Sunday, February 12, 2012

(No.188) Part 3 of cruising tips

In my previous two columns on (Nos. 186 & 187) I shared, in no particular order, some tips on cruising which my wife Pat and I have distilled based on our cruises and related research. These tips are not offered as any sort of comprehensive guide to cruising but rather as a few experience-based tips of the sort we would have appreciated reading before we began taking cruises.

This column, the third and (for the time being) last on the subject of cruising, should be read in conjunction with column Nos. 186 & 187. The three columns include a number of points that the reader usually does not find in newspaper and mainstream media travel sections where advertising and promotion often masquerade as third party articles. Their writers' expenses are commonly paid for by the object of the travel article and carefully omit points that travel editors and travel advertisers might not like.

Do not approach an "all inclusive" cruise with the idea that all expenses are covered. They aren't. The reality of the cruise business and an aspect (one among others) that is too infrequently mentioned much less highlighted is that the passenger fares per se charged by most cruise lines most of the time do no better than generate a break even for the line. Understand that the degree of profitability from a cruise for the line operating the cruise in the main depends upon how much money the passengers spend while they are on board, i.e., the financial gravy over and above what was paid up front for the 'inclusive' cruise fare.

There are many ways a cruise line can generate additional onboard spending by passengers. For example:

-- payment for wine, alcohol and soft drinks, extending even to bottled water in the staterooms and dinner tables;
-- a share of fees [commonly 50% or more] paid by passengers for tours they take at port stops;
-- revenue from the gambling in the ship's casino [e.g., Norwegian has a deal with Harrah's];
-- fees for internet time which passengers must purchase in order to access the internet and their email;
-- purchases in the ship's high margin, sales tax free onboard shops;
-- payment of 'cover charges' [extra fees, commonly $15-25 per passenger per meal] in order to dine in one of the ship's speciality restaurants;
-- a share of the take from art auctions often held during cruises [commonly at least a 20% share]; and so on.

For each cruise the various areas of a ship's passenger/retail operation all have their sales objectives. A couple of years ago it was reported that a quarter of Norwegian's revenue came from money spent onboard its ships. It will be the rare passenger who does not have a shipboard account balance to settle at the end of the cruise. These balances can add up very quickly. Indeed the process of spending while onboard ship is not just encouraged but greatly facilitated by the process: all onboard charges must be paid for with just a swipe of the passenger's ID/account card issued at time of boarding in conjunction with the taking of an impression of the passenger's credit card.

Decide how long a cruise to take; price varies with length although some longer cruises can be less expensive than ones which are shorter depending on demand and itinerary. The industry seems to be offering more 3 & 4 day cruises, especially from Florida to Nassau in the Bahamas. From our perspective both the short length and the usual destinations make such cruises unattractive. However if you want to try out cruising with a short outing rather than take the most common cruise length (7 nights), check out prices.

Probably the best value in terms of cruise length (12-14 nights) are the repositioning trans-Atlantic cruises when the lines move ships for the season back and forth in the spring and fall from/to Europe mainly to/from Florida. The sunshine state is the leading cruise arrival/departure state. It has four major cruise ship ports: Miami, Fort Lauderdale (Port Everglades), Cape Canaveral (Port Canaveral) and Tampa.

Since a major cruise line may move one or more of its ships with their crews from Europe to North America and vice versa seasonally, anything the line gets by way of passenger revenue from that repositioning can be looked on as financial gravy. There are usually a few stops along the way to provide some value enhancement for passengers. Our experience has been that these cruises are usually not filled to the maximum, many if not most of the passengers are likely to be frequent cruisers, the average age of passengers will be higher (56 on one transatlantic voyage we took) and there will be relatively few children as passengers.

Larger cruise ships have informal buffet type restaurants available at extended hours where the passengers can show up and eat when they like. The formal dining rooms have set hours and menus. Decide how important it is (if at all) to be able to dine when you like (within the dining room hours of operation for lunch and dinner) and at a table with your companion. This 'freestyle' dining is available on more ships now, including those of Norwegian and Royal Caribbean. A ship's 'speciality' restaurants, a significant source of additional revenue, require reservations as well as an additional fee.

The traditional approach and one still in use for all seats in dining rooms by some lines is for a passenger to be assigned both a seating time for dinner and a table with others who will be one's dinner companions for the cruise. That can turn out to be a pleasant experience depending on the other persons at your table or it can be like a week long dental appointment. In the evenings particularly Pat and I prefer a table for two and dining at a time of our choosing. If dining arrangements are important to you, find out how the ship on which you wish to cruise handles things.

