CruiseMates' Readers Cruise Reviews

Holland America Line Zuiderdam Eastern Caribbean November 30, 2003

Previous cruises: multiple, including Holland America, Celebrity, Princess, Cunard, and Carnival.

There have been quite a few reviews written about the Zuiderdam, Holland America's first "Vista" class ship launched in December 2002. This review will add my (and some of my wife's) impressions of this cruise and will provide what we hope are useful hints for pre-cruise, ports of call, and post-cruise arrangements for the budget-minded traveler.

Because this is an extensive review, we will highlight each section with a KEY PHRASE, so that the reader can scan down to specific areas of interest. Please be aware that the world of travel is constantly changing, so that some of the content of this review may have outdated since it was written. My apologies for any resulting inconvenience.

THE BOTTOM LINE is that this was a very enjoyable cruise on a beautiful new ship at a price that was an astoundingly GOOD VALUE. We would recommend it for anyone who enjoys the relaxation and luxury of shipboard life with occasional mainstream (sometimes crowded) ports of call.

PRO'S: Numerous balcony cabins at reasonable prices; improved cuisine, now second to none; first-rate musicians and production shows; the kindest dining and cabin stewards anywhere; the best powder-sand beach in the Caribbean (Half Moon Cay).

CON'S: An itinerary crowded with other cruise ships and passengers (St. Martin, St. Thomas, Nassau); unnecessarily high prices for internet access, photographs, and liquor; lack of self-service laundry; lack of bathrobes in most cabins.

HOLLAND AMERICA has a reputation for attracting older cruisers, and we found that most passengers on our cruise were in their 60's or 70's. One might think that this cruise would be a turn-off for younger couples and families with children, but one gentleman told me that his children were enjoying this cruise and Club HAL (the children's program) much more than their previous cruise on the Disney Magic. His children felt special on HAL, but were just part of the overwhelming crowd of (sometimes unruly and unhappy) children on Disney.

My guess is that HAL attracts an older crowd because in years past they did little discounting until too late, selling leftover cabins at the last minute to Florida retirees. (Floridians apparently get price concessions from cruise lines). On my first HAL cruise a few years ago I was unhappy to learn that we had paid $1,000 more for our inside cabin than two of our tablemates had paid for their inside cabin, and $200 more than two other tablemates had paid for their outside cabin. It was a while before I was willing to trust HAL again, but those days are now past.

Fortunately, HAL is now using capacity-controlled pricing much the same as other cruise lines (and airlines) are, resulting in some great bargains, especially during the shoulder season before Christmas. Price shopping using internet cruise sites (there are several good cruise-bargain newsletters) or a large-volume cruise agency (more about this later) is very worthwhile.

THE ZUIDERDAM is at the large end of medium-sized cruise ship spectrum, at 82,000 gross tons. She carries 1,800 passengers with almost one crewmember for each pair of passengers. As a Vista class ship, she is very similar to the Millennium class ships of Celebrity Cruises –- the hull is wide and somewhat boxy (just narrow enough to squeeze through the Panama Canal), but the superstructure is narrower and tall enough to provide a relative abundance of balcony cabins.

MODERN CRUISE SHIPS seem to be categorized into small (20-50,000 tons), medium (60-90,000 tons), and mega (100-150,000 tons). The small ships tend to be either old, with wonderfully exotic itineraries (but idiosyncrasies such as occasional tiny cabins or port holes) or ultra-luxurious (with amenities and prices to match). The mega ships tend to be moving cities with an emphasis on large shopping malls, exotic activities (do you really want to go cruising to ice skate or rock climb?), and of course large masses of people. As you can guess, the mid-sized ships are our favorite, especially the newer ones like the Zuiderdam.

Much has been written about the INTERIOR DECORATION of the Zuiderdam. It is a departure to see combinations of red, orange, purple, and turquoise on a HAL ship (HAL is known for a more conservative, nautical style), but it is all top quality and surprisingly attractive. There are quite a few small, uniquely decorated public areas, most non-smoking, so it is easy to find a quiet retreat day or night. There is not as much emphasis on artwork as on some other HAL ships, but there is something for every taste from museum-quality serious to Las Vegas whimsical. Fresh flowers are a hallmark of HAL ships, but they seemed less grand than on previous cruises. Still, most public areas had a nice arrangement or two of exotic blooms tucked away here and there.

