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Archive for August, 2006


Good in bed

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On August - 28 - 2006

Recently, cruise lines have become much better in bed. Taking their cue from hotel “bed wars,” which began seven years ago when Westin Hotels and Resorts introduced its “Heavenly Bed,” cruise lines are now wooing customers with promises of a better night’s rest in newly upgraded beds. Pillow-top mattress, down duvets, and higher-quality sheets have turned up everywhere, and some lines even offer passengers a choice of pillows (soft or firm, regular or hypoallergenic, down or fill).

The bedding has become so popular that some passengers want to take it home with them. Now they can. Three cruise lines are now offering their beds and linens for sale (new not used, of course), and they’ve got lots of takers.

Carnival Cruise Lines

Manufactured exclusively for Carnival, the “Carnival ComfortBed” sleep system includes a comfortable eight-inch spring mattress and box spring, a duvet made from 100 percent hypoallergenic down, and high-quality, cotton-blend satin-stripe sheets and pillowcases.

“We never imagined it would be so popular,” says Bob Dickinson, Carnival’s president and chief executive officer. “Guests are telling us that this is by far the most comfortable bed they’ve ever slept in.”

Ever since Carnival introduced the bed last year, guests have been asking where they can purchase their own. In response, Carnival created a special Web site, CarnivalComfortBed.com, which allows consumers to purchase the bed and its accessories. Complete bedding sets, which include four pillows, two pillow shams, a down duvet, a duvet cover and a set of sheets, start at $399. Prices for the mattress and box spring start at $999. Components can be purchased individually, as well.

Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen noted that the company is selling several hundred bedding components each month and that sales have increased dramatically since the Web site launched last November.

Holland America Line

“The neat thing about buying a bed that you have slept on during a cruise is that it is like a week’s trial period,” says Rose Abello, Holland America’s vice president for public relations. Indeed, response to the line’s “Mariner Dream Bed” has been overwhelmingly positive. Customers often say it’s the best sleep they’ve had in years, and several ebullient wives have written to say that their husbands stopped snoring because of the bed.

The Mariner Dream Bed is a custom-designed Sealy Posturepedic Euro-top mattress with 300-count cotton bed linens with a striped, soft sateen finish, duvet and choice of hypoallergenic or down pillows. The entire collection can be purchased online in Holland America’s Web store. Plan to spend about $850 for a twin. Linens, pillows and duvets are sold separately, with prices ranging from $35 to $300.

Oceania Cruises

Oceania Cruises started the shipboard bed wars in 2003, and it was the first to sell its bedding online. Oceania’s “Tranquility Bed” is custom-made in France and features a plush Euro-top mattress with a layer of memory foam topped with 350-count Egyptian cotton linens, a plush down comforter, silk-cut duvet cover and fluffy down pillows.

The cruise line is currently upgrading its bedding again. “We keep raising the bar,” says Tim Rubacky, Oceania’s public relations manager. He says the new mattresses will be thicker and have more memory foam, and linens will be upgraded to 700-count Egyptian cotton.

Unfortunately, you can’t buy the mattress. Because the beds are manufactured in France, the cost is prohibitive, Rubacky says. But anyone can purchase the line’s linens at the Oceania Cruises Online Boutique. Currently, the 350-count linens and duvets are available in king and queen size. The prices are a relative bargain: a king-size white goose down duvet runs $119 and flat and fitted sheets cost just $21 to $23 apiece.

I cruise a lot, and I can testify that cruise-line bedding has improved dramatically in the last five years. In some cases, it is truly dreamy. Go ahead and buy some. Then your only problem will be staying awake.

Filled Under Reviews

3 myths about cruise fares

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On August - 21 - 2006

People new to cruising often have mistaken ideas about the experience. They have their holiday-at-sea mixed up with “The Love Boat,” or “Titanic” or maybe “Pirates of the Caribbean.” But even experienced cruisers can fall for a cruise myth — sometimes before they have even stepped aboard the ship. In fact, myths about cruise fares and the booking process are among the most common, and falling for them can be an expensive mistake.

Here are three myths about cruise fares that deserve a second look.

Myth 1: Balcony cabins are too expensive

Many people book inside cabins believing they are the cheapest; they won’t even look at the balcony cabins, thinking the price will be too high. Not true. On a recent Caribbean cruise search, I was surprised to discover that the cheapest cabin on several cruise lines wasn’t an inside or outside cabin but a balcony cabin.

