When not to tip on a Cruise

(This was recenly published on Cruise Critic)

1. You buy a drink.

Old salts know the drill: When you purchase a beverage — be it Bud Light, dirty martini or soda — mainstream cruise lines automatically add 15 or 18 percent to the bill. Many first-timers make the mistake of throwing a buck on top as they would onshore. (Though you don’t have to tip, some cruisers like to hand some cash to their favorite bartender, usually at the beginning of the cruise, to ensure good service throughout the sailing.)

Seabourn sun deck

2. You’re sailing luxury.

When sailing with upscale small-ship lines like Seabourn and Silversea Cruises, tips are neither required nor expected. If service is exceptional, no one’s going to stop you from pulling some cash out of your pocket and handing it to your cabin steward.

3. You’re dining at the specialty restaurant.

Paying $30 for surf-and-turf at the for-fee restaurant usually means there’s no need to tip on top. Gratuities are almost always included in that rate or, on some lines like MSC Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line, automatically added on top of your final bill. (If you’re unsure, do some research before you dine.)

4. It’s already on the spa receipt.

Not every onboard spa automatically includes gratuity, but it pays to check the receipt. When your spa bill on a line like Norwegian or Royal Caribbean includes an 18 percent gratuity, do not feel obligated to add an additional tip. Spa treatments are pricey enough to start.

Kids club

5. Your kids spend all day in the kids club, letting you have adult time onboard.

What wouldn’t most exhausted parents pay for a morning at the spa or lounging by the pool? But on a cruise ship, kids club fees are included, and you’re not expected to tip the counselors who have entertained your offspring all week long. However, if you’re feeling especially grateful to youth staff who have gone above and beyond, you are certainly welcome to express that sentiment in cash.

6. The plumber fixes your shower or toilet.

It can be tempting. The man who restores the whoosh of the vacuum toilet or hot water in the shower is, in a way, restoring balance in the universe. But these onboard engineers don’t work for tips.

7. The captain keeps you safe or the cruise director makes milk come out of your nose.

While we’d very much like to see the look on the captain’s face when you slip him $20 at the welcome party, cash-handshakes are not necessary. He will not linger in port or let you steer the ship. The Australian or British cruise director, whose hilarious morning briefings have you believing, once more, in laughter, should also never be the recipient of a tip.

Viking Debuts Two New Ships


(the following article was recently published in USA Today)

KOBLENZ, Germany — At the confluence of the Rhine and Mosel rivers in Germany, near the French border, Viking River Cruises on Tuesday debuted its latest river cruise ships, Viking Herja and Viking Hild, just below an imposing fortress dating to the 12th century.

The two vessels, patterned from the same mold that the line introduced in 2012, were christened by a pair of godmothers for the occasion.

Rainy skies gave way to a brief bout of late afternoon sunshine as the event started, just long enough for award-winning British composer and conductor Debbie Wiseman to let loose a ceremonial bottle of Veuve Cliquot Champagne on Viking Herja. It crashed efficiently against the bow of the ship.

Viking Hild’s godmother, Princess Stephanie Löwenstein-Wertheim-Rosenberg, cut the cord to a bottle poised to smash against that vessel, but not a drop was spilled on the first try. A crew member climbed outside the railing to hoist the bottle again, and on the second try the bubbly splashed on cue.

The 190-passenger Viking Herja and Viking Hild are of the “longship” design that Viking unveiled in 2012. The longships feature some of the largest suites on river ships in Europe, as well as cabins with balconies, made possible by offsetting the main corridors. In just six years, 48 Viking longships have been built — an unprecedented number in the history of river cruising (scroll through the carousel below for a deck-by-deck look at a Viking longship).

Viking Hild will begin sailing the Rhine River this spring on a new Paris-to-the-Swiss Alps itinerary. Later this year both new ships will sail Viking’s Danube Waltz and Rhine Getaway itineraries.

This year also marks Viking River Cruises’ 20th anniversary. While best known for its European river cruises, in 2015 the company started a line of ocean cruise ships. The third ship for that line, Viking Sky, launched just last month and an identical fourth ship, Viking Sun, arrives in November. Two more ocean-going ships are on order and will arrive in 2018 and 2019.

“By 2020 we will be the largest small-ship ocean cruise line and we will have the youngest fleet,” Viking’s founder and chairman Torstein Hagen said at a press conference Tuesday aboard Viking Hild. “That is a claim we will be able to make for many years.”

However, no new orders for river ships were announced on Tuesday.

“Our growth has continued, but we’re slowing down on the rivers,” Hagen said.

Hagen did reveal that Viking has acquired an existing river ship in Egypt — the ink was still drying on the deal, he said. Hagen said the ship would be extensively refurbished and will “feel at home” to Viking regulars. The ship was tentatively named Viking Ra, after the ancient Egyptian sun god.

“One thing the Vikings have in common with Egyptians is that we have many gods,” added Hagen. “Maybe we’ll have several ships in Egypt.”

Retire on a Cruise Ship

Lavell Mayo cruised more than 100 days last year, opting to leave his single-family home behind for life at sea where, for a small premium, household chores and amenities are all handled.

“I looked into moving into a garden home connected with a nursing home and found that the average rental is about $2,000 a month,” said Mayo, who had just returned from a trip on Norwegian Cruise Line. “And of course, then you have to cook your own food, where on a ship everything is done for you.”

