1. “Our Engines Break Down All the Time.”
In December 2009, engine problems caused the Regent’s Seven Seas Voyager to skip a scheduled port stop in Antigua, and instead head straight to San Juan for the engine to be repaired. And a propulsion issue on Carnival’s 2,124-passenger Legend ship last week affected its sailing speed, causing it to skip one of its scheduled stops.
“Engine and weather-related problems are very common,” says Ross Klein, editor of CruiseJunkie.com and author of Paradise Lost at Sea: Rethinking Cruise Vacations. Savvy consumers also should look for “shoulder season” departures, just before or after holidays, and off-peak rates in various regions. A record Klein maintains on his web site shows that in 2007, roughly 5% of ships that had to cancel some or all port calls did so because of engine or mechanical problems. Those problems have become less frequent, however weather-related cancellations have become more common.
As many disappointed passengers realize too late, they have little recourse. According to Ron Murphy, managing director of the Federal Maritime Commission, “Almost all tickets allow cruise lines to change itineraries at their discretion.”
2. “The Weather Might Mean Missed Stops.”
Itineraries aren’t always adhered to, and if the ship skips a port for a weather-related reason, they don’t have to offer passengers a refund — and they rarely do, says Neil Gorfain, chief executive of the Cruise Outlet, a cruise-only travel agency. If the entire cruise is canceled because of the weather, passengers are entitled to a full refund. But if a hurricane changes course midcruise, remuneration is rare — you might just have to spend a little more time in the casino.
Although each cruise line addresses this issue differently, generally, if a ship misses a scheduled stop because of a mechanical problem, the line will issue some kind of onboard credit or refund. They’re usually pretty generous and “you don’t have to fight with them like you would with an airline,” says Gorfain.
3. “This Ship Is a Health Hazard — It’s Just Crawling With Viruses.”
Cruise ships are an ideal breeding ground for germs: thousands of people in close proximity, eating food made in the same kitchen, inhabiting enclosed spaces that just a few days before housed someone else. In December 2002, the norovirus made waves in the media after a series of outbreaks on Holland America, Disney and Carnival lines, in which hundreds of passengers were infected. The problem has not disappeared. Fifteen cruise ship outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness (as defined by 3% or more of passengers having been diagnosed) were recorded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2009, down from 23 in 2007.
The CDC posts outbreaks on its web site. But this information accounts for only a portion of outbreaks worldwide because the CDC monitors only ships that include a U.S. port in their itinerary. Short of remaining ashore, the best way to stay healthy is to wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and water, the CDC says.
4. “Sure, We Can Take Care of Your Plane Reservations, but You’d Do a Whole Lot Better on Your Own.”
Many cruise lines offer to book customers’ airfare, with the guarantee that — should there be a flight delay — they’ll hold the ship or fly them to the next port. But customers pay a premium for this security. Mike Cordelli, a manager of information systems in New York City, has been on a dozen cruises and says he has had the cruise line book his plane tickets about half the time, but only after checking other available fares. “You often don’t get to choose a flight, you may end up with some fairly lousy connections, stuff like that,” Cordelli says. On several occasions he has saved enough money by booking on his own to arrive in a port city a day early and spend the night in a hotel.
Booking airfare independently will be cheaper most of the time, says Gorfain. But when the cruise lines book it, they will oversee the flight. That means if there are weather delays and you miss the ship, the cruise, in tandem with the airline, will arrange to get passengers to the next port of call, he says.
5. “Think Everything’s Included? Think Again.”
In 2009, Carnival brought in 76% of its cruise-related revenue through fares. The source of the other 24%? According to the company’s annual report, “on board and other.” If this seems like a large percentage for an industry that often claims its packages are “all inclusive,” that’s because only the basics are covered in the price of most cruises. You get most food, entertainment and coffee. You have to pay up for alcohol, merchandise, spa services and pictures. “All of these things are optional, but it’s hard not to spend money on a cruise because you are a captive audience,” says Oivind Mathisen, editor of Cruise Industry News. One way to save on booze: Most vessels advertise daily drink specials. If you’re traveling with children, find out if your ship offers “soda packages” that include unlimited soda during the cruise for about $30 for a week.
Another significant expense for passengers is tipping the staff. Many cruise lines have begun charging a fixed gratuity for restaurant and custodial service, set at an average of $10 per guest, per day. A Cruise Lines International Association spokesperson said the amount varies by cruise line, and that passengers can almost always alter the percentage on request.
6. “Our ‘Gourmet’ Food Is Anything But.”
