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Archive for January, 2007


Cruising solo: Now it’s easier

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On January - 29 - 2007

Finally! A cruise Web site that offers price breaks for solo travelers and an interactive roommate finder aimed at sophisticated adults. It’s called SoloCruiser.com.

“We’re not a mating-and-dating service,” says Rick White, president of White Travel in West Hartford, Conn., and co-founder of SoloCruiser. “We’re for people who are mature travelers who have a great time traveling and are looking for a companion ship buddy.”

White’s partner in the venture is Anne Campbell, co-founder and past editor-in-chief of two cruise travel Web sites: CruiseMates and Cruise Critic. “SoloCruiser came about because Anne and I are baby boomers and we’re single and we discovered there wasn’t anything out there for our age group,” White says. Although White and Campbell have a special interest in the boomer crowd, their site caters to all age groups — and with good reason: According to recent U.S. Census Bureau statistics, there are 89.8 million unmarried and single Americans, which represents approximately 41 percent of all U.S. residents. That’s quite a market to tap into.

Rocking the boat

The bane of solo cruising is the “single supplement,” or as some people say, the “single penalty.” This supplement is an adjustment to the published cruise fare that compensates the cruise line for the loss of double occupancy in the cabin. The supplement can be quite high, as much as double the regular per-person rate, and it can keep a lot of people from considering a cruise as a solo vacation.

White saw the opportunity. “The cruise lines can’t afford to give away half a cabin for free just because a passenger chooses not to bring a roommate,” he points out. But volume sales and strategic booking can bring down the cost, and that’s where SoloCruiser can really help. By booking large groups and negotiating directly with the cruise lines, SoloCruiser can offer single travelers a break on the single supplement. “In some cases we’re able to offer no single supplement, but on those where a moderate single supplement applies, we still offer great savings,” White says. The most significant savings are found for off-peak cruises, where there is always more room to negotiate.

Ahoy there, roomie!

But the best way for solo travelers to cut costs is to find a roommate for the cruise. SoloCruiser’s interactive “Roommate Finder” lets travelers pick their own roommate from a database of other individuals seeking to share a cabin. While some cruise lines also offer a pairing service for solo cruisers, they usually base their matches only on gender and smoking preferences. With the Roommate Finder, you can communicate directly with potential cabin mates to determine whether you will both feel comfortable in each other’s company.

“This way, it’s not like walking into a room with a total stranger,” White says.

Theme me up

SoloCruiser provides sailings in four cruise categories. The first, “Lower Single Supplement Cruises,” are for independent travelers; the other three categories are for escorted groups: “55+ Cruises,” “Themed Cruises” and “All-Inclusive Cruises.” The 55+ cruises and the all-inclusive packages feature a dine-around program in which guests are assigned to a different table every night so they can meet other solo cruisers (unless, of course, they prefer to sit with the same people every night).

White says the company is building its roster of themed cruises (which currently include photography, culinary, and health and wellness cruises) and some cruises will be more inclusive, covering bar tabs and some shore excursions. Because new cruises are added to SoloCruiser’s Web site each week, the company offers a free newsletter to visitors who want to be able to pounce as soon as a terrific bargain appears.

“Our goal is to be the only place to go if you want to cruise on a solo basis,” says White.

Solo cruising has come a long way from the days when doddering widows sailed off to sea with a good book and a lap rug. This Web site has caught the new wave.

Filled Under Advice

Woe, Canada: Visa snafu ruins cruise

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On January - 22 - 2007

All Michael and Terry Weadock wanted to do was take a three-day cruise to the Bahamas. Imagine their dismay when Carnival Cruise Lines turned them away at the pier in Miami. The problem? Terry is a Canadian citizen, and her papers were not in order. What went wrong?

Your documents, please

When the Weadocks received their cruise documents a month before the cruise they found a notice titled, “Urgent — Read Immediately.” The notice went on to say that all guests must present the required citizenship and immigration documents at embarkation or they would not be allowed to board.

Because Terry is a Canadian citizen, the Weadocks paid special attention to the notice. They reviewed Terry’s documentation and everything looked good: Her Canadian passport was far from expiration, and her U.S. Immigration Form I-94, which states the term of her authorized stay in the United States, was valid through January 2007.

“Terry has traveled into and out of the U.S. several times recently with no problems,” says Michael Weadock.

