Cruising Adds Features Galore

January 19, 2011

Cruising Adds Features Galore
Did you know that on certain Royal Caribbean ships you can rent a personal shipboard I-Phone which includes on-ship guiding and family walkie-takie features? Did you know that it’s possible to take a cupcake decorating class at sea? Did you know that first-run 3-D movies from Dreamworks are available on the Oasis and Allure of the Seas mega-ships? Did you know that on several ships you can buy a single class of vintage wine from state of the art enology vending machines? And, did you know that the first Starbucks at Sea is so popular that customers will wait in long lines to get their special coffee fix?
The cruise industry has come a long way from the days of shuffleboard and giant jackpot bingo (both still available on most ships). Now, it’s possible to take a seminar on reflexology before heading to a Sudoku Challenge match or to a spa café with the ultimate in healthy food choices. I-Pads are now being used as menus for onboard specialty restaurants. And that doesn’t cover ice rinks, surf riders, zip-lines, aqua theatres, big name Broadway shows, and the list goes on and on.
Not to be outdone by the big ships, smaller cruise lines like Azamara Club Cruises have refined their onboard experiences to appeal to a customer who enjoys quality without large numbers of passengers getting in their way. Complimentary wine at lunch and dinner, expedited boarding and disembarking procedures, romantic dinners outdoors with candles (electric), acoustic guitar music and casual attire, free self-service laundry’s, special customer help concierge desks and wonderful on-deck show barbecues with ship’s officers as servers are a few of the product tweaks that are working for Azamara.
Regent Seven Seas is offering free shore excursions and free pre or post hotels stays with their cruises. On the Prince Albert II, free customized parkas, gloves and boots are included for Antarctic cruises. Silversea offers free air, subsidized business class air and onboard credits of up to $1000. The ultra-luxury market has become very value competitive.
The options being offered to cruisers today literally boggles the mind. When compared to other vacations, cruising is still a terrific value. All of these choices reinforce the need to use a professional cruise travel counselor, preferably from Cruise Holidays of Woodinville, who is aware of all the best of cruising, to help build that perfect, customized cruise vacation.


New Ships Renew Glamour of Cruising

November 30, 2010

    Steve Sibley, a partner at Cruise Holidays of Woodinville just returned from an inspection cruise on Royal Caribbean’s, newest mega-ship the Allure of the Seas.  At the same time, Marybeth Bryant a cruise counselor at the same store, was also in South Florida taking a two-night cruise on Celebrity’s new ultra sophisticated Eclipse.  Both of them were treated to a grand show highlighting the glam and excitement that new ships bring to cruising.

     Steve even got to see where Adam Sandler and Katie Holmes were filming a new comedy called “Jack and Jill,” which includes a segment filmed on the Allure.  Steve and his wife Diane also had the opportunity to stay in a stateroom which had a balcony overlooking the Central Park Neighborhood on the ship.  His review was that this stateroom was a nice and different experience from your regular balcony room.

      Both Royal Caribbean and Celebrity have invested enormous sums of capital to build state of the art cruise ships designed to appeal to an even wider ranger of potential cruise passengers.  One of the strategies they employ is to bring as much “wow” as they can with their new ships.  In fact, the Allure and its sister ship the Oasis of the Seas have established an entirely new niche in cruising—the super-sized mega-ship.  And, Celebrity, with its Solstice class ships has a real grass lawn and hot glass blowing studio as signature elements unique to them.

    At one time, cruising was for only an elite group.  The joke 25 years ago was that cruising was for the “newly wed,” or the “nearly dead.”  Today, active seniors often run their younger counterpart passengers into the ground when it comes to participating in the cruise vacation experience.  And, more than 12 million people will take a cruise from North America, not such a small group any more.

    The great news is that the value of a cruise vacation remains in the forefront of any vacation choice.  And, the industry has come light years from the days of “The Love Boat.”  Now, everyone can experience vacations onboard cruise ships from the most opulent suites to an economical inside stateroom and be assured they can have all of the glamour at whatever level they might choose.  No other vacation can make the same claim.

