Thursday, May 26, 2011

Royal Caribbean Goes Solo

Earlier this year Norwegian Cruise Lines surprised the travel world when, in an industry first, it included more than 100 solo occupancy cabins in their new ship, the Norwegian Epic. This was a welcome change for the thousands of people who actually prefer traveling alone. Previously, the only choice for a solo cruiser was to pay an obnoxious single supplement, not worth the extra money for most people. Not to be outdone, Royal Caribbean announced recently that they, too, are joining the solo revolution and will begin remodeling older ships to include berths for single individuals: three berths to be exact.
That’s right, on a ship with more than 2,100 passengers Royal Caribbean will have three windowless interior rooms for those who dare travel alone. Obviously, the cruise line is either worried the sun will hurt these poor, lonely people, or, more likely, they want to spare them the public ridicule of traveling solo.
There has always been a large number of people who travel alone, but traditionally the travel industry has not made it easy for them. Extra fees and marginalization have been the standard practice.
When Norwegian fully committed to the idea of solo travel, I thought “Finally! The cruise lines get it!” People who aren’t in a relationship or don’t want to cruise with their second cousin should be allowed to cruise affordably, too. Cruising is a great way to travel and can be one of the most budget friendly options out there—solo travelers would embrace a chance to take part. Then Royal Caribbean decided to slap them in the face.
If a company is going to commit to serving a segment of the travel population then they should, you know, commit. Three rooms?! How sad for those travelers, not even an even number of cabins, so that there’s always a guaranteed third wheel. Norwegian has events for their solo travelers and encourages them to meet fellow passengers. Royal Caribbean’s version of the solo travel experience reminds me of a high school dance—the wall flowers standing against the wall, sadly sipping their punch, while the lucky couples dance the night away.
Solo travelers aren’t sad, lonely people to pity, they’re tourists just like any one else with money in their pocket to spend on a relaxing vacation. If Norwegian can find success with the solo traveler, then so should every other major cruise line.

Size Matters When Choosing a Cruise

I firmly believe that taking a cruise is one of the most enjoyable and budget friendly vacations available. I even wrote about how to take one of these vacations while not spending a fortune in Save Money – Take a Cruise? But cruises aren’t just the mega-ships that usually come to mind, there is a dynamic universe of cruise ships and experiences for all personalities.
For simplicity’s sake, I am dividing the cruising universe into two types: Large ship and small ship. I know that there are various iterations and some of the ships I deem small may disagree, but I’m just trying to make the comparisons simple.
Everyone is familiar with the large ships; Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Norwegian, and Carnival are just a few of the large and super sized ships available in all regions of the world, from the Caribbean to Australia.  The small ships include river cruise boats and smaller, more expeditionary style vessels. Viking and AMA Waterways are a couple of the river cruise companies and Lindblad is perhaps the best known of the expedition-style small ship.
I have cruised on both large and small ships, although admittedly not river boats, and have enjoyed all of my experiences, even though they were markedly different. In spite of the millions of people who take cruises, this vacation is very personal and you have to take into account certain characteristics when deciding which style, large or small ship, is best for you. Here are some tips on finding your own cruise personality.
Lindblad Endeavour
Lindblad Endeavour
Food - Like it or not, eating is one of the most important aspects of any trip, especially on a cruise. I know everyone jokes about all the food available onboard ships and the never ending buffets, but I’ve never found the food to be excessive. Like anything else, it‘s up to you as to whether or not you indulge to an extreme.
Onboard large ships, there are countless options at all times of day. Breakfast is usually enjoyed in the large, buffet style dining room, although complimentary room service is also a great option. Lunch is in a similar setting and if you get peckish throughout the day, the mega ships have scores of options from Johnny Rockets to gourmet cupcakes and yes, there are midnight chocolate buffets.
Small ships are different. There is not usually assigned seating, many times all meals are buffet and there aren’t endless eating options; but that’s ok. Frequently, the mega ships are themselves an additional destination, but smaller ships really do highlight the actual destinations more than the ship. That’s not to say the quality isn’t there, it most certainly is. While the ships may be small, they engage talented chefs and offer more unique and forward thinking meals than their mega rivals. There is also usually tea, coffee and some snacks available during the day. On the Lindblad ship Endeavour, the coffees and snacks were in the library which added a certain old world feel to the day. While there aren’t midnight chocolate buffets on these ships, the attention to the guests’ needs is present at all times.
Amenities - Modern cruise ships are famous for the onboard activities. Mega ships have everything from ice rinks to water parks and even real grass with croquet. Different ships tend to specialize in different activities, but there’s no shortage of ways to spend your time. In addition to the fun stuff, there are gyms, casinos, spas and of course seemingly endless bars.
Even though small ships are, well, small, they too have plenty of amenities for their guests. While you won’t find an ice rink on board, why do you really need one anyway? They do have everything else one would need including world class gyms, spas and even a bar or two.
Celebrity Solstice Lawn Club
Celebrity Solstice Lawn Club
People - To state the obvious once again, mega ships are large and have thousands of guests on board. While you will absolutely meet new people and perhaps make friends, there is a certain level of detached anonymity available onboard. If you are so inclined, it is very easy to spend an entire week without engaging with anyone new. A lot of people can also mean a lot of confusion and long wait times. You notice the impact of thousands of guests right away during both the embarkation process and the lifeboat drill. During the cruise itself the ships’ crew usually does a good job of managing the crowds until it comes time to visit a port. If  you are visiting an area where you have to tender (take a small boat) to the mainland, you may have to wait up to an hour to leave the ship.
Small ships definitely have the advantage of fewer people. Getting on and off the ship is easy and the crew quickly helps alleviate any bottlenecks that may occur. There is also a forced intimacy due to the size of the ship. You tend to talk to more people and, in my experience, make more friends. Because you aren’t gallivanting off to the next Bingo game or putt putt tournament, there are more opportunities to talk with the other guests and in many times make lifelong friends. Of course, if you don’t like your fellow passengers the trip can be a long one.
Oddly enough, cruising is a personal experience and everyone has different preferences. Large ships are great and are themselves a separate destination in addition to the various ports of call. Small ship cruising though is unique and not only gives its passengers an intimate feel, but because of the smaller ship size they can access areas of the world unavailable to the mega ships.
Regardless of which you choose, cruising is one of the best vacation options available to anyone of almost any background, age or experience.

