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Pick cruise line that fits your military family

Aug. 20, 2013 - 12:18PM   |  

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You wouldn’t go to Olive Garden if what you really want is good Chinese food, right? The same is true with cruise lines. Each has its own flavor, style and price range, and while it’s not always cut and dried, each tends to cater to a particular type of passengers.

Some are more focused on serving up fun fare for singles and young couples looking for a party barge. Others are more upscale, favored by those seeking the black-tie dining version of a cruise. Indeed, many of the higher-end cruises require formal wear for evening meals.

And while many tout big discounts for those in uniform, some are far more military-friendly than others, experts say.

Raquel Thiebes was looking for a good Mediterranean sampler platter for a spring break vacation for her and her kids while her Army special ops husband was deployed earlier this year.

A budget-minded mom of two stationed in Europe, she was looking for fast-food pricing, but with a wide variety of options on what to do and see each day.

That’s why she picked a cruise with MSC. Much less expensive than the American lines that tool the Med, not to mention Disney’s premium-priced floating Magic Kingdoms at sea, she paid $1,600 for a seven-day cruise from Sicily up the boot of Italy.

“MSC is an Italian line that caters to Italians. Passengers are typically loud and boisterous. Many travel in large family groups,” she says.

Maybe you’ll run into a small pocket of other Americans. Maybe not. That was fine with her, because she was using the ship mostly as a floating hotel room: Each morning the ship would dock in a new city — Tunis, Ibiza, Genoa, Rome’s oceanside offshoot Civitavecchia — where she and the kids spent a day exploring before getting back aboard for their next port of call.

“Cruising makes it so much easier to get a taste of a few different areas and the local culture, helping you decide if you ever want to go back to that area, or explore a new one,” says Thiebes, a veteran of multiple cruises throughout Europe and the Caribbean who wrote about her most recent adventure in her blog Life Lessons of a Military Wife.

“MSC is always port-intensive. They rarely have sea days and every day is filled with a new port. I do like how they leave you with plenty of time in port on most occasions,” she writes. “Many other cruise lines will try to make you believe their itineraries are great, but then you are only in port for four or five hours, that is not enough time. Always read the times,” she advises.

Waving and saving

That’s good advice, says Mitch Bank, owner of Military Cruise Deals travel agency.

About four of every 10 of his customers are based in Europe or taking leave from downrange locations and looking for Mediterranean getaways.

“By far, MSC is the most popular for military families in Europe,” he says.

That’s mostly because military kids travel for free. “That’s a crazy discount, because it means a family of four can do a seven-day cruise for as little as $1,500, or even less.”

The line’s midsized ships “don’t have the rock-climbing walls or ice skating rinks you’ll find on other lines, and the cabins are nice — not extravagant, but nice.” That’s OK, because most people — like Thiebes — are “not going for what the ship has to offer, but what the ports have to offer,” Bank says.

For military folks traveling with families or civilian friends, one military ID card holder can book up to three cabins at the cheaper military rates, a deal not typically found on other lines.

Meanwhile, the Costa line — part of Carnival cruises — is offering steep discounts in the wake of a wave of bad press over the past two years, including the sinking of the Costa Concordia along the Italian coast.

“Prices are down 20 percent on all Carnival cruises and military get very good on-board credit incentives,” Bank says.

Whether in Europe or elsewhere, “it’s a great time to go on Carnival. It’s like, the guy you want to be next to in a lightning storm is the guy who just got hit by lightning — chances are very low he’s going to get hit again,” says Bank, who adds that even before Carnival’s most recent problems, it was by far the most military-friendly line.

“They almost always have the best military discounts,” he says, although the amount can vary widely. “Sometimes it’s 5 percent, sometimes it’s 40 percent. It’s just always less.”

And that’s on top of already typically lower fares than other lines.

As far as flavor goes, “Carnival is definitely your party boat line,” says Bank, “but it’s not some drunken booze cruise anymore. They’re really working hard to undo that reputation. It’s now as much fun for your families with kids as it is for your singles looking to party.”

In fact, he says, Carnival is now “second only to Disney for kid-friendly cruise lines” — and usually at less than half the cost.

“Disney is typically two or even three times as much as Carnival, but with that said, I’ve never had anyone say it wasn’t worth it. They really do take very good care of you, because they know you’re paying through the nose.”

While Disney offers “shockingly good” military rates, Bank says they’re not available on every sailing and, unless you book very early, cabins earmarked for the military rates are usually gone within 60 days of sailing.

