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Archive for April, 2007

Cruise, cruise, cruise

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On April - 23 - 2007

In December, Alzoria Jones took her 100th cruise with Carnival Cruise Lines; a month later, Lorraine Arzt celebrated her 4,000th day at sea with Princess Cruises. What is it about certain cruise lines that brings customers back over and over again? I can tell you this much: It’s not just about the extra perks.

Cruise queens

When Jones boarded Carnival Cruise Lines’ Fascination in December, she stepped into the Carnival record books. The voyage marked her 100th Carnival cruise, which is quite an accomplishment. Consider the numbers: Jones has sailed on 100 cruises since 1991, so she has taken a cruise roughly every other month for 15 years. Jones is the second Carnival passenger to achieve the century mark. The first was Frances Mendin, who took her hundredth cruise in October 2005.

In January, another special lady was celebrating a milestone over at Princess Cruises. Lorraine Arzt, a loyal Princess cruiser, has spent a record-breaking 4,000 days at sea with Princess. That’s more than 10 years aboard Princess ships.

In the industry, these ladies are called “cruise queens,” and they raise an interesting question: Why do they do it?

Why, why, why?

Alzoria Jones got her sea legs aboard the Fantasy in 1991, and she was hooked immediately. Jones, now 83 and the grandmother of 13, cruises to escape the cold weather in the Northeast — and because she likes the nightlife aboard ship. Jones has cruised with other cruise lines, but she likes Carnival for its personal touch. “I keep cruising with Carnival because they treat me the way I like to be treated, I feel at home and the staff on board remember me, which means a lot,” Jones told Carnival, which issued a press release reporting her achievement.

Lorraine Arzt, who began cruising with her late husband, Joe, in the early 1970s, got hooked after a Mexican Riviera voyage. “I don’t know how it all happened, I just love cruising,” Arzt told Princess, which also issued a celebratory press release. According to Princess, Arzt chose the cruise line for its crew, itineraries, suites — and its excellent Italian food. Arzt, who recently turned 80, now spends approximately 10 months each year at sea. She plans to try out Princess’ newest vessels when they debut this spring

Special perks

Airlines and hotels long ago recognized the value of a loyal customer, and most travelers know about their frequent-flier and frequent-guest programs. Well, cruise lines have frequent-cruiser programs, too, and they offer similar if not superior benefits for the companies’ most loyal customers.

Princess’ top cruisers get extra perks that include priority embarkation, priority tenders in port, special lounges for disembarkation, upgraded toiletries, a free minibar setup, deluxe canapé service, free Internet access, shoe polishing service, complimentary dry cleaning and laundry service, and upgraded travel protection insurance. Similarly, Carnival’s top cruisers get “Concierge Club” perks that include priority embarkation and disembarkation, canapé service, priority supper club and spa reservations, and complimentary laundry service. Members of most cruise lines’ frequent-cruiser clubs are also offered special discounts on cruise fares and shore excursions.

But Lorraine Arzt and Alzoria Jones are in a league by themselves, and their cruise lines celebrated their achievements in high style. Princess feted Artz aboard the Sea Princess and invited her to be the company’s guest of honor at a celebration for its new ship, Emerald Princess, to be held in Athens, Greece, in May. Similarly, Jones was honored in a shipboard celebration and was presented with a free cruise and a Carnival bell acknowledging her achievement.

Still it’s not all about the perks; it’s all about the cruising. Arzt sums it up best.

“How can you not like a cruise?” she asked in an interview with Princess. “You hang your hat and you’re there. Everyone is there to entertain and serve you — you’re waited on hand and foot. Where else can you go to completely escape and have so much fun?”

Filled Under Advice

Princess cancels Santorini dual-ship naming

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On April - 17 - 2007

Princess Cruises has decided not to hold the dual ship naming for Emerald Princess and Royal Princess in Santorini next month. The company said the decision is out of respect for the sinking of Louis Hellenic Cruises’ Sea Diamond. Two passengers remain missing.

Princess had been planning to simultaneously name both ships in a ceremony on May 12. Instead, Emerald Princess will be christened in Piraeus on May 13, and the new date and location for the Royal Princess festivities will be announced shortly.

‘Given the great shock and sadness this incident has caused, and out of the respect for those affected, we have decided that it would not be appropriate to continue with the celebrations we had planned in Santorini,’ said Princess president Alan Buckelew. ‘Our thoughts are with all those affected, especially the family of the two missing French passengers.’

The company will keep its plans to reunite a pair of famous television mothers and daughters. Florence Henderson and Susan Olsen from ‘The Brady Bunch’ and Marion Ross and Erin Moran from ‘Happy Days’ will be aboard Emerald Princesss in Piraeus for the Mother’s Day ceremony.

