Travel Smarter 2012: Your best cruise values in 2012

Looking for the best cruise values, many travelers check the Internet in a click-to-buy way, much like they might an airline ticket or hotel room. Like airfare search engines, some online cruise booking sources are better than others. Some people turn to travel agents who keep up on the latest industry trends, current pricing, and special offers not always available to consumers. In 2012 and into 2013, finding the best cruise value will take knowing what to look for first, then using a variety of sources to bring home a package that is way more than just the lowest price.

Forget the Concordia effect
January’s grounding of the Costa Concordia in Italy sent shock waves through the cruise industry and a call to take a closer look at cruise safety. What the grounding of the Concordia did not do was lower cruise prices. Consumers expected it, the press reported that bookings were down, but nothing happened. Travel agents knew this because business was generally unaffected. Instead of looking for prices to tumble, agents took advantage of existing offers and promotions for their clients, reaping huge values, but not due to a ship accident.

Ships that linger a while
Hot on the horizon are itineraries that linger a bit longer, if not overnight, at popular ports of call. Travelers are becoming increasingly weary of quick pit stops at popular destinations and want more time to explore. Cruise lines are answering the call and those sailings will be priced to fill ships. This offer is becoming especially popular on high-end cruise lines.

River Cruising grows even more
Also, look for the river cruising craze in Europe to continue, for many of the same reasons: travelers want more time at ports and want more of an up-close-and-personal experience ashore. River cruise ships with far fewer passengers on board will deliver that, and at reduced rates, in competition to mega liners. However, that pricing won’t last. Once they catch on, prices will go up.

Discounts on seven-day or longer sailings
Still, the mega liners need to sail full ships, so look for discounts on seven-night and longer sailings as a best value in 2012. A recovering global economy in many nations will entice old travelers into the booking pool and cruise lines will vie for their business.

The dollar is looking better
More outstanding values for sailing from North America may be affected by the weaker Euro, which has almost reversed the exchange situation it was in last year when the dollar was weak. Now, cruise lines who made massive deployments to Europe, in anticipation of sailing their floating assets to more profitable waters, are bringing ships back to the more reliable North American market, though it still needs some encouragement to book. Pricing, especially in the fall of 2012, will be excellent.

Refurbished ships are where the action is
Probably the best value in 2012 will be refurbished ships, priced nicely to sail full. Slowing down a bit on bringing out new ships, cruise lines are taking a step back, looking at what worked on the new ships and adding those popular features to old ships, usually during routine dry-dock maintenance work.

Adding features that might not have existed when the ship was built, cruise lines are transforming older ships into vibrant, relevant floating hotels, competitive with the newest at-sea, or land, vacation options.

A dry dock period usually means routine maintenance and we don’t hear much about it, but with improvements becoming a priority, expect new carpets, upgraded stateroom amenities, and more stuff they can’t do with the ship full of guests. Sometimes these things are part of a grand plan to roll out popular features to older ships in a big way.

Past projects with much more than normal dry dock maintenance were spearheaded by Carnival Corporation brands and their Evolutions Of Fun program on Carnival Cruise Line ships. They brought an array of improvements to older ships including a new water park and an adult serenity area. Sister-line Holland America soon followed, spreading the Signature of Excellence program around the fleet.

More recently, Royal Caribbean focused on Radiance of the Seas. By applying the updated Royal Advantage programming to the older ship, they brought about a makeover of incredible proportions that were made possible, at least in part, by importing popular features from giant sisters Oasis and Allure of the Seas.

The most significant transformation of a Princess Cruises ship occurred not long ago aboard Grand Princess. During a 24-day makeover, the first of Princess’ workhorse Grand class ships had a massive renovation to receive many of Princess’ trademark features, introduced since the ship’s 1998 debut, including the wildly popular Piazza atrium.

“This is the largest makeover we’ve ever undertaken for any of our ships,” said Jan Swartz, Princess Cruises‘ executive vice president. “When Grand Princess was launched she was the most innovative ship at sea, and now we’re adding some of the later innovations we introduced on subsequent ships.”

The king daddy of all remodeling programs, though, has to be Carnival Cruise Line‘s Fun Ship 2.0 initiative, an intense array of onboard programming, brand infusion, and signature “fun” that is consistent with their industry-leading position. They have defined cruise vacations for decades and will lead the way to a future generation of cruise passengers.

