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Set Sail

Cruises can package the world at an all-inclusive price, and budget-conscious travelers can save even more.
By John Handley

After the hungry cruise passenger savored a salad of tomatoes and mozzarella marinated in basil leaves and olive oil, ate asparagus vichyssoise, sampled shrimp cocktail, and supped on a slab of prime rib with a baked potato, the server asked, “Would you like some more, sir?”

ship

Above: At 1,004 feet in length, the Dream is the largest ship in Carnival’s fleet and can accommodate 3,600 passengers. John Handley photo

Below: The adults-only Serenity Deck area of the Carnival Dream offers plush chairs and shaded loungers in which to relax.

deck

That’s tempting, but just dessert, please. Baked Alaska and a cappuccino.

Once onboard, cruise passengers never go hungry. They’ll never get a check or have to figure out how big a tip to leave at the end of each meal.

Cruising is the best vacation value out there. Unlimited food, lodging, recreation, entertainment and transportation to foreign destinations are included at a prepaid price that can be less than $100 a day. Plus, there’s the convenience of not having to pack and unpack.

But some pitfalls await the unwary budget passenger. There are ways the budget traveler can save, even after booking the lowest-price cruise. Let’s look at a typical one-week cruise to the western Caribbean.

Saving while you sail

We recently sailed on Carnival Cruise Line’s newest mega ship, the Carnival Dream. Longer than three football fields, it can accommodate more than 3,600 passengers. Docked at Port Canaveral, a 50-minute drive east of Orlando, Fla., it looms large and white against the blue sky at the dock.

The Carnival Dream doesn’t seem like a ship, but more like a luxury hotel. The multi-story lobby atrium has glass elevators, and the ship’s décor is more Las Vegas glitz than nautical. In fact, there’s not a porthole in sight.

Once on board, what can a passenger expect? There will be plenty of food, so eat most–if not all your meals–on the ship. One welcome change is the opportunity to dine at will. In the past, passengers had to choose between the early or late seating. That option still exists but Carnival now offers an open dining choice.

In addition to two large dining rooms, passengers can fuel up at a deli, burrito and pasta bars, lanai barbecue, Mongolian wok, pizzeria, and a dessert station. The soft ice cream machine just off the Lido Deck is hard to resist.

How well are passengers fed? They consume during an average week cruise on the Carnival Dream 17,000 pounds of prime rib, 15,000 pounds of shrimp, 9,000 pounds of chicken, 1,000 pounds of lobster, 8,000 pizzas, 6,800 hamburgers, 48,000 eggs, and 25,000 Danish pastries.

While food is free onboard, alcohol and soft drinks are not. Watch the budget here so your bar bill doesn’t go sky high, and that can happen quickly with bottled beer for $4 and tropical drinks between $7 and $9 each. Soft drinks are $1.95, which is why some passengers opt for the card (about $36 for children, $48 for adults, plus tip) that allows unlimited soft drinks.

Some people who have never cruised worry that they will be bored on a cruise. Not a chance. Onboard activities also are included in the cruise fare, and Carnival aims to keep a broad age range busy. The Carnival Dream lures kids with its 214-foot-long water slide. Plus, children can join Camp Carnival for special programs. On the other hand, there’s also a no-kids zone. The Serenity Deck is adults-only.

A typical day of onboard fun might look like this: A free golf clinic, bingo, $500 slot tournament, champagne art auction, class on acupuncture, cooking demonstration and wine tasting in the Steakhouse, a premium restaurant. Lounging poolside is always a popular form of relaxation.

Those who want to work off a few calories head for the jogging/walking track on the top deck. Seven times around the ship equals one mile. Passengers can play basketball, volleyball and miniature golf.

Onboard entertainment ranges from goofy contests at the main pool on Lido Deck to professional singers, dancers, comedians, and jugglers. Musical offerings hit every note from a piano bar to rock ‘n’ roll, karaoke to show band tunes. The Comedy Club gives both PG and adult-rated performances.

