War, terrorism, political turmoil and disease outbreaks don't just mess up nations, but also travel plans. Ironically, just when circumstances warrant a vacation most, it may seem like the toughest time to take one.
Even though the Iraq invasion is over, terror alerts and travel warnings still highlight the headlines. So it's understandable that you may be undecided about your seagoing plans and asking:
Q: Is it safe to cruise?
A: You can bet that cruise lines, in consultations with governments worldwide, have vetted upcoming itineraries and eliminated those places they consider risky. In addition, since 9/11/2001 all lines already have in place the most stringent security procedures. "Vessels will remain at Level 3 security status [the highest level] and will do so for the foreseeable future," says Mark Conroy, president and CEO of Radisson Seven Seas and chairman of Cruise Lines International Association, the marketing arm representing the majority of cruise lines.
Additional security measures instituted for cruisers include increased inspections of luggage and carry-on articles, U.S. Coast Guard patrols at seaports and canine inspections dockside.
Remember, in a pinch cruise ships also are uniquely positioned to sail, literally, out of harm's way. Even while underway, you're never completely out of touch by telephone, Internet access and satellite TV.
To help you cruise with confidence, you may want to consult the following web sites: www.travel.state.gov for U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs updates on geopolitical conditions worldwide; www.travel.state.gov/wwc1.html for the latest cautions from the U.S. State Department; and www.travel.state.gov/links.html for links to U.S. embassies and consulates.
Q: Should I book a cruise now or wait until things settle down?
A: You're not alone in the quandary. According to a report from AAA, North America's largest travel retailer, cruise bookings in the weeks after the Iraq war started fell by one-fourth compared to the same time last year, although they have picked up again in recent weeks. Concerned that war jitters would continue to keep vacationers at home, cruise lines introduced a flood of no-risk cancellation policies designed to give wiggle-room to fence sitters pondering a voyage. The new relaxed policies help ensure that you will suffer little or no economic consequences if you book now but ultimately feel skittish and cancel. The policies refund the fare you've paid -- either in cash, as a credit for a future cruise, or in combination. Typically, though not exclusively, the policies favor Europe-based departures and many are complimentary.
While all the policies are similar, specific terms can vary in important ways. Be sure to ask your travel agent or the cruise line to outline particulars. Nearly every line offers them, with the exception of Carnival, Cunard, Holland America and Norwegian.
Q: Are there destinations that cruise lines no longer visit?
A: Yes. Fewer ships call at some far-flung ports. For instance, most ships steer clear of Eastern Med ports in Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Israel and Jordan. But the Western Med still swells with available berths.
"In light of world events...our Mediterranean cruises have been suffering as of late, but our Baltic cruises are selling at the same level as last year," reports Silversea spokesman Brad Ball.
It's not a wholesale abandonment of ports, either. While Seabourn doesn't transit the Suez Canal now, Silversea still does. And hedging its bets, Princess maintains three ships in Europe this year - the Golden, Royal and Regal Princess -- but shifted the Grand Princess from the Med to the Caribbean. Meanwhile, some ships have been moving away from ports in east Asia as a result of the SARS outbreak.
For cruise lines, deciding on which ports to call at now is more a matter of marketing, not necessarily a consequence of fear or safety, says Rick White of White Travel in West Hartford, CT. "Cruise lines want to go where people want to go," White says, adding that "lines have tinkered with itineraries post-9/11, but not too much recently."
Q: So where exactly ARE ships going?
Playing it safe, cruise lines now dispatch vessels to less contentious destinations in the Western Hemisphere and already-bloated ports in the Caribbean, Mexico, Alaska and Central and South America. Many lines added a roster of departures from domestic ports on some ships originally destined for Europe and the Med. For instance, Radisson's upscale Diamond will sail from Fort Lauderdale instead of in the Baltic. Celebrity's Century will continue to sail the Caribbean year-round rather than moving to Europe as originally planned.
Brand new permutations include: Celebrity's Zenith from Jacksonville to the southern Caribbean starting this fall; Carnival's Spirit from San Diego to Mexico's Baja and Riviera in October; and Norwegian's Dawn year-round from the Big Apple to the Bahamas beginning in May.
Q: With many of the same-old/same-old ports on itineraries now, won't I feel bored on a cruise?
If anything, the war and uncertainty about terrorism have probably accelerated the notion of a cruise ship as a destination in itself. Maybe you won't spend time this summer looking at the Louvre or perusing the pyramids, but cruise ships are laden with amenities and educational opportunities aimed at enriching your vacation. Princess' Coral Princess, which debuted in January and plies the Caribbean, introduced ScholarShip@Sea, a program of approximately 20 seminars and extended courses that let you learn anything during your cruise from cooking and visual arts to computer skills, finance and even pottery. To keep your experience fresh, most ships (new or old) offer whiz-bang features like sumptuous spas and multiple onboard eateries. Royal Caribbean plans to retrofit its entire fleet with its popular rock-climbing walls.
