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Sailing the seas tops holiday season travel trends

Backstage Pass

Ask travel specialists about holiday travel trends and a common theme emerges: cruises.

Of the cruise line offerings, Carnival Cruise Lines’ newest ship, Carnival Conquest, is creating quite a stir. Last month, former Louisiana Congresswoman Lindy Boggs christened the latest “Fun Ship,” the line’s first vessel inaugurated at the Port of New Orleans, where the ship will be based year-round.

“Cruising is big business and getting bigger all the time,” said Beverly Gianna, vice president of public affairs for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau (NOMCVB). “For visitors driving to New Orleans for a cruise, there is plenty of convenient parking near the cruise terminal. And, of course, the terminal is just steps away from so many attractions, including shopping and dining.”

Holiday travel has made a gradual change from the traditional Christmas or post-Christmas family ski trip to holiday cruises, said Bill Bryan, president of Jackson-based Bryan Tours, and vice president of international travel for MTS Travel Management Group of Pennsylvania.

“The easy access for cruises out of New Orleans has influenced this change in the local area,” he said. “Four-, five- and seven-day cruises operate weekly from the New Orleans gateway. Holiday cruises can often be modified for up to 10-day excursions depending on the day of the week that Christmas and New Year’s falls.”

A family of four can easily spend more than $7,000 for airfare, lodging, transportation, lift tickets and food for a one-week ski vacation in Colorado or Utah during the holiday season, said Bryan.

“The same family of four might spend $4,500 to $5,000 on a western Caribbean cruise from New Orleans (based on using two cabins), $3,500 to $4,000 on a five-day excursion to New York, or $6,000 to take the family to London or Paris for one week. Distance has nothing to do with pricing,” said Bryan.

Jodi Lafranca of Bienville House in New Orleans said quite a few pre- and post-cruise guests from Mississippi take advantage of the hotel’s $69 Papa Noel rate in December, which includes a deluxe continental breakfast. “It is such a fun time to stay in our hotel,” she said. “We have carolers and Dickens characters promenading each afternoon.”

If you haven’t been to New Orleans during the holidays in several years, you’ll find even more to do to extend your cruise vacation. Gray Line of New Orleans recently introduced the Southern Comfort Cocktail Tour, mixing classic stories of New Orleans taverns and restaurants with facts about the unique concoctions made famous there.

The Windsor Court Hotel’s Grill Room recently added Dom Perignon champagne to its Sunday brunch and features the only chef in town who serves poached eggs with wild mushrooms and smoked salmon, topped with hollandaise and caviar for breakfast. And a unique service for traveling pet lovers: Hotel Monaco offers complimentary goldfish service.

New hotel properties include The Cotton Exchange Hotel at 231 Carondelet, and the Hotel Astor Crown Plaza on Canal at Bourbon, where restaurateur Dickie Brennan’s new Bourbon House restaurant is rumored to start serving finger-lickin’ good seafood this month.

“While waiting to embark, be sure to take in the National D-Day Museum, or perhaps take the newly created French Quarter Walking Tour highlighting the Louisiana Purchase,” said Gianna. “The tour includes admission to the Cabildo Museum, the site of the transfer ceremonies, and the Ursuline Convent, the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley.”

Rick Schneider, CTC, of Starward First Travel in Hernando, said the cruise market is filled with “really fine buys.”

“We’ve been selling Royal Caribbean, which puts a ship in and out of New Orleans from time to time,” he said. “The cruise has been selling for $834.10 total for two people. That’s about $62 a day per person. I tell people I can’t put you in a Holiday Inn, give you breakfast at International House of Pancakes, lunch at Bob Evans, dinner at Roadhouse Grill and two tickets to a theater for $62 per person a day.”

Even though the Royal Caribbean deal ended in November, Mississippians can take advantage of last-minute specials, said Schneider, “even though the cruise itinerary is limited mostly to the western Caribbean, which covers Jamaica, the Caymans and the Yucatan Peninsula.”

In the spring of 2003, cruises will be offered from Mobile, providing travelers with another alternative, especially those who receive travel vouchers as Christmas gifts, said Schneider.

“The Delta Queen is back up and operational,” he said. “Because it’s been slow in the cruise markets, there have been some real buys, pricing I haven’t seen for years. Historically, steamboats are more expensive to operate than a Caribbean cruise ship because they are subject to U.S. labor laws, such as minimum wage. On a Caribbean cruise ship, a lot of employees work for tips.”

Airlines began offering special holiday travel fares earlier than usual this year, but consumers still aren’t buying it, said Schneider.

“Air travel is definitely static, in part because of concerns with the Iraqi situation and the economy,” he said. “The airlines dropped fares so that the normal Saturday night requirement is not a factor. Historically, the airlines will relax that, but it’s usually two weeks before the holidays. This year, they came out with it at the tail end of October. Even so, more people are driving.”

Starr Smith, international journalist and author of the best-selling travel book, “Southern Scenes: Journeys Through a Lovely Land” (River City Publishing, $29.95), said families are “taking their homes” to nearby land-based resorts, such as the Grand Hotel in Point Clear, The Peabody in Memphis or Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans. “That way,” he said, “the family can be together during the holidays and enjoy a relaxing vacation at the same time.”

Darienne Wilson, director of tourism development for the Mississippi Development Authority, expects a busy holiday travel season. “One way or another, people are going to reconnect with family this Christmas,” she said.

Amtrak is trying to capture a slice of the holiday market. For a limited time, Amtrak is offering 30% off the lowest available coach fare, plus an additional 5% off when travel is booked online, for ticket purchases between November 4 and December 13 and travel from November 7 through February 28, 2003.

Still, if your heart is set on skiing, post holiday bargains can be found, said Bryan. “The 10 or 12 days following New Year’s often offers off season rates at ski resorts…and with airlines.”

New York remains a popular destination for pre-Christmas and Christmas holidays, but New York charges its highest rates of the year from Thanksgiving until Christmas and reservations must be made early. “The key to successful holiday travel is to book early,” said Bryan. “While tourists often brag about last-minute deals, the best rates are often reserved for those who book early.”

Contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter’s column on business travel and the business of travel appears regularly in the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact her at (601) 672-0146 or lwjeter@yahoo.com</a.

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