Customers' choices multiply in world of cruises

Liners: A record number of ships will join the fleet this year. In their wake will be a traveler's market.

February 20, 2000|By Jaya Clarke | Jaya Clarke,Knight Ridder/Tribune

It's going to be one heck of a cruise year.

With a record number of new ships entering service, cruise vacationers will have more choices than ever. Seventeen ships are scheduled to be added to the world's cruise fleet in 2000, most of them serving the American market.

But passenger choices aren't just a matter of which ship to pick. The impact of so many vessels coming on line this year is compelling the cruise lines to upgrade their other ships, to create new on-board diversions, to improve service and to establish new embarkation ports and itineraries.

That should make cruising a much more diverse and rewarding experience this year. And the glut of new berths -- more than 18,000 -- is holding down prices and sometimes prompting discounts.

Already, Carnival has posted one-week Alaska sailings at under $700, and Holland America is advertising one-week Caribbean trips for $649.

The biggest story, though, is the resurgence of Mediterranean cruises, says Mike Driscoll, editor and publisher of Cruise Week newsletter. While the number of berths in the Mediterranean remains about the same, fares have dropped a bit from last year.

Another trend, Driscoll said, is Princess Cruises' buildup in the Caribbean. The line, which has always had a winter presence there, is gearing up to go year-round. Its new Ocean Princess is joining the seasonal fleet in San Juan later this month. And next year, when Princess stations its Grand Princess in the region year-round, the line will go head to head against Carnival and Royal Caribbean in cruising's biggest market.

Together with another huge number of new ships entering service in 2001, this development will produce a "pricing blood bath" in the Caribbean next year, Driscoll believes.

This year's new ships are the most varied in years, ranging in passenger count from 49 to 3,100 and in size from small to gigantic. Six of the new ones are specialty ships, built for river cruising or as sailing vessels.

Innovations are also broadening the scope of cruising.

When Celebrity Cruises brings forth its new Millennium in June, it will have cruising's first music library, with individual listening stations. It will also boast the first demonstration galley and dine-in wine cellar.

Cunard is launching a new entertainment concept this year: bringing pre-Broadway shows to the QE2. Guests will be able to sit in on open rehearsals, workshops, acting exercises and other backstage developments.

Norwegian Cruise Lines' new Norwegian Sky was the first to put an Internet cafe on board, and it has been so successful that the line is adding them to all its ships. A hookup costs 75 cents a minute.

Royal Caribbean's new Voyager of the Seas introduced a business salon with individual work stations equipped with computers, and is so pleased with the response that it will have all its other ships fitted with Internet cafes by the end of March.

Voyager, currently the biggest in the world, raised cruise sights a notch last November when it introduced the industry's first ice rink, first rock-climbing wall and an indoor mall flanked by three levels of windowed inside cabins.

Will other ships copy? Stay tuned.

Personal e-mail isn't the only use the cruise lines are making of the Internet. Some lines are now allowing travel agents and consumers to book online. Most of those that accept such bookings from consumers, however, still urge them to use travel agents.

In brief

Culture

Occasional bad service is inevitable. And it's always a bummer -- especially when you're the recipient. Whether you're dealing with airlines, cruise lines, travel agents, tour operators, hotels or car rental companies -- have we missed anyone? -- there's always a possibility that something can go amiss.

For some people, the first instinct is to rant and rave and throttle someone. But the best first instinct is to take a deep breath. Perhaps you might want to sigh. You'll take a big step toward resolving the problem if you keep your cool.

When things go wrong, chances are that somebody made a mistake -- nothing intentional. Someone simply goofed. A baggage handler inadvertently put your bag on the wrong conveyor. A waiter delivered an entree you didn't order. A hotel messed up your room reservation. Whatever.

Screaming and shouting won't solve the problem. A calm conversation has a better chance of paving the way to a solution.

As Ed Perkins, a noted consumer advocate, observed: "Ninety percent of the problems in Washington are due to screw-ups rather than evil intentions. That's probably true with most of the screw-ups in travel, too. These companies are not deliberately trying to give you a bad time."

It's best to deal with problems when they occur, rather than letting them fester. In the case of an airline problem at the airport, talk to an airline customer service representative. In most instances, these reps have the authority to resolve problems on the spot.

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