“Sometimes it’s less for a balcony cabin,” confirms luxury cruise specialist Lucy Hirleman, president of Berkshire Travel in Newfoundland, N.J. She notes that if you book far enough in advance, or take advantage of special promotions for past passengers, you will frequently find that a balcony cabin costs less than an ocean-view. You can even score a mini-suite.

What’s going on? Several different things. First, the supply of balcony cabins has increased as newer ships have come online with a higher percentage of balcony cabins. Second, a glut of cruises, particularly in the Caribbean, has opened up some great deals. Third, balcony cabins are often offered as “sweeteners” in promotions aimed at return passengers, whose loyalty to the cruise line will pay off in the long run.

So, always scan the rates for all cabin categories. You may end up with a pleasant surprise.

Myth 2: The Internet has the best fares

“Unfortunately the public has the mistaken opinion that everything bought on the Internet is cheaper,” says Ben Catalina of Cruises Inc. in San Antonio. While the Internet is a good place to go to get a general idea of the cost a cruise, it doesn’t necessarily offer the best deals. Catalina says people will often come to him with an Internet quote on a cruise and be surprised when they compare it with the fare his agency is able to get. “In nearly all cases, our price is equal or better than any Internet or direct cruise-line price,” he says.

The reason the agencies can undercut the Internet sites is that they are so well connected. They have many pricing options available to them through their computer reservations systems and through the cruise lines themselves. Many specialty agents receive daily faxes and e-mails from cruise lines and tour operators touting deals that you cannot find online.

Many agents also belong to travel consortiums like Ensemble or Virtuoso that book blocks of cabins and offer deals that are exclusive to the clients of their member travel agencies. Hirleman, the New Jersey cruise specialist, says she often gets clients who are repeat cruisers with a particular cruise line who can “double dip” through her affiliation with Ensemble to get extra savings and perks. “They get a great past-passenger rate plus onboard credits and amenities through the group booking,” Hirleman explains. “You won’t get that online.”

Myth 3: You’re stuck with your fare

The cruise line will never call you if they have lowered the price of your cruise. Therefore, it can really pay off to keep tabs on the price of your cruise after you book. Just ask Scott Larsen of Fairfax, Va.

Last November, Larsen booked a September 2006 cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Enchantment of the Seas. He went for the least expensive option: an inside cabin. In July, Larsen was thinking about upgrading his cabin, so he checked the Internet for the current cabin rates. He discovered that the prices had dropped quite a bit. In fact, an outside cabin was now going for $1 less than the price he booked for his inside cabin.

Larsen called Royal Caribbean to see if he could upgrade to the outside cabin. The cruise line told him the upgrade was possible, but he would need to make arrangements through the travel agency that handled his booking: Travelocity. Larsen then contacted Travelocity and the changes were made. Larsen notes that had he chosen to keep the inside cabin, Royal Caribbean would have refunded him $200. He says, “I really prefer the upgrade and I am really happy with the outcome.”

It’s time to debunk these three cruise myths. With a little detective work, you could end up with a cabin with a view — and more money in your pocket.

Bon voyage!

Filled Under Advice

How to cruise for free

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On August - 16 - 2006

Cruise for free? Yes, it’s possible and it’s not as hard as you might think. Just ask Lynn Shaw of Slippery Rock, Pa. For years, Shaw had wanted to cruise with a group of friends from college. After she talked to her travel agent about her group cruise idea, Shaw decided to take the bold step and reserve a group of cabins on a Carnival Cruise Lines cruise to the Caribbean. Shaw sent fliers with the cruise information to her friends. Her primary goal was to get as many people as possible to have a great vacation; a second goal was to entice enough friends to book so she could earn free passage under Carnival’s group policy.

What happened? Shaw was able to cruise for free when 22 people joined her group. As the organizer of the group, Shaw became the designated “tour conductor.” Tour conductors work with a travel agency to make all the travel and onboard arrangements; their primary jobs are recruitment and communication. All you really need is a congenial group willing to travel together and an excuse to go: family reunion, birthday, anniversary, wedding, college reunion — or just plain fun. Sign up enough people and you will pay no fare.

Most cruise lines, including Carnival, Celebrity, Disney, Holland America, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean and Princess, ordinarily define a group cruise as a minimum of 16 people occupying eight cabins (third and fourth passengers in a cabin are allowed, but they do not count toward the total). The 16th person (the tour conductor) cruises free. However, free passengers must pay taxes and port charges (and, of course, airfare to the port, if needed).

