Midwesterners bask in new cruise ship offerings

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Posted: Wednesday, February 5, 2014 12:00 am | Updated: 2:14 pm, Thu Jun 5, 2014.

Lori Martin has discovered how to overcome the stabbing sensation of subzero temperatures and 50-mile-per-hour gusts: leave town. More precisely, book a cruise and leave town.

For about $400 each (the price of a new down coat, boots and a stocking cap) plus airfare, the Omaha resident and her three sisters recently spent five days on a cruise that sailed from Long Beach, Calif., to Catalina Island and Ensenada, Mexico. Lodging and meals were included.

Martin's California-based sister convinced her and her Kansas City- and Iowa-based sisters to hop a midwinter cruise. “None of us had been on a cruise before,” said Martin, 42. The experience was so “fantastic,” she said, that she's now on a crusade to coax her husband into booking a cruise next year.

Cruising isn't to everyone's taste, however, and when a cruise line makes the news due to a stalled vessel, onboard illness or other difficulty, it can dampen demand. For example, last month a Royal Caribbean cruise ship had to cut short a 10-day Caribbean excursion after nearly 700 passengers and crew were sickened by a suspected norovirus.

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Travel experts say such incidents, though high profile, are rare, and cruising has become more popular among landlocked Midwesterners over the past five to 10 years.

There is always a small chance of getting sick on any type of vacation, whether it's a cruise or an all-inclusive resort stay, said Kate Kilcoyne, a travel agent at Omaha's Destinations Travel Center. “People who tend to cruise realize it could happen during any vacation.”

As the “weather gets nastier” (just look outside) it spurs more people to consider a warm-weather cruise, said Stacy Beebee, manager of Pegasus Travel Center in Omaha. “Bigger and fancier ships” offer more options for travelers, and a range of prices have contributed to a steady increase in the popularity of cruising, Beebee said.

The biggest drawback for Midwesterners on a budget is airfare, which can sometimes rival the cost of a cruise, Beebee said.

Martin paid $329 for a round-trip airline ticket, on top of the $400 cruise package. (Oh, sure, she could have put that money toward a new snowblower, but then she wouldn't have enjoyed a week of sunshine and temperatures in the high 70s and mid-80s.)

Michelle Holmes, general manager at Omaha's Travel and Transport, said the full-service travel agency has seen increased interest in cruising. “It goes in waves. It's definitely on the upswing.”

Cruising, said Holmes, is like being on a “mobile hotel,” with the ship visiting multiple locations.

Cruising offers a wide range of options for travelers, and passengers can be as active or relaxed as they choose.

Some passengers may want more days at sea or prefer the attractions of a bigger ship, including such activities as ice-skating, miniature golf and rock climbing walls, while others may prefer a smaller vessel. Size, amenities and the time of year may also be factors if you're traveling with children or senior citizens, Holmes said.

If you dream of simply basking in the sunlight on a deck chair, you can find cruise packages starting at about $75 a day, meals and shipboard lodging included, said Ralph Williams, owner of Cruise Planner American Express Travel in Omaha. The nine-year-old agency specializes in cruise vacations.

Cruise lines have stepped up measures to help prevent outbreaks of norovirus and other illnesses, Williams said. Each year about 20 million Americans are sickened by the highly contagious norovirus, but when it happens aboard ship, it makes a big splash, he said.

Cruise lines may or may not reimburse passengers if something goes awry during a trip. So, as a safeguard, Williams encourages all travelers to buy travel insurance. The average policy costs about 6 percent of the vacation package total. Depending on the plan, travel insurance typically covers trip interruption, emergency travel services or medical evacuation.

Cruise packages usually cover lodging and meals, and, in some cases, alcoholic beverages. The agents say there's a cruise for every budget.

But in some cases, they said, be prepared to pay extra for shore excursions and tours or special dining accommodations.

They suggest potential cruisers speak with a travel agent to help sort through all the options. “Just because your neighbor had a wonderful time on xyz line doesn't mean that particular cruise is right for you,” Beebee said.

The Carnival cruise line ship Martin vacationed on carried about 2,000 passengers, but she said it didn't feel crowded. Shipboard entertainment included music, contests, a water slide, hot tub and food. “My favorite was elegant night. You dress up. It was all-you-could-eat lobster tails.”

Overall, the experience left her feeling wonderful: “You're leaving all your cares on land. You get to be out there on the water. There's no rush to do anything. You don't have to cook, you don't have to clean. You're so pampered.”

Believe it or not, she said, she returned home lighter despite “24-hour food,” because she walked all over the big ship and Catalina.

Martin said she also met two fellow Nebraskans on the boat, a couple who enjoyed the waves so much that they opted for a double dose. “They'd gone on the same cruise a week before.”

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