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Cruise Views

Older Ships Have the Bargains

September 20, 1998|SHIRLEY SLATER and HARRY BASCH | Slater and Basch travel as guests of the cruise lines. Cruise Views appears the first and third week of every month

When we first began writing about cruises 20 years ago, $100 a day per person, double occupancy, was the median price, with anything under $100 a bargain and anything over a splurge.

Today, the median figure is closer to $300 but, wonder of wonders, there are still some sailings going out this winter that are tagged at the bottom line for less than $100 a day per person, double occupancy. Now, mind you, many of these cruises are on the same ships that were sailing 20 years ago, and accommodations may not be as plush as those aboard the new ships. Many of them are inside cabins, which won't even give you a porthole with a glimpse of the sea, only a solid wall where there should be a window.

But for nonfussy travelers who enjoy shipboard life and don't spend a lot of time in the cabin, these bargain rates are a blessing.

Why are sailings aboard the old ships cheaper than the new ships? There's more demand for the brand-new vessels. The old ships are paid for, letting the owners pare the price down to the bone, if necessary, to lure more passengers aboard. And many of the older ships have changed names and lines, so cost-cutting is one way to get the public's attention.

Are old ships less safe than new ships? Not necessarily, since the basic SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) safety standards were required to be in place aboard most vessels, regardless of age, before the end of 1997.

Older ships frequently offer a more traditional cruise than the new mega-ships, with continental cuisine, captain's cocktail party, midnight buffet, casino and disco. The downside is that cabins aboard older ships may be smaller, the entertainment simpler and food less than lavish. But many travelers prefer an interesting destination over luxurious digs and gourmet cuisine.

From $76 a day--Commodore Cruise Line's Enchanted Isle has rates beginning at $532, double occupancy, plus air fare and port charges for a seven-night cruise round trip from New Orleans. The ship, built in 1958 and extensively remodeled several times over the years, is comfortable if not fancy. The lowest-priced cabins are 11 inside cabins with upper and lower berths, so if you want an outside cabin or two lower beds, be prepared to pay a little more. If you pay a $200 deposit per person or in full 90 or more days before the departure date, the second passenger in the cabin pays half the published fare.

Enchanted Isle sails Nov. 7 from New Orleans on a seven-night western Caribbean and Mexico cruise with the stylish band Esplanade aboard. Esplanade plays everything from Big Band sounds of the 1940s through the mambo, the waltz, salsa and the electric slide. Ports of call include Montego Bay, Jamaica; Grand Cayman; and Playa del Carmen and Cozumel in Mexico.

Zydeco fans can book the cruise of Nov. 14 that stars Geno Delafose and French Rockin' Boogie for the same fares and ports of call.

But if you'd rather visit Honduras than Jamaica, book the Dec. 4 sailing at the same fare but with calls in Roatan and Puerto Cortes instead of Grand Cayman and Montego Bay. To get more information or a free color brochure, call Commodore at (800) 237-5361.

From $96 a day--A special enrichment program aboard Royal Olympic Cruises' 840-passenger Olympic Countess is set for Feb. 5, 1999. The 10-day Orinoco River sailing features in-depth lectures by Vincent Muehter, associate director of conservation for the National Audubon Society, and birding excursions ashore in Venezuela's rain forest. Fares begin at $964 per person, double occupancy, plus air add-ons, for passengers who book before Oct. 5. The ship sails from San Juan, Puerto Rico, and makes calls in Venezuela and the Caribbean.

Olympic Countess may be remembered by cruise veterans as the Cunard Countess, built in 1976 and as comfortable as an old shoe, although recent renovations have attempted to turn it into a new, albeit small, shoe. Cabins are quite compact with thin walls, so you'll want to have confidential conversations out on deck. Call (800) 872-6400 for information and brochure.

From $99 a day--Mediterranean Shipping Cruises' 1,076-passenger Melody started life in 1982 as Home Lines' Atlantic, then became one of the Big Red Boats of Premier before being sold to its present four-ship line last year. Pool deck and public rooms are handsome, especially the former, with a pair of pools set into a beautiful Italian tiled deck with outdoor spa tubs, indoor beauty center, bar and terrace cafe.

And the cruise can be a real bargain, since passengers this winter in the Caribbean pay from $990 per person, double occupancy, including port charges but not air fare, for an 10-night round-trip cruise from Fort Lauderdale to the eastern or western Caribbean. This fare applies to only three smallish inside cabins with upper and lower berths, so don't count on getting one of them. The second-cheapest cabin category costs $1,295.

All the lower-priced cabins can be crowded because when Premier took it over from Home Lines, they added lots of pull-down berths for additional passengers, especially children on the Disney World package. Since the extra beds are still there, third, fourth and, in some cabins, fifth people can share the stateroom cruise for $699 apiece; children under 12 for $399 apiece, plus air fare.

Eastern Caribbean cruises depart Jan. 24, Feb. 15, March 9 and 31 and April 21, calling in San Juan; St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands; Antigua; Grenada; St. Lucia; Guadeloupe and Lucaya, the Bahamas. The western Caribbean and Costa Rica itineraries leave Jan. 13, Feb. 4 and 26, March 20 and April 11, and call in Key West, Fla.; Grand Cayman; Ocho Rios, Jamaica; Puerto Limon, Costa Rica; and Cozumel. Call them at (800) 666-9333 for a free brochure or more information.

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