Last-Minute Travel Deals Still Exist — If You’re Patient

April 12, 2010 at 9:54 am | Posted in air travel, car rental/hire, consumer travel, cruising, travel and technology, value in travel | Leave a comment
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by José Balido

last-minute travel dealsVacationers and business travelers alike are booking travel later in the game than ever these days — often a week or less from departure — with the dicey economy accelerating a trend that’s been building for years. This higher demand for last-minute travel, together with the yield management systems used by many of the big players, means rates that are more than ever in flux up until the 11th hour. It also means that “deals” are no longer a sure thing.

Oh, and did I mention that the currently downsized number of flights and rental cars is also tightening unsold inventory? Sadly, all the above ads up to not a lot of breaks for the last-minute travel shopper.

Best Travel Websites for Last-Minute Deals
The good news: All is not lost. Such breaks do still pop up, because the fact remains that vendors with unsold inventory — whether it’s bundled air-hotel packages or individual components — will always need to unload it. What you’ll need is a spot of patience and perseverance — and willingness to spend a fair bit of time online doing comparisons, because that’s where most of the action is these days. And there are certainly myriad choices, including the likes of and last-minute sections of familiar sites like TravelZoo, Travelocity, and Kayak. I’ve found particularly good ones are, and of course where after checking the going rates on other sites you can try submitting (reasonably!) lower bids.

Apart from trolling these various sites, in the case of airfares especially I’d sign up for alerts, both from individual airlines (United tends to have the largest selection, coming out each Monday, but doesn’t email them anymore, so you have to check and airfare info sites like, which blasts out individual and grouped alerts according to airport or route. For car rentals, some companies list last-minute specials, but check out as well, a comparison site which also features a “Deal of the Week.” And this summer, excess cruise line capacity will pretty likely mean awesome late deals on certain itineraries — especially in the Caribbean.

Twitter Travel Alerts
Finally, as this blog pointed out last year, Twitter has not only been coming on like gangbusters in general but has increasingly caught with airlines, hotels, tour operators, and other vendors as a dandy way to unload late inventory and for consumers to monitor deals by following them. Just a handful of other airlines that tweet news and fare specials include Air France (@Air_France), American (@AAirwaves), British Airways (@BritishAirways), Cathay Pacific (@cathaypacific), Continental (@Continental), JetBlue (@JetBlueCheeps), Singapore (@SingaporeAir), Southwest (@Southwest), Spirit (@SpiritAirlines), and United (@UnitedAirlines). You can also keep track of fares on sites like (@airfarewatchdog), (@dealsonairfare), and (@LowestAirfares_).

Example: Type “#travel” into the Twitter search box and you’ll come up with hundreds of same-day results. But say you want to go to Orlando. A recent search for “#Orlando #travel” yielded, among many other items:

  • For $289, a three-night stay for four at Silver Lake Resort, plus two adult day tickets to Disney World, Universal Studios, or Sea World (@SLResortOrlando).
  • News of an upcoming crafts and collectibles show in the quaint nearby town of Mount Dora (@roritravel).
  • A list of top free attractions in the Orlando area (@GotSaga).

Crack your knuckles and get surfing!

photo: iStockPhoto

How About a Theme With That Cruise?

February 24, 2010 at 2:07 pm | Posted in Caribbean/Bahamas/Bermuda, cruising, gay/lesbian travel, Mexico | Leave a comment
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by Marcia R. Levin

Sixthman Elvis Presley cruiseEven as more ships turn into floating theme parks these days, savvy cruise line execs continue to look for new and ever more imaginative ways of keeping ’em coming back for more. Hence the ever-growing number of cruises organized around some kind of theme, whether art, health/fitness, history, photography, golf, politics, finances, baseball, comedy, singles, mystery novels, poker, wine, religion, the arts, nudism, paranormal activities, Star Trek, Twilight, and above all music. The single biggest niche of all may be gay and lesbian cruises, with numerous sailings all over the world and quite a few agencies and companies — like Atlantis, RSVP, and Olivia — dedicated solely to this market segment. Of these, the highest-profile is Rosie O’ Donnell’s  R Family Vacations aboard the Norwegian Dawn (subject of an Emmy-nominated HBO documentary in 2009); NCL’s Pride of America will host R Family’s “Hawaii Spring Break Cruise” to four islands March 27-April 3 (from $1,079 each for the first two persons in a cabin, $299 for the third and fourth).

