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Booking Strategy Budget Travel

The Best and Cheapest Times to Cruise

The best time to cruise and the cheapest time to cruise are not always the same. The best time to be on the water is often when the weather is nicest or when you have time off. These sailings are often the most popular, but “best” can quickly turn to “worst” when you face high prices and large crowds. The cheapest time to cruise is often when most travelers don’t want to go. You may find less ideal weather or some seasonal closures, but the lure of cheap fares and uncrowded ports might make you change your mind about what you consider the best time to cruise.

As you plan your next cruise, you’ll want to take into consideration the best and cheapest times to cruise and see what jibes with your vacation schedule. Here’s a when-to-cruise guide for some popular destinations.

Alaska

alaska cruise ship deck.

Alaska has a very short cruising season; ships traverse its chilly waters only between late April and September. The months of June through August offer the warmest weather and are therefore the best time to cruise Alaska (and the most popular). In other months, you’ll find some closures and a bit more chill in the air, but you’ll also find the best prices. In addition, April and May are the driest months of the Alaska cruise season, so you’re less likely to be rained out of your flightseeing tour or glacier walk.

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Bermuda

bermuda beach and bay.

Bermuda cruises sail from April through mid-November, mostly during Bermuda’s high or “beach” season. Most people travel during the summer months, making those voyages pricier, but you’ll find deals on spring and fall departures (April through early June and September through November). Bermuda has temperate weather year-round, though it does see the occasional autumn hurricane. If it’s too chilly for the beach in the shoulder season, you can always try out the island’s many golf courses and spas.

Caribbean

cruise ship anchored in the caribbean.

You can sail to the region year-round, but the best time to cruise the Caribbean is when it’s coldest in the Northern Hemisphere. Not only is the warm Caribbean climate a welcome respite from bad weather, but December through April is also the driest part of the year in the islands. The cheapest times to cruise are typically in the late summer and fall because of hurricane season. (If you decide to travel then, purchasing cruise insurance is a good idea.) But you can often find other patches of bargain sailings, especially during the early weeks of December and in the spring. The timing of spring discounts isn’t always consistent, so it’s best to keep an eye out and book when you see a low rate.

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Europe

cruise ship in mediterranean.

Europe is so big that you can’t lump all its cruises together. The Mediterranean cruise season runs year-round on select cruise lines, though you’ll have the most options between April and November. Northern Europe and Baltic cruises have a shorter season running from May to early November, while the warmer Greek Islands and Canary Islands see cruise ships between March and December. Small-ship river cruises usually run from spring through fall, with a few sailings in December to see the local Christmas markets.

Most tourists come to Europe in the summer, but the late spring and early fall have more pleasant temperatures and not as many crowds. You’ll find the lowest cruise prices at the beginning and end of each season; prices rise dramatically for the summer months.

Hawaii

waimea canyon waterfall

With two Norwegian Cruise Line ships dedicated to Hawaii cruising, you can explore the islands year-round. The best time to cruise Hawaii for good weather is during the summer and early fall when the islands get the least amount of rain. Summer tends to be the most popular because of school vacation and honeymoon season. Hawaii cruises are often cheapest from November through February, with the exception of holiday cruises.

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Mexico

los cabos arch.

You can cruise to Mexico year-round, either as part of a western Caribbean itinerary or as a dedicated Mexican Riviera voyage. The best time to visit Mexico is during its dry season, November through May. However, it’s a popular destination even during the rainier summer months. You’ll find the best deals in the fall, during hurricane season.

New England and Canada

acadia national park autumn.

New England and Canada sailings depart from May through October. You’ve got a better chance for warm weather if you travel from late June through early September. However, if you’re interested in foliage viewing, you’ll need to go in early to mid-October. May and late October sailings will offer the lowest rates, but don’t expect to be using the onboard swimming pool much.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2008. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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Peer-to-Peer Travel

5 Reasons Airbnb Is Better Than a Hotel

I’m by no means a hotel snob. Give me a fair rate, a clean room and a comfortable bed, and I’m happy; throw in free breakfast (no matter how basic) and free Wi-Fi, and I’m over the moon. Alternative lodging tends to be more my thing — hostels when I was a carefree backpacker, tents for outdoorsy adventures and vacation rentals for family gatherings.

It’s no surprise then that I loved my first Airbnb stay. The concept is simple: Book space in someone’s home (a room, a bed, a guesthouse) for — hopefully — less than the cost of a standard hotel. We tried it out on a recent trip to see family in Los Angeles, and it was a much better choice than the hotel we were considering. Based on that experience, here are five reasons why Airbnb might be better than a hotel.

Location: We wanted to be close to my brother’s home, but the nearest hotels were a few miles away and quite pricey. When we turned to Airbnb, we found a rental located just three blocks — walking distance! — from his house in the same residential neighborhood. Because Airbnb properties can be anywhere, you’re not limited to business districts and busy boulevards — great if you want something off the beaten path or closer to atypical attractions (like family).

Space: For $200+ a night, my family of four could have shared one room in a hotel, forcing the adults to sit in the dark after 8:30 p.m. bedtimes, and relegating early riser babies (and their grudging grownup companions) to play in the bathroom with the door closed at 6:45 a.m. For a much lower rate, we instead booked a 1,000-square-foot, two-floor guesthouse. After putting the children to sleep upstairs, my husband and I hung out in the downstairs living space, kicking back on the L-shaped couch or snacking at the kitchen table, lights ablaze.

Amenities: So we didn’t get free breakfast with Airbnb. We did get free Wi-Fi, cookies, fruit and bottled water. We also were invited to use our hosts’ patio, pool and hot tub, and the art supplies in the crafts area of their guesthouse. My son and nephew had a rousing dance party listening to our hosts’ CDs on the upstairs stereo. My guess is you won’t get the same niceties renting out a bed in someone’s apartment, but you do benefit from being a guest in someone’s home, rather than a customer in someone’s corporate brand.

Flexibility: Instead of worrying about strict check-in and check-out times that might interfere with naptime or force us out of our digs too early, we had the pleasure of working out arrangements that suited both our hosts and us. They had an outing planned the day we arrived, so they left a key for us to come at our leisure; when asked about check-out, their response was essentially “whenever.” Our last day was street cleaning day with a two-hour parking window on the other side; our host not only made sure we knew the rules, but let us park in his driveway so we wouldn’t have to keep moving our car.

Human Contact: I don’t often strike up conversations with the hotel check-in staff (other than to complain about my key card not working or the lack of a porta-crib), but we ran into our hosts twice and chatted pleasantly with them. Certainly, your experience will be much more social if you’re actually staying in your host’s home with them, rather than in a detached guesthouse, but either way it’s a fun way to meet people and learn about local culture.

That isn’t to say Airbnb doesn’t have its drawbacks. While our stay was wonderful, there’s a lot more room for properties to be less ideal than advertised, for hosts to cancel your reservation due to their personal needs, and for personality conflicts to detract from a stay with heavy interaction between you and your hosts (or additional guests). My colleague had an awkward first Airbnb stay, and my in-laws were a bit disappointed to learn they weren’t allowed to have a glass of wine on the verandah at their host’s place, due to a “no alcohol” policy not clearly delineated in the Airbnb listing. Not to mention that certain cities are questioning the legality of Airbnb stays in the first place.

But if you’re looking for accommodations that don’t fit the typical hotel bill, give it a try. At best, you’ll find just what you need at the right price; at worst, it’ll be a funny story a few years down the road (and you can soothe your soul by writing a biting review).

Categories
Arts & Culture Booking Strategy Cities

Jerusalem Travel Guide


Jerusalem fits a microcosm of the whole world into less than 50 square miles. Black-hatted Jews in long trench coats walk the streets of religious neighborhoods in hot desert weather; Israeli Arabs reverently approach the Dome of the Rock to offer prayers; devout Christians make pilgrimages to the places Jesus once inhabited; and immigrants from America, Ethiopia and the former Soviet republics form their own enclaves throughout the city’s seven hills. Remnants of disparate historical eras are piled, one on top of the other, in an archaeologist’s dream world — ancient sites meet Roman ruins alongside reminders of modern Israel’s tumultuous past. And, in the midst of these holy and historic areas, Israelis go to work, shop, eat out and hang out like citizens of any other city.

Most visitors come to Jerusalem to see the religious sites of the Old City. Hectic, don’t-waste-a-minute tours rush visitors to the Western Wall, Via Dolorosa, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and then on to Bethlehem or one of Israel’s famous museums (the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial or Israel Museum, home to the Dead Sea Scrolls). And, of course, a stop at a market or souvenir shop is a must. Jerusalem is a large city and if you don’t allow yourself enough time here (ideally, at least three days), you will likely feel overwhelmed — it’s simply impossible to see everything at a leisurely pace in just a day.

Highlights for first-timers include the holy places of three important religions, such as the remains of the Jewish Second Temple, the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and the spot where Mohammed ascended to heaven. Beyond the big-name sites, you can also enjoy the shops and cafe culture at the Ben Yehuda Pedestrian Mall, haggling in the “Shuk” or visiting a number of first-rate museums. Out-of-town excursions include the beachside playground and cultural capital that is Tel Aviv, the dramatic yet melancholy ruins at Masada and the resorts by the Dead Sea.

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One final note — even as travelers eagerly flock to the Holy Land, many continue to be concerned about safety. Yes, terrorist attacks do occur in Israel. But, because of this, security measures are extensive and effective. Armed guards are plentiful, and your bags will be searched. Buses are as safe as in any modern nation. Don’t let fear prevent you from enjoying this incredible city, which truly can offer something for everyone. Just put on your most comfortable walking shoes, charge the camera batteries, and be prepared to be wowed by a city that has rightly claimed more than its fair share of space in the history books.

Jerusalem Attractions

If you’ve never been to Jerusalem, you must visit the Old City — home to ancient holy sites for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. The walled city is entered through various gates and is split into four quarters: Jewish, Christian, Arab and Armenian. If you’re not on a tour, prepare to get lost in the warren of stone streets — the city is confusing, even with a map. “Free” guided tours are available from the Jaffa Gate (for more information on these tours visit NewJerusalemTours.com). If you’re approached by someone wishing to serve as your guide, a firm “no, thank you” will suffice; if you do accept the offer, a tip will most likely be expected at the end of the tour.

The holiest sites include the Western Wall (also called the Kotel or Wailing Wall), which is the only remaining structure left from the Jewish Second Temple; the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, once the location of the Temple’s Holy of Holies and believed by Muslims to be the place where Mohammed ascended to heaven; the Via Dolorosa, a street thought by many Christians to be the site of the Stations of the Cross; and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built over the sites where the cross was erected and where Jesus was buried and resurrected. (Some Christians think the Garden Tomb, located outside the Old City on Conrad Schick Street, is a possible site for the burial and resurrection of Jesus; the site is open for tours and worship services.)

Note that tourists who are not Muslims cannot enter the Dome of the Rock and — though rules tend to vary — often cannot access the Temple Mount at all.

If you can, get tickets ahead of time (or ask your guide to do it) for the Western Wall Tunnels, which take you under the Muslim Quarter between the Western Wall and the Temple Mount. The Jewish Quarter houses the Cardo, the remains of a Roman thoroughfare, and the twin archeological museums of the Wohl Archeological Museum and Burnt House, as well as kosher restaurants and Judaica shops. If you enjoy shopping and haggling over prices, the Christian Quarter is where you’ll find markets that sell everything from religious items and souvenirs to food, T-shirts and rugs. At the Jaffa Gate, between the Christian and Armenian Quarters, the Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem explores 4,000 years of Jerusalem’s history. Just outside the Old City is Dormition Abbey, occupying the sites where tradition says that Mary spent her last night and Jesus held the Last Supper.

Across from and above the Old City, the Mount of Olives is also a religiously important site, mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments. It’s currently home to several churches. Jesus often gave teachings there, and Jews believe that when the Messiah comes, God will raise the dead from the hillside. (Hence, a very prominent Jewish cemetery is located on the slopes.) The Mount of Olives is also the site of the Garden of Gethsemane (where Jesus prayed the night before his crucifixion), Church of Maria Magdalene and Dominus Flevit Church.

At the base of the Mount of Olives, the Kidron Valley houses a series of tombs carved out of the hillside. A peaceful atmosphere surrounds the tombs of Zechariah, the Hezir sons and Absalom, among others.

Yad Vashem is Jerusalem’s Holocaust memorial and museum. The sprawling complex on Har Hazikaron includes a history museum and art museum, as well as memorial and commemorative sites, such as the Children’s Memorial and the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations, which honors non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. If you’re not on a tour or in a cab, take a public bus to the Mount Herzl bus stop, where free shuttles will take you into the Yad Vashem campus.