But when the Weadocks turned up at the pier in Miami, the embarkation officer refused to allow Terry to board the ship. Why? Because her K-3 visa had expired. Even though Terry had already begun the process of renewing that visa, which is issued to non-citizen spouses, she could not sail. Seeing how upset the Weadocks were, a Carnival official called to have a U.S. immigration agent personally come to the pier to double-check the documents. Unfortunately, the agent agreed with the cruise line’s assessment, and the Weadocks lost their cruise.

The documents provision is not unique to Carnival; on the contrary, all cruise lines have contract provisions that require passengers to produce necessary documents before sailing. In fact, Carnival went out of its way to make the best of a disappointing situation.

“The Carnival representatives were very kind with us and I received my cruise fare back,” Michael says. “However, we were very upset we couldn’t get Terry’s cruise fare back.”

That’s when Michael asked Tripso to help.

Carnival responds

I contacted Carnival and spoke with Carnival spokesman Vance Gullicksen.

Gullicksen explained that because of increased security measures and documentation requirements, Carnival is diligent in requiring all its guests to produce the proper documentation before boarding its vessels. As for the Weadocks, Gullicksen says, “We checked with our reservations administration department, which works closely with various government agencies regarding immigration and documentation, and were told that Mrs. Weadock was denied boarding because her K-3 visa expired in 2005 and her Alien Resident Card number was not yet registered in the system.

“Further, although Mrs. Weadock’s I-94 immigration form had an expiration date of January 2007, this document only allows non-U.S. citizens to stay in the United States until the expiration date and is not intended for travel in and out of the United States. Since Mrs. Weadock did not produce the required documentation, we were unable to allow her to board.”

Clearly, Terry Weadock did not have the right documents, and Carnival was within its rights not to reimburse her cruise fare. Still, Carnival wanted to help — and they did.

“As a gesture of goodwill, our reservations administration department has agreed to provide the Weadocks with a future cruise credit of $368.20, which represents her entire cruise fare less a $35.20 administration fee,” says Gullicksen, who went on to say that Terry must, of course, produce the proper documentation in order to take advantage of the cruise credit.

“We’re very pleased with the outcome,” says Michael Weadock.

So, how could this problem have been prevented? Simply put, if you have any doubts about proper identification, check with the appropriate government agencies, embassies or consulates to determine all the requirements. A good resource for information is the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Web site. A little homework can keep you from missing the boat.

Filled Under Ombudsman

Failure to launch

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On January - 15 - 2007

Recently, I tuned into an old episode of “The Love Boat” and watched passengers having a good time skeet shooting off the back of the Pacific Princess. That got me to wondering: Whatever happened to skeet shooting? Come to think of it, what ever happened to formal night? And cash tips? And the midnight buffet? Some venerable cruise traditions have recently died a natural death, while others, less loved, have gotten the hook. Herewith a look back at some cruise highlights that have come and gone.

No smoking! Oh, never mind

In November 1998, Carnival Cruise Lines launched the Paradise, the world’s first completely nonsmoking ship. The ship was designed and built by nonsmokers and smoking on board was verboten; in fact, anyone caught smoking was given the heave-ho at the next port and was slapped with a $250 fine. Fast-forward five years: Now the Paradise has been moved to the West coast, where it sails three- and four-day cruises to Mexico — smoking permitted.

“With only one ship operating this itinerary, we couldn’t limit the vessel to nonsmokers,” says Carnival spokesman Vance Gullicksen. While that may be true, cruise industry insiders say the decision to go smoking came down to money. Where there’s smoke, there’s revenue — specifically, gambling revenue. Turns out nonsmokers don’t drink or gamble as much as their nicotine-addicted shipmates.

The disappearing midnight buffet

It used to be a cruise cliché, the gluttons’ favorite meal: the midnight buffet. These days, the midnight buffet is slim pickings, indeed — if you can find one at all. How come? Cruise lines are just reflecting the tastes of today’s passenger, offering lighter fare and specialty eating events instead of the late-night groaning board. For example, Carnival now offers its “Gala Midnight Buffet” just once on cruises seven days or longer, and Norwegian Cruise Line usually offers one midnight chocolate buffet on its cruises. If you’re a stickler for tradition, try Costa Cruises, which still indulges its passengers with its lavish, over-the-top midnight buffets.

