Friday, March 2, 2018

Luxury Cruises: Are They Worth It?


seadream luxury cruise all inclusive drink
Read on to see what you get for the higher price point. - Photo by SeaDream Yacht Club

There's one way to know for sure whether you're on a luxury cruise or not. After ordering a beer, a glass of wine, a cocktail, or even a specialty coffee, does someone slide you the bill to sign? If yes, you're probably not on a luxury cruise.
The all-inclusive nature of luxury cruising is but one of the many attributes that differentiate this style of cruising from others. Yes, you'll pay out more upfront, but if you do the math, and you may find that you're getting more in return than you would on a "normal" cruise. Luxury cruise companies tout the value of what they offer, and they offer quite a lot.
For example,  Crystal Serenity is the largest ship in the segment and Crystal Cruises is known for personalized attention and exotic itineraries, with Serenity offering all of the trappings of a 5-star resort (multiple dining venues, a spa, fitness center, movie theater) and, despite its hefty 1,000-passenger count, a remarkably high standard of service. Crystal Cruises' hallmark of big ship amenities and activities executed in a luxury yacht manner is why onboard classes feel intimate and selective, and shore excursions (like touring Florence in a Ferrari) make for once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Top-Notch Service

seadream yacht cruise line luxury service
Photo by SeaDream Yacht Club
A recent client passed by the atrium bar when the concierge, who just happened to be walking by, stopped the client. Where was I going in such a hurry? he asked. To buy a necktie at one of the shops, he answered, explaining that he had forgotten to pack a tie. "No you're not," the concierge said. "You're going to sit down and have a drink while I go to my stateroom to get you a tie." A few minutes later, he returned with a tie that he draped around the client's neck and formed into a Windsor knot. How could you anticipate something like that? You can't, but it's the type of service you can expect on a luxury cruise.
Luxury cruise ships have a higher staff-to-guest ratio, with some ships having as many as one staff member per guest. Similarly, the space-to-passenger ratio on these ships is typically greater than on large cruise lines. Comfort also means that when disembarking the ship for the day, you'll find tenders that run more frequently (on a per-passenger basis) and motor coaches that carry fewer passengers than on large ships.

All-Inclusive Cruising

seadream yacht club luxury all inclusive
Photo by SeaDream Yacht Club
Not having to sign a check for beverages is perhaps the most liberating aspect of luxury cruising. Drink champagne before a meal, have wine with dinner, and splurge on an after-dinner cocktail – without giving a second thought as to how much consuming these will add to your final bill. Even gratuities are included. Onboard amenities such as spa treatments and laundry service do come at a premium, as do shore excursions on a number of cruise lines.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises, which prides itself on being the most inclusive luxury line, provides unlimited shore excursions (think train rides in Australia and a wildlife quest in Alaska). As the choices for excursions indicate, luxury cruises tend to venture off the beaten path. Seabourn Cruise Line, for instance, with their retractable onboard marinas, whisks passengers deep into the Antarctic, through Patagonia, and around the Mediterranean. If you try to find the same itinerary on a larger line like Royal Caribbean, you'll find they only venture to Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro. Smaller ships often visit ports that the big ships can't reach — you'll never see a Carinval ship  docking in the city center of Bordeaux or in front of the Royal Palace in Stockholm.

Gourmet Cuisine

crystal cruises dining luxury cruise cuisine
Photo by Crystal Cruises
A gourmet meal won't be the highlight of your cruise, it will be the standard. It's not too much of a stretch to say that some of these dishes alone would cost you pretty close to what you're paying for the cruise on a per-diem basis. One evening aboard Crystal Serenity you might dine at Silk Road, where you enjoy a series of special dishes by Nobu Matsuhisa. Dinner at his eponymous restaurant on land, Nobu, could easily set you back a few hundred dollars. The additional cost of this delicious dining experience? Zero. Yet Crystal Cruises is not the only player to offer exceptional dining experiences. Silversea Cruises, which operates a fleet of six small ships and four expedition vessels, partnered with French hospitality chain Relais & Châteaux, to bring guests cuisine on par with its 500-plus locations around the world. Guests may dine at Le Champagne, the organization's only wine restaurant at sea, or partake in cooking school at L'Ecole des Chefs; an innovative culinary experience created by Relais & Châteaux.