No matter what their orientation or interests, theme cruises are popular with increasing numbers of passengers who find that sailing with people who share their interests really enhances their vacation experience.

Not that such offerings are new. Even back in the 1980s, Norwegian Cruise Line was offering sports-themed cruises with major-league ballplayers and other jocks mingling with passengers. Sports nuts loved hanging out and talking about batting or goal-line stances, golf clubs, or hoops technique.

These days theme cruises are just more numerous and diverse, whether organized by the lines themselves or put together by retail travel agents or special-interest groups with the assistance of travel agents. Sometimes an entire ship is chartered by a sponsoring group, but in most cases the theme-cruisers are part of a subgroup blocking space on a regular sailing. Either way, they’re big business — Howard Moses’ lists more than 500 a year.

Occasionally they can even be a little controversial (even apart from Royal Caribbean’s September 19 “Tea Party Cruise”). Remember the recent dustup when Carnival hosted a cruise for “cougars” — older women prowling for younger men — and their fresh-faced male admirers? When the line declined to host another, Royal Caribbean International stepped in and said, “here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson,” agreeing to Singles Travel Company‘s “2nd International Cougar Cruise” May 16-23 aboard Mariner of the Seas — from Los Angeles to Los Cabos, Mazatlan, and Puerto Vallarta, starting at $659.

MSC cruise Suzanne Somers, Marcia Levin, Rick SassoI myself recently spent five days with 500 passengers on a women’s health and lifestyle cruise through the Caribbean aboard MSC Poesia where the marquee draw was actress/health guru/entrepreneur Suzanne Somers. Her daily presentations were packed with folks from all over the world, many of them lugging copies of her latest book, Knockout. I thoroughly enjoyed myself — and if there was anybody who didn’t get her picture taken with Suzanne at some point, I never met her (here at right is Suzanne with MSC North America president Rick Sasso and moi).

A quickie sampling of some other theme cruises hitting the high seas this spring:

Music Jazz, classical, polka, opera, rock, hip-hop, country — you name it, it’s afloat. “An Elvis cruise” (pictured at top right), says Andy Levine of Sixthman Cruises, “is always sold out.” Levine first booked a music cruise on Carnival Jubilee in 2001 and discovered that band devotees love hanging out with other fans in the convenient, laid-back environment cruise ships offer. On April 15,  Sixthman’s four-night “VH1 Best Cruise Ever” on Carnival Inspiration will sail from Tampa to Grand Cayman with rates starting at $799, and its “malt shop” cruise is slated for May 11-16 on the same ship out of Tampa, featuring Frankie Avalon, the Drifters, and Leslie Gore (also from $799).

Sports MSC regularly offers cruises with former pro baseball players who participate in trivia games and offer clinics — how about rubbing bats with the likes of Stan Bahnsen, Tony Taylor, Rico Petrocelli and Goran Thomas? MSC Poesia’s next baseball cruise leaves April 3 from Fort Lauderdale, with early-booking rates from $599 per person for seven nights. Others are scheduled for November 14 and December 5.

Health/Fitness How about a “Holistic Holiday at Sea”? Costa‘s Costa Fortuna sets sail March 21 from Fort Lauderdale through the Eastern Caribbean (USVI, Puerto Rico, Turks and Caicos)  with some two dozen presenters including Marilu Henner, Dr. Neal Barnard, and Christina Pirello.

Antiquing The 11-day March 29 sailing of the Celebrity Equinox serves up “Dr. Lori, art historian and antiques media maven,” providing free appraisals for passengers’ old stuff (Celebrity will provide a list of items guests cannot bring on board). Fares start at $1,049.

Film The Queen Mary 2’s six-day transatlantic crossing beginning April 29 will feature two film documentarians as part of Cunard’s “Insight” program: Dori Berinstein (The Road to Broadway) and Judd Ehrlich (Mayor of the West Side). Fares start at $907 per person.

Could Tourism Help Save Haiti?

