Life on the High Seas Varied cruise options let you enjoy pleasures of the waves without sinking your wallet

February 21, 1993|By Gerri Kobren | Gerri Kobren,Staff Writer

In the great days of (un-air-conditioned) ocean voyages, th British knew how to keep their cool. Port side outward, starboard home, moneyed travelers would order as they booked passage to India, and their instructions for P.O.S.H. accommodations became the synonym for luxury.

Even in these more casual times, the idea of an ocean cruise sails along on an aura of indulgence. It's the kind of vacation you take when you want glamour, romance, the warm caress of ocean breezes, food of infinite variety and quantity, great service -- and the convenience of unpacking just one time aboard a floating hotel that takes you to exotic and shop-filled paradises.

You can, of course, do your sea travel in exquisite and expensive style on a top-of-the-luxury-line liner. But a recent wave of print ads and TV commercials has been touting, instead, the dollar value and just-plain-folks qualities of vacations at sea. And, in fact, many cruise lines today are pitching themselves at the mass market -- at a married-with-children crowd, or a budgeting swingles set, or an average-income clientele with a little disposable money, a big yen for ocean breezes and a healthy appreciation for the fact that all necessary expenses are included in the up-front cost of the ticket.

Cruise industry reports suggest the strategy is paying off: The number of cruisers has been growing by 10 percent a year for the past decade; 1991's 4 million is expected to have grown to 4.4 million when the figures are all tabulated for 1992. A growing segment of the cruising population is in the moderate income bracket, earning $20,000 to $39,000 a year; and the most rapidly expanding cruise schedule is the short one, a three-to-five-day teaser that's just enough to let you get your feet wet at a lower cost than the more traditional seven-day trip.

Longer cruises don't necessarily leave you drowning in debt either. Off-peak travel times, two-for offers, group fares, advance-booking and big-agency discounts can cut down the ticket price. Where you stay will also make a difference: Lower decks and inside cabins are less costly than upper decks and outside cabins.

And according to Jim Eraso, a travel agent in Key Biscayne, Fla., older ships are sometimes less expensive to operate than glitzier, newer ships, and the savings may be passed on to the passenger.

(On the other hand, older is sometimes better, says Bill La Tourette, president of Cruise World in Baltimore. Built in decades past, some of them "have bigger cabins, two-story ballrooms, wood paneling. . . . That kind of craftsmanship isn't there anymore.")

Budgeters, therefore, can choose: seven days on Fantasy Line's Amerikanis, out of Puerto Rico, with brochure prices starting as low as $599 per person, for example, or seven days on the Seabourn Pride, out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., cresting as high as $5,995.

Or, something in between.

What's the difference between high- and low-priced cruises? Something like the difference between shopping in discount department stores and buying from Nordstrom or Lord & Taylor, answers Mr. La Tourette. "At the high end, you just get better service, better quality of food, more space, different clientele."

At the high end, you're also likely to be getting more dressed up in the evening, to be rubbing shoulders with fewer fellow passengers, to have just one leisurely dinner time (instead of the double shifts necessitated by hordes at sea on less costly cruises), says Mr. Eraso, who is also chairman of the American Association of Travel Agents cruise committee.

But whether you're riding high or low in the water or someplace in-between, your cruise ship will have certain amenities, Mr. La Tourette says: nightclub and cabaret-type shows, pool and exercise room, casino, lounge, shipboard activities, food -- and more food.

"If you want something super deluxe, something elegant, a black-tie cruise, you should go Crystal Line or Seabourn," says Mr. La Tourette. "For college kids who want to party -- we'll put them on Carnival. . . . We tell them, 'Leave the tuxedo at home. You'll have fun -- but don't expect the Ritz.' "

Planning to tack on a Caribbean cruise at the end of a car trip to Florida, we were advised by our AAA travel agent to go with Royal Caribbean, which positions itself at the upper end of the mass market. Commissioned in 1990, our ship -- the Nordic Empress -- carries 1,610 passengers and 685 staff; its nine-story atrium, with cascades of lights and foliage, has the ambience of an upscale new hotel. The most expensive (and least plentiful) suites with balconies are on the eighth deck; in all other respects -- in the hot tubs, the exercise areas, the casino and lounge and dining room -- all passengers are created equal.

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