Meanwhile, 70-somethings Jack and Willi Ross swapped their Vancouver, B.C., single-family home for a smaller apartment so they could travel more, including an upcoming month-long cruise and periodic 180-day voyages with Oceania Cruises.

“The cost of living was, in some ways, cheaper,” compared to home, said Jack Ross, 73, citing medical care, meals, laundry and the internet that were all included. (Rates for Oceania’s around-the-world cruise that began Jan. 6 were about $40,000, but that was a two-for-one fare with first class, roundtrip airfare.)

New itineraries

The Rosses and Mayo aren’t alone.

More people are cruising now than ever before, with 25 million passengers expected to set sail this year compared with 15 million in 2006, according to the Cruise Lines International Association.

Depending on their home city and income level, retirees may find living aboard a cruise ship makes financial sense when compared to other retirement living options, especially in expensive locales.

Willi and Jack Ross on their Oceania cruise ship during a 180-day voyage.

Source: Willi and Jack Ross
Willi and Jack Ross on their Oceania cruise ship during a 180-day voyage.

“Snowbirding” aboard ship is becoming popular enough that Oceania Cruises has created two new itineraries geared specifically at this population next winter, particularly to a wealthy client with an average household income of about $250,000 or more. A 74-day “Snowbird in Residence” sailing to the Caribbean costs about $240 per day per person, and includes airfare and either a $6,800 shipboard credit, 68 free shore excursions or a free beverage package, along with laundry service.

“Some of the comments we’ve seen were, ‘Wow, you can’t stay home for this price,'” said James Rodriguez, Oceania’s executive vice president of marketing. He said many of the well-heeled guests on long-term cruises are in their 60s and think seeing the world by boat is a better opportunity than spending the winter in a Florida condo.

“We intentionally design these ships to feel like [home],” he said.

When considered over a 20-year span, “cruises were priced similarly to assisted living centers and were more efficacious,” according to a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, though land-based assisted living can vary greatly by facility, location and needs.

“It’s like living at home, but I don’t have to worry about renewing my driver’s license.”-Jack Ross

Karin and Bill Pollak have taken more than 100 cruises since retiring in 2000, some years spending as many as 240 days at sea. Last year, the couple, 62 and 76 respectively, were at their Arizona home base for less than six months.

The range of amenities and experiences available on cruise ships for various budgets is vast, Karin Pollak said, noting she and her husband could live aboard a cruise ship for half of what they do if they compromised their balcony state rooms and other comfort add-ons.

These include packages with housekeeping services, entertainment and educational programs. There’s 24-hour meal service and inclusive amenities like fitness centers and pools.

More marketing coming

A reservation on Princess Cruises, for example, averages $135 per day with long-term and senior discounts, not including medical care or excursions, said Geraldine Ree, CEO of Expedia CruiseShipCenters, a travel agency specializing in cruises. About 2 percent of the company’s cruise bookings are for 180 days or more, the majority of which are retirees.

By comparison, it costs about $229 daily for a private room in a nursing home and $3,293 per month for a one-bedroom in an assisted living facility, according to LongtermCare.Gov.

Independent living or retirement communities range from $1,500 to $3,500 a month, according to HelpGuide.org.

More adults retire on a cruise ship

More adults retire on a cruise ship  

“There’s a huge value add,” said Ken Moraif, a certified financial planner and radio host of “Money Matters,” but “you need to be able to afford it.”

Cruise lines may be marketing to more well-to-do customers.

Crystal Cruises will put into operation by 2018 “Residences at Sea,” 48 suites across three new ships. Those who buy in early can customize their floating apartments, which range from 600 to 4,000 square feet.

Though Crystal would not reveal the cost of a unit, CEO Edie Rodriguez said it’s targeting an affluent customer looking for a “new kind of second, third or even fourth luxury home.” Ree said there’s likely more demand and resale potential in China or London than in North America, however.

The Pollaks said they prefer to use several ships as their temporary summer homes rather than purchase a land-based one that binds them financially and geographically, as it has with many of their friends.

“On a cruise ship where the officers know you, they just treat you very well.”-Donna  De Florio

There’s always room for negotiation when it comes to a lengthy cruise.

It’s possible for long-term guests to persuade a cruise line to let them bring their own furniture or decorate their cabin at their own expense, said Jo Kling, owner of cruise travel agency Landry & Kling. And guests who book early, particularly through an experienced travel agent, can negotiate better prices.

Guests also value the relationships they develop with crew, who remember their names and offer personalized attention.

Oceania Cruises' Regatta

Source: Oceania Cruises
Oceania Cruises’ Regatta

“The crew adopts them,” Ree said.

That’s a big part of the reason retirees Al and Donna De Florio of Plymouth, Massachusetts, were enjoying 41 days on two Azamara Club Cruises this year.

“On a cruise ship where the officers know you, they just treat you very well,” said Donna De Florio, noting cruise staff remembered them from two years ago. The couple has taken 50 cruises together since 2001.

Consider your health

Older people should also consider their health before long-term travel on a cruise ship, despite some lines offering well-equipped medical centers with nurses, doctors, X-ray machines, ICU units and pacemakers, Ree said.

