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Archive for January, 2009

Wednesday a Connecticut probate judge granted a reporter’s request to unseal records of a hearing upholding a $1.1 million settlement between Royal Caribbean Cruise Line and Jennifer Hagel Smith, the widow of George Smith, who disappeared while on a honeymoon cruise in July 2005.

Reporter Joan Lownds, acting on behalf of the Greenwich Post, requested the release of records including the transcript of Jennifer Hagel Smith’s testimony at the hearing. The judge initially sealed the documents for confidentiality reasons.

Lownds argued that the judge should grant her request because the information “is necessary to cover this important and highly publicized case fairly and accurately.” George Smith’s family members, who also requested that the records be unsealed, appealed Hagel Smith’s settlement in order to pursue a wrongful death lawsuit against the cruise line. Judge David Hopper ordered that the records be opened under the Freedom of Information (FOI) request and reviewed by the parties and the Department of Justice before they are released in 60 days, in case any portions need redaction.

Read more about this intriguing case in the Greenwich Citizen and Greenwich Post.

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Hey cruisers, here’s the real scoop with passports

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On January - 30 - 2009

Do I need a passport to cruise? It’s the biggest question from readers and travel agents say there’s plenty of confusion regarding the U.S. State Department’s guidelines. Here’s the real deal with cruising and the new passport rules launching June 1, 2009.

Passport quandary

“The State Department has changed the regulations so many times that it is nearly impossible to keep up,” says travel agency owner John Frenaye. Indeed, the U.S. State Department’s Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) passport rule, which goes into effect on June 1, 2009, has been delayed three times creating much confusion regarding passport requirements.When researching this article I was given the wrong information from the State Department regarding cruise passengers. Fortunately, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection provided the correct details.

What, specifically, does the new WHTI passport rule mean for cruisers? It all depends where you’re taking your cruise and how you get to your cruise embarkation port.

U.S. citizens need a passport now for cruises that stop at ports in South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and Antarctica. Additionally, U.S. citizens who travel by air to the Caribbean, Canada, Mexico and Bermuda to catch their ship must have a passport.

However, if you are cruising to and from the Caribbean, Bermuda, Mexico, and Canada from a U.S. port you do not need a passport – this is deemed a “closed loop” voyage. A “closed loop” voyage or itinerary occurs when a vessel departs from a U.S. port or place and returns to the same U.S. port upon completion of the voyage. Per the WHTI Land and Sea Final Rule, travelers on “closed loop” voyages are not subject to the same documentary requirements for entry to the United States as other travelers.

If your voyage falls under the closed loop rule you only need to carry a government-issued photo ID (such as a driver’s license) and a certified birth certificate (children traveling with an adult require a birth certificate as well). A certified birth certificate has a registrar’s raised, embossed, impressed or multicolored seal, registrar’s signature, and the date the certificate was filed with the registrar’s office, which must be within one year of your birth.

Keep in mind this rule is for U.S. citizens cruising from a U.S. port. If you are taking one way itineraries you will have to have a passport. For example, if you start a cruise in Vancouver or Seattle and end in Seward or Whittier Alaska you must have a passport. Ditto for cruises starting in Los Angeles and ending in Acapulco, cruises starting in Miami and ending in Barbados, or cruises starting in Quebec and ending in New York City – you’ll need a passport.

Currently, those who drive across the Canadian border to a port will not need a passport since land-crossings are currently exempt. In that instance the aforementioned proof of citizenship is needed.

As always, passports are not required for U.S. citizens traveling to or returning directly from Hawaii or a U.S. territory, including Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Swains Island, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Requirements on June 1, 2009:

On June 1, 2009 all arriving and returning U.S. citizens must have a passport or passport card to enter the U.S. by land from Canada and Mexico. One exception is U.S. and Canadian citizens under the age of 16 will be able to present a birth certificate instead of a passport for crossing land/sea borders between the U.S. and Canada. There also will be special provisions for children traveling in school, sports or other groups. This date now means that U.S. citizens sailing round trip Alaska cruises from Vancouver will require a passport.

Passport or passport card?:

What’s the difference between a passport and a passport card? The passport card was mandated by Congress as an alternative secure document but only for land and sea entry. The card contains radio frequency identification on an RFID chip, designed to be read quickly by scanning equipment installed at U.S. points of entry. One very important distinction is the passport card is not acceptable for air travel.

