CruiseSavvy Site Blog

About the Site Blog: Come here for gossip and opinions regarding the cruise industry and this site. Think meets Lloyd's List!

We add around a post a day, so why not make us part of your afternoon coffee break...

New cruise terminal for S.F.?

Looks like our fair city is getting serious about building a new cruise terminal in San Francisco.

As a cruise fan I think that would be nice -- the current terminal was put up in the 20s, and it shows in the drafty, bare-beamed facility.

We've also had a sad decline in the number of cruise ship calls to the City by the Bay:

  • 87 visits in '06
  • 60 in '07
  • 59 in '08
  • 46 in '09

The trouble is, I seriously doubt a new cruise terminal would help with that decline. The real problem for San Francisco is that we are too darned far from the places people want to cruise.

A seven night cruise (what most people want) can just get to Canada from here, and even then there aren't a lot of interesting ports along the way. OK, Seattle's cool, but then you might as well fly into Seattle. Worse, to do that itinerary, a ship has to do more than 20 knots for much of the trip.

Given the continually-rising cost of fuel, and the explonential relationship between fuel consumption and speed, it seems a lot better for cruise lines to sail from places closer to the desireable Alaska and Mexico destinations: Vancouver, Seattle, San Diego.

One more reason to pack lightly

American Airlines today announced a new $15 charge for even one checked bag, for anyone who books a discount economy ticket, starting with tickets purchased June 15.

Heck, I was shocked that they already charge $25 for the second bag.

Well, this is one more reason to pack ultra-light. It is possible to go on a cruise with luggage that fits in the overhead bin. I've even done a 10-day Med cruise that way, though 7 days is usually my max.

For tips on how, check out our guide to carry-on packing.


Translating PR spin

I have great sympathy for the guys who write financial press releases. Publicly-traded companies are required to report financial results, but the PR guys are under pressure to make even poor results sound rosy.

For example, Ambassadors International, parent company of Windstar Cruises and Majestic America Line (which they are trying to sell), sent off a press release titled:

Ambassadors International, Inc. Reports Increased Revenue and Improvement in Pretax Results for the First Quarter 2008"

(Our News article on the release is here)

That translates as:

  • They bought Windstar for $100M last year, which added to the company's revenue, and fortunately Windstar has a better operating margin than Majestic America Line.
  • Apples-to-apples revenue, from Majestic America Line, is down about 20%, for two reasons:
  • Empress of the North has 46% fewer passengers and guests who did book paid 14% less than last year. This is presumably due to loss of reputation from the ship running aground in May 2007.
  • A fire on Queen of the West's fire meant she was out of commission for two sailings, and Columbia River cruises had to be pulled in to cover

Oof. Like I said, my sympathies to the Ambassador's PR guys. And to all editors who have to parse their releases.

"European-style" is a good thing?

Mini-rant here. What's up with cruise lines (and companies in general) describing luxurious things as "European". I lived in Europe for three years, my husband for seven, and with the exception of the food, neither of us found European service or amenities better than what is available in major US cities, usually at better prices.

Which left me puzzled by these recent examples of Euro-philia in marketing:

"European-style service". This month's Celebrated Living magazine praised Holland America Line with that phrase. Which struck me as odd. My experience of service in Europe included:

  • Fine Parisian restaurants REFUSING to serve my coffee at the same time as my dessert.
  • Most shops closed all of Sunday in Italy, Germany and France.
  • British trains that rarely run on time, and Parisian ones that are often on strike.

By contrast, I agree with Celebrated Living that HAL has very good service -- attentive, accommodating, pretty much the opposite of service in Europe. And of course most of the crewmembers are Indonesian and Filipino. But I suppose "Southeast Asian colonial style service" doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

"European style bedding". Azamara touts this. What they mean here is that they have duvets ... in some cabin categories. The first night, my cabin had nothing but sheets, not even a blanket. When I requested the purported duvet, I got a mattress pad stuffed into a duvet cover (!).

Hmm... over-promise, under-deliver, and inadequate facilities. On second thought, maybe Azamara does offer an authentic European experience.

Darned wine market efficiency!

Well, I doubt it was my influence, but after I gushed about the Silverado Cabernet being the best wine buy on HAL at $66 a bottle, I just noticed that it's gone up to $85. Which, considering that it's about $40 a bottle at the store, is probably about right. Drat.

I'll have to pore over the new wine lists to see if there are still any exceptional values.

Financial tea leaves suggest slower fleet growth

Sometimes a little knowledge is just confusing, but a recent flurry of unusual, financing-related press releases from Carnival Corp caught our attention and got us wondering about the implications....