Art and archaeology of the Holy Land are the hallmarks of the Israel Museum, the country’s largest cultural institution. There, the Shrine of the Book contains the Dead Sea Scrolls — the oldest biblical manuscripts ever found (2nd century B.C. to 1st century A.D.) — as well as medieval manuscripts. The 20-acre campus also houses a Second Temple-era model of Jerusalem, an art and sculpture garden and a substantial amount of contemporary art, including pieces on hot political topics.

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Christian tourists flock to Bethlehem, which is believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, as well as King David. It’s just a short cab ride outside of Jerusalem. Located in the central Manger Square, the Church of the Nativity is one of the oldest Christian churches and is built around the Grotto of the Nativity, the site of Jesus’ birth. Other pilgrimage sites include the Milk Grotto, where the Holy Family sought refuge during the Slaughter of the Innocents, and a cave where St. Jerome translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Latin. Note that Bethlehem is part of the West Bank Palestinian Territories, and you must cross a checkpoint to go from Jerusalem to the West Bank. Take your passport. Israeli buses and taxis cannot pass through the checkpoint, so you’ll need to get out and pick up Palestinian transportation on the other side. See day trips to Bethlehem from Viator.

Located on the Mediterranean, Tel Aviv is Israel’s cultural center, full of galleries and art museums, distinct architecture, and buzzing nightclubs. Come for a day at the beach, or stroll among the waterfront restaurants and shops at the revitalized Tel Aviv Port. You won’t find any ancient history here — for that, you’ll need to go to Old Jaffa, once a separate city and now part of Tel Aviv. In its maze of winding streets, you’ll find the 1906 Clock Tower and the popular Flea Market.

Although it’s a long day-trip from Jerusalem, a visit to Masada and the Dead Sea is worth it if you have the time. At Masada, visit the fortress built by Herod in the first century B.C. During the Jewish revolt against the Romans in first century A.D., Jewish rebels and zealots took over the fortress and held out against the Romans for three years before committing suicide, rather than being captured. A cable car takes you to the top. (There are also stairs, but the ascent is not recommended for visitors arriving midday when the desert sun is quite hot.) The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth at 1,276 feet below sea level. The sea water is so salty that bathers can’t help but float easily, and the mud near the sea has an array of therapeutic benefits. Part of the fun is slathering your travel companions with mud, then taking a dip in the Dead Sea. Don’t miss the nearby oasis of Ein Gedi with its nature reserves, botanical gardens and health spas. See day trips to Masada from Viator.

A good choice for families with young children, the 62-acre Biblical Zoo is home to a wide range of animals with a special focus on creatures indigenous to Israel and species named in the Bible. Kids can pet animals in the Children’s Zoo, climb on fantastical creations in the Noah’s Ark Sculpture Garden and watch nature come to life in the 3-D theater. A zoo train ride circles the park.

Jerusalem Restaurants

Israeli cuisine is a hodgepodge of many cultures, incorporating Arab, Eastern European, Yemenite, North African, Balkan and Iraqi dishes. Salads, including the aptly named Israeli salad — a dish of diced cucumbers and tomatoes — are popular. You can’t go wrong with falafel (chickpea fritters), hummus (chickpea paste) or shwarma (shaved-meat sandwiches). Plenty of cheap and quick falafel places can be found in the Ben Yehuda area (Melech Hafelafel and Pinati get rave reviews) or around Mahane Yehuda.

Kosher restaurants are prevalent in Jerusalem, and these establishments adhere to Jewish dietary laws. Kosher eateries are designated either as meat restaurants (where no dairy products are served) or dairy restaurants (where no meat is served, though fish is acceptable). Wherever you go, look for signs advertising “business lunches” — they’re a great deal because you get dinner-sized portions at lunchtime prices.

Editor’s Note: Many restaurants close for the Sabbath (from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday); if you’re in town then, check ahead to be sure your restaurant of choice will be open. If you have trouble finding somewhere to eat during this time period, ask for recommendations at your hotel.

Ticho House is a draw not only for its food, but also for its location. Just blocks from the busy Ben Yehuda Mall, the restaurant is situated in the peaceful gardens and interior of a 19th-century home, which now also houses a small museum. The kosher (dairy) restaurant offers an enormous menu of fish, pasta, blintzes, sandwiches, omelets and salads, along with a kids’ menu. Specialties include onion soup served in bread bowls and “Anna’s Strudel,” and the fresh bread and lemonade mixed with fresh mint should not be missed. You can print out a discount coupon online. Concerts take place there on select evenings and Friday mornings.

Mingle with Jerusalem’s “who’s who” at Caffit in the yuppified German Colony neighborhood. The kosher dairy cuisine tends toward the Italian, but you’ll also find Continental and local dishes and flavors. Get your fill of green, eating enormous salads in the restaurant’s garden terrace. Or try soup in a bread bowl, pasta, crepes, vegetable pies or the Jewish staple of bagels topped with lox. Aid your digestion with a walk around the tree-lined neighborhood, filled with beautiful homes, boutiques and fabulous people-watching opportunities.

Serious foodies will love the eclectic, inventive offerings at Chakra, on King George Street. The chef draws on Israeli, European and Asian flavors to cook up dishes like crispy gnocchi shrimp, white sea fish sashimi with wasabi and ginger, and entrecote kebab on fire-grilled eggplant with tahini. Menus change regularly based on what’s in season. Reservations are highly recommended.

Set in an alley near Ben Yehuda, Tmol Shilshom is a hangout for artists and the literary set — not to mention others looking for delectable kosher dairy cuisine at this bookstore cafe. Appropriately, it’s named after the novel by Israeli Nobel laureate S. Y. Agnon. Order up a salad, savory filo pastry, fish dish, cheesecake or hot drink (like sachlav, a sweet Middle Eastern drink made with warm milk and orchids), and settle down with a book or two to peruse. The cafe hosts readings, discussions and musical events.

Meat-lovers can get a taste of Argentina in a kosher setting at El Gaucho steakhouse. Dig into your choice of grilled meats (veal, chicken or several types of steak), skewers or burgers — sorry, no cheese here. For lunch, go big with a three-course meal (appetizer, salad and main), or get a sandwich or schnitzel with fries.

Shopping in Jerusalem

Judaica, from chintzy souvenirs to fine art, can be found in the Jewish Quarter and the Ben Yehuda Pedestrian Mall. You’ll find everything from Hanukkah menorahs (nine-branched candelabras) and Seder plates for Passover to educational children’s toys, jewelry, kipot (skull caps) and Jewish-themed art. Colorful Jerusalem candles and skin products, featuring mud from the Dead Sea, make great gifts for the non-religious folks on your gift list. In Bethlehem, look for olive wood carvings and mother-of-pearl handicrafts, many with Christian religious designs.

Keep in mind that stores may be closed for the Jewish Sabbath, observed from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.

Head downtown to the Ben Yehuda Pedestrian Mall for shopping and cafe culture. The midrachov (pedestrian mall) is formed by the triangular intersection of Ben Yehuda Street, King George Street and Jaffa Road. Cafes, touristy shops and fast food joints (everything from American chains to falafel sellers) attract locals and visitors alike. Have a wander, or enjoy the buskers. Don’t worry — everyone speaks English there, even though the street is named after the man who revived Hebrew as a spoken language.

For a true taste of Israel, head to Mahane Yehuda Marketplace, affectionately known as “the Shuk,” one of the largest and busiest open-air markets in Israel. Vendors sell all kinds of foods, and the market is a melting pot of shoppers, representing a host of nationalities, religions and demographics. Come here to immerse yourself in the sights and smells, or grab a quick lunch of falafel with some rugelach (rolled-up cookies, typical of Eastern European Jews) for dessert.

Categories
Family Travel In-Flight Experience

An Open Letter to People Who Hate Flying with Kids


Every so often you see a travel article about people who think babies and kids should be banned from air travel or moved to a separate section of a plane. These curmudgeonly business travelers assert their right to a library-silent, no-wails-allowed flight. They outline a mile-long list of grievances from squirmy infants grabbing their iPads and magazines to kindergarteners kicking the backs of their seats. As if the disappearance of people under 12 — make that 18 — would make flying so much more pleasant.

To everyone who has shot daggers at the bedraggled parents with the crying baby, daring them to even think of sitting in their row, I’d like to present the view from the other side. As a travel professional, who has flown many times with my son in his two years of life, including a solo cross-country flight without Daddy, I have learned many new things about flying since I became part of the diaper set. Here are some tidbits I’ve gleaned that might make you think differently about flying with babies onboard.

Families need to travel. I spend 40 hours a week writing/editing/talking about travel. I would be a hypocrite if I suddenly stopped flying just because I had a kid. My family lives across the country, I love to explore new places, and I want my son to be exposed to a variety of people and cultures. I’m not going to do that solely within road trip distance — and nor are many other families.

You can predict where babies will sit. Smart parents choose seats in two locations on a plane — the back of a domestic flight and the bulkhead on international flights. While most travelers avoid the back of the plane, parents flock there for easy bathroom access and extra time to hunt for dropped pacifiers while everyone else deplanes. International travelers book bulkheads because this is where the in-flight bassinets hook up so babies can sleep on long-haul itineraries. Kids will be scattered throughout airplanes, for sure, but avoid these two areas or you’ll really be in the baby zone.

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Babies will not scream the whole flight. Except in rare cases of illness or colic, babies do not scream nonstop for an entire five-hour flight. They’re most likely to cry while you’re still on the ground, likely because parents are delaying their next meal until the airplane takes off because nursing or sucking on a bottle helps with the pressure change. Once the airplane levels off, it actually becomes baby heaven — white noise plus vibration is the magic combination that makes most children sleepy.

It’s toddlers you really have to worry about. Babies can be soothed and older kids understand threats (and the power of in-flight movies and video games), but if you’re going to fear anyone, be afraid of toddlers. They’re willful, mobile and vocal, and do not respond to logical arguments. And they love to throw things.

Don’t blame the parents. At least, don’t blame them until you see them ignoring disruptive children. Most moms and dads I know freak out about being “that family” on a flight, so they come prepared with new toys, stickers, coloring books and toddler apps to distract young ones, and they’ll start shushing the instant a disgruntled peep emerges from their child. I’ve even heard of parents handing out goodie bags and drink coupons to their neighbors on long flights. So please don’t judge sight unseen.

Airlines don’t make it easier for families. Airlines might roll out the red carpet for their super-duper-elite fliers, but kids don’t have expense accounts. Many carriers will not guarantee families seats together in advance, seating 3-year-olds with strangers while Mom is two rows back. Frazzled parents are left to beg the gate reps or flight attendants to facilitate swaps. (Please move if you’re asked. If you think flying with kids is bad, try sitting next to a preschooler who is half a plane away from her parents.) Also, not all airlines let families with small children board first. We are really trying not to bump into you as we drag kids and carry-ons down narrow aisles, and don’t mean for our children to be in your face as we quickly stow our bags, but there’s nothing we can do about our Group Four boarding placement.

Kids are curious. You may think it’s annoying that my son is staring at you over the back of the seat, but he’s likely fascinated with your beard or your colorful shirt or your electronics. Babies love to stare; they’re not trying to be rude. If you’re feeling friendly, engage a kid who finds you fascinating — peekaboo is a winner every time. It will buy a harried parent a moment of peace, and you’re guaranteeing no screams for at least two minutes.

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Kids are just acting their age — please act yours. Little kids aren’t miniature adults. Their growing brains can’t understand the need to sit still and be quiet in public. They learn by being curious and exploring their environment, and don’t understand why certain things and people are off limits. And, depending on their age, the only way they know to express themselves is by crying. You, on the other hand, are old enough to hold down a job and book your own plane tickets. You should be mature enough not to throw a tantrum when your seatmate isn’t to your liking, to understand that a kid being a kid is not the parents’ fault, and to realize that making someone else feel bad will not make you feel better or improve your flight. So grow up. I’ve been more bothered by adults’ B.O., rude manners, snoring and incessant attempts at conversation than any baby’s vocalizations — and you don’t see me trying to get those people kicked off my flight.

Categories
In-Flight Experience

Travel Pillow Challenge: The Quest for Good Airplane Sleep


My greatest weakness as a travel professional? I can’t sleep on planes.

If you’re like me, then you know the feeling of dread that washes over you when you realize that nothing stands between you and an incredible trip to Europe (Asia, South America, etc.) but 12 hours of red-eye misery, cramped in coach class, a hard, unyielding armrest digging into your hips, head banging against the windowshade, legs going numb as you try to contort yourself in the one miracle position that will bring on sleep. And you almost don’t go.