January 23, 2010 at 11:43 pm | Posted in Caribbean/Bahamas/Bermuda, cruising, Haiti, travel industry | Leave a comment
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by David Paul Appell

The brouhaha that’s erupted in the past several days about the “questionable taste” of Royal Caribbean bringing its passengers to a leased beach at Labadee (aka Labadie), on Haiti‘s north coast, is a good example of the inevitable awkwardness in overlaying leisure tourism from generally wealthy countries onto an impoverished and shattered country where people are suffering and starving right outside gated resorts. For example, more than 20 percent of respondents to a poll said that in the wake of the recent catastrophe they felt it was inappropriate to be enjoying themselves on the beach with such devastation and deprivation beyond the fence.

But consider: this juxtaposition is just a particularly extreme and in-our-faces example of the phenomenon already taking place every day of the year in countries from Mexico to Cuba to Senegal to the Philippines. Indeed, just across the border in the Dominican Republic, plenty of Americans, Canadians, Europeans, and others prosperous enough to afford an overseas vacation guiltlessly sip piña coladas and frolic in the surf while most Dominicans live lives of, shall we say, great simplicity — and certainly no foreign beach getaways. And yet, these tourists are providing crucial jobs that support a significant chunk of the DR’s population; I doubt most locals would be happy to see them go away.

Most Haitians themselves understand this, and similarly very much want the cruise ships and tourists in general to keep coming. In the meantime, one Cruise Critic respondent even suggested ways on the site’s message board that cruisers can go that extra mile to help while at Labadee, including:

– Add a few bucks to the asking price when buying souvenirs.
– Tip generously.
– Eat a big breakfast on the ship, bring a snack with you, and don’t partake of the lunch
served on the beach — the leftovers will be donated to the locals.
– Go on a shore excursion whose proceeds are earmarked for relief efforts.
– Bring T-shirts and whatever you think appropriate, and leave them for charity.

In addition, in a larger and longer-term sense, the extent of this month’s earthquake devastation has the potential, at long last, to lead to a more concerted and effective effort to move Haiti beyond the dead end in which it’s been stuck for generations — to start again from scratch, as it were.

And in this I do think tourism can play a significant role, because as I discovered first-hand in a visit a dozen years ago, in this area the country has more to offer than many outsiders suspect. And while Port-au-Prince is probably no-go for the foreseeable future, the rest of the country hasn’t been so affected by the quake, and from what I hear is largely still in business.

Like many Caribbean destinations, of course, there are miles and miles of lovely beaches — there’s a good reason why the cruise ships come to Labadee — and even several nice guesthouses and resorts along the western coast. There are colonial forts — the most impressive of which is La Citadelle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site up in the hills south of Cap-Haïtien, a city which itself has some fine old colonial architecture. Go in for some fine hiking and ecotourism in Parc Macaya national park. Sample some of the Caribbean’s finest rum, Barbancourt, and the tasty and distinctive local cuisine. Explore the fascinating world of voudou, which isn’t witchcraft but simply a hybrid of traditional African religions and Catholicism. And despite their poverty, most of the people I recall coming across years ago exhibited admirable dignity and warmth. All in all, that long-ago trip was one of my most memorable travel experiences.

So once the dust settles and the situation becomes a little more secure, I definitely plan to revisit Haiti and explore some of the areas I haven’t seen before. If you yourself don’t want to go that far, there are other ways to support peace and prosperity through travel and tourism — for example by writing to Choice Hotels to encourage the company to follow through on its plans to open two hotels in the charming Victorian south-coast town of Jacmel. This disaster, horrific as it is, can also be a great opportunity to rebuild a beautiful country and culture that has suffered long enough. And as travelers and citizens of the world, we have the opportunity to help in a direct and concrete way.