The $500 million remodeling program is much more than just a new coat of paint and new carpets. Branded elements of the initiative include: Guy’s Burger Joint developed in tandem with Food Network personality Guy Fieri; the Punchliner Comedy Club presented by George Lopez; and “Hasbro, the Game Show.” On Carnival Liberty right now is the Blue Iguana Cantina and Tequila Bar, and the Red Frog Rum Bar, both receiving rave reviews from passengers on the ship.

“Carnival Liberty is the first ship in the fleet to feature many of our Fun Ship 2.0 enhancements and guest response has been tremendous, exceeding our expectations,” said Lania Rittenhouse, Carnival’s vice president of product development. “From the EA SPORTS Bar to the RedFrog Rum Bar and BlueIguana Tequila Bar to Guy’s Burger Joint developed in tandem with Food Network personality Guy Fieri, guests are really enjoying the wide array of innovations. We are looking forward to rolling out additional elements of Fun Ship 2.0 such as the Punchliner Comedy Club Presented by George Lopez and ‘Hasbro, The Game Show,’ later this year as the implementation of this exciting project continues.”

Look for remodeled ships, which are way less expensive than building new ones, to be a best value in 2012 and beyond. Start searching via cruise line websites, check Internet cruise brokers to get an idea of where pricing is, and then call or email a travel agent that specializes in cruise vacations. A good travel agent’s expertise in booking should yield great value, if not immediately then down the road if new discounts, promotions, and offers come into play.

It’s something travel agents do that will not happen when booking directly with a cruise line. (Seriously, they are not going to call you up and let you know they just lowered your fare, trust us.) Click-to-buy methods can’t touch the perks that will keep us sailing smoothly into the future with the best possible value.

[flickr image via joiseyshowaa]

Celebrities go to sea, some stay

Celebrities go to sea all the time it seems. Martina McBride performed a short concert on Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas in New Orleans Saturday. Last weekend, Maroon 5 rocked Galveston with Carnival Cruise Line’s new Carnival Magic as a backdrop. Other acts from Kid Rock to Dancing with the Stars contestants host themed cruises, allowing fans up-close-and-personal time like never before. Now, celebrities are lending their names to onboard venues that will stay with cruise ships long after the stars have gone home. It’s all part of a branding effort by cruise lines to gain favor with the public as never before and travelers are clearly gaining as a result.

Saturday’s Martina McBride concert to welcome Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas was not the first time the cruise line has used star power to welcome a new ship. Stars from Reba McEntire to Rhianna have been on board to bring in new potential travelers, reward those already booked and help define the Royal Caribbean brand as current and relevant.

“We are particularly delighted to have Martina McBride help us celebrate our return to New Orleans with an exclusive concert aboard Voyager of the Seas.”Royal Caribbean International senior vice president of marketing Betsy O’Rourke said.

The concert was free to Royal Caribbean’s past and invited guests, adding a whole lot of value for those booked to sail after the concert. Such was also the case in Galveston, Texas last week as GRAMMY award-winning band Maroon 5 played a standing room only crowd dockside to welcome Carnival Magic to the port. This one catered to a more engaged crowd as thousands of fans took advantage of free tickets being distributed by Carnival via their Facebook page, senior cruise director John Heald‘s blog and selected Texas radio stations.
“We wanted to do something big and memorable to mark Carnival Magic’s U.S debut and what better way to celebrate than to bring together fans of music and fans of Carnival, along with our partners in Galveston, for an exceptional afternoon of fun and entertainment,” Carnival Cruise Lines‘ president and CEO Gerry Cahill said.

A similar level of engagement at Carnival has resulted in what they call their Funship 2.0 initiative, a $500 million transformation of the line’s onboard experience. Introduced in New York last month, this is way more than a makeover and way more than a dry-dock remodeling project. Carnival is bringing in heavy hitters and time-tested concepts in an attempt blow away the competition, at no additional charge to their passengers.

It’s all about the burgers

First up, Food Network star Guy Fieri, has developed a burger venue called Guy’s Burger Joint featuring gourmet, made-to-order burgers with a variety of toppings. There will be not hockey puck-like burgers here.

