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Cruises

It seems that in theory cruises can make for quite economical vacations. The cheapest prices tend to be around $100 per person per night for an “inside” cabin (IE no window) with two people (there is a significant extra fee for having a cabin with only one person). If you book a room in a half-decent hotel with a pool in some moderately desirable place then you will probably pay about $200 per night which might get you free breakfast but won’t include lunch or dinner. Cruises include all the free food you can eat for at least 16 hours of the day with maybe an extra fee for getting food in the middle of the night. When a cruise ship stops at the port you can pay for an expensive shore trip arranged by the cruise company or have a cheap trip that involves walking on the beach or taking a taxi to somewhere local. Of course there are lots of extras that can make a cruise really expensive, but if you don’t plan to eat at speciality restaurants or drink much alcohol then that shouldn’t be a problem.

I’ve just booked a short luxury cruise, mostly as a trial of the cruise concept. The process of doing so was difficult enough that even if I hadn’t previously needed a holiday then I’d probably need one now. It would be interesting to compare the amount of time that a reasonable person would be likely to spend choosing a holiday and purchasing it for the different types of holiday, I expect that cruising would be a long way behind everything that involves flying to a foreign city and staying in a hotel.

The Issues of Booking

When booking a regular holiday you choose where to visit, then choose the time of year, the accommodation, and travel. While the order can vary it’s generally a sequential process without too many variables at any stage.

With a cruise one of the first decisions is to choose the cruise line, different lines cater to various market segments – it’s clear what Disney cruises aim for but often not so clear for others. Apart from Disney the other cruise lines don’t seem to make clear statements about who they are and aren’t targeting. Then there are a variety of ships run by each cruise line which in many cases offer different features, do you want 1 pool or 4? Do you want ice skating? The cruise lines that I have investigated don’t offer clear comparisons of their ships. As a cruise ship is essentially a hotel, a collection of restaurants, and some other entertainment you can’t just arbitrarily choose one the way you might choose a random hotel with a suitable price and rating.

Now while you can choose a hotel and generally get a room when you want a cruise booking has to be made when the ship is in a convenient port. So your holiday needs to be scheduled around the availability of the ship. CruiseCritic.com is an excellent source of information on cruises and has a very active and useful advice forum [1]. The forum appears to be dominated by retirees, presumably because retirees have time to just wait for a ship they like to visit their local port while people who have to schedule holidays around work projects etc.

When booking a hotel I have found that Wotif.com is really good for comparing hotels and finding a reasonably cheap one and they also have periodic mail-outs about special deals. I have made a couple of short vacations based on Wotif offering me unusually good prices on a hotel in a place that I was mildly interested in visiting. There are also special deals on cruises, but it’s a lot more difficult to take them. Firstly as cruises aren’t as interchangeable as hotels it’s not as appealing to take an offer of a cruise you didn’t previously consider because it’s going cheap. The second factor is that according to cruise reviews there is more variation among cabins than there is among hotel rooms. The design of the ship that is needed to cram everything in the available space means that some cabins apparently have noise pollution from various activities on the ship while others are considered to have problems for people prone to sea-sickness. Discounts probably only apply after people who pay non-discount rates have had a chance to book what might be considered the better cabins. Of course it could be a good thing to have most of the ship booked out, CruiseCritic.com has some reviews of individual cabins and presumably there are people who compare hundreds of cabins to discover what is ideal for them.

The Problem with Princess

I have booked a Princess cruise. I chose it because it was going cheap, but the first two travel agents that advertised it were unable to take my order because Princess only allows US based agencies (which means the discount agents on the net) to sell to US customers – I don’t think that the people who run the Princess cruise company know what the Internet is about.

So I booked the cruise through the Princess web site, they took my money, told me that a good chunk of that money would never be returned if I cancelled, and then sent me to the web page for providing all the information that they need – which is a lot. The big problem was when their web site absolutely demanded a passport number and said that I would not be allowed to board without one even though their FAQ (and common sense) indicated that a cruise which doesn’t involve any international travel has no need of a passport. Taking someone’s money and then telling them that they can’t attend due to not having a valid passport is one way of making a future passenger very unhappy.

I called the support people (which was Carnival) and had to listen to some really strange hold music – it was difficult to determine if the music was produced by someone with unusual tastes in electronic music vastly different from my own preference or whether the computer which manages the phone calls was producing noise instead of music. Eventually I got through to an operator who was very helpful and stored my drivers’ license number which was adequate.

