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Viator Joins Shore Excursion Options

The news that, as of Monday, you'll be able to book shore excursions without visiting the shore excursions desk on your cruise ship or visiting "Juan Valdez" and his agents on the pier could have far-reaching implications.

A company called Viator launched its website yesterday, for bookings starting six days later. It's for any major cruise line, any ship, almost any place (there are 80 ports). It's not the first company to venture into these waters, but it seems to be the most ambitious…or at least the latest.

If Viator (and others like GroupShoreExcursions.com and ShoreTrips.com) are successful, it's going to force cruise lines to be competitive in what many believe is the high cost of shore excursions. That is, if they haven't already done so and if they have, the consumer still wins.

This new company claims to shave as much as 60 per cent off the going, monopolistic rate…with little competition, only Juan and his amigos, cruise lines are quick to warn you that the ship won't wait if you're late getting back from a shore excursion not operated by the cruise line.

While this is true, have you been on a ship where departure was delayed…and where you saw passengers scurrying across the dock to the gangplank? We have, more than once, and since there were only four of five of them, we assumed these were not cruise-line shore excursions.

Cruise people don't want to leave passengers behind, just to make a point, although now that they're in a fight for the shore excursion dollar, tactics may change. Similarly, their competitors on the shore don't want unhappy customers, either. In both cases…bad for business.

We've taken a few trips on shore outside the comfort of the "we could leave without you" promise and (touch wood) never missed the ship. The closest we came was in France, after renting a car and getting lost, and the rental-car rep jumped in and drove us to the pier in, well, French style. And besides, most passengers going "on their own" allow plenty of time to return.

If you feel threatened by missing the boat, Viator promises…no, guarantees…that Viator will get you to the ship at the next port, at Viator's expense. At least one of its competitors (Group Shore Excursions) makes the same promise. Considering the magnitude of these businesses, they'll probably be more than capable of fulfilling the guarantee for the few times it may be necessary.

Unless everybody's scared.

Then, these customer-friendly businesses will simply be dead in the water.

And don't worry too much about Juan and his amigos. They'll probably wind up doing what they do for the new companies.

Costa Deliziosa
11 nights
May 25, 2012
Amsterdam (return) to Norway: Hellesylt, Honningsvag, Tromso, Leknes, Trondheim, Andalsnes, Bergen
Inside: $1,099
Cost per day: $99


Sun Princess Japanese Market Test

We are fond of Japan, and all things Japanese, so it's a natural for us to celebrate that Princess is making a serious attempt to helping our world be even smaller by cruising in a country that is largely ignored by cruise lines.

Even if the cruises are designed more for Japanese travelers.

Our affection is multi-faceted. We once won a trip for two to Tokyo because we called a radio station at the right time. In Italy, we were having lunch in a Naples cafe and struck up a conversation with a young artist  from Yokohama — he became our friend (Yoshihiro Tanamachi, but we call him "Hero") and his talent is prominent on the walls of our home. And we liked everything (except maybe a little cool weather) about visiting Japan, starting with the people, who went out of their way to be helpful.

If you're not sold on Japan by now, you should be.

Obviously, Princess Cruises is.

The people at Princess have been evaluating this market for many years, and the result is that nine cruises will depart from Japan in 2013, using seven itineraries. It's not that this is a first for cruising in that market. Royal Caribbean's Legend of the Seas has eight cruises out of Yokohama in 2012, and Holland America will send the Volendam there to sail four times next year, relieving the Zaandam. And deluxe lines like Crystal occasionally show up in Yokohama or Kobe.

But this is a big deal for Princess…in fact, the biggest incursion for any of the lines in the Carnival family, which is the largest in the world. And until the market response to this 87-day program is measured, the Corporation will hold off committing more ships and itineraries, but it has established Carnival Japan to sell the brand.

The ship for 2013, April through August, is the Sun Princess, and the cruises are designed specifically for Japanese passengers…lots of sushi, Japanese-speaking crew members, art, culture, history, spa and shopping — all tailored to the local preferences. The ship holds 2,022 passengers for each of the nine cruises and Princess is expecting to carry 18,000 passengers next year.

In other words, a virtual sellout.

The itineraries focus on events like the national holiday Golden Week, other annual festivals and ports with natural hot springs. All nine sailings either begin or end in Yokohama.

Hmm, wonder if Hero knows about this?

Norwegian Jewel
14 nights
May 1, 2012
Miami, Cartagena, Panama Canal, Puntarenas, Huatulco, Puerto Vallarta, Cabo San Lucas, Los Angeles
Inside: $899
Cost per day: $64
www. ncl.com

Cruise Radio for the cruiser who…

Are you one of those people who can't get enough cruising? Not just "cruising" on ships, but knowing about cruising?

If so, check out Cruise Radio?

Having spent five years of my career in radio, and having a new iPad that still needed exploring, I was at least curious. So I went to the Apple Store and downloaded the app, for 99 cents. Getting an idea for today's blog made it more than a good investment. With a little instruction from my partner in cruising and in life, I was even able to tune in to Cruise Radio. Yes, on the iPad.

I didn't listen for a long time — there were things to do, like write this — but long enough to find out that:

• The $150 million Carnival "promised" Mexico it would spend on Mexican ports was only a "possibility" and that it had to include Calica, the Mayan port that vehemently rejected previous attempts, and Puerto Cortez.

• Captain Patrick Dahlgren, the youngest cruise captain anywhere and one of our interview subjects from more than a year ago, has left and returned to the helm of Royal Caribbean's Navigator of the Seas since we met him (the Cruise Radio interview was less than compelling).

Miami considers itself the mother of all cruise ports (or "Cruise Capital of the World") and has a lead of 400,000 passengers on Port Everglades, which in the words of Cruise Radio's reporter "isn't much" of a difference.

There were some flaws. The station tends to be parochial at times — it's based in Jacksonville and sometimes sounds like it caters to south Floridians (after all, Miami is the CC of the W). And my iPad kept losing the audio after two or three minutes, causing me to "unlock" it, an annoying flaw that even my partner couldn't solve.

But I'll go back to Cruise Radio. Hey, I invested 99 cents in it!

Carnival Valor
6 nights
May 6, 2012
Miami (return): Key West, Grand Cayman, Ocho Rios
Inside: $399
Cost per day: $66

Titanic Time: Centennial Reminders


People, are you ready for…the Titanic? You should be, because over the next three weeks, it'll be harder to miss than an iceberg in the fog (okay, bad joke).

This is Titanic Time.

In case you haven't heard, the 100th anniversary of the big ship's sinking, off the coast of Newfoundland (just over 200 miles from New York, her final destination), is April 15. As the clock winds down to that centennial, the interest — or at least the attention — ramps up.

On that fateful day, but in 2012, several ships will be in the waters where she sank, to mark the anniversary. Some will have paid big bucks to be at "the exact spot" where the Titanic sank and two of the Titanic museums will be there to spread 1.5 million rose petals…that ship is not open to the public.

That is just the beginning.

At least nine books about the disaster have been released this year, six of them this month. Last year we spent some time on the Celebrity Eclipse, listening to and interviewing John Maxtone-Graham (right), a renowned and prolific maritime author and Transatlantic traveller. His book, Titanic Tragedy, came out last week, although he told us he'd planned to get a jump on everybody else and release it in the fall of 2011. Perhaps it was too big a jump, six months ahead of the anniversary.

Besides books, there are 4-part and 12-part TV documentaries — Titanic and Titantic: Blood and Steel — to be shown next month, and who knows how many DVDs? The movie that won 11 Academy Awards is being returned to the big screen, for a short run, next week and this time you can watch it in 3D.

An auction of 5,000 Titanic artifacts in New York, two weeks from tomorrow, is expected to net $190 million. They're not being sold one at a time…you buy 5,000 artifacts or you buy none. A lifejacket, one of only six in existence, reportedly sold at Christie's for $68,500 — a bargain compared to the $119,000 that somebody paid for one of the other five in 2007.

There are Titanic museums or exhibits in many places, such as Pigeon Forge (Tennessee) and Branson (Missouri), and Halifax (Nova Scotia) and Las Vegas. Two new ones were scheduled to open this week in Southampton and Liverpool, once head office of the White Star Line. There's even an online museum!

Where will it all end?

It won't. John Maxtone-Graham explains it best: "The Titanic is inexhaustible. When someone says the word Titanic, silence falls over the room."

While Titanic was once a luxury ship, now it is as much a business as it is a memory.

Sapphire Princess
7 nights
May 26, 2012
Anchorage, Hubbard Glacier, Glacier Bay, Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan, Vancouver
Inside: $499
Cost per day: $71

Daily Deal: Panama Canal

Celebrity Infinity
16 nights
April 25, 2012
Fort Lauderdale, Cartagena, Panama Canal, Puntarenas,
Puerto Vallarta, Cabo San Lucas, San Diego, Seattle
Inside: $1,099
Cost per day: $68
www. celebritycruises.com

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