The 'Ship Within a Ship'

norwegian getaway cruise luxury haven inclusive
Photo by Norwegian Cruise Line

If all of this sounds appetizing, but a full-fledged luxury cruise isn't in the cards, several large ships offer a taste of luxury via the increasingly popular "ship within a ship" concept. The Haven on Norwegian Cruise Line is a separate area within the ship that offer luxurious amenities like private dining rooms, wine with meals, round the clock butler service, and priority access to common areas like the spa and fitness center. It's essentially a luxury experience with the added bonus of all the amenities that only big ships have to offer, like Broadway-caliber entertainment and huge water slides.
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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Cruise Trends 2018

1. More Megaships

msc cruises seaside mega ship miami
Photo by MSC Cruises
The Trend: 2018 will see the launch of Norwegian Bliss and Carnival Horizon, plus offerings from two new players in the megaship market, Celebrity and MSCEdge will be Celebrity’s first megaship (and their first new ship in five years), while MSC will launch both the Seaside and Seaview.
Our Take: Just about every new ship from a major line in the past 4 years has been among their biggest offerings yet. That said, we do see enough feedback from clients who are not a fan of 5,000+ passenger ships to make us think that eventually, one of these bigger lines will try to make headlines by bucking the trend and building a series of “small,” “intimate” ships of “only” 2,500 passengers. It’s already happening with smaller lines; Viking Cruises is rapidly expanding their fleet of ocean ships, and Virgin Voyages will be debuting their first vessel in 2020, which will only hold 2,700 passengers.

2. Free Drinks

norwegian cruise alcoholic drinks norwegian sky
Photo by Norwegian Cruise Line
The Trend: Two years ago, Norwegian Cruise Line took a big step towards inclusivity by making the Norwegian Sky completely open bar. Norwegian considers the experiment a success, and plans to expand the policy to short cruises on Norwegian Sun in May 2018.
Our Take: This policy is great for those of us who plan on drinking our money’s worth, but not the best news for cruisers who aren’t heavy drinkers. Fares (and suggested gratuities) rose to make up for the lost revenue, meaning that your margaritas are at least partially subsidized by the cruise fare of non-drinkers. We’re skeptical that this trend will spread fleetwide, but it will be a huge selling point that sets Norwegian apart in the short-cruise market. Our eyes are also on Royal Caribbean, who we suspect may try something similar aboard one of their vintage ships, like Majesty or Empress of the Seas.

3. River Cruises for Millennials

u by uniworld millennials river cruise
Photo by Uniworld
The Trend: European river cruises have never been known for attracting passengers under the age of 45, which is why it was so surprising that Uniworld would be appealing to millennial (and Gen X) cruisers with their new offering, U by Uniworld. Their two unmistakable jet-black ships, simply named “The A” and “The B”, will sail typical river itineraries along the Danube and Rhine with excursions and local entertainment carefully curated for a younger crowd.
Our Take: No one has ever tried anything like this before, but we’re intrigued. Millennials aren’t known for being ardent cruisers (let alone river cruisers), but their offerings of complimentary WiFi, silent discos, and rooftop yoga makes it seem like they understand their target market. If younger cruisers aren’t interested, the ships will be awfully empty because U requires all guests to be between 21 and 45 years old at the time of departure.

4. Cuba

royal caribbean empress seas cuba cruise
Photo by Royal Caribbean
The Trend: The Cuba market is slowly heating up after the easing of travel restrictions in 2016. Royal Caribbean is adding a second ship, Majesty of the Seas, to year-round Cuba itineraries in 2018, and in total, 11 ships from 8 different lines will head to Cuba at some point during the year.
Our Take: Cuba cruises will likely remain a niche destination for another several years as lines continue to charge premium prices, but someday we expect it to be just another stop on a typical Caribbean itinerary. As restrictions have been recently tightened again on traditional travel to Cuba, a cruise is arguably the easiest option for Americans to visit there.

