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How to Avoid Cruise Control

By John Freivalds


I just got one of those Caribbean cruise offers in the mail. This one is to Belize and one feature is an onshore excursion of a two-hour walk through a rainforest for $100. Yikes!  When I was in the Peace Corps I was paid $90 a month for two years to live in a rainforest!

Cruising used to be the province of the very rich wearing white linen trousers, flowing silk scarves and blue deck shoes but today, with 5,000 capacity cruise ships all over the place, the daily room cost it is within reach of most budgets.  These days as many as 20 million people a year go on cruises.  And I would like to find someone who hasn't gotten a robo call or a mailing about this or that cruise including the scam one offering a free $1,300 cruise but you have to give them your credit card number first. The caller hung up when I asked "if this is free why do you need my credit card number?"

This is the time of year people in the Twin Cities start booking their winter trips but many do so without knowing what they are getting into.  There are reputable cruise operators like Linblad and then there are those whose only aim is to separate you from your money.

Before you book that cruise you need to ask yourself why more cruise ships are flying foreign flags when the companies they represent are in the US.  The answer is  simply to escape regulations:  escape US labor laws, escape health and safety regulations and escape liability.  And regarding escaping US labor laws, as foreign origin flag vessels plying international waters they are under no one's jurisdiction.  Their costs are lower and thus the cheap rooms.

In essence, cruise lines would be considered sweatshops by any other standard.  Workers are paid $50-100 a month; they are asked to work 70 hours a week; they never get off the ship for 8 months.  They depend on tips (gratuities) that passengers are asked to leave.  In essence, passengers are paying the wages of the crew.

Today's cruise lines are merely floating hotels with no regulation offering people a temporary escape from their daily lives.  Elizabeth Becker in her neat book: Overbooked; The exploding business of travel and tourism put it this way in writing about the founder of Carnival Cruise lines:  "He decided that port visits should be almost incidental, offering a few hours on foreign soil before returning to the real pleasure of eating, drinking and playing on board."

And on board the enticement is that food is free.  But, mama mia, everything else costs.  It's like Spirit Airlines.

You can't bring your own alcohol on board.  If you do and are caught (remember the chambermaids come into your one porthole room everyday) you are kicked off the ship. But in shipping legalese "you will be asked to disembark." Then we have roaming charges for your cell phone which many people discover can be $500 for the duration of the cruise.  Then there is gambling on board, but remember you are in international waters and there is no gaming commission to monitor how often the slots pay out or how many decks of cards are in the blackjack show.

And the ship is laid out so you pass the international stores and other shops constantly and with your ship credit card in hand you use it freely.  "Go ahead honey, you only live once."

Ross Klein, a Canadian researcher, examined all of this and noted "on board spending is becoming more profitable than ticket sales . . . If you include all the onboard spending it is now less expensive to stay at that upscale resort than to sail on their cruise ship."

But all that just relates to the cruise ship.  The impact on those ports where cruise ships stop is even more striking.  The influx of tourists is destroying the very things that people came to see.  This sign was posted in Belize:  "No trespassing:  This is not Disneyland, Tourists are not welcome."