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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