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Top Tips from This Podcast
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- Caribbean: Always the cheapest, even cheaper in the low period.
- Alaska: Book trips in May through September for the better deals.
- Saving Money: If you don't care where you go, wait until the last minute to book.
- Family Friendly: Disney, Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Queen Mary II.
- Children's Programs: Find out the hours, some are only open part of the day.
- Babysitting: Some ships have group babysitting, otherwise you can hire a private babysitter.
- Study up: Do some research before you go, learn about what kind of excursions are available at port stops.
- Sunscreen: Even if you're not going to the Caribbean, always remember the sunscreen.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.Announcer: Welcome to the frommers.com travel podcast. For more information on planning your trip to one of thousands of destinations, please visit www.frommers.com.
Kelly Regan: Hi, and welcome to the frommers.com podcast, the latest in our continuing conversations about all things travelable. I'm Kelly Regan, editorial director of the Frommer's Travel Guides. I'll be your host.
My guest today is Matt Hannafin, a former senior editor at Frommer's and the co-author, along with Heidi Sarna, of our book "Frommer's Cruises and Ports of Call 2007" which is on sale now. He's here today to talk about what's new in cruising, the best way to structure your time in ports of call, and ways to save on booking a cruise. Matt, welcome. Thanks for being with us today.
Matt Hannafin: No problem.
Kelly: So you're someone who takes a lot of cruises, part of your occupational hazard as a writer of cruise books. Tell me what's new in the cruising business these days. What trends are you seeing in the industry?
Matt: Over the past couple of years there have been quite a few changes. The most significant, I guess, is that things have become a lot less regimented than they used to be. I started doing this almost ten years ago which is kind of frightening.
Kelly: My gosh! [laughter]
Matt: And almost the first thing I did was buy my tuxedo so that I would fit in. You really don't have to do that anymore. It worked out because I wore it for my wedding.
Kelly: That works!
Matt: No problem. But you don't have to do that anymore. Everything's gotten much looser. It's like dress down Friday all week long now.
Kelly: So by less regimented you mean more casual?
Matt: Yeah. The dress up thing has gone out the window at a lot of cruise lines and the need to eat dinner at exactly 7:07 PM with passengers A, B, C and D, that's no longer necessary at a lot of cruise lines although some still do. People still choose to do that.
There are also trends in ship size. They're still getting bigger. When I started an 80,000 ton ship was the biggest thing ever seen and now they're twice that size. Pretty soon they're going to be three times that size.
Kelly: Really! Can you give us a sense for a ship that big, how many people are passengers on the ship? How many does it hold?
Matt: Right now the biggest ones hold 3600, the Royal Caribbean Freedom Class ships. Another one of them is coming along soon. But the Royal Caribbean Freedom is building one of 220,000 tons and carrying 5400 passengers, I think.
Matt: That's plus probably 2500 crew so we have about 8,000 people on that ship once they launch it.
Kelly: Gee! That's probably going to limit the kinds of places that it can go, right? Because a ship that big is going to be limited by the type of ports you can actually go to.
Matt: Absolutely. I'm not sure about that super big one. The largest ones now are growing up as well as out so there's still quite a few ports it can visit. Right now you can't go through the Panama Canal on a ship that size. But Panama just had that plebiscite where they decided to widen the canal so in a few years they will be able to take those ships through. That'll open up a lot of opportunities for cruise lines.
Kelly: So where are these giant ships going now? Are they mostly going to the Caribbean? Are they going across the Atlantic?
Matt: They're all going to the Caribbean. That's what new ships do. When you have a new ship it pretty much goes to the Caribbean. That's almost a rule. Pretty much every cruise line puts all their new ships in the Caribbean because that's still where the most money is.
Matt: And move the last generation out somewhere else or an earlier generation ship will then go to South America or Europe. Carnival has a new ship now, Carnival Liberty, [indecipherable]. That is actually going to be doing some cruises in Europe, so sometimes the new ones go elsewhere.