“While I would love to [truly live aboard a cruise ship all year], it wouldn’t make sense given my situation,” said Al De Florio, who sees doctors regularly for a health issue.

Lavell Mayo aboard ship.

Lavell Mayo aboard ship.

The Pollaks purchase a separate travel insurance policy that covers medical services and air transportation from anywhere in the world, since their Medicare plans do not cover expenses on their long-term trips outside of the United States. One of the reasons the couple was enticed on a 180-day Oceania cruise recently was that the company offered complimentary medical care as part of the package.

“When people are past a particular age … it’s important and critical because things do happen,” Karin Pollak said.

Mayo has used medical services on a ship three times, and said his wife fell on a ship while cruising to Hawaii and had to be evacuated, the cost of which was covered by their medical travel insurance policy.

Use an agent

Ree recommends working with an experienced travel agent to find the most suitable option based on price, amenities and feasibility, while Moraif suggests “practicing” the cruising lifestyle before diving in full time.

The Rosses said they arranged for their accountant to intercept mail and bills to take care of while they were gone, disconnected their television cable and telephone services, and reduced their collision auto insurance to third party liability. Mayo turns off the water at his home before departing on a long cruise, turns the heat or AC up or down low, and puts the mail on hold at the post office.

When asked whether he and his wife would sail for good, Jack Ross said it was a real possibility as he heads into his 80s and 90s.

“You just bring your suitcases and unpack them. It’s like living at home, but I don’t have to worry about renewing my driver’s license,” he sa

Cruisin the Mississippi River


(this article was recently published in the Independent Newspaper)

Having visited New Orleans for the best part of a decade, I’m more than acquainted with the Mississippi River – that mighty, magical, muddy mouthpiece of America that reaches the Gulf of Mexico right here in the Big Easy.

Yet despite that familiarity, I’ve never explored it, and so it was with some excitement that I boarded the largest steamboat ever built – the American Queen® – for a short river cruise.

She is just one of the American Queen Steamboat Company’s fleet of magnificent vessels. American Empress® travels the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest, while the company’s newest steamboat American Duchess, which is currently being fitted out as a super-luxurious, all-suite vessel – the first of its kind on US Rivers – will also travel the Mississippi and its tributaries.

Up the river: the American Queen sails down the Mississippi

On my trip, my fellow passengers had spent a couple of days exploring the Crescent City  – the food, the jazz and the legendary hospitality – and sad though they were to leave, stepping aboard this gleaming riverboat soon allayed any disappointment.

The vessel is everything you might imagine a centuries-old, high-class steamboat might have been. The opulent interiors start at check-in, with grand pianos, polished wooden fixtures and fresh flowers, while local characters in period dress complete the tribute as all are welcomed aboard.

Centre stage: inside the Grand Saloon Theater

With a blaring horn, we’re on our way, the vast paddles nudging us forward as we find our cabins. Mine has French doors that open up to reveal a plush Queen bed, velvet sofa and full bathroom completing a very comfortable picture.

It’s not long before it’s time for pre-dinner drinks, with a pianist playing old-time favourites in the lounge, then in the theatre, a taster of the entertainment on offer later. This stage, in the Grand Saloon, is a painstaking reproduction of the famous 19th-century Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC, every inch of elegance and panache on show.

Comfortable: one of the suites aboard American Queen

Dinner is an extravaganza, the beautiful dining room coming alive with excitement as servers bring locally-influenced dishes to satisfied diners. Afterwards, a musical show with songs from the Deep South provides a stunning nightcap.

The next day we awake at Oak Alley Plantation, a superb pre-Civil War mansion, where a full tour awaits. Sun streams through the ancient live oaks, and an appetite for lunch on the deck is easily worked up.

In the afternoon, we set sail again. Some people attend talks by the on-board ‘Riverlorian’ about the Mississippi’s history, while others enjoy spa treatments or the fitness room. More still simply relax and take in the evocative riverside views.

The next day, after another full night of socialising, we set ashore at Baton Rouge and explore the state capital and its history with easy, hop-on, hop-off tour buses.

New Orleans once again beckons after one more evening of grandeur, gourmet dining and spectacular entertainment. We leave having experienced the most wonderful time on the Mississippi River, the nest of the old world combining with the new for something completely magical.

You can currently enjoy a cruise on the American Queen from just $2,799 (£2,301) on 11 June, 19 June, 26 June, 3 July, 17 July, 31 July and 7 August. To book your berth on a uniquely American river cruise – and see more promotions – visit americanqueensteamboatcompany.com

Cruise Ships are gonig to Cuba


(recent article in Miami Herald)

Havana was exploding in yanqui frenzy. Seven hundred Americans streamed across its streets one steamy May 2016 morning on an expedition of rediscovery. They were the first to arrive via sea since John F. Kennedy was president.

The wave of change was crashing over Cuba.

For passengers on this historic voyage, the visit included hours of tours through the city’s highlight reel. Dinner at a private Cuban restaurant, un paladar. Rides in classic — Cubans would call them rustic — 1950s cars, los almendrones. Strolls through the centuries-old Spanish squares of La Habana Vieja.

But for Miami cruise expert Stewart Chiron and his son Bryan, then 13, Cuba’s unique allure really came to life when they walked into a Havana historical powerhouse: el Hotel Nacional.