Getting a free fare is one thing; getting a free cabin is something else altogether. For that you need to book twice as many people and cabins. “Sixteen is the magic number,” says luxury cruise specialist Lucy Hirleman, president of Berkshire Travel in Newfoundland, N.J. “Sixteen people means the 16th person cruises free; 16 cabins means the 16th cabin is free.”

Off-peak sailings sometimes offer more generous terms, with some cruise lines offering groups a free fare to every 10th or 14th person. Generally, higher-end cruise lines like Silversea Cruises require fewer paid fares to qualify than do the more mainstream cruise lines.

Sail together, save together

OK, so the group leader can make out like a bandit, but what about the other group travelers? They can benefit, too. For one thing, group rates are sometimes lower than individual rates. For another, the free cruise fare can often be divided evenly among the group members, saving everyone money. Some cruise lines also offer special perks available only to group cruisers. For example, many cruise lines are now awarding “group amenity points” based on the number of people in the group: the more people, the more points, the more perks. Amenities can include such things as private hosted cocktail parties, cabin upgrades and shipboard credits.

The details of group-travel offerings vary widely by cruise line, itinerary, time of year — even the nature of the group. Don’t be daunted. Travel agencies that specialize in group cruises can help find you find the best sailings and negotiate the best possible deal.

But what if you can’t round up enough friends or family members to get group benefits? Then book with an agency that can hook you up with a travel consortium like Ensemble or Virtuoso. These consortiums book blocks of cabins and offer deals that are exclusive to the clients of their member travel agencies. “It’s a great way for people to take advantage of a group rate without being in a group,” says Hirleman.

Warning: Being a tour conductor isn’t a breeze. You will have to keep extensive records and have good communication skills to keep the information flowing between the travel agent and your group members. Yes, the travel agency will do most of the work — including making bookings, tracking payments, making stateroom assignments and setting up special onboard events — but you are the one folks will turn to when things go wrong, crying, “Look what you got us into!”

Lynn Shaw and her friends had a terrific time on their group cruise. Shaw says it was a lot of work, but the payoff was great: “I cruised for free. How cool is that?” She says she can’t wait to do it again. In fact, she is thinking of having her wedding at sea.

Filled Under Advice

Little pirates of the Caribbean

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On August - 7 - 2006

As cruise lines continue to see greater numbers of family cruisers, they are investing heavily in more family-friendly features and innovations in their youth programs. According to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), its member cruise lines carried 1.1 million children in 2005. Carnival Cruise Line alone expects to carry a record 525,000 children in 2006, a 325 percent increase in just over a decade.

So, what’s new for kids aboard ships? The latest hip happenings include a surfing experience, cool water parks, updated teen centers, environmental education and — would you believe? — charm school. Here’s the latest on what each cruise line has to offer the littlest pirates.

Carnival Cruise Line

Camp Carnival offers morning-til-night activities in its expansive indoor play areas, which are stocked with a wide variety of games, toys and activities that focus on art, reading, science, geography and physical fitness. Kids are divided into four age groups: Toddlers (ages 2 to 5), Juniors (ages 6 to 8), Intermediates (ages 9 to 11), and Teens (ages 12 to 14). Outdoor play areas offer mini-basketball hoops, jungle gyms and other playground equipment, as well as game rooms offering the latest video and arcade games.

Kids who like to have fun in the sun also enjoy acres of deck space for outdoor games and activities such as ping-pong, volleyball and shuffleboard, along with many swimming options, including children’s wading pools and main Lido Deck pools, which have cascading water slides. Carnival also offers YSPA, a youth spa program that offers teen-specific body and beauty treatments. Recent enhancements to the program include the new fleetwide Club 02 teen program for kids ages 15 to 17, which has dedicated facilities and energetic counselors.

Celebrity Cruises

Celebrity X-Club offers activities for toddlers to teens and is staffed with youth counselors who have received formal education in recreation, education, child development or related fields.

X-Club is broken down into five programs: Toddler Time for those under 3 (parents must accompany children), Ship Mates (ages 3 to 6), Celebrity Cadets (ages 7 to 9), Ensigns (ages 10 to 12), and Admiral Ts (ages 13 to 17). Activities include arts and crafts, games, fitness programs, movie nights and pizza and ice cream parties. On Celebrity’s Century ship, teens have their own place called X-Treme, a teen lounge that offers a video arcade, dance floor, juice bar, jukebox and karaoke, along with computers that have Internet access. Outdoor activities include pools, basketball, volleyball, paddle tennis and ping-pong.

