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Q&A with CruiseCritic.com's Carolyn Spencer Brown

Friday, January 15, 2010; 2:28 PM

Adapted from a recent online discussion:

Carolyn Spencer Brown of CruiseCritic.com was onboard to answer your cruise questions.

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Q. I'm getting dragged, kicking and screaming, on a cruise to the west coast of Mexico in January. I am not particularly social, so don't really care to introduce myself to my tablemates and find all the "cheesy fun" really off-putting. I'm more likely to rob a bank than line dance. Oh, and I'm very afraid I am going to be seasick for the entire 7 days. Is there any hope for me?

Friendship Heights

A. Hate the traditional cruise "set dining, set tablemates" scenario, have hated from the very first day, 11 years ago, when I took my first-ever cruise to write about it for the Post! The good news is that today most lines have made great strides in offering alternatives, so don't let that keep you away.

I get seasick, or at least mildly queasy, probably on three cruises out of 10. A lot depends on where you stay (cabins in the middle and bottom of ship much better than higher up), where you cruise (avoid the Bay of Biscay and North Sea at all costs) and what kind of potion you take (once I pop a Bonine, I'm pretty much set, though ginger, Dramamine and sea bands are helpful). Seasickness is no reason to stay home.

Also, remember that there's a whole other world in expedition cruising. Not so much about the ship -- but about experiences in places like the Galapagos or Antarctica that you can't otherwise have.

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Cruise ships often go to ports with great nightlife, Key West, Cabo, etc., why don't ships OVERNIGHT at these ports?

Raleigh-Durham, N.C.

In a nutshell, cruise lines say all the right stuff about overnighting in really great ports of call, but the truth is they want you to be onboard. Late night partying -- casinos, cocktails, shopping -- is a huge revenue generator. Also, it costs cruise lines more to overnight in ports than it does to head out to sea, so there are definitely economic reasons for this.

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I know this might seem like a minor question, but my choice of a 14-17 day cruise depends on the answer:

Can anyone who's done it tell if it's worth visiting the Copper Canyon off a cruise ship docking in Topolobompo? I just got off a (different) cruise where I had a meal with a couple who had done it, and they said it was very disappointing and not worth it. In summary: $400 as a shore excursion; 7 hours by bus each way; central activity was one hour looking over a balcony edge.

This is important, because I'm planning a Panama Canal cruise of 14-17 days, and need to know if such an excursion is worth choosing an itinerary around.

Laurel, Md.

It's a long trip, the Copper Canyon add-on, to be sure. I think if you have the energy and enthusiasm, you should do it. It's a part of Mexico that, as I understand it, is just special and magnificent. Panama Canal, aside from the canal and some jungle expeditions, not so much to do.

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Do you have tips or pointers about small-ship cruises in Alaska? My parents would like to take a family trip next summer -- late May to early August, as my sister is a teacher. My Mom would also like to go into Denali Park. Total trip would probably be 10-14 days. Where to start? We're in the research stage at this point.

Hong Kong

Frankly, if my budget's in good shape, there's no better way to do Alaska than to cruise on a small ship. You see so much more and are surrounded by so much less (er, masses of people, etc.). I'd encourage you to check into Cruise West; it's an American-owned cruise line that offers close-up, small ship trips. It's a bit pricier than big ships (less efficiency of scale) and the ships aren't flashy or splashy, but you'll get more than you pay for.

If you're really splurging, try American Safari. Totally immersive, even smaller ships with a hint of luxe.

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I was amused the other day to receive a Royal Caribbean flyer that said it's cheaper to take a European cruise than a hostel trip! I was like, wow, a cruise line comparing itself to hostels!

I haven't seen that ad, very curious. But it's kind of a sign of the times -- that cruising is cheaper than HOSTELS, LOL. Message there is -- deals are fantastic but they won't last forever.

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On my first cruise I learned that the lines' marketing plan is based on the captive audience concept -- offer the lowest realistic based price possible and then get add-ons.