Q: Is cancellation insurance the only protection I'll need? What about trip insurance?
A: In a phrase, don't leave home without it. Protecting yourself from contingencies ranging from lost luggage to medical emergencies make trip insurance a must. However, today's realities make buying that insurance far more complicated than ever.
"The only reason to take a cruise line's insurance is for its 'cancel for any reason' option," says Nancy Kelly of Kelly Cruises in Oak Brook, IL. Few third-party insurers let you do that. Travel Guard has a "change your mind" feature but it only pays up to $250, small change compared to the value of your investment.
But no cruise line's policy ever covers its own default. Only third-party insurers offer this, although some are getting squirrelly about default coverage too. (You may recall that two lines went belly-up in Sept. 11's aftermath.)
And no insurance policy covers "war." Some companies like TravelGuard, CSA and Access America have "terrorism-related" clauses, but these protect you only if an attack directly affects your port of embarkation or disembarkation. Some insurers offer coverage against events of international terrorism while others cover it only domestically. Bottom line: The fine print can be tricky; read it carefully.
Q: Are cruises really incredibly cheap now?
A: In these uncertain times, you not only can get a cruise at a good price but a cruise at a GREAT price. Overbuilding and increased berth capacity combined with jittery vacationers add up to bargains galore. It's not unheard of to turn up a week's cruise for peanuts by simply surfing the Internet. In CruiseMates.com's Cruise Bargains section, we found a seven-day western Caribbean cruise on Grand Princess starting at $399 -- including port charges!
Indeed, Oak Brook agent Kelly says, "Premium line Caribbean cruises are hundreds of dollars less this year than at any other time, especially on Princess."
Expect the erosion of prices to continue. According to Carnival president Bob Dickinson, "the alternative to lower prices is ships that are 40, 50, 60, 70 percent filled."
Lines are in a mode now, Kelly says, "where lower prices prove people will still travel and [cruise lines] are banking on that." Even in Alaska, which is selling very well, lines want to "top off" their cruises. So any ship not full offers specials. Lines are adding new discount dates every week, even for high-season sailings, Kelly says. "Where Holland America's early booking discount for [land/sea] combos may have fallen to 30 percent on past sales, now it's down to 50 percent."
The affluent want deals, too. For them, ultra-luxury SeaDream Yacht Club introduced "War Fares," priced-to-move rates for its upcoming Europe season that slash fares to about $243 day.
Q: Are tougher security measures making cruising less convenient?
A: Hopefully not. Much of the industry's effort remains invisible to cruisers. Yet embarkation and debarkation may take longer to accommodate additional security procedures. To cut waiting-in-line time, the Transportation Security Administration recently initiated a trial program specifically designed to guard against luggage tampering. Federal baggage screeners at the Port of Miami check disembarking passengers' belongings for traces of explosives and then send the screened luggage in a sealed truck directly to the airport. In effect, the new procedure beefs up protection and shortens your wait at airport security lines.
Seabourn and Holland America offer an alternative that completely unburdens you from your baggage: They will arrange to ship it from your home to the ship.
Q: Given Murphy's Law, if my cruise requires an air connection, what's the best way to make those arrangements?
A: "It depends," says agent Kelly, who analyzes the situation client by client. "Some lines offer attractive business-class fares to Europe and you can't get those rates on your own." Kelly suggests asking your agent to check all avenues, and use your frequent-flyer mileage. But if you think it's expensive when a cruise line quotes you $600 for airfare to Alaska, think again; you can't get that price on your own if you're doing a cruise and land combo with "open-jaw" flights, which have different arrival and departure airports. But if you're doing a seven-day Caribbean cruise from Fort Lauderdale, "the lines' air prices are ridiculous," Kelly says, suggesting you make flight arrangements independent of the cruise line. "But then you must also take insurance," she adds, which bumps up the total cost.
Q: Considering all this, should I still worry about the Norwalk-like virus?
A: Thankfully, the Norwalk-like virus that plagued thousands of passengers on ships last year has abated. But U.S. health officials note that the illness appears to be on the rise in the United States in general, citing 23 million cases a year. In the virus' wake, some entrepreneurial companies have come up with super-cleansers for cruise ships, but according to the Centers for Disease Control, handwashing still is the best precaution.
Into the breach, though, has come the next disease du jour: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome -- or SARS. The disease has so far been limited mainly to China, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Toronto, although it appears to be on the wane in most of those places. Toronto was recently given a clean bill of health.
According to Dave Forney, Chief, Vessel Sanitation Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this malady poses "nothing specific as it relates to cruise ships." Cruise lines with ports of call in Asia have been provided with current SARS info and asked to review updated information on the CDC website http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/sars.