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Is it calm you crave? A smaller vessel may be the bigger value

Special to The Times

A four-lane bowling alley recently made its appearance on the new 2,600-passenger Norwegian Pearl, part of Norwegian Cruise Line.

Some travel writers suggested this was a response to the rock-climbing walls, basketball courts and boxing ring that NCL’s competitor, Royal Caribbean Cruises, has added to the seagoing experience.

What’s next for the cruise vacationer? Several commentators have predicted that a roller coaster -- a small one, to be sure, but a roller coaster nonetheless -- will be added to the upper decks of a giant cruise vessel of the future.

We are seeing a major change in the nature of the cruise experience. Nearly every new ship is approaching 3,000-passenger capacity (and several 4,000-to-6,000-passenger ships are under construction), and each is crammed with theme-park-style entertainment. The cruise liner is becoming less a ship than a giant box containing a Las Vegas-type resort.

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If you have sailed recently on a ship with 2,200 or more passengers, you may agree that the experience is wholly unlike cruises on smaller ships.

Often only the two top decks are open-air spaces supplied with chaise longues, so it’s not easy to be free of noise, movement and loud, clanging music. You are constantly surrounded by crowds, bars, play areas, joggers and waiters serving drinks.

The degree of commercialism in many ships continues to climb, and it can erode a traveler’s budget. Leaflets are slipped under your cabin door to alert you to art auctions, spa treatments, special sales of crystalline bric-a-brac and optional extra-charge gourmet restaurants. (The quality of meals in the vast dining rooms can be so uneven that the smaller, extra-charge gourmet restaurants may grow more appealing as the cruise progresses.)

Matters get worse when giant ships arrive in port. They go only to places that can handle their mega-tonnage, and they swamp these popular destinations with thousands of people.

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Heavily visited ports such as Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas, the U.S. Virgin Islands, have become sprawling shopping malls flooded with the passengers from as many as five or six cruise ships in port on the same day.

Cabins on these ships are sold at prices as low as $75 per person per day to attract the number of passengers their immense cabin capacity requires. Nevertheless, the mega-vessels are extremely profitable because of the optional on-board income (from drinks, gambling, shopping) they generate.

In the future, cost-conscious cruise passengers will find that only giant ships offer those affordable rates. The smaller, quieter ships offering scholarly guest speakers, open decks suitable for reading and relaxation, and itineraries that feature the less-developed port cities, are generally upscale “premium” ships (operated by such lines as Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas, Silversea, SeaDream Yacht Club, Crystal Cruises, Windstar and others). They can charge often-prohibitive fares of $600 to $1,000 per person per day.

But the premium lines have occasional vacancies. And in a slowing economy, which many predict will be the case this year, they will periodically discount their unsold cabins through cruise brokers. Among them: www.cruiseweb.com www.cruisecompete.com www.mustcruise.com www.cruise.com www.vacationstogo.com www.cruisewizard.com www.cruisesonly.com

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If you watch these sites, you often will find an opportunity to book an upscale, smaller ship at rates beginning at as little as $300 a day (low season) or $400 a day (high season) per person -- a higher price, but perhaps justified by the quality of cruising you’re likely to enjoy.


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