Filled Under News

Journeys with John

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On April - 16 - 2007

– Originally published on April 16, 2007 – 

John Heald is proud to say he has no idea what he’s doing writing a blog, never mind that he’s created a sensation in the cruise world. The veteran cruise director for Carnival Cruise Lines has been blogging since March, and more than 105,000 people have already logged in to follow his always informative, sometimes sad and often hilarious account of life at sea.

“Originally I thought it would be read by just my mum and dad, but it seems quite a few people are taking the time to read it,” Heald says with his usual British self-deprecation. He attributes his success to the vicarious thrill that comes from reading about what he calls the “emotional rollercoaster” of life on a cruise ship — both on deck and behind the scenes.

“Sperm of the Devil”

In his blog, Heald answers e-mail questions from readers and offers travel tips and photos of various ports of call. He also seeks advice from passengers. Currently, he’s getting tips on how to deal with passengers who hog deck chairs with towels. He also never misses a chance to plug for Angelina Jolie to become the next “godmother” of a Carnival ship. But Heald is at his best when he ponders crew life and passenger follies.

In one blog entry, Heald tells of a passenger who was upset that the shops in Naples, Italy, refused to take U.S. dollars. “I explained that in Europe the euro was the accepted currency, but this lady was adamant that the dollar is accepted all over the world,” Heald writes.

In another entry, Heald recounts a passenger’s anger that John would encourage tours of Istanbul’s mosques. “The passenger felt that for various reasons it was wrong and that I was promoting terrorism — he left by calling me “the Sperm of the Devil.” Heald says he’s seen a lot of things over the years, but was unprepared for both this man’s wrath and his reasoning.

It turns out Heald is a multi-media guy, and some of his best blog entries recount stories from his daily TV show, which is broadcast each morning to all the staterooms aboard ship. In addition to shipboard news, the show features passenger requests and questions. One such request came from a passenger whose luggage had been lost by her airline. The woman, who was quite large, was able to find some clothes that fit, but she couldn’t find a comfortable pair of plus-sized underwear. She begged John to help, so he put out a panty call to everyone watching the show. Result: seven pairs of underwear from sympathetic fellow passengers. Heald sent each of the kind ladies champagne with a thank-you note.

“Could such a thing have happened in a hotel or a vacation resort?” Heald asks in his blog. “No way. Cruising can really bring the best out in people, there is nothing like it.”

On another morning show, a passenger called in to thank the crew for setting up a laptop so he could watch the birth of his grandchild some 4,000 miles away in Tampa, Florida. The passenger’s son had set up a webcam so Grandpa and Grandma wouldn’t miss the big event. Heald reports that the gentleman stayed on the phone, giving the audience live reports of the birth — right up to the point when he said he could see the head. Heald cut away then, remarking that childbirth “is really not a spectator sport.” Ever the gracious host, Heald gave the proud grandparents a DVD copy of the show for their new grandson, who was welcomed by so many strangers, so far away.

Everybody loves John

Heald was popular long before he became a cyber-celebrity. He joined Carnival in 1986 as a bartender and, after transferring to the entertainment department, was named a social host three years later. Within a year, he’d been promoted to cruise director, and in 2004 he was named “Senior Cruise Director” in the Carnival fleet — the only person in the company to carry that title. Among Heald’s duties is launching each of Carnival’s new ships; Freedom is his ninth.

Cruise directing is a difficult job that involves keeping both passengers and crew happy. It takes a special type of person (“a manager, a big brother and a dad,” as Heald explains it). It also takes tolerance and diplomacy, especially on the crew side, because the Freedom’s crew of 1,200 hails from 50 different countries and represents every manner of creed, color and religion. Heald clearly likes this international melting pot, and some of his best blog entries are about the crew members and their dedication both to the ship and to their families back home.

“We all work and live in harmony together,” Heald reports. “If only the world were like that.”
The passengers aren’t the only ones who love John. His wife of two years, Heidi, is also crazy about him (she’s a member of Freedom’s entertainment staff), and so are Carnival’s chairman, Micky Arison, and president, Bob Dickinson.

“John’s unique, offbeat sense of humor and friendly demeanor have made him perhaps the most popular cruise director in the industry,” Dickinson says. “His blog is truly an extension of his personality.” Heald has been joking (maybe not) that if his blog reaches a certain goal, he’ll get Dickinson to buy him his dream car — an Aston Martin.

How long will John Heald continue writing his blog?