Kelly: But it sounds like the Caribbean is where, would you say, most cruise passengers are going when they take a cruise?
Matt: It's still the biggest. It's close and easy to most people, the most ships there. So the prices are also lowest there because the competition is more.
Kelly: Because of the competition, yeah. That actually leads me to a question I wanted to bring up with you which is what advice you have for booking cruises. For people who are looking to save money, do you have a few tips that you can give people about where to look for good prices and how to go about shopping? I mean booking in advance versus booking at the last minute and some stuff like that.
Matt: Sure, absolutely. You're not going to find quite the diversity of prices that you would have a few years ago, at this point. A couple of years ago, some of the major cruise lines really started clamping down and taking control of their pricing. They're now offering the same deals, basically as every travel agent, whether huge travel agents, small travel agents, on line, whatever else. And several of them have really put their foot down about discounting. They won't deal with some agencies if they, for instance, offer a discount price that is below the cruise line's lowest price.
Kelly: Oh, really.
Matt: By, for instance, giving back a part of their commission as a discount. Their stated reason was that they didn't want to cheapen the cruise product by having it just be a matter of lowest price.
Kelly: It does sound a little bit like they're just really trying to control...
Matt: They're trying to control the prices, sure. You won't find as much difference. If you have your own travel agent, they might be able to give you a deal between the two of you; you won't pay the price advertised necessarily.
Again, the Caribbean's always going to be the cheapest. That's pretty much the rule, whereas a place like Alaska that has a much shorter season is going to cost more. So if you're really wanting to save money, go to a place with the most ships.
Matt: You can also book on the shoulder season or low period. In the Caribbean that's hurricane season, of course.
Kelly: [laughter] Right.
Matt: October, November, this year was no problem. Anybody who went in hurricane season, no problem. The ships aren't really going to be affected by hurricanes anyway. They know where the weather's coming from so they can get out of the way. That's one thing.
In Alaska, if you want to go May to September, you can usually get good deals up there. There's a lot fewer people and the weather's still great. I've come up there in May and it's gorgeous. It's a little cold but it's beautiful time to go...
Kelly: But hey, it's Alaska. [laughter] It's a little cold because it's Alaska.
Matt: [indecipherable] If I were to offer any advice for somebody going to Alaska, it's to go in May because it's great. If all you're looking for is saving money, if you're really flexible, if you don't really care where you're going, you can wait to the last minute because there will always be deals. But you'll have to just take what's available.
Kelly: Right, right.
Matt: The cruise lines are all about filling the ships. There's no reason for them to sail a ship with any empty cabins. So if it gets up till the end they'll offer you a great price because they're like movie theatres. They make as much money, or more, on selling popcorn and soda as they do on selling tickets.
Kelly: Right, right. But it sounds like, as you said, if you wait till the last minute you just have to be flexible. You need to be willing to go to the Caribbean or to Mexico, or to the Panama Canal or something like that.
Matt: For that matter, you can take things like repositioning cruises, for when they're moving the ship from one market to another, say the Caribbean to Alaska, or the Caribbean to Europe, but for things like that, you'll be spending more time at sea, as opposed to at port. It can be very relaxing and kind of cheap sometimes.
Kelly: That's like hitching a ride on the cruise ship.
Matt: Pretty much.
Kelly: You know, as it goes from one place to another.
Matt: Yeah, like being on a freighter.
Kelly: [laughing] Yeah. You mentioned briefly about travel agents. I'm curious. One of the trends we're seeing is that a lot of people are booking their travel by themselves online and they're not going through travel agents. But it sounds like with cruises in particular, travel agents are still a pretty popular option to use when booking.
Matt: Yeah, and the pricing isn't going to be much different. It's a matter of personalized service. If you have an agent that you've been working with, obviously they're going to be able to help you personalize your trip and get a ship that's good for you. You can also read our book, for instance, to find that out and then do your own online shopping. But the agent will also be able to help you if anything goes wrong with your travel arrangements.
