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Archive for December, 2006

Charity on the high seas

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On December - 25 - 2006

Sure, cruise lines make billions of dollars, and despite what some press reports would have you think, they do nice things with some of it. Here is a rundown of some charitable good works that have recently come to my attention.

Making a difference

As one of South Florida’s largest employers, Miami-based Carnival Cruise Lines understands the importance of giving back to the community. In the past five years, Carnival and its employees have contributed more than $27 million in financial assistance and in-kind donations to a variety of local and national charities. One of the biggest beneficiaries is Jackson Memorial Hospital, which provides life-saving medical treatment to South Floridians, particularly children. Most recently, Carnival pledged $2.5 million to renovate the pediatric intensive care unit and the medical unit at the hospital.

This year alone, Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) has donated cruises to more than 130 different charities. Some of those cruises are one-night fund-raisers, with the cruise line donating all proceeds to one or more designated charities. NCL’s most recent event was a one-night cruise on Dec. 15 aboard the brand-new Norwegian Pearl to benefit Rosie O’Donnell’s For All Kids Foundation.

Regent Seven Seas Cruises, through its parent company Carlson, is one of the founders of the World Childhood Foundation. The foundation serves the world’s most vulnerable children, particularly children victimized by sexual abuse, exploitation and trafficking for sex. The foundation has set international guidelines for travel and tourism companies, urging them to adopt business practices that will end the sex trade in children. It is estimated that up to 2 million children annually are exploited for sex, and the foundation provides financial resources to help many of them.

What’s old is new

Thanks to a couple of cruise lines, hundreds of people around the world are sleeping better. When Windstar instituted its “Degrees of Difference” initiative to spruce up its three ships, they knew just what to do with their old mattresses and linens: donate them to charity. Last January, when its flagship, Wind Star, docked in Costa Rica, it offloaded 148 mattresses and matching linens to donate to two local orphanages and a home for seniors. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Caribbean, another ship, Wind Surf, donated its mattresses and linens to charities in Barbados. In an odd twist, halfway around the world in Greece, the Wind Sprit discovered that something was amiss with its new linens; they had been made to the wrong specifications. Rather than sending them back to the manufacturer, the ship’s crew decided to donate them to worthy causes. Now kids at the Orphanage of Rhodes for Girls and the St. Andrews Institute for Chronic Handicapped Children are sleeping like royalty on 300-thread-count sheets.

Windstar isn’t the only cruise line donating mattresses. Recently, Regent Seven Seas Cruises donated 1,000 mattresses to a local church in South Florida following the refurbishments of Seven Seas Navigator and Seven Seas Mariner. The cruise line is currently looking to donate another 600 mattresses to other organizations that can make use of them. In another turnaround of goods and supplies, Norwegian Cruise Line recently donated excess paint from Norwegian Majesty (based in Charleston, S.C.) to Habitat for Humanity in South Carolina.

Seals of approval

While most donations and contributions go toward human causes, some go to our animal friends. Earlier this year, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises Ocean Fund awarded $100,000 to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in support of its Smart Gear initiative, which aims to reduce the “bycatch” of endangered marine species. Fisheries bycatch is the leading threat to many endangered marine mammals, cetaceans, sharks, sea turtles, sea birds and nontarget fish species around the world. The initiative encourages the development of innovative, practical and cost-effective fishing technologies.

In August, Holland America Line made all the wishes of the Alaska Raptor Center come true when the company donated $12,000 to purchase every item on the center’s medical wish list, including sutures, pins, medical equipment and upgrades to the medical center. The Sitka-based center has been in operation since 1980 and specializes in rehabilitating injured birds of prey. Its goal is to release the birds back into the wild when they are healthy enough to survive on their own. Birds that are too injured to survive in the wild remain at the facility or are donated to zoos.

‘Tis the season of giving and ’tis nice to know that cruise lines care about worthy charities.

Filled Under Advice

Cruising 2007

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On December - 18 - 2006

At this time of year, just about everyone devotes a column to predictions for the year ahead. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I can tell you the shape of things to come on the high seas in 2007: more taxes, more tonnage, more talking and — would you believe? — bowling and water balloons.