He says he has no idea, but he guesses from the overwhelmingly positive feedback that he’ll keep at it a little longer. But there’s no career change in his future. Heald really prefers his interactions to be up-close-and-personal, and his greatest satisfaction, he says, is seeing the guests smile and saying “Thank you” as they disembark.

Will all Heald’s wishes come true? Will Bob Dickinson come through with that Aston Martin? Will Angelina Jolie become the godmother of Carnival’s next ship? Log on to John’s blog, and stay tuned.

Filled Under Advice

Cruising on your tax refund

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On April - 9 - 2007

According to the Internal Revenue Service, the average tax refund for 2006 is $2,548 — about $100 more than last year. So, how far can you cruise on that tax refund? Stewart Chiron, a cruise industry expert who is nationally recognized as “The Cruise Guy,” says you can go quite far, noting that this year’s sluggish economy has caused the cruise industry to slash prices on cruises all over the world.

That got me thinking. Where exactly could $2,548 take me? I asked Chiron to look around, and he turned up some great cruise deals that will definitely tempt you — even if you aren’t getting a big tax refund.

It’s important to note that the following fares are starting prices, which means most are for inside cabins. But don’t despair. Several cruise lines offer starting fares that include ocean-view staterooms as well.

Caribbean cruises

Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas and the brand-new Liberty of the Seas. Thank goodness, the biggest cruise ships in the world do not have the biggest prices. Last year, Freedom of the Seas was a novelty and sold space at a premium, but this year, with the launch in May of a sister ship, Liberty of the Seas, the fares have become more affordable. For example, check out the popular seven-night Eastern Caribbean itinerary round-trip from Miami, which includes stops in San Juan, St. Thomas, and St. Maarten. Fares used to start at $1,749 per person; now they start at $999. Ditto for the Western Caribbean itinerary, which stops in Cozumel, Grand Cayman, Montego Bay and Royal Caribbean’s private island in Labadee, Haiti.

Carnival Cruise Lines’ Carnival Triumph and Carnival Conquest. Seven-night Eastern or Western Caribbean cruises round-trip from Miami (on the Triumph) or from Galveston (on the Conquest) include stops in San Juan, St. Thomas, St. Maarten, Cozumel, Grand Cayman, Ocho Rios, Progresso and Belize City. Fares that once fetched $1,749 per person are now going for $499.

Hawaii cruises

Norwegian Cruise Line’s Pride of Hawaii. Cruise seven nights around the Hawaiian Islands from Honolulu with stops in Hilo, Maui, Kona and Kauai. Prices, which were $3,999 per person, have been slashed to $1,199 per person. What makes this deal so amazing is that it includes round-trip air travel from select U.S. gateways and two nights in a hotel in Honolulu! Chiron point outs that this cruise includes a whopping 86 hours of port time since it overnights in both Maui and Kauai. It’s one of the best deals he’s ever seen for a cruise package.

Alaska cruises

Norwegian Cruise Line’s new Norwegian Pearl. The newest member of the Norwegian Cruise Line fleet will transition from the Caribbean to offer seven-night Alaska Inside Passage cruises round-trip from Seattle. Ports of call include Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay, Ketchikan and Victoria. Old fares: from $2,248 per person; new fares: from $849.

Princess Cruises’ Golden Princess. Princess Cruises is the premier cruise line to Alaska. You can cruise on the beautiful Golden Princess on seven-night Alaska Inside Passage cruises round-trip from Seattle. Ports of call include Juneau, Skagway, Tracy Arm, Ketchikan and Victoria. Prices formerly started at $1,749 per person but have been cut to $799 per person.

European cruises

Carnival Cruise Lines’ Carnival Freedom. Carnival offers some great 12-night cruises of the Western Mediterranean or Greek Isles on its newest ship, Carnival Freedom. Sailing round-trip from Civitavecchia (Rome), the ports of call include Naples, Rhodes, Izmir, Istanbul, Athens, Katakolo, Livorno, Venice, Dubrovnik, Messina, Barcelona and Cannes. Prices that previously started at $2,499 per person now start at $1,499.

Celebrity Cruises’ Galaxy. Cruise on the premium cruise ship Galaxy on either 10- or 11-night Mediterranean or Greek Isle cruises round-trip from Civitavecchia (Rome). Ports of call include Sicily, Mykonos, Kusadasi, Santorini, Rhodes, Athens, Naples and Istanbul. Fares used to start at $2,799 per person; now they start at $1,699.

Why so many deals?

The deals are partly a response to a generally sluggish economy, but they also reflect a recent increase in the size of the worldwide cruise fleet.

“The cruise lines have seven new ships this year, and have put more ships out of popular departure points,” Chiron says. “This has enabled consumers to reap the benefits of some great pricing, if they know where to look.”

