Going undercover as a tourist

A freelance reporter investigates the affects of a bargain cruise

Posted: Thursday, April 14, 2005

Mark Sabbatini

Cruisin' for a deal

I am the enemy of happiness. Ruining people's fun at Disneyland, Vegas or Santa's visit to the mall is my obsession, in the eyes of professionals who oversee such things. When I moved to Juneau nearly a decade ago I became a scourge of the cruise ship industry almost immediately.

Such are the pitfalls of carrying a notebook for a living.

It's not deliberate. People say things, I take notes. Some say they dislike the pollution, noise and an increasingly large influx of tourists buying cheap imported souvenirs instead of genuine crafts. Others may say nice things about all the local jobs and money boosting the economy, but industry suits resent any stains on the corporate-minded canvas they display to the world.

When something more serious happens, like publicity tours touting environmental awareness while the company is secretly committing illegal acts not caught until years later, things get uglier.

But presuming I secretly hate cruise ships is unfair. I'm from Aspen - I secretly hate Texans who monopolize ski resort hot tubs after spending more time looking good on slopes than skiing them.

I've actually wanted for some time to see the inside of a megavessel without a chaperone and find out what makes those bargain cruises so popular. And to find out just who these so-called cheapskate tourists are, how they feel about the ports and shops they visit, and what results their impact has elsewhere.

Besides, the cruise lines invited me. Almost daily messages with exclamation points and synonyms for "bargain" show up in my e-mail box and, even if my spam filter puts them in the "bulk" folder, surely some personal consideration must be behind such a persistent effort. Those pitches of three or four days of all-inclusive happiness for "as low as" $299 seem so promising.

A four-part series examining what it's like to be a cruise ship passenger.

• Part one (today): Booking a bargain cruise.

• Part two (April 28): The impact of bargain cruisers in Florida and the mechanics of getting them aboard.

•Part three (May 12): Life aboard cruise ships and port stops - how much of each is devoted to separating travelers from more of their money?

• Part four (May 26): The highs and lows of an industry in which the company's goals of fun and profit aren't always harmonious.

So I indulged in two firsts: Answering a spam ad and booking a cruise.

The mission: Play the gullible chump for a few days (it comes naturally), become part of the "thrifty tourist" problem and see if the same love 'em or hate 'em mentality exists in ports beyond Juneau.

The verdict: It's no surprise the new breed of passengers cling to their wallets. And it isn't simply because they're cheap.

Cruising inspires thoughts of pampering, endless gourmet food and an overzealous crew ensuring that passengers are free of even the smallest worries. But today's lowbrow voyages are notably lower in quality and passengers are subject to nearly nonstop efforts to market fun as a commodity best appreciated on credit.

By the time they reach Juneau, many are skeptical of sales pitches for pricey items that may or may not be of high quality. A $3 T-shirt may be tacky, but at least it's an affordable memento.

Not that there isn't big money involved. Carnival Corp. is the most profitable leisure company in the world, topping $1 billion for the first time during the fall quarter of 2004. The U.S. cruise industry is valued at $15.3 billion. About 17 million passengers worldwide are expected to take a cruise in 2010, up from 4.5 million in 1990 and about 10 million in 2004.

Locals don't always fare as well, especially if they lack corporate ties, although there seems to be less controversy in busier ports for several reasons. There's more space in regions like Florida's coast for visitors to spread out and a considerably lower ratio of "pristine" territory. They've been the economic backbone of destinations like the Bahamas for so long that they're accepted as the norm, even though many residents have existed for decades on small incomes from mundane work such as selling woven dolls and baskets.

Still, those looking for villains can't simply point fingers at the industry. The mentality didn't originate with them and is hardly their exclusive domain now.

Disney loyalists complain leisure spaces have been taken over by shops, and quality collectibles replaced by cheap trinkets featuring only top-selling characters. Those in Las Vegas claim visitor hospitality vanished when the Mob was replaced by corporations insisting all areas of the casino be profitable, relying on "player's club" cards to track literally every nickel spent. The newest slot machines feature ultra-glitzy video screens and one- or two-penny play - but winning top jackpots requires betting 75 coins per spin.