Fieri’s influence goes beyond the burger recipe too. Condiment stations will feature a suggested menu developed by the chef to show guests what condiments and toppings they can use to build a specialty burger. In addition to burgers, Guy’s Burger Joint will serve fresh, hand-cut French fries prepared on board.

A variety of innovative condiments from chipotle mayonnaise and a special barbecue sauce to garlic aioli and three hot sauces, will be available at self-serve condiment stations. For guests who like a little more spice, seasonings like garlic and herb, sea salt and hot chili also will be offered, along with a selection of toppings such as sautéed mushrooms, grilled onions, blue cheese crumbles and vine-ripened tomatoes.

Comedy is king

Carnival is also teaming up with comedian and TV personality George Lopez who will become the cruise line‘s creative director for comedy as Carnival introduces the Punchliner Comedy Clubs Presented by George Lopez.

“Carnival’s ships offer a huge audience that truly appreciates comedic performances and the on-board clubs are fantastic,” said Lopez. “I intend to help build and nurture an understanding among up-and-coming comedic talent that these ships represent a phenomenal environment to work and gain experience.”

Through the partnership, Carnival ships will feature a Lopez comedy routine shown on in-cabin televisions fleetwide and pre-recorded introductions by Lopez at comedy club shows, as well as a new Punchliner Comedy Brunch that will be offered on sea days. Lopez will also partner with the line on a comedy-themed consumer contest in 2012.

Lopez is seriously into the concept too. In an interview on Cruise Radio, Lopez detailed his involvement saying “I will bring people from television and movies and that will make it better. You start to see people on the ship that you have seen in movies and that makes it fun, that’s a great surprise,” adding “I will be performing on the ships occasionally myself which I am excited about”.

Celebrity DJ to the rescue

DJ IRIE, song master to the stars and the official DJ of the Miami HEAT, will develop a first-of-its-kind DJ academy at sea that will train all Carnival DJs across the “Fun Ship” fleet. The DJ IRIE Spin’iversity will bring an exciting new vibe to the line’s legendary nightclubs, deck parties and beyond.

“Miami HEAT games are known for their high-energy and non-stop fun created by DJ IRIE and we want to tap into his unique skills and passion for music to create an unforgettable atmosphere on board,” said Mark Tamis, Carnival’s senior vice president of guest operations. “Music is the soundtrack of our lives and our goal is to create an emotional experience for our guests through the right mix of terrific music and a DJ with a unique personality who can energize a crowd.”

Whether spinning in clubs in Miami or Las Vegas, at a sporting event or hosting his popular South Florida radio show, the internationally known DJ IRIE has mastered the art of bringing a crowd to its feet and pumping up the energy and excitement.

Through his new DJ IRIE Spin’iversity, a comprehensive training program, IRIE will train Carnival’s DJs how to read a crowd and tailor song selections from every musical genre, appealing to guests of all ages. He will also instruct DJs on how to make maximum use of their own personality and energy to create their own persona and build popularity among guests to develop a fan following.

And it’s free

An important point to note: None of this costs extra. Other lines have piled on upscale dining venues, entertainment options and other pay-as-you-go choices with mixed results. Carnival is adding all this and more at no additional cost to their guests.

SkyMall Monday: Flair Hair Visor Sighting

It’s rare that I actually see SkyMall products in the wild. Sure, many of them sell quite well and are used by thousands – if not millions – of people. However, I spend so much time toiling away in the SkyMall Monday headquarters that I can no longer attend the monthly Telekinetic Obstacle Course tournaments or volunteer to help chronic back pain sufferers set up their NECKpro Traction Devices. Sadly, the only time I have the opportunity to see SkyMall products is when I am testing them out myself.

Recently, however, my luck changed. While attending a New York Mets baseball game at Citi Field with my father, I spotted something glorious. There, as I waited for a delicious Shack Shack hamburger, was a short man with tall hair. Hair that didn’t seem to actually belong to him. At first, I doubted its authenticity. What are the odds that I could be witnessing such a rare occurrence? However, as stared over my father’s shoulder at the man just a few feet away, I realized that I was witnessing history. There, but for the grace of God, walked a man in the Flair Hair Visor.