One of the places to look is Europe, Chiron points out — and for two reasons: first, because the cruises are paid for in dollars, not euros; second, because many European ships have been repositioned to sail from more affordable ports. “Last year the cost of airfare into Barcelona, Spain, where many cruise ships were leaving out of exceeded the cost of the cruise for most people,” says Chiron. He says cruise lines knew this was a big issue for consumers, and they have since redeployed some ships to Civitavecchia, Italy — the closest port to Rome. “Rome is traditionally a less expensive city to fly in and out of because there is more air service,” he notes.

Besides the low fares, cruise lines are offering other kinds of inducements for travelers to hand over that refund check and hit the high seas. Among them are free upgrades, shipboard credits, free or reduced airfares, discounts on shore excursions, and discount coupons that can be used at the ship’s spa, shops and casino.

So what are you waiting for? Cash out that refund check and start packing.

Filled Under Advice

“Computer glitch” sinks cruise

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On April - 2 - 2007

Last October, Gregg Samson was surfing Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s Web site in search of a cruise vacation for his family of four. A longtime customer of the cruise line, he says he came upon one of those “magical deals” for a Caribbean cruise: For a mere $139 each, a third and fourth person could share a cabin on a cruise this spring. Being the father of two teenagers, Samson jumped at the opportunity and immediately booked the cruise, which cost $969 for him and his wife. Samson was quite pleased with his booking — until he received the e-mail confirmation from the cruise line. Somehow the $139 fare for the third and fourth person had morphed into a $499 fare. What happened?

Travel agent attempts rescue

After receiving his confirmation e-mail, Samson contacted his longtime travel agent, who offered to look into the situation even though she had not booked the cruise. The agent pulled up the same $139 fare on her agency reservation system, so she couldn’t figure out why Samson’s booking confirmation showed the $499 fare. The agent contacted the Royal Caribbean travel agent help desk and was given the “runaround.” When the agent finally reached Royal Caribbean’s Web site team, she was told they would look into it and get back to her. Curiously, a few moments after her conversation with the Web team, the deal vanished — and the Web team never contacted her again.

Fortunately, Samson had made screen shots of the advertised fares, as well as printed copies. Samson and his travel agent continued to place phone calls and fax documents to the cruise line over the course of several weeks. Royal Caribbean came back with an offer of $100 off per person for the cruise. The Samsons refused; they wanted their original fare.

Royal Caribbean speaks

I contacted Royal Caribbean about the Samsons’ case. According to spokeswoman Lyan Sierra-Caro, there had been a computer glitch.

“Apparently, there was a glitch in the system, which is why it never let the guest confirm his reservation for the $139 fare,” said Sierra-Caro, who confirmed that Royal Caribbean has records of all Sampson’s calls and faxes. “We explained the situation to the travel agent. The travel agent confirmed that yes, this was the case. As a gesture of goodwill, since the guest made the good-faith effort of trying to book, we offered the travel agent the opportunity for everyone in the party to book with a discount of $100 per person. We have not heard back from the travel agent since then, and the booking was canceled on October 25.”

The booking was canceled? When Samson contacted me in February, he didn’t mention he had canceled the cruise. As an ombudsman, it is imperative that I know all the facts before approaching a cruise line. Had I known the Samsons had canceled the cruise without penalty, I would not have pursued the incident with Royal Caribbean, because there was no harm done. But the problem of “computer glitches” is an interesting one, and consumers need to know what to do to avoid getting burned in one.

Glitches happen

Booking errors are nothing new, but computerized booking systems can certainly compound the trouble. Last September, Holland America Line accidentally sold cabins well below cost on one of its vessels over a four-day period. Cabins that usually cost $1,399 a person showed up in some reservation systems for $849. Instead of honoring the erroneous fare, Holland America required passengers to pay the $550 difference.

In the Samsons’ case, Royal Caribbean admitted its error and, unlike Holland America, offered some compensation. Still, it would have cost the Samsons $320 more than the (erroneously) published fare. Should Royal Caribbean have honored that fare? Given all the facts, I believe they should have.

So, how can you protect yourself against glitches? Samson was careful to document the fare by taking screen shots of the Royal Caribbean Web site and printing them for his records. Calling in a travel agent as an advocate was also a good move. But he contacted me too late. Had he contacted me sooner, I am confident the outcome would have been different.

In the end, Royal Caribbean didn’t budge from its original offer. The Samsons were disappointed, but they haven’t stopped cruising. They are slated to sail on Royal Caribbean’s newest ship, Liberty of the Seas, in August. I wish them a good trip.

Filled Under Ombudsman