According to a recent press release, "The good news just keeps getting better for the 19 cruise lines and 16,700 travel agencies that are members of the Cruise Lines International Association." CLIA, which represents all the major American cruise lines and accounts for 97% of the North American cruise market, has reason to be optimistic. Its member ships carried 4.73 million North American passengers in the first half of 2005, up 9.4% from the same period last year.
1. "Our gain is your loss."
The picture isn’t so sunny for consumers; the average fare on Carnival Cruise Lines rose somewhere between 20 and 30% from 2004 to 2005, according to analysts. Oivind Mathisen, editor of Cruise Industry News, explains, "When a cruise hasn’t been selling as fast as it should, [cruise lines] advertise bargains, mainly through travel agents or via mail to past customers." These days rooms are filling up more quickly than in the past, so there are fewer bargains to be had.
Savvy consumers should look for "shoulder season" departures, just before or after holidays, and off-peak in various regions: early spring in the Mediterranean, for example, or May or September in Alaska. Transatlantic crossings tend to be better values, too.
2. "Our engines break down all the time."
In March, Rex Pierce, a customer-service technician in Fort Worth, took his wife and three kids on a Carnival cruise departing from Galveston, Tex., for Cozumel and Calica, Mexico. Once on board, they were informed there was a small chance that repairs to the engine wouldn’t be finished in time to reach both destinations. Passengers were given the chance to leave but, according to Pierce, were told "they thought they would get it running shortly." Though the ship made it out to sea, it never reached either port. Pierce feels cheated: "We lost five days of our lives."
"Engine problems are very common," says Ross Klein, editor of CruiseJunkie.com and author of Cruise Ship Blues: The Underside of the Cruise Ship Industry. A record Klein maintains on his web site shows that in the first half of 2005, roughly 10% of CLIA’s 150 ships had to cancel some or all port calls due to engine problems.
As many disappointed passengers realize too late, they have little recourse. According to Ron Murphy, director of the Office of Consumer Affairs and Dispute Resolution Services at the Federal Maritime Commission, "Almost all tickets allow cruise lines to change itineraries at their discretion."
3. "This ship is a health hazard — it’s just crawling with viruses."
Cruise ships are an ideal breeding ground for viruses: thousands of people in close proximity, eating food made in the same kitchen, inhabiting enclosed spaces that just a few days before housed someone else. In December 2002 the Norovirus made waves in the media after a series of outbreaks on Holland America, Disney and Carnival lines in which hundreds of passengers were infected. Unfortunately, the problem has not disappeared since then. Eleven outbreaks (as defined by 3% or more of passengers having been diagnosed) were recorded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the first half of 2005, up from seven in the first half of 2003.
Dave Forney, chief of the Vessel Sanitation Program at the CDC, says, "We’ve had several big outbreaks this year."
The CDC posts outbreaks on its web site
, but this information accounts for only a portion of world-wide outbreaks because the CDC monitors only those ships that include a U.S. port in their itinerary. Short of not going on a cruise, Forney says the best way to stay healthy is to wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and water.
4. "Sure, we can take care of your plane reservations, but you’d do a whole lot better on your own."
Many cruise lines offer to book customers’ airfare, with the guarantee that should there be a flight delay, they’ll hold the ship or fly them to the next port. But customers pay a premium for this security. Mike Cordelli, a manager of information systems in New York City, has been on nine cruises and says he has had the cruise line book his plane tickets about half the time, but only after checking other available fares. "You often don’t get to choose a flight, you may end up with some fairly lousy connections, stuff like that," Cordelli says. On several occasions, he has saved enough money by booking on his own to arrive in a port city a day early and spend the night in a hotel.
A spokesperson for Radisson Seven Seas Cruises admits, "Typically, guests can find a better fare on their own." He adds that customers who purchase airfare through the cruise line are indeed entitled to free ground transportation and additional support. But if they want to specify the carrier, route or schedule, "we charge them the difference" — roughly a $50 to $100 "custom airfare" fee in addition to the extra cost of the ticket, making for one very expensive security blanket.