Friday, May 4, 2012

Princess Cruises to Base Ship Year Round in San Francisco

Grand Princess Will Offer Alaska, Hawaii, Mexico and California Coast Sailings

SANTA CLARITA, Calif. (May 4, 2012) – Princess Cruises announced today that for the first time it will base a ship in San Francisco year round, beginning in May 2013. The extensively renovated Grand Princess will first offer a series of Alaska cruises during the summer months from the “City by the Bay,” followed by a schedule of Hawaiian Islands, Mexico and the California Coast sailings during the fall 2013 to spring 2014 season.
Last year the 2,600-passenger Grand Princess underwent the largest drydock in Princess Cruises history, adding a host of new features so that passengers will enjoy the same onboard experience as offered by the line’s other newer ships.

“Princess has been cruising from San Francisco nearly as long as our company has been in operation, so we have a rich history with the city, and we are the leading cruise line homeporting there,” said Jan Swartz, Princess Cruises executive vice president. “Our Bay Area passengers and travel agents have long been asking for more cruise options from San Francisco and our new year-round schedule with Grand Princess will now give them a great selection of itinerary choices, plus the benefit of sailing on a ship that offers our signature features and amenities.”

"Princess ships have been cruising from San Francisco for more than 40 years, and we greatly appreciate the company's longstanding partnership with our city," said Monique Moyer, executive director of the Port of San Francisco. “We are delighted to now have our first year-round ship based here, and it is a natural fit that the vessel is the caliber of Grand Princess. Having this ship sail under the Golden Gate Bridge and berth at the foot of Coit Tower will be spectacular, both for the passengers on board and the people of San Francisco."

During the 2013-14 season Grand Princess will sail roundtrip from San Francisco to:

AlaskaGrand Princess’ first Alaska season features 10-day Inside Passage sailings. The ship will offer 13 voyages featuring the stunning scenery of Glacier Bay National Park or Tracy Arm, with calls at Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan and Victoria. Cruises depart between May 10 and September 7, 2013.

MexicoGrand Princess will offer two sailings on a new 10-day itinerary to Mexico, featuring two new ports for Princess – Loreto and La Paz, both in Baja California. Passengers will also enjoy calls at Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta. Sailings depart on September 17, 2013 and March 5, 2014.

California Coastal – An increasingly popular Princess itinerary, Grand Princess will take passengers to Santa Barbara, Los Angeles (Long Beach), San Diego, and Ensenada. Four sailings are offered on September 27 and October 19, 2013; plus March 15 and April 6, 2014.

Hawaiian Islands – Passengers can explore each of the main Hawaiian islands on this 15-day voyage to the Big Island (Hilo), Oahu (Honolulu), Kauai (Nawiliwili), Maui (Lahaina), and Ensenada. Grand Princess will offer 12 departures between October 4, 2013 and April 28, 2014.

During last year’s drydock Grand Princess added a variety of passenger amenities, including a completely new Piazza atrium, several new eateries – including Alfredo’s Pizzeria and the Crown Grill – and the line’s first specialty tea lounge called Leaves. Also included in the renovation were a remodeled casino, boutiques and art gallery; enhancements to the Horizon Court, Lotus Spa, and wedding chapel; and the addition of Crooner’s Martini Lounge and a new nightclub, The One5.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Here are the top 5 reasons to pick up the phone this month and CALL ME (979-836-6600): 
1. Celebrity’s Awesome Alaska Offer! The ships arrive this weekend in Vancouver and Seattle for their Alaska season. These incredible last minute offers won’t last long! Here’s the best one I’ve seen !  Up to $200 Onboard spending on ANY 7 Day Cruise to Alaska!

2. Legendary Rivers Promotion! AMA Waterways, Viking River Cruises and Uniworld Boutique River Cruises have gone to the ends of the earth to bring us fantastic savings to book early for 2013! 