As I got closer to this live male specimen, I could see immediately that he had no sideburns and virtually no hair below the visor line. Is it possible that he shaved off all of the hair on the sides and back of his head and left only a thick, luxurious and spiked mane flowing on his crest? In theory, yes. However, there is no way that the hair poking through the visor like a crowning newborn was real. It was unaffected by the slight breeze coming off of Flushing Bay. It appeared to have no product in it yet remained stationary at all times. This hair wasn’t cemented in place with a Pauly D amount of paste. No, this hair was simply fake. And it was attached to his visor.

What would compel a man to don a visor with an artificial head of bleached blond spiked hair? Was he attempting to attract a mate? Overcompensating for his male pattern baldness and inability to grow taller than 5’8″? Or, did he simply think that wearing a visor with Guy Fieri’s hair attached would just plain make him hip?

It’s worth noting that it was an incredibly hot day with not a single cloud in the sky. Under the intense August sun, many sunburns were acquired that day. As a bald man, I can attest to the fact that protecting one’s scalp from UV rays is as important as protecting your backside in prison. Visors are notoriously useless when it comes to head protection because of their one major design flaw: a complete and total lack of a top. So, while they keep the sun out of your face, visors do nothing to keep your scalp covered. Perhaps this man had no other hat to wear to the game. Maybe, just maybe, he knew that no harmful, cancer-causing rays could possibly permeate a layer of synthetic hair that voluminous. If this is the case, he was wisely managing his long-term health. For that, we must commend him.

As I researched this piece, I arrived at the disheartening conclusion that the Flair Hair Visor is no longer offered in the SkyMall catalog. It is a relic of a bygone era of air commerce that I will always remember fondly. While it is still sold on the Flair Hair website, its days of be availability in our seatbacks at 35,000 feet have gone the way of the dinosaur.

We’ll never know whether this man purchased his Flair Hair Visor from SkyMall, the manufacturer’s website or a third-party vendor. Similarly, his motivations for wearing the bleached wig will always allude us. But, we can all sleep soundly and shop SkyMall confidently knowing that we are not alone. There are others like us. People who spend their hard-earned money wisely. People who care about their appearance. People with a good old-fashioned sense of whimsy.

We salute you, Flair Hair Visor man. Keep living the dream.

Check out all of the previous SkyMall Monday posts HERE.

Hampton Inns hands out free food on Thursday in NYC

Hampton Inn is teaming up with Guy Fieri to hand out free waffles (and so much more) this Thursday in New York City. Show up at Herald Square park at 6am and register for a plethora of gifts and prizes! Don’t worry if you can’t drag yourself out of bed that early – the waffles will be free until noon.

Why waffles? Why not!

Actually, there is a legitimate reason for the free food. The Hampton Inn will introduce freshly-baked waffles to its nationwide hotels’ breakfast choices, and what better way to celebrate than with free food. These waffles come with a bit of celebrity action, too: Chef Guy Fieri and his son Hunter, will be passing out the waffles. Bonus: If you’re among the first 50 to show up and present the official Facebook invite you’ll get a prize pack including a waffle baker, waffle mix, Hampton apron and tote bag.

Details: Wake Up with Waffles
Date: June 17, 2010 Time: 6 a.m. – 12 p.m. EDT
Place: Herald Square Park, Manhattan, New York City, NY
Price: Free to the public
RSVP: Facebook

Find the best dives with the unauthorized TripleD iPhone app

When the commercials tell you “there’s an app for that”, they are not kidding around. So, when I went searching for an iPhone app to accompany the “dive bar day” here on Gadling, it only took 20 seconds to find something fantastic.

The “TripleD unauthorized fan guide and companion” is the perfect mobile companion for the hugely popular show “Diners Drive-Ins and Dives”. Earlier today, Melanie wrote about TripleD creator, Guy Fieri.

The app covers every single place Guy has visited – including his latest trip to Alaska. You can find nearby places, pick a random one, or use the search button to find a specific location.

Once you find what you are looking for, the app shows the exact location on a map, the original air date of the show, other places included in that show and of course an assortment of photos. It even offers a link to the Yelp review, the phone number, and a link to the TripleD episode on YouTube (when available).

All in all a pretty decent app – priced at $1.99. iTunes app store link.