Surprisingly, the public area CHAIRS provided some of the most unique art experiences on the ship. These chairs were uniformly very heavy, very expensive, and interesting to look at, but almost always less than completely comfortable (poor low back support). Still, the chairs (and all of the décor) have great entertainment value if you keep your eyes open. Unfortunately there was no art and architecture tour of the ship – it would make a good option during a day at sea.

THE CABINS are pleasantly decorated with warm colors and easy-to-appreciate lithographs. Even the inside cabins are a reasonable size, so no one will suffer the surprise we had a few years ago on another (highly regarded but old) cruise ship when we found our cabin had two bunk beds, one desk, and an ottoman squeezed into a less than 7 by 9 foot space (the renovated bathroom added another 4 by 6 feet).

The Zuiderdam's numerous BALCONIES vary in size. Ours was a category BB (the least expensive) on deck 5 amidships, and it was quite shallow (room for two chairs and an ottoman but no table to enjoy breakfast al fresco) because of the adjacent lifeboat hardware. In this category the lifeboats block the view downward to the water (but not outward to the horizon), so you may want to avoid this category if that is important to you. My wife loves the privacy and fresh air of a balcony, and this ship is one where balcony pricing is quite reasonable.

Our cabin was provided with a mini-refrigerator, television (with the usual movies, cable news, weather cams, and music channels, but surprisingly no classical music, just pop), a mini-safe, and more than adequate closet space (but only a dozen coat hangers and open shelves rather than drawers in the closet). Bring a few extra plastic hangers with you (more about this later). If you cannot find that extra blanket, try looking inside that ottoman under the vanity.

Inside the door of each cabin is a small slot to hold the do-not-disturb sign. This makes a great place to leave your key-card whenever you return to your cabin. Searching pockets for missing cards can be a thing of the past.

Balcony cabins (and I believe most outside cabins) have the luxury of a bathtub rather than a shower, but do not expect a plush terry bathrobe to wear after your hot bath. Bathrobes are now only supplied to the highest category cabins (suites). Personally I think this is a false economy that will have negative returns. Cruise lines are beginning to offer two standards of service, sometimes with designations such as "concierge class". Only the future will tell if snobbism sells. Fortunately, most of the upgraded amenities offered on the Zuiderdam are available to all. Nothing in our past cruises was a greater turn-off than the three-class system we encountered on the QE2. We thought class distinctions went down with the Titanic, but apparently they will live on with the QM2.

One thing you definitely will not find on HAL's new Vista class ships is a LAUNDERETTE or ironing board –- they still exist on older HAL ships, but on the Zuiderdam (and its newer sister-ship the Oosterdam, which sailed alongside us on our final day) you either wash clothes in your sink or you pay very high prices ($12 per small bag) to have the crew do it for you. A clothes-pressing package deal is also available. Again, we think eliminating self-service launderettes will backfire and will alienate mainstream passengers.

One thing you may not find easily is a RESTROOM in each public area. Actually there are more restrooms than one thinks, they are just discreetly hidden. If you need a restroom, look up as you search, since most have lighted ceiling signs in the adjacent hallway. However, some areas truly have no convenient restroom –- men dining on the upper level of the main dining room will have to go up or down one deck to find the nearest restroom.

Besides the extra balconies of the Zuiderdam, the greatest improvement since our previous HAL cruises was in the DINING ROOM. The food served in the main dining room is better than ever in variety, presentation, and flavor. Mealtime became an entertaining experience on this cruise. In years past, Celebrity Cruise Lines seemed to set the standard in dining, but based on our experience on this cruise, HAL has risen to meet the challenge.

The main dining room is on two levels with a central atrium rather than horseshoe-shaped balcony. This decreases the conversation noise, but previous reports of engine noise and vibration in the stern portion of the lower level are too true. The daytime views from this area are fantastic,

and hopefully when the ship returns from dry dock in early December 2003, this problem will have been solved.

The main dining room is an elegant dark red, with unusual-looking but surprisingly comfortable chairs, upgraded china, and a relative abundance of well-situated tables for two. The linens are now white (rather than gold), making it a more formal experience. The dining room staff is Indonesian and is as skillful as ever. Music is provided by the always-enjoyable Rosario trio, who thankfully seem to be present in some incarnation on every HAL cruise.

The FOOD throughout the ship is uniformly top notch, which is quite an accomplishment considering the wide variety of dining venues and cuisine styles. The BUFFET line has been divided into multiple areas, each with a specific theme or purpose. This is diagramed on maps provided with the deck plans at the beginning of the cruise. This increases the variety of food stations and decreases the length of lines, although some cruisers who are used to the standard single cafeteria line approach seemed to have difficulty adapting to the flexible layout. Dining is available at almost any hour -- we especially enjoyed the fantastic pastries in the mid-afternoon and had pizza with cocktails on our balcony in the evening. (As an alternative, complimentary hors d'oeuvres are now served with evening drinks in the lounges). The poolside grill and Mexican buffet were also enjoyable diversions.

ALTERNATIVE DINING (at a surcharge of $20 per person) is provided by the Odyssey Restaurant (AKA Pinnacle Grill) adjacent to the central atrium. We ate there once and found the steak and rack of lamb better prepared than any we had eaten before (and we come from a state that produces both). When I asked the chef later in the cruise how he made the wonderful and intensely flavored sun-dried tomato and beef stock reduction that came with my steak, I learned that the process required two days of slow cooking with multiple herbs. It was a reminder (as is the entertaining galley tour) of how much work goes into the food preparation. The Odyssey never seemed to be full, and obtaining reservations was no problem. I think that the main dining room is so good that the Odyssey has stiff competition.

The wines (and drinks in general throughout the ship) are expensive (by our standards). If you are a heavy drinker of sodas, consider buying a soda card at the beginning of the cruise – it will probably save you money and is good any time throughout the ship.

The CREW throughout the ship was topnotch, as on previous HAL cruises. The officers are Dutch. We have always been impressed by their attention to details, especially safety, having watched them life raft-drill the crew on a previous cruise. The boat drill at the beginning of the cruise is taken very seriously. Too bad some cruisers always seem to chatter during this most important ten minutes of the cruise.

The remainder of the crew is largely Indonesian and Filipino. It is this crew which makes HAL stand out among the cruise lines we have experienced. We have found no gentler, kinder, more thoughtful stewards than these. On this cruise it seemed that the proportion of Indonesians has decreased relative to Filipinos, perhaps because of recent American xenophobia towards Muslim nations. I feel so sorry that these Indonesians may be the victims of ethnic profiling, making U.S. visas and work permits more difficult for some nationalities to obtain. They have always welcomed us on our travels to Bali and Java, and I hope that we can do the same for them.

ENTERTAINMENT also has improved since our previous HAL cruises. To be honest, we do not often attend Broadway or Las Vegas style musical productions, but the ones we saw on this cruise were top quality. The main theater has a dozen pillars which obstruct the view from some seats, so go a bit early to get a prime sight line. All of the singers had great voices and the dancers had excellent choreography and impressive costumes. The only fault I could find was the excessive amplification –- one could feel the music in one's gut, it was sometimes so loud. That has been the case on almost every previous cruise ship, so now I simply bring along a pair of ear plugs -– they bring the volume down to an ideal (for me) level.

The MUSICIANS elsewhere on the ship were also the best we have heard on any cruise. The Crossover Band played classic dance numbers perfectly, and their singer was stylish and always in tune –- she sounded like a recording in the best sense of that word. The piano trio in the Ocean lounge improvised with great skill and good humor. The evening musical scene in general was an embarrassment of riches.

The one thing that was lacking in the way of entertainment was a series of EDUCATIONAL PROGRAMS or ENRICHMENT LECTURES (there was a single interesting talk on digital photography for beginners). Some of the high-end cruise lines are adding these options, and I hope HAL and other cruise lines follow their lead. In the meantime, the LIBRARY is well stocked with recent books –- it was no problem to find several that I had always intended to read when I got the time (but ended up only reading two on this cruise, since there were so many other things to do).

The INTERNET room is beautifully appointed with the latest in flat screen monitors and reasonably rapid response times. The prices, however, are unnecessarily high ($3.75 just to open an account and $.75 per minute thereafter). This may be the reason that I never saw anyone but the technical assistant in the room any time I visited it. There are internet package deals, but no great concessions like those on Princess cruise ships, for example, which allow unlimited free internet use to its regular (more than 5 cruises) clients.

The GYM and SPA were well equipped. The layout is unusual. The saunas are across the ship and down the corridor from the changing rooms, and as a result were rarely used. Unfortunately the sauna area can be locked from the inside and may not be available if someone wants to monopolize it.

The indoor and outdoor SWIMMING POOLS were filled with frigid water –- great if the weather is sunny, but little used on our blustery cruise. Unfortunately both pool decks are smoking areas (no port and starboard separation of smokers and non-smokers). This could be a problem if you want to take your buffet meal to one of the outdoor tables near the pools.

