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Friday, August 29, 2014         

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Balcony bliss

A porthole isn't good enough for travelers who want to step outside their staterooms and feel the breeze

By Ellen Creager

Detroit Free Press

POSTED:


ABOARD THE CARNIVAL DREAM » The Titanic didn't have them. Neither did the snooty Queen Elizabeth 2 or the swinging TV "Love Boat" Pacific Princess.

But now many travelers refuse to cruise if they don't have a balcony cabin.

"The first couple times I cruised, I had a porthole window, but the third time I went to the balcony room and I never went back after that," says Peggy Earo of Cary, N.C., who on this cruise has a balcony cabin on Deck 2 not far above the ocean swells. "It's a sense of airiness. It's very calming and soothing. I like to see the storms and the waves, the sunrise and the sunset.

"I would not come without the balcony. It's that important to me."

Earo is not alone.

And the cruise industry has taken notice.

Eighty percent of cabins on the new Regal Princess ship debuting in May will have balconies. Sleek new river-cruise lines are inventing ways to give guests true balconies instead of just a railing. And big cruise lines keep making their balcony (also called veranda) cabins ever more elaborate.

"I would never book an inside stateroom," says John Safranski of Livonia, Mich., who has taken 10 cruises and has an 11th already booked. "It doesn't get much better than sipping champagne out on the balcony as we cruise into the sunset."

Balcony cabins cost about 25 percent more than inside cabins. But that is less of a price difference than a few years ago.

"Back in the day it could have been 75 percent to 100 percent more expensive to get a balcony, there were so few of them," says cruise analyst Stewart Chiron of Miami-based the Cruise Guy. These days "it would be crazy to build a ship that doesn't have them. … Without a doubt they are the most popular cabins on a cruise."

He says what is going away are "ocean-view" cabins — those with window views of the water but no way to sit outside.

And even inside cabins these days are being tricked out with "virtual balconies." The new Royal Caribbean Quantum of the Seas class of ships debuting in November will have soothing video of the ocean broadcast on an interior wall, giving the feel of a balcony cabin if not the bracing reality.

Not that long ago, cruise-ship balcony cabins were for the few and the affluent, if ships offered them at all.

Royal Caribbean's Monarch of the Seas was considered one of the first truly modern cruise ships in 1991. It offered balconies for 5 percent of its cabins, and that was a big deal. Ships built in the 2000s offered about 25 percent to 45 percent balcony cabins.

Now all new ships offer balconies on more than 65 percent of rooms.

And the price differential is shrinking.

The Detroit Free Press looked at prices on seven cruise lines and ships for a typical seven-day Caribbean cruise in November. We found a price premium of 18 to 34 percent over the cost of an inside cabin, but deals are available, such as an $849 balcony cabin on the new Regal Princess, just $150 more than an interior cabin.

Frequent cruisers may be able to get an even better deal.

Myron Thompson of Omaha, Neb., for example, is diamond loyalty level on Carnival because he has taken 50 Carnival cruises.

He does not need to book a balcony cabin to get one.

"If you are a past guest and book it early enough, you will get a two-category upgrade," says Thompson, who once got an aft (back) corner cabin with a wraparound veranda.

With a balcony like that, a person can see both where they've been and where they are going.

WHEN SHOULD YOU SPEND THE MONEY TO GET A BALCONY CABIN?

» If the price difference is 25 percent or less compared with an inside cabin.

» If you are taking an Alaska or Mediterranean cruise with amazing scenery the whole way. Get a cabin on the side that will face land.

» If you want more space. Even a 50-square-foot balcony is like having an extra room; an early riser can sit outside without disturbing a sleeping cabin-mate inside.

» If you get seasick or are claustrophobic. A balcony lets you see the horizon.

» If you smoke. Carnival and Norwegian cruise lines still allow smoking on cabin balconies, although most lines ban it (Cunard's ban took effect this month).

» If you plan to spend a lot of time in your cabin and prefer privacy over crowds.

» If you can afford it. A deluxe balcony may just be gilding the lily, but even a small balcony makes you feel grand.

5 INTERESTING BALCONY CABINS

Cove balcony: Built into the hull, very private and on Deck 2, they are just three stories up from the ocean. I stayed in one and liked its location; so did Peggy Earo of Cary, N.C.: "It's cozy. You feel like you are sheltered, but you can really see the front and back of the ship." Find it: Only on Carnival Dream-class ships, category 7-C. Cost: about $50 cheaper than a typical balcony.

Aft balcony: Very back of the ship, gives you a 180-degree view and deeper balcony. Some cruise fans adore and covet these cabins; others don't like the thruster noise when the ship docks. Nearly all cruise ships have these. One is the aft Deluxe Oceanview Stateroom with Veranda on the Disney Fantasy. Cost: about $100 more than a typical balcony.

Corner aft balcony: Often called "owners' suites," they have an L-shaped veranda on the side and back of the ship. Most ships have them; one outstanding example is the Haven Aft Facing Penthouse with large balcony on the Norwegian Breakaway. Cost: about $1,500 more than a typical balcony.

Park View/Atrium View/Aqua Theater View/ Boardwalk View balcony: Balconies that face inward to overlook the ship's attractions. Priced higher than an interior cabin and lower than an ocean-side balcony. Some love the unusual view; others say they can be noisier than an outside cabin. Find them on Royal Caribbean's Oasis and Allure. Cost: about $50 cheaper than a typical (ocean-side) balcony.

Giant balconies: Top-of-the-line penthouse suites feature balconies nearly three times the size of a basic cabin. If you book the 2,000-square-foot owners' suite on Oceania Marina, you get a three-sided balcony, outdoor hot tub, baby grand piano and other bling. Cost: about $11,000 more than a typical balcony.

(A typical balcony rate on a mainline cruise ship tends to be about $850 per person for a seven-night cruise. It is higher on luxury cruise lines.)

RIVER CRUISES JOIN BALCONY TREND

Normally, river cruises on low-slung small ships have included what is called a "French balcony" — basically, a doorwall that opens partway to a railing, but no actual balcony.

But the newest river cruising ships have interesting balcony or balconylike options:

Viking: Its new class of Longships features actual balconies in many suites and even a couple of suites with wraparound balconies.

Avalon: Its new class of Panorama Suite ships features giant doorwalls in every cabin that open the entire room up to the outside, making your whole room essentially a balcony.

AMA: New ships this year and in 2015 have many staterooms and suites with true balconies.

As on large cruise ships, river-cruise balcony staterooms tend to cost about 25 to 30 percent more than those without balconies.






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