5. Public Observation Areas

celebrity cruises edge magic carpet outdoors
Photo by Celebrity Cruises
The Trend: Cruise lines are really banking on the value of a good view. Seaside and Seaview will have three infinity bridges (two extending over the side with the third on the top aft deck), the Magic Carpet platform on Celebrity Edge extends over the side of the ship, and Norwegian Bliss will have multiple indoor observation lounges with panoramic views for taking in the Alaskan coast.
Our Take: What’s not to like? The large observation lounges on Bliss likely won’t become the norm as that ship is built from the ground up for Alaska sailings, but after the popularity of Royal Caribbean’s North Star, it seems like most new ships will have a couple of neat areas where you can take in the sunset as you sail out of port.

6. More Technology Onboard

princess cruises royal ocean medallion technology
Photo by Princess Cruises
The Trend: Major cruise lines are integrating more and more technology into onboard life every year. Cruise line apps let guests make restaurant reservations, read the list of daily activities, and see what time various attractions open around the ship. Wearables like the Ocean Medallion on Princess Cruises are similar to Disney World’s MagicBands, which allow cruisers to open their cabin door, pay for purchases, and in tandem with an app, order drinks that a bartender will bring to you no matter where you are with location mapping. 
Our Take: We're all for making things more convenient, and we certainly don't mind that cruise lines are also upgrading their internet systems for faster, more reliable wifi. We are staying cautious though, because we don’t want to see technology overwhelming the cruise experience. Part of what makes a vacation, well, a vacation is that you leave your day-to-day life at home and unplug. We think there’s a good balance to be found.
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Travel Mistakes Smart People Make

Here are the most common travel mistakes we’ve seen smart people make.

Plan too late:   A month before the holidays is no time to start making travel arrangements. While there may be the chance cancellation (and in some rare cases, great savings), the more common scenario is that you wind up overpaying for accommodations (“Only the penthouse is available”) and taking unpleasant connecting flights (four hours in the Miami airport) or worse, sitting in a back row seat in economy for an 8-hour flight.

Book complicated flights for savings:   Booking that inexpensive flight to and from Rome may at first seem to be a great savings. But how are you going to get to FCO by 7 a.m. if you are staying on the Amalfi Coast? Inevitably, we have to book airport hotels for these do-it-yourself air bookings, bringing the price up and adding the inconvenience of another hotel check-in/check-out.

Waste time shopping for best hotel deal:   We’ve had clients get caught up in trying to find the cheapest price for their room. In the end, they may save $9 a night, but they’ve spent five evenings of their own time doing so.

Go through security motions mindlessly:   That moment of going through security is a vulnerable one. One in which you need to be on high alert at all times. All too often, travelers toss passports, phones and wallets in the security bins. Then they stand on line for the machine, get patted down and the next thing they know—no sign of their loose items.

Take a taxi from the airport:  While it’s cheaper to take a taxi from the airport to your hotel than have a driver meet you, the price one may pay in aggravation is just not worth it (and can more than double the fare). The rip-offs come in all varieties based on the destination — the broken meter, the round-about route that doubles the time and distance, the language barrier resulting in the wrong hotel or the wrong side of town.

Fall for free guides and other street “sales”:   All over Prague, you see young adults (maybe students, maybe not) with signs that say “Free Tours.” Follow along and not only will you learn all sorts of fictional stories about the city, but in the end, feel obligated to give the self-proclaimed, non-licensed “tour guide” 5 or 10 Euros. Not a bad profit for an hour’s walk with 20 people.

Packing Too Many Activities or Countries Into One Trip:  This limits your opportunities. You’ll be too busy to find hidden gems or follow up on tips from locals, and the hassle of so much travel can be stressful. Make sure you give yourself some time to relax and soak up the best of what each destination has to offer.  You do not want the memories of your trip to be just planes, trains, and automobiles.

Thinking they can do it all: Travelers may be able to do a lot of exceptional things themselves. Maybe they’re able to teach their kids the piano or build a treehouse that sleeps four. But the really smart ones are those who have figured out the best way to have things done right and in a timely fashion is to bring in the pros. Nowhere does this apply more than in organizing travel.