Luxury Lite,” New Niche is Working for Azamara Club Cruises

November 17, 2010

Luxury Lite,” New Niche is Working for  Azamara Club Cruises

     Let’s face it, Azamara Club Cruises ships (all two of them) only hold a total of 640 passengers each. Two other cruise lines, Oceania and Princess have six nearly identical sisterships.  And, frankly, even in their verandah staterooms, the bathrooms are compact and the rooms are a little on the smallish side. 

      But, Azamara has stolen a big march on their competition by becoming more inclusive and adding elements of its more expensive luxury competitors.  Since last April they offer complimentary wine at lunch and dinner, free soft drinks, coffee and tea drinks and bottled water.  Not stopping there, they also offer paid gratuities for housekeeping, dining and bar staff, and in-port free shuttles.  Suite level guests also receive concierge service and no-fees for the two alternative restaurants on the ship. 

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     Even with this impressive list of value-added extras, that’s not what separates Azamara from its competitors.  What makes them different is they have seriously revisited how to provide great guest services from a happy and congenial crew.  The Captain, will often sit in the Cova Café and have an espresso with whatever passengers who might wish to “chat him up.”  And, the officers of the ship will take over graciously serving at one of two wonderful on-deck barbecues held during each cruise.  When guests return from a long day of shore excursions, the security personnel will go to extra lengths to welcome them “home,” with the wish they had a great day ashore spoken aloud.

     The result is that the passengers seem to be having a much more enjoyable time.  Jan Milligan, from Cruise Holidays of Woodinville recently returned from an Azamara Club Cruise and said that they “had become her newest favorite cruise line, over the 100 or so cruises she’s taken in the past 20 years.”


     While Royal Caribbean debuts its second mega-ship with the Allure of the Seas, and Celebrity shines with the arrival of the beautiful Eclipse, the baby sister in this cruise company, Azamara Club Cruises is hitting its stride in becoming the first, and still only “Luxury Lite” cruise line.  Perhaps the most romantic spot at sea today is dinner at one of the umbrella tables located in the stern outdoors with pseudo candles, guitar player and all—congrats Azamara.


Cruises Versus All-Inclusive Vacations

November 10, 2010

Cruises Versus All-Inclusives

 The growth of the all-inclusive resort scene has been substantial in both the Caribbean and in Mexico.  We just returned from Karisma Resorts El Dorado Royale just south of Cancun on the Mexican Mayan Riviera and found it to be an excellent value as a restful vacation option compared to a premium cruise vacation.

 The Royale features two levels of rooms, a spacious junior suite (higher priced if ocean front) and the more deluxe and larger casitas (comparable to a suite level on a cruise ship).  All meals, drinks (except for wine list upgrades), tips and entertainment are included in the price.  This resort featured eight different restaurant choices ranging from Asian Fusion to Italian to Caribbean, and the food was excellent at each locale.  Drinks were available at many swim-up and other bars throughout the property and one bar featured nightly entertainment.  The beach was not spectacular, but many covered beach lounging platforms were available and were popular with the guests.  A couple of large spas (extra cost), a large gym and several small shops were spotted around the property.

 Just like a cruise, side trips were available for an extra price.  Some choices included swimming with the dolphins, a camel jungle safari and visits to both the Mayan seaside ruin at Tulum and the pyramid at Chichen Itza.  Jet skis, scuba diving and fishing were other options available at an extra charge.

 The clientele at this resort tended to be honeymooners, anniversary celebrators, international travelers (lots of Brits) and others who wanted to relax and enjoy the slow pace and warm sun of the location.  This is an adults only resort and guests must be over the age of 18, although all age levels were prevalent.  Like many places in Mexico, this resort does offer time share options, but isn’t pushy in promoting this choice.

 When comparing an all-inclusive with a cruise, the biggest difference in the excitement of a new port nearly every day and the much more action-oriented onboard program while at sea.  Plus, the all-inclusives do tend to be a bit more pricey than the cruise vacation.  But, an all-inclusive is a great alternative for the traveler who might want a change of pace from cruising every year (or even more often).  Bottom line is that the right cruise or the right all-inclusive can deliver a great vacation—it’s a matter of personal choice.

