Aug. 19, 2009 -- In this slumping economy, sailing off for exotic locales might seem outside most people's budgets. But that's just one myth that even many seasoned travelers believe about cruises. There has never been a better time for cruise deals and discounted travel packages. And you only have to unpack once.
So, we set sail on Holland America Line's Mediterranean Romance Cruise -- Venice to Barcelona -- to help bust the biggest myths about cruising, and to visit some of the world's most beautiful ports.
Myth No. 1: Cruises Are Expensive
Not all of them. You can take your family on a cruise to the Caribbean, Mexico or even the Mediterranean for $42 per person per day, according to Rich Tucker of the award-winning travel Web site, CruiseDeals.com. And that includes all meals and shore transfers. "There has never been a better time to book a cruise than now," Tucker said. "The cruise lines are bending over backward to get your business and are offering some of the best prices we've seen in years. On average, cruises are being offered at 20 to 30 percent less than last year's prices."
To find amazing deals, sign up for CruiseDeals.com's free "Seamail" alerts. And consider its Travel Guard insurance policy. "If you need to cancel the trip for any reason, including losing your job, you'll get a 75 percent refund," Tucker said.
How do you know when you need travel insurance? Steve Dasseos, founder of The Trip Insurance Store, a boutique travel insurance company, said, "If you have the potential for a big financial loss by cancelling your cruise for any reason, you probably should get insurance."
But not everyone needs the same kind of travel insurance, which is why you should consult with a broker, Dasseos said. "If one is going to the Caribbean, that's one kind of insurance; if you're going to Mongolia, that's another kind of insurance," he said.
The kinds of travel policies that cruisers may want to mix and match are cancellation (you lose your job), interruption (you miss the flight to the port) and health (you get sick on the trip). And don't forget about travel agents when you're looking for a great cruise deal. Across the United States and Canada, 17,000 travel agencies belong to the Cruise Lines International Association, a group that represents 24 major cruise lines. Check out its Web site to find a local travel agent who specializes in cruises, and to find the hot deals that the association offers daily. Right now, through 2010, association agents are offering outstanding packages on their European cruises, including two-for-one pricing, free airfare from North America and "Kids Sail Free" plans.
Myth No. 2: Cruises Are for Newlyweds and Retirees
Yes, newlyweds and retirees do take cruises, but so do jazz lovers, business people, singles, and groups of friends and families. Families traveling together are a growing trend on European cruises, notes Holland America Line spokesman John Primeau. "In the past few years, the Europe cruises have attracted more and more multigenerational cruising -- grandparents traveling with their baby boomer children and grandchildren," he said.
Mary Dooley from West Virginia recently sailed on Holland America's MS Oosterdam with a group of five family members and friends. "We all thought that taking a cruise together would be a fun way to see and experience Europe," Dooley said. "It's a great way for us to catch up and visit with each other, and visit a unique and beautiful city like Venice."
Children have become valued cruise customers, too. Royal Caribbean has a range of programs tailored to children of all ages: from Crayola art camps to a Fisher-Price preschool program, to surf school, to a supervised teen's lounge. Club HAL on Holland America Line offers programs for kids from 3 to 17, including pizza parties, arts and crafts classes, teen disco and karaoke. Club HAL also offers kids-only shore excursions on some of their cruises.
Myth No. 3: Cruises Are Fattening
They don't have to be. Most cruise lines have taken note that people want to eat healthier at sea. Carnival Corp., the largest cruise line in the world, offers lighter dishes, with menus listing nutritional stats, such as calorie and fat gram counts. Healthy cruising on Norwegian Cruise Line includes dining, fitness and sports.
Courtney Recht, a spokeswoman for Norwegian Cruise Line, said, "Norwegian Cruise Line promotes a healthy lifestyle to all its guests through various healthful culinary options on board and the broad range of activities that are available daily. Our dining rooms feature menus with dishes that are low in calories and fat, with the content of each printed directly on the menus. A healthy cruise on Norwegian is also possible with a workout in our modern fitness centers."
Cruise ships have also become more responsive to special dietary needs, offering low-sodium, low-cholesterol, low-fat, Kosher, vegetarian, gluten-free and vegetarian options, as well as meals designed for diabetics. Holland America's Stephen Schuetz, manager of culinary operations, said that nearly a third of the guests on a recent Mediterranean cruise aboard the MS Oosterdam made special dietary requests in advance through their travel agents at the time of booking.
"We've got their standing orders on the computers in our galley kitchens," he said.
Ah, the best laid plans . . . When it's just too hard to pass up that fabulous dessert, there's always a visit to the beautiful Greenhouse Spa and three laps around the deck, which equals a mile on the MS Oosterdam.
Myth No. 4: Cruises Are Boring
Those days of napkin-folding classes and Bingo have been enhanced by rock climbing, ice skating and first-run films in state-of-the art screening rooms. On Royal Caribbean Line's new ships, you can even go body boarding or surfing while at sea. On our cruise, passengers loved a free Microsoft seminar, during which they learned to create their own Web sites and edit their trip photos. Another favorite was the free cooking class with celebrity guest chef Lee Hillson in the Culinary Arts Center, presented by Food & Wine magazine.
If you're worried about wearing a tux or gown to every meal, you've watched too many old movies. You can still get dressed up for formal nights, if that's what floats your boat, but most cruise lines today are loosening up when it comes to dress codes. Norwegian Cruise Line has gotten rid of formal nights entirely. For dinner in any of its restaurants, men can wear collared shirts and pants or nice jeans, and women have the option of wearing slacks, jeans, dresses or skirts.