More info:

photo: iStockphoto

Tripatini Surveys Hot Destinations for 2010

December 28, 2009 at 11:03 am | Posted in Africa, Asia, Barbados, British Columbia, Canada, Caribbean/Bahamas/Bermuda, Central America, Colombia, Croatia, cruising, Cuba, Estonia, Europe, Florida, Honduras, Iceland, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Macau, Mexico, Middle East, Montenegro, New Mexico, Panama, Rwanda, Slovenia, South Africa, South America, Sri Lanka, St. Lucia, Suriname, Turkey, Turks and Caicos, United Arab Emirates, Zimbabwe | 2 Comments
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by David Paul Appell

It’s that time when the travel-hungry are scouring the media for word of the coming year’s “it” spots. We can play that game too, so, besides popular perennials, here are 29 we see looming larger on twenty-ten’s worldwide vaycaydar:

For Americans at least, tight times mean Florida will tempt folks sticking closer to home; better deals down south include  Fort Lauderdale and up north the Panhandle. The latter’s now marketed as the “Emerald Coast,” trying to softpedal the “Redneck Riviera” image; comparisons to Sardinia’s glam Costa Smeralda are laughable, but there are some fetching towns, inns, and some interesting attractions — but above all sugary beaches along a stretch including  Destin, Fort Walton, Apalachicola, St. Joe Beach, and Pensacola. Another hotspot due for a boost this year is Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is popping the corks for its 400th anniversary (and while you’re out here, add a couple of days to explore some cool nearby towns like Acoma Pueblo and Gallup.

The big story this year is inevitably the province of British Columbia, with cool cities Vancouver and Victoria, stunning coastal and mountain scenery, eco/adventure tourism, and swell snow sports. The reason is, of course, is the attention focused on Vancouver and ski resort Whistler Blackcomb, hosting this February’s Winter Olympics.

The so-called Maya Riviera, on the Yucatan Peninsula’s Caribbean coast stretching southward from Cancun, continues evolving whether big luxury resorts, mass-market all-inclusives, exquisite small inns, or budget digs. Some also see a bump for Mexico City, whose pollution and security issues can be finessed with some common sense and which offers one of the world’s great urban experiences — and what other burg has not just a stunning Aztec pyramid complex (Teotihuacan) on its outskirts but several right in town — one smack in the middle of downtown?

This winter/spring, more ships come online and cruising is likely to stay strong, thanks to heavy discounting. Beyond the usual suspects, keep your eye on buttoned-down Barbados,  where some resorts and dining spots have been updating of late, and scenic St. Lucia, with luxury properties coming online fairly recently (Jade Mountain, The Landings) or refurbing (Cap Maison); there’s also a movement toward sustainable — and less pricey — town and country tourism. Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos also keeps adding fab resorts without sacrificing its limin’ vibe. Finally, could this be the year for Cuba, when the self-defeating, un-American, yet stubborn travel ban is dropped or relaxed for all U.S. citizens? Hold not thy breath, but anything’s possible, and if it happens, go — unsavory regime notwithstanding, it’s one of the world’s great travel and cultural experiences.

Eastern Europe has been on a major upswing ever since the Berlin Wall fell. But even 20 year later, some destinations are still growing or even just emerging. Examples of the former include Croatia and the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. And lately we’re hearing more about Croatia’s neighbors, Slovenia and Montenegro. Both serve up stunning mountains with eco/adventure, historic cities and towns, and Adriatic seacoast with fine beach resorts. And this year, Montenegro welcomes AmanResorts’ fancy-schmancy Sveti Stefan, on an island of medieval architecture. On the western side of things, Icelands a nice land, with its superb eco/adventure, cool capital Reykjavik, short flight time from Europe and New York City, and some of the most affordable prices in years, thanks to the recent economic meltdown.

In Central America, everybody’s jockeying to be “the next Costa Rica” — even El Salvador (who knew?). But watch Honduras; ’09 tourism plummeted due to its political crisis but should be back on track — and hungry — once the new elected government debuts in January. Highlights: Maya ruins, colonial towns, exceptional eco/adventure, world-class diving.  Panama, too, with great rainforest, beaches, one of the hemisphere’s loveliest colonial quarters (Panama City’s Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and barefoot Caribbean isles like Bocas del Toro and the San Blas, home to the autonomous Kuna Indians. In South America, Colombia‘s overall continuing security and economic progress will feed that diverse country’s tourism, especially to another colonial stunner, Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, and happening capital Bogotá (whose colonial quarter’s also nothing to estornudar at). Rising on the radar is the continent’s smallest and only Dutch-speaking country, Suriname, a multi-culti charmer with a cute, sleepy little capital and some of the hemisphere’s most unspoiled eco offerings.