There is some cost savings in having a passport card versus a passport, here’s what you need to know:

*Standard, first-time passports now cost $100 and are valid 10 years. U.S. citizens age 15 and younger pay $85 for a passport valid for five years.

*The new land/sea passport card costs $45 for adults and would be valid 10 years. Citizens age 15 and younger pay $35 for a card valid for five years.

*Current passport holders can apply for the card as a renewal and pay $20. The card costs $10 for those younger than age 16 who already has a passport.

For travelers who don’t want to deal with passports or passport cards, there is the “trusted traveler” card issued by the federal government to prescreened travelers. (But those won’t get you over an international border the way a passport will.) Also, a number of border states are working on enhanced drivers licenses containing the RFID chip and other security features that are acceptable for entry at land and sea points. Currently, Washington state is the only one with these licenses. New York, Arizona, California, Michigan, Texas and Vermont are set to follow.

Why traveling without a passport is risky:

Travel agents want you to know traveling without a passport is risky. “I advise all my clients who travel abroad to apply for a full-fledged passport,” said Frenaye. He cites an example of someone who sails out of Miami without a passport who falls ill when the ship is at sea and needs to fly home from the Bahamas. Frenaye adds, “Without a passport, this person is likely to incur extreme scrutiny and questioning by customs, which will only add more stress to the initial event.” It’s a rare situation, of course, but it does happen from time to time.

Passport basics:

So cruising regulars if you don’t have a passport it might be a good time to get one soon.

Plan ahead. Apply for your passport at least four months in advance, if possible. Renewals can take as long as a first issue, so check your passport’s expiration date. If the passport is due to expire soon and you are planning a trip abroad, check the passport rules for the countries you’re visiting. Many countries require your passport to be valid for three to six months beyond the date you enter the country. For example, if your passport expires in November 2009, and you want to travel this coming March, you may need to renew your passport before you go.

Also, according to new guidelines from the U.S. State Department, county clerk offices cannot process a passport application if the applicant’s birth certificate was issued within that county. This modification was enacted in response to a problem when officials discovered illegally produced birth records. This rule will be a major inconvenience for many rural citizens since first-time applicants and all children must apply for a passport in person — that may mean a long drive to the clerk’s office in the next county.

Applications and instructions are available at passport offices and select U.S. post offices and online at the U.S. State Department’s travel Web site. Be sure to write your trip’s departure date on the application. Passport officials say they are doing their best to get passports out in time for travelers’ departures.

Allow plenty of processing time. The new rule of thumb is to allow at least 12 weeks for a regular application and four weeks for an expedited application. Holidays will slow down the process, sometimes considerably.

Expedite the process. If you are leaving within the next two months, pay the additional $60 to expedite your application. The State Department says it will get an expedited passport to you in two or three weeks. If you are truly desperate, hire a “passport expediter,” who can get you a faster turnaround for a fee of $100 or more (that’s in addition to the $60 State Department expediting fee, which is in addition to the regular $100 fee for an adult’s passport). These companies aren’t a sure thing, but they do have standing appointments at passport offices around the country; that appointment status effectively allows them to jump the line. To find an expediter, check the National Association of Passport and Visa Services Web site.

Keep good records. Keep all receipts, a copy of your application and records of communication with the passport office. Make sure to note your “Passport Locator Number” when you complete your application at the post office.

Check on the status. Applicants can check their passport’s status online on the State Department’s Passport Application Status Web site. If you are traveling within the next two weeks, contact the National Passport Information Center at (877) 487-2778. If you haven’t already done so, you can request that your application be expedited.

Get extra copies of your birth certificate. Since one certified birth certificate must be sent with your passport application, it is wise to obtain extra copies of the birth certificate to use for identification until the original one is returned with your passport.

Don’t get into a documentation dilemma that causes you to miss your cruise. All cruise line passenger contracts state it is the passenger’s responsibility to have proper documentation when you arrive at the pier. Furthermore, basic travel insurance will not cover you if you forget your passport or little Johnny’s birth certificate. A number of cruise lines and large third party travel insurance companies have “cancel-for-any-reason” coverage. That is the only policy that would protect your cruise investment in a documentation faux pas.

Need more info? The Travel Business Roundtable has set up a Web site, getapassportnow.com that explains the new rules and requirements for getting a passport.

