Book passage? Only after reading these booksBy FRED W. WRIGHT JR.
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 23, 2003
With more and more Americans cruising each year, and more new ships being launched, how can a passenger decide which vessel and itinerary is right?
Three recently launched books on cruising attempt to help the consumer answer those questions. Two of the books -- guide books, really, with hundreds of pages of reviews and commentary -- list nearly every option available for sailing in 2003.
The third book mostly tells you why you may never want to set foot on a cruise ship.
And written by veterans of cruises short and long, all three books make sense.
For sheer volume, Ethel Blum's The Total Traveler Guide to Worldwide Cruising (Travel Publications Ltd., $29.95), dominates the three. She offers nearly 800 pages of history and critique. It's a good read much of the way, even the listings, which are arranged alphabetically first by ship lines, then by individual vessel.
Her commentary reflects both research and more than 550 days spent aboard cruise ships in the past three years. Yet, if anything, she aims the 14th edition of her book at the 70 percent of passengers who said last year that they had sailed for the first time.
Blum always offers practical advice -- noting, for example, that for most ships, passengers eat the same food, regardless of price paid, whether sailing in a windowless inboard cabin or luxuriating in an owner's suite.
She writes that the best cabins are toward the middle of the ship (less motion, usually closer to elevators and public rooms), and she reminds us that sometimes, in choosing the right ship for the right cruise, size does matter. Smaller ships can offer a better passenger-crew ratio and can pull right into a port rather than having to anchor offshore and ferry passengers back and forth.
Currently, more than 350 ships offer more than 30,000 departures from ports around the world, Blum writes. Prices range from about $70 a day to more than $900, depending on ship, the class of accommodations, length of cruise and time of year.
Ultimately, she is a pragmatist. "No product is perfect," she writes. "Selecting the right ship with the right itinerary at the right price is almost a game of elimination."
Trusting Blum's sea mileage and reporter's eye, this is a fine reference volume.
In a similar vein, Ocean Cruising & Cruise Ships 2003 by Douglas Ward (Berlitz, $35.95) reflects the vision of another veteran cruiser. Ward pulls from what he says is 5,000 days at sea, on more than 580 cruises, since 1985.
Anticipating readers' questions, Ward provides succinct, clear answers. He writes about the impact of Sept. 11 on the industry: "Quality is going down, particularly among the large ships."
Yet cruise fares are "at pre-1980s levels," he adds, suggesting that bargains abound.
The first 50 pages of this book provide a multicolor, multiphoto look. Inside, the book falls into a sameness with its alphabetical listings: no photos but each listing has a line drawing of the ship being reviewed.
There are insets of factors and stats in "Did You Know?" features, and the book covers river cruises, freighters and around-the-world travel. Ward also writes about trends: self-balancing pool tables, cigar lounges and ships displaying millions of dollars in fine art.
More significantly, the book rates cruise ships in various "best" categories, with each ship capable of earning a maximum of 2,000 points in six categories: ship, accommodations, food, service, entertainment and cruise -- 487 pages of listings in all.
He rates 254 ships, including many scheduled to set sail for the first time in 2003. The ship with the best rating of all? The Hapgag-Lloyd Cruises ship Europa, with 1,857 points.
There's no way around it: Ross A. Klein is a grump.
He's the kind of guy who would not only send the wine back but also notice the thread dangling from the waiter's sleeve. After spending more than 300 days on 30 cruises since 1992, Klein has lots of sad stories to tell and warnings to make.
His Cruise Ship Blues: The Underside of the Cruise Industry (New Society Publishers, $14.95) tackles a lot of sensitive topics with candor and, well, a touch of sour grapes now and then.
Klein's concerns range from the merging of cruise lines to recent outbreaks of Norwalk-like viruses, onboard sexual assaults and less-than-obvious extra charges that aren't included in what used to be considered all-inclusive fares.
He rails, with examples, about an industry slow to respond, and sometimes actually hostile, to customer complaints. Klein also sprinkles his book with anecdotes of poor service or accommodations.
He explores the behind-the-scenes realities of cruising: overworked, underpaid staff who can face 12- or even 18-hour work shifts, seven days a week, 10 or more months at a stretch. Some of those employees earn as little as $1.55 an hour.
Perhaps Klein's greatest complaint is that the cruise industry promotes better than it delivers:
"One of my biggest struggles on cruises was reconciling the incongruity between image and reality," he writes. All cruise line brochures promise the best food, the best entertainment, the best ports, Klein writes, but he often found the cruise did not meet his expectations.
"But in my experience, the areas with the greatest gaps between image and reality are food and accommodations."
Klein's grouchy personal anecdotes are offset by lots of well-researched and well-documented evidence that such a huge, successful industry is fallible -- and a wise traveler needs to know how rough the seas ahead will be.
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