Wallets may take a bruising when you go cruising in 2005

Industry adds fees to help pay for its recently built ships and new features


February 27, 2005|By Spud Hilton | Spud Hilton,San Francisco Chronicle

Since the beginning of 2000, cruise lines have spent -- give or take a few nickels -- about $20.3 billion to build 55 gleaming new mega-ships to get you to ports in Alaska, the Caribbean, Mexico and beyond.

It seems 2005 will be the year you get to pay for them.

More than likely, the cruising industry will focus much of its energies this year on new ways to recoup what it spent during half a decade of deep discounting and almost manic shipbuilding. Expect fuel charges, service charges and, um, charge charges, as well as more options on your "inclusive" vacation that will cost extra.

Also, the new-ship frenzy will grind to a sleepy pace, and the year should see more places to go (big push in Europe and underused ports in the Caribbean); more diversions while getting there (outdoor movies, even more dining options); and, of course, new ways to pay for it all.

The following is a not-so-crystal ball look at what cruise consumers should expect this year:

Gratuitous gratuities

When Norwegian Cruise Line introduced automatic tipping in 2000, it seemed like a passing fad. But the practice -- adding $10 per passenger per day to your onboard account to relieve you of the burden of handing out gratuities -- now is almost industry-wide. (Even Holland America, long the bastion of the "no tipping necessary" policy, has gone to an automatic $10 per person per day.)

To add further confusion, Norwegian turned its automatic gratuity this summer into a mandatory "service charge" that, while not technically a tip because it isn't pooled and distributed to employees, absolved passengers from tipping responsibilities, according to the company. The problem: A mandatory fee should be part of the advertised ticket price.

The company has since loosened the mandatory aspect -- a little -- but sticks by its "service charge." It's a good bet some other cruise lines will adopt the practice.

Waste disposal

More than ever, the cruise industry is coming under scrutiny over its waste-disposal practices. The good news: In response, the industry has been equipping more ships with expensive, ultra-high-tech screening, filtering and recovery systems that reduce what goes into the sky and sea. The bad news: Expect to see the bill for all that stuff on your next ticket. You didn't think it came out of the CEO's pocket, did you?

Agent ad prices

Carnival and Royal Carib-bean made a point last year of going after travel agencies that advertise rates based on rebates from agents' commissions. (Because agents generally make a 10 percent to 15 percent commission on cruises, they can offer a lower price than the cruise line simply by giving 5 percent to 10 percent of their commission to you. They still make 5 percent to 10 percent.)

FYI: Most agents are still able to offer the rebate -- they just can't advertise it.

Celebrity chefs

Cruise expert Douglas Ward says to look for more name recognition in the dining room. "Several cruise lines have aligned themselves with well-known chefs and brand names ashore in order to provide an 'authenticity' to their product, and to produce even more of a 'wow' effect, at least in terms of marketing."

Examples: Crystal, Wolfgang Puck; Cunard, Daniel Boulud; Seven Seas Cruises, Le Cordon Bleu. The exclusive alternative restaurant on Queen Mary 2, named for star chef Todd English, was free when the ship made its debut, but now costs $30 per person extra.

Fueled by you

Star Cruises, which serves Asian-Pacific markets, announced a fuel surcharge in October that ranges from $2 to $4 per person per night, depending on the vessel, and applies to all cabin categories. Several other cruise lines have considered a similar charge, according to company officials, but none intends to launch it -- for now.

Drive-in by the pool

Princess and Cunard both started showing movies outdoors on a giant screen by the pool (including a sing-along Wizard of Oz on the Caribbean Princess) last year. Expect to see companies equipping more ships, at least those that ply Caribbean waters, to show movies al fresco.

Continental cruising

Demand for European cruises is so high that Celebrity Cruises canceled Caribbean itineraries for the 1,750-passenger Century to move the ship to Amsterdam for voyages around northern and eastern Europe. Why? With the U.S. dollar getting slammed throughout the Continent, cruising is suddenly a cheaper alternative because lodging and food are already paid for -- in dollars, not euros.

New ships

The flood of new mega-ships slows to a trickle this year. Here's the Class of '05:

American Spirit (92 passengers, 99 tons): The third ship for American Cruise Lines, which specializes in coastal and waterway cruises on the East Coast. The vessel is expected to enter service in June.

Arcadia (2,000 passengers, 82,500 tons): P&O Cruises, marketed predominantly in Europe, launches its largest ship in April to sail Western Europe, the Mediterranean and the Baltic.

Carnival Liberty (2,974 passengers, 110,000 tons): Similar in shape to Carnival's Destiny, Glory, Triumph, Valor and Victory. When launched this summer, it will sail Mediterranean and Caribbean routes.

Norwegian Jewel (2,400 passengers, 92,000 tons): When it enters service in August, Jewel will be NCL's fourth ship built specifically for Freestyle Cruising (10 restaurants). The vessel will spend most of its time on the East Coast and the Caribbean, eventually expanding to Alaska.

Pride of America (2,144 passengers, 81,000 tons): This vessel, which started as a hull owned by American Classic Voyages until the company went belly-up, will be Norwegian Cruise Line's second U.S.-flagged ship built specifically for Hawaiian waters (read: no casino). It will enter service in July.

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