Take cruise control

THE cruises sector of the global travel industry has been defying recessionary trends and growing non-stop, with average annual growth of 9%.

Take cruise control

Here in Ireland, we’re seeing very visible evidence of that growth through the increased numbers of cruise ships visiting various ports in Ireland at the current rate of about 60 vessels per year.

With competition continuing in the cruise sector and prices coming down, the cruise is no longer the difficult-to-attain luxury product that it was in the time of Agatha Christie and more and more Irish people are partaking of this adventurous form of travel. There aren’t any accurate figures available nationally, but all travel agents and operators confirm that the numbers of Irish people opting for cruises is still on the increase. Not only that, but the more cruises that people take, the farther and more adventurous their cruising habits become, subject to their own budgets, of course.

Although the situation may well change for 2015 and beyond, for 2014 the news is that you can’t get a cruise departing from an Irish port. Last year, two companies (MSC and Royal Caribbean) were offering cruises allowing people to get on in Ireland’s only dedicated cruising berth in Cobh (complete with a quayside brass band to bid the vessel farewell). They didn’t end in Ireland in an arrangement known in the cruise industry as “inter-porting”, but it did allow people based in Ireland to be able to start their cruise without leaving the country. At the end of the cruise the disembarking point would have been somewhere in England, involving relatively little travel to get back home.

For the Irish person looking to go cruising, the starting point in the vast majority of cases is Spain, the Canary Islands or elsewhere in the Mediterranean. Although there are plenty of options for starting your cruise in England, flights south are very affordable now and a cruise around the Mediterranean invariably involves fine weather and relatively calm seas. If you’re getting on a plane to start your cruise, then you might as well take a flight that will cut out two days of hanging around the colder end of Europe.

You can have a cruise in the Mediterranean for a week for around €645 (including flights). This gives you a holiday where all your meals are looked after, with nothing else to worry about except a souvenir fund and having a drink or ten at the bar. Regular flights out of Shannon and Dublin take cruisers to Palma, Mallorca — a popular cruise the warm western Mediterranean.

From Shannon, Cork or Dublin you can fly to Malaga and pick up a cruise that will cruise down and around the Canary Islands.

Rome is another hot-spot destination for the cruising community. Regular flights from Dublin through Aer Lingus or Ryanair will bring you there and you can pick up a number of options that will give you a week-long or ten-day cruise of the Mediterranean ports.

Similarly, you can go further east to Venice — also with regular direct flights from Ireland. This area is a growing option for Irish travellers as it takes in some very picturesque parts that are rising in popularity, including the Croatian coastline, the Greek Islands and even into Egypt. This kind of cruise will typically set you back about €1,000 or €1,100 per person per week.

These itineraries represent by far the most popular ones for Irish people going on cruises. There are other options. Within Europe there are the Nordic and Baltic cruises, while the Caribbean cruises are growing in popularity, but the farther you go the more expensive the cruise is.

People who cruise the Baltic or Nordic areas get to visit cultural delights such as Saint Petersburg or Tallinn, but for anyone who prefers sunshine and being able to sit out on deck all day, it may not be the first choice.

There’s no doubt that the older one gets the more one appreciates sitting or strolling out in the sunshine all day and getting a warm meal in the evening, but the typical age group that likes to go on a cruise is changing too. The classic image of the slow-moving army of well-off septuagenarians is no longer valid in today’s world of cruising and most cruise liners feature a wide disparity of age groups on board. Families with young children are finding that a cruise makes excellent sense in a controlled and monitored area with plenty of activities and no meals to cook.

For those who do venture further afield, both the Caribbean and the Alaskan cruises are very popular choices. With the latter, flights to Vancouver or Seattle allow people to catch a cruise to explore the semi-wilderness of the 49th state of America, while flights to Orlando bring people in touch with the tropical Caribbean, with prices that start around the €1,500 mark for a week’s cruise.

The price difference between taking a cruise in a European area and somewhere like the Far East or Alaska is considerable. It involves choosing between whether to spend upwards of €2,000 for your week’s holiday or something around €600-€700.

Inland cruises are another popular option. It’s boutique sailing with a touch of luxury and you have the advantage over the sea cruise of a constantly-changing landscape to admire.

A cruise on the Rhine, for example, can start in Amsterdam, taking you through the huge patchwork of tulip fields and windmills and castles from the ancient fiefdoms of Germany.

The Danube is another popular option that takes you through some very grand cities, including Prague, Budapest and Vienna. Or, for the ultimate in great river cruising, you could start in Amsterdam and finish up in Istanbul. These cruises come in at around €1,900 per person with full board.

Travelfox.ie has a 7-night cruise from Lisbon on MSC Poesia with a free upgrade to a balcony cabin for €999, www.travelfox.ie. Also see cruiseholidays.ie, Sunwaytravel.ie and Cruise1st.ie or topflight.ie.

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