With the steam let out of Dubai, look to UAE capital Abu Dhabi, also developing a-plenty yet without sacrificing traditional culture and flavor. On the Mediterranean, with political crisis at bay for now, Lebanon is still rockin’ the casbah — well, at least Beirut is, while the beach resorts, Roman ruins, and even wine country outside the capital provide a lower-key counterpoint. Up on Turkey‘s “Turquise Coast,” meanwhile, a resort town and region called Dalaman is currently hot, for example outstripping Spain’s Majorca as among the Brits; allures include beaches, soft adventure, nightlife, and historic/archaeological sites.

The tourism offerings in staid ol’ Singapore are getting something of a 2010 shot in the arm, with the elaborate, Vegas-style casino-resort Marina Bay Sands; the also elaborate Fullerton Heritage Complex crammed with shopping, dining, and lodging; and Sentosa Island’s Resorts World, with a Hard Rock Hotel and a Universal Studios theme park. Another “city-state” (now a semi-autonomous part of China) seeing some new action is Macau, where, again, it’s Vegas-style casinos that’ve been complementing the Portuguese colonial architecture and fueling a local boom. On a less glitzy, more laid-back note, since Sri Lanka ended its civil war last May, more travelers will be returning to its historic towns, Buddhist temples, and breathtaking beaches.

From Kruger Park to Cape Town to the winelands, South Africa is on the upswing again, thanks to interest generated by Hollywood hits like Invictus and District 9, and especially June’s soccer World Cup. Lower on the radar, the story of the year may well be the rebirth of safari tourism in Rwanda, 17 years after its genocide, and, believe it or not, Zimbabwe, despite still being a political and economic basket case.

An Alternative Take on Royal Caribbean’s “Oasis of the Seas”

November 28, 2009 at 7:15 pm | Posted in cruising | Leave a comment
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by Max Pesling

When I spent several hours visiting Oasis of the Seas last week, I certainly shared the sense of being overwhelmed, described by fellow Tripatini member Marcia Levin in her blog post. Yep, I do have to hand it to the designers — in spite of this 20-story behemoth’s mammoth size and complexity, it’s indeed surprisingly easy to navigate and classier in many of its features than I expected — the crushed-velvet furnishings in the Dazzles nightclub, the elegant design of the peaceful indoor-outdoor Solarium, to cite just two. The fare I sampled at the Windjammer Marketplace buffet was quite tasty. Everyone with whom I spoke seemed duly impressed.

And yet, would I want to spend a whole week on the Oasis? Eh, not so much. Call it a matter of taste, but I’m simply not nearly as much of a cruise fan as is Marcia and many like her. Throughout my entire life, I’ve always strongly preferred to travel as an end to a means — meaning a destination — rather than the means in itself. So spending a lot of time lounging around a big floating hotel was never my thing. In fact, probably my favorite cruise to date was on a ship in the Med that was fairly modest in both size and amenities; what really made the experience for me was the shipboard comfort and convenience of not having to constantly pack and unpack, combined with active shore visits each day between Athens and Istanbul, to fascinating places like Delos, Mykonos, Santorini, Rhodes, and Kusadasi/Ephesus. Granted, I would rather have spent several days in each port instead of part of one, but on balance, it was a great way to take in an island sampler in comfort and a reasonable amount of time.

But with the Oasis and its upcoming sib Allure of the Seas, it seems clear it will pretty much be all about hanging out on the ship and being aggressively entertained nearly 24/7. The upcoming itineraries bear this out, heavy on days purely at sea or stopping off at either at ersatz “private beaches” or ports like Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas, which has been largely turned into a glorified shopping mall (there’s already recreational shopping and malls at every turn at home — what’s so special about yet more of same at sea or in port, I wonder?). Furthermore, I found parts of the Oasis a bit crowded even at a couple thousand passengers short of full capacity; I do wonder how it’s going to feel once it starts sailing at its full 5,400-passenger occupancy. You won’t be able to just stroll into the theater without a reservation, that’s for sure, and who knows what kind of waits you’ll have to endure for those fancy FlowRiders, mini-golf, and zip line?

