Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Go big and cruise seven seas in opulence

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The cruise industry continues to expand with ships of all sizes and unique itineraries to satisfy most traveller desires.

With no end to its growth in sight, today's cruise consumer can pick from small, medium and mega-vessels, and from the many more riverboats now sailing up and down the world's most famous waterways.

Each cruise-industry sector will promote their options as the best, often creating consumer confusion, especially for first-time cruisers.

Which is best for me? What is the real difference between these choices? These are questions I am frequently asked.

During the next three weeks, I will discuss each separately to try providing a balanced overview of the comparative advantages of each, and point out why each appeals to some and not to others.

Though definitions may vary, I will describe the small-ship experience on cruise vessels with fewer than 600 cabins. There certainly is a mid-range, in-between category that could be addressed, but there are not many in that category anymore, and they borrow from benefits and disadvantages of each.

I will refer to the big-ship category as vessels that carry more than 2,500 passengers and have 1,300 cabins or more.

River cruises tend to have smaller ships, but deserve special attention because of the nature of their construction and dramatically different itineraries the others cannot duplicate.

First, the big ships. What is it that these ever-expanding vessels have that attracts the majority of cruise passengers?

For the most part, these ships are about the quantity of on-board amenities offered.

Especially in the new mega-ships, the dining and entertainment options seem limitless. From skating rinks, to climbing walls, to water slides, the opportunities to keep busy on board are varied and exciting.

So much so that the new strategy for the bigger ships is to downplay the port-stop itinerary in favour of creating an on-ship resort experience throughout the journey.

Meals are included, but there is much more passengers must pay extra for on board. Many of the extra amenities have charges attached.

The bill for alcohol, specialty coffee and other beverage purchases can add up. Because no cash is exchanged with each purchase, clients are often faced with real sticker shock when they receive their invoice the evening before disembarkation. They add up the chits they have signed for and express astonishment once they confirm the figures are accurate.

There is opulence on the bigger ships that passengers seem to appreciate. With the number of decks available, designers can create multiple-storey common areas that create a feeling of luxury and openness. The sense of luxury created by space and uncompromising investment is one of the non-tangible benefits cruisers will talk about upon returning home.

Although the new mega-ships, such as Royal Caribbean's new 5,000-passenger-plus vessels, have tried to create a sense of community by creating villages of sorts, the big-ship experience can be much less personal, and for a couple travelling alone, finding friends can be as challenging as running into someone twice in a week in a small city.

The casinos -- major revenue-producers for cruise lines -- can seem as large as those in some Las Vegas properties. They provide a focal point for gathering, and the energy can feel much like that in a major casino.

The exercise room and spa facilities are likely to be as large and comprehensive as you will find anywhere on land.

The primary theatre offers the seat numbers and quality entertainment you won't find on cruise lines that operate smaller ships.

On the biggest ships, there may be more than one swimming pool, but as at many resorts, finding a deck chair during days at sea can be difficult in prime hours.

The training provided by the cruise lines is professional, but the service can often be impersonal, as staff and passengers don't get the opportunity to interact one-on-one very often. The bigger the ship, the more time spent exploring and participating in the various amenities. In a one-week journey, it will take some time before passengers settle on their favourite places.

One of the disadvantages that have occurred as ships have expanded in size is the limitation on getting close to shore at any number of port stops. This can be a significant challenge as passengers line up to take turns going ashore and then must get back to the ship in time for departure.

When the stay at a destination is only a few hours, the tender process, combined with the additional time on the water, can be slow and cumbersome, stealing time from exploring cities or attractions.

In the end, one of the biggest attractions is price. The economies of scale truly come into play in big ships. Prices for sailings have been reasonable so far, and given that most sailings are sold out, consumers may be sharing that view.

Forward your travel questions to askjourneys@journeystravel.com Ron Pradinuk is president of Journeys Travel & Leisure SuperCentre and can be heard Sundays at noon on CJOB. Previous columns and tips can be found on www.journeystravelgear.com or read Ron's travel blog at www.thattravelguy.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 24, 2012 D2

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