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Still Great Values for Cruising

August 26, 2010

Recovery Year for Cruising

   Like the U.S. economy, 2009 was a year best left in the rear view mirror for the cruise and leisure travel business.  The good news is that Cruise Holidays of Woodinville is having a substantially better year in 2010 and is symbolic of an industry which remains in the forefront of economic recovery.

 It seems that many folks have decided that life is too short to cut out the revitalization that a nice cruise can bring and they are taking advantage of great value prices.  The cruise lines don’t particularly like it, but they are having to offer values to consumers at a record level, and yet, they remain profitable in the process—just not as profitable as they might like! 

 We are seeing certain trends taking place within the cruise market.  More extended family groups are taking advantage of super low third and fourth person in a stateroom rates.  Or, families are moving up to balcony and mini-suite or suite accommodations because the fares are so reasonable, compared to just a couple of years ago.

 I was always told the secret to success in the stock market was to buy low and sell high.  Well, the window is open for everybody to buy low for a wonderful cruise vacations that can pay big dividends in mental health and stress relief.  Not sure how long these conditions will last, but it looks like at least the first half of 2011 will see little change from our current conditions.

One trend we wanted to pass along was the cruise lines attempting to stop last-minute, close-in buyers, by offering best rates, or sometimes guaranteed lowest rates for those who choose to book early.  It’s our experience that the early bookers usually have the best choice of accommodations and are often in line for additional benefits which can be added to their cruise vacation, like onboard credits, or dining at up-charge alternative restaurants onboard and the like.

 For those of you who are looking at something special for the summer of 2011, let me suggest our June 12th, 15-night Amsterdam to Budapest Viking River cruise hosted by Cruise Holidays of Woodinville Co-Owner Steve Sibley and his wife Diane.  Both pre and post cruise packages are also available on this cruise, but because this is a river cruiser, stateroom space is limited, so a deposit right away is a good idea.

Cruise Lines Recovering, but Amazing Deals Still in Play

July 30, 2010

Cruise Lines Recovering, but Amazing Deals Still in Play

       Yesterday the Seattle Times reported that Seattle departures for cruises in 2010 would be approximately 8,000 fewer passengers than in 2009.  It stated that the reason for the drop was that most people book Alaska a year in advance and the cruise lines were still being impacted by the poor economic conditions from 2009.  What we’re seeing is that there is still space available for the rest of the Alaska season, not sold out like in the past six or seven years.

     At the same time, Royal Caribbean was reporting that they were seeing improved profits this year due to their ability to cut costs and the introduction of new mega-ships like the Oasis and Allure of the Seas.  By and large the big two in cruising, Carnival Corp and Royal Caribbean remain highly profitable businesses.  But they are facing major challenges in filling their available staterooms with paying passengers.

      The upshot is that the consumer can take advantage of deals which may never been seen again anytime soon.  For example, for less than $1,000 for nearly every Fall 7-night departure to Mexico from San Diego onboard Holland America Lines’ ms Oosterdam, it’s possible to book a suite!  And, in January, two 11-night departures on Azamara Club Cruises ms Journey can be booked for about $2700 for a balcony level stateroom.  This is a “luxury light” small ship cruise experience which includes free gratuities, free wine at lunch and dinner, free soft drinks, specialty coffees and teas, free self-service laundry and bottled water—and a $1,000 onboard stateroom credit. 

      For the Fall, it seems that many cruise lines are soft in bookings and they are offering rates at an astonishingly low price.  The cruise lines are banking that the economy will continue to improve and the consumer will once again take advantage of the great values of a cruise vacation, but at a much higher price!

So, a wise consumer might consider taking advantage of these distressed sale prices—they most likely will go away forever in the future.

More Big Ships and Questions Appear

July 9, 2010

More Big Ships and Questions Appear

     Norwegian Cruise Lines’ Epic mega ship has now officially begun service.  Looking ungainly with its “Wedding Cake” forward section, this 4200 passenger ship represents another new chapter in cruise vacations.  While personally we don’t care for NCL’s “Freestyle Cruising” concept which offers 20 different restaurants onboard the Epic, with many of them charging up to $30 a person to dine in their confines—this cruise line does have more dining choices than any other competitor in cruising.’