Ships, Class of 2007

Eight new ships (and two older ships relaunched with new cruise lines) will be ready for their closeups next year. Here’s a summary for the Class of 2007, in order of the month they debut.

* January. Officially launched in late December 2006, the 93,500-ton Norwegian Pearl will carry 2,400 passengers and sail year-round from Miami on Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries.

* March. The 110,000-ton Carnival Freedom will carry 2,974 passengers and sail in the Mediterranean until November, when it transitions to Miami for its winter Caribbean season.

* April. Princess Cruises’ 30,000-ton, 680-passenger Royal Princess (formerly the R8 for the now-defunct Renaissance Cruises line and, more recently, the Minerva II for Swan Hellenic cruise line) will sail in the Mediterranean for the summer and then transition to Fort Lauderdale to sail Southern Caribbean and Amazon cruises for the winter.

* May. Royal Caribbean’s 160,000-ton Liberty of the Seas will carry 3,600 passengers and sail year-round from Miami in the Caribbean. This ship is the sister vessel to the Freedom of the Seas; together they tie for bragging rights as the world’s largest cruise ships.

* May. Celebrity Cruises’ 30,000-ton, 680-passenger Celebrity Journey (formerly the R6 for the now-defunct Renaissance Cruises line and, more recently, the Blue Dream for Spanish cruise line Pullmantur) will sail Bermuda cruises from Cape Liberty in New Jersey.

* May. Princess Cruises’ 116,000-ton Emerald Princess will carry 3,100 passengers. The ship will sail in Europe until November, when it repositions to Fort Lauderdale for its winter Caribbean season.

* May. Costa Cruises’ 112,000-ton Costa Serena will carry 3,000 passengers and sail year-round in the Mediterranean.

* October. Norwegian Cruise Line will debut the 92,000-ton Norwegian Gem. The ship will carry 2,384 passengers and sail year-round from New York to the Caribbean and the Bahamas.

* December. Cunard will debut the 90,000-ton Queen Victoria at the end of the year. A little more than half the size of the Queen Mary 2, the ship will carry 2,000 passengers. The first two voyages will be round-trips from Southampton, and then the new Queen will set sail on its world cruise.

Alaska cruise tax

Alaska voters passed the Ballot 2 initiative in August, and now that it is law, cruisers and cruise lines will have to pony up more money to visit the state. Every cruise passenger will pay an additional $50 in taxes and fees, but it’s the other taxes and fees (levied directly on the cruise lines) that you need to keep an eye on.

Carnival Corporation estimates that the new taxes and program fees will impact its 2007 earnings by three cents per share, or a total of approximately $24.15 million. The Carnival brands that sail Alaska itineraries are Carnival, Holland America and Princess; those cruise lines account for 560,000 of the almost one million Alaska cruise passengers. For Carnival Corporation lines, the new taxes and fees average out to around $43 per person on Alaska sailings; the figure will almost certainly be higher for the other cruise lines that sail there.

Will the cruise lines pass the cost on to the consumer by jacking up ticket prices, or will they absorb it, or will they cut back the number of cruises for the 2008 season? Those are the questions. Alaska voters certainly voted for change, but they may be surprised by the amount of change they’ve unleashed.

E-tickets @ sea

Finally! A cruise line is following the lead of the airlines, and that’s good news for trees. Princess Cruises is converting to all-electronic ticketing for cruise and air bookings, becoming the first cruise line to do so. Princess says going to e-ticketing will enable it to provide cruise documents to its passengers earlier than any other line in the industry; they will also offer passengers 24-hour access to their cruise information through its online “Cruise Personalizer.”

The program will replace the second of two mailings that cruise passengers receive prior to their sailing (passengers will still receive the first mailing, which encloses the cruise contract, information on shore excursions and FAQs). Princess says the program is also expected to save travel agents time and money, as they will no longer need to forward final ticket packages on to clients. The transition to the Princess eTickets program began November 17 and will roll out across the fleet before the end of 2006. Given the cost savings, you can bet more cruise lines will follow Princess’s lead.