The onboard SHOPS had a good mixture of logo souvenirs and convenience items. Sale prices seemed fictitious, but were not exorbitant.

The CASINO was terra incognita to both my wife and myself. I once cruised with a friend whose casino tab ended up greater than the cost of the cruise itself. Perhaps we should be grateful that casino losers subsidize the rest of us cruisers.

The CRUISE ITINERARY begins with a short day on HAL's private island, HALF MOON CAY. This is a beach paradise that can get crowded near the tender dock but always has footprint free sand at the far end of the beach. We prefer to skip the beach picnic and take a mid-day break from the sun by having lunch in the main dining room, returning to the beach for an afternoon swim. The first passenger tender leaves about an hour after anchoring, because the early tenders are taken up by crew transporting food and beach gear. Avoid the last return tender if you can, because stragglers can delay it, and you make have to wait for a while.

After a day at sea, there is a half-day at Phillipsburg, ST. MARTIN. One can walk 15 minutes into town along a new sidewalk or take a short $3 taxi ride. There is a new man-made beach along the waterfront, but non-shoppers usually opt for Grand Cas or Orient Beach (both topless) on the French side of the island. The $2.50 public mini-bus ride to Grand Cas (via a change of buses in the French side capital of Marigot) takes 1-2 hours each way depending on traffic (St. Martin is subject to gridlock just like St. Thomas). Minibuses leave from westbound Back Street, just flag one down. Grand Cas is not a great beach (there are buildings along its entire length) but the ride there is fun for the adventuresome, and it has some nice views. Tour buses cover the same route with greater comfort and speed. Orient Beach is not reachable by public transport other than taxi.

The next port is a full day at Charlotte Amalie, ST. THOMAS. This shoppers' orgy is a major turn-off for me (and thankfully for my wife too). We have been to the USVI nearly a dozen times by air and by sea, and Charlotte is always the low point. Magens Bay on the north side is a reasonable taxi ride and entry fee away. It is a beautiful beach, the far west end of which is not too crowded. If we are docked at Havensight, we sometimes take a short taxi ride to the Frenchman's Bay beach of the Marriott Hotel. It is a small beach, but safe and usually uncrowded. If we really want to get away, we visit friends on nearby Water Island.

On this cruise, the Zuiderdam anchored and tendered passengers to the center of the Charlotte waterfront, very near the St. John's ferry (tempting, but there really is not enough time to go there and get back for the last tender). What time was lost by tendering was made up by the convenience of not needing a taxi from the Havensight pier into town. Passport clearance at St. Thomas begins onboard around 0645 for the lower deck cabins and ends around 0815 for the upper deck cabins. The first tenders leave soon thereafter.

After another day at sea, the final port of call is NASSAU, on Providence Island in the Bahamas. This is another shoppers' orgy, which we usually avoid. We either take a taxi to Cabbage Beach on Paradise Island (for about $5 per person), or we take a public bus for $1, east along the waterfront to the base of the old (southbound) bridge. It is a 10-minute walk over the bridge to Paradise Island (the north end of the bridge is adjacent to the ferry dock). Once on the island, we walk another 10 minutes toward the Sheraton hotel (straight ahead). Public beach access is just to the right of the hotel. There are no restrooms on the beach, but chair, umbrella, parasail, and wave-runner rentals are readily available. We usually walk another 10 minutes east along the beach to avoid any crowds from the nearby Atlantis Hotel complex (which is an interesting sight in itself if you have the time).

That sums up our impressions of the cruise. What follows is a series of SUGGESTIONS ABOUT PRE-CRUISE, PORTS OF CALL, AND POST-CRUISE ARRANGEMENTS (and cruising in general) aimed at the budget-conscious traveler. These ideas have worked for us, but feel free not to follow them if they are not your style.

AIR TRAVEL to the cruise port can be problematic in the winter. We have found that making our own reservations is less expensive than booking through the cruise lines, but one loses the cruise line protection if there is a delay or cancellation. We fly into Fort Lauderdale (FLL) the day before the cruise, and usually plan a return flight in the afternoon of the last cruise day, to allow for disembarkation and airport delays.