     I do think the Epic has some really nice features like studio apartment rooms for singles, entertainment with the Blue Man Group, Second City and Cirque de Soleil, and several novel lounges.  If you feel as though you might want to spend 30 minutes at 17 degrees then the Ice Bar is your ticket—special parkas and gloves are provided.  NCL has taken the Miami South Beach approach to clubbing and they have created some significantly different onboard spaces for entertainment.

       NCL also attempted to think out of the box in stateroom design, and so far the reviews have been mixed.  Essentially balcony staterooms have a “wavy” look with a sink in the main living area and the toilet and shower in a slightly strange arrangement.

We read of tall guys having to sleep sideways on the rounded end bed, and of the lack of good privacy with both the toilet and the shower.   Biggest complaints came from the design of the in-room sink which apparently overflows quite easily.  Time will tell how well NCL’s attempt at moving the bar higher in innovation will work.

      While NCL was making its Epic debut in New York over the 4th of July, far away in Venice, Italy Holland America Line was christening its latest version of the Nieuw Amsterdam with Dutch Princess Maxima as the Godmother for the ship.  The latest in HAL’s Signature class of vessels, the Nieuw Amsterdam will be far more appealing to those who appreciate the heritage of cruising.  Holland America believes each of its new ships should have both a look and feel of every ship in its fleet, and they have been highly successful at doing so.  The Nieuw  Amsterdam has some nice touches, but still retains the HAL “feel” with antiques and quality the byword onboard.  The major strength of Holland America is that it is always consistent in delivering a quality product befitting the line’s leading position as a premium cruise line.

     Even though there is some buzz in the air with the debut of new ships, the market is still soft from the recession starting two years ago.  Space still exists for Alaska and Europe, two markets traditionally sold out by April.  And, a note of some desperation seems to be arising as fall and winter bookings are lackluster at best.  It will be interesting to see if new ships like RCI’s second mega-ship Allure of the Seas, the Epic and the Oasis of the Seas will continue to sell at premium prices, or will their novelty wear off—only time and the marketplace will tell.

Why Buy a Vacation From a Professional Travel Planner

June 18, 2010

Some people tell us they would rather shop directly with a cruise line, or online because they get a lower price than Cruise Holidays could offer.  Many times this proves the “ignorance is bliss” theory because in fact, Cruise Holidays professional travel counselors often could have booked the same, or lower price, or a better stateroom value with added onboard amenities the cruise line or website usually does not offer—like an onboard credit.  And none of the cruise lines nor internet sellers will offer the same custom and personalized service a Cruise Holidays counselor delivers.

 Just this week the largest  travel industry magazine, Travel Weekly ran a story about anonymously calling a cruise company vacation planner to directly book a European cruise vacation.  In the process of the conversation, the writer was told that Livorno (port for Florence and Pisa) was right next to Monte Carlo (it’s not), and that Civitavecchia, the port for Rome, was just a short, easy transfer to downtown (it’s about 50 miles through heavy traffic).  The cruise company vacation planner also could not explain insurance options to the caller and left a less than satisfactory impression that she knew what she was doing.

Sure, some cruise line inside sales people are good at what they do, but they have drawbacks that all consumers should consider.  For example, a cruise line will only offer their products, even though a competitor’s cruise might be a much better fit for the buyer.  The cruise line can only sell what they sell, while a Cruise Holidays professional travel consultant can offer several options, if that’s a better fit for the consumer.  And, Cruise Holidays can offer a series of insurance options from several companies, and an unlimited number of choice for pre and post cruise add-ons—or even shore excursions from several companies in direct competition with the cruise line’s single onboard operator.  In short, the customer gets better choice and value, along with vastly better service.

 Because everyone at Cruise Holidays shares a passion for quality vacation travel, our travel counselors are continually updating themselves on a wide array of different vacation products from many, many suppliers.  It’s routine for a customer to call Cruise Holidays and advise that they’ve done an internet search, and “boy are they confused.”  Taking the confusion out of the equation is just part of the service provided by a Cruise Holidays travel counselor.