But if you love travel as much as I do, you suck it up and go. In a desperate attempt to make long-haul flights more bearable and find a miracle cure for the sleepless flight, I took four travel pillows with me on a recent trip from San Francisco to Germany and the Netherlands. I chose products that seemed unusual or intriguing. Here’s how they ranked. (Spoiler alert: I barely slept a wink.)

Kuhi Comfort Travel Pillow
The Pillow: The Kuhi Comfort Travel Pillow is not your standard-shaped neck pillow. It’s made of two soft cylindrical balls, attached by a strap. The selling point is that you can use it multiple ways. Turn it one way and the curved part is by your neck; flip it around and the flat part is against you. Straighten the strap and you can tuck one end over your shoulder and cuddle the other, put it behind you for back support and place it in your lap to rest a book.

The Flight: I was pretty excited about this one — the design is original and the materials feel high-end. To my disappointment, the fit is just off. The strap is too short and the balls are (ahem) too big. When the pillow was around my neck, I felt surrounded by material. Trying alternate positions didn’t work — the pillow is too bulky for good back support and too short to sling across your body. The final blow: Because the pillow isn’t inflatable, you have to carry it around in its little stuff sack, which attaches nicely to the handle of your rollaboard but dangles awkwardly if you’re carrying a backpack or other bag.

Final Verdict: I wanted to love it, but I just couldn’t make it work.

[st_related]10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight[/st_related]

Cabeau Evolution Pillow

The Pillow: The Evolution Pillow is an enhanced version of the standard, plush (non-inflatable) neck pillow. It’s made of memory foam and has raised side supports to cradle your neck — or you can wear the pillow backwards to support your chin. It even has a pocket for your MP3 player. It comes with a travel case and memory-foam earplugs.

The Flight: I was the least excited about the Evolution Pillow, but it was actually really comfortable. I used this one while dozing on an early-morning flight, and I did appreciate the extra head support, the soft material and the absence of the inflatable-pillow plastic smell. However, I would like to see a step-by-step video of how the designers scrunched the pillow down to a quarter of its size and fit it into the stuff sack. I couldn’t even get the entire pillow into the bag, so I couldn’t use the Velcro straps to attach it and it just dangled awkwardly, threatening to fall out.

Final Verdict: Until someone can show me how to make this pillow travel-friendly, I’m sticking with my blow-up model. (Editor’s Note: Cabeau recently offered us the following instructions for packing the pillow.)

EZ Sleep Travel Pillow

The Pillow: Imagine a miniature version of an inflatable pool mat that you could stand up like a wall between airplane seats, attached by a Velcro strap around the arm rest. What you see in your mind is the EZ Sleep Travel Pillow. The concept is to create a support structure for you to lean against as you catch some in-flight Z’s, so your body isn’t flopping about like a rag doll.

The Flight: It hit me in the airport — if I have the aisle seat and someone else has the window, I may be too embarrassed to set this inflatable wall up. It’s big and it encroaches into shared territory. Luckily for me, I had two seats to myself. The pillow does not seem as sturdy as the claim — if I really fell asleep on it, I don’t believe it would hold my weight without collapsing onto my seatmate. What it was great for was putting against the armrest or the window to create a soft surface to lean against — preventing hard metal and plastic plane parts from bruising my body as I tossed and turned.

Final Verdict: If you and a family member are sharing adjoining seats, by all means, set this pillow up. Otherwise, it might not be worth packing the EZ Sleep to use in conjunction with another pillow for your head or neck.

[st_related]Top Tips for Sleeping on Planes[/st_related]

Travelrest Travel Pillow

The Pillow: Here’s a new one — an inflatable pillow shaped like a banana, or possibly an apostrophe. The Travelrest Travel Pillow is larger on the top, so you can rest your head, and then tapers into a slight curve (this part slings across your body). A long string at the bottom lets you attach the two ends to secure the pillow around you or your airplane seat.

The Flight: This pillow was hands down my favorite. I contorted my body into all sorts of positions trying to sleep across two airplane seats, and whether I was sitting up or half-lying down, the pillow cradled my head and gave me something to wrap my arms around so they didn’t just dangle uselessly. The only downside was the plasticky smell that plagues all inflatable travel pillows, though perhaps that would go away after a few uses.

Final Verdict: While it didn’t help me sleep, the Travelrest pillow made my attempts more comfortable. I’m keeping this one and will definitely use it again.

— written by Erica Silverstein

Categories
Packing

Top 10 Cruise Packing Tips

Perhaps you’re like me and start filling your suitcase a week (or more) before your cruise, armed with a packing list and smart space-saving techniques, like rolling up socks and stuffing them in your shoes. Or maybe you’re like my husband, who throws a bunch of clothes into a carry-on at midnight before a morning flight and always packs the right things.

Either way, you’ve probably learned that what you bring—or more importantly, what you forget to pack—can impact your enjoyment of your cruise vacation.

I own untold numbers of sweatshirts that I bought when I was caught out on an unseasonably cold day in port with no warm layers—a waste of shopping time and money since I have rarely worn them post-cruise. And forgetting to bring socks on a short cruise meant I couldn’t try out the bungee trampoline on a Royal Caribbean ship. I’ve bought overpriced Advil for a mean migraine, and watched friends swelter in jeans on embarkation day in Miami because they hadn’t packed any shorts in their carry-ons.

But I’ve also waltzed through the airport with only a backpack and roll-aboard suitcase prior to a seven-night Europe cruise, and was still able to supply travel companions with reading materials, seasickness meds and plane snacks they hadn’t thought to bring. On an Alaska cruise, I brought—and wore—everything from a bathing suit to a fleece jacket, gloves and warm hat. And after shivering through one too many dinners in uber-air-conditioned cruise ship dining rooms, I now pack cardigans and pashminas to match my sleeveless eveningwear (they also double as blankets on long flights).

So whether your goal is to avoid those checked or excess bag fees by packing light, reserve your in-port shopping for souvenirs rather than necessities, or simply make sure you take everything you need on your next vacation, here are our top 10 tips for packing for a cruise.

Tip 1: Pack your carry-on bags wisely. Pack a change of clothes and important meds or toiletries in the bags you will take on the plane and personally transport onboard. This is important for two reasons: First, if your luggage gets lost by the airline on the way to your cruise, at least you’ll have some essentials with you. It can take a while for your luggage to be found and then shipped to the next port of call. Second, in case your suitcases are delayed in being delivered to your cabin, you’ll have a bathing suit or dinner attire on hand and can enjoy all the onboard activities right away, rather than waiting for your bags to show up.

Tip 2: Know the dress codes. While some folks still like to dress to the nines (formal gowns and tuxedos) for ships’ formal nights, most people dress in business attire (suit for men, cocktail garb—flowing pants suits or silk dresses—for women). The irony is that the more luxurious the line (with the exception of the upscale Crystal Cruises, whose passengers really do like to dress up), the more elegantly casual guests dress. The more contemporary the line—like Carnival and Royal Caribbean—the dressier folks are on formal occasions. If you love to dress up, know that some lines do offer tux rentals so you don’t have to pack your own. Allergic to formal wear? Most cruise lines offer buffet-style dining for dinner, even on formal nights (or sup in your cabin via room service).

Tip 3: Consider doing laundry onboard. If you want to pack light (and do laundry en route), make sure to read our cruise reviews—not all ships offer free (or for-fee) laundromats. Otherwise, laundry is a service provided by cruise lines, but it can get expensive (though cruise lines often offer complimentary laundry and pressing services to suite guests and top-tier past passengers). You can always save on laundry costs by bringing travel detergent and rinsing out underwear and shirts in your cabin’s bathroom, or packing a bottle of travel-sized Febreze to get one more day’s use out of a gently worn outfit.

Tip 4: Don’t assume your favorite toiletries will be in your cabin. You’ll always find basic toiletries onboard, such as soap and shampoo. In main cabins on some cruise lines—Royal Caribbean, NCL, Carnival—toiletries offered are limited (in some cases to pump bottles of mystery soap affixed to the wall), so you may want to make room in your luggage for your favorite brands. Same goes for hair dryers. Most staterooms come with weak dryers so if you’re picky, pack your own.

Tip 5: Bone up on the bathrobe policy. In most cases, you don’t need to pack a bathrobe. They’re provided in all cabins on most luxury lines, as well as mainstream lines like Carnival and Holland America, and in balcony cabins and above on most other lines. On Princess, they’re available by request. If you’re not sure if your cabin will come with a robe, read the FAQ section of your cruise line’s Web site or ask your travel agent (or on Cruise Critic’s message boards [http://boards.cruisecritic.com/]). But be forewarned: Bathrobes aren’t souvenirs. You have to pay if you like yours so much you want to take it home.

Tip 6: Dress for your destination. Simply put, some places are more formal than others. Expect to pack more resort-casual wear if traveling to Europe (all regions) or Bermuda (duffer alert: golf courses in Bermuda have strict dress codes). In contrast, other cruise itineraries are more casual than the norm—in that category we include Hawaii, the Mexican Riviera, the Caribbean and French Polynesia. And don’t forget to think about your in-port activities; flip flops are fine for a beach day, but you’ll want more comfortable shoes for long days of sightseeing or active excursions like hiking or biking.

Tip 7: Save some room in your suitcase. Don’t forget that you’re likely to pick up at least a few souvenirs during your cruise and that you’ll need room in your luggage to bring them home. This is particularly prevalent on Hawaiian-based itineraries where, by voyage’s last night, just about everyone has dispatched their continental garb for Aloha-wear. Consider packing an extra duffle that can fold up into your suitcase on the way to the cruise and later be filled and checked for the trip home.

Tip 8: Mix and match. If you can make your clothes do double duty, you won’t be hit with excess bag fees or find yourself fighting with your spouse about who gets the last hanger in the cabin’s small closet. Stick with one color theme so you can re-wear bottoms with different tops, or bring shirts that can be dressed up for dinner on one night and worn sightseeing the next. Opt for the layered look to handle differing temperatures in the various cruise ports. Change up the look of one formal outfit with different accessories (jewelry, ties, scarves), rather than bring two suits or cocktail dresses. Remember—you will never see most of these people again (with thousands onboard, you might not see the same person again before the cruise ends!), and most won’t remember if you wear the same outfit twice.

Tip 9: Remember the basics. Most cruise ship cabins don’t come with alarm clocks, so if you want to know the time and set an alarm (rather than a phone wakeup call), bring your own. If you’re using your cell phone for this job, make sure you don’t incur roaming charges simply by leaving it on in foreign waters. Other items you might want to pack because they’re not provided or super-expensive to buy onboard include: extra hangers, over-the-counter meds, batteries, camera memory cards, sunscreen, ear plugs, plastic bags for transporting liquids or wet things (or keeping water out of your gear on water-based tours) and power strips to charge all your electronics.

Tip 10: Keep all important documents with you. Always make sure you pack your necessary IDs and cruise documents—and never pack them in your checked luggage. You’ll want your passport or other photo ID and cruise ship boarding pass on hand, so even if your suitcase misses the boat, you can get onboard. Make sure you have the correct type of identification, as wannabe cruisers have been turned away from the pier for having just a copy of their birth certificate (and not the required original) or a passport with a name that doesn’t match the one on the ship’s manifest (often in the case of a honeymoon cruise). Also, remember to acquire any necessary visas and immunizations necessary for your cruising region and carry them with you, too.

Categories
Booking Strategy

Top 10 Cruise Trends for 2010


If 2009 was the year of the deal, then 2010 is the year of the tweak. With a bunch of carbon-copy ships debuting (the exceptions are the revolutionary Norwegian Epic and, to some extent, P&O Cruises‘ new Azura), we’re not going to be blown away by many new ship designs and unheard-of onboard amenities. Yet as lines aim to capture the attention of first-time cruisers and work hard to bring prices back up to pre-2009 levels, they will focus on improving the existing onboard experience and changing the way the public views cruising.

What should you expect? Look for policy changes (with regard to tipping and levels of luxury), upgraded enrichment and entertainment programs, itineraries revamped to reflect the hottest destinations, big-name theme cruises, and continued ship refurbishments. You’ll also notice passenger demographics changing, as cruisers get younger and hail from a wider variety of countries.

Intrigued? Here are Cruise Critic’s top 10 cruise trends for 2010:

Pricing is Rising

What We’ve Seen: No question, 2009 was the year of the deal. With plenty of new ships debuting and a worldwide economic recession, cruise lines had to scramble to fill cabins. We saw Wave Season extra-value deals extend into the spring, some of the lowest prices we’ve ever seen for Alaska and Mexico itineraries, and lots of freebies (including free airfare from luxury lines and even free kids’ fares from family-friendly Disney Cruise Line).