Adventure, romance and more

Are you an adrenaline junkie looking for action during your cruise?

Bank recommends Royal Caribbean, especially on the line’s two massive Oasis-class ships, currently the largest in any fleet, which sport everything from four-story rock climbing walls and FlowRider surfing simulator pools to ship-spanning ziplines.

The line’s new, even bigger Quantum-class ship, set for its first sailing next year, promises more blood-pumping action with an iFly wind-turbine sky diving simulator, boomed-out observation capsules offering 360-degree views 300 feet above the ocean and a circus school among its offerings.

But while Royal Caribbean is on par with Carnival among the least expensive cruise lines, it’s probably the least military friendly when it comes to discounts for those in uniform and their families.

“They’re very spotty,” he says.

Robee Cosby, a travel agent with MWR’s Leisure Travel Service at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., with 30 years experience in the travel industry, says the best deals for cruises to Alaska are currently with Carnival, as well as Norwegian and Princess.

“Everyone wants Alaska right now, but it’s near the end of the season so it’s getting pretty tight,” she says. Still, she was able to book an Army couple on a last minute seven-day Princess cruise to Juneau and back – with stops at Glacier Bay and Ketchikan, among others – on a military rate of $1,686, along with $100 on-board credit.

“That’s a really good deal. Civilians probably would have paid at least $2,000 and not gotten the credit,” she says.

While there are sometimes great deals to be gotten just before sailings, cruise experts recommend booking as far in advance as you can.

“I always tell people to book nine months out. We’re always looking to see if the price comes down and can adjust the fare if there’s a sale.”

Cosby says off-ship excursions are especially popular on Alaska cruises, with local guides offering everything from off-road four-wheeling and riverside fly-fishing trips to helicopter flights to the tops of glaciers.

“If you’re an experienced traveler you can save some money by booking excursions yourself ahead of time, but I usually recommend doing it through the ship,” she says.

Otherwise, if for some reason you’re late getting back and miss the sailing, you’ll have to pay your own way to link back up with the boat at the next port of call. “But when you book it through the ship, they guarantee getting you back in time for the sailing.”

Rounding out the budget-priced cruises is Norwegian, the first line to offer cabins just for singles traveling solo. With cabins on every other line almost always priced at double occupancy, that can be a huge savings for those traveling alone.

“And one of Norweigian’s biggest claims to fame is the creation of freestyle dining. They never have formal nights. It’s all relaxed and casual,” Bank says.

For those looking for a more romantic vibe, Bank recommends Princess.

“If you ever saw ‘Love Boat,’ that was Princess, and it’s still great for couples, with a wonderful romantic feel.”

More than other lines, a slew of cabins are available with private balconies for your own secluded enclave overlooking the sea, and there are plenty of tables just for two in the restaurants. Princess is also big on outdoor theaters for movies under the stars. “Other lines are just starting to offer this, too, but Princess started it and have it on most if not all their ships,” Bank says.

Along with Celebrity and Holland, Princess is in the midrange when it comes to pricing.

Passengers tend to skew middle-aged and older. “Holland used to be just blue hairs and walkers, but it’s more of a mix now. Still, I wouldn’t put a bunch of single guys looking for action on Holland,” Bank says.

Holland is carving out a name for itself as a foodie paradise at sea, Bank says. “They’re putting a huge focus on culinary arts with food — demos with famous chefs and cooking classes.”

While the line doesn’t typically offer a military discount, “they do periodically have community appreciation fares that apply to military, police, fire and teachers. But they’re not publicized; you have ask about it.”

On the very high end are lines like Cunard. “This is definitely one of your most upscale, sophisticated lines,” Bank says.

Think the top-deck passengers on the Titanic and not so much the partiers down in steerage.

“Titanic was actually a Cunard ship, though they don’t like to advertise that,” Bank says.

While the line doesn’t typically offer military discounts on fares, it has incentives, including as much as $250 credit for onboard meals.

Whatever cruise line you go with, Thiebes recommends consulting a travel agent.

USAA’s travel office offers cruise bookings. The military’s leisure travel offices are also known to get great deals. She gives Bank high marks on all the cruises he’s booked for her.

“I used to book cruises on my own,” she says, but notes that Bank is able to get as good, if not better, deals.

He also goes to bat for her when problems come up. “He was a staunch defender when the cruise line tried to pull one over on me,” she says — and ended up getting her so much on-board credit that she couldn’t spend it all.

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