Planning Guide

Things Your Cruise Line Won't Tell You

1.    "Our Gain Is Your Loss"

Cruise ShipRecently 24 cruise lines and 16,000 travel agencies have joined the Cruise Line International Association which make up 97 percent of the North American Cruise market. And the industry is growing steadily. For example, in 2007 12.6 million North American passengers sailed on board the ships members of the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA) which is 4,6 percent more than in 2006. Unfortunately the industry growth didn't result in greater benefit for the customers. It has been estimated that the average fare on Carnival cruises increased 18 percent from 2003 to 2007 and as there were more passengers willing to have a voyage than in the past, most cruise lines had fewer deals to offer.

So how to find the best deals? If the cruise doesn't fill up as quickly as they would like to many cruise lines advertize deals primarily via travel agents or send mail to past customers. Another way to score great deals is to search for "shoulder season" departures, just before and after holidays as well as during off-peak time in different regions like early spring in the Mediterranean or May or September in Alaska.

2.    "Our Engines Break Down All the Time"

Unfortunately engine problems are rather common today. In 2007 about 5 percent of cruise ships cancelled port calls because of engine or mechanical problems. And in many cases dissatisfied customers realized that too late. Such was the case when the passengers of the Carnival cruise sailing from Galveston, Tax., for Cozumel and Calica, Mexico were informed after boarding the ship that the engine repairs may not be finished in time to reach both destinations. The ship departed but failed to reach either port.

3.    "This Ship is Just Crawling with Viruses"

With so many people living side by side, eating food cooked in the same kitchen and inhabiting enclosed spaces where other people lived just a few days before, the danger of catching the norovirus increase tenfold. In 2002 the media reported outbreaks of norovirus on Holland America, Disney and Carnival lines, with hundreds of passengers being infected. Unfortunately, this problem is still not solved. In 2006 there were 37 outbreaks recorded by Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and 23 in 2006 which coincided with the emergence of two new strains of norovirus. You can find CDC records with information about outbreaks at www.cdc.gov/nceh/vsp. The best way to stay healthy during a cruise line voyage is to frequently wash your hands with soap and water.

4.    "Sure, We Can Book a Plane Ticket for You, but You'd Do It Much Better on Your Own"

Very often a cruise line may offer their passengers to book cheap airline tickets for the destination the cruise ship is going to depart from. Typically they will guarantee that in case the plane is delayed they will either hold the ship or will fly them to the next port of entry. But the problem is that customers will have to pay the premium for such sort of security. Another problem with flights offered by a cruise line is that the customers can't choose and sometimes may be provided the tickets for the flight with some inconvenient connections. In most cases it is possible to yield the biggest savings when booking the tickets on your own. To make sure you arrive on time and to enjoy extra savings it might be a good idea to fly to a port city a day before and spend the night in the hotel.

It has been admitted by a spokesperson for Regent Seven Seas Cruises that passengers purchasing their airline tickets through them are provided free ground transportation and additional support. But if the customers specify the carrier, route or schedule the cruise line will charge him about $100 "custom airfare" which is added to extra cost of the ticket. As you see cruise lines do provide a rather expensive security blanket.

5.    "Think Everything Is Included? Think Again"

According to Carnival Corp. report revealed in 2007, 77 percent of its cruise-related revenue was gained through fares while the other 23 percent was made "on board and other". And the latter figure seems too impressive for the industry that claims their packages are all-inclusive. In fact, most cruise lines cover only basics like food, soft drink, coffee and entertainment whereas alcohol, merchandise, spa and pictures are charged extra fees. Of course, these extra costs are optional, but when on a cruise vacation it's hard to resist spending money on so many things offered on board. And finally there is another extra cost associated with cruises – tips for the staff. Recently many cruise lines have started charging a fixed gratuity (about $10) for restaurant and custodial services per customer a day. But the amount of tips may vary and sometimes the percentage can be altered upon request.