Well, whatever. I’m sure the Royal Caribbean folks have done all their homework, and chances are the Oasis and the Allure will indeed be successes. And if it’s not my cup of tea, that’s certainly not your problem. You still have to wonder, though, where does it all end? Once the economy starts firing up again, the cruise-ship arms race is likely continue spiraling out of control. What would be next, an 8,000-passenger ship? 15,000? Seagoing roller coasters, snorkeling lagoons, and swimming with dolphins? And what will be the effect — environmental and otherwise — on ports of call of such ever growing monsters disgorging ever more massive hordes of daytrippers?

Eh, don’t mind me too much, I guess — even now, I’m still reeling a bit from all that sensory overload. And in the travel world, there’s certainly as much a place for this kind of mass tourism as, say, exquisite boutique inns, camping safaris, or off-the-beaten-track solitude. I just have to hope that, as once happened with the nuclear arms race, the battle at sea eventually stabilizes and moderates before the industry collapses under its own ever growing weight. And if you scoff at that, remember that just a couple of years ago, many even supposedly smart people thought the real estate bubble would keep expanding forever.

A Dispatch From “Oasis of the Seas,” the World’s Biggest Cruise Ship

November 23, 2009 at 3:22 pm | Posted in cruising | 1 Comment
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by Marcia R. Levin


Words almost fail. I’ve been covering the cruise industry for many years, but I can tell you right now that experiencing the beauty, sophisticated design, and of course sheer size of Royal Caribbean’s newest, largest and definitely most impressive cruise ship will forever be one of my bigger “wow” travel moments.

Yesterday I got off a two-day introductory cruise on the Oasis of the Seas, blown away not just by bells and whistles not long ago undreamed of, but also impressed by the ease with which passengers maneuver around this mega-to-the-max vessel. And yet, I have to agree with Royal’s CEO Richard Fain, who told us, “Bigger does not mean less personalized.”

Fain added that Oasis is “one-third familiar, one-third evolutionary and one-third revolutionary,” and the numbers on this game-changer tell a good part of the story: 16 passenger decks and capacity for 5,400 guests in 2,700 double-occupancy staterooms that start at 170 square feet; 2,191 crew members; four pools and 17 whirlpools; 25 dining spots (nine of which are specialty restaurants involving an extra fee and one, the Solarium Bistro, with menu items with calorie counts of 500 or less); 37 bars and lounges. Other superlatives include an expansive, two-level spa/fitness center; a kids’  facility that’s the largest in Royal’s fleet; a family-friendly open-air promenade with a full-size merry-go-round; and another open-air promenade that’s elaborately landscaped, parklike, and lined with restaurants and bars.

Décor is low key meshed with cutting edge, and signage is among the best at sea today. It includes interactive maps and charts for restaurant reservations, as well as well lighted corridors and elevators (with button pads to the left and the right of the doors). Entertainment choices are varied; choose from a casino with smoking and non-smoking sections, jazz and comedy clubs, a huge indoor theater, and an outdoor aqua theater for water shows. For more active pursuits, you’ve got a zip line, a pair of FlowRider surfing simulators, two huge rock climbing walls, an ice-skating rink, and a sprawling sports deck with copious space for mini golf, basketball, and volleyball.

And despite the scale, and the hugeness of certain spaces such as the promenades, I found in roaming the ship that much of it somehow manages to feel unexpectedly cozy. I had no trouble finding my cabin, the media room, a cocktail party venue, the dining room, and casino (yes, my evening’s entertainment), all without so much as a wrong turn, thanks in part to well designed signage and no you-can’t-get-there-from-here elevators or stairwells.  I found the design superb and while I don’t know I’ll ever get used to a balcony overlooking the vast interior spaces like the Boardwalk (in my case) and Central Park instead of open ocean, I do appreciate the open feel it imparts. Besides, unlike with the Voyager-class ships where this concept debuted, there is blue sky above (and, if you crane your neck, blue sea at the end).

So, yes, Oasis definitely raises the bar significantly on cruise ship design and amenities, with the sheer multiplicity of dining and entertainment choices, plus innovations such as duplex suites; dedicated comedy and jazz clubs; the zip line; elaborate kids’ areas on different decks depending on age, even the first seagoing cupcake shop. And thanks to the current economic contraction, it could well turn out to represent the industry’s high-water-mark for quite some time.

Oasis will start Caribbean itineraries in early December, with seven-night fares starting at $1,199; it will be joined in late 2010 by a similar sister vessel, Allure of the Seas.