I already shop for independent shore excursions before booking the ships'. What are the other top money-saving tips one can get?

This is a great question. There are tons of ways to save money. Starting off with booking your own on-shore outings is perfect (though I'd be careful with planning anything too complicated). Some other quick thoughts: You can't bring liquor onboard most lines these days but you can buy packages, so if you drink it at least saves some money (same applies for water and soda). If you like to stay in touch while on vacation, try for Internet cafes in ports rather than the ones on ships -- pricey pricey pricey! If you have to use it, then see if you can get a package.

Finally, one thing I've noticed lately is the spas are finally unbending to offer discounts beyond the usual. Used to be that maybe you got a deal on a port day, say 10 percent. But now I'm seeing deals on sea days, and for expensive treatments.

Also, if you do go to the spa and you get the dreaded product pitch at the end of your treatment, JUST SAY NO.

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Cruise lines offer merchandise for sale with the come-on about advantages like no duties. Since I'm a regular purchaser of alcoholic beverages, I can and do purchase them at good prices on board.

But, is there any economic advantage to other on-board (or in-port) merchandise, like watches, perfume or art? Or do lines just sell these because of their high value-to-bulk ratio?

You know, I have to say -- NO. There's no real advantage (the liquor is a decent deal but only if you're home-porting it and can load the stuff into your car at cruise's end).

I was on Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas in April in the Caribbean and did a price test where I compared a brand of watch and a brand of lipstick sold onboard, ostensibly in duty free, and in port (St. Maarten,) and also at the airport. The cruise ship was shockingly more expensive, significantly so with the watch, which was much pricier than a lipstick.

Royal Caribbean has this rule that says "if you can prove you got a better price on-land, bring us proof and we'll match it" which is completely unrealistic. Can you imagine hordes of cruise passengers getting off the ship in St. Thomas or St. Maarten and asking shop keepers for prices so they can go back and get the same deal on the ship?

And as for art auctions, lots of pros and cons but I'd say stay away. Interestingly, Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas is the first new ship (mass market) since I've been covering cruising to say it's eliminating the art auction.

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We are interested in taking a cruise either out of Baltimore or Florida, probably 8 nights or less, and would like to find an option that includes some extended time in a good port of call where we can stay out late, enjoy dinner, maybe some nightlife. Are there any such cruises where the time in port allows that? e.g. so that you don't have to be back on the ship until late, say midnight, or early the next morning for a morning departure from the port?

Washington, D.C.

Pretty much the only option you have is to cruise to Bermuda from Baltimore on an itinerary that stays there for two, three nights. There are usually options, too, from Norfolk.

Bermuda was the first cruise I ever did. From New York. Celebrity Zenith (no longer Celebrity Zenith). We went to Bermuda, were there for one day (cruise was in September), a hurricane blew up, we had to leave! Exciting but fun.

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Fantasy cruise: I'd like to cruise around the tip of South America. It just sounds so out of the way and exotic to me. And the cruise must end in Rio at Carnival, with two of those dancers in headdress waiting to escort me to the parade!

Central California

South America is an amazing place to cruise. I can't understand why it's not, er, hotter than it is! You've got the fab metro spots of Buenos Aires and Rio, the lovely desert-like small towns, the penguin-watching, Ushuaia, which is like Switzerland-by-the-sea, the Falklands, which are a bit of Brit, and best of all, the Chilean fjords which are so remote feeling they make Alaska's look like a Manhattan canyon.

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I'm curious to know Carolyn's opinion on how a large ship like [Royal Caribbean International's Oasis of the Seas] will impact the ports of call she will visit when 5,000 passengers get off this one ship.

Cleveland, Ohio

I've seen [Oasis] now twice in its shipyard in Turku, Finland, and what surprised the most both times (surprised twice because the first time I saw it, it literally was a construction project; the August visit, it felt more like a ship) was how cozy it felt. It didn't feel massive, oddly. The neighborhood concept, from this vantage point really made sense. Another interesting thing about the ship that made it feel less claustrophobic to me was that public room ceilings are higher than the average.