Built in 1930 by a U.S. firm and U.S. architects, el Nacional was a haven for American mobsters and starlets. It also was the scene of a bloody siege key to the eventual rise of former dictator Fulgencio Batista. A bunker on the grounds dates to the Cuban Missile Crisis — the threat that eventually prompted Kennedy to sign the Cuba trade embargo that banned most trade and travel between U.S. citizens and the Communist island.

The embargo is still in place. But rules relaxed in 2014 by the U.S. government that allow its citizens to visit for cultural exchanges brought about 615,000 U.S. tourists last year to taste the long-forbidden apple in the Caribbean’s Garden of Eden. This year, an estimated 172,000 tourists will come via nine ships from eight U.S.-based cruise lines.

Until now, other travel sectors, such as airlines and hotels, have struggled to satiate a massive American appetite to see Cuba while dealing with the island’s antiquated infrastructure. Airlines have reduced flights and hotels have lowered their inflated prices. The cruise lines are expected to face that conundrum too, but to a much lesser degree because their unique form of accommodation offers a protection from the island’s shortage of modern hotels and efficient highways — for now.

“Everybody knows, both here and there, that there will have to be infrastructure development to support the onward growth,” said Adam Goldstein, president and chief operating officer of Royal Caribbean Cruises, whose lines Royal Caribbean International and Azamara Club Cruises will sail to Cuba this year. “Those are just the realities of going to a place that is super interesting and has limitations [and] constraints.” Over time, Cuba’s restaurants, ports, roads, hotels and other tourist facilities will improve, he believes. “But all of that is [still] totally in its infancy.”

In the travel boom spurred by former President Barack Obama’s 2014 announcement of detente, international hotel companies signed building contracts and airlines scrambled to earn a chunk of the 110 available daily flight slots. U.S. arrivals in Cuba ballooned 34 percent between 2015 and 2016, according to Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s chief negotiator with the U.S. Hotel rates soared between 100 and 400 percent, with rooms previously priced at $150 per night skyrocketing to $650, according to New York-based tour operator Insight Cuba. American Airlines, JetBlue, Spirit and others started operating daily flights to 10 cities, including airports that hadn’t welcomed U.S. airlines in decades.

As the dust has started to settle, hotel rates have normalized. Airlines that overshot demand for Cuba are cutting back on routes and using smaller planes. The reason: Cuba can be comparatively expensive and traveling there is sometimes cumbersome.

The average round-trip airfare for Cuba from the U.S. was about $342 in February, according to data from Airlines Reporting Corp. While less than the Caribbean round-trip average that month of $594, the fare is relatively high for travel to an island that has a limited number of hotel rooms — only 64,231 in 2015, according to a December Florida International University report on tourism in Cuba, or about 10,000 more than in Miami-Dade — meaning travelers may be hard pressed to find accommodations in their budget. Even taxi drivers, classic car drivers and paladar owners have increased their prices, sometimes doubling or tripling them, according to Insight Cuba.

But many of those challenges don’t exist on a cruise ship. So while airlines have cut back, cruise lines have pushed forward, adding itineraries through the end of the year. By the end of 2017, eight U.S. lines — seven based in Miami — will offer Cuba itineraries. Sailings aboard Carnival Corp.’s pioneering Fathom, which inaugurated U.S. cruise service, will be discontinued after June, but only because demand for its every-other-week trips to the Dominican Republic didn’t match the strength of its Cuba component.

“The cruise industry is pretty well contained, so we bring our own food, we bring our own garbage disposal systems, we want to leave as little footprint as possible but add to the economic prosperity that tourism overall brings,” said Frank Del Rio, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, which will sail to Cuba on all three of its lines: Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/business/tourism-cruises/article137848828.html#storylink=cpy

Changes coming to Caribbean Cruises


(recent article in the Miami Herald)

The Caribbean and North America remain the cruise industry’s biggest playground — and will soon be busier yet, cruise executives said Wednesday in Fort Lauderdale at the industry’s largest annual conference, Seatrade Cruise Global.

In 2016, the Caribbean received the lion’s share of cruise ship deployments, at 33.7 percent, said Michele Paige, president of Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association. That share is expected to grow by 5 percent in 2017, she said, with ships specifically designed for outdoor activities.

With the increase in ships comes new port development as well. Swiss line MSC Cruises is transforming a Bahamian island into a private beach port, while Jamaica is launching a massive port renovation program in its capital.

Geneva-based MSC, which has now sails one ship seasonally from PortMiami, is launching a North American expansion that includes two new ships dedicated to year-round voyages. Wednesday, MSC announced that the 4,488-passenger MSC Meraviglia, will move to Miami when it debuts in fall 2019. The company previously announced that the 4140-passenger MSC Seaside, which launches in late 2017, will also sail year-round from PortMiami. MSC Divinia, which currently sails from Miami with capacity for 3,502 passengers, will move to offering seasonal voyages.

MSC plans to add even more ships to North America in upcoming years, said Pierfrancesco Vago, executive chairman of MSC, as part of the line’s expansion. It has already ordered 11 additional ships over the next 10 years, nearly doubling its current fleet of 12.

“It’s going to be a turning point for MSC,” Vago said in an interview.