There are many other ways to make cruising an even bigger bargain. Wait until the end of the cruise to take advantage of sales at the ship’s store. Be sure to budget for tips at the end of the cruise. Carnival suggests a total of $10 a day per passenger. The crew definitely earns it with their continual friendliness. The ship’s photographers catch great poses of passengers having fun, but it makes sense to bring a camera and capture all those memories for a lot less money.

Enjoy exotic ports for less

The ship experience is only part of a cruise vacation, and Carnival Dream’s western Caribbean itinerary includes Cozumel, Mexico; Isla Roatan, Honduras; Belize; and Costa Maya, Mexico.

Budget travelers should be aware that shore excursions like snorkeling, scuba and kayaking can be expensive, but there are ways to save. As much as 50 percent can be saved by going online before the cruise and booking tours directly with the operators at the port. Travelers also can grab a cab for an independent trip, an option many passengers on our cruise chose. For example, this method cost just $40 for a couple to visit a beach club on Cozumel. The savings was almost $100 compared with package tours. Of course, always be on your guard when moving about on your own in Mexico or any other foreign place, and be sure you and the driver agree on the fare before getting in the cab.

Saving actually starts with booking. Is it best to book early or late? Some fares can be as much as 25 percent less for early birds, but as cruise lines launch larger ships, the pressure is on to fill all those cabins.

“It is better to book early because you have the best cabin selection and the fares are generally good,” said Sue Wells, vice president of AAA Travel Services. “You also have better air fares. The closer you get to departure, the cruise rates may come down to sell the unsold cabins but the air fares negate what you might be saving on the cruise.”

Travel agents who specialize in cruises say some of the lowest fares crop up in November and early December before Christmas and in early January after New Year’s. But don’t expect any deals during the actual holidays and spring break.

Inside cabins go for less than those with ocean views.

Those on a really tight budget should consider a three- to five-day cruise rather than the classic one-week sailing.

John Handley is a contributor from Northbrook, Ill.

Sep/Oct 2010 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

AAA Travel can fit the right cruise to your budget, vacation style and schedule. Simply click on www.AAA.com/travel to see available cruises.

To find a AAA Travel agent near you, call (888) 366-4222. A list of offices to serve you.


Animated Undertaking

Sail with a donkey, an ogre and playful penguins as DreamWorks partners with Royal Caribbean International to showcase its characters, movies.

Onboard entertainment is a big component to the value of cruising, and cruise lines are serious about providing fun for passengers. The newest knockout combination is Royal Caribbean International and DreamWorks that will bring characters from popular animated movies such as “Shrek,” “Madagascar” and “How to Train Your Dragon” to Royal Caribbean ships.

DreamWorks Experience will debut in December on the new Allure of the Seas, the sister ship to the groundbreaking Oasis of the Seas that debuted last fall. In addition to interacting with characters on the ship, there will be DreamWorks movies shown in the 3-D theater and on stateroom televisions.

As if an onboard ice rink in the middle of an ocean wasn’t enough, Allure of the Seas passengers can enjoy the How to Train Your Dragon Ice Show. The Oasis of the Seas launched AquaTheater, the first amphitheater at sea. Now this popular entertainment venue on the Allure of the Seas will offer the Madagascar Aqua Show.

The DreamWorks Experience soon will entertain other Royal Caribbean passengers as the characters and shows come to Liberty of the Seas in January 2011, to Oasis of the Seas in February 2011 and to Freedom of the Seas in March 2011.

In addition to the family friendly DreamWorks Experience, passengers can see a Broadway show, “Chicago: The Musical,” in the 1,380-seat Amber Theater.

Royal Caribbean is banking the varied and first-class entertainment options will bring in guests for the 2,700 staterooms on the 16-deck ship. Coupled with the Boardwalk neighborhood that features a full-sized carousel, and Central Park with gardens and restaurants, plus dedicated areas for children and adults, water recreation, a zipline, rock wall and more, it’s safe to say that Royal Caribbean continues to make waves with innovative ideas for an affordable vacation that starts at about $100 per night per person.

Characters

Characters from DreamWorks animated movies will make appearances on Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas in December and on several other ships in the cruise line’s fleet in 2011. Royal Caribbean International photo

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