TAXIS from the cruise port to the FLL airport are about $10 plus tip, making this less expensive (and faster) than the cruise transfers. Except for some previous cruises when we were last off the ship, we have never had to wait for a taxi. On this cruise, HAL kindly put us in the first group (disembarking about 8:30 am) since we had an early return flight. The bonus is that airport security lines are shorter early in the day, before most cruise passengers get there. Again, if possible book your return flight for noon or later to be certain you arrive in time (once after a previous cruise we did not clear airport security until 1 pm even without checked bags, the airport lines were so long, but that seems to have improved recently). If you arrive at FLL early and have no checked bags, you can always standby for an earlier flight.

In Ft. Lauderdale we usually stay at one of the several chain HOTELS on 17th Street, which are only minutes away from the airport and cruise port. Most of these hotels provide free shuttle service to and from the airport and cruise port. Nice rooms should be available for less than $100 by using any of the internet discount booking engines or sometimes by booking through the hotels directly. If hotel prices are too high, we rent a car for 24 hours and drive to a motel a few miles from the port (check your AAA guide for options). The price difference more than pays for the car rental, and shoppers can use the car for a visit to Sawgrass Mills Outlet Mall, one of the largest in the country, located about 30 minutes west of town (they have great, relatively inexpensive men's and women's formal wear shops if you need some additional elegance).

Amerisuites, Embassy Suites, Marriott, and Holiday Inn all have properties on 17th Street. There is a large Publix grocery and liquor store within walking distance for any last minute purchases, and there are many restaurants and food outlets nearby. There are even a few upscale clothing stores catering to the yachters in the nearby marinas. The water taxi-tour boat stops (hourly on weekdays, half-hourly on week-ends) at the Marriott marina, which is within walking distance of most other 17th Street hotels. In good weather the water taxi is a great, inexpensive ($5 for the entire day) way to see some very fancy homes and boats, and one can hop on and hop off at any of the numerous stops to see Ft. Lauderdale's sights.

LUGGAGE is often a problem when cruising because most people pack far too much. This suggestion is not for everyone, but my wife and I each travel with only a regulation-size (21x13x8 inch) airline carry-on, even when going around the world or on cruises. A micro fiber black suit, one dress shirt, two casual shirts, two slacks, two shorts, and two T-shirts with three sets of underwear do fine for me. Add a Gore-Tex rain jacket, swim trunks, a pair of Teva-style sandals, a daypack, a wash-kit, and a light sweater, and I am ready for anything. My wife substitutes a micro fiber black dress with fancy jacket and jewelry, plus additional items analogous to my own, and she is ready too.

TRAVELING LIGHT is the greatest skill we have learned in our years of travel. To be honest, most cruisers are so concerned about their own appearance that they do not care what you are wearing anyway. One of our favorite evening activities on formal nights is to sit near the photographers' stations and watch the fashion parade. If you are a compulsive shopper and short on luggage space, pack a duffel bag for the return home.

LAUNDRY can be a problem, especially on ships like the Zuiderdam which offer no self-service launderette. We have found that one can hand-wash almost anything (no jeans please), roll it in a dry bath towel for several minutes, and then hang it (it does not drip) from the air conditioning vents overnight and it will be ready to wear the next morning (gauche, but no one, not even your cabin steward or hotel chambermaid, need know). We carry two or three plastic hangers for just this purpose, and use paper clips as adapters if the hangers are too thick. Never, never, never hang anything from the sprinkler heads in your cabin or hotel room.

EMBARKATION in the FLL cruise port is very efficient. The lines may be long, but they move quickly. One can be on the ship by late morning and enjoy lunch at the buffet while the cabins are being cleaned (cabins are usually available by 1pm). DISEMBARKATION is equally simple. HAL is now generous enough to allow passengers to wait in their cabins until their disembarkation group is called. On this cruise, HAL kindly put us in the first group (disembarking about 8:30 am) since we had an early return flight. With no suitcases to claim, we just walked right through US customs to the head of the taxi line and were at the airport in less than 15 minutes.

ROUGH WEATHER is always a possibility, although it is rare after the summer/fall hurricane season. New cruise ships have such a relatively high profile and shallow draft (about 25 feet) that they tend to list or rock in high winds. Take some meclizine tablets or scopolamine patches if you are a fair weather sailor. I hate the hung-over feeling I get from either, and have found that my wife's over-the-counter anti-reflux medication works like a charm for me, with no side effects.

WHINY CRUISERS are the greatest disappointment on the seas. Some people just seem to enjoy being unhappy about not being royalty. The crew is amazingly patient with these folks – the crew deserves our admiration dealing with trivial complaints when their own families at home may be lucky to have basic food and shelter. Don't get caught up in whiny cruisers' games and don't be impressed by their princess-and-the pea attitudes. Just walk away and be glad they are not your neighbors (if they are at your table, ask the maitre d' to relocate you).