Passengers can expect itineraries to include Ocean Cay, a private Bahamian island about 60 miles from Miami. Because of dredging in the 1960s, before environmental protections were enacted, ships will be able to sail right up to the island. Additional development, now underway, is for completion in late 2018. The former industrial wasteland will become a marine reserve, Vago said.

Jamaica ports are also set for a makeover that will include turning Kingston into a cruise destination, Jamaican Minister of Tourism Edmund Bartlett announced at a press conference Tuesday evening.

The Kingston initiative is part of an ambitious strategy to eventually bring 5 million cruisers a year to Jamaica in the next five years, up from 1.66 million cruise passengers who visited the island in 2016.

The country also plans to upgrade and expand its existing cruise ports in Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, upgrade Port Antonio on the northeastern coast of the island to accommodate smaller boutique ships and dredge the port in Kingston, the county’s capital, to accommodate large ships. The island has a fifth port, in Falmouth, that was opened in 2011.

The country also wants to expanding Jamaica’s shore excursion program, a project valued at “several million dollars.” Barlett said exact budgets and time lines are still in development.

Bartlett said he hopes the new developments will also connect Jamaica and Cuba in the northern Caribbean as a new itinerary option for cruise lines.

“In the early years, the itinerary was Havana-Kingston; that is where the center of cruise was,” he said. “Cuba is a game changer for the northern Caribbean and not only cruise tourism, but tourism as a whole. We are talking a more collaborative approach to development rather than a competitive approach.”

The addition of Cuba to itineraries has the potential to draw increased attention to the Caribbean as a whole, executives said during a Wednesday afternoon panel.

“Cuba is not a competition to anybody, it’s multiplying the itinerary experiences,” said Roberto Fusaro, president MSC Cruises (USA), whose line now visits the island with two of its ships.

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio said he expects Cuba to be a “home run” for the cruise company, which in 2017 is sailing to Cuba on all three of its lines: mainstream Norwegian Cruise Line, premium Oceania Cruises and luxury Regent Seven Seas.

“The first five sailings [on Norwegian Cruise Line], when we announced them in December, have sold like nothing else. The same for Oceania and Regent, but at meaninfully higher prices,” Del Rio said. “I’m not sure if those meaningfully higher prices will sustain.” Airlines, which seem to have misread demand for Cuba, have decreased their flights to the island.

Also on Wednesday, Norwegian Cruise Line gave a preview of its new class of ships, code named “Project Leonardo,” which feature more open areas in the bottom decks. The design fits with trends from other lines creating warm-weather ships; MSC’s new Seaside features lanais that jut out from ship’s side on the eighth of its 18 decks.

The design is a departure from Norwegian’s traditional approach, which typically features closed decks save for the open pool deck at the ship’s top. The aim, said Frank Del Rio, president and CEO of parent company Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, is “so people can connect with the sea.”

The Norwegian ships, set for delivery in 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025, will accommodate about 3,300 passengers each. Some of the line’s latest ships can accommodate more than 4,000 passengers — too large for some global ports.

“While this vessel is large, not all destinations in the world — and we do want to be a global cruise line — can handle 4,000- and 5,000-pasenger ships,” Del Rio said. “[This is the] perfect size to deliver top return on investment.”

And, in a subtle jab at technological announcements from competitors, including Carnival Corp., MSC and Royal Caribbean Cruises, Del Rio teased what may be ahead for Norwegian.

“[Project Leonardo ships will feature] cutting edge technologies customers can use as part of their fun, as compared to [just]opening their cabin door and getting beeps throughout the day of what they should be doing,” Del Rio said.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/business/tourism-cruises/article138737948.html#storylink=cpy



Why Cruises are Cool!


1. From a single pool to an aquatic oasis

Gone are the days when your only option for cooling off on a hot day was the single pool on the Lido Deck. Today’s big cruise ships have multiple pools, one or more water slides and kid’s wading and splash areas. Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas, for instance, has three outdoor pools, three water slides collectively dubbed the “Perfect Storm” and a kiddy water area called Splashaway Bay; the line’s smaller Liberty of the Seas also has the Perfect Storm trio of water slides, Splashaway Bay and two pools. You’ll find similar offerings on big cruise ships from Norwegian Cruise Line and Carnival Cruise Line.

2. From pure relaxation to total exhilaration

When cruising first took off in the ’70s and ’80s, travelers cruised in order to get away from it all, hang around by the pool, sip cocktails and read a book. There’s still plenty of relaxation to be had, but many of today’s cruisers are also looking for fun — and cruise ships have it in spades. Ziplines, simulated surfing, vertical tunnel skydiving, ropes courses and rock walls all offer enough adrenaline pumping action to keep most thrill seekers entertained.

B.B. King's Blues Club

3. From Las Vegas to Broadway

No more the days of sitting through a badly sung and danced Las Vegas-style revue with cheesy outfits and no special effects. Today’s cruise shows run the gamut from high-tech extravaganzas (on Carnival Cruise Line) and stage partnerships with entities like B.B. King, Lincoln Center and Billboard (on Holland America Line ships) to full-length Broadway or Broadway-inspired shows. Norwegian Cruise Line, for instance, has ships with productions of “Priscilla Queen of the Desert,” “Rock of Ages,” “Million Dollar Quartet” and “After Midnight,” while select Royal Caribbean ships feature “CATS,” “Mamma Mia!”, “We Will Rock You” and “Grease.”