3. Oceania Riviera Inaugural makes her debut in Barcelona with the 10 top producing Expedia® CruiseShipCenters® Franchise Partners onboard! Celebrity Chef Cat Cora from Bravo’s hit series Around the World in 80 Plates steps in as godmother and will be attending the christening ceremony on May 11th ! This is the perfect opportunity to reach out to my “foodies” to let them know of Oceania’s commitment to fine dining.

4. Royal Princess Inaugural voyages 2013! This is the first new ship to join Princess Cruises’ fleet since 2008 and its arrival has been highly anticipated. With amazing features like an enclosed walkway with glass floors and sweeping ocean views, dazzling evening water and light shows and an expanded atrium, it’s no surprise that space has been filling up fast. 

*My ECSC Product team is getting ready for another early start tomorrow morning to secure the remaining new deployment for Princess Exotics and The Americas.

5. Royal Caribbean continues to offer some of the lowest rates in Europe including pre-paid gratuities (up to $195 USD per stateroom) on all 7 Day Europe cruises booked before May 11th. Offers this good provide a fantastic opportunity to suggest a cruise as an add on to anyone currently sailing in Europe! 
(11:45 a.m. EDT) -- Norwegian Cruise Line announced (April 27th, 2012) the sun deck amenities to be found on its under-construction Norwegian Breakaway set to launch April 2013. The 144,017-ton, 4,000-passenger ship will feature an unprecedented five top-ship waterslides, a three-story sports complex with a ropes course, an adults-only deck space and a for-fee beach club.

Here's what passengers can expect to find atop the ship:

Waterslides. Breakaway will feature five waterslides, two more than any other cruise ship. "Free Fall" comprises two side-by-side slides, atop which passengers will stand up and have the floor drop from underneath them -- a concept first introduced by Carnival Cruise Lines on Carnival Spirit, which will begin sailing Australia itineraries in October. Two additional side-by-side twisters (called "The Whip") are designed to pit passenger against passenger. The more tame "open-flume body slide" rounds out the offerings.

Adults-only deck space. The obligatory adults-only sun deck space is Spice H20, a stern-situated enclave that debuted on Norwegian Epic in 2010. Like the version on Epic, Breakaway's Spice features a movie screen, bar, hot tubs and plush loungers. Breakaway's Spice also has a dual waterfall feature under which passengers can cool off. At night, the space turns into an outdoor dance club.

For-fee beach club. Passengers 18 and older can access the Vibe Beach Club by purchasing an "access pass." The club features ocean views, an oversized hot tub, chaise loungers and a water feature. A full-service bar, water spritzers and chilled towels will also be available. The entry cost -- and what that cost will include -- are yet to be determined, said spokeswoman AnneMarie Mathews.

Sports complex. Borrowing another page from Carnival's playbook, Breakaway's three-story sports complex will feature a ropes course, a concept introduced on Carnival Magic. Breakaway's version, the largest at sea, will have 40 different elements, including a "zip track" and "The Plank," a platform that extends eight feet over the side of the ship. Younger cruisers will have their own mini-version. Other sports complex features will include a rock-climbing wall, basketball court, bungee trampoline and "spider web," a 24-foot enclosed climbing cage with a spiral slide.

Kids' activities. For the younger sun deckers, the Kids' Aqua Park features Nickelodeon characters from Bikini Bottom, including SpongeBob SquarePants, Patrick and Squidward; a kiddie pool and mini-slide; and the requisite water-spraying aparati. Other Nick-branded kids' activities will include a Pajama Jam Character Breakfast, Dora's Dance Party, character meet-and-greets and impromptu games utilizing pies and slime.

Top-ship dining. The Garden Cafe, Breakaway's "action station" buffet venue will be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, serving seafood, pizza, fruit, soups, pasta, ethnic specialties, burgers and desserts.

Norwegian has been revealing a steady stream of information on the Breakaway, including its solo cabin-and-lounge complex, Haven suite complex, kids' activities, restaurants and itineraries (the ship will homeport in New York). Cruise Critic will be covering every step of the process, from steel cutting to launch.

--by Dan Askin, News Editor

We love that new ship smell -- and the cruise ship class of 2012 is giving off quite an intriguing perfume.

Among the mega-ship new-builds debuting in 2012 are several familiar faces: Oceania's second O-class ship, Riviera; Carnival's third Dream-class vessel, Carnival Breeze; and Celebrity Cruises' fifth and final Solstice-class offering, Celebrity Reflection.

But not all sisters look or act alike.

Carnival Breeze has a new toned-down design and a slew of new attractions offering burgers, burritos, booze and George Lopez. The changes come by way of the line's $500 million FunShip 2.0 initiative, a program that also calls for the retrofitting of older ships with the aforementioned amenities. Tweaks are also in store for Celebrity Reflection, which will feature a suite complex not found on its four older sisters. Disney Fantasy, the Mouse's second Dream-class vessel, has more for kids (new watery deck spaces) and adults (themed lounges, pool area).

Beyond the giants, the surprising star of the 17-ship class is American Cruise Lines' (ACL) Queen of the Mississippi, a 150-passenger vintage-style "steamboat," propelled by a 26-ton, 28-foot-wide paddlewheel. ACL's owners hope the new ship -- done up with gingerbread trim, glass chandeliers and rocking chairs -- can get the Mississippi River cruise industry back on track, starting in August.

Switch continents, and you'll see Europe-based river cruise lines continuing their torrid expansion. More than half of the year's new-builds -- including six from Viking River Cruises -- will be based on European tributaries.

The Mega-Ships: US
Ship & Launch: Disney Fantasy, March 31

The Low-Down: Disney Fantasy shares much in common with its good-looking older sister, Disney Dream, including the AquaDuck watercoaster and "virtual portholes" in inside cabins. But Fantasy also has its own robust personality, shaped by a slew of new production shows, adult-only themed spaces and cool top-deck attractions.

The most photogenic addition has to be the AquaLab (pictured, before the kids took over), a play area featuring pop jets, geysers, bubblers and all manner of watery apparatuses (like Uncle Donald's leaky rowboat). Another distinction: The Muppets have made their at-sea debut starring in a mystery game that will take passengers around the ship in search of clues.

Deployment: Eastern and Western Caribbean

Ship & Launch: Oceania's Riviera,  May

The Low-Down: Ain't broke? Don't fix it. "Luxe lite" line Oceania might not use those words to describe Riviera, its second 1,250-passenger O-class ship, but it certainly could. There are some tweaks -- a thalassotherapy pool replaces a hot tub, for instance -- but everything found on the first-in-class Marina is back. Food -- eating it, cooking it, learning about it -- is again the focus. Riviera will feature a culinary arts center and 10 restaurants serving everything from Asian fusion to French. If all that eating makes you sleepy, you can retreat to one of the ship's palatial, 2,000-plus-square-foot Owner's Suites or Canyon Ranch Spa.

Deployment: Caribbean, Mediterranean, South America

Ship & Launch: Carnival Breeze,  June 3

The Low-Down: Big design and amenity changes are afoot for the 3,690-passenger Carnival Breeze, the third Dream-class ship. First, Carnival has dispensed with the longtime surrealistic designer Joe Farcus; this time, Hamburg-based firm Partner Ship Design is leading the way with a toned-down vibe and tropical theme throughout.

Feature-wise, Breeze will have a burger joint created by celebrity chef Guy Fieri, rum and tequila bars and a 5D theater (these eating and drinking options will be retrofitted onto about a dozen of Breeze's fleetmates by 2015). But never fear: The RedFrog Pub, the Caribbean-themed bar that debuted on Magic, is back. And so are the 100-ounce tubes of Carnival's custom brew, Thirsty Frog Red.