The Big Easy makes a “cruiseback”

In early December, the last of three cruise lines returned to their home port of New Orleans. Norwegian Cruise Line, Carnival Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean have each dedicated a ship to cruise from the port. Regular sailings represent another step in a return to normalcy for New Orleans. Before Hurricane Katrina, the cruise industry accounted for nearly 2,800 direct jobs and $200 million in direct expenditures in the city. Let’s hope Big Easy cruising makes a big comeback.

More California cruising

Carnival Cruise Lines announced that the Elation will be moving its home port to San Diego to operate a year-round four- and five-night program to Mexico. It will be the first ship to be home-ported year-round at San Diego. The new cruises will begin on June 2, 2007.

European mouse invasion

Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy and the gang are going on a European cruise! Disney Cruise Line will offer its first-ever European sailings from May to August 2007. The Disney Magic will offer eight alternating 10-night and 11-night Mediterranean cruises, departing from Barcelona, Spain, and stopping in eight European cities in Italy, Spain and France.

More ding-a-lings

Can you hear me now? Get used to it: There’s no escaping the cell phone, even at sea.
Two years ago, Norwegian Cruise Line and Costa Cruises became the first cruise lines to offer cell phone service fleetwide; now almost everyone else has come on board. Silversea Cruises, Oceania Cruises, Crystal Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Royal Caribbean, Carnival Cruise Lines and Regent Seven Seas Cruises have all enabled onboard cell phone coverage by installing radio networks that link vessels with public networks via satellite. The service is available on most all types of cell phones being used by most U.S. carriers. Charges for calls and data services while at sea will appear on the caller’s wireless bill. The cost of a call varies with the carrier; current rates range from $1.99-$4.99 per minute.

Bowling leagues over the sea

You can ice skate, surf and rock-climb at sea. And, starting on December 15, you’ll be able to go bowling! Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Pearl will have a four-lane bowling alley as part of its Bliss Ultra Lounge sports bar and nightclub complex. By day, Bliss will have a sports bar atmosphere with several plasma-screen TVs, air hockey, foosball and other arcade games in addition to bowling. At night, Bliss will morph into a disco with video tracks, its own disc jockey, dance floor and — would you believe? — “mood lit bowling.” One can only imagine the number of gutter balls after a few drinks or in a patch of rough seas; both together could prove very interesting.

Water wars

Get in touch with your inner teenager again. Starting next summer, every Carnival Cruise Line passenger will have the opportunity to aim and catapult water balloons at fellow (participating) passengers. Carnival’s “Jr. Dyno Water Wars” consist of two custom-built battle stations from which participants propel their water balloons. I can only wonder if Carnival’s “Hairy Chest Contests” will get all wet.

2007 looks to be an interesting and fun year in cruising.

Filled Under Advice

Extreme Makeover: Celebrity’s Century

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On December - 11 - 2006

The story of Celebrity Cruises‘ 11-year-old ship Century could easily be an episode of “Extreme Makeover.” This past spring, the ship was gutted and fitted with all the latest amenities that today’s cruisers demand. The revitalized Century emerged from its $55 million surgery in May with 314 new balconies, upgraded staterooms, a martini bar, a Persian Garden and other new public spaces that bring the ship up to date with Celebrity’s popular Millennium-class vessels. After seeing the ship up close, I found the makeover to be impressive, with just a few easy-to-fix wrinkles remaining.

The 71,545-ton Century entered service in December 1995 and carries just 1,800 passengers, making it a middle-aged, medium-sized ship by today’s mega-ship standards. I asked Celebrity’s President Dan Hanrahan why the company spent $55 million (the cost of a Boeing 757 aircraft) to refurbish the ship. Why not just build a new one?

“It’s in our DNA to revitalize and refurbish ships,” Hanrahan said, underscoring Celebrity’s commitment to building quality ships that last. But there are economic forces at play, too. In today’s big-ship, high-glitz market, it’s cheaper to refurbish a small ship than build a new one. “The shipyards costs are the reasons that cruise lines keep building bigger ships,” Hanrahan says. “Bigger ships are more profitable and cheaper to operate on a per-passenger basis.” In that economic climate, as in Hollywood, aging celebrities head for a makeover.