4. From one massive dining room with set seating to multiple dining venues and flexible scheduling

In the early days of cruising, all passengers ate in one large dining room at assigned tables during either an early time slot or a later one.  As cruising progressed, the lines added buffets and specialty restaurants to give cruisers a more casual option outside of the main dining room. Today, main dining rooms are only a small part of the dining equation on any cruise ship. Most ships have multiple dining venues –some included in the cruise price and some for an extra fee, with flexible schedules that allow passengers to pick what time they want to eat, rather than have to show up at a set time. (Traditional set seating is still available on most cruise lines, as well, for those who prefer the traditional set up.)

5. From a trunk full of ball gowns and tuxedos to carry-ons packed with sundresses and collared shirts

Not only was the dining system formalized on cruises back in the day, but so was the dress code.  Cruisers were required to change for dinner every night and formal night wasn’t just a suggestion. Today, cruise passengers can choose to dress up if they like or remain casual (even on formal night!), with some lines even OK with shorts and T-shirts in most onboard eateries. Whatever you feel most comfortable in is pretty much OK with most mainstream cruise lines nowadays.

6. From American and continental cuisine to a smorgasbord of tastes

With just one restaurant (two if a ship had a buffet), cruise ship chefs tended to keep meals simple and straightforward with tried-and-true American, Italian, British and French dishes on the menu. But as the lines expanded their culinary offerings to include more dining venues, the options to provide a variety of cuisines increased as well. Today’s ships might offer Brazilian, Indian, Mexican, pan-Asian or sushi restaurants, to name just a few.

7. From balconies only in top suites to all-balcony ships

Once upon a time, cruise balconies were only for the elite, with most cruise ships having just a handful of suites offering the alfresco amenity. Today’s cruise ships (at least those that are over 10 years old) offer way more rooms with balconies than without. Some ships, particularly in the luxury segment don’t even have ships without balconies.  All of Viking Ocean Cruises’ ships, for instance, are all-balcony, as are most Regent Seven Seas ships.

8. From Isaac on the Love Boat serving margaritas to robots and trained mixologists

Sure you can still get a frozen margarita or Long Island Ice Tea (though good luck finding a Pink Lady or Harvey Wallbanger), but today’s menu of libations is vastly expanded from what bartenders back in the day were handing out. From trained mixologists whipping up unique cocktails to match your mood to bars that specialize in just one beverage (whisky, beer, rum, tequila) there’s something to suit the tastes of every cruise drinker. Oh, and one bar — the Bionic Bar on select Royal Caribbean ships — doesn’t even have a bartender; instead drinks are served by robotic arms backlit by neon lights, which stop to dance along to the beat-heavy music every now and then.

9. From cut off from the world to as connected as you want to be

Like airplanes, getting on a cruise ship used to mean going without contact with your friends and family back home for the length of your trip. That’s no longer even remotely the case, with just about every big ship having front-to-back Wi-Fi and packages that are reasonably priced. As examples, Royal Caribbean’s super fast Voom Wi-Fi starts at $12.99 per day, per device, for everything but streaming, while on Carnival Cruise Line, cruisers can purchase social packages for $5 a day that provide access to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social sites. More robust packages cost $16 or $25 per day, with the latter including the ability to stream.  So instead of having to send a postcard from Puerto Vallarta, today you just ‘Gram your selfie from wherever you are — even on the ship.

First Time River Cruiser

I have a confession to make. I am 27 years old, and I love river cruising. Now admittedly, I was a cruise virgin — and I mean all cruises, not just river cruising — until recently. I can’t say for certain that I would never enjoy a larger oceanic cruise, but after my Viking experience, I don’t know how I’ll ever turn back. And here’s why.

Age Is Just a Number

First, let me debunk the myth that river cruising is only for old people, to put it bluntly. Yes, the average age of the passengers walks the line between 60s and 70s, but don’t let that fool you. They were the ones polkaing into the wee hours of the night and throwing back rounds of German beers as if they were locals. I shamefully was the first to waive the white flag one evening when I couldn’t keep up with the multiple rounds of schnapps. I also was not the youngest passenger on the ship. There were young newlyweds, couples in their 30s and 40s and a family with teenagers.

One of my favorite aspects of the Viking experience is that it is an intimate one, so you are forced to mingle with the other guests, especially during meals. In doing so, I learned a few valuable lessons: You don’t shrivel up and die once you reach the age qualifying for social security. In fact, that’s when you can really start living, according to a group of traveling girlfriends in their 70s whose wanderlust has led them to nearly every continent in the last few years. I also met several couples celebrating anniversaries of 50-plus years. They regaled me with tales of their romances and gave me hope that, even in the age of Tinder, true love still exists.

5-Star Steerage

Since I was traveling during winter, upgrading to a room with a balcony or veranda didn’t really appeal to me, so I happily saved a few pennies by booking a water-level room. That’s just a fancy way of saying that if I were traveling on the Titanic, I’d be with Jack in third class. Although the square footage shrank, the quality, to my surprise, did not. Living in Manhattan for five years prepped me for tight quarters, but there was plenty of storage space so that I didn’t feel too claustrophobic. Our bathroom, albeit tiny, was nicer than some at 4-star hotels, and the heated floors were just the ticket after a day spent in 30-degree weather.

