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Refