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Cruises: Mega cruises and river cruises
Cruises have become one of the biggest travel products around. and cruise ships ply waters all over the world. The easiest way to categorize cruises would be to define them as either ocean cruises (or cruises on huge ships that house thousands) or river cruises (e.g. in Europe or Asia), with a few exceptions of those that lie in between i.e. the Alaska "Inside Passage" cruise, plied by major liners. All provide a hassle-free way to take a trip, with just a one-time unpacking and packing, meals and entertainment in one place. The big ships have exercise and spa facilities on board, children's programs (so parents may have some time to themselves) guided by trained staff, some shopping and even casinos. There are themed cruises e.g. jazz cruises or Disney cruises. All of them make stops along the way for disembarkation. Passengers have the option of purchasing different sorts of tours (sometimes horseback riding, shopping tours, or overall sightseeing city tours) ahead of time, which will ensure that everything is taken care of, including safe return to the ship.Or passengers may decide at that point to break away from the group and explore on their own.
If it is important to you to explore the locales at the ports-of-call, check the ratio of "ship-time" to "port-time," which will be greatly dependent on the route you are on. Also, while your vacation time is as hassle-free as you would want it to be (including returning to the ship to have your meals, even when the ship is in port), there are extra charges of which you should be aware. At the time of booking, check into additional port charges (some are included, some are not). Almost always, alcoholic beverages will be on your own tab, and with certain cruise companies, even sodas for the kids. You will also have to factor in gratuities for the different staff -- dining, housekeeping etc., with a recommended amount for each day of the cruise. Factor in also costs for the optional tours, or your personal "breakout time" at ports of call.
The advantages of the mega cruise ships are obvious. They are basically floating cities, with more extensive amenities, simply because the ship can accommodate the staff and the facilities themselves (e.g. state-of-the-art gyms and spas). There are more restaurants ranging from the formal to the all-day informal buffets, not to mention the midnight buffets. Precisely because of the complexities of running such outfits, the rules are also more rigid. Foremost amongst this, and worth considering, is the dining issue. You will be asked whether you wish for an early seating or late seating. If you do not have enough in your group, you will be assigned to be a table for the duration of your cruise. Your dining companions will remain the same throughout the cruise, should you wish to partake of the regular meals. It is a spendid chance to meet people and get to know them, and that can make the whole dining experience very refreshing. On the other hand, you might have nothing in common with your assigned seating companions. If you are in a large group, you may request a complete section or table for your group.
On river cruises, the "ships" are smaller, even called "boats." Some have a passenger capacity of just over 100, with accompanying staff. The dining tends to be more informal, frequently with open seating. The cabins are still very comfortable (if you are not on a "rough-it" outfit, outside the scope of this site). You will also frequently have a view of both banks of the river, and many choose to talk or read outside, enjoying the view. However, the amenities are far simpler (a gym may just be a few cardio and weight machines), the staffing and choices of activities are not as extensive by a long shot. Some may find this limiting.
*To save $, consider the following: 1. Get an "inside" cabin or look into a family occupancy. 2. If you are flexible with the locale, look for last-minute deals, when they are looking to fill berths. 3. Travel off-season e.g. do your Mexican Riviera cruise in the summer.
An increasingly popular option is the "all-inclusive" vacation at a resort e.g. those offered by Club Med etc. These are normally in places where the costs of food and labor are low (to the company). Examples of popular destinations are many Mexican destinations e.g. Cancun, Playa del Carmen or Puerto Vallarta, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. For a single price at the time of booking, you get airfare, airport transfers, food and drink (including alcoholic), accommodations, entertainment and included gratuities. All that remains to be budgeted would be shopping money and the price of optional tours or sightseeing, and perhaps a dinner foray outside the resort.
The advantages are obvious, hence the increasing popularity of these vacations. To capitalize on the advantages, check into the reviews for the resort itself: how many restaurants does it have? what sort of food? how large is the resort? what sort of views will your room have? Sometimes, for a small surcharge, you can be upgraded to the top ranked resort in a row of them, thus giving you access to all restaurants and facilities in all the other resorts within the same chain. The disadvantages are that you may find that an attractive package does not mean that there is much to explore in the town e.g. in Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. This may not be important if you are up for a getaway, and it may exactly what a winter-weary soul needs! There are places which have very attractive town areas (e.g. Puerto Vallarta), or places like Cancun that although terribly Americanized, are also within hours of the rich history of the ancient Mayan civilization. It all depends on whether you intend to venture out of your resort much or not. Remember that if you choose not to explore too much, then the quality of the resort is of paramount importance.
*To save $, consider the following: 1. Look for last-minute deals and be flexible with your destinations. 2. Travel off or "shoulder" season. Sometimes the difference between traveling well before the Christmas/New Year holidays (Dec. 15th is often the cut-off point) and later is considerable.
Click below for detailed information on these exciting destinations!
Low-Hassle Vacation Packages
Those independent travelers often ask if it is worth getting a "package," a term that may reek to them of the herd mentality! However, a "package" can simply be a means to save money. At the time of booking, you determine what you want to take care of ahead of time e.g. airfare, airport ransfers, car rental, hotel. Travel consolidators are able to get better deals with a "bulk" booking like that, and you will find that booking each item separately is a bigger hassle and frequently will cost much more. Once you arrive at your destination, you are then free to venture out on your own, eat wherever you wish, or sometimes take advantage of a tour package offered by a company in the area.
*To save $, also look for last-minute deals, or travel off or shoulder season (e.g. go to a ski resort during the summer, if you just enjoy mountains and don't care for skiing!). Also varying the day of the week that you depart or arrive can make a big difference in the airfare and hotel portion of your booking.
"Themed" vacations, including Spa Vacations
Finally, a rather attractive option is a themed vacation. A group of girlfriends may decide to have a reunion at a spa, for example, where they are fed healthily, enjoy pampering spa treatments, have access to different fitness programs. Some spas may even have weight loss as a goal!
Or there are "dude ranch" vacations for families who have equestrian interests and may enjoy being a part of a working ranch out west. There are different sorts of ranches offering different amenities, but basically, the family participates in the workings of the ranch, enjoys horseback riding, and family-style meals. If considering this for a family vacation, check that the ranch is a member of the Dude Ranches' Association, which has rules governing their operations. This is not exactly the kick-back-and-put-your-feet up vacation, but hassle free in its own way.
As far as themes go, really the sky's the limit. There are skiing packages, national park packages, even casino packages, walking holidays. There are singles travel clubs, elderhostels (that are educational and have themes of their own e.g. London theater trip). Dream up a trip, and know that the resources are there to make your planning and your vacation hassle-free and thoroughly enjoyable!
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