Extreme makeover results

The Century came to the makeover with one very serious problem: It needed balconies badly. The ship had only 49 balcony staterooms, the fewest in the Celebrity fleet. At a time when most cruise ships boast a high percentage of balcony cabins, Century’s lack of balcony space was certainly hurting business. Another reason to update the ship was to incorporate amenities found on Celebrity’s newer and popular Millennium-class vessels.

After five weeks of work, the results are impressive. The ship is now fitted with 314 new and 49 refurbished balconies — a huge engineering feat; moreover, all the balcony structures and furnishings are made from noncombustible materials, a safety measure enacted after the tragic balcony and stateroom fire last spring on board Princess Cruises’ Star Princess. Besides the new balconies, Century is sporting 14 new suites, 10 new staterooms and an increased number of Concierge Class staterooms. All staterooms have been upgraded with Celebrity’s new luxury bedding and flat-panel televisions.

The balconies have made the ship more passenger-friendly by opening up room and changing the traffic flow inside the ship. Despite a full passenger load, the ship rarely seemed crowded. The balcony work also resulted in upgrades to the public areas, a decision that evolved so the makeover wouldn’t look patchwork. Upgrades were made to the ship’s two-level Grand Restaurant; to all the clubs, lounges and retail shops; to the Internet area (which now has extended Wi-Fi hot spots); and to the art gallery. Many of the upgrades were also calculated to “maximize onboard revenue opportunities,” which Hanrahan sees as a strategic decision and a major trend in the cruise industry.

Indeed, the newest additions to Century’s offerings are already enticing passengers to spend more money. The Celebrity line is known for its excellent cuisine, and the addition of the specialty restaurant Murano, a popular feature from the Millennium-class fleet (and a moneymaker because it imposes a cover charge), now enhances that reputation aboard the Century. At Murano, guests can dine on the excellent offerings designed by Celebrity’s longtime food and wine consultant Master Chef Michel Roux. In another change, Century’s Lido Deck was reconfigured to include an expanded Casual Dining Boulevard, offering sushi, pizza and made-to-order pasta dishes and an ice cream bar, as well as buffet breakfasts, themed lunches and casual dining in the evening. The new Spa Cafe, adjacent to the Aqua Spa, offers light, healthy spa cuisine — the poached salmon is not to be missed.

The most popular and coolest addition on board is Century’s Martini Bar, the first “ice bar” concept at sea. The bar features a liquid wall that freezes to form a sparkling facade and a bar counter that freezes like an ice rink. Kinetic lighting throughout the bar constantly changes the room’s color and appearance. The best part is sampling some of Celebrity’s famed menu of more than 30 martinis (the chocolate martinis are to die for). Other new clubs and lounges on the Century include an updated Cova Cafe, the seagoing version of the stylish Milan coffeehouse, where guests enjoy coffee and pastries by day and a romantic, lamp-lit wine bar and live music after dark. Century’s outdoor Sunset Bar offers an assortment of fresh tapas and appetizers with cocktails and other beverages, in addition to sea breezes and panoramic views.

Celebrity generally caters to an adult crowd, but the growing popularity of family travel influenced a major upgrade to Century’s children’s facilities. The “Fun Factory” area was expanded for younger guests, and a new teen center called “X-Treme Lounge” was added, offering a video arcade, dance floor, juice bar, jukebox, karaoke and computers with Internet access.

The fitness center has been enlarged along with the Aqua Spa, which offers Celebrity’s Acupuncture at Sea, the only such program in the industry with licensed doctors of Oriental Medicine. Another change to the spa is receiving mixed reviews: the removal of the thalassotherapy pool, a powerful bubbling mineral massage bath. The pool was dismantled to make way for the new Persian Gardens, a quiet haven that includes a large steam room, saunas, tropical rain-style showers and teak lounge chairs with views of the sea. You’ll have to pay $10 a day for the Gardens; the therapy pool was free.

Extreme Makeover, next edition

Hanrahan says the Century upgrade is a “test” and the company is hopeful that the onboard changes, along with the ship’s new short cruises out of Miami, will be popular among cruisers. There are plenty of opportunities for passengers to experience the new Century as the ship is the only premium cruise ship to offer four- and five-day cruises out of Miami from November to April; in May, the ship returns to Europe for summer Baltic sailings.