In 2010: So far, cruise lines are optimistic about 2010 sales—and that means they’re bringing prices back up. We don’t expect last-minute or shoulder-season deals to disappear, but the record low fares for peak-season sailings will most likely disappear. Plus, exciting new ships like Carnival‘s Carnival Dream, Royal Caribbean‘s Oasis of the Sea, and Norwegian Cruise Line‘s Norwegian Epic should command premium pricing that’s higher than average. One fire-sale holdover: Luxury cruise lines are keeping some of the free airfare, two-for-one pricing, onboard credit, and free shore excursions policies that they introduced in 2009.

Innovative Onboard Attractions

What We’ve Seen: In previous years, cruise line innovation was focused on new-builds, as shipyards pumped out new ships at a record pace. A new class of ship would herald the launch of a new onboard amenity (like Royal Caribbean’s Central Park or NCL’s bowling), cabin category (like Costa‘s spa cabin concept on Costa Concordia), or programming (like Celebrity Cruises‘ new Celebrity Life entertainment and enrichment program launched on Celebrity Equinox). If the concepts were popular, the cruise lines would often retrofit older ships with the new amenities, such as Princess Cruises‘ Sanctuary sun deck and Movies Under the Stars.

In 2010: You’ll still see some exciting new additions to existing cruise ships, but they likely won’t be as innovative as features introduced on all-new ship designs. Azamara, for instance, has no plans just now to build new ships—but it is retooling its name and concept, to promote its new destination focus and more inclusive nature. At Windstar, where ships were built in the late 1980’s, its Degrees of Difference program enters its newest phase—which includes the introduction of new spa-focused suites onboard. Carnival continues to revamp its oldest ships with the “Evolutions of Fun” upgrades, which include a new aqua park with waterslide, an adults-only sun deck, and redesigned main pool areas. And Celebrity is finally embracing freestyle dining by rolling out an alternative, flexible dining program fleet-wide.

Bottom line: Look for a continued emphasis on ship refurbishments and new entertainment, enrichment, and culinary programs onboard.

Lots of Sister Ships

What We’ve Seen: 2009 was a great year for innovative and new ship designs, many of them the biggest ever for their respective lines. Thrilling new debuts included Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, Seabourn‘s Seabourn Odyssey, Carnival’s Carnival Dream, Silversea‘s Silver Spirit, and Viking River CruisesViking Legend. Highlights included Seabourn’s splashy, two-deck spa; advanced engine technology on Viking Legend to ensure a quiet ride and use less fuel; and an indoor/outdoor piazza on Carnival Dream. And pretty much everything on Oasis of the Seas was revolutionary, from its split-hull design to its zipline, loft cabins, and onboard park with real trees and plants.

In 2010: With the notable exception of NCL’s Norwegian Epic, most of the ships debuting this year are sisters of previous ships. Costa’s Costa Deliziosa, Celebrity’s Celebrity Eclipse, Holland America‘s Nieuw Amsterdam, Seabourn’s Seabourn Sojourn, and Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas are all near twins of existing ships (namely, Costa Luminosa, Celebrity Solstice, Eurodam, Seabourn Odyssey, and Oasis of the Seas). P&O’s Azura, too, is built on the same general platform as Ventura—though it will be a departure from the family-focused Ventura, geared instead to adults and couples with single cabins, new dining options, and an adults-only sun deck.

So the christenings will be a little ho hum—unless the cruise lines pull out all the stops with new programming or big-name godmothers. Again, the one bright spot is Norwegian Epic, the largest-ever NCL ship featuring an aqua park, an array of restaurants (but no main dining room), a circus- and acrobatics-themed dinner show, dueling piano bar, ice bar, and New Wave cabins with curved walls and split baths. It’s definitely the ship to watch in 2010.

European River Cruising Enters Luxury Niche

What We’ve Seen: In the past, river cruise lines haven’t been able to rise above their ships’ size constraints. In order to fit through narrow locks or channels, riverboats must be lean, with no extra space for the “wow” amenities found on their ocean-going sisters. Generally, cabins are tight, dining is limited to one venue, and onboard amenities are kept to a bare minimum. That’s changing, though: Uniworld’s new River Beatrice, which cruises the Danube, was introduced in 2009 with lavish decor, plenty of suite accommodations, and an alternative dining venue.

In 2010: Taking some inspiration from their bigger ship brethren, some river operators are now figuring that even if you can’t make riverboats enormous, why not take the space you have and make it as nice as possible? For the first time, a river cruise can be a luxury cruise experience. AMAWATERWAYS‘ Amabella will have an elevator, free wine and beer at meals, free Wi-Fi, a spa-type shower in all cabins, and a small spa. Avalon Waterways‘ 2010 new-builds, Avalon Felicity and Luminary, will have 258-square-foot junior suites, cabins with French balconies and high-quality linens, and a fitness center.

Other luxury touches to look for include Nintendo Wii systems and marble bathrooms on Tauck‘s newest ships, museum-quality art collections and swimming pools on Uniworld’s new-builds, and all-balcony cabins and a private restaurant for suite guests on Victoria Cruises‘ most modern riverboats.

Snagging Virgin Cruisers

What We’ve Seen: Passionate cruise travelers are the bread and butter of the industry, but cruise lines are also keen to entice virgin cruisers to the niche. In response, cruise lines have started modeling their onboard experiences on land-based vacation programs in an effort to entice non-cruisers to book their first cruises. Over the past decade, we’ve seen a rise in extensive children’s areas to attract families, upgraded bedding and linens to mimic trends in the hotel industry, and more active pursuits, both onboard and in shore excursions, to satisfy a younger and more health-conscious traveler.

In 2010: This year, we’ll see cruise lines continue their push to attract the first-time cruiser, whether that be families and young adults, international travelers, or just anyone who never thought they’d go on a cruise vacation. New ships like Norwegian Epic and Oasis and Allure of the Seas are mimicking South Beach and Vegas-style attractions with themed nightlife, exclusive sun decks, onboard beach parties, more athletic options, kids’ clubs with the latest video games and Internet consoles, and brand-name shops. Even luxury lines are going after a younger demographic with larger ships, bigger spas, a greater focus on the destination, and more inclusive pricing.

It’s a Small (International) World

What We’ve Seen: For many, the appeal of cruising has been traveling onboard an outpost of the U.S. while visiting foreign destinations. Passengers may have to navigate foreign languages, unfamiliar foods, and new cultures in port, but in the evening, they return to a safe haven where English is spoken, the meals are reminiscent of nice restaurants at home, and the people you meet are likely from a neighboring state.

In 2010: Just as cruise travel has exploded in popularity among Americans, Canadians, and Brits, it’s also increasingly sought after for travelers from disparate places such as Brazil, China, and Europe. While there are country-centric cruise lines that market to particular regions or languages (such as the German AIDA, Costa in the Middle East, Royal Caribbean in China, and MSC in Brazil), many mainstream lines, like Princess and Holland America, are reaching out to travelers all over the world, so your fellow passengers onboard could observe different customs and speak varying languages.

Costa Deliziosa will be christened in Dubai before doing a maiden season of Middle East cruises, Celebrity Eclipse will offer a maiden season out of Southampton, and HAL’s Nieuw Amsterdam will take its inaugural cruises in the Mediterranean. Plus, the onboard atmosphere is changing with the need for announcements in more languages, food and activities to reflect more European tastes, and gratuities policies that account for nationalities not accustomed to tipping.

Innovative Cabins Are On the Rise

What We’ve Seen: For a long time, cruise ship cabins were relegated to inside, outside, balcony, and suite. But over the years, cruise lines have started experimenting with newer types of cabins. Costa introduced the world to the spa cabin—a special class of cabin with easy access to the spa and amenities like special bath products and yoga mats. Other lines, such as Celebrity, Windstar, Holland America, and Carnival are jumping on that bandwagon. In 2009, Holland America gave us lanai cabins with back doors leading out to the Promenade Deck, and Royal Caribbean invented interior-facing promenade cabins and Presidential Suites that can sleep a family of 14. It went even further with Oasis of the Seas, which has two-deck loft cabins, not to mention staterooms facing the outdoor Boardwalk and Central Park neighborhoods.

In 2010: Norwegian Epic is launching the New Wave cabin concept, featuring curved walls and a new bathroom concept with the shower stall, toilet area, and vanity split up into three different entities. New 100-square-foot studios will offer mood lighting and access to an exclusive two-floor lounge, while eight of its spa-oriented accommodations will have in-room whirlpools. P&O’s Azura will have 18 single cabins (a first for the line) and a pair of large suites, ideal for families or friend groups. And looking ahead to 2011, the three owners suites on Oceania‘s new Marina, with fabulous Ralph Lauren-decorated schemes and lavish bathrooms, will take onboard indulgence to new heights.

Theme Cruise Options Explode

What We’ve Seen: Theme cruises have been gaining popularity, and now you can find a cruise geared to any possible interest or hobby. We’ve seen scrapbooking, rock music, Elvis, yoga, Star Trek, motorcycle, running, and Christian singles cruises—to name just a few.

In 2010: Theme cruises will continue to get bigger and better. Look for theme cruises being hosted by more big-name stars—like previous headliners John Mayer, the Barenaked Ladies, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. They will focus on the hottest trends, like the Twilight Cruise in August 2010 that capitalizes on teens’ obsession with the popular vampire series of books and movies. Finally, be prepared to book early, as the hottest theme cruises are guaranteed to sell out far in advance, if not instantly—the 2009 New Kids on the Block cruise sold out in minutes.

The End of Tips?

What We’ve Seen: The biggest change to date in onboard tipping was the move from handing envelopes of cash to waiters and cabin stewards on the last night of the cruise to having gratuities automatically added to onboard accounts. Each line sets its own suggested amounts for tipping the cabin steward, waiter, assistant waiter, and head waiter—which passengers can adjust based on service. While this has suited most Americans just fine, the process was often confusing and frustrating to Brits and Europeans who are not used to such regular tipping. Note: Several lines—most noticeably luxury ones—simply include service fees in the cruise fare and do not require additional tipping onboard.

In 2010: We predict that 2010 will be the year when outdated tipping policies join the 21st century and the global community. Already, Royal Caribbean is reviewing its gratuities procedures due to pressure from its British and European past passengers. P&O Cruises Australia recently announced that starting with the line’s October 2010 departures, gratuities will no longer be automatically added to passengers’ onboard bill, leaving guests to tip—or not—at their own discretion. On the luxury side, Azamara is abolishing gratuities for housekeeping and dining as part of its more-inclusive policy.

Caribbean’s In, Alaska’s Out, Middle East’s Hot—Suez Canal is Not

What We’ve Seen: The Caribbean has always been the number one cruise destination, but its popularity ebbs and flows due to passenger malaise over the same old ports, the severity of the previous year’s hurricane season, and the need for cheap, close-to-home vacation options. A few years back, Alaska and Europe cruises seemed to be gaining ground on the Caribbean’s number one ranking, but the worldwide recession has made these more expensive destinations less desirable.

In 2010: Alaska will continue to be on the outs for 2010. Cruise line executives have been complaining about the state’s $50 head tax and have made good on their promises to pull ships from a region that was frankly oversaturated to begin with. Cruise West, Royal Caribbean, Princess, and Holland America are all cutting back (though, interestingly, Disney will make its first ever foray to Alaska in 2011).

Beyond offering cheaper cruises, the Caribbean’s a hot spot because it’s getting all the neat new ships. Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas (as well as sibling Allure of the Seas) will homeport there year-round. Carnival Dream and Norwegian Epic, two of the other most innovative new ships, will also spend their first years in the region.

With Costa’s Luminosa and Deliziosa, its two newest ships, and Royal Caribbean’s contemporary Brilliance of the Seas spending the winter season in Dubai, offering Persian Gulf itineraries, that region—despite the global recession—is seeing a rise in status and popularity. And at the same time, lingering concerns (from all sides, from cruise executives to travelers) over pirates plaguing waterways between the coast of Africa and Yemen, and affecting Suez Canal transits, more ships are actually finding other ways to cross between Europe and Asia.

What trends have you noticed in cruising? What changes or improvements do you hope to see with cruises in 2010? Share your thoughts and experiences by submitting a comment below!

Categories
Beach Family Travel Island

The Best Cruises for Cruise Skeptics


If you’ve got a reason why you couldn’t possibly like cruising, I can guarantee I’ve heard it before. From Arthur Frommer’s rants that cruise travel is not a “genuine” way to travel, to my mother-in-law’s fears of nonstop bouts of seasickness, I’ve heard every excuse in the book. And while I agree that not every cruise ship or type of cruise will suit every vacationer out there, the explanations people give for why they’d dislike a vacation at sea are generally unfounded.