Deployment: Mediterranean, Caribbean

Ship & Launch: Celebrity Reflection, October 12

The Low-Down: Celebrity Reflection is the fifth -- and final -- ship in Celebrity's game-changing Solstice class. (Execs like the ships so much they're retrofitting the line's older Millennium-class vessels with popular Solstice-class restaurants and bars.) The series has evolved quite a bit since Solstice launched in 2007, and the 126,000-ton, 3,030-passenger Celebrity Reflection is both larger and more amenity-laden than its predecessors.

The main difference between Reflection and its youngest sister, Silhouette (2011), is that Reflection features an additional deck housing the line's first "suite complex." Otherwise, expect classy, light-loving spaces; the newest version of the class' now-iconic Lawn Club (grill restaurant, for-fee cabanas); and double-digit dining options.

Deployment: Caribbean, Western Europe, Mediterranean

The Mega-Ships: Europe
Ship & Launch: Costa Fascinosa, May 2

The Low-Down: Leave it to Joe Farcus, Carnival Corp.'s neon-loving designer and sole adherent of "Farchitecture," to breathe some zany life into Costa's fifth Concordia-class ship. The 3,000-passenger Costa Fascinosa will sport all the signature Concordia-class elements -- Asian-themed spa, poolside movie screen, Grand Prix simulator -- but the ship will be themed around "things that fascinate," like movies and exotic places.

If that doesn't narrow it down, try this: a "Gone With the Wind"-themed lido area. Specific design touches (the burnt-out shell of Tara?) haven't been revealed, but the space will feature raised whirlpool tubs and waterfalls. The homage to the historical melodrama will be offset with a dose of modernity: A new mobile platform will allow smart-device users to access the ship's interactive TV system and book excursions, check their bill, etc.

Deployment: Eastern Mediterranean

Ship & Launch:  MSC Divina, May 2012

The Low-Down: MSC Divina will become the 12th ship in the Italian line's fleet. The Fantasia-class ship on steroids will have roughly 100 more cabins and a touch more room than its two half-sisters, MSC Fantasia and MSC Splendida, as well as a handful of new features, including a wake-facing infinity pool (so you can gaze off into the distance during a dip). MSC has also opted to use the extra volume to expand its Yacht Club, a ship-within-a-ship complex featuring suites, a private sun deck and a concierge lounge.

Deployment: Mediterranean

Ship & Launch: AIDAmar, May 12

The Low-Down: The 71,100-ton, 2,184-passenger AIDAmar is the sixth ship in Germany-based AIDA Cruises popular Sphinx class. The series is known for its sprawling wellness areas, flamboyant interiors and breezy, "club casual" vibe. Like its most recent sister, AIDAmar will sport a 4D cinema, complete with moving chairs and water- and air-jets; a steakhouse; sushi bar; and a microbrewery, where beer is brewed from purified sea water.

Deployment: Northern Europe, Mediterranean, Red Sea

The Riverboats: U.S.
Ship & Launch: Great American Steamboat Company's American Queen, April 26

The Low-Down: While not technically a new-build, the 436-passenger American Queen has been out of service since 2008 when it's previous owner, Majestic America Line, went belly up. Now it's got a new owner, Great American Steamboat Company, that paid big bucks to resurrect the world's largest steam-powered paddlewheeler. Before (re-)launching, AQ will undergo a $6 million refurb to make the Victorian decor -- chandeliers, upholstery, polished wood -- pop.

Onboard, dining will play first fiddle. Menus created by Natchez-based chef Regina Charboneau will include regionally sourced ingredients like wild honey from Mississippi and artisan cheeses from the river towns along the routes. Expect beignets with breakfast, gourmet hot dogs for lunch and Charboneau's peppered beef brisket for dinner. Entertainment will come by way of music (think jazz on ex-Nola sailings) and an onboard "riverlaurian," who will provide the necessary historical and cultural color.