Costa Cruises

With the launch of Costa’s newest vessels have come enhanced children’s facilities. Costa Kids Club is divided into four age groups. Mini Club, for children 3 to 6, focuses on story times along with arts and crafts, while activities in the Maxi Club, for kids 7 to10, include treasure hunts, pizza parties, pool games, physical fitness and even some Italian language classes. There are also two teen clubs, one for those ages 11 to 14 and another for those ages 15 to 19; both offer activities from parties to dance competitions. All the new ships have extensive pool sports areas where kids can participate in active play. The recently launched Costa Concordia offers new features, including a giant poolside movie screen and a Formula 1 race car simulator.

Crystal Cruises

Crystal Cruises is well known for its enrichment programs, so it comes as no surprise that this luxury cruise line also offers an enlightening Junior Activities Program. Offered only in the summer and on holiday sailings, the program is divided into three age tiers: 3 to 7, 8 to 12, and 13 to 17. A variety of age-appropriate activities offers arts and crafts, backstage tours, dancing, games, storytelling and environmental learning experiences. Young athletes can take advantage of the ship’s paddle tennis court, driving nets and putting greens, and pool; they can even compete in their own mini-Olympics. A unique offering is Crystal’s cotillion classes, where young cruisers learn the ins and outs of social etiquette, poise, ballroom dancing and public speaking.

Cunard

Surprise, the Queens love kids! Both the Queen Mary 2 (QM2) and Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2) give kids the royal treatment by offering supervised activities for ages 1 through teens; the QM2 also offers a Kid Zone area with a play space and splash pool. Younger kids are supervised by English nannies and can participate in activities ranging from arts and crafts to playtime in the play gym and ball bin. There are even beds for nap time. For kids 7 to 12, there is an area of the playroom that offers a more mature setting with beanbag chairs, board games and video games along with educational learning opportunities. Teen activities are geared toward behind-the-scenes ship tours and movies. Kids of all ages will enjoy the ship’s planetarium. And, in keeping with British tradition, there is a daily tea time just for kids.

Disney Cruise Line

Disney Cruise Line has nearly a full deck area devoted to the little ones, with activities that are overseen by a large number of counselors.

There are separate areas for each age group. The Oceaneer Club has separate activities for 3- to 5-year-olds and 6- to 7-year-olds. The Oceaneer Lab has interactive activities for kids ages 8 to 9 and others for kids ages 10 to 12. Kids 10 to 14 who don’t want to participate in organized activities can visit the Ocean Quest area, where they can chill out and play video games, create arts and crafts or just watch a movie. The coolest part is the scaled replica of the ship’s bridge, where youngsters can “steer” the ship in and out of ports around the globe. For teens, there are the Aloft area (on the Disney Wonder) and The Stack area (on the Disney Magic); each area is a combination dorm room and apartment offering music, games, large-screen TV, a lounge area, Internet area and shipboard programs like animation, moviemaking, karaoke, fitness classes and pool parties just for teens. There is also a large arcade area. Outdoor fun includes the popular Mickey’s Pool, which has a winding water slide and a sports deck area where kids can let off steam.

Holland America

Holland America’s Club HAL offers a variety of activities for kids ages 3 to 17. The program is divided into three groups: Club HAL Kids (ages 3 to 7), Club HAL Tweens (ages 8 to 12), and Loft and Oasis (for teens 13 to 17). Creativity and fun are everywhere with art tables, board games, toys, video games, educational learning and outdoor play on the sports court and pool area.

The Loft and Oasis areas provide teens with a perfect getaway from family members. The Loft is a cool place to hang out and has music, videos and a video karaoke system, as well as a state-of-the-art sound-and-laser-light systems for dancing. The Oasis is a secluded teens-only sun deck furnished with lounge chairs and hammocks; it has a state-of-the-art sound system, along with a nine-foot-high waterfall, cave and wading pool where kids can cool off from the sun.

Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL)

Norwegian Cruise Line’s Kid’s Crew and Teen’s Crew programs are designed for kids and teens ages 2 to 17 and are run by staff experienced in working with children. Kid’s Crew is divided into three groups — Junior Sailors (2 to 5), First Mates (6 to 9) and Navigators (10 to 12) — and offers a daily round of activities including T-shirt painting, pizza making, pajama parties, scavenger hunts and storytelling.

Teen’s Crew, for kids 13 to 17, offers a disco, team games and films. There is an afternoon dance party with a DJ, pizzas and plenty of nonalcoholic drinks and a farewell “frat party” on the last evening. If the teens want a break from the organized fun, there’s a video arcade.

When the kids want to play outside, NCL has some of the best pool areas at sea with water slides and kiddie splash pools. There are also sports decks that offer basketball, volleyball and tennis, along with driving nets for golf, a shuffleboard court and ping-pong tables.

Princess Cruises

Princess Cruises recently revamped its children’s program, adding more fun to its already terrific kids’ activities. Princess Pelicans (ages 3 to 8) have their own play area that offers a small rock-climbing wall, beanbag chairs, crafts area and a splash pool. The Shockwaves program, for 8- to 12-year-olds, also has its own area, which includes plenty of table games and lots of space for sitting and chatting, making crafts and playing games. Shockwaves kids can also participate in the Junior Chefs@Sea program, which takes kids to the ship’s galley to learn cooking from the executive chef and staff.

The Remix area for teens is a mature living-room setting similar to a coffee shop. It comes equipped with air hockey tables, foosball and PlayStation2 consoles. On Crown Princess, teens also have an outside whirlpool (no adults allowed) and a small arcade room across the hall. A bonus is the teen makeover program, run by youth counselors and boutique staff in conjunction with Clinique, which teaches skin care to both girls and boys and makeup techniques to the girls. Princess also has a Youth Security Program, in which staff in their early 20s watch over the teenagers. These highly trained personnel continually monitor the hallways and public areas to make sure kids don’t get out of hand.

Outdoor fun includes great pools; on some ships the pools have a gigantic movie screen. There is also a sports court, where kids can play basketball or tennis, and a nine-hole miniature golf course.

Regent Seven Seas Cruises

Regent Seven Seas Cruises offers Club Mariner for kids ages 3 to 17, as well as supervised activities at certain times of the year, mostly on Alaska, Tahiti and holiday sailings. Instead of offering mindless rounds of computers and videos, counselors engage kids in skill games and team-building activities. On Alaska and Tahiti sailings, environmental education is the highlight. On summer Tahiti sailings, for example, Regent offers its Ambassadors of the Environment program for kids ages 9 to 15. The program was created in conjunction with ocean explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau, a son of legendary oceanographer and environmentalist Jacques Cousteau. Kids learn about different corals and fish species through hikes, snorkeling, whale watching and snorkeling excursions. The ships’ youth counselors all have college degrees in natural or environmental sciences as well as training from Cousteau’s team.

Royal Caribbean

Royal Caribbean’s Adventure Ocean Youth Program offers specially designed programs for babies and kids from 3 to 11 and teens from 12 to 17. For the tiniest cruisers, parents and babies 6 to 36 months old can participate in the Fisher-Price Aqua Babies and Aqua Tots programs, interactive playgroup sessions developed by early childhood experts at Fisher-Price. For the older kids, the program is divided into five groups: Aquanauts (ages 3 to 5), Explorers (ages 6 to 8), Voyagers (ages 9 to11), Navigators (ages 12 to 14), and Guests (ages 15 to 17). Every program blends educational activities with games and arts and crafts for a unique onboard experience for the kids.

Teens in Adventure Ocean have their own area called the Living Room that offers a place to relax or take part in games, sports, theme parties and movies. When teens want to boogie, they have their own nightclub called Fuel.

Adventure Ocean is offered on all Royal Caribbean ships; however, the best ships for kids are the Freedom, Adventure, Explorer, Mariner and Navigator, which have rock-climbing walls, ice-skating rinks, in-line skating tracks, basketball and tennis courts, miniature golf, water parks and (on Freedom) the totally cool surfing park.

Windjammer Barefoot Cruises

Adventurous families will love to set sail on Windjammer’s tall-masted ships. During the summer months, the line offers the Junior Jammers kids’ program for kids ages 6 to 17. The program is available on two of the line’s four vessels, which carry between 112 and 122 passengers each. Kids are separated into two age groups (6 to 11 and 12 to 17) and can indulge in activities ranging from arts and crafts to sailing instruction. Sporting activities include snorkeling, SASY and Bubblemaker programs (children’s scuba), swimming, hiking and parties. All activities are supervised by trained counselors or diving instructors trained by the Professional Association of Diving Professionals.

With all the inventive program offerings on board today’s cruise ships, you no longer have to listen to the kids complaining, “I’m bored!” Ships are hip — and that’s something family cruisers can stand up and cheer about.

Filled Under Advice