Low prices, new ports and perks

On Norwegian Cruise Line's new Pearl, passengers can bowl on the first regulation-size alleys on the high seas. Crystal Cruises puts adventurers behind the wheel of a Formula One race car in Monaco.

Fun, perhaps, but these days travelers are finding another reason to book a cruise: the prices.

In his 23 years in the travel business, says Alan Fox, chairman of the Houston travel agency Vacations to Go, rates have been this low only in the six months after Sept. 11, 2001.

"The inflation-adjusted price of a cruise has never been lower. . . . It honestly is a buyer's market out there." Prices average about $70 per day on some ships, he says, "and it got down to as low as $40 in the fall."

Travelers are responding, as the number of cruisers is rising, according to the Cruise Line International Association, which represents 21 lines - or 97 percent of those based in North America. The organization reports that nearly 10.2 million Americans took cruise vacations in 2006, and it predicts that half a million more will this year.

The best bang for the buck these days can be found in the Caribbean, Fox says, because of the prices and because people can often drive to their point of embarkation. Further, he notes, lines he considers "extremely family-friendly" - including Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess, Disney and Norwegian - are sending ships out full.

Here's a look at other cruising developments this year:

Lines are adding new ports. Cruise ships will go to more destinations than ever before, CLIA says. Ports are being added in cruising grounds such as the Caribbean, and more cruise lines have charted itineraries in Asia, Africa, Europe, the South Pacific and the Middle East. And New Orleans is back: Seven cruise ships made 23 calls there in December.

Dubai is becoming popular as a safe, hospitable port in the Middle East. Crystal will sail to Dubai four times in 2007, with 14- to 17-night trips on the Serenity and Symphony (recently refurbished for $23 million); Costa Cruises will also inaugurate stops there. Celebrity Cruises is adding 40 destinations in the South Pacific, with ports dotting the coasts of Australia and New Zealand. Windstar Cruises sails for the first time to Almeria, Spain, where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed, while Princess Cruises adds Parintins in Brazil to its Amazon itinerary. Regent Seven Seas calls at 21 new ports on four continents, including Chile's Paso Quesahuen for travel by catamaran to watch icebergs break away from the San Valentin glacier.

Luxe is in. Baby boomers want adventure travel, but without sacrificing comfort, CLIA spokeswoman Christine Fischer says. Features considered luxuries 25 years ago - balcony suites, spas, fitness areas, fine wines - are becoming common, as are flat-screen TVs and premium sound systems. On Windstar, you can even work with a personal trainer.

For the first time in years, orders for luxury ships are up, CLIA notes. Cunard will launch its $522 million Queen Victoria, a super-luxe liner that will carry more than 2,000 guests, according to Seatrade Insider, which keeps tabs on the global cruise industry. In May, Royal Caribbean's $750 million Liberty of the Seas goes into service; it will share the title of world's largest cruise ship with sister ship Freedom of the Seas.

Theme cruises are booming. Regent Seven Seas offers cruises on which 16 passengers at a time don aprons to learn French cooking with visiting Le Cordon Bleu chefs. That can add $400 to $500 to the basic cruise cost, says Gary Pollard, owner of Ambassador Tours in San Francisco, but these extras are in demand. Holland America Culinary Arts Center programs are presented in conjunction with Food & Wine magazine and include demonstrations and classes with celebrity chefs.

Lauraday Kelley, vice president of Vacation.com, an Alexandria, Va., marketing group, says that culinary and religious cruises are growing. "On Carnival, they're selling out the ship" to religious groups, she says.

Ships are wired. No matter where people cruise, Vacation to Go's Alan Fox says, more of them want to stay connected to the mainland via e-mail and cell phone, and many cruise lines are struggling with how much connectivity to offer.

Most ships have Internet cafes; some have wireless connections in public areas, some in cabins. In 2004, Norwegian became the first to offer fleet-wide cell-phone service (roaming rates apply), and others have followed suit. Some lines, including Norwegian and Regent Seven Seas, let you set up a shipboard e-mail account, while Windstar offers the complimentary use of iPod Nanos and rents laptops.

"I hope they'll restrict cell phones," Fox says. "Being in touch constantly wherever you are in the world on a cruise ship changes the experience."

The Big Five

It's another big year for new cruise ships - with "big" being the operative word. Many of the liners premiering this year will set sail with more than 3,000 passengers.

Here's the scoop on five of the newest ships. Rates listed are from the cruise lines, though some offer early-booking discounts. Prices are per person based on double occupancy and do not include taxes and fees.

Norwegian Pearl

Norwegian Cruise Line

Debuted: Dec. 16.

Stats: 93,530 tons, 2,394 passengers, 1,197 staterooms, 15 decks, 10 restaurants, 13 bars and lounges.

Highlights: First regulation-size bowling alley on the high seas . . . 30-foot rock wall has five levels of difficulty . . . three pools, plus water slide . . . family-friendly "freestyle cruising" - unscheduled activities and open seating with flexible meal times . . . Second City comedy troupe - the one that begat Bill Murray and John Belushi - hosts workshops and performs . . . entertainment includes the "Garden of the Geisha" show with tai chi, Kabuki and drums.