Matt: But for pricing, there's not much difference.
Kelly: There's not much difference, yeah.
Matt: They may do things like send you a bottle of wine to your cabin.
Kelly: Well, that would be cool [laughs]. Little value-addeds.
Matt: A bottle of champagne when you show up.
Kelly: Well, what about particular types of cruise-goers, like for example, for families. What advice would you have for families when they're selecting a cruise line? Are there certain questions they should ask? You mention in the book that it's important to bring things like baby food and diapers, because those will be pretty difficult, if not impossible to get, once you're on the ship. Are there a few questions you'd recommend that families ask if they're considering taking a cruise?
Matt: Well, sure. Obviously, a question is whether it's a cruise line that is very friendly toward families. A lot of them are, some of them completely are not. It's pretty obvious which ones are. Disney's pretty much number one. Carnival, Royal Caribbean. Although, the Queen Mary II is amazingly family friendly.
Matt: Yeah. They have a great children's center. They have little British nannies to take care of your kids for you.
Kelly: Like the ones on 'Nanny 911'?
Matt: I don't know what that is. [amused]
Kelly: [laughs] It's a reality show where problem children get a stern talking-to from a British nanny who swoops in a la Mary Poppins.
Matt: If I remember right, I think it's Crystal Cruises that actually has manners lessons for kids.
Kelly: Oh, wow.
Matt. Yes. They teach your kids how to go to a dance and how to eat at a table.
Matt: But anyway, we're getting off-topic here.
Kelly: Yes, yes [laughs].
Matt: Check out the children's program. Check out what its hours are. Some of them are only open part of the day, some of them aren't open on days when the ship is in port, things like that. Find out what the babysitting situation is like. A lot of them have group babysitting in the playrooms. Usually you can also arrange to have a private babysitter. You just hire one of the crew that's off-duty.
Kelly: That'd be great.
Matt: They'll do that for you. There are usually minimum ages on ships. It's pretty young, usually six to twelve months. And then you want to find out what the minimum age is for the children's program is, too.
Kelly: Good point.
Matt: Usually two to three years old is about the youngest.
You'll want to find out what kind of cabin situation you're going to have. If it's a family of four, you can usually get a cabin with fold-down extra bunks. It'll be tight for you in there, but you usually get a good deal on that. Sometimes the kids will sail free, other times it'll be an extremely discounted rate for them.
A cruise line like Disney, for instance, has extremely family-friendly cabins with two bathrooms, which is great.
Matt: Very rare. They're the only ones that have that in anything but suites. So that's something to look for. You can also book connecting cabins, although an adult will, allegedly, have to sleep in each cabin.
Kelly: Right, right. It sounds like if you are working with a travel agent, that's the kind of information that they might be able to help get for you.
Matt: I would think, yeah. Oh, and things like reserving a crib, if you need one, bring your own baby food, although that's the kind of thing that parents are pretty used to.
Kelly: Yeah. I think most parents would realize that you're not going to get on a ship that's going to be at sea for seven days with no extra diapers. I think that would be quite an adventure in not an entirely pleasant way.
Kelly: Another thing I wanted to talk to you about was, there's been a lot of talk, certainly in the latter half of this year, about new security measures, and the whole thing with flying with trial-sized liquids and things like that.
Matt: Don't even get me started on that.
Kelly: [laughing] Yeah, right, exactly. Have these kind of stricter, post-9/11 security measures been implemented in similar ways on the cruise lines? Are there things you used to be able to bring on board that now you no longer can?
Matt: No, not really, because they were pretty strict to begin with. I wouldn't say there's anything, well, you could never bring a weapon.
Matt: You could never bring on your own booze, because then you wouldn't be paying for theirs. But it's always been pretty stringent.