In fact, I’d bet that for every excuse out there, a cruise line exists that proves the stereotype wrong.

That’s because cruise ships and vacation experiences come in all shapes and sizes. Vessels like Royal Caribbean‘s mammoth Oasis of the Seas are like floating cities or Vegas casinos with every possible activity onboard, while Star Clippers‘ fleet offers an authentic sailing experience—the closest you’re likely to come to being a pirate of the Caribbean. Some cruise lines focus on enrichment, nature, and culture, while others strive to create fun atmospheres that entertain kids, couples, and seniors all looking for a respite from the daily grind. Itineraries can be port-intensive, visiting a different destination each day, or utterly relaxing, offering strings of consecutive days at sea.

Here are some of the most common fears about cruising and a sample of the lines where those concerns never come into play. So if you’re hemming and hawing about booking a cruise, or have been a stalwart naysayer, I invite you to read this story with an open mind. Whatever you’re looking for in a vacation, you’ll likely find a cruise line that offers it.

“I’ll be bored.”

Imagine a ship that’s so big that it has neighborhoods within it. Onboard Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, the largest cruise ship ever built, passengers can rock climb, play miniature golf, try surfing, learn to decorate cupcakes, ride a carousel, enjoy a spa treatment, work out in a full-size gym, lie by a “beach” pool or in a hot tub, go for a ride on a zip-line, go ice skating, watch a variety of live entertainment (including comedy shows, Broadway musicals, parades, and acrobatic shows), learn to scuba dive, go shopping, watch the game in a bar, and sing karaoke. Bored yet? I didn’t think so.

Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas isn’t the only ship, mind you, to offer a plethora of options to keep boredom at bay; its Voyager- and Freedom-class ships are also dedicated to active travelers. Plus, in addition to the ship’s amenities and the onboard programming, you can always bring a book, deck of cards, or portable video game to entertain yourself.

Another cruise line where you’ll never be bored is Norwegian Cruise Line—especially its newest ships, like Norwegian Gem and Norwegian Pearl. These ships have onboard bowling alleys that turn into bordello-style discos at night, rock climbing walls, a large selection of funky bars and themed restaurants, evening parties, and lots of karaoke. When Norwegian Epic launches in summer 2010, it will have even more to do onboard—including an ice bar, an aqua park, a dueling piano show, a beach club, a circus-style dinner theater, a bungee trampoline, and a ropes course.

And don’t forget—you’ll typically be in port for half the days on your cruise, if not more, where you’ll have plenty of options to keep yourself entertained.

“I’ll get seasick.”

Just because you’re prone to seasickness does not mean you can never go on a cruise. It may just mean that the best cruise for you is a river cruise. Riverboats cruise the rivers of the world, including across Europe (think the Danube, Rhine, Mosel, Seine, etc.) and along Egypt’s Nile River and China’s Yangtze. Itineraries include visits to wine countries, historic city centers, Christmas markets, pyramids and ancient tombs, and beautiful countrysides. Plus, river cruises are so destination-focused that you’ll spend much of your time onshore—exploring by foot, bus or even borrowed bicycle from the riverboat—and when you’re onboard, you don’t have to worry about waves or high seas that could make you sick.

Even better, river cruise lines are quickly catching up to ocean-going vessels in levels of luxury and onboard amenities. You’ll now find balconies, larger cabins, alternative restaurants, and spas onboard. Try lines like Avalon Waterways, Tauck, Uniworld, Viking River Cruises, and Victoria Cruises.

Another note to the seasick-prone: Just because you go green around the gills on a tiny motorboat in choppy waters does not mean you’ll suffer from mal de mer on a cruise ship. The bigger the ship, the less you feel the motion of the ocean (think about the difference in turbulence between a tiny prop plane and a 747), and modern ships are built with stabilizers to minimize rocking. Choose your itinerary well—the Mediterranean is a lot rougher after October than it is in the summer; Alaska’s Inside Passage is quite calm though the open sea, up north gets rougher in September; and the Caribbean can get choppy during hurricane season (June 1 – November 30, officially) if a storm is present. Plus, medications and natural remedies can help for some, including ginger candies, medicated patches, and pressure bands. You may find that after a few hours onboard, you forget that you’re on a ship at all.

“I’ll get claustrophobic onboard.”

Sure you will—if you charter a catamaran where your cabin fits a rough bunk and nothing else or if you squeeze a family of four into the smallest inside cabin. But most cruise ships are like floating hotels, with plenty of space—even if your cabin is much smaller than the typical hotel room.

Luxury line Regent Seven Seas, for example, has two all-suite, all-balcony ships in its fleet. That means that the smallest cabin onboard is a 252-square-foot suite with separate sitting and sleeping areas, a 49-square-foot teak balcony, walk-in closets and an en-suite marble bathroom. If you’re truly worried about feeling confined, book the largest suites, measuring 1,204 square feet with two balconies (the biggest is 727 square feet), two bedrooms, and a large living and dining area. That’s larger than the apartment I live in—and my apartment definitely does not come with butler service, as this suite does.

Can’t afford all that space? Royal Caribbean’s aforementioned large ships are so big that first-time visitors to Oasis of the Seas have claimed they forgot they were on a ship. In fact, the designers of that ship put an emphasis on outdoor space, essentially carving out the middle of the ship to create an open-air midsection. So not only can you get fresh air on the top-of-ship pool decks, but the Boardwalk and Central Park neighborhoods are open to the sky. If the walls are closing in, simply walk to the nearest elevator, push the button with the highest number and—voila!—all is well.

Even more affordable, Princess Cruises‘ newest ships (Crown Princess, Emerald Princess, and Ruby Princess) are also quite spacious. Expansive sun decks include a pool with a movie screen that shows first-run flicks and concerts day and night, as well as a quieter, adults-only spa sun deck called the Sanctuary. The three-deck high Piazza is an airy gathering place offering entertainment and snacks. If you need room to stretch in your living quarters, book a mini-suite or suite for separate living and sleeping areas, as well as an exterior balcony for easy access to fresh air.

“Cruise travelers only get a superficial experience of a destination.”

Arthur Frommer has called cruising “a dumbing down of the travel experience,” referring to ships that visit tourist trap ports and manufactured private islands. Some vacationers agree with him that a cruise is a way to have fun in the sun, but not a good way to get an in-depth experience of a destination.

Perhaps Frommer has not heard of lines like Cruise West, Hurtigruten, and Lindblad Expeditions. This diverse group of cruise lines has one major thing in common—they all are extremely focused on giving passengers an up-close and personal look at the destinations on the itinerary.

Cruise West runs a fleet of small, casual ships, with minimal onboard bells and whistles. Why? Because the focus is on what’s around the ship, with nature- and culture-focused voyages to Alaska, Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, and the U.S.’s Columbia and Snake Rivers. Days are spent on deck with binoculars looking for wildlife or hiking through a wilderness area, while evening entertainment may include a presentation by a naturalist or other expert or a performance by a local troupe.

Hurtigruten’s “Norwegian Coastal Voyages” sail daily up and down Norway’s coasts, stopping at isolated towns and villages to drop off freight and to let passengers have a look-see. Not only will you see more of Norway—below and above the Arctic Circle—than you probably every imagined, but onboard you will dine on Norwegian specialties (moose, reindeer, and lots of fish) and hobnob with a mix of Europeans—including Norwegians treating the ship as a ferry between destinations. You’ll find only a handful of Americans onboard.

Lindblad Expeditions focuses on adventure and enrichment. It takes passengers to remote destinations, like Antarctica, the Arctic, the Galapagos, and off-the-beaten path destinations around the world. The line partners with National Geographic, so each voyage features scientists, naturalists, oceanographers, and photographers onboard to teach passengers about the places they’re visiting and help them capture great memories to take back home. Plus, with small ships carrying a mere 41 to 148 people, the line brings new meaning to “up close and personal,” using Zodiacs and kayaks to bring passengers closer to wildlife and wild places.

Cruises are for old people.

If nothing else, the name Disney Cruise Line alone should prove to you that cruises are not just for old people. That line is built on the premise that cruises can be fun for the whole family. Its ships feature expansive kids’ play areas with separate hangouts for kids, tweens, and teens (and a nursery for the littlest cruisers); a kiddie pool and waterslide; Disney-themed musical productions; and meet-n-greets with the Disney characters onboard.

Royal Caribbean also caters to young people with its many active pursuits onboard. It’s not that retirees don’t like rock-climbing, surfing, ice skating, learning to DJ, and watching parades, but that these activities attract a younger clientele onboard as well. Plus, active shore excursions like kayaking, hiking, cycling, snorkeling, and diving call to the younger set, perhaps more than old-school sedentary bus tours.

Carnival, too, gets a wide variety of ages onboard with its top-notch kids program—featuring separate teen and tween hangouts with soda bars, video games, and a dance floor—and a festive onboard atmosphere. Its standard cabins tend to run large and are affordably priced, which attracts families and younger travelers without huge vacation budgets. Plus, Carnival offers a wide selection of shorter three- and four-night cruises that are ideal for busy professionals with limited vacation time or friend groups looking for a long weekend of relaxation and fun.

Cruise ships aren’t real ships.

Cruise ships have been likened to floating hotels or resorts, but if you’re yearning for a more authentic sailing experience, check out lines like Star Clippers or Island Windjammers. These lines employ masted tall ships, where the fairly no-frills accommodations and onboard amenities are offset by the thrill of sailing the open ocean and the attractions of the ports of call.

Star Clippers has a fleet of three clipper ships that sail the Caribbean, Mediterranean, and Asia. Instead of playing bingo or pool games, passengers can climb the ship’s mast, lie out in the widow’s net over the open sea, or stargaze at night. Water sports are fittingly a big emphasis of each cruise, with diving, snorkeling, and waterskiing trips organized by the ship’s staff and a variety of water sports equipment (like snorkel gear, kayaks, and sunfish) available for passenger use, free of charge.

Island Windjammers is a new cruise line with a sole ship, the 12-passenger Diamant. Its casual cruises sail from Grenada to the Grenadine islands and focus on the joy of sailing, water sports, and lazy days on island. It’s a great way to feel like you’re cruising on your own private sailboat—just with a crew to do all the hard work.

“Ships depart so early that I’ll miss out on the nightlife in port.”

Most cruises stay in port only during the day. But if dining ashore and checking out the local bars and clubs is your thing, then Variety Cruises maybe be the line for you. The line offers a plethora of overnights on its cruises to Greece and its islands, Turkey, and Croatia. Most nights are spent docked in port, so you have plenty of time to check out all the late-night happenings (and can sleep in the next morning while the ship motors to its next port of call). In fact, the cruise line expects people to enjoy dinner onshore, so they only include two daily meals, rather than three, in the cruise fare. Variety Cruises’ fleet consists of mega-yachts, some with sails, with only 22 to 36 cabins onboard—so it’s easy to make friends onboard if you’re looking for someone to join you on your evening adventures ashore.

“It’s unhealthy with all that food!”

Cruise ships typically offer round-the-clock dining, but no one is forcing you to pile the bacon on your breakfast tray, eat dessert at every meal, order both the prime rib and the lobster for dinner, and call room service for cheeseburgers at 2 a.m. In fact, these days many cruise lines are trading in their midnight chocolate buffets for spa cafes and sushi bars.

Celebrity Cruises has led the healthy dining effort among cruise lines. Its Millennium-class ships have spa cafes as part of an indoor pool complex, while Celebrity Century, Celebrity Solstice, and Celebrity Equinox all feature stand-alone spa restaurants. Menu items include plenty of veggies, salads, poached fish, and sushi. On all ships, you can order “spa” options off the main dining room’s menu—calorie, fat, cholesterol, and sodium breakdowns are listed on the back.

Luxury line Crystal Cruises was a trend-setter when it removed all trans-fats from its onboard menus—several other lines quickly followed suit. Fish fiends will love the offerings at The Sushi Bar and Silk Road onboard its ships—the menus are designed by world class master chef Nobu Matsuhisa.

“It’s impossible to experience another culture if you’re on a cruise.”

A cruise ship can often be a floating oasis of Americana —passengers venture into foreign lands by day, but come back to the ship to eat burgers and fries at Johnny Rockets and watch American ball games on TV at night. If you prefer more of a cultural immersion, book a cruise with MSC Cruises or Costa Cruises. These two cruise lines are Italian-owned and are proud to display their European heritage onboard.

