By Rick Kahler
NEW YORK (AdviceIQ) -- Ocean cruises often are a real bargain, but sometimes you get what you pay for, as we found out in the scary waters off Somalia. When does frugality intersect with insanity? Maybe about the time the pirates show up.
My wife and I are frugal. We are also fans of cruise vacations and just completed our 28th. With a little homework, thrifty vacationers discover that cruises represent a great value. Most cruise lines include food, lodging and transportation between ports, while you pay for items such as liquor, specialty dining and shore excursions.
We typically try to find a cruise on a major line that is discounted to around $75 a day per person. Depending on the itinerary, we may go as high as $125 a day. Our favorite cruise lines are Celebrity, Cunard and Holland America. Until our latest trip, high prices had kept us from trying some of the luxury cruise lines such as Azamara, Crystal and Oceania.
Luxury cruise lines typically charge $400 to $500 a day for inside cabins, and they rarely discount those prices by much. This does include many things (drinks, some services and tips) you pay extra for on other lines. Even with those extras, which I value at about $85 a day, a luxury cruise is still expensive.
You can understand our excitement, then, when my wife found a cruise on Azamara for $70 a day: a discount of more than 84%. This was a repositioning cruise the company needed to get the ship to a new port, meaning a lot of sea days. It was also a small ship, only 600 passengers, with fewer activities than on a larger vessel. A repositioning cruise on any line is usually a bargain if your goal is some relaxing down time. Still, they are not typically discounted this much.
There was another reason for the low price.
The cruise started in Athens, with just three stops before arriving at Dubai 14 days later. The route went through the Suez Canal, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, just off the coast of several countries that included Syria, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Somalia.
Yes, that Somalia. The home of the pirates who hijack a ship and kidnap Tom Hanks' character in the movie Captain Phillips.
Before booking the cruise, we assessed the presumably slight risk of Somali pirates hijacking our ship. The size of that risk didn't kick in until the ship stopped to bring aboard a 10-man security team carrying a ton of large and oddly configured luggage. The captain wouldn't specify what was in the luggage, but he assured us we were "adequately" prepared to deal firmly with any threat.
Between Somalia and Dubai, the crew did not allow passengers on open decks from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. That meant no swimming, hot tub or on-deck lounging. The ship turned off all running lights at night and imposed strict orders to keep all drapes and curtains pulled.
Our cruise experience also included, at no extra charge, the "Operation Safe Haven" pirate drill. Basically, if pirates appeared, the crew told us to find an interior hallway, lie down, and wait. If a pirate did make it to our hallway, we were to scream, "Arr, you miserable, witless, clodpoll!" (Oh, wait -- that last instruction wasn't official. It came from my daughter, who reads a lot of historical and fantasy novels.)
So was this a great deal? I definitely would not consider a luxury cruise worth $400 to $500 a day. At $200 a day or less, I'd sign up again. Preferably, however, without the pirates.
Still, we enjoyed most of our trip. We didn't have to learn first-hand about the economics of negotiating ransom demands with pirates. And now that we're safely home, we might even go see Captain Phillips.
-- By Rick Kahler, CFP, president of Kahler Financial Group in in Rapid City, S.D.
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