Cruise Deals Aplenty This Wave Season, With Both Sizzle & Savings

September 21, 2009 at 10:30 am | Posted in Caribbean/Bahamas/Bermuda, cruising, value in travel | Leave a comment
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by Marcia Levin

Costa Cruises is bringing its elegant "Atlantica" to the Caribbean -- and discounting big-time.

Costa Cruises is bringing its elegant "Atlantica" to the Caribbean -- and discounting big-time.

These days, if it sounds too good to be true, it must be an ad for a Caribbean cruise.

I’ve followed the cruise industry for many years, but thanks in part to oversupply and in part to the economic crunch, I’ve rarely seen the market so awash in high-quality yet good-value and even frankly cheap cruises, and I believe they’ll never be so readily available again. Whether early booking discounts, steep discounts or no extra cost for third and fourth guests in the same cabin, or last-minute Internet deals, the bargains are out there, and to expect to find even better prices in the future may be downright silly.

Bottom line: this season is pretty much an ideal time to choose to cruise.

Mix all the new cruise ships with their increased passenger capacity into a still shaky economy,  stir in the proliferation of drive-to “home ports” such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, Charleston, Norfolk or Galveston for good measure, and you’ve got the recipe for great seagoing values (case in point: Carnival’s Fantasy is scheduled to start five-, six-, and seven-day itineraries from Charleston as of May 2010.)

Whether you’re after a budget cruise for singles, a luxurious and romantic sailing to exotic ports, the right setting for a family reunion, or a short R&R getaway, there’s an option or three for you. Looking for a long itinerary, a quickie, or a transatlantic crossing? Or how about a theme cruise? A Euro-ship making its North America debut this season, MSC’s Poesia offers theme cruises focusing on everything from poesía (poetry) to cooking to baseball. On a comedy-themed January 30 sailing out of Port Everglades, the packed roster at Poesia’s nightly comedy club will keep ’em in stitches through the Caribbean.

One of the best bargains on the ocean right now is Norwegian Cruise Line’s Sky, on three- and four-day itineraries from the Port of Miami to the Bahamas, with prices as low as $199 per person. The ship underwent refurbishment last spring, updating many public areas and new food stations in its popular Garden Café. Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Lines both offer similar short, affordable sails from several Florida ports.

The weeklong cruise sector is also awash in value (not to mention sought-after — the average length of cruises in 2008 was just over seven days). Most cruise mavens expect Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas to be the most popular new kid in town. She steams into home base Port Everglades in late November with a dance card of alternate Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries and never-before-seen amenities, from a shop selling cupcakes to an onboard water theater, along with the usual crowd-pleasing RC features like rock climbing and flow riding. This one definitely promises something of a sea change, so to speak, in cruising; right now, seven-nighters start at $1,399 per person, based on double occupancy.

Another key new player in the seven-day market is the 3,646-passenger Carnival Dream, alternating Eastern and Western itineraries out of Port Canaveral from $599. In addition to the fleet’s first comedy club, it will debut the first outdoor laser shows on a North America-based cruise ship, melding the latest in splashy hi-tech with rock music to provide guests some unique and exciting nighttime entertainment.

Meanwhile, the 2,114-passenger Costa Atlantica, from the elegant European Costa Cruises and themed after the films of Federico Fellini, is visiting Port Everglades for the first time this winter, joining sister ship Costa Fortuna on weeklong Eastern and Western itineraries from an eye-popping $399. Another brand-new ship sailing from South Florida waters this season, albeit quite a bit pricier (nine days from $4,598), is Silversea‘s Italian-crewed Silver Spirit, with just 540 passengers; it makes its maiden voyage in January 2010 through the Caribbean, around South America, and up to Los Angeles.

Finally, besides MSC Poesia, a couple of ships will make their U.S. debuts at Port Everglades this winter. Seabourn‘s 450-passenger Odyssey (12 nights from $3,499) and Celebrity‘s Equinox — the one with the lawn on the roof — carrying 2,850 (10 nights from $999).

I trust I’ve made my point: For those who want and need to get away this winter and spring, there’s plenty of both deals and dazzle on the high seas. No matter what your budget, there’s virtually no excuse not to set sail in these next several months.

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