Costa’s European itineraries attract mostly European passengers from Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, and the U.K. The onboard atmosphere reflects this passenger base, with later dining hours, lots of dancing-based nightlife, and a drinking age of 18. The dining room emphasizes Italian fare and the specialty restaurant on the line’s newest ships, such as Costa Pacifica and Costa Luminosa, is the brainchild of Michelin-starred Italian chef Ettore Bocchia. Not only are announcements and activities translated into several languages, but your dining companions may not be native English speakers. Entertainment may include a toga party, an Italian street festival complete with a bocce ball tournament, and tarantella dancing.

On Mediterranean cruises, which are offered year-round, MSC’s passengers are largely European—and the onboard ambience definitely has a Continental flair, with plenty of music and dining.

Were you once a cruise-skeptic, but ended up taking one anyway? Veteran cruisers, do you have any tips for travelers weary of a cruise vacation? Share your thoughts, advice, and experiences with fellow readers by submitting a comment below!

Booking a cruise online: The secrets to success


Step into the realm of online cruise booking, and you are immediately bombarded with a myriad of choices. You can purchase your cruise through one of the popular, all-encompassing travel sites, such as Orbitz or Travelocity, or you can check one of the multitude of cruise-only sites, such as Cruises411 or Cruises.com. You can go directly to your favorite cruise line’s website or check out AAA. Or, you could decide to forego online booking altogether and call your travel agent or the cruise company’s own sales agents. But how do you know which sites are legit, and where you can get the best deals?

This overwhelming number of choices can befuddle anyone, from a first-time cruiser to an experienced world traveler. So we’re here to assuage your confusion and give you the information you need to decide which type of booking, and which sites or companies, are right for you. Over the next few months, we’ll bring you a series of features that explore the different types of sites and discuss their unique benefits and style, so you’ll be able to book your next cruise, online or off, with confidence.

NLG: The power behind the scenes

If you’re going to book a cruise online, you need to know about NLG (formerly the National Leisure Group) because, as of November 2003, it has become North America’s largest provider of cruise vacations. Though you will never have visited NLG’s website, nor can you book a cruise through them, they own or license their inventory to 38 cruise-booking sites. NLG’s flagship sites are Cruises Only (www.cruises.com and www.1800cruises.com) and the Vacation Outlet (www.vacationoutlet.com), but NLG also provides the cruise inventory and deals for sites such as Orbitz, Yahoo! Travel, priceline, Hotwire, CheapCaribbean.com, CruiseCheap.com, and seven of the airline-affiliated cruise sites.

Thomas Gerace, Senior Vice President of Marketing at NLG, explained to us how his company operates. “Because of the volume of cruises we sell, we can negotiate NLG-only exclusive vacation alternatives, such as special rates or value-adds like shipboard credit or free transportation between the airport and the ship,” he told us. “Sometimes these specials will be available across all of our sites, and sometimes we’ll negotiate special deals for specific partners.”

Ordinarily, all of the NLG-affiliated sites have access to the same base inventory, meaning you know you’ll get a competitive rate at any of its 38 sites. And as NLG has access to all of each cruise line’s available itineraries, you don’t have to worry that you’re missing out on sailings that might only be available through the cruise line itself. In fact, Gerace explains that due to NLG’s high volume of sales, it will buy blocks of inventory for heavy travel periods (Christmas, school vacation weeks, etc.) in advance, so when the cruises claim to be sold out, the NLG sites may actually have availability.

But if you can get similar prices at all of NLG’s sites, how do you choose among them? The only real way to distinguish between the sites is by specialty. While some sites are generic cruise sites, others are specialty sites, such as BJ’s Vacations, Priority Club Rewards Cruises, American Airlines AAdvantage Cruise, and The Knot Travel Desk. This means that sometimes the special offers relate back to the sponsoring company.

For instance, you can earn frequent flyer miles when you purchase a cruise through AAdvantage Cruise or the other airline-affiliated cruise sites, and BJ’s Vacations recently had a promotion that rewarded cruise bookings with a BJ’s gift-card pack, worth $200 in savings at BJ’s Wholesale Club. If you’d prefer your special offers to be cruise-related, then stick to sites such as Cruises Only and Ship ‘n’ Shore. Or, if you know your cruise destination, you could try sites like CheapCaribbean.com, which focus on travel within a certain region.

Given NLG’s top position in the marketplace and its ability to negotiate deals, you can rest assured that the prices you find from Cruises Only, Vacation Outlet, Orbitz, or any other of NLG’s licensed sites will not only be competitive, but could be a special deal you won’t find anywhere else. But as no one site has all of the best prices all the time, be sure to shop around before you hand over your credit card.

NLG makes the booking process easy

If you’re thinking about booking with an NLG site, you will find that it’s quite easy to go through the booking process. If you’re comfortable with online bookings, you’ll find a variety of tools to help you. All of the NLG sites feature ship maps so you can look at the categories and select the exact stateroom you prefer, a perk that most travel agents don’t provide, according to Gerace. Sites also include 360-degree ship tours, both professional and passenger ship reviews, and search tools with multiple options so you can look for a cruise based on a variety of criteria.

Gerace explains that if you have questions or do not wish to book online, “our cruise-focused sites feature expert agent competency, and our agents are knowledgeable about the different experiences provided by different cruise lines.” He also adds that you can call an agent at any point and they will walk you through all or part of the online booking process. That way, you can get expert advice, but still process your sale online. Soon NLG will even have agents who are experts about certain trip types and destinations, so you can get the most informed answers to your cruise questions.

NLG’s mission

As the cruise industry expands and the cruise lines try to differentiate their sailing experiences from each other, NLG wants to be the company known for matching your interests with the cruise that’s right for you. Gerace says that NLG wants to spread the word about “what it means to cruise, to break down the myths held by the 85 percent of the traveling population that has never cruised.”

It seems that NLG is achieving its goals by providing helpful information on its sites and through its cruise agents, and by offering incentives to cruise in the form of special discounts and offers on its affiliated sites. As you look into booking your next cruise, you could find a great deal anywhere, but you will know that chances are high that you will find good deals, or at least good information, at one of NLG’s affiliated travel websites.

How does NLG compare?

Next month, we’re going to look at non-NLG-affiliated cruise sites to see how their prices and customer service compare. Stay tuned for part two of our series and the scoop on where you should be booking your next cruise.

The 10 best Caribbean cruises


The Caribbean Sea is the world’s fifth largest body of water and is home to more than 7,000 islands. While you can’t sail a major cruise ship to every nook and cranny of the Caribbean, you do have an abundance of choices when it comes to picking an itinerary.

Feeling overwhelmed? No worries, mon! I’ve pared down the cruise line’s offerings to the top 10 Caribbean itineraries. This list will give you a sense of what the different voyages have to offer, and help you decide where you want to go on your next island cruise.

Western Caribbean

New to Caribbean cruising? The basic seven-night western Caribbean cruise is one of the best itineraries for first-timers. You can depart from a variety of homeports and get a mix of Central American and island ports, as well as days at sea. [% 14460 | | Princess’ %] cruise on the Grand Princess departs from Ft. Lauderdale and calls at the quintessential western Caribbean ports of Jamaica; Grand Cayman; Cozumel, Mexico; and Princess Cays (Princess’ private island in the Bahamas). Activities range from snorkeling and scuba diving off Grand Cayman, exploring Mayan ruins in Mexico, and climbing a waterfall in Jamaica. Plus, you get two days at sea to enjoy the ship.

Eastern Caribbean

The sister itinerary to the western Caribbean is the seven-night eastern Caribbean cruise. Many ships alternate between the east and the west each week, creating opportunities for back-to-back two-week sailings. Such is the case with one of the largest ships on earth: [% 15420 | | Royal Caribbean’s %] Freedom of the Seas. Its eastern Caribbean itinerary stops in Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, and St. Maarten with three days at sea. You can enjoy shopping, lying on the beach, and exploring rainforests on the islands, and spend the remaining days rock climbing, ice skating, and boxing on this gargantuan floating resort.

Southern Caribbean

Experienced cruisers who’ve sailed the Caribbean before look to the southern Caribbean for more exotic and less crowded islands. Most weeklong itineraries depart from Puerto Rico or Barbados because the islands are too far to reach from the U.S. mainland. To cruise in style, try [% 16844 | | Silversea’s %] eight-night voyage out of San Juan on the Silver Wind. With only one day at sea, you can visit Grenada, Barbados, Bequia, Dominica, Antigua, and the exclusive St. Bart’s. Look for unspoiled beaches, spice plantations, and romantic settings.

The deep south

No, I’m not talking about a cruise through Mississippi and Alabama, but a voyage to the southernmost reaches of the Caribbean sea: the ABC islands and the northeast coast of South America. These off-the-beaten-path itineraries aren’t offered by every line, but they can be especially good choices during hurricane season because most storms don’t strike that far south. [% 9668 | | Regent Seven Seas’ %] 11-night cruise on the Seven Seas Voyager out of Ft. Lauderdale visits not only Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao, but St. Lucia, St. Kitts, Puerto Rico, and Grand Turk as well. You’ll experience the Caribbean from tip to toe.

Short Caribbean cruises

The great thing about the Caribbean is that it’s so close to the southern ports of the U.S. If you don’t have a lot of time for your vacation, consider a short cruise. You’ll definitely feel like you escaped the office without taking too many days off work. [% 14665 | | Celebrity %] offers a top-notch five-night cruise on the recently renovated Century. You’ll depart from Miami for Jamaica and Grand Cayman, spend two days at sea, then return refreshed and tan from your short break.

Long Caribbean cruise

Retirees and other lucky folks with lots of vacation time can choose to explore the entire Caribbean on one two-week cruise. With so much time to sail, you can save money by departing from a U.S. homeport, yet still see a great deal of destinations. [% 9823 | | Holland America’s %] 14-night southern Caribbean cruise aboard the ms Veendam takes you to ports in the southern, eastern, and western Caribbean, as well as South America, with just four days to spend at sea. You’ll depart Tampa for St. Thomas; Dominica; Barbados; Grenada; Isla de Margarita, Venezuela; Bonaire; Aruba; Grand Cayman; and the line’s private island, Half Moon Cay.

Central America

Not every Caribbean destination is an island. Recently, cruise lines have been experimenting with their western Caribbean itineraries, adding more calls in Costa Rica, Belize, Guatemala, and Panama. These “exotic Caribbean” cruises, as they’re sometimes called, give you the opportunity for more adventurous activities ashore. Try [% 12025 | | Norwegian’s %] seven-night cruise out of New Orleans with stops in Roatan, Honduras; Santo Tomas de Castilla, Guatemala; Belize City, Belize; and Cozumel, Mexico. Or, for a few more days at sea, check out [% 11986 | | Carnival’s %] eight-night itinerary from Ft. Lauderdale to Colon, Panama; Limon, Costa Rica; and Belize City, Belize.

Private islands

A favorite destination for many cruisers is their cruise line’s private island. You can experience pristine beaches without the hassles of paying for lounges, changing money, and avoiding locals hawking their wares. Plus, the cruise line will set up barbecue lunches, water sports, and cabana massages for guests. Sound good? Now imagine an itinerary with two days devoted to one of these exclusive paradises. [% 13509 | | Disney Cruise Line %] has recently added a new voyage on the Disney Magic complete with two stops in Castaway Cay. The seven-night sailing departs from Port Canaveral/Orlando and also calls in Costa Maya and Cozumel, Mexico.

Short Bahamas cruise

OK, so the Bahamian islands are technically in the Atlantic, not the Caribbean. But given the island nation’s warm weather and oceanfront attractions, I think cruisers considering a Caribbean voyage shouldn’t rule out a Bahamas cruise—especially if you’re short on time. Several cruise lines offer three-night itineraries for the perfect long weekend or midweek escape. [% 11986 | | Carnival’s %] three-night cruise on the Sensation departs from Port Canaveral, overnights in Nassau, and spends the final day at sea before heading home. You get a taste of both the Bahamas and onboard life before you have to return to your normal routine.

Long Bahamas cruise

If you’d prefer to explore several Bahamian islands, a longer Bahamas cruise is the answer. These sailings can visit several ports within the Bahamas or include an overnight in one port so you can experience the island’s nightlife. [% 12025 | | Norwegian’s %] seven-night Bahamas and Florida cruise on the new Norwegian Gem is a convenient getaway for East Coast residents. The voyage departs from New York and stops in Port Canaveral before spending three days in three Bahamian destinations—Nassau, Grand Bahama Island, and Great Stirrup Cay.

Categories
Booking Strategy Frequent Flyer Miles & Points Money

How to transfer miles between frequent flyer accounts


Have you ever found yourself a few miles short of an award ticket and wished you could add some miles from another account to reach your goal? Or do you have orphan miles on an airline you no longer fly that you’d like to transfer into your current mileage-earning program?

Although you can’t swap miles directly between airline accounts, you can take advantage of middleman sites to transfer useless miles into your preferred loyalty program, where they can help you reach an award level.