I think the new, improved Century is a huge success, and it was a pleasant surprise to find a ship of this size offering many intimate areas to relax. I have just one complaint: The service was spotty. Service ranged from the best I’ve experienced on any ship (the waiters in the Grand Restaurant were terrific, and so was Sudi, the entertaining bartender in the Martini Bar) to the worst (many indifferent waiters at the Islands Café and at the Pool Bar, which had the rudest bartender I’ve ever seen). I’d say with a few facelifts this ship’s makeover would be almost perfect.

Filled Under Reviews

Sticker shock in sick bay

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On December - 6 - 2006

Inga Gardner and her husband just wanted to enjoy their first-ever cruise, an October trans-Atlantic voyage aboard Royal Caribbean’s Legend of the Seas. But the fun stopped the moment they caught a gastrointestinal illness. After a long night of vomiting and other discomforts, the Gardners sought treatment at the ship’s infirmary, where the ship’s doctor ran blood tests and gave them each two shots: one to calm the symptoms and another to help them sleep. They were also given intravenous fluids for hydration and were kept in the infirmary for an hour of observation.

Inga says she and her husband pressed the doctor for a diagnosis but said he was “vague” in his assessment. The blood tests ruled out any infection, and the Gardners later learned that their tablemates at dinner had experienced similar symptoms the same evening, but no definitive diagnosis was reached.

A few days after their visit to the infirmary, the Gardners got another unpleasant surprise: a bill for medical services totaling $1,600. The amount was immediately charged to the Gardners’ account, and a hold was placed on their credit card.

Inga was enraged. “For an hour’s worth of treatment, it was quite a shock,” she says. But that wasn’t the worst of it. “We agreed to all this treatment and then discovered that the cruise line didn’t accept insurance — even traveler’s insurance, and even the insurance purchased through the cruise line,” Inga says.

Interestingly, if the Gardners had been diagnosed with norovirus, the family of Norwalk-like viruses that cruise lines dread, their treatment would have been free. But there was no outbreak of norovirus aboard the Legend of the Seas, and the Gardners were left holding a whopper of a bill.

Insurance doesn’t travel well

What many people don’t realize is that all cruise ships of foreign registry are considered to be entities operating outside the United States. And, as the Gardners discovered, domestic medical insurance coverage doesn’t travel the same way aboard ship as it does within the United States. Sometimes, coverage doesn’t extend to foreign travel at all; other times it just works differently. For example, co-payments may be higher than usual or your reimbursement may be limited.

Even with complete medical coverage, you can’t just hand the cruise line your insurance card. You will usually have to pay your treatment costs up front and file for reimbursement after you return home. That’s what the Gardners did. Their insurer accepted the claim but explained it could take up to 90 days to receive reimbursement. The Gardners were relieved to be covered at all.

Could the Gardners have avoided the out-of-pocket expense? Maybe. If they had purchased third-party travel insurance, they could have received upfront financial assistance and they might have gotten their money back more quickly.

“Depending upon the situation, if a medical facility requires an upfront payment, we can coordinate that on behalf of the client,” says Dan McGinnity, spokesman for Travel Guard, one of the largest travel insurance providers.

Third-party insurers usually provide primary coverage, i.e., the insurance company pays the traveler directly for any medical claim. Most cruise lines also sell insurance policies, but these usually provide secondary coverage, which means that you must file your claims through your regular medical insurance carrier, then seek reimbursement from the cruise line’s insurance company.

Watch for gaps

Medicare beneficiaries should always purchase travel insurance when they cruise, because they do not have Medicare coverage outside the country. Another very big gap is medical evacuation and transportation services, which are seldom covered by medical insurance policies. According to Medjet Assist, an Alabama-based evacuation operation, domestic air medical evacuation services average $10,000 to $20,000, while international transports can exceed $75,000. If you travel more than once a year, consider buying an annual policy; both MedjetAssist and Travel Guard offer this kind of policy, which can be purchased for as little as $185 a year.

Cruising is exciting, but it can turn into more of an adventure than you planned if you discover that you aren’t covered for the unexpected. So check your insurance policies and don’t forget to pack the hand sanitizer.

Filled Under Ombudsman