There have been some changes, though. You used to be able to have guests on to see you off. You can't do that anymore. Nobody can get on their ship without being on their list ahead of time, I mean, I've been scheduled to go on some sometimes and not been able to get on, because something happens with the list and they wouldn't let me past security.
Matt: And I'm down there all the time.
Everybody has to go through a metal detector. All baggage gets screened. There's always security at the gate. When you get on the ship the first time, you'll be photographed, and they'll keep the photograph in their computer database and it'll go on your ID card as well, and they'll double-check that every time you go in and out of port.
The ports themselves, they all went to a maritime security high level right after 9/11 and now it fluctuates, like everything else does. The Coast Guard has upped their presence in home ports, and a lot of times you'll have an armed Coast Guard boat patrolling in the water out there.
Matt: Sometimes they'll follow the boat out until it gets out to sea.
Kelly: I've seen that.
Matt: Then you're on your own. Yeah, it's pretty tight security. You don't have to worry about anyone smuggling a bazooka onto the ship.
Kelly: Right. It does sound as though it's not quite as draconian as the things that are happening on airlines now.
Matt: No, you can bring your lip gloss onto a cruise ship.
Kelly: [laughs] And your shampoo bottles.
Matt: Yeah, I actually almost did get stopped a month or two ago. I had a little hair clipping shears in my toiletries bag, and they didn't want to let that through at first, but they changed their minds.
Kelly: Wow, huh. Well, there you go. You could have been randomly shaving people on the plane.
Matt: Exactly. Who knows?
Kelly: Trimming people's mustaches. [laughs] Well, you mentioned just now going into port, another thing I wanted to talk to you about. What advice could you give people about choosing shore excursions, or when they're venturing into port, what are some tips that can help them make the most of that experience?
Matt: Well, every cruise line's going to give you a big brochure full of excursions, descriptions. My biggest advice is to be wary of adjectives. Everything is not really extraordinary and gorgeous and exciting; they just throw those in there. You have to make sure these things really are.
Kelly: Buyer beware, yeah.
Matt: You know, no bus tour is going to be exciting. It's not going to be. It all depends on the place you're going. Some of them, you'll have a much better time doing it on your own. And others, you won't. For instance, there's a port in Mexico, Progresso...
Kelly: Progresso, right.
Matt: ...Where you get off the boat and there's a causeway two miles long. You get off there and you can't do it on your own, really, because there's nowhere to go.
Matt: So, at a place like that, you really want to go on the excursion. And from there, you can go to the Mayan Ruins down there. A place like that's made for excursions. Literally. They put that there so that they could offer excursions.
Kelly: I imagine some of the ports in Alaska, you're really not intending to just get off the boat and wander around the little shops right near the dock. But there are excursions you can take to Denali, you can go out and do more sports.
Matt: Well, Denali's not actually excursion territory. That's really more like a post-cruise, two or three day package. That's really very far inland.
Yeah, you don't want to go to Alaska and just walk around the ports, because you won't see what it's all about. But, for instance, even in a place like Skagway, which is the most commercial port, I think, in Alaska (either that, or Ketchikan) you can go to Skagway and go to the National Park office and get a trail map, and within five minutes, you can be out in the woods.
Matt: You know, just walk off to the side of town and there's miles and miles of trails that I don't think many people take advantage of. I wish they would. It's a beautiful place. Also in Alaska, a town like Sitka, which is actually my favorite town on the inside pass, not exactly on the inside pass, but just around the corner from the inside pass.
You can walk around there all day long and have a fantastic time on your own. You don't have to take any excursion there. There's a park with a totem pole trail within walking distance; there's a Russian bishop's house from when Russia was in charge of Alaska. It's a place like that. In the Caribbean, a lot of people are going for beaches, so if you're going for that, you don't need an excursion. You just get a taxi and go to the beach.
Kelly: Go to the beach.
Matt: It all depends on where you're going. Study up a little bit before you go.