The following chart summarizes which kinds of miles you can transfer into miles on other airlines through the various intermediary sites. For more information on conversion rates and fees, read the next section.

Start with miles in: Using the middleman: Turn them into miles in:
Continental or Midwest Amtrak Guest Rewards Continental, Midwest, United
American or United Diners Club Rewards Air Canada, Alaska, America West, American, Continental, Delta, Frontier, Midwest, Northwest, Southwest, United, Us Airways
American or Midwest Hilton HHonors American, Midwest
Air Canada, Alaska, America West, American, or Midwest Points.com Air Canada, Alaska, America West, American, Midwest

Transferring miles through a middleman

There are two kinds of mileage conversions: airline miles to airline miles, and miscellaneous points to airline miles, which is useful if you’ve already been earning rail or hotel loyalty points. In most cases, it’s quite easy to transfer these points into frequent flyer miles in their partner airlines. For instance, Amtrak Guest Rewards points can be exchanged for Continental, Midwest, or United miles at a rate of one point for one mile.

Hotels have various conversion rates; you can exchange Priority Club Rewards points into frequent flyer miles in most major American airline programs at a rate of four points for one mile, while Starwood Preferred Guest points can be exchanged for miles at a one-to-one ratio (with the exception of United, which is 2:1).

But don’t let the conversion rates fool you; what’s important is how much you spend for your miles. Say you wanted to earn enough points to transfer into 1,000 miles. At a rate of two StarPoints received for every dollar spent, you’ll need to spend $500 at Starwood for 1,000 points, which can be converted into 1,000 miles. By contrast, you can spend just $400 at Priority Club, earning 10 Priority Club Rewards points for every dollar spent, to net 4,000 points, which are also worth 1,000 miles. Although the Starwood conversion rate appears to be a better deal, when you factor in the cost of the points, Priority Club comes out on top.

What you usually can’t do is directly transfer miles from one airline loyalty program to another. You must go through a middleman, and you will most likely lose miles as you switch from one mileage currency to another.

Four options

The four middlemen are Amtrak, Diners Club Rewards, HHonors Reward Exchange, and Points.com. Amtrak has the best rate—you can transfer miles in and out at a 1:1 conversion rate—but you can only convert Continental and Midwest miles to Amtrak points, and Continental, Midwest, and United miles from Amtrak points. (Note that to transfer miles into points, you have to contact Continental and Midwest directly, not Amtrak.) If you need to swap miles among these three airlines and have the minimum transfer amount of 5,000 miles, Amtrak is your best bet.

If you’re looking to get rid of American or United miles, you can use the Diners Club Rewards program to transfer them into miles in 11 major U.S. airline loyalty programs. The conversion is 1:1 into Diners Club but 2:1 out of it, and conversions must be made in increments of 10,000 miles into Club Rewards points and 2,000 points into airline miles. Through this conversion, a starting balance of 10,000 American or United miles would ultimately become 5,000 miles in another program. Also, Diners Club charges a $0.95 fee for every 2,000 points converted into miles, and the annual fee for a Diners Club card, which you’ll need to become a Diners Club Rewards member, is $95.

Hilton HHonors provides another conversion opportunity, but the exchange rate is poor, and the only U.S. airlines remaining in the HHonors Reward Exchange are American and Midwest. You can exchange 5,000 miles for 10,000 points, but 10,000 points will only net you 1,500 miles when you convert back into miles. Although using this program to transfer miles may not be in your best interest, you can still use Hilton stays to “Double Dip” and earn both miles and points for the same stay.

Your last option for transferring miles is Points.com, but these conversion rates are worse than Hilton’s. Ten thousand American miles become 1,046 America West, Air Canada, or Midwest miles or 837 Alaska miles. In addition, membership is either $19.95 for unlimited conversions, or one free conversion and $5.95 per additional exchange.

When should I transfer?

Heavy conversion losses and transfer fees make converting miles a less than ideal way to boost your mileage account. But there are times when transferring miles can be a valuable option. Here are a few examples:

  • Converting orphan miles: If you have frequent flyer miles in an airline in which you no longer accrue miles, you might as well convert them into a program you use, no matter how many miles you lose in the transfer. In this way, those otherwise useless miles can once again benefit you.
  • Topping off your account: If you’re very close to the number of miles needed for an award and have extra miles in another loyalty program, it could be cheaper to transfer miles and get an award seat, rather than purchase a ticket to boost your account over the top.

Remember that the bottom line for an individual transaction isn’t always the most important thing. Sometimes the option that may cost you more miles up front will actually be more valuable to you in the end. Only you can decide what price to place on an award ticket to the destination of your choice.

Is easyCruise as cheap and easy as it claims?


It’s “the perfect holiday for independently minded people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s,” boasts the easyCruise website. The cabins may be small and the frills nonexistent, but the base price is low and the cruise ship will drop you off at a [% 328989 | | different island %] each day with plenty of time to see the sights and enjoy the nightlife. And when the ship sails, the outdoor bar on Deck 5 is supposed to be hopping with a hot-tubbing, drinking, and dancing young crowd.

Sound good? I thought so, so I signed up for seven days of sailing the Caribbean during easyCruise’s first ever winter season. But when I stepped into the sports bar on my first day onboard and saw a sea of white hair, and then paid almost $20 for a disappointing meal, I began to have some doubts. Was the Caribbean easyCruise experience as cheap, easy, and fun as the website promised?

What they promised and what I got

For a very low per-day rate, easyCruise offers a place to sleep, access to the ship’s onboard amenities, and transportation between [% 328989 | | Barbados, St. Vincent, Martinique, Bequia (a Grenadine island), Grenada, and St. Lucia %] for a minimum of two and a maximum of 14 days. Onboard amenities include a coffee shop, a sundries shop, a sports-themed restaurant, an outdoor bar with hot tub, a sun deck (though I never saw anyone up there), and a gym (ditto for the gym). The cruise line also operates a couple of shore excursions in each port for an additional charge, and these occasionally get canceled, mostly due to lack of interest.

From all that I read about other travelers’ experiences on easyCruise, I was expecting a minimalist cabin, long days on shore, and nonstop partying on Deck 5 (the outdoor bar) in the evenings. My expectations were only somewhat correct. Here’s a rundown of what easyCruise promises on its website, and what I found on my Caribbean cruise.

easyCruiseOne features a unique minimalist chic orange colored cabin design with frosted glass fittings.’

The cruise line’s description is pretty much accurate. Most cabins feature two twin mattresses on a raised platform with about a hand’s width of space in between them, two hooks and eight hangers for clothing and towels, a high shelf, and a ledge along the headboard. Luggage must be stored on the shelf (for small bags) and along the narrow hallway (for suitcases). The mattresses and duvets are relatively comfortable, though the pillows are flat. And, of course, some of the walls, the headboard, and the platform are bright orange. Most rooms have no window, but you can pay more for doubles with a window, windowless quads, or suites with balconies.

An en suite bathroom is enclosed in mostly translucent glass (the tops and bottoms are transparent so you can see your roommate’s feet when she showers) and hold a towel rack, a toilet, sink, mirror, and shower with no curtain. When you shower, most of the bathroom gets wet, and any noise you make in the bathroom can be heard throughout the cabin. Clearly, easyCruise is not the place for modest people.

I found the bathrooms frustrating, especially as ours had a stick instead of a lock and our toilet stopped working on two separate occasions. But, I’ve stayed in hostels that offered much less. In the end, the cabins were more or less as expected, though a few design modifications could make them more user-friendly.

‘The ship stays in port every night until 4:00 a.m. in the Riviera and 11:00 p.m. in the Caribbean, allowing you to enjoy the life on shore—the beach, sightseeing, shopping, dining, and clubbing.’

The above statement is quite misleading. With the exceptions of Barbados and Bequia, we had to be onboard by 9:30 or 10:00 p.m. every night. Not only was there no chance to experience any nightlife, but we often had to rush through dinner in order to get back to the ship on time. Our early departures could have been due to the fact that the ship was down to only one working engine, but I don’t really want to think about that. One of easyCruise’s biggest selling points for me was its long hours in port, so I felt a bit shortchanged.

‘The idea is to offer a unique holiday experience to independently minded travelers in their 20s, 30s, and 40s.’

I read that the average age on easyCruise in the Mediterranean is 32, and was expecting a similarly young crowd in the Caribbean that would spend the evenings mingling and reveling at the outdoor bar. Later I learned the average age in the Caribbean is 38. That means there should be as many 20-year-olds as 60-year-olds onboard, but I would bet the average age on my sailing leaned more toward 60 than 20.

My travel companion and I hung out with seven other travelers who were our age (20s and 30s); we saw a few more, but they only spoke French. Most of the other passengers were older—many significantly older—and the Deck 5 bar was usually not well attended in the evening. I witnessed no hot tub hijinks or drunken bumping and grinding, which was fine with me, but I would have preferred a little more socializing after 10:00 p.m. With nothing else to do onboard but go to bed, I was hoping the other guests would provide some late-night entertainment.

I learned from some of the crew that prior to Christmas, evening events such as karaoke, salsa lessons, and The Newlywed Game brought the crowds to the bar. But those events had stopped, and on nights when people happened to dance I could count the revelers on one hand. I was disappointed with this change, but it does mean you’ll never have trouble getting a spot in the hot tub.

Is EasyCruise cheap?

Yes and no. Your cruise fare is ridiculously cheap; we paid $372 for seven nights’ double occupancy (that’s roughly $27 per person per day) in a windowless cabin. Four people sharing a quad can pay even less. And, if you book early, you can often find easyCruise specials for still less. However, prices are going up. A suite on a Mediterranean sailing that cost $1,320 last October would be closer to $2,000 by this October.

Airfare is also a significant expense. You’ll need to shell out at least $500, likely more, to get to any of the islands in the winter high season. You might be able to find deals on November and early-December airfare, but in January, February, and March, plane ticket prices go sky high. For the Mediterranean sailings, Europeans can find cheap tickets on sister company easyJet or another low-fare airline, making an easyCruise an all-round discount option. In the Caribbean, everyone is coming from afar and paying for the privilege.

Onboard, we saved by ordering the discounted drink of the day at the bar and the discounted room cleaning on Wednesday in Bequia. I had hoped to make it through the week without a towel change or room cleaning, but when you take most of St. Vincent’s black sand beaches home with you in your bathing suit, it becomes imperative to clean your bathroom. On the flip side, we found the onboard meals at the sports bar to be overpriced for the low quality of the food; the vegetarian options were plentiful but rarely lived up to expectations. Maybe the burgers were better.

Plus, at the end of the cruise, we learned that though all onboard prices were listed in dollars, easyCruise will charge your credit card in euros. When your bank then converts the euros to U.S. dollars, you’ll have lost money through two currency exchanges, rather than one. So everything onboard is more expensive than it seems.

Onshore, I figured we could save a lot by eating locally rather than returning to the ship for meals; on many of the islands, food did come cheap. We often bought fruit and bread from local markets or grocery stores and took advantage of the favorable exchange rate with the Eastern Caribbean dollar. Travelers who like street food can save big with local specialties.

But unless we were willing to take our chances with local public transport, such as shared vans, we found transportation costs on the islands could snap our travel budget in two. If you’re traveling in a group of four or can hook up with other passengers, you can save a lot by splitting the cost of cabs or car rentals. You probably do not want to spend a lot of time in most of the port towns, and you’ll need some sort of transportation even if you’re just headed for a nearby beach, let alone if you want to explore the island. If you’re a single traveler, you might get more for your money if you opt for easyCruise’s shore excursions. You can potentially save by booking your excursions independently of easyCruise, but you’ll need to do this in advance, before you know what time the ship will dock at each island.

In this respect, the Mediterranean itineraries seem superior. “When you have ports that are 2,000 years old,” says Bob Blake of Fodor’s, who sailed easyCruise in the Mediterranean in October, “everything is built close to the water.” From the ship, you can walk to restaurants and shops or take public transportation if you’re going far. Europe is much more suited to independent travelers than the Caribbean, where there’s less of an infrastructure for a kind of travel that isn’t dependent on taxi rides and tours.

When you add up what I spent on airfare, cruise fare, meals, and cabin cleaning, I paid just over $1,000. I could certainly pay about the same price for a seven-day Caribbean cruise out of Florida on Carnival and have a nicer cabin and better onboard facilities. On the other hand, I might not get to experience local cuisine or the intimacy of a small ship where I got to know other passengers and crewmembers.

Is it easy?

Not in the Caribbean. Well, it’s certainly an easy way to see six islands in so many days. If you tried to arrange interisland transportation on your own, you would spend a lot of time in very small airports and would probably end up exhausted.

