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WHO'S AFRAID OF THE BIG, BAD CRUISE?
By Martin B. Deutsch
February 21, 2013 -- The ill-fated voyage of the Carnival Triumph has gotten so much publicity in recent days that it even drew the attention of Saturday Night Live, which spoofed the incident in last week's opening.
As a self-confessed contrarian and confirmed cruise fan who has completed at least 85 voyages, I don't see anything in the Triumph affair or last year's Costa Concordia tragedy that would dissuade me from cruising again. In fact, I heartily recommend cruising for business travelers looking for relief from another round of mediocre airlines, airports and hotels.
Road warriors are probably the best potential clients for the cruise experience. Why? Cruises offer an ideal vacation environment or the ideal venue for laid-back business meetings. It's hard to get formal in shorts or a bathing suit. Then, to lower the tension quotient, there's the sun, the salty sea breeze and, of course, those cocktails in your hand.
Once you have gone down this path, you will find it hard to deny that the cruise milieu is wonderful for everything from a family reunion to an informal corporate gathering.
Then there are the onboard activities that are part and parcel of your daily routine. Today's megaliners, which carry thousands of passengers, resemble floating villages and they seem to offer everything. You can climb rock walls, play tennis, go ziplining, surf (on artificial waves), skeet shoot, see a Las Vegas-style show and of course, risk your hard-earned dollars at a fancy casino. (Word to the wise: You'll have to risk real dollars. I don't know any cruise-ship casinos that accept frequent flyer miles or hotel points for a wager.)
Then there's the food, with those extensive menus at specialty restaurants. The cuisine encompasses everything from sushi bars and traditional fine dining to pasta palaces and sophisticated steak joints. The snacks, of course, never stop. Some of today's ships even have gelato bars.
Let's not forget those ultra-modern fitness centers with trainers and physical therapists on hand. There are sybaritic spas, which could compete with anything you can find back on land. There are all kinds of self-improvement classes. Special children's programs run from early in the morning into the evening if you want to ditch the kiddies for a while.
And if all the shipboard activities aren't enough, there's the wondrous world of shore excursions. They afford you the opportunity to view historic cultures and monuments, feed your shopping fix or simply allow you to luxuriate on a real beach.
Besides, no matter how much you spend on a cruise, you're buying into one of the great values in the travel panoply. Even the luxury liners provide relatively good value when you consider the services and amenities they provide. Perhaps best of all, you only pack and unpack once and your floating hotel is almost always parked dockside.
But cruising is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. As any cruise veteran will explain, you need to give some real thought to your choices. Here are five basic areas I urge you to consider before choosing a cruise.
WHERE DO YOU WANT TO GO?
You can cruise to, from and about almost anywhere you'd like since today's global cruise map has virtually no limitation. If you are hoping to resuscitate a weary psyche, you can embark from any one of a number of Eastern U.S. ports to just about any destination in the Caribbean, the Bahamas, and, depending on the time of year, Bermuda. From the West Coast, there's always Hawaii and Mexico. What do all of these places have in common? Sun, sand, surf and water sports. On the other hand, maybe you're looking for history and culture. In that case, there's nothing like the Mediterranean. You can often hit as many as 12 classic ports on a two-week itinerary. Prefer a good deal of time at sea for uninterrupted contemplation and R&R? Then consider the vast expanses of the Pacific. Want more adventure? Don't forget Alaska and Antarctica.
HOW MUCH DO YOU WANT TO SPEND?
Without getting into nickel and dimes, the gamut of cruise costs runs from some incredible bargains on so-called mass-market ships to some serious outlays on the luxury brands. How wide is the range? You can find a one-week journey for less than $700 per person in a double cabin or you can spend upwards of $10,000 each on the world's most upscale sailings. And cruise prices, like airline prices, vary by the time of year, holiday periods and the level of accommodations.
WHAT TYPE OF SHIP DO YOU WANT?
You can opt for a vessel that carries fewer than 100 passengers or a mid-size ship that accommodates anywhere from 600 to about 1,900 customers. Or you can book what the industry calls megaliners. They accommodate as many as 4,000 people per voyage. I've always preferred the smaller ships, even though those megaliners know how to make you feel at home as well. It all boils down to your personal comfort zone.
WHICH ACCOMMODATIONS ARE RIGHT FOR YOU?
There are many factors in play when you consider where you are going to sleep on a ship. The cabins range from those on the lower decks (they don't have windows or portholes) to those on the upper decks. They'll often boast dramatic seascapes and roomy balconies. Inside cabins down below are not for the claustrophobic. Those on the very top decks are not for those on a limited budget. There are very small cabins--some much smaller than hotel rooms you've stayed in over the years--to very large suites that are comparable to the best resort suites you've ever experienced. And just like hotels, you should also consider traffic flow and proximity to dining and recreation areas. Unique to cruising, you also need to consider where you are least likely to be affected by the ship's motion. If you're prone to seasickness, opt for a cabin in the center of the ship, rather than fore or aft.
SHOULD YOU USE A TRAVEL AGENT?
Working with a travel agent is particularly relevant for a first-time cruiser, but even frequent sailers can benefit from a savvy agent. There's no question that a good agent can help you reach an informed decision about all of the cruising variables. Many agencies are cruise specialists who can customize a product that meets both your wishes, however imprecise, and your budget. And more agencies than ever identify themselves as "cruise only" shops. Cruising is all they book and, naturally, they may have a bit more insight and offer more nuanced options for the sophisticated buyer.
Bottom line: Be a contrarian like me. Make at least one big splash in your life. Book a cruise.
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ABOUT MARTIN B. DEUTSCH Martin B. Deutsch created Frequent Flyer magazine in 1980 and was editor-in-chief and publisher for 15 years. He also wrote a column called "Up Front" for Frequent Flyer during those years. In a 50-year career, he created, published and edited dozens of other travel publications. Deutsch is based in New York.
THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Martin B. Deutsch in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Mr. Deutsch. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the permission of Mr. Deutsch.
This column is Copyright © 2013 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.