Cruise lines are quick to tout the “fine dining” available on their ships, but in most cases the label is a misnomer. Typically, the kitchen staff knows about how many entrÃ©es will be needed, so they prepare that much in advance and finish it when the diners arrive. This is obviously different from what a fine-dining restaurant does, where the dish is cooked to order. The cruise food may not be on par with “a five-star restaurant, but it’s close to a four-star,” says Gorfain. Some large ships often provide alternative, specialty restaurants that do cook to order, but this special treatment comes at a price — one that isn’t included in the cost of the cruise.
As Douglas Ward, author of the Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships 2010, explains, “It’s economics. If you don’t charge enough money for cruises, you have to lower the quality of the food and other aspects. It’s a question of balance — or go out of business.” Ward says the smaller, reservations-only restaurants that cost extra on the major lines use premium ingredients, but they can charge up to an extra $30 per person per meal (plus wine). The bottom line: If eating well is important to you, be prepared to pay extra.
7. “We Make Money While You’re Off the Ship, Too.”
Most cruises offer “shopping lectures” before docking in a port and hand out store maps to passengers. This service is usually provided by one of two contractors: the PPI Group and Onboard Media. Both firms promote only stores that pay for ads and pass on a portion of that revenue to the cruise lines. The stores pay an advertising fee — an arrangement disclosed to guests in writing.
Once a ship docks, passengers can either explore on their own or join a port excursion, in which they’re shepherded via bus to beaches, historic landmarks and shopping areas. Excursions, which are not included in the cost of the cruise, are a “huge moneymaker” for cruise lines, according to Klein. “One of the biggest ways you can save money is to not get drawn into [them],” he says.
Cordelli echoes the advice. Although he says excursions are sometimes helpful, especially in non- English-speaking countries, he adds that “it makes little sense to pay the cruise line four or five times what a taxi would cost you to get to a beach on St. Thomas, for example.”
8. “Our Insurance? You’re Better Off Looking Elsewhere.”
When traveling abroad, comprehensive medical insurance is a must. Unfortunately, coverage varies greatly from policy to policy: Some plans cover international trips of limited length, while others (like Medicare and Medicaid) provide little or no overseas coverage. Passengers can buy supplementary insurance through their cruise line, but such policies have holes. “As soon as you step off the ship [independent of an excursion], you’re no longer covered,” Ward says. An outside policy makes more sense and is often less expensive. Ward advises a policy specifically designed for cruises and warns, “Make sure it includes emergency evacuation insurance,” in case of a serious medical problem.
Web sites like InsureMyTrip.com allow users to compare plans that are often better and cheaper than those offered by cruise lines. For example, at press time, Holland America’s medical coverage, included in one of its Cancellation Protection Plans, has a $10,000 illness and $50,000 emergency evacuation maximum, and averages around $160 per passenger (depending on the fare). By contrast, the CSA Travel Protection Plan covers trip cancellation and provides $250,000 in illness coverage and $1,000,000 in evacuation expenses for just over $70. The bottom line: It’s worth your time to shop around.
9. “Our Ads Might Say Champagne and Caviar, but Expect Beer and Pretzels.”
New cruise lines are sprouting up all the time, many of which cater to niche interests. But be careful: You may not get the experience you expect, so it’s important to choose a cruise that fits your style.
Check out dress code information on cruise line’s web site, as well as unbiased sites like Expedia and CruiseCritic. Each ship review on CruiseCritic.com has a section on dress code that lets people know how many formal outfits to bring and what the everyday attire is like onboard. Dress varies by ship and also by destination. For instance, nobody gets too dolled up in steamy French Polynesia, says a spokeswoman from CruiseCritic.com.
Don’t be too surprised if what you thought would be a sophisticated experience turns out to be a more casual one. Even high-end cruise lines are downscaling their dress code standards. Regent Seven Seas Cruises announced in October 2009 that it was revising its dress code “in favor of a less formal policy” because of guest feedback. While those guidelines call for “evening casual” during evening hours — no jeans, T-shirts or baseball caps — some cruise lines “have a hard time enforcing their own rules,” says Gorfain, because they don’t want to offend any passengers.
10. “Our Ship Is Fancy, but Don’t Expect Service to Match.”
Although the ships themselves have gotten nicer, cutbacks in the number of staff is noticeable. With prices relatively stable over the last several years, costs for food, labor and fuel have risen. This forces cruise lines to cut expenses in some areas — and service is a common target.
Cruises are keeping their ships full but trimming staff, so don’t be surprised if your waiter is a little busier than usual. “I remember there used to always be a white-gloved steward to escort you to your cabin. You don’t see that anymore,” says Pete Peterson, a cruise travel specialist. “But in all fairness, it’s not their fault. It’s the economy.”