I contend that easyCruise isn’t so easy because in order to have a good time, you have to do a lot of legwork. Before our cruise, my travel companion and I read everything we could about easyCruise and the islands we were visiting. Every night, we’d pull out our two guidebooks and various travel brochures and try to figure out what to do the next day. But both of us love planning trips, so for us, this was fun.

The real problem was that often we’d find that we’d be interested in seeing a certain attraction but in order to do that we’d either have to pay through the nose for a taxi or car rental (or find other travelers to join us), book a tour (which we couldn’t do onboard), or play bus roulette and risk getting stranded if we couldn’t find a bus back. If all you want to do is pay for a cab to take you to the beach, easyCruise can be fairly easy. If you are an “independently minded” traveler on a tight budget who wants to explore the islands, easyCruise can present a bit of a challenge.

The easyCruise staff occasionally provided a port map but couldn’t answer logistical questions about getting around the islands. Usually, a tourist office was located at the pier so you could get a map, but sometimes there wasn’t even that. In St. Lucia, we were dropped off at a sketchy ferry port far from the main cruise terminal with no signs pointing our way to town or a tourist office. Luckily, I had been to the island before and managed to head in the right direction.

Once we got to the beach or restaurant on each island, I really enjoyed my experience. We saw baby turtles at a turtle sanctuary, sipped cocktails at an outdoor bar while watching the sunset, and swam under a waterfall. But, I felt that I had to put a lot of effort into getting to that point, more than I ever had to in my rambles through Europe.

Was it worth it?

The Caribbean easyCruise experience does not live up to the high expectations set by its more popular Mediterranean counterpart. This failing may be the unofficial reason why company-head Stelios is thinking about sending the easyCruiseOne to Florida next winter to sail Bahamas itineraries. Cheaper airfare to Miami or Ft. Lauderdale could attract the young socializers who livened up the Mediterranean (and made easyCruise a profit with sold-out ships and a booming cocktail service).

If you don’t mind no-frills cabins, can travel in a group of four or more, and like to do advance planning, you can probably have a fabulous time seeing some less-touristed Caribbean islands on a tight budget. The itinerary is certainly the best thing about the experience. Or, if you just want to get some sun and turn in early, easyCruise can also be an economical option.

However, if you’re an explorer with a limited expense account, easyCruise may be tough going. You can’t easily see a lot of an island without coughing up the cash, and while men can hop into a shared van and let the wind carry them to the next adventure, women travelers are advised to be more cautious.

EasyCruise plies the waters of the Caribbean through April 29, then repositions to the Mediterranean and begins its summer season on May 13. If you’re looking for the best that easyCruise has to offer, I’d recommend skipping the Caribbean and getting a discounted early-bird deal on the Europe sailings.

Categories
Frequent Flyer

How do I check my mileage balance?


Every traveler is different when it comes to keeping track of frequent flyer miles. Some people get monthly e-mail updates from their airline, while others subscribe to a service that keeps track of miles from multiple airlines in one place. If you’ve been wondering how many miles you’ve accrued in your frequent flyer accounts, here is the lowdown on all your options for tracking your miles.

Ask your airline

Your airline is keeping track of how many miles you have and when those miles will expire, even if you aren’t. The simplest way to check your mileage balance is to call up your airline’s frequent flyer customer service number and ask. You will need to provide your account number. If you’ve lost that number, the airline can usually look it up for you based on personal information, usually your name and address. You should keep this number in a handy place, so you’ll be able to look it up quickly the next time you need to check your account balance or earn miles for a flight.

Alternately, you can look up your mileage balance yourself on the airline’s website. You’ll need your account number and a password or PIN number. If you haven’t created a password, you can do so online by providing your account number and other personal information. Again, your account number is essential, so if you’ve forgotten it, you’ll have to call the airline and ask them to provide it for you.

The following list provides the major U.S. carrier’s frequent flyer department phone numbers; click on each airline’s name to be redirected to its account log-on page. If your airline is not listed here, you can find all of this information on your airline’s website.

Air Canada: 800-361-5373

Alaska Airlines: 800-654-5669

America West: 800-247-5691

American: 800-882-8880

Continental: 713-952-1630

Delta: 800-323-2323

Frontier: 866-263-2759

Midwest: 800-314-7125, 414-570-7000

Northwest: 800-447-3757

Southwest: 800-445-5764

United: 800-421-4655

US Airways: 336-661-8390

Sign up for e-mail updates

Almost every airline offers e-mail newsletters that update you on your current mileage balance, as well as inform you about the airline’s latest frequent flyer news and offers. You can sign up to receive these e-mails on your airline’s website, and you won’t have to hunt down your mileage balance because it will come to you each month. Plus, several airlines such as Alaska, Northwest, and US Airways offer 500 to 1,000 bonus miles for signing up for these e-mail updates.

Use a mileage tracker

If you have several mileage accounts and find it difficult or time-consuming to look each one up individually, you could subscribe to a mileage tracker, such as MileTracker, Mileage Manager, and Yodlee. These sites will keep track of all of your accounts in one place. However, with most of these sites, you have to pay to use the service.

The 10 best Europe cruises


“Sign me up for a Europe cruise,” you say to your travel agent, handing over your credit card and passport. She looks back at you with a bemused smile.

“Which one?” she asks. “Seven-night Mediterranean? How about a 12-nighter? Would you prefer to see the Baltic capitals, Greek Islands, or the U.K.?”

Doh! The options for Europe cruises are as vast as the Continent’s coastline is long. For each cruising region within Europe, you’ll find different types of shore excursions, climates, and itinerary lengths. Some voyages highlight city life, while others focus on historic and cultural experiences, impressive scenery, or visits to small towns. Some offer several days at sea, while others jam-pack your schedule with port after port.

If you don’t know where to begin, start with the best. These top 10 Europe cruises are sure to please everyone from the first-time visitor to experienced cruisers looking for less-touristed ports-of-call. The difficult part is choosing which itinerary to try first.

12-night western Mediterranean

The 12-night western Mediterranean cruise is the “stereotypical” Europe cruise for a reason: It’s a highlights tour, and first-timers will recognize many of the cities on the itinerary.

Carnival’s Mediterranean cruise aboard the Carnival Freedom is a perfect example. It sails round-trip from Civitavecchia, the port of Rome; this makes planning air travel a snap. The cruise includes stops at Naples (for Pompeii and Capri), Venice, Sicily, and Livorno (for Florence, Pisa, and Cinque Terre), Italy; Dubrovnik, Croatia; Barcelona, Spain; and Cannes, France.

Once you return from a 12-night Mediterranean cruise, you’ll feel like you’ve seen a good chunk of Europe’s best.

Seven-night western Mediterranean

The shorter western Mediterranean cruise is a more recent addition to the Europe lineup. These trips are great for travelers who want to combine a cruise with a land tour or who don’t have a lot of vacation time.

Royal Caribbean offers a seven-night cruise round-trip from Barcelona aboard the Voyager of the Seas. The ship calls in Villefranche (for Nice), France; and Livorno, Civitavecchia, Naples, and Sicily, Italy. Royal Caribbean even throws in one day at sea so you can recover from the back-to-back sightseeing and enjoy the ship before you head back to land. With current prices starting at $709 per person plus taxes, these shorter sailings are a more affordable option.

Eastern Mediterranean

Eastern Mediterranean sailings focus on the ports of Greece and Turkey, and often depart from or call in Italy as well. These sailings are great for history buffs because they visit many ruins and historic sites.

Celebrity offers seven- to 14-night eastern Mediterranean cruises on the Galaxy, but its 11-night round-trip itineraries offer the greatest choice of sail dates and visit the key spots. The ship departs from Civitavecchia (Rome) and calls at Mykonos, Rhodes, Santorini, Piraeus (for Athens), Greece; Istanbul and Kusadasi (for Ephesus), Turkey; and Naples, Italy.

Categories
Adventure Travel

Travel bargains abound in the Dominican Republic


Many travelers believe that indulgence comes with a high price tag. A relaxing beach vacation spent lounging on a chaise, pina colada in hand, gazing out at the turquoise Caribbean waters must be prohibitively expensive. Wrong. You can find all this at reasonable prices if you choose the Dominican Republic as your island destination.

The Dominican Republic is a great value for American travelers for a few reasons. The country’s economy is not thriving, despite tourism, and the currency is very weak against the dollar. As a result, food, transportation, and accommodations costs on the island can be quite low.

The country is also one of the best Caribbean spots for all-inclusive resorts. At any such resort, once you pay the package cost up front, you will hardly need to take out your wallet after you’ve arrived. Plus, vacation providers buy accommodations space in bulk and pass the savings on to you. Combine these deals with the Dominican Republic’s low cost of living and the result is some of the lowest package prices in the Caribbean market.

When and where to go

The Dominican Republic’s high season is in the winter when cold East Coasters from the U.S. flee to the Caribbean to find some sun. The cheapest times will be September through November, typically the Caribbean low season. These months are also hurricane season, and though storms are not likely, the island does lie in the hurricane belt. May and the summer will have middle-ground prices.

The main Dominican tourist destinations are Punta Cana, Puerto Plata, and La Romana. Punta Cana has the most resorts and many of them are new or recently renovated. It’s one of the most popular destinations with Americans, mostly because of its stunning beaches and clear Caribbean waters. Some people think it’s the next Cancun. La Romana is also on the Caribbean side and is a good base for exploring, as there is a lot to do nearby.

Puerto Plata is on the Atlantic side of the country. Larry Fishkin, president of eLeisureLink, believes that “you’ll generally get more for your money in Puerto Plata than in Punta Cana.” It’s an up-and-coming tourist destination and perfect for more adventurous travelers who want to leave the resort and visit towns such as Sosua, known for its fishing and crafts, and Cabarete, a hotspot for kite-surfing and other water sports.

All-inclusive versus independent travel

The all-inclusive vacation has its clear benefits, but some travelers prefer a more independent vacation. The Dominican Republic can accommodate both types of vacations.

According to Pauline Frommer of the Frommer’s Travel Guides, “Most Americans go for the beach vacation at an all-inclusive resort because of the tremendous value.” One price includes airfare, transfers, accommodations, meals, drinks, kids’ programs, and entertainment. The resort Frommer chose for her recent vacation even included horseback riding, an activity that’s usually an extra cost. She reported that although these special inclusions vary by resort, your entire package price is bound to be cheaper in the Dominican Republic than what you’d find on another Caribbean island.

All-inclusive vacations are best if you want a relaxing trip spent sunning on the beach and staying within the resort grounds. But certain travelers find these vacations too isolating from the country they came to visit. And while some people speak highly of the incredible choice of restaurants available to resort guests, others complain of bland and repetitive meals.

If you’d prefer a do-it-yourself trip, you’ve got a few options. Peter Capper, senior vice president of BVK (the marketing agency that represents the Dominican Republic), says you can save by getting inexpensive air/hotel deals and air-only deals if you can travel during the shoulder season from a market with a strong air presence (New York, Miami, Boston, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Chicago, or Dallas). American is one of the biggest carriers in the region, but low-cost airlines JetBlue and Spirit now fly there as well, increasing your chances of finding airfare bargains.

Sean Harvey, author of the Rough Guide to the Dominican Republic, also recommends booking an air-and-hotel package that does not include meals—what some resorts refer to as the European plan. “You’ll get a great deal,” he says, “and you can explore the country during the day, and then come back at night to the Western hotel that serves as your home base.”

The deals

If you’re looking for a great price on your Dominican Republic getaway, you may find what you’re looking for with an air-and-hotel inclusive vacation from an online vacation provider or travel agent. When we checked, Liberty Travel was offering a package that included five nights at the all-inclusive Casa Marina Beach & Reef Resort, airfare to Puerta Plata, airport transfers, and taxes. Prices start at $499 per person from Miami.

We also found a La Romana vacation package at Vacation Travel Mart, with prices starting at $378 from Miami. The price includes airfare and three nights at the all-inclusive Suncape Casa del Mar. Five-night and seven-night vacations are also available for higher prices.

The best way to choose which package is right for you is to do your research up front. You can find more than 4,000 resort reviews on Debbie’s Dominican Republic Travel Page and message boards with travel advice and trip reports on DR1.com.

Or, if you’d rather book your vacation components separately, check SmarterTravel.com’s Air section for the latest airfare deals, or compare fares with SmarterTravel’s price-comparison tool.

No matter how you choose to book your getaway, you can be confident that you’ll be able to create a relaxing escape that will fit your budget. So if you’re planning a few days or weeks of sunbathing and pampering and want to keep costs down, consider the Dominican Republic for your next Caribbean vacation destination.