Disney Cruise Line’s new service lightens the baby burden for parents

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On January - 30 - 2009

Disney Cruise Line is teaming with online retailer Babies Travel Lite to provide infant and toddler supplies for delivery to staterooms starting March 15.

This cruise industry-first service will enable families to order from a selection of more than 1,000 brand-name products such as diapers, baby food and infant formula in advance of sailing via a link to Babies Travel Lite on the Disney Cruise Line Web site.

The new amenity complements the baby supplies available for purchase on board, along with items like bottle warmers and strollers that can be borrowed free of charge at Guest Services.

The new delivery service is just one of the many products and services available to families traveling with children under 3. Guests also have access to a host of onboard services to facilitate traveling with toddlers in tow:

Diaper Genie units, cribs and playpens are available complimentary upon request from the stateroom host/hostess for use during the cruise.
*Bottle warmers, bottle sterilizers and strollers are available complimentary at Guest Services for use during the cruise.
*At Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island in the Bahamas, wagons are available to facilitate navigating the island’s sandy beaches.
*Baby supplies are available for purchase on the ships.

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Royal Caribbean’s ceo Richard Fain stated he was “deeply disappointed” to report a breakeven 2008 fourth quarter. Weak demand, currency changes and higher fuel costs led to Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd’s 1 cent per share profit in the fourth quarter, down from 33 cents from the same quarter in 2007.

The penny profit falls short of Wall Street’s 7 cents per share estimate. The company’s 2009 forecast projects net yields down 9-13 percent, with earnings expected in the range of $1.40 per share. Analysts had been forecasting $1.67 per share. A loss of 30 cents to 35 cents per share is projected in the first quarter of 2009. Yesterday, Barclays Capital lowered its 2009 earnings estimate for Royal Caribbean from $1.98 per share to a loss of 92 cents per share and initiated a 2010 estimate of negative $1.22. That news caused Royal Caribbean shares to plummet 15 percent.

Going forward Royal Caribbean said the revenue outlook for 2009 remains weak, with both ticket sales and onboard spending affected by the economy. “Forecasting demand is as tough as it has even been in my 20 years at Royal Caribbean,” said Fain. The line stated it was using “substantial discounts” to rev up sales and that the line’s average passenger now books 4 months in advance. ‘The fourth quarter was an extremely difficult operating environment and we expect even more challenges in 2009,’ said Fain.

Still Fain said he was pleased with how the company responded early to the “approaching storm.” Cost containment and other actions largely offset higher than anticipated fuel and insurance expenses — net costs (excluding fuel) will fall 5-7 percent in 2009. The line stated that they are 58 percent hedged in fuel. Fain said he is “encouraged” by recent bookings during wave period.

One thing that’s likely to raise eyebrows among die hard Royal Caribbean cruisers is Fain’s statement that the line has reduced costs without compromising the guest experience. The line caused an uproar last year when it began charging for steak in its dining rooms and recently announced a charge for room service after midnight. Royal Caribbean said that 20-25 percent of its revenue is from onboard sales. With falling yields and stock price and enormous expenditures for new cruise ships odds are the company will only increase onboard charges.

Tweet us! Did you know that ExpertCruiser is now on Twitter. Follow us at twitter.com/ExpertCruiser.

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MS Balmoral becomes floating toy in Bay of Biscay

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On January - 29 - 2009

This eye opening video is not for the seasick. Watch European line Fred Olsen’s MS Balmoral bobble in rough seas. The Balmoral suffered a force twelve gale as it hit rough seas and 75 mph winds in the Bay of Biscay off Northern Spain and France.

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Its the Norwegian Epic!

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On January - 27 - 2009

Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) announced Norwegian Epic as the name for its F3 newbuild. The news was disclosed by the line’s vice president, Andy Stuart as he spoke to travel agents at an online “webinair”. The ship will operate year-round seven-day Eastern and Western Caribbean cruises from Miami.

Definitions of ‘epic’ include ‘amazing, of great magnitude’ and ‘surpassing the usual or ordinary, heroic,’ Stuart told agents in revealing the name of what will be the largest vessel ever built for NCL.

As earlier announced, it will sport ‘New Wave’ cabins with curvy walls, all outside accommodations will offer balconies, and there will be a range of trendy lounges including the first ice bar at sea. Further details are forthcoming.

With today’s news, NCL converted its F3 website to a new site: epic.ncl.com.

Deck plans and further information about Norwegian Epic will be released in March.

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