Traveller's Guide: Weekend cruises

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Before you commit to a long voyage, take a short break on the high seas, says Simon Calder

This evening, Grand Princess will glide down Southampton Water. When she emerges from the Solent, her captain will set a course south-south-west. Her 2,500-plus passengers are not bound for Rio and beyond; they will get no closer to the equator than Guernsey. They spend tomorrow exploring St Peter Port and the rest of the island. Then the ship weighs anchor for another unchallenging overnight voyage – to Le Havre, close to the mouth of the Seine, but with the promise of Paris for ambitious day-trippers.

The industry likes weekend cruises (and the occasional midweek short cruise). They provide profitable opportunities to fill days between longer voyages, and moreover expand the market. "A great example of 'try before you buy'," is how Jacqui Ridler of The Luxury Cruise Company describes them.

"We encourage people to invest two or three days and three or four hundred pounds to see if they like cruising," says Stephen Bath, joint managing director of Bath Travel. "A short voyage gives them a flavour of what cruising is all about," echoes Peter Shanks, president of Cunard. His company offers a three-day "Taste of France" trip to Cherbourg from Southampton on 14 October, destination aboard Queen Mary 2, for around £450 in a basic inside cabin (ie one with no window).

While a busy Channel port in France might not sound the most agreeable weekend destination compared with, say, Prague or Milan, there are many advantages. Boarding a cruise is a far more relaxed experience than using a UK airport; you need not worry unduly about baggage limits or what's allowed in your hand luggage; the boarding "window" typically lasts for three or four hours rather than the 90 minutes at airports; and ports such as Southampton and Harwich have good transport links. Compare that with a drive to an airport, followed by a long security queues before a joyless flight.

"Your holiday starts from the moment you get on board the ship – not something many people would say about entering an airport," says Jo Rzymowska, UK general manager for Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises, "especially when you are only away for a short time". She says that weekend cruising can beat flying visits for value, too: "Many features of a short break, such as meals, are included in the price." On most ships there is never a minute when at least one buffet is not dispensing unlimited quantities of food.

Short cruises have become popular for celebrations such as birthdays, anniversaries and, most notably and noisily, stag and hen parties. While the demographic may be much younger than a "regular" cruise, the on-board facilities are exactly the same.

"You can have a four-course dinner under the stars, see a West End style show or a star such as Russell Watson or Derren Brown," says Carol Marlow, managing director of P&O Cruises. Some customers, says Stephen Bath, "want to try out a ship to see if they want to 'marry' her – ie buy a world cruise".

For short cruises departing from Britain, there is by necessity a relatively small number of ports of call. Zeebrugge may not have the cachet of St-Tropez, but the intimate beauty of Bruges is close by. And some unlikely stars emerge: Cobh in southern Ireland allows ships to tie up within a three-minute walk of the nearest pub. Shore excursions that delve deeper in to the destination can be expensive.

Before you conclude from a weekend afloat either that cruising is holiday heaven or the devil's work, bear in mind that short cruises are not completely representative of the genre. "It can be challenging to provide the full experience," says Peter Shanks of Cunard. "Relaxed days at sea are one of our trademarks. On a shorter voyage there are not enough hours in the day to experience all we have to offer."

Neither will a short cruise fully reveal the camaraderie aboard a good ship, nor the versatility of everyone from the chefs to the entertainers. But from another perspective, while a quick trip from Southampton to Cherbourg may leave you wanting more, the full transatlantic experience could find you crawling up the indoor climbing wall with cabin fever.

Additional research by Megan Osborne

Time to head for the Med

"A fabulous example of 'try before you buy' is the newly refurbished Crystal Serenity," says Jacqui Ridler of The Luxury Cruise Company. Fly from Heathrow to Barcelona on 13 October, spend the night on board in the Catalan city, then sail overnight with a sea day to Monte Carlo, with flights back from Nice to Heathrow. The price of around £900 includes tips and transfers.

You could build a cruise into a longer holiday – perhaps using some of the odd voyages on offer in the Mediterranean. For example, on the evening of 19 April next year Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Jade sails from Malaga (Granada) on a two-night voyage to Barcelona – taking you from Picasso's birthplace to the city that celebrates him most fervently. Thanks to the easy availability of flights from the UK to Malaga and back from Barcelona, you can plan a two-centre holiday with a cruise in the middle – at a bargain price of £135 per person, which is cheaper than a couple of nights on dry Spanish land with all your meals and transport.

Finding and booking your cruise

You may be faintly irritated by the way that the prices quoted here are all approximate. That is deliberate. As with many other travel products, prices fluctuate dramatically. The people who set prices worry about two things: "How well is the booking profile matching what we predicted would maximise earnings and fill up the ship?" and "What are our competitors doing?".

While cruise lines are happy to sell direct, often the best deals are through agents who negotiate special terms – throwing in extras such as on-board credit, or discounting below the rates charged by operators. Carnival, which owns brands including Cunard, P&O Cruises and Princess, is cutting commission levels to stem the amount of discounting, but it is unlikely that great deals to woo early and late bookers will disappear.

In a sense, cruising is like the rest of the travel industry 20 years ago, when cutting in the middle man could often secure a better deal. So while the booking lines and websites for the main operators are given right, as always shopping around is the best policy.

Irish Seas

"The four-night cruise to Ireland on Independence of the Seas with an overnight stay in Cork offers a great opportunity to experience the ship and its facilities," says Jo Rzymowska of Royal Caribbean International. "You know you will always receive a warm welcome in Ireland."

The 5 May 2012 sailing is likely to deliver excellent views of the coast of south-west England. The ship makes a 90-degree change of course at Bishop Rock lighthouse, at the far end of the Isles of Scilly, turning north-west to make for one of the greatest natural harbours in the world.

The headland protecting Cork Harbour was the last point at which the Titanic picked up passengers on her fateful maiden voyage; they were ferried out by tender to avoid the new White Star liner having to enter the harbour. Twenty-first-century cruise ships tie up at Cobh – the port for Cork, formerly known as Queenstown. The first thing passengers see is a life-size model of a newspaper vendor with a poster reading "Titanic disaster – great loss of life". This introduces the Queenstown Experience, a museum on the waterfront right next to the railway station (trains to Cork city centre every half-hour). The best shore excursion is a tour of all the Titanic locations in town.

The vessel arrives late afternoon, and remains in port for a night and (most of) the following day, before departing for a voyage of almost walking pace back to Southampton – taking around 36 hours. The cruise line's price of £430 looks a touch expensive, and agents may be able to offer a deal.

If you happen to know anyone aged 50 or more, you could recommend the Saga Sapphire itinerary that departs Dover on 24 August next year, arriving in Dublin in time for the conclusion of the European Tall Ships race and calling at Cobh and Guernsey on the way back; about £900.

For a much cheaper, two-night cruise to Ireland, Cruise and Maritime Voyages' Ocean Countess sets sail on 1 October this year from Liverpool for Dublin, where she moors overnight before departing for Holyhead; around £145.

North American beauties

The US is prime short-cruise territory. If you can stretch to five nights, the 1 July departure of Queen Mary 2 next year from New York heads to Halifax in Nova Scotia, then returns via the Massachusetts state capital, "With the ship sitting in pride of place for the famous Boston Harbour Fourth of July fireworks," according to Peter Shanks of Cunard. Including transatlantic flights, the jaunt costs around £1,600.

"Nassau in the Bahamas offers great beaches and shopping," says Jacqui Ridler of The Luxury Cruise Company. Plenty of ships make the overnight crossing from Miami, returning from Nassau the following night. Celebrity's Millennium has a typical voyage, departing on 5 January for around £185.

Travellers to the US and Canada can construct terrific sail/rail itineraries using some short cruises in the Pacific. Next Saturday, for example, Princess Cruises' Coral Princess departs from Vancouver for a two-night trip to San Francisco for around £150. You could combine this with the rail journey back through northern California, Oregon and Washington to British Columbia's biggest city.

Small wonders

What you lose in on-board facilities you gain in accessibility to ports. Fred. Olsen has a couple of December departures from Hampshire that offer the chance to combine Christmas shopping with culture. Both cruises start at around £230.

Black Watch – perhaps the most traditional cruise ship based in Britain – departs Southampton on 14 December for Rouen, well inland along the Seine. Depending on daylight in the depths of winter, you may be able to experience passing beneath the monumental Pont de Normandie at the mouth of the Seine, and enjoy dramatic river scenery en route to Rouen.

The ship moors overnight in the city where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. Rouen's core offers a strong suit in half-timbered buildings at jaunty angles, but the high point is the cathedral. You could explore the city on day one, then hop aboard a train to Paris (only 73 minutes away) on day two to compare the real thing with Monet's impressions of the cathedral in the Musée d'Orsay.

If you prefer Belgium's leading port, Boudicca departs Portsmouth on 20 December, reaching Antwerp early evening the following day – ideal timing for connoisseurs of the world's best beers. You get about 24 hours in Antwerp – frustratingly, on a Monday when the iconic new MAS museum is closed. But Antwerp's architectural repertoire, combined with cutting-edge fashion and a huge number of bars and restaurants, should satisfy.

Top tips on tipping

Hotels and airlines tolerate a significant proportion of their rooms or seats being unoccupied on a particular night or flight. But the business model used by the big cruise lines is predicated upon 100 per cent occupancy, which is why you can sometimes find very cheap deals shortly before departure.

The cruise line wants every cabin to be full partly because your tips comprise an essential element of the earnings of many of the crew.

"Staff members, including restaurant staff, stateroom stewards and behind-the-scenes support staff, are compensated by a combination of salary and incentive programs that your service charge supports," is what Norwegian Cruise Line tells passengers. It is one of several cruise lines to stipulate an amount – typically $12 (£8) a day for every passenger over two years old – which is added to your shipboard account. For a couple on a four-day voyage, that adds £64 to the total bill.

Princess Cruises adds a similar charge, which is distributed widely: "Including all wait-staff, stateroom stewards, buffet stewards, and housekeeping staff across the fleet." In other words, rather than rewarding outstanding service by individuals, or even the ship's crew as a whole, it is spread to other ships.

Some passengers – for example, bolshie Brits like me – prefer to tip staff personally, in cash. But on many ships, removing charges from your shipboard account is a near-impossible business, requiring you to point a finger at crew whose work you feel is not up to scratch. In addition, on-board drinks routinely incur a 15 per cent service charge, and the standard for spa staff is 18 per cent.

Contacts

* Celebrity Cruises: 0844 493 2043; celebritycruises.co.uk

* Cruise and Maritime Voyages: 0845 430 0274; cruiseandmaritime.com

* Crystal Cruises: 020-7287 9040; crystalcruises.co.uk

* Cunard: 0845 678 0013; cunard.co.uk

* Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines: 01473 746175; fredolsencruises.com

* Norwegian Cruise Line: 0845 201 8900; ncl.co.uk

* P&O Cruises: 0845 678 00 14; pocruises.com

* Princess Cruises: 0845 075 0031; princess.com

* Royal Caribbean: 0844 493 2061; royalcaribbean.co.uk

* Saga: 0800 096 0079; travel.saga.co.uk

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