Formal attire? It’s optional

Dressing to the nines is a thing of the past as most cruise lines have adopted a more casual approach to cruise attire than the old ball-gown-and-dinner-jacket standard. Yes, cruise lines like Cunard and Silversea Cruises continue to offer plenty of black-tie evenings because that’s what their clientele prefer, but even aboard these swanky ships, a dark suit and tie will do. (If you’re determined to wear a tuxedo, you can rent one aboard most cruise ships.) Elsewhere, dress codes range from Carnival’s mainstream wear-what-you-want dictum to the laid-back-luxury style of Windstar Cruises.

Turn in your shotguns

Alas, the days when Captain Stubing and his passengers happily fired away at clay pigeons are long gone.

“We discontinued skeet shooting many years ago for a variety of reasons, including environmental, safety, and the noise impact on the guest cruise experience,” says Carnival’s Gullicksen.

Others say liability issues forced the end of skeet shooting, along with the practice of hitting golf balls off the back deck. “Handing out loaded shotguns on the back deck always made for some fun moments, especially when you had passengers who had never done it before swing around points onto the deck to say, ‘Hey look at me holding a shotgun!'” says Allan E. Jordan, a cruise industry writer and noted ship historian. While skeet is gone, many ships do offer golf simulators or golf nets for passengers who itch to make that long drive.

Cash tips

Cruise lines used to hand out envelopes so that passengers could divvy up their tips and distribute them personally to their worthy servers. These days, most cruise lines offer onboard charge programs that let passengers charge tips to their shipboard account, thus eliminating the need to carry cash around. Cashless tipping is especially convenient on big ships where you might not see the same waiter twice. That said, some travelers still prefer to reward good service with a more personal touch — say, a handshake and an envelope of greenbacks (and most crew members like it, too).

Waste not

Cruise lines have come a long way since the bad old days of throwing their garbage overboard. Today’s cruise ships have their own waste and treatment facilities for refuse that includes a separation process for plastics, glass, aluminum, paper and food. Most garbage is offloaded into landfills or recycling facilities in ports where these are available; otherwise it is incinerated or treated and then discharged into the ocean. Most food waste is discharged into the ocean, but strict guidelines call for the food to be processed into pulp particles small enough to fit through a 25-millimeter mesh screen. The pulp is then sent through an underwater discharge port while the ship is moving. Food can only be discharged at sea if the ship is at least 12 miles offshore.

Pajama game

It was once an evening tradition for cabin stewards to lay out guests’ pajamas, but passenger complaints led to the demise of this dubious practice.

“It kind of creeped me out because they would go through my stuff to locate my pajamas,” says Linda Coffman, editor of Cruise Diva, a cruise Web site, and author of “Fodor’s Complete Guide to Caribbean Cruises.” Coffman says that despite her best efforts to hide her pajamas from the stewards, they would always find them. On one cruise she came back to her cabin to find her nightgown folded into a shape of a frog. But sensibilities differ, and some cruise lines, like Seabourn, still offer this service (without the frogs).

Spanish-speaking cruise line

In October 1993, Carnival Cruises launched Fiesta Marina, a cruise line for Spanish-speaking travelers. Nine months later, Fiesta Marina was gone. According to Allan Jordan, there were several reasons the demise. For one thing, the line’s flagship, formerly Carnival’s Carnivale, was 37 years old and more than a bit worn. For another, many Latinos felt the product was too segregated. This was one ship that just didn’t “habla” to the people.

Tastes change. Modern cruisers like rock-climbing walls, wave pools and ice-skating, but who knows? These “must-have” amenities may be gone tomorrow. Heck, in 10 years we may even be asking ourselves, “Whatever happened to hairy-chest contests?”

Filled Under Advice

A Pearl, no strings attached

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On January - 8 - 2007

“Spoiled for life,” is how one passenger described his recent cruise on Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL). It’s a common refrain among travelers who appreciate NCL’s brand of “Freestyle Cruising,” an approach that the cruise line now sums up in the tagline, “You’re free to … Whatever.” To get the word out, NCL has launched a hilarious TV ad spot that lampoons the minute-by-minute, dressed-to-kill regimentation that once characterized life aboard ship. In the ad, a phalanx of passengers, seemingly clones, marches to dinner, to sunbathing, to shuffleboard – the whole works – all in step and all the while checking their watches. The ad features NCL’s newest ship, the Norwegian Pearl.