While on the topic of their web site, when booking a cruise with Princess they list which types of cabin (interior, balcony, etc) are available and list the price for the cheapest category of cabin in each price. However if the cheapest category is all sold out then it will still list that cheapest price and thus be advertising a price that can’t be booked. This is misleading and annoying.

Further Hassle

But the difficulty doesn’t end here. On a cruise you have to book in advance for which dinner seating you desire – which is usually only early or late but some ships offer “anytime”. Then if you happen to be travelling with people who are in a separate cabin and paying separately (which one would expect to be fairly common) there is no obvious way of synchronising dinner preferences – the ship people might assign people to different tables. I admit that I haven’t fully explored the post-booking part of the Princess web site, maybe I can arrange a shared table – but for the moment my pain threshold for the cruise booking process has been exceeded.

Other Cruising Stuff

Insight Cruises (formerly Geek Cruises) offers a variety of educational cruises including science, astronomy, chess, art, history, and some other things [2]. From a casual inspection of their web site it seems that the cruise prices are around $300 per night for a 2 person cabin and the registration fees for the conferences are between $1200 and $1500. Most readers of my blog will consider this to be unreasonably expensive as registration for a Linux conference tends to be a lot less than $1000. But when compared to typical for-profit conferences $1500 isn’t anywhere near the high end of the range. Also while someone who is choosing a cruise holiday can easily get a cruise that costs less than $200 per day for a 2 person cabin, for commercial conferences it’s not uncommon to spend more than $300 per night for two people on accommodation and food. So the only noteworthy part about the cost is that accommodation will be quite expensive if you aren’t sharing a room.

If you want to run a conference on a cruise there are companies which specialise in such things, Landry and Kling is one company that specialises in planning corporate events [3]. They do seem to aim for the high end of the market, including chartering a small cruise ship or half a large cruise ship – that means ~1000 passengers. While there are some conferences with more than 1000 delegates it seems that most conferences top out at about 500 delegates. However I know that some conferences have limited the number of delegates to the maximum capacity of the biggest lecture hall available – as some cruise ships have a theater with more than 1000 seats it seems that similar conferences could potentially arrange a half ship charter. A half ship charter apparently allows exclusive access to one of the theaters (at least when it’s not needed for evening entertainment) and exclusive seating at the main dining room. It’s a standard feature that cruise ships have all the equipment you might need to run a conference.

Autism on the Seas is a brand used by the Alumni Cruise company for their holiday packages for special needs children [4]. They sell cruise tickets at the regular list price and the commission that they receive when acting as a travel agency is enough to hire staff to look after the kids while presumably still running at a profit. It seems to me that a similar model could be used for a computer conference, make a profit on cruise ticket sales and then have no extra costs for the conference – for people sharing a room that would be cheaper than most Linux conferences I’ve attended.

For smaller conferences and un-conferences there is no minimum reservation size. One down-side for a computer conference is the cost of Internet access, according to Wikipedia a personal installation of satellite net access costs $5 per megabyte and ship pricing for their Internet access is up around $30-$100 per hour per person! But in the old days when attending a conference meant a week of no net access we survived somehow.

It also seems to me that if a company had a small development team it could be productive to put everyone on a cruise ship with a server for testing and version control. They could do 9 hour days on board and still have lots of time for relaxation as it’s only a few minutes walk to the pool. Of course this wouldn’t work if some members of the team wanted to stay home due to slow and expensive net access.

6 comments to Cruises

  • The ratio of hospitality staff to passengers is pretty high on a regular cruise line. I bet you could get the cost per code monkey day down quite a bit.

    Maybe what the world needs is a floating coworking/incubator space — not a full-service offshoring firm like http://www.sea-code.com/ but a ship on which you can book cabin, office, and rack space. Then you could work in international waters, and a development team with all different citizenships and visa statuses could work together.

  • etbe

    The ratio of overall staff to passengers on cruise ships is about 1:2. Some portion of the staff are essential to having a seaworthy vessel (officers and engineering staff for shifts covering 24*7). Some galley staff are essential, but that’s certainly a lot less than is needed to run the 5+ restaurants on modern cruise ships (which includes at least 1 restaurant serving 24*7).