Personal Service

Viking sets the bar for service not just in the cruise industry but in the entire travel industry. I may have booked the cheapest fare, but I was treated like first class from the moment I set foot on the ship, when I was greeted with steamed hand towels and the most decadent peppermint hot chocolate. By day two, Istvan, a member of the Viking crew, knew that I drank two apple juices in the morning; that my mom and I would split a single pancake; that we each took two sugars in our coffee; and that I always indulged in a cookie and hot chocolate before the daily briefing. If my mom and I ever ordered differently during dinner service, I would routinely eat off her plate, but Istvan caught on quickly and began bringing me tastings of each item. Perhaps that makes us creatures of habit (and me a glutton), but that kind of attention to detail made the trip that much more memorable.

Intimate Towns

The best part of cruising is that you go to bed in one city and wake up in a new one without feeling like any time has been wasted. While the capital cities like Vienna and Budapest are must-sees, it’s the small riverside towns that charm. You can walk around Passau, home of gingerbread, in a matter of two hours, and with so little street traffic, there’s a serenity that pours over this city. Winter also brings the sounds of Christmas carols when entering the main town center, location of St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the Passau Christkindlmarkt.

Regensburg, my favorite of the cities we visited, looks as if it were straight out of a storybook. Christmas lights flank the streets. The colorful building facades have been restored to their original state. And similar to Passau, there are so few cars that the cobblestone streets act more like pedestrian walking paths. It’s also home to the oldest sausage kitchen, but even that has been so beautifully restored that it looks as if it just opened its doors.

Christmas Markets

This was a Christmas Market cruise, so of course the markets were the highlight of the vacation. Each town hosted at least one market and they were all unique in their own right. However, some similarities emerged: We could always be sure to find a good cup of glühwein, and we had to put on our bratwurst judging hats since each city claims they make the best. Travelzoo Tip: If you choose to forego the three euro deposit, the glühwein cups are keepsake souvenirs and each feature drawings of the market.

There are several contenders for Germany’s most famous market, but Nuremberg usually takes the lead. Instead of mass-produced goods, you’ll find locally sourced food and crafts, including the famous prune men (small dolls created out of dried fruits). Be sure to sample the Nuremberg sausage, which is unlike any of the others.

Passau and Regensburg are smaller cities, so their markets are a fraction of the size of Nuremberg’s; however, they still have plenty to offer. Passau is known for glasswork, so hand-blown ornaments are abundant. Regensburg hosts a Christmas Market within the palace walls of Thurn and Taxis. Its name translates into “Romantic Christmas Market” and romantic it is indeed. Picture fire pits, caroling, lightshows and a palace that looks like it should be in a Disney movie.

To round out the list, Vienna offers several markets, but the two that stand out are the Christmas market at Schönbrunn Palace and the Wiener Rathausplatz market in front of City Hall. You’ll find the traditional craft and food stalls featured in every city; however, the luminous backdrops of the Viennese markets are by far the most captivating, so plan for equal parts shopping and picture taking (recommended after sunset for the full effect).

Amanda Mulligan is a deal expert at Travelzoo and based in New York. Travelzoo has 250 deal experts from around the world who rigorously research, evaluate and test thousands of deals to find those with true value.

Cruising on the Mississippi River



River cruises will carry nearly 14,000 well-heeled passengers through Baton Rouge and New Orleans this year, dropping them off for day trips to local museums and restaurants.

That’s an increase of about 8 percent, although the economic impact of those visitors is unclear. Neither Visit Baton Rouge nor the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau have spending data on the passengers.

“What we like about the cruises is that they bring a lot of international travelers to Baton Rouge, and although they don’t overnight, they do spend a great deal of time with organized tours, and they certainly see all that we have to offer,” said Visit Baton Rouge President and Chief Executive Officer Paul Arrigo. “The type of person that does the river cruises, they’ll go back home to wherever they originated, domestically or internationally, and talk about their great experience they had in Baton Rouge. We’re excited about that.”

New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau spokesman Kristian Sonnier said most river cruise passengers stay around two nights in the Crescent City, either before or after the cruise.

Officials with American Queen Steamboat Co., which will have two ships calling on New Orleans and Baton Rouge this year, estimated the vessels will combine for more than $650,000 in direct and indirect spending with each docking. American Queen said that figure is based on 2012 estimates that each passenger spends about $60 on a stop.

The American Queen, a 414-passenger vessel that is said to be the largest riverboat ever built, has been paddling up and down the Mississippi River under its current ownership since 2012. In June, it will be joined by a sister ship, the American Duchess, which can accommodate 166 passengers.

Ted Sykes, who serves as president and chief operating officer for American Queen said the lower Mississippi River cruises that stop in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Nottoway, St. Francisville and Oak Alley are the company’s most popular routes. Sykes said many of the boats will be at capacity and the American Queen added four suites this year to meet guest demands. “U.S. river cruising is one of the fastest-growing sectors in travel, and we are proud to be leading the way,” he said.

Riverboats will make 72 stops in Baton Rouge during 2017, said Davis Rhorer, executive director of the Downtown Development District. The first boat will arrive Tuesday, when the American Queen calls on the city.