Kelly: Our cruises book which you co-wrote, we review the ships and you're pretty savvy about telling people the different offerings for the different types of itineraries, and the ships, and what they have to offer. But there's also a big section in the back of the book about ports of call, and my understanding is that you're recommending what people can do in town if they want to do it by themselves, but also what the likely excursions are when you're there.
Matt: Sure, absolutely. And we usually say when it's a town that you don't need to take an excursion at all.
Matt: We'll just say that right up front. Don't bother, just do everything on your own and have a great time, and it'll be a little cheaper.
Kelly: Sure. Okay, now I want you to complete a sentence for me. I never leave home for a cruise without my blank.
Kelly: That's right. That's something that people might not...
Kelly: Yeah. [laughs] And especially...
Matt: It may not be romantic, but neither is a fifth-degree sunburn.
Kelly: [laughs] Right. I think the other point is that if you're not going to the Caribbean, even in destinations where it might feel, as we've been talking about, like Alaska, you might think, "Ah, it's Alaska." But you still need the sunscreen.
Matt: Absolutely. It's the thing you cannot get along without.
Kelly: Well, we have time for one more question. I guess I wanted to find out, on a personal note, you've been on so many cruises, but I'd like you to tell me if you have a favorite cruise experience in all the travels that you've made, and if you do have a favorite, why was it your favorite?
Matt: I do, actually. Coincidentally, I just wrote about it for Frommer's Dream Vacations.
Kelly: Right, which is an upcoming title we have that is coming out in September of 2007.
Matt: My favorite ever is, I took a trip two summers ago with Cruise West. I believe they're the largest small ship line in the country now. They're based in Seattle, but their main thing is Alaska. This particular one went from Nome, which is a place that hardly anyone's ever been, across the Bering Sea into Siberia.
Matt: It was a two week trip. We left from Nome, went across the Arctic Circle, stopped at a place called Little Diomede, which is an Alaskan native village on this teeny, tiny little island. I think there are about 160 people living there.
Then we headed to Siberia, and we went to a former Soviet city called Provideniya, which is not doing so well these days, being located in Siberia and not getting the subsidies that it used to get under the Soviet Union, but it was incredibly interesting. We met people who have stayed there, mostly the people who couldn't afford to leave.
Matt: They're tough people and they're hanging out there. They put on a performance for us at the Hall of Culture, with ballet and Eskimo throat singing, and storytelling, it was amazing.
After that, the trip went from there, hit a bunch of native villages on the Siberian side, and came back over and went down the entire west coast of Alaska, stopping at mostly native Alaskan towns, a few unpopulated islands, the Aleutian islands, then back around to Anchorage.
It was the most incredible trip, cruise or non-cruise, that I've ever taken.
Kelly: Wow. That's incredible. What time of year did you go?
Matt: I was there in August, early August. I believe they now offer them mostly in July, but it's always July and August, because it's the only navigable time up there.
Kelly: Right, I was going to say, you really need to time it pretty well given that you're so far north.
Matt: I believe they only offer that twice a year.
Kelly: And you said that Cruise West was the company that you traveled with?
Matt: Cruise West, yes, on a 114 passenger ship called the "Spirit of Oceanus."
Kelly: So that was pretty small.
Matt: Pretty small, yes. My favorite kind of cruise experience, but it's not for everybody.
Kelly: Yeah, of course. That sounds great. It's not an answer I would have expected you to say, so it actually makes me want to find out more about this.
So that's all the time that we have today. I've been talking with Matt Hannafin, who is a former Senior Editor here at Frommer's, and he's the co-author along with Heidi Sarna, of our book, "Frommer's Cruises and Ports of Call 2007," which is on sale now.
Matt, it was good to talk to you. Thanks for disembarking long enough to talk to us today.
Matt: It was great talking to you too, Kelly.
[Ending theme music begins in background]
Kelly: And join us next week for another conversation about all things travel. I'm Kelly Regan, and we will talk again soon.
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