Deployment: Mississippi and connecting rivers

Ship & Launch: American Cruise Lines' Queen of the Mississippi, August 11

The Low-Down: The year's freshest -- and most nostalgic -- new-build has to be American Cruise Lines' 150-passenger Queen of the Mississippi, the first Big Muddy-based new-build to launch in some 15 years. Old Man River's been nearly dead to overnight cruisers since 2008, when the two biggest players in the leisure steamboatin' game collapsed. ACL hopes to help resurrect the niche industry in 2012.

Its modern sternwheeler with Victorian aspirations will feature crystal chandeliers, dark wood paneling and enormous standard cabins (like 268 square feet of enormity). Execs think the Paddlewheel Lounge will be the showstopper; the space will be decked out in rich woods and offer panoramic views of passing scenery and the red sternwheel.

Deployment: Mississippi and connecting rivers

The Riverboats: Europe
Ships & Launch: Viking's "Longship" Horde; two in March, one in April, one in May, one in July, one in August

The Low-Down: Six Viking "Longships" will descend on Europe's rivers in 2012. The 190-passenger boats are designed by maritime architects Yran & Storbraaten (Seabourn's designer) and named after imposing Norse gods like Idun, Odin and Njord. The boats will introduce a number of concepts for Viking, including suites with full-size balconies and the Aquavit Terrace, an indoor-outdoor lounge featuring retractable floor-to-ceiling glass doors.

Viking is also continuing its "green cruising" tradition, so the Longships have energy-efficient hybrid engines, solar panels and organic herb gardens.

Deployment: Rhine, Danube

Ship & Launch:  AmaCerto, April

The Low-Down:The 164-passenger AmaCerto, the third in a series, continues AMAWATERWAYS' ambitious expansion program; the company has launched Europe-based riverboats every year since 2006. Like its sisters, AmaCerto will feature AMA's "twin balcony" setup, a unique offering consisting of a French (glorified window with railing) and traditional balcony (with room to sit). And, in an effort to shrug the stodgy reputation that haunts river lines, the ship will feature bow-to-stern wi-fi and "infotainment" systems (combo TV/music/Web) in every cabin.

Another sign that AMA is hip to the modern cruise landscape: The line is borrowing from a big-ship culinary trend and offering a Chef's Table event, where a private chef prepares a special tasting menu for passengers.

Deployment: Rhine, Danube

Ship & Launch: Avalon Vista and Visionary, May 11

The Low-Down: A pair of new Avalon Waterways riverboats, Vista and Visionary, will expand the line's burgeoning fleet to 13. The 166-passenger Avalon Vista is a sister to 2011's Avalon Panorama and will feature the same novel cabin setup. Sixty-four suites -- or two decks' worth of cabins -- will have wall-to-wall panoramic windows, which open seven feet to create an open-air balcony of sorts. Vista will be similar but come in a slightly smaller package; the 128-passenger riverboat was specifically designed to cruise the Rhine. The pair will be jointly christened May 11.

Deployment: Rhine, Danube

The Riverboats: Asia
Ship & Launch: Uniworld's River Saigon

The Low-Down: Uniworld launched the Southeast Asia-based River Saigon in January 2012. The 60-passenger boat sails week-long itineraries along the Mekong River through Vietnam and Cambodia as part of longer trips combining land-based travel. Three-week itineraries begin in Beijing with tours of cities in China before sailing the Mekong to its delta in the south of Vietnam. Hotel accommodations are luxurious, with private check-in, buffet breakfast and various extras.

Fares also include service charges and transfers. Excursions are led by professionally trained local experts who guide groups no larger than 20 to better allow insight into the local culture, people and history.
(Credit:  CruiseCritic)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Why It Pays to Book With a Travel Agent

Some consumers are kicking the stressful DIY approach to the curb

Booking a trip often proves to be an extremely stressful, grueling undertaking. You can spend hours online searching for deals on flights and hotels, bouncing from one website to another in pursuit of the perfect price. This kind of process is often headache-inducing:

Approximately 20 percent of more than 2,000 travelers worldwide said it took them more than five hours to search and book travel online, according to a recent survey by the I.B.M. Institute for Business Value.