And there's so much more outdoor space on this ship. One of the things that cruise ship designers tend to miss on is the fact that you're out at sea and there's only a sundeck for outdoor space, maybe one restaurant. On Oasis, you can be outside in multiple venues.

My husband, who's a also a cruise journalist, is a serious "big ship lover" and I'm really partial to smaller vessels. But we're doing Oasis on our own vacation and I'm actually excited about it. The ship's got so much going on that I'll bet a fair amount of folks won't even get off. The max Oasis can accommodate is 6,400 or so -- wow! -- but the cruise line has been very careful to choose initial ports that can handle the crowds, like for instance, Jamaica, which has enough stuff for people to spread out all over the island.

The other thing that I learned in August when I was at the shipyard was that Royal Caribbean has developed new technology to deal with anticipated crowds. One of the biggest bottlenecks when you're in port, for instance, is getting back on the ship. You have to queue up to get your key card swiped and also to get your bags, airport-like, through security. If you're unlucky enough to get back just as 34 tour buses have rolled in, you're in trouble. But RCI is creating facilities in port where people can "check back in" from multiple, rather than one or two, stations, so that should facilitate. They're redesigning port terminals so they can do this on-shore, rather than onboard.

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My husband, two kids and I are going on our first cruise from San Diego on Holland America ... with three stops in Mexico (Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta and Cabo). Any suggestions for saving money by booking our own excursions? I speak Spanish, so can easily bargain with any providers, but wonder about issues like making it back to the ship on time? Also, what kind of savings could I expect over going with the cruise ship offerings (which seem extremely expensive to me, because I know what things in Mexico generally cost)?

Takoma Park, Md.

In those ports, which are really cruise-central, you can easily find independent operators who will offer the same experience at about a one-third or more discount. You might also look at websites like ours -- or others -- where people talk about their trips. It's a great way to join up with other families or couples or whoever and tour on land together.

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Not to make anyone nervous, but I've always wondered how the Titanic would have measured against the modern behemoths. I've only been on one cruise (not my cup of tea) but Titanic did cross my mind that week, staring off in the night on the top deck. Wondering how big it was compared to the Royal Caribbean ship we were on.

There are plenty of smaller ships to try if ginormous isn't your thing. I'd take a look at Oceania, Azamara, and some others.

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Cruises are for senior citizens... and their parents. I've never been on one, but my parents (with their limited mobility) enjoyed several. I've witnessed the frenzy of souvenir hawking in Puerto Vallarta, Roatan, and Playa del Carmen when the big boats call. And those neon wristband IDs! No thanks!

Chicago

Ok, I hear you about cruises being for seniors -- and that's certainly the case on lines that skew to older travelers (we'll all be there someday), but I'm wondering: If you haven't been on a cruise, how can you possibly know for sure?

There are definitely lines I'd recommend more for younger folk -- Royal Caribbean, Ocean Village, NCL, Carnival -- than for older ones.

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What, exactly, count as international waters? I took a cruise out of Baltimore last year and two hours out of port, they opened the casino and duty-free shops; even though you could look outside and clearly see we were still in Chesapeake Bay.

Great post. Baltimore has a special deal with the rules. Once the ships pass under -- oh, heck, I think it's the (Chesapeake) Bay Bridge, could be the earlier one -- ships are allowed to open casinos. That's what has helped propel the port to its growth status. Otherwise, the 8 hours required to trawl down the Chesapeake was a downer for casino and duty free fans.

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A couple of cruise questions: I'm probably going on a cruise in February. I'm pretty claustrophobic, and I bet that our cabin will be pretty small. How can I mitigate this for the trip?

Also, I have a completely irrational fear that I've never admitted to anyone (except everyone reading this chat, now): I'm afraid the boat will sink, a la Titanic. I know this is stupid and unfounded, but I can't get it out of my head.

The ship won't sink. It's virtually impossible. But, as a fellow claustrophobe -- make sure at the very least you book a cabin with a window (balcony's better). And stay outside as much as possible!

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