Video: Cruisin’ for a good family vacation?

  1. Transcript of: Cruisin’ for a good family vacation?

    MATT LAUER, co-host: We're back at 8:37. This morning on TODAY'S TRAVEL , the best cruise ships . Whether you're looking for an intimate setting on a European river or the chance to soak up the Caribbean sun aboard a mega ship, Conde Nast Traveler 's Kate Maxwell is here with some great options. Kate , good morning. Nice to see you.

    Ms. KATE MAXWELL (Conde Nast Traveler Magazine): Nice to see you.

    LAUER: Thirteen million people went cruising, so to speak, last year, so all these cruise lines have got to keep competitive.

    Ms. MAXWELL: They really do. Cruising is a growth area and 70 percent of those 13 million were American. Twenty-five thousand of our readers voted in our readers' poll and they've got some very strong opinions on their favorite cruise ships .

    LAUER: Yeah. They rank their -- the different ships they like, and there are many different categories.

    Ms. MAXWELL: There are.

    LAUER: Let's start small, and these are river cruises, and you like, or they liked the River Beatrice . Tell me about that ship.

    Ms. MAXWELL: Yeah. River cruises, this is a new category for us, reflecting a new trend. These are small ships that go to intimate river ports. The River Beatrice has only 160 passengers. Fantastic facilities. And we have a sample cruise that starts in Budapest in Hungary and ends up in Passow in Germany .

    LAUER: So this isn't for the people who want all the amenities, the climbing wall and the diving boards, this is really a quieter vacation.

    Ms. MAXWELL: It is a quieter vacation, but it's really kind of cultured, you know, you get to stop off at all sorts of fantastic European cities and sample them.

    LAUER: Staying in this category , there's another ship that your readers liked, it's the M/S Concerto . Carries 150 passengers. Tell me about that one.

    Ms. MAXWELL: Mm-hmm. Well, this is a little bit cheaper, it works out at $150 per person per night, which is a really good rate, and that includes 11 excursions.

    Ms. MAXWELL: And again, going to some really wonderful European cities .

    LAUER: I mean, you just look at it, it looks romantic it looks beautiful.

    Ms. MAXWELL: Exactly, exactly.

    LAUER: It's very pretty. Let's move on to the open seas and start with the small ships category .

    Ms. MAXWELL: Yeah.

    LAUER: Fewer than 500 passengers.

    Ms. MAXWELL: Uh-huh .

    LAUER: And your readers liked the all-inclusive Seabourn Odyssey . Why?

    Ms. MAXWELL: They love the Odyssey . Four hundred and fifty passengers and this is a bit like chartering your own private yacht. Wake up in the middle of the night ...

    LAUER: It's a big yacht.

    Ms. MAXWELL: Well, it's a big yacht but it's so well designed, all the rooms are suites, they have balconies and everything is included, it works out at about $316 per person per night.

    Ms. MAXWELL: Wake up in the middle of the night , you want some caviar and champagne, order it, you'll never see a bill.

    LAUER: All right.

    Ms. MAXWELL: And it goes to some -- and because, again, it's a smaller ship it can go to some ports that other large ships can't access.

    LAUER: All right. You talk large ships, let's get to that category . Now this is defined as ships that can carry between 500 and 2500 passengers.

    Ms. MAXWELL: Yeah.

    LAUER: Different experience than those little river cruises. And your readers liked Celebrity Summit .

    Ms. MAXWELL: Celebrity Summit we're talking about because it's such a good deal, it's $64 per person per night.

    LAUER: What do you get for -- or what don't you get for 64?

    Ms. MAXWELL: Well, exactly. And it does this really great southern Caribbean cruise, which starts in Puerto Rico and takes in places like St. Thomas and St. Martin . Celebrity does great things, like they have language courses, they have chilates classes, which is a cross between Pilates and meditation. And wonderful restaurants, great pools. It's like a floating city really, everything is there.

    LAUER: Wow, seven nights starting at $64 a night, that almost sounds too good to be true .