To avoid the hassle, some consumers are turning to travel agents. After suffering for years, the travel-agent industry is now experiencing substantial growth. Nearly 1 in 3 leisure agencies is hiring, according to PhoCusWright, a travel research firm. And the American Society of Travel Agents reports that 57 percent of independent agents saw an increase in business in 2011.

Faced with countless choices for flights, hotels, car rental, and tours, some consumers are dumping the DIY approach. "There are simply too many travel products in the market today for individuals to decipher on their own," says James Shillinglaw, editor-in-chief of Travalliancemedia, a media network for travel agencies. "You need a guide to help you cut through all the different things out there that are available."

"There's a difference between price and value," adds Arnie Weissmann, editor-in-chief of Travel Weekly, a newspaper that covers the travel industry. The more travelers realize that, he says, the more they're opting to use a travel agent. Here are six reasons to consider booking your next vacation with a travel agent:

Save time. An agent can save you time by vetting thousands of flight and hotel options to find the right fare at the lowest rate. "There's just a glut of information, and you need someone to make sense of it all," says John Peters of, a website that matches consumers to travel agents.
Stephanie Axelrod and her husband, who live in Fairfax, Va., used Tamalpais Travel to book a trip to Spain and Italy in 2010, and saved a lot of time in the process. "After we spent many hours on the Internet ourselves, we found using an agent made the whole experience more pleasant and less time-consuming," she says.

Save money. Some people shy away from using a travel agent because they think they'll be charged extra for the agent's services. Some agents charge additional fees (for example, a $25 fee for their time and research), but most make their commission through the travel suppliers. "You're going to get more value from your money booking with a travel agent," Peters says. Nina Meyer, president of the American Society of Travel Agents, says you can also save big on airfare with the right agent: "I have seen in the past people save anywhere from $500 to upwards of $1,000 on a ticket."

Axelrod says she and her husband found it difficult to find good flight deals on their own. "The travel agent was able to get deals we weren't able to find," she says.

Learn what you want. "Very often, people don't really know what kind of trip they want," Shillinglaw says. It's the travel agent's job to provide you with a number of options they think you'd enjoy. Not only will they help you book a trip, they'll help you build the trip.

Connections. Don't underestimate a travel agent's extensive Rolodex. Agents may have people on the ground who you can connect with, such as a local tour guide, as well as people you can reach out to if you encounter any problems. "Having access to a travel agent's insiders makes it just an overall better customer service experience than going at it alone," Peters says.

Kate Rice, who covers airlines for, says agents who book a lot of flights develop strong relationships with sales representatives. "That means they have double leverage that they can use on your behalf—the purchasing power of the agency group they're affiliated with, as well as the personal relationships they have with their sales reps," she says.

Authenticity. The right travel agent will enlighten you about trip options you may not be able to find online. "It's about knowing what the real local find is, whether that be a great dinner at a small café or tickets to a private show," Peters says. "When people travel, they don't want to travel like a tourist. So it's about the travel specialist being able to help people find unique life experiences that they'll remember."

Knowledge. Flawless travel plans lie in the details, and travel agents are experts when it comes to handling those details. "It could be a pretty picture, but what if there's construction going on? What if it's in a bad neighborhood?" says Meyer. "Agents have that kind of background knowledge."

Axelrod booked five of the eight hotels on her trip based on recommendations from the travel agent, but says she wishes she had booked all of the hotels through her agent. "This was the first time we had used a travel agent," she says. "In the future, I would take all of their advice, rather than just picking and choosing to save some money."

Troubleshooting. Despite extensive travel planning, you might encounter some bumps on your trip. Having a travel agent handle them for you can make your travel experience a lot less stressful. "In almost any rough situation, you need a travel agent," Meyer says. "I have clients who were going to miss a sports event because their flight got cancelled, but we still got them there." Says Weissman: "If the hotel room doesn't match your expectations and you don't have a travel agent, you're on your own."

(Credit:  USNews: Money, Personal Finance)