Irresistible Pearl

Surprisingly, despite its innovative spirit, NCL is still trying to shake its old reputation as a stodgy cruise line with older ships. In fact, the line has one of the youngest fleets in the industry; in 2010, it will be the youngest fleet by far. The 93,500-ton Norwegian Pearl is the ninth new vessel in six years for NCL. Like her sister ships Norwegian Star, Norwegian Dawn, Norwegian Jewel and Pride of Hawaii, the Pearl accommodates 2,400 guests and features 10 restaurants, 13 bars, lively public rooms, family-friendly cabins and a new stateroom category, Courtyard and Garden Villas, which are the biggest, most luxurious suite complexes at sea. The Pearl also features some great innovations, including a four-lane, 10-pin bowling alley and the cruise line’s first rock-climbing wall.

The heart of the ship is the Crystal Atrium, whose ceiling is aglow with colorful lighted-glass icicles. A stunning blue sculpture by Dale Chihuly, one of the world’s greatest glass artists, dominates the area. The ship’s lobby is located here, as are several of the ship’s specialty restaurants. There’s also a huge TV screen, which shows nonstop videos, Sunday football games and shipboard festivities. You can grab a cup of coffee at the Java Café, sit back in a comfy chair and people-watch, or you can listen to one of the live bands that play throughout the cruise.

During the day, the most popular place on board is the Tahitian Pool area, which has two pools, four whirlpools, a waterfall and a bright-yellow water slide for kids. I liked the many options for sun and shade, and the ship’s rattan loungers and double sun beds are terrific, though to use the latter you’d better get there early as they are extremely popular.

Staterooms

The ship offers 32 stateroom categories, from standard inside staterooms and balcony suites to interconnecting cabins and luxurious villas that come with butler and concierge service. With its vibrant Caribbean hues, my 340-square-foot mini-suite was cheerful and welcoming. Most suites have a queen-size bed, a separate living area with a dining table, and concierge service. A standard ocean-view stateroom with a balcony encompasses about 200 square feet; regular ocean-view rooms and inside cabins range between 140 and 160 square feet. All cabins have glossy cherry wood walls and furniture, a flat-panel TV, a coffee maker, a mini-bar, a safe and a duvet, and most have a bathroom with separate toilet and shower/tub areas.

Families or groups traveling together can choose from some 280 interconnecting cabins in a range of categories from standard inside rooms to suites. Cabins of different grades can be also linked to create two- to five-bedroom areas. On select voyages throughout the year, NCL offers a family-plan discount on certain arrangements of adjoining cabins.

If you’re craving more exclusivity, check out the two deluxe top-of-the-ship “Owner’s Suites” and 10 Courtyard Villas, which come with their own butler and concierge. The villas ring a private, Balinese-style courtyard, which has rattan sun beds and hammocks, a plunge pool, a hot tub, a private sun deck, and gym. Each villa has two bedrooms and a living area and goes for around $5,200 per adult.

Want the biggest and best suite afloat? For $26,000 a week, you can stay in one of the two 4,400-square-foot Garden Villa Suites. For that hefty sum you get three bedrooms, three baths, your own private roof terrace, a private living room, a private garden, and your own private hot tub and steam room. Think you can’t afford it? Think again. The biggest customers are couples who rent one Garden Villa Suite and then divide the cost among them, making it a more affordable option. In fact, the suites are sold out on most voyages.

Freestyle feeding

With each new ship, NCL refines the “Freestyle Cruising” concept that has become its signature amenity. Passengers enjoy the freedom to dine where, when and with whom they please. “Resort casual” is the norm for dress, and formal night is optional.

Dining choices include the ship’s two main dining rooms, Summer Palace and Indigo, which offer traditional and contemporary menus, respectively. The newly configured Garden Café is no longer your typical buffet spread; it now offers a range of “action stations,” where dishes are freshly prepared or assembled while you watch, along with an outdoor seating area. There is also La Cucina for Italian fare, Mambos Latin for tapas, and the Blue Lagoon for comfort food. For a cover charge of $10 to $20 per person, you can dine at the following premium venues: Le Bistro (gourmet French cuisine), Lotus Garden (sushi, teppanyaki and Pacific fusion) and Cagney’s Steakhouse (steak and seafood). Still hungry? There’s an on-deck grill, a coffee shop, an ice cream bar and 24-hour room service.

I enjoyed an elegant dinner one night in Le Bistro, where I had the company of two art masterpieces — a Renoir and a Van Gogh — on loan from the private art collection of NCL’s chairman Tan Sri K. T. Lim. Another night I enjoyed a family-style meal at La Cucina, along with a glass of Chianti.