    Ms. MAXWELL: Yeah.

    LAUER: Let's get to the mega ship category , these hold more than 2500 passengers.

    Ms. MAXWELL: Yeah.

    LAUER: These are great options for families, a lot of families love these. And Disney Magic rated well.

    Ms. MAXWELL: Disney Magic , I mean this really is the ultimate family vacation because you get all the Disney characters onboard. And speaking of someone who once spent an entire day at Disneyland looking for Mickey Mouse and not finding him, you know, you can't put a price on that.

    LAUER: Yeah, Mickey can't hide that well on a cruise ship .

    Ms. MAXWELL: He can't hide and he's got his own swimming pool as well. There are two other pools. Wonderful things for the kids to do. Great Disney shows, but also there are adults-only bars and people to look after your children all day.

    LAUER: And I apologize if you already said it, but starting at $150 a night.

    Ms. MAXWELL: Exactly, yeah.

    LAUER: OK. And another option in that category , the mega ship category , is the Celebrity Solstice .

    Ms. MAXWELL: The Solstice we love because it was the first ship to introduce solar panels, very eco-friendly. Also, they have a lawn on the top deck so you can practice your golf putting there, you can play croquet, you can just sit there with a book.

    Ms. MAXWELL: It's a really, really fantastic ship that just has absolutely everything.

    LAUER: The deal...

    Ms. MAXWELL: And loads of wonderful restaurants as well.

    LAUER: The deals we just talk about, limited time offers?

    Ms. MAXWELL: Not necessarily. Just shop around. You know, cruise ships tend to be -- they follow the sun, so in summer they tend to be in Europe , in the winter they tend to be in the Caribbean . So yeah, book in advance if you can and you'll probably get a much better deal.

    LAUER: Kate Maxwell, Conde Nast Traveler . Always good information, Kate . Thank you very much .

By
updated 1/20/2011 2:12:22 PM ET 2011-01-20T19:12:22

At what time of year can you score great cruise deals — those that include free upgrades, onboard credit and other perks?

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The cruise industry's "Wave Season," which takes place between January and March, is when cruise lines showcase their very best extra-value offers for the year to come. Many offer major sales during this time frame, and if you're a savvy shopper, you can take advantage of these promotions to get a great deal on your next cruise vacation. We'll show you how.

What is Wave Season?
Historically, the early months of the year are when a large percentage of cruise travelers book their vacations at sea. The combination of a new year with an empty calendar and, for most of us, chilly winter weather gets travelers thinking about sunny island getaways and the vacations to come. So, bookings take off. To capitalize on this cruise booking state of mind, cruise lines and travel agents offer extra incentives — typically free perks and reduced cruise fares — in the hopes that the promotions will be the final push travelers need to book those cruises.

How do I get the best deal?
Wave Season is not for everyone. If you want a dirt-cheap cruise fare — perhaps one of those less-than-$75-per-night deals that you can brag about to your friends — you may be better off waiting for a last-minute sale. Wave Season deals are for travelers who want value for money, such as an upgrade to a nicer cabin or free onboard credit for some guilt-free indulgence at the spa or onboard boutiques. Fares are generally discounted, but they don't hit rock-bottom at this time.

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To get the biggest bang for your buck, follow these three steps:

Figure out the ballpark cost of your cruise: To know if you're getting a deal, you have to know what the average price you'd normally pay is. Do some research on typical fares for the itinerary you have in mind. Remember that a 12-night Mediterranean cruise will have a much higher base price than a five-night Caribbean getaway — you'll want to compare apples to apples. And don't just look at fares. If you're interested in free upgrades, you'll need to know the price differential between an outside and a balcony cabin; if it's onboard credit you're after, plan out how much you might typically spend on spa treatments, excursions, drinks and souvenirs (IndependentTraveler.com's Travel Budget Calculator is great for tallying extra costs). If you're hoping for free airfare, look up the cost of airfare between your hometown and your homeport.

Evaluate the sales: As you look for sales through the cruise lines or your favorite travel agency, be an active — rather than a passive — deal-hunter. Read the fine print, because sometimes the discount or perk being advertised won't apply to the specific itinerary or cabin category you're interested in. Don't forget to check expiration dates, too; some lines give you only a few weeks to take advantage of their offers, while others give you a couple of months. These steps let you evaluate what this year's promotions are and how good they are. For example, in 2011, MSC Cruises's promotion of fares from $299 plus free balcony upgrades is an amazingly good value, while Celebrity's offer of up to $150 in onboard credit per cabin is less enticing.

Another helpful trick: Always compare cruise line promotions with the same sailings sold through an agent. Often, agencies will offer additional incentives above what the cruise lines are offering. For example, Oceania is offering two-for-one cruise fares and free airfare on select Europe cruises in 2011. But, as of press time, Cruise Club of America is throwing in prepaid gratuities, $100 in onboard credit, $100 spa credit, $100 shore excursion credit and a welcome bottle of champagne on select sailings. If you don't see any advertised discounts, call and ask. Sometimes agencies are able to offer better perks and prices than they list on their Web sites and in promotional materials.

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Compare cost benefits: Now that you've got all the information, compare the offers. Is the free upgrade on one line still more expensive than a regular balcony cabin on another? Would you prefer one agent's onboard credit or another's extra cruise fare discount? Are the deals good enough to make you want to book now, or do you need prices to drop further before you plunk down a deposit? If the numbers work out, congratulations. You've made an informed decision. Now it's time to book that cruise and start dreaming of sightseeing in Europe, sunbathing in the Caribbean or even dog-sledding in Alaska.

And if the Wave Season sales aren't tempting enough, or if you're just not ready to book yet, don't fret. Cruise lines will hold plenty of last-minute, three-day or extra-value sales throughout the year for you to find great deals. But unlike Wave Season, you just won't know when those sales are coming.

Explainer: New cruise ships sailing into 2011

  • Image: Allure of the Seas
    Roni Lehti  /  AFP - Getty Images
    Allure of the Seas

    Looks like it’s full speed ahead for the cruise industry. With Allure of the Seas now in Fort Lauderdale, Disney Dream set to debut and a half-dozen other new ships on the way, the rough seas of the recession are growing calmer by the day.

    That’s good news for cruisers, says Stewart Chiron, aka The Cruise Guy. “The fact that these ships are coming out during difficult times is a testament to the industry’s resilience,” he said. “A lot of people who wouldn’t have taken a cruise before are now considering one.”

    First-timer or not, here’s a look at eight new additions to the fleet:

  • Allure of the Seas

    Image: Allure of the Seas' zipline
    Rob Lovitt

    Allure embarked on her inaugural cruise on Dec. 5, and she shares the title of world’s biggest cruise ship with its twin Oasis of the Seas, but adds a few new amenities. In addition to the zip line and skating rink, the surf machines and climbing walls, you’ll also find a 3-D theater, the first Romero Britto store at sea and two new restaurants, including a Mexican cantina and Brazilian steakhouse. Get some sleep before you go, suggests Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief at CruiseCritic.com, or be prepared to swing by another new onboard amenity: the first Starbucks at sea.

  • Marina

    Image: Oceania Marina
    Oceania

    A Lalique grand staircase, a hands-on culinary arts center co-sponsored by Bon Appétit and a trio of owners’ suites with Ralph Lauren furnishings — Marina has all the makings of an ultra-premium experience, but with a surprisingly “egalitarian” ambience. As Oceania’s first purpose-built ship (launching Jan. 22), Marina is significantly larger than its siblings (65,000 tons vs. 30,000), carries more passengers (1,258 vs. 684) and features several new restaurants, including Jacques, the first eatery anywhere to bear the name of famed French chef Jacques Pépin. “[Marina] will be an intriguing hybrid of luxury and mid-market pricing,” said Spencer Brown. “It’s a category that’s never existed before.”

  • Disney Dream

    Image: Disney Dream
    Disney

    It’s been 11 years since Disney launched a new cruise ship and Mickey’s minions have clearly gone all out. Launching on Jan. 26, the ship will carry 2,500 passengers (4,000 with all beds filled) on fantasy-filled cruises between Port Canaveral and the Bahamas. Among the innovations: The Enchanted Garden restaurant, where the decor changes from day to night; inside cabins with virtual portholes with underwater scenes, and the AquaDuck, a 750-foot “watercoaster” that winds up, down and around the ship’s upper decks. “Dream is the Oasis of 2011,” said Spencer Brown. “It’s going to be different than everything that’s come before it.”

  • L’Austral

    Image: L'Austral
    Erick Larrieu  /  L'Austral

    Having opened a U.S. office just this year, the French cruise line Compagnie du Ponant is probably still unfamiliar to many American cruisers. That may change with the arrival of the line’s fifth ship, L’Austral, a 132-cabin mega-yacht that will launch on April 27. Not surprisingly, the onboard amenities — two restaurants, plus a spa, theater, lounge and library — will provide more than a soupçon of French flair even as the ship’s itineraries take her far beyond the Côte d’Azur. After spending the summer in the Mediterranean, the ship will sail on to Africa, Antarctica and other exotic ports of call.

  • Carnival Magic

    Image: Carnival Magic
    Carnival

    The latest addition to the Carnival fleet manages a neat trick: Although it’s a carbon copy of Carnival Dream, this 130,000-ton, 3,690-passenger ship tweaks the Fun Ship formula with several new amenities. Get a workout on the first ropes course at sea; cool off in a waterpark featuring a 500-gallon dump bucket, then retire to the RedFrog Pub for private-label beers and Caribbean-flavored snacks or Cucina del Capitano for hand-made pastas and select Italian wines. Launching on May 1, “Magic is perfect for entry-level or first-time cruisers,” said Dwain Wall, senior vice president/general manager for CruiseOne and Cruises Inc.

  • Seabourn Quest

    Image: Seabourn Odyssey
    Copyright 2009 Michel Verdure

    As the sister ship to the Odyssey (pictured) and Sojourn, Seabourn Quest joins a fleet that Chiron calls “quite possibly the nicest cruise ships on the planet.” Like her predecessors, the ship features a two-deck spa, four restaurants and 225 suite-style cabins, 90 percent of which have private balconies. The result: a yacht-like experience without upper-crust fustiness that draws younger cruisers than other ultra-luxury lines. You can join them on a three-day pre-inaugural cruise from Monte Carlo on June 9, a 14-day maiden voyage from Barcelona on June 20 or, if you’re feeling flush, a 109-day world cruise starting Jan. 5, 2012.

  • Costa Favolosa

    Image: Costa Favoloso
    Matteo Piazza  /  Courtesy of Costa Cruises

    The name is Italian for fairy tale; the decor is modeled after an enchanted castle, and the ambience is Carnival Fun Ship (Costa’s parent company) meets the Continent. Launching on July 4, the 3,000-passenger ship offers several of Costa’s signature Concordia-class amenities, including a Grand Prix driving simulator, 4-D cinema (3-D, plus physical effects) and two-level pool deck with a glass roof and movie screen. New additions, including verandah suites with Jacuzzi tubs, a teen entertainment area and a water park for little cruisers, should only add to la dolce vita.

  • Celebrity Silhouette

    Image: Celebrity Eclipse
    Simon Brooke-Webb  /  Celebrity

    Details are still sketchy on Celebrity’s newest ship, but the fourth vessel in the line’s innovative Solstice class will replicate the most popular amenities of her predecessors, including a glass-blowing studio, recreation area with real grass and Qsine, the eclectic, iPad-menu-equipped restaurant that debuted on Eclipse (pictured). “It’ll be like a floating boutique hotel,” said Chiron of the 2,850-passenger ship, which will begin sailing Mediterranean and Holy Land itineraries on July 23. Those who prefer more tropical itineraries will have to wait until next fall when the ship will start offering 12-night Caribbean cruises from Bayonne, N.J.

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