Cruise ships commonly stop for a day at ports during a cruise. It is not unusual for tours to be one of a cruise ship's top three money earners since 3/4 or so of passengers typically take at least one tour during a cruise. A passenger can book tours which the cruise line has arranged with its 'partners' in a given port. They will generally enable the passengers to see more of the worthwhile places (e.g., on this or that Caribbean island) in a half day or day long tour than most passengers could manage to do on their own. Some tours include a stop(s) for shopping and often are used to promote sales by certain vendors.

It is possible to go ashore and arrange one's own tour guide and transportation -- and take your chances. The tour operators used by the cruise lines have been checked out and will return a ship's passengers from a tour to the ship well before the ship is scheduled to depart. This is no small insurance to have since the ship may well depart if a passenger or three are too late returning. If a tour sold by the ship and operated by one of its partners is late returning the passengers can rest assured the ship will wait for the passengers who are on that tour.

Before each of our cruises Pat checks out online all the tours available including comments from those who have taken them. She reviews costs, duration and departure/return times but most of all the tour itineraries. She then books online most or all of the tours we will take during the cruise. One reason for this approach is that, depending on the port and the tours available, some tours may fill up before passengers board the ship at the departure port. However it is common for many passengers not to book tours until after they board.

Do not rely on being able to bring alcohol purchased on shore for use on some ships. In our experience the airport-type security (but slacker) through which carry bags are passed seems mainly for the purpose of identifying bottles being brought aboard. Liquor and wine can be taken and put aside by cruise staff until the end of the cruise when they will be returned to the passenger. Regardless of official explanations the real reason is likely that the cruise line wants to sell its 'drinks' to passengers while they are on board. Booze is a major profit centre for the ship.

Depending upon the ship you are on, the line will either require the payment of a daily 'service' charge to go to crew members or will energetically promote the payment of voluntary gratuities to staff at the end of the cruise (likely something at a rate on the order of $12 per passenger per day). Why such a focus on tips? Because the tips, whether a compulsory charge or a 'voluntary' payment, are the line's way of increasing income for ship's crew who would otherwise be poorly paid. Crew members have told us that what they get directly from (or indirectly on behalf of) passengers as tips are what makes a generally unattractive job worthwhile.

Cruise lines typically recruit crew from all over the world, from Croatia to Mauritius to Central America. They sign contracts that typically run from 6 to 10 months during which they work perhaps 10-12 hours a day 7 days a week every week with no days off except perhaps for a trip home every 3 or 4 months for a short interval. Cabin attendants, wait staff and other service roles on board ship are long and hard. These crew members deserve and need the tips; save any resentment over the payment of such tips for the cruise lines who use the system in order to minimize their labour costs.

by Alastair Rickard




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Sunday, February 5, 2012

(No.187) Cruising tips: Part 2

In my previous column (No.186 posted to on Jan. 31 ) I began sharing, in no particular order, some tips on cruising which my wife Pat and I have distilled based on our cruises and related research. They are not held out as any sort of comprehensive guide to cruising but rather as a few experienced-based tips of the sort we would have appreciated reading before we began taking cruises.

This column should be read in conjunction with column No. 186.

Decide on how big a ship in terms of the number of passengers it carries you would find most comfortable. Cruise ships come in a variety of sizes and passenger capacities.

Royal Caribbean has launched 2 very large ships: Oasis of the Seas in 2009 and Allure of the Seas (2010). The largest passenger ships afloat, each carries 5,400 passengers (based on double occupancy per cabin), crew of 2,150, gross tonnage of 220,000. These ships have no appeal for us. They more closely resemble floating apartment blocks than traditional ocean liners. In our view they are of a size that makes the passenger total too high and too likely to crowd if not occasionally overwhelm the facilities and available space.

We have tried the largest of the Norwegian line's ships, the Epic (its maiden voyage was in June 2010). It is or was the third largest cruise ship in the world with a gross tonnage of nearly 156,000. It's official capacity is 4,100 passengers plus 1700 crew. Remember that any cruise ship necessarily carries a large number of crew relative to the number of passengers.

The Costa Concordia (gross tonnage 114,500) which ran aground off the Tuscan coast of Italy on Jan. 13 carried 3200 passengers and a crew of 1,000. By way of comparison the Titanic in 1912 had gross tonnage of 46,000 and carried 2500 passengers and a crew of 900 (1200 died in the famous sinking).