Rhorer said the cruises have a great economic impact on the city, as passengers eat at downtown restaurants, visit attractions such as the Old State Capitol Museum and the Louisiana Art and Science Museum and shop for gifts at the Main Street Market. “It’s not uncommon on the weekend to have people from all over the world downtown,” he said.

The number of riverboat visits to south Louisiana cities is expected to increase in 2018, when Viking River Cruises makes New Orleans home port for its first North American voyages. That service was projected to launch this year, but there were delays with the construction because of a federal law that states ships that transport passengers directly between American ports needs to be built in the U.S., and owned and crewed by U.S. citizens.


Because of the growing importance of the riverboat cruises, Baton Rouge is set to spend about $720,000 this year on riverfront improvements, including adding shade structures to the city dock, improving the landscaping and removing concrete at Riverfront Plaza, Rhorer said. Plans to expand the city dock to accommodate more than one boat at a time are also in the works.

“We’re turning our attention to the riverfront as a tourist destination,” Rhorer said. “We have a great new industry to encourage this and we want to diversify the use and the interest of the attractions on the riverfront. We have something that’s unique with this body of water.”

The LSU Museum of Arts in the Shaw Center is a regular stop for the American Queen, and an average of 300 passengers visit every time one of the cruise line’s riverboats comes through, said spokeswoman Brandi Simmons. Sales in the museum’s store typically jump 40 percent during each visit.

The riverboats bring about 8,000 visitors a year to the Old State Capitol and about 840 to the LSU Rural Life Museum.

River cruisers are frequently older and more affluent than passengers on oceangoing vessels. The riverboats are also much smaller and ticket prices higher. A river cruise might carry 150 passengers, while an ocean cruise can easily accommodate 3,000. The price for an 8-day round trip on the Mississippi River leaving from New Orleans starts at $2,399. A 7-day ocean cruise starts at $409.

The river cruises are growing in popularity. There were 184 river cruise ships internationally in 2015, and 13 are on order for 2017, according to the Cruise Line International Association.

The French America Line’s Louisiane is one of the new entries into river cruising. The Avondale-based company will launch its inaugural cruise this year. Cruises are scheduled for each week from mid-March to early January, ranging in length from five days to 16. The longest cruises follow the river from New Orleans all the way to Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota.


Christopher Tidmore, one of French American’s owners, said the company’s economic impact in Louisiana is estimated at about $7 million. French American tries to buy Louisiana products as much as possible, although that becomes impractical past a certain point on the river.

Each cruise has daily stops, like Oak Alley or Nottoway plantations, and there are overnights in some cities, Tidmore said. At each stop, the cruise has buses with guides to help passengers explore.

The cruises are all-inclusive. Everything — alcohol, shore excursions and meals — are covered, Tidmore said. In each of the departure cities, French American includes a night at a luxury hotel. In New Orleans, it’s the Bourbon Orleans. In Memphis, it’s the Peabody.

“So when people arrive they don’t have to rush to the boat. They’re relaxed,” Tidmore said.

The cruise line takes care of everything, including taking the luggage from the hotel to the passenger’s stateroom, Tidwell said.

Response to the new river cruise has been “tremendous,” particularly for the lower Mississippi cruises, Tidwell said. Four cruises have already been completely booked, and French American is still spreading the word about its business.

Cruise Critic Top Awards

For the fifth consecutive year, Disney Cruise Line has taken top honors in Cruise Critic’s annual Cruisers’ Choice Awards, with Cruise Critic reviewers choosing Disney Dream as the “Best Overall” large cruise ship for the third year in a row.

Meanwhile, sister ship Disney Magic earned the same honor in the Mid-Size ship category, accounting for the second of Disney’s eight awards, which also include “Best Cabins” and “Best Service” in the Large ship category and “Best for Families” overall.

Did your favorite make the list? See the full list of the 2017 Cruisers’ Choice Award winners.

Cruise Critic’s annual Cruisers’ Choice Awards are based solely on the ratings from everyday cruisers’ reviews. This year’s awards include reviews submitted for cruises taken during 2016, and they’re given in four categories: Large (2,000 passengers and more), Mid-Size (1,200-1,999), Small-Mid (400- 1,199) and Small (fewer than 400).

Celebrity had winners on both ends of the size spectrum, commandeering an impressive eight awards. Celebrity Xpedition, the line’s expedition vessel, came away with six accolades in the Small category, including “Best Overall.” Add two more — “Best Dining” and “Best Embarkation” — for Celebrity Reflection in the Large category.

Also of note is Viking Ocean, which nearly swept the Small-Mid category, winning nine of 10 possible awards that include bests in dining, service and entertainment, as well as “Best Overall” for new ship Viking Sea, which debuted in 2016. Additionally, Viking won “Best for First-Timers.”

Equally impressive is Oceania, which gets the nod for “Best Dining” in the Mid-Size category for the sixth year in a row. This year, Marina got the honor. The ship also took “Best Cabins,” “Best for Fitness” and “Best for Service.”

A newcomer to the awards this year is Celestyal Crystal, which offers Cuba sailings year-round. It took home four awards in the Mid-Size ship category, including “Best Value” and “Best Shore Excursions.”

Finally, with its commitment to all-inclusive beverages, Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Sky snagged recognition among large ships for “Best Value.”

–By Ashley Kosciolek, Editor