April 16: Carnival Corp Debt Holders Send a Shot Across the Bow

The story began a few weeks ago some of Carnival Corp's debenture holders exercised their option to convert debentures (a form of debt) into shares. It was weird because it was a miniscule amount, just $117k out of $595 million held through 2021.

I suspect that was a "shot across the bow", a way for investors to tell Carnival Corp that old interest rates (set in a time when we weren't worried about inflation) are no longer sufficient.

April 25: Carnival Increases Interest Payments

To enhance the attractiveness of their debentures due in 2033, Carnival offered an additional 0.5% interest payment per annum for the next 18 months, plus an additional repurchase option at the end of that period.

April 30: $470 million of Debt is Cashed In

Even following the increase in interest payments, a bit more than half of the debenture holders exercised their option for immediate repurchase.

My interpretation: Carnival Corp knows exactly what they're doing. Presumably they would rather hold off on $500M of capital expenditure than pay out more in interest. Which suggests Carnival Corp is not prioritizing fleet growth.

Slower fleet growth makes sense given the high cost of European shipbuilding, but could give less price-sensitive RCL, NCL and MSC a chance to make a louder splash.

Of course, this tightening of credit does make me wonder if highly-leveraged RCL and private equity funded NCL might soon have to make modifications of their own!

Disclaimer: Do NOT apply my musings to your portfolio. If I had insider information, I couldn't use it, much less print it.

NCL, I'm Impressed. Princess, Watch Your Back

NCL Pearl
NCL Pearl pool area

CruiseSavvy toured Norwegian Pearl today, the ship that best embodies NCL's "Freestyle 2.0" concept of broad choice in restaurants, activities and entertainment.

I'll be honest: I went in biased. Just yesterday I had travel agents telling me "if Carnival is the Wal-Mart of the seas, NCL is the Dollar Store" and "I would not go back on NCL if they paid me." NCL is the only major cruise line I've ever advised people against.

You know what, I was impressed.

The public rooms were stunning. The food was tasty and beautifully presented. Housekeeping was sharp. Officers and crew were friendly. (As of tonight we still have pictures to add, but you can see the work in progress in the Norwegian Pearl review.)

I don't know how the older ships compare. I don't know whether their margins are sustainable. I don't know what the nightlife or social experience are like.

With those disclaimers, I have to say: if what I saw is representative of their product, I'd choose this over Princess' larger ships any day.

Just say it: "No tampons in the toilet"

NCL Ladies' Room Signage
No "Foreign Objects"
NCL Pearl Ladies' Room

We've all seen the notices saying that cruise ships have "delicate plumbing systems" and exhorting us not to place "bulky" or "foreign" objects in the toilet.

And then there are diagrams showing things like diapers and soda cups as prohibited items. But who the heck would ever try to flush a soda cup?

The real problem is tampons. It's something people are accustomed to flushing. It's something marine plumbing systems can't handle.

Maybe it's embarassing for (male) cruise line executives. But y'all have to get over it. Save money. Save hassle. Just do it: Change the signs to say "no tampons".

Oh, and make sure there are feminine hygiene bags in all ladies' room stalls. Based on recent experience on Celebrity Mercury, Celebrity Infinity and Norwegian Pearl I've seen them in only about 50%. Yuck.

Signs are vague everywhere...

HAL Zuiderdam bathroom sign Celebrity Infinity bathroom sign Serenade of the Seas bathroom sign
Holland America Line Celebrity Royal Caribbean


Cruise prices on the rise

For as long as anyone can remember, cruising has been surprisingly resistant to inflation. Indeed, as HAL CEO Stein Kruse mused at the last Seatrade Miami:

"it's almost disappointing that we're selling cruises at the same price as we were when I entered the industry in 1991."

This is changing.

And it's not just the $7 or $8 fuel surcharge or better onboard revenue. Ticket prices are on the rise. We can see hard evidence in the quarterly reports of public companies like Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd (RCL) and Carnival Corp & Plc (CCL).

For fiscal Q1 2008 vs. Q1 2007, RCL reported an increase in passenger ticket revenues per available bed of 9.5%, while Carnival Corp reported an increase of 7.6%.

Ouch. Cruises are still a bargain in comparison to land-based vacations, but it sounds like guests may need to do a touch of belt-tightening before they hit the buffet.

Greenbacks Say: Go Green

RCL's Q1 2008 earnings statement today noted that average fuel prices increased from $388 per metric ton in 2007 to $592 per metric ton now.

Applying this to HAL's stated fuel utilization of 306 tons per day, that's a $180,000 fuel bill per day.

And while fuel surcharges increased to $7, the above suggests fuel costs on a 2,000 guest ship increased by $30 per guest, per day, barring any itinerary or other changes to reduce consumption.

Wow. Now that's an impetus to conserve fuel even a black-hearted beancounter like myself can appreciate.