GLUTTONOUS CRUISERS are the second greatest disappointment. It is sad to see the excessive consumption and waste of food on every cruise, especially when the culprits are sometimes morbidly obese. Don't get caught in the same cycle. The main dining room offers a portion-controlled refuge if your self-control weakens. I must admit HAL's dense-and-chewy raisin bread, fresh-squeezed orange juice (not out of the dispenser, but on the nearby shelves), and wafer-thin-crisp-as-can-be-bacon made me think each morning that I had died and gone to heaven, but I was careful to enjoy smaller portions during the rest of the day.

SMOKERS deserve our sympathy because very few drugs are as highly addictive as nicotine. That being said, I was glad to be protected from smoke in the dining room and most public areas. Unfortunately, the open decks and enclosed pool area are open to smokers without the usual portside smoking/starboard side no-smoking split. Mea culpa, I apologize to the kindly gentleman who wanted to join me for breakfast on deck. When I learned he was a smoker, I suggested I would meet with him later in the day but needed a non-smoking table to eat. I still feel guilty about being so blunt, but after years of seeing people die of cancer, heart disease, stroke, and other smoking-related illnesses, I have become more an anti-smoker than non-smoker.

SECURITY has never been a problem for us on HAL, but we did once have a bag and cashmere sweater stolen on another (highly regarded) cruise line. On the same cruise line a fellow passenger's passport was stolen from a shelf in her cabin. She and her infant daughter spent three extra days in London getting a new one. Another passenger's (one of that cruise line's gentleman hosts) wallet was stolen from his bedside table. The moral is keep your passport and all other valuables in your room safe all of the time. Take your driver's license ashore for those ports which require a photo id (most say they do, but we rarely needed more than our cruise key card for identification).

HEALTH CONCERNS have gotten a lot of press recently, ever since the Norwalk virus and other nasty critters started cruising. Most disease outbreaks are due to fomites (commonly touched items such as door-knobs, buffet serving tongs, friendly handshakes especially in reception lines) rather than aerosols (sneezes, air-conditioning). Few people wash their hands immediately before eating on cruises, but restrooms are almost always nearby. This is especially important when in self-service buffets. The risk of illness from touching one person is minimal compared with the risk of serving tongs that may have been touched by hundreds before you.

HAL has been very conscientious in having most food served by crew wearing disposable gloves and by keeping silverware individually wrapped at the tables rather than in the usual self-serve racks, but communal serving tongs will never be completely eliminated on any cruise ship. Similarly, HAL serves cocktail nuts in narrow neck flasks and has "Yum-yum Guys" dispense after-dinner mints so that no one's hands dip into communal serving dishes. They also provide mini-towels to dry hands and open the restroom door when finished (just toss it back into the used towel hamper as you exit).

If you think about it, the close quarters of cruise ships increase the risk of disease spread, but countering this is the fact that scant public hardware (door knobs, railings, elevator buttons, etc.) are as thoroughly cleaned as on cruise ships. If hand washing is too much bother, at least buy and use a bottle of the alcohol-based disinfectant hand gels which are now widely available for travelers. You, and your fellow passengers, will be glad you did.

TIPPING is always problematic on HAL cruises, since they currently have a tipping-not-required policy. Personally, I think this policy is unfair to the cruise staff and confusing for the cruise passengers. I hear that HAL may change this policy and conform with other cruise lines, on which tipping is not mandatory but is expected, and tipping guidelines are freely given. A few cruise lines automatically charge standard tips (about $10 to $15 per passenger per day) to shipboard accounts. I think this is acceptable only if clearly stated before the cruise is booked, and should be reversible if the passenger prefers to tip directly. Ship crews work so hard and depend so much on tips that spending money on bingo, casino games, liquor, souvenirs, or whatever and then stiffing the crew is inexcusable.

Finally, the subject every reviewer seems to avoid – CRUISE PRICES. During the pre-Christmas lull, cruise prices can be the greatest bargain in travel. Through the kind services of Pat Webb (whose Galaxsea agency is one of the largest and who has a useful e-mail newsletter of cruise bargains), we were able to obtain a balcony cabin on this cruise for less than $700 per person for the week, including port charges, taxes, and a shipboard credit. An inside cabin would have been proportionally less.

Who could ask for a better, more enjoyable travel value?

Happy cruising!

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