Celebrity Solstice Santorini
Carnival Cruise Lines recently announced that it would begin experimenting with charging for premium steak options in its main dining rooms. The $18 fee will be a trial run for three months, after which time the company will evaluate the results.
Here’s the problem with charging for food in the main dining room – you have already paid for it. Cruise lines gave in to the dreaded fee monster years ago, although in such ways that they have flown under the radar of the average guest. Unlike their airline cousins, whose every fee implementation yields worldwide scorn, the cruise lines have generally been able to implement new fees without drawing significant ire from the general public. Until now.
The beauty of a cruise, and what in great part makes it an affordable travel choice, is the fact that at the very least your accommodations and your food are included in the fare. Yes, there are a gazillion (technical term) add-ons and extra things you can buy onboard, BUT if you avoid these temptations you can still be guaranteed a bed and something to eat.
Several years ago, the cruise lines introduced specialty restaurants, giving passengers new dining options for a reasonable fee. I think the specialty restaurants were a great idea and add a lot to the dining experience. As decent as the main dining rooms can be, it’s nice to have a truly great meal in quiet surroundings with your cruising partner. It’s when the cruise lines start to get greedy that problems ensue.
Today, more than any other time, vacationers are looking for ways to maximize their travel dollars; an increasingly difficult task. Airline fees have made flying extraordinarily expensive for the average family, hotel rates are climbing once again and what should be a moderately priced family vacation suddenly becomes an extravagance. This is where the cruise lines enter.
I have long maintained that cruising is one of the most cost effective ways of taking a trip. They allow you to plan well in advance and even pay in installments should you so choose. The itineraries include several countries and ports of call which would be cost prohibitive to visit independently. Once you are onboard, as I have said, the essentials are already included in the base fare. In my article Save Money – Take a Cruise?, I explain the myriad ways in which the cruise lines try to wring even more money from the traveler, but these are entirely avoidable. No one is forcing you to get a Mai Tai at the pool or pay for the deluxe helicopter excursion.
But, if the cruise lines intend on succumbing to the fee monster and force passengers to pay for every little item, their reign as king of the affordable vacation is over. Steak is only the first step, next it will be other menu items and then once they have exhausted those opportunities, the rest of the trip is fair game. Pretty soon they’ll charge for bag delivery and offer guests the opportunity to buy earlier embarkation and disembarkation times. If the cruise lines decide to go down this thorny path, the options really are limitless. But if they are smart, they won’t.
Personally, I find a la carte pricing a little offensive and deceptive. If you want to make more money, charge more for the base ticket or room and be done with it. The experience of flying on a new airline with the dozens of fees is a nightmare and makes effective budget planning almost impossible. That’s why cruising, until now, has been a welcome relief.
There is something civilized about cruising that you can’t find anywhere else; the high level of service in all areas is part of the appeal. Adding dozens of money making opportunities to these little services would be a disaster and the bill at the end of the trip would come as a shock to most guests.
So I say to the cruise lines, if you want to make more money that’s fine. Yay capitalism! But do it up front and raise your fares. If you insist on succumbing to the fee monster like our friends the airlines, then at least have the decency of dropping your fares, because you can’t have it both ways. If you keep fares the same and begin implementing new fees, people will stop seeing you as a cost effective travel option and soon you will draw as much hatred as the poor, oft-maligned airlines.

Celebrity Solstice

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