Lowbrow cruises claim with some accuracy to offer more services and diversions while costing the same or less than land-based vacations. If there's any doubt about customers' perceptions and the potential for future growth, consider some seniors are bypassing supervised retirement facilities and living aboard vessels full-time. The costs are comparable to managed care, and the living conditions and diversions far superior. It's hardly a crackpot concept - an East Coast doctor is credited with introducing the idea. If more baby boomers do this as they retire a sizable subculture similar to the mobile home crowd is possible.

Part of the problem

A confession: I have a lifelong dislike for sunny, warm places.

That hardly makes me an ideal customer for a tropical cruise, but I believe going against natural instincts often results in the most personal growth. Besides, for gauging the affects of tourism the Caribbean is by far the most popular with cruisers, representing 50 percent of passenger traffic in 2004, compared with 15 percent in the Mediterranean and 7 percent in Alaska.

The $299 e-mail special I selected on impulse last November was through Carnival on their Fantasy "Fun Ship." I managed to do everything online, including picking an interior cabin in the middle of the ship that appeared to be away from noisy elements such as engines and discos. A final step, however, requires phoning a travel agent whose job seems to include lots of suggestions designed to boost the cruise line's profits.

Among other things, he assured me, the cabin reserved wasn't what I wanted - I wanted an "open" booking where the computer assigns one at check-in.

"You may get an upgrade," he said.

I knew I might also get the last cabin in the worst part of the ship. But like the guy in the movie "Supersize Me," whose mission mandated buying the extra-large extras when cashiers suggested them, I was playing along if it didn't cost extra.

That meant skipping cancellation insurance, prearranged flights, sending flowers to my cabin and so on. I also skipped shore excursions, knowing a cab or shuttle to the Mendenhall Glacier costs a fraction of prearranged "limos."

To see what advice novices might be getting, I hit numerous review sites and blogs on the Internet. The Fantasy generally gets good reviews from new cruisers and repeat Carnival customers. Travelers familiar with more upscale lines are critical of worn furnishings, mediocre food and constant sales pitches. But even swanky ships like Cunard Line's Queen Elizabeth 2 gets complaints, including a woman upset that only two lamb chops instead of four are now served for dinner (Carnival bought the line in 1998).

Many tips are helpful, including lingo guides explaining "you will see" means "drive past," a "limo" is a "bus" and "opportunity to" is a better-sounding alternative than "pay extra for." They also throw a cloud of trepidation over the final disembarkation process, advising flights be booked at least seven hours after the ship's scheduled arrival.

Fewer people probably learn or care about data at sites geared toward shareholders and industry officials. While Alaska considers hiking taxes on cruisers, for instance, other ports such as Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia, are going out of their way for lucrative port contracts. Plenty of people also pay researchers at Google Answers $100 or so for information about becoming a vendor or renting a ship for a private charter.

The final must-do is arranging transportation. Cruise lines and travel agents go to great lengths to pitch package tours, but the consumer site CruiseMates.com notes "airlines frequently put air/sea passengers on the worst possible routing, making you change planes when a nonstop is available" - but the latter means contacting the cruise line's "deviation desk" and paying an extra fee.

For the sake of simulating the lowest-possible cost of a cruise, I'm pretending I cashed in 25,000 Alaska Airlines miles for a round-trip ticket to Orlando, since I'd be unlikely to consider the trip otherwise (in reality, a work assignment involving a stop in Las Vegas meant buying a series of individual tickets). Those without miles will pay about $500 for an advance-purchase ticket from Juneau; even the most clever use of Internet specials generally saves no more than $100 and often involves awkward travel arrangements such as daylong or overnight airport layovers that can easily result in expenses and stress that negate any savings.

Shuttles from Orlando to Port Canaveral cost anywhere from $30 to $180 round-trip, but the thriftier ones weren't operating when my late-night flight arrived. Since I planned to scope out the region for a day or so, I reserved a rental car after learning I could drive a Mustang convertible for the first time in my life for $160. Unfortunately, the folks at Hertz (marketing slogan: "Not Exactly") stuck me in a Hyundai.

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