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When cruise lines realign ships, passengers save big

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Published:   |   Updated: June 22, 2014 at 07:04 PM

Although most Floridians know how to find low-cost fares for cruises to Mexico and the Caribbean islands, many still aren’t familiar with repositioning cruises and the substantial savings they offer.

Twice-annual “repo cruise” opportunities occur as major lines shuffle ships between Florida and ports in Europe and other distant points. They provide lengthy one-way journeys with all the meals, entertainment and amenities of today’s luxury liners — but at bargain-basement prices.

It’s an especially appealing concept for those living in Tampa and near Florida’s other major ports, where many repositioning cruises originate or end.

In the spring — generally May or late April — many cruise ships temporarily abandon their Florida ports for those in Europe, the West Coast and other distant points. In the fall, usually October, they return to their warm-weather ports.

I took advantage of the spring relocation of Norwegian Cruise Line’s 4,100-passenger mega-ship Epic. The 11-day voyage left Miami on the last Sunday in April, bound for Barcelona. And the price for an inside cabin was a remarkable $399 per person (port taxes included).

That astounding fare included around-the-clock meal opportunities in the many restaurants aboard the 1,091-foot vessel and most on-board entertainment. But (just as with most cruises) additional expenses can include gratuities, alcoholic beverages, soft drinks, casino losses, souvenir photographs, shore excursions and travel insurance.

Airfare and other transportation to and from a port are another cost to consider, as a repo cruise is a one-way voyage. Finding an economical one-way flight home, or to the departure port of a repositioning cruise bound for Florida, can prove time-consuming.

For some, however, the main drawback of a repositioning cruise may be the many back-to-back days at sea.

Passengers on Epic’s voyage from Miami were at sea for nine days before reaching Madeira, a Portuguese archipelago about 300 miles off the African coast. Some who disembarked at that first and only port signed up for the ship’s optional shore excursions at additional cost. Others merely made the 20-minute walk to the city center and explored on their own, or with the help of a local guide or taxi driver. The picturesque island, settled by the Portuguese in 1420, is an important stopover for trans-Atlantic cruises between North America and Europe, attracting some 1 million visitors annually.

As for those many days at sea, the activity newsletter delivered nightly to every cabin listed ample activities. Aboard NCL’s largest ship (so far), daily options ranged from scrap-booking classes to blackjack, poker and slot machine tournaments. There were numerous trivia contests and art auctions, and almost endless musical entertainment for every taste, from country-western to Spanish. Poolside music by the popular Dominican Duo included everything from Bob Marley ballads to an accent-free rendition of Elvis Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”

Although Jimmy Buffet tunes and the like set the mood for a Caribbean warm-water cruise, some days sailing the North Atlantic were cool by Central Florida standards. Occasional cloudy days meant temperatures were sometimes in the mid- to upper-60s. Exacerbated by the ship’s 22-knot cruising speed, that meant the Waves Pool Bar on deck 15 was often more popular than the adjacent pool itself.

Though the open pool was out of the question for all but a small number of children and the hardiest of dedicated adult lap swimmers, a few dozen passengers of all ages braved the ship’s mammoth water slide, Epic Plunge.

For those determined to justify packing their swimsuits, the ship’s many outdoor hot tubs were a popular option.

Other shipboard diversions include a fitness center, spa/salon, video arcade, ping-pong, shuffleboard, basketball, a climbing/rappelling wall, even a six-lane bowling alley. Did I mention endless food, without ever leaving the pool deck?

Before and after the evening meal in one of the Epic’s 20 dining options, the varying entertainment schedule included Blue Man Group and The Second City, the Chicago-based comedy troupe specializing in sketches and improvisation (all performances were included in the fare). There were even afternoon question-and-answer sessions with the blue men unmasked, and still quite entertaining sans facial paint.

New Port Richey resident Clayta Ross has taken 10 cruises, including several from Tampa. This was her third NCL passage, but her first repo cruise and visit to Barcelona.

“I wanted to see what it would be like to be on the water for that long a time,” she said as she relaxed near the ship’s small library on the penultimate day of the journey. “That did not bother me a bit. I’ve had a good time,” she said, including nightly shows in the ship’s Headliners Comedy Club and double-deck Epic Theater.

“There’s plenty of things to do; you’re not going to be bored,” said the 70-year-old retired business English and technical writing instructor. The food was good and the musical entertainment plentiful, Ross said. She enjoyed the ship’s spa, read books and worked Sudoku and crossword puzzles during her trans-Atlantic voyage.

Ross said she found the cruise more relaxing than shorter traditional journeys visiting several ports.

Her shipmate, longtime friend Lynda Mosher, discovered the repositioning cruise through a travel agent she had asked to find a voyage with few port stops, as walking great distances is difficult for one family member in her party. The NCL cruise filled the bill and the 11-day trip suited Mosher’s schedule.

“I needed two weeks away from work,” said Mosher, a human resources worker from Discovery Bay, Calif.

The perfect fit also turned out to be an unexpected bargain.

“It was such a deal, I said, ‘Hell, I’m in,’ ” said Mosher, 66, who has wanted to go to Barcelona since the summer Olympics were hosted there in 1992.

Ross, Mosher and the others in their small party bought travel packages that included a stay at the Hesperia Tower Hotel, two days touring Barcelona’s sights and return airfare to their respective homes. The women also met shipmates using the voyage and Barcelona as a stepping-off point for extended European tours.

“We’ve talked to a good number of people on the ship who took it for transit because it was cheaper than flying” to Europe, Ross said.

The friends met travelers headed to Romania, Italy and Ireland.

Mosher said she was a bit anxious about how rough the crossing might get. She spoke with some trans-Atlantic veterans who cited instances when rough seas forced the closing of the ship’s dining rooms.

Both women said their positive repositioning cruise experience has left them open to future voyages.

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