cruise. As an opinion, "a cruise is a cruise is a cruise", is so much heifer dust.

Travel agents specializing in cruises like to hold out the prospect of a buyer being able to get a better price for a cruise from them rather than dealing directly with the cruise line because they are able to acquire early on prior to a cruise a block of cabins at a particular price. That is often true as far as it goes but it is not necessarily the case that all the cabins in the block a travel agent has acquired for a given cruise at an attractive price are all cabins attractively positioned on the ship.

The best chance of a great bargain from a travel agency specializing in cruising may occur if the agency is stuck with cabins it has paid for but has not yet sold as the cruise's departure date approaches. If you do buy through an agent and have problems with some aspect of your reservation, don't expect the cruise line to sort it out for you. They will likely tell you to contact the travel agent you bought from to deal with it.

Pat and I have made a point of researching for ourselves what cruises are available from various cruise lines, which line has the best deals for what we are interested in, etc., and then we reserve directly with the cruise line. We call the cruise line with the deck plans for the ship we wish to travel on in front of us. These plans are available for download from the cruise line websites. The deck and cabin numbers are indicated. Then we can ask about specific staterooms and their prices.

Decide in advance not only how much extra you are prepared to pay for a preferred deck location but also for the type of cabin ('stateroom'). In ascending order of cost they are: interior cabin; 'oceanview' ( a window or at least a porthole); balcony stateroom, sometimes called 'verandah'; various suite sizes.

Midship cabins are usually a good choice. Avoid a cabin on a deck and in a location that is just above or just below ship facilities that are likely to be noisy (e.g., swimming pools, bars, etc) or ones that have an obstructed view (e.g., by lifeboats) if you are in a balcony or oceanview stateroom. If you are unsure about such negative factors vis-a-vis a particular location, ask specific questions before reserving your cabin.

To BE CONTINUED IN THE NEXT COLUMN
on RickardsRead.com (No.187)


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email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico.ca

blog: www.RickardsRead.com

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