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What's new for South Florida cruises in 2009
The economy may be sailing slowly these days, but that hasn't stopped South Florida's cruise lines, which are introducing a half-dozen new ships here this fall.
Do these new superliners really offer anything "new"? Sure, they all have the amenities that have become cruise basics: multiple pools, children's area, spa, gym, luxury beds. But the newest ships go a step beyond, both in physical amenities and on-board programs.
"The new ships have their own feel. They're more defined, finding their niches," says Mike Driscoll, editor of Cruise Week newsletter.
Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of CruiseCritic.com, says ships feel more like land-based resorts. But the changes and new features aren't radical, she says. The new elements "are evolutionary, not revolutionary."
One significant change: Pricing. Cruises have long offered a strong value when compared with similar resorts on land, especially in high-priced destinations like the Caribbean and Europe.
But since the economy soured, cruise prices have plummeted, and now they're a downright bargain.
Even on many new ships, you can find deals priced at less than $100 per person per day for cabin, meals in the main dining room and most activities -- though you will pay extra for specialty restaurants, bar drinks, spa treatments and shore excursions. Most lines will retire fuel surcharges after this year.
BIGGER: You may not have thought it possible, but the new ships are getting even bigger than the behemoths already sailing. Carnival Cruise Line's newest, the 3,006-passenger Carnival Splendor, is the line's biggest. So is Celebrity's newest ship, Celebrity Solstice, which carries 2,850 passengers, double occupancy.
Royal Caribbean's new 3,634-passenger Independence of the Seas, which just arrived in South Florida after several months in Europe, is tied with two Royal Caribbean predecessors as the biggest cruise ships in the world. That is, until Royal Caribbean's 5,400-passenger Oasis of the Seas comes along next year, but that's another story.
TASTIER: One of the benefits of size: Even more dining choices.
For several years, cruise lines have been adding onboard coffee shops, pizzerias and upscale specialty restaurants -- often at an additional fee -- to the main dining rooms, which are included in the basic cruise fare. Now there are even more.
For instance, Holland America's new Eurodam offers three new dining venues: A pan-Asian restaurant, an Italian eatery and an all-day pizzeria. Celebrity Solstice has added four extra-fee gourmet restaurants, stylish spaces dedicated to steaks and chops, Asian cuisine, French/Mediterranean dishes and health-conscious menus.
That healthy restaurant will serve only Solstice's spa guests, who will stay in 130 staterooms near the spa -- another trend.
SPA CLASS: On Solstice, these Aqua-Class guests have unlimited access to the spa's relaxation room and thermal area, plus services of a spa concierge; dinner in the health-conscious eatery is included without fee. The new Carnival Splendor offers 68 spa cabins connected to the ship's 21,000-square-foot spa, the largest one in its fleet, and come with free access to the spa's relaxation suite. And Holland America's Eurodam has 56 spa cabins with spa access via a spiral stair.
But at least one cruise expert believes the costlier "spa-class" cabins are not much different from other balcony cabins.
"People think they're going to get free spa services, and they're not," said Stewart Chiron, president of Cruiseguy.com.
RETREATS: Many ships also are offering exclusive, restful outdoor spaces reserved for adults who pay an extra fee. Eurodam has set aside an outdoor haven called the Retreat with private cabanas. Several Princess ships, including Ruby, offer a lush outdoor spa area called Sanctuary with treatment cabanas, chaise lounges and light food service.
MSC's Fantasia goes a step further, with a brand new VIP area called MSC Yacht Club featuring 99 suites, a bar, solarium, pool with a sky dome, lounge with a transparent ceiling, and concierge and butler service. Stairs and some floors in the VIP area are made of Swaroski crystal, and Yacht Club passengers use private elevators. (This year it will sail only in Europe.)
ONBOARD FEES: Not so welcome a trend is the move by several cruise lines to charge extra for some services, dining and lodging on shipboard. This includes not only charges for spa cabins and exclusive retreats, but also for alternative restaurants, onboard tours and even some snacks.
Particularly controversial is a $14.95 charge assessed for certain steak orders in Royal Caribbean's main dining rooms, where meals previously have always been included in the basic fare. (Other lines include steak in the dining room in the base cruise fare.)
SMOKE-LESS: Smokers are finding their habit more restricted. Although none of the new ships completely outlaw smoking (as Carnival's Paradise did years ago, a policy since abandoned) many now limit smoking to one side of the ship's decks, the casino and some bars or lounges.
Royal Caribbean has just issued a new policy that limits smoking to one side of the ship in exterior areas and in designated spaces in bars and lounges, with at least one lounge aboard designed nonsmoking.
Smoking in dining rooms and staterooms is prohibited on most ships, and the new Celebrity Solstice has banned smoking even on one's own balcony and in Michael's, the former cigar bar.
NEW FEATURES: You can count on new ships to continue coming up with imaginative new features. Celebrity Solstice has a half-acre with real grass on which where guests can play croquet and bocce, as well as the first glass-blowing show at sea. And Oasis of the Seas is bringing on a new concept -- separate "neighborhoods" for passengers.
NEW ITINERARIES: Lines are offering more choices in where you can board ships, where you visit, and even the length of your trip.
Both Carnival and Royal Caribbean have chosen Port Everglades as home port for their new ships. Come April, Carnival is basing its Carnival Pride in Baltimore for year-around cruises.
Holland America's Eurodam now allows passengers on its fall New York/Canada sailings to embark or disembark in Quebec City, a first for the line. In 2010, Celebrity will base its new Celebrity Eclipse in Southampton, England.
And if a seven-day itinerary isn't quite right for you, look for one that lasts three, four, five, six or eight days. Such cruises have always been offered, but now you'll find more of them.
OFF THE SHIP: And finally, when your cruise is over, you may find it easier to disembark.
Royal Caribbean and Princess have instituted new disembarkation procedures that let passengers stay in their cabin until their deck is called to meet at a designated place and time.
Carnival and NCL have similar procedures.