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Cruises: Troubled Waters

Why Passenger Safety & Security Must Improve

If you plan to hit the high seas for vacation, you’ll find bigger boats, higher prices and more amenities than there were just a few years ago. But you still have to watch out for troubled waters, because the cruise industry continues to fight attempts by lawmakers and industry critics to reduce the amount of crime, pollution and other problems that consumers might encounter on cruises.

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Much of what you need to know about taking a cruise vacation these days was reflected less than a year ago in divergent developments that involved two ships. In December 2010, the world’s largest cruise ship launched from Florida, and the 2,700-room floating city became the latest example of how cruise lines are trying to entice vacationers with lavish experiences that also squeeze more money out of their wallet. A month earlier, a fire on a separate cruise ship off the coast of San Diego left passengers and crew without hot food, hot showers or air conditioning for days until tugboats dragged the crippled ship to port. That ill-fated voyage provided the latest cautionary tale for an industry that fights against federal regulations that are designed to protect the health and safety of travelers.

In other words, once you get beyond the postcard-perfect images of happy families cavorting in shipboard pools or enjoying stops at exotic ports of call, going on a cruise ship these days isn’t necessarily smooth sailing. The cost of traveling on most cruises has increased by at least 25 percent since 2 years ago, when rock-bottom prices were easy to get. In fact, now a week of the most exclusive accommodations on one of the largest ships can cost you as much as a year of college tuition. At the same time, the sophisticated multinational corporations that are behind the $35 billion-a-year cruise industry have done little to alleviate the safety fears of some passengers. For instance, the cruise industry spent millions of dollars over the past 2 years to lobby against new rules that will take effect in January 2012 and are designed to monitor and reduce crimes against U.S. travelers on cruise ships.

So before you wave bon voyage, you’ll need to scrutinize the sea change of developments that’s happening with cruises in 2011 and in the years ahead.

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PRICE POINTS. It isn’t that cruise prices have skyrocketed as much as they have climbed back to the levels where they were before the recession. It’s clear that the steep discounts that existed in 2009 (because many cruise lines struggled to fill their ships) have disappeared. For instance, a 3-day Bahamas cruise cost as little as $25 (including meals) per person per day in 2009, whereas in 2011 any cruise that costs less than $100 per day is considered a bargain, says Carolyn Spencer Brown, who is editor-in-chief of the travel website CruiseCritic.com. These price hikes apply to all cruise destinations, so you won’t necessarily find exceptions that are based on where you travel. For example, when we noted in our May/June 2009 issue the exceptional values that Alaskan cruises represented, we found 7-night deals that were as low as $549 per person. Today, you can expect to pay at least $700 for a similar package.

Although the price hikes are bad news for consumers, it isn’t really surprising news either, cruise-industry experts say. In an interview with Consumers Digest, Norwegian Cruise Line CEO Kevin Sheehan says the cost increase is related partially to increased fuel costs, which means that it costs more to power the ship and buy food for the passengers. Of course, all of those added costs get passed on to consumers. In addition, because cruise ships once again are sailing at 100 percent occupancy, cruise lines can charge more, simply because there’s more demand for their services. And cruise ships will continue to sail full of passengers for the next few years, Sheehan predicts, which means that the only direction that prices will go is up, although no one predicts how high.

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