 While it may be easy to book an airplane ticket (?) or rental car, a complex cruise or land vacation requires expertise that takes a long time to acquire.  All of the Cruise Holidays travel professionals take great pride in their ability to ferret out the best value in the quest of creating a happy client.  And that’s why booking with Cruise Holidays of Woodinville is vastly superior to booking with a cruise line direct, or through the internet..

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River Cruises Are Booming

May 15, 2010


River Cruises Are Booming


     Recently  the regional sales director for Viking River Cruises came by the office to talk about the “Booming World of River Cruises.”  About 25 guests filled up the seats in the store for 90 minutes of education and illumination concerning how river cruising has become one of the “hottest” trends in vacation travel.

      What is intriguing is that river cruises are now available throughout Europe, China, Egypt, Southeast Asia and even on the upper reaches of the Amazon.

In every case, new and newly refurbished river cruise boats are appearing everywhere.  Why is this segment of cruising booming?  Because river cruising offers a great alternative to larger “blue water” cruisers who are looking for something a little different in their next cruise vacation.

     The larger river cruise companies are Viking River Cruises, Uniworld Cruises, AMA River Cruises and Avalon River Cruises.  The top four river cruise companies operate about 50 different river cruise boats.  The heaviest concentration can be found throughout Europe.  France, Germany, Austria and Holland are the primary countries of destination for river cruises.  Other concentrations of river cruises can be found along the Nile in Egypt, and on the Yangtze River in China.

      The big difference in river cruising is that experiencing the culture of the places being visited is the most important aspect of the vacation experience.  The boats dock downtown, usually in the older parts of the towns and villages where they stop.  Included shore tours are a large part of the river cruise experience with walking being the most popular method of transportation.  But, if the interest of the traveler might be castles, old monasteries, temples or shopping bazaars–it’s probable those interests will be satisfied completely.

      Modern river cruisers offer nice staterooms with either “French Balconies (only a couple of inches deep)” or large picture windows which actually open.  The staterooms have a compact bathroom with shower, queen-size convertible to two twin size beds, dressing areas with a satellite television and storage space.  Standard balconies don’t work because the river boats can only be a limited width so they can traverse locks on the rivers.

      There is still some space left in Europe this summer, and several river cruise companies are offering two for one pricing with air credits for 2011 sailings.

River cruises are growing fast because passengers are finding them to be fantastic cruise vacations.

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Five Secret Trends in Cruise Vacations

May 4, 2010

Five Secret Trends in Cruise Vacations

 There are always hidden, or secret trends that cruise lines rarely will volunteer to customers.  Some of these trends can save lots of money, and other can help avoid inconveniences and problems down the road.  Vinnie the Cruise Dog, and Cruise Holidays of Woodinville are always on the look out for these trends and we both enjoy passing them along.  Here are the five secret trends as of the first of May 2010:

 While early bookings for Alaska were brisk, the pace has slowed and lots of bargains appear to be available during the peak June-August season.  The cruise lines tried to increase prices for 2010 and probably over-reached the marketplace.

 Europe, and especially the Mediterranean appear to be soft in sales as well.  High airfares are limited many Europe travelers this year.  Some of the more upscale lines such as Azamara Club Cruises, Seabourn, Silversea and Regent Seven Seas are offering free (really significantly discounted) air, or air credits; reduced prices and onboard credits.

 Some panic has set in on Fall/winter Caribbean and Mexico rates.  Royal Caribbean is moving its Mariner of the Seas from Los Angeles to Galveston, but lots of supply remains with Carnival, Princess and Holland America Line from Southern California.  Great prices can be found on Celebrities Solstice out of Fort Lauderdale—a really nice ship.

 Scuttlebutt is that Norwegian Cruise Line is seeing soft sales on its brand new Epic mega-ship.  This is not the case with Royal Caribbean which still commands high prices on its super-mega ship the Oasis of the Seas, and the Allure of the Seas coming late this fall.

 Earthquakes in Chile, volcanoes in Iceland have shown why buying travel insurance is the best way to go.  Princess refused to do any refund or rescheduling for a couple without their insurance (or any other for that matter) who couldn’t make a San Juan, Puerto Rico departure flying from Belfast, Ireland.  The small investment in travel insurance is by far the best way to go.