6.    "Our "Gourmet Food" Is Anything But"

Even though cruise lines promise fine dining, in most cases the most you can count on is banquet-style food being served on board. Only few small ships can offer gourmet dining experience which is equivalent to the finest dining ashore. As a rule, the kitchen staff knows how many entrees will be needed and they prepare the necessary amount of food in advance and finish it when the dinners arrive.

You can find alternative restaurants that cook to order onboard practically every large vacation ship, but food offered there is not included in the cost of the tickets and is rather expensive. Most big cruise lines feature such reservations-only restaurants that use the best ingredients and charge up to an extra $30 per person per meal. If eating well is an issue to you be prepared to pay.

7.    "We Make Money While You Are off the Ship as Well"

Very often cruise passengers are offered "shopping lectures" before docking in a port and are given store maps. This sort of service is provided by either the PPI Group or Onboard Media that promote only those stores which pay to these contractors and the cruise line. 

When the ship enters the port the passengers can either explore the city on their own or join a port excursion. Excursions which are not included in the cost of the cruise are the source of additional revenues to cruise lines. Such excursions typically include bus tours that get the passengers to some historic places, beaches and shopping areas. If you don't feel like spending extra money on stuff like that you can always take a cab and avoid paying four or five times more for getting to a beach in St.Thomas, for example.

8.    "Our Insurance? You're Better off Looking Elsewhere"

It goes without saying that comprehensive medical insurance is required for all trips abroad. But in fact, coverage may vary substantially from policy to policy. For example, some plans may cover international trips of limited length, but Medicare and Medicaid either provide little overseas coverage or don't provide it at all. In that case passengers can buy supplementary insurance offered by cruise lines, but such policies are far from ideal. Most of them have the same hole: once you leave the ship you are no longer covered. That is why it makes more sense to purchase outside insurance which will cost much cheaper. It is a good idea to consider getting a policy specifically designed for cruises that also provides emergency evacuation insurance in case of a serious health problem.

You can compare plans which are usually better and cheaper than those offered by cruises line at InsureMyTrip.com. For instance, Holland America's coverage used to include $10,000 illnesses and $50,000 emergency evacuation in one of its Cancellation Protection Plans with average cost of $160 per passenger while the CSA Travel Protection Plan covering trip cancellations provided $250,000 in illness coverage and 1,000,000 in evacuation expenses for only $70. Conclusion: it is worth spending your time doing comparison shopping.

9.    "Our Adds Might Say Champagne and Caviar, but Be Prepared for Beer and Pretzels"

Sometimes advertising campaigns may be misleading and as a result some passengers may fail to get the experience they expect. For example, Carnival launched an advertising campaign with ads showing a well-dressed couple dancing jazz, but Carnival is known to target on families and according to information provided in Expedia.com reviews, passengers who expect sophisticated experience are likely to be dissatisfied. So to avoid this kind of misunderstanding, make sure you check such unbiased sited as Expedia and CruiseCritic.com before selecting the cruise line.

10.    "We'll Get Along Fine – As Long As You Don't Have Complains"

According to the report revealed by the Better Business Bureau (BBB), Carnival, Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Lines have been notorious for their poor complaint handling procedures. And while Norwegian responded to BBB criticism by improving its complaint handling practices, Carnival continues ignoring customer complaints and has failed to eliminate the causes of customer dissatisfaction that were pointed out by BBB.  

       Things to Do

  1. As cruise ships tend to fill up quickly, make sure you book the cabin three to six month in advance. Since the price may often go up when fewer tickets are available you can even save money by booking ahead of time.
  2. To score the greatest savings consider traveling during shoulder season or periods just before or after holidays. The cheapest cruises are in the Mediterranean during early spring or Alaska in September.
  3. Many cruise lines offer on-shore excursions for their passengers but if you don't feel like socializing with people from the same ship, ask the travel agent for more options – she may know cheaper excursions around the city.
  4. Today cruises are offered for everyone – from romantic getaways for two to family vacations, so don't be confused about what sort of experience you are going to have. To make sure you are going to be happy with your cruise read unbiased reviews at CruiseCritic.com.