Itinerary/prices: Inaugural season includes round-trip from Miami to the southern Caribbean; a nine-night voyage leaving March 16 includes stops in Roseau; Dominica; and Bridgetown, Barbados, starting at $949. Other itineraries include the Pacific Northwest and Panama Canal, Miami-to-Los Angeles round-trip journeys, and round-trip from Los Angeles to Vancouver, B.C. From May to September, the Pearl travels round trip from Seattle to Glacier Bay, Alaska.

Info: 1-866-234-0292, www.ncl.com.



Debuts: March 5 in Venice.

Stats: 110,000 tons, 2,974 passengers, 1,487 staterooms, 13 decks, two restaurants, sushi and pool bars, and dance, jazz, piano and supper clubs.

Highlights: Twister water slide and four pools, plus the Seaside Theatre (a huge LED poolside screen that shows movies, sports events and concerts) . . . digital coaching system will analyze your golfing technique, and private golf lessons will be available . . . casino among the largest at sea . . . "total choice" dining allows fine or casual meals on your own schedule.

Itineraries/prices: Many of its first cruises (in the Mediterranean) have sold out; bookings for July and October 2008 start at $1,249. On April 26, 2008, a 14-day transatlantic voyage from Miami to Rome starts at $699. In November, Freedom will sail the western Caribbean on four-day round-trip voyages from Miami to Cozumel, Mexico (rates from $299); seven-day eastern Caribbean cruises will leave from Miami and include stops in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Nassau, Bahamas (from $579). Eight-day eastern and western Caribbean itineraries from Fort Lauderdale start at $579.

Info: 1-888-227-6482, www.carnival.com.

Emerald Princess

Princess Cruises

Debuts: April 11 in Rome.

Stats: 113,000 tons, 3,080 passengers, nearly 900 staterooms, 15 decks, 14 eateries (including full-service restaurants, burger grills, ice cream bar) and seven bars and lounges.

Highlights: Exchange vows in the Hearts & Minds Wedding Chapel . . . watch flicks on the 300-square-foot screen in the Movies Under the Stars outdoor theater . . . amenities include nine-hole putting course, golf simulators, five freshwater pools, jogging track, and adult-only Asian-themed spa with ocean-view gym . . . one of the largest casinos afloat . . . supervised activities for children ages 3 to 17.

Itineraries/prices: Inaugural cruise is 12 days from Rome to Venice via the Greek Isles, Turkey and Dubrovnik, Croatia, from $1,799. Then Emerald moves to Fort Lauderdale to begin round-trip southern and eastern Caribbean itineraries into April 2008. On Oct. 27, a 10-day southern Caribbean trip starts at $899.

Info: 1-800-774-6237, www.princess.com.

Costa Serena

Costa Cruises

Debuts: May 26 in Venice.

Stats: 112,000 tons, about 3,000 passengers, 1,500 staterooms, 17 decks, five restaurants, and 13 bars and lounges.

Highlights: Grand Prix simulator features the same technology that race drivers use, with G-force effects and peripheral-vision screens . . . amenities include three-level theater, four swimming pools with slides, casino, tennis court and outdoor jogging track . . . like sister ship Costa Concordia, the Serena will have a two-deck spa (some suites get direct spa access via private staircase) . . . supervised activities for children and babysitting available.

Itinerary/prices: Inaugural cruise prices start at $1,499 (30 percent off the regular rate of $2,139) for eight days; the cruise is round trip from Venice, including stops in Katakolon and Piraeus (Athens) in Greece. Sails June through October from Venice on seven-night cruises to Mediterranean ports, from $1,229.

Info: 1-800-247-7320, www.costacruise.com.

Queen Victoria


Debuts: Dec. 11 in Southampton, England.

Stats: 2,014 passengers, 1,007 staterooms, 12 decks, eight restaurants, and 20 bars (including traditional English pub and champagne bar) and lounges. Victoria, sister to Cunard's Queen Mary 2 and Queen Elizabeth 2, is smaller (90,000 tons), so it can fit through the Panama Canal.

Highlights: Exterior elevators with glass walls will tower 10 decks high (a first), and the three-deck Royal Court Theatre will have private viewing boxes . . . oak-paneled library with circular staircase holds 6,000 titles (three times more than most ships) . . . amenities include heated therapy pool and spa with treatments including body wraps and thalassotherapy . . . supervised youth and child programs, but no babysitting.

Itinerary/prices: Maiden voyages are sold out, but Victoria will leave Southampton on Jan. 6, 2008, on its first world cruise - a 106-day "Pathways to the Explorers" with 40 ports (starts at $20,304 per person); about 35 percent of the full world cruise is booked. On Jan. 13, 2008, Victoria will sail into New York for the first time, meeting QM2 and QE2 (a first for the trio); from there, the ship will sail to L.A. through the Panama Canal.

Info: 1-800-728-6273, www.cunard.com.

- Sue Kovach Shuman