By Kimberly Lisagor
August 25-27, 2006
Here are secrets only real insiders know. If you thought "The Love Boat" taught you all you need to know about vacations at sea, think again.
When Allan Jordan saw two of his fellow passengers sidle up to the bar on the Queen Elizabeth 2 luxury cruise liner, he knew drinks were not all they could get. With just a little bit of luck, they also could score an invitation to an exclusive get-together in a part of the ship that few passengers get to see -- the officers' wardroom.
A cruise industry consultant who has logged more than 150,000 miles at sea, Jordan knows that such parties can turn an ordinary voyage into a memorable one -- and the QE2, he says, is famous for its officers' soirees. Although Jordan's job usually earns him an automatic invitation, non-VIP passengers have to seek one out.
The travelers happened to sit next to two uniformed engineers and chatted them up over drinks. As the officers were leaving, one asked, "What cabin are you in?" A wardroom party invitation was delivered shortly thereafter, and the pair spent the next evening hobnobbing with the onboard elite.
For these travelers, a chance encounter made all the difference -- but don't leave your trip to chance. If you think The Love Boat taught you all you need to know about vacationing at sea, think again. Everything from how you book your berth to how you behave on deck can affect the quality of your trip. The cruise industry has some secrets that Captain Stubing and his crew never divulged, and learning them could make your next vacation the best one yet.
The best resource for anyone new to cruising is a seasoned veteran. Experienced cruisers know about the myriad options available for cabins, excursions and more, and they can tell you how they navigated the increasingly diverse menu of cruising options. Once you have a sense of what you want, a skilled travel agent can get you perks like a cabin upgrade and even special dinner seating (e.g., a table for two). And if you let your agent know that you are celebrating a special occasion such as a birthday or an anniversary, you just might find yourself with a chair at the captain's table.
There is, however, one good reason to skip the intermediary and book directly with the cruise line: It's called a "repositioning cruise."
Birds aren't the only creatures that migrate for the winter. Cruise ships do it, too. It's a little-known fact that you can hitch a ride aboard a luxury vessel in transit for as little as $75 per night/per person. "It's one of those things that isn't really advertised," says Bob Jones, travel expert and "chief frugalist" for BookingWiz.com. When a cruise company needs to move its fleet from Alaska to California, for instance, or from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean, "they want their crew to do something while they're working."
There are some drawbacks to traveling this way, including fewer ports (most ships stop once or twice, but some don't stop at all) and the fact that it's a one-way trip (you'll have to buy a return flight or get home some other way). But it's quite a bargain if you're looking to spend time at sea, and the service is "generally better because there are fewer people," Jones says. Repositioning cruises can be booked year-round.
Another factor to consider before you book is where to start your journey. "A lot of people think cruises just leave out of Florida ports," says David Crooks, vice president of NLG, parent company of CruisesOnly. Before Sept. 11, 2001, that was a reasonable assumption. But afterward, travelers were less willing to fly long distances to access ports. So the cruise industry spread itself out. Major cruise companies now schedule departures from places like San Diego; Galveston, Texas; and Norfolk, Va. "You can sail out of almost any major seaport," Crooks says. "People don't know that you can cruise out of your own backyard."
In addition to saving you time, the abundance of ports can save you money -- even if you don't leave from the city that's closest to home. The reason is what insiders call "tactical rates," a discounting strategy that cruise companies use when there are vacant cabins to fill. Cutting prices is a complex endeavor. If a cruise ship drops its rates, it runs the risk of upsetting passengers who booked early or triggering a wave of cancellations and re-bookings. So the companies get creative. "Instead of saying they're dropping the price of the cruise," Crooks says, "they say they're dropping the price of the airfare." You might see a ship that leaves from Los Angeles with $99 airfare from Boston or New York. In doing so, the company increases its bookings by attracting customers from farther away. And, Crooks says, because only 10% of CruiseOnly customers book airfare through the site -- usually opting to book separately at much higher rates -- these packages can mean significant overall savings.
The industry also uses what Crooks calls "hidden rates," unadvertised discounts for every demographic, from students and teachers to military members. Ships that need to fill space frequently offer these rates on request. "Ask your travel agent," Crooks says. "If you're flexible, you'll get one."
Once you're on board, there are steps you can take to get special treatment. Again, it's mostly about who you get to know. "What the seasoned travelers would do is seek out and identify those crew members who can help them," says Todd Smith, who spent 10 years working as a naturalist aboard small ships throughout Alaska before he started his own company, AdventureSmith Explorations. Because small ships usually are geared toward exploring the natural, "off-board" world, establishing an early rapport with the naturalist is a good idea.
"Another person savvy travelers tend to befriend is the chef," Smith says. On a large ship, the kitchen staff is rarely accessible. Not so on a small ship or yacht, where some targeted congeniality could land you "an extra scoop of something, an extra dessert after the dining room's cleared out, extra cookies when you're out kayaking -- that kind of thing."
Crew members also can be helpful when you're headed for a port. Most cruises offer pricey shore excursions as a hassle-free way to explore a destination in a short period of time, but you often can save money by hopping in a cab and venturing out alone. Asking staffers for their favorite island hangouts and going there on your own could lead to a much more satisfying stopover experience. Just be sure you get back to the dock on time.
If you see that the ship isn't too busy, sometimes you can get a better cabin just by making the request. "Some ships have a sign permanently affixed to the front desk that says the ship is full," Jordan says. But these signs are usually meaningless. "It's just to discourage people from coming up and asking."
Other times, unfortunately, the only way to score an upgrade is by whining. "I hate to say it, but just be obnoxious and complain," says Mark Landon, a former cruise line employee whose website, shipjobs.com, gives job seekers a behind-the-scenes look at crew life. Ships usually keep extra cabins available to appease unhappy passengers, Landon says.
Be warned, however: Behaving badly does not endear you to the crew. "If you get labeled as an obnoxious person, you're not going to get anything above and beyond," Landon says. "If you treat people with respect, you'll get more out of them."
This is especially true among the ship's "social staff," employees whose job is to make sure the passengers are having fun. These crew members roam the ship, buying guests drinks and engaging them in small talk. "They're the party people," Landon says. "They want to make friends with you." They're most likely to interact with travelers who treat them as peers, not servants.
That said, don't expect your friendliness to get you access to the crew's quarters or the staff-only bar. Unlike the officers' parties, which only a small number of guests are expected to attend, crew gatherings are strictly off-limits to outsiders. "Passengers are not allowed to go into the crew area, period," Landon says. One reason for the restriction is that those parts of the ship might not be covered by the cruise lines' insurance.
In any case, the No. 1 reason to get chummy with the staffers has nothing to do with parties. People who live and work aboard ships tend to be worldly individuals whose jobs have taken them to exotic destinations. "Even though someone is making a living taking away your dirty dishes, they're possibly the most well-traveled people you will ever meet," Landon says. "These people have done everything you want to do." Getting to know them and hearing their stories could be the highlight of your trip.
Kimberly Lisagor is the author of "Outside Wilderness Lodge Vacations: North America Plus Central America and the Caribbean.