Carnival Cruise Line also changed its dress code. It still offers Elegant Nights, with tuxedos and gowns welcome, but they're not mandatory. Jennifer de la Cruz, a Carnival spokeswoman, believes that the more casual dress code is a sign of the times when it comes to the larger vacation markets.
"When people vacation, they generally want to dress casually," she said. "They want to be comfortable, and they don't want to lug a lot of formal wear. Changing the dress code has been very well received, but we still give those who want to get dressed up for dinner in a tux or gown the opportunity to do so, and we welcome it."
Many cruise goers just can't seem to get out of those Bermuda shorts. The beauty of Holland America Line's As You Wish dining is that guests who prefer to dine at a time or place that best fits their schedule and dining style can do so.
"Often, after returning to the ship from a full day touring a port, some guests don't feel like dressing up for dinner," Primeau said. "They have the option of eating in the Lido Restaurant in their shorts, or just enjoying their meal in their stateroom -- in their bathrobes."
If you're worried about being out of touch with family or business back home, most cruise lines have access to the Internet, and ship-to-shore calls are available. But both are still expensive. A better option is to see if your phone and Internet providers have overseas chips for your devices. And while Holland America's gorgeous Explorer Lounge, with computers, café and library, became our favorite onboard hangout, we also used the Internet cafés in port. They were cheap, fast and a great way to get a glimpse of the local culture.
Myth No. 5: Cruise Ships Are Bad for the Environment
The average cruise ship generates about 30,000 gallons of human waste and 255,000 gallons of nonsewage gray water every day, according to Oceana, an international nonprofit organization working to save the oceans. But in the past decade, the cruise industry has been working to clean up its act -- largely in response to stricter pollution laws in U.S. and foreign waters, but also because its very success and survival depends on it.
Leading the way is the Cruise Lines International Association. Its membership of two dozen major cruise ship lines supports the adoption of aggressive recycling programs and green technology. If you're committed to sailing green, consider booking your cruise with an association member.
Myth No. 6: Cruises Are for Beach Lovers, Not Culture Vultures
Our Mediterranean itinerary took us to the great cities of Venice, Rome, Florence and Barcelona, as well as two bustling Sicilian towns and a few sleepy Greek islands. In the old days, shore excursions were quick shopping trips and then back to the ship. But our favorite shore excursion was a full day guided tour called "Roman Holiday," following in the footsteps of the classic movie starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck.
From historical sites like the Coliseum to the gelato shop made famous in the film, we got to experience Rome up close and personal. The "Roman Holiday" excursion cost $230 and included a wonderful four-course lunch in an exquisite villa-turned-restaurant.
Customized excursions are also available, and most cruise lines now offer assistance in booking these day trips when you book your cruise. Crystal Cruises, a luxury cruise line, is leading a new trend, the overnight excursion, in which passengers can get off the ship in one port, spend a few days on land sightseeing and then meet up with the ship at the next port. Another twist on the excursion is Princess Cruises' "Ultimate Ship Tour," which offers a behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of the ship, for $150 per person.
Myth No. 7: Cruise Ships Are Germ Factories
This spring, a number of cruise ships were forced to cancel stops in Mexican ports because of swine flu outbreaks on shore. In May, the Cruise Lines International Association, working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, adopted new standardized screening protocols to detect swine flu. Before boarding any association ship, anywhere in the world, passengers who are already quizzed about Norovirus symptoms will now be required to complete and sign a questionnaire about swine flu as well.
People who report flulike symptoms are then screened by medical personnel who decide on a case-by-case basis whether to permit that person to board the ship. Passengers who become sick at sea with possible flu symptoms are isolated from other passengers and cared for by the ship's medical team. All association ships have medical staffs and protocols that comply with the CDC's Vessel Sanitation Program and were designed with the American College of Emergency Physicians for emergency care, medical treatments and evacuation of seriously ill or injured passengers.
Dr. Ronald Primas, medical director of TravelMD.com, has treated more than 100 travelers with the H1N1 virus in his New York City office this summer, but he's quick to point out they were all air travelers. Primas believes there's no health reason to cancel a cruise but encourages passengers to take common sense precautions.
"Cruise ships are enclosed environments, so the risk is somewhat higher of getting a respiratory illness. It's going to spread more easily," he warned.
He reminds travelers not to forget the basics: Move away from anyone who is sneezing or coughing. And, most important, wash your hands. "Since the cruise ships have implemented hand sanitation stations all around the ship, the number of respiratory illnesses have declined steadily."
Myth No. 8: Cruise Ships Are Dangerous
Not according to industry data. In a three-year period (2003-05), 31 million people sailed on cruise ships, and there were 206 complaints from passengers of sexual assault, robberies and missing persons, according to the International Council of Cruise Lines.
But a few high-profile cases, including the case of a young Massachusetts woman, Merriam Carver, who disappeared from a cruise ship in 2004, have raised awareness that stricter federal laws should govern what goes on in international waters.
Rep. Doris Matsui of California and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts have co-sponsored the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2009. The bill would require cruise lines to report all deaths, missing individuals, alleged crimes and complaints regarding theft, sexual harassment and assault. The bill would also mandate peepholes in stateroom doors as well as security latches.
Kerry became an advocate for cruise passengers when Carver, one of his constituents, went missing. "This is truly an historic day in the fight for the safety of cruise ship passengers," said Ken Carver, president and co-founder of the International Cruise Victims Association and the father of the young woman, in July, when the Senate's Commerce Committee passed the bill out of committee. The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure passed it too.
The bill is expected to come before Congress next month.