To keep the dining venues running smoothly, seat availability and wait times for each restaurant are displayed on flat-panel monitors all around the ship. If you have your heart set on eating at Le Bistro and there’s a 30-minute wait, the maitre d’ will give you a pager that works anywhere on the ship. You can also reserve space at any restaurant through the maitre d’.

Entertainment

The three-deck-high Stardust Theater is the place to go for the ship’s traditional entertainment and the new, avant-garde “Tubez” production featuring skateboarders and stunt bikers doing flips amongst dancers who look like the Pussycat Dolls. In addition, there are evening parties with changing themes. One night was a “Forty and Fabulous” party to celebrate NCL’s own 40th birthday.

Bar Central is a hub of activity with three separate but interconnected bars. Hang around long enough and pretty much everyone on the ship will have made a pit stop here. A few steps away is the ship’s smoke-filled casino. If you prefer a bar with a view, head up to Deck 13 and the Spinnaker Lounge, which offers karaoke, or to the more intimate Star Bar.

The liveliest place on board is the Bliss Ultra Lounge. During the day, Bliss is a sports bar with several flat-screen TVs and arcade games. If you have $5 to spare, you can also indulge in some wholesome bowling. In the evening, Bliss is transformed into a hip club with a dance floor and nonstop music spun by the ship’s DJ. Patrons can also recline on large beds, admire the ultraviolet artwork, hang out at the bar and try “mood-lit” bowling. (While NCL markets the bowling alley as an industry first, it is in fact not the first time bowling has been offered on board a cruise ship. According to author and cruise industry historian Allan E. Jordan, the first bowling alley was built for the France in 1912.)

Younger entertainment can be found at the Aqua Kids Club (for younger kids) and at the New York-inspired, subway-themed Metro Center (for teens). Passengers can also take advantage of NCL’s new shipwide Wi-Fi capability or the broadband hookup in the cabins, the fastest at sea.

The Body Waves Fitness Center is open 24 hours a day for those who are so inclined. The facility has all the latest weight machines, cardiovascular equipment and free weights, plus a separate room for fitness classes. Aerobics and stretch classes are free; Pilates, yoga and Spinning classes cost $10 apiece. There is also a jogging track and sports deck that accommodates basketball, volleyball and tennis, and a 30-foot-high rock-climbing wall. There are also two driving nets for golf, a shuffleboard court and pingpong tables.

The South Pacific Spa, operated by Mandara Spas, is the perfect place to unwind and get pampered. The best part of the spa is the relaxation rooms, which have great sea views, a hydrotherapy pool, tropical-style showers, a plunge pool, aromatic steam rooms, a sauna and heated chaise lounges.

If all the above isn’t enough for you, there are also special onboard events planned throughout the week, including fine art auctions, lectures and the height of decadence: a late-night chocolate buffet feast.

The Pearl will spend the winter sailing five- and nine-day Western and Southern Caribbean itineraries from Miami. In the spring, the ship will begin seven-day trips to Alaska from Seattle. Hitch a ride and the world’s your oyster.

Filled Under Reviews

Power of attorney to cruise?

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On January - 1 - 2007

Question: I put $875 down on a Queen Mary 2 cruise to St. Kitts, Barbados and St. Thomas. My travel agent at AAA then sent me papers stating that the company wanted me to sign a “limited power of attorney” for my credit card. Ever hear of such a thing?

— Lily Tan, San Francisco

Answer: Yes, Lily there is such a thing, but it’s not standard procedure at most travel agencies. Basically, a limited power of attorney is used to protect the travel agency from credit card fraud. This notarized document allows the travel agent to process and sign future airline, cruise and hotel ticket transactions on behalf of the client who has submitted the power of attorney to the agency.

When I asked Cheryl Hudak, president and CEO of the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) about powers of attorney, she characterized the requirement as “old school.”

“It used to be recommended by ASTA years ago; however, I don’t know of many travel agencies that do this anymore,” said Hudak, who is also the owner of a travel agency in Boardman, Ohio. “I know at my agency, we haven’t done it for some time.”

Hudak added that the practice is most common among agencies that feel a need to protect themselves from clients backing out of vacations when fees are involved. She suggested that travelers need not be concerned about signing such a document, provided it is truly a limited power of attorney.

“It should say specifically what the travel agency is allowed to charge for such-and-such trip at such-and-such date,” Hudak said. She added that travelers who have questions about any legal document should seek the counsel of an outside attorney.

Filled Under Ombudsman