    But I wonder how much cheaper than $100 per night per person you could really make it. I suspect that if you had a ship with little in the way of entertainment then the cost per person would not decrease because the current cruise business model relies on significant amounts of money spent on alcohol ($1000 per week for one person isn’t uncommon according to CruiseCritic.com), special restaurants that cost extra (I’ve seen up to $95 per person advertised), the casino, the art auction, the spa, etc. If you got a development team on a regular cruise ship who didn’t spend much money on alcohol or the casino and you were able to fill the 2 person cabins then you would be subsidised by the passengers who gamble and drink.

    It has been proven repeatedly that people get less work done if you make them work excessively long hours. I haven’t seen any research on this which investigates how much of that is work time and how much is time from leaving home to returning from work. I expect that if the total of 90 minutes each day that is commonly spent driving to and from work was spent working then the other 8 hours devoted to work wouldn’t be any less productive. So having work a few minutes walk from home should be a significant benefit for a company. As an aside I’ve never understood why companies that get office towers don’t get residential sections in them. Working and living in the same building would save a lot of time!

  • Actively working programmers probably wouldn’t spend a lot of money gambling and drinking. You could reduce staff a lot by just doing weekly cleaning of cabins and expecting programmers to make their own beds, and by running the restaurants cafeteria style.

    The main reasons why there are so few mixed-use projects in the USA are zoning and financing. It’s much harder to get a construction loan.

  • etbe

    I worked in Amsterdam during the dot-com boom, during that time I observed a lot of evidence of programmers wasting money in various ways, not gambling but every other way that one might waste money in Amsterdam. I was the sensible one and wasted a heap of money on the stock market instead. :-#

    But if you reduce expenses a lot then it makes the environment a lot less desirable. There have been a few occasions when I have been invited on a corporate “cruise” (which has meant a vessel that has standing room for at most a few hundred people). The one occasion where I was not permitted to refuse the invitation made me glad that I had declined every other time. Making a closed environment desirable isn’t easy. You can probably skip the Broadway-style shows but the sporting/exercise equipment, pools, games, cinema, computer gaming systems, aren’t really optional IMHO.

  • cla

    The difficulties about booking a cruise that you mentioned are similar to the hurdles that used to exist when booking hotels and flights (think late 80s, early 90s). Those hurdles no longer exist because the processes have been streamlined for web users. Actually, sometimes those hurdles do still exist* but not for Australian domestic holidays. If the main market for cruises is the pensioner age-group, then the cruise companies are probably not expecting a big return on the cost of streamlining their processes. In fact, I would imagine that the process for cruises is streamlined for travel agencies, because they’re probably where the most bookings (still) come from.

    It is really wierd that your travel agents advertised a cruise and price, but couldn’t book it for you.

    * Recent examples: round-the-world flight bookings (2010), hotel bookings in Budapest (03.11) & Görlitz (08.11)

  • etbe

    cla: Good point about streamlining for travel agents. For example with Princess you can only book one cabin at a time through the web interface and there’s no way to group multiple cabins for dinner. Obviously it’s going to be a common requirement for a group that is too big for one cabin (usually 2 and sometimes 4 people) to want to have dinner together.

    Most cruise companies don’t just cater to pensioners. Web research indicates that standard features include free activities for children, babysitting services, and security staff dedicated to watching children. Also I really doubt that pensioners spend as much on liquor and gambling as the younger passengers. Now there is some specialisation among cruise lines, so probably some cater more to older people (while the Disney and Nickelodeon cruises obviously don’t so much). But discussion on the Internet seems to suggest that it’s fairly common to have 3 generations of a family on the one cruise.

    As for advertising but not taking the booking, it seems that the TAs reasonably assume that they can book anyone for any cruise and get surprised when they discover that they can’t.

    I think that a large part of the problem is that as the newer cruise ships have a build price approaching $1,000,000,000 every cruise company must be a large corporation and they tend to have the usual corporate issues. An interesting trend is the way that they are apparently outsourcing many parts of their operations such as providing food.

    A smart cruise company could prepare a set of data describing their ships and cruises and then take tenders from web companies for two separate tasks of managing the promotion web site and the sales web site. If a cruise company did that I would contact some friends about forming a company to tender for the promotion site. I could do so much better than any of the cruise sites I’ve seen.