We took the Norwegian Epic on a trans-Atlantic crossing when the passenger total on board was 3300, less than capacity as is often the case with repositioning cruises. It's a nice ship but we concluded that it was larger than we prefer; a ship in the 2000-2500 passenger range is our preferred maximum.

Even the total number of passengers listed for a ship in a cruise line's literature is likely to be lower than the real maximum. Consider the Norwegian Epic as an example: because of having some cabins that can accommodate 3 or even 4 passengers if a bed is pulled down, the actual total maximum passengers that can be carried by the ship could reach 5000 or more.

The higher the number of passengers on a ship the more likely it is that recreational, entertainment and dining facilities will be crowded more often and wait times frequently longer, quite apart from the effect on public spaces.

As indicated in Part 1 of this series, a prospective passenger for a cruise should know enough about a ship to be able to actually choose a well-positioned cabin. Cabin positioning can make or break enjoyment of a cruise in terms of which deck and where on that deck a particular cabin is located.

For example: is a cabin under or over a night club or blues bar? or is it located in the ship's bow on the lowest passenger deck? or does it have an obstructed view? or, or, .... We think positioning of a cabin is, if not quite everything, a big part of enjoying a cruise. Think about cabins as you would about which seats you have on a plane during a long flight -- but multiplied by days rather than hours.

In pricing a cruise don't be distracted by various trumpeted perks and incentives like, for example,the offer of a 'bonus' of $100 or $200 of onboard credits. Focus on the key point: what is the baseline price of a well positioned cabin in the category you want (interior or ocean view or balcony or suite)?

The best 'early bird' fares are likely to be available far in advance of a cruise, as long as a year ahead if not longer. They may also be available near the departure date for the cruise if cabins remain unsold and hence prices are reduced. However the latter is far from certain to happen because many cruises sell out the desirable cabins, if not all cabins, before sailing date. If you have the flexibility to wait and see how a cruise you are interested in taking books up, it may pay off -- or perhaps not.

The effect of the Costa Concordia disaster has already been estimated by some industry observers to be likely to cost the cruise business at least a billion dollars in lost revenue. I don't yet see anything all that dramatic in terms of post-Jan.13 price reductions by the cruise lines to offset the negative effects with the exception of Carnival Cruises. The Carnival Corp., as the owner of the Costa line, has had its name at the centre of all the bad publicity surrounding the Concordia disaster and obviously has the highest hill to climb out of this mess of all the branded cruise lines.

Some travel agency cruise specialists and cruise lines offer cruise prices which include airfare, although one can always book a desired cruise without airfare included. Do not be fooled by ads offering "free air". Flights are never free; the cost will be made up somewhere, in the price of the cabin if not otherwise.

When going on a cruise we book our own air transportation to the departure port because we want to set our own departure/return days and times, pick our own airlines and routes (direct wherever possible) and choose our own seats. If connecting flights cannot be avoided then we can ensure that sufficient connection time is allowed.

Horror stories abound of insufficient connection times and missed flights. The airfares included in a cruise price will likely be the cheapest the agent or cruise line can locate when they come to be made, may involve risky flight connection times on route to the departure port and are unlikely to be made with details communicated to the cruise passenger until late in the process.

Always arrange to fly to the departure port so as to arrive at least the day before the cruise ship departs. If your flight is scheduled to arrive the day of your departure (boarding is usually during the afternoon hours) and there are any serious flight delays affecting the flight(s) you could miss your cruise's departure -- and the ship will depart without you.

Safety has become a concern for some in the wake of the Costa Concordia fiasco. It seems to have been caused by the actions of an arrogant and foolish captain who bet another Costa captain that he could take the Concordia closer to the island of Giglio than his colleague had.

But the post-Concordia discussions have focused on a larger and more fundamental issue: cruise ships keep getting bigger and and bigger in terms not only of size but the number of passengers carried and hence the challenge of achieving an entirely successful effort to have all people on board abandon ship.

Is it realistic to believe that it's possible -- in the event of an emergency that causes a ship to begin to sink -- to safely disembark thousands of people, perhaps as many as 8,000 (rather than, say, 2,000) before a ship sinks? At the least the question underlines the obvious advantage in an emergency of being on a smaller rather than larger ship (q.v., the cell phone pictures of the chaos and crowding on the Concordia's lifeboat deck).

As for Pat and I: my attitude to cruising has not been influenced negatively by the Costa Concordia episode except perhaps to have my aversion to ultra-large ships reinforced. Pat isn't quite so sure about her attitude.

This series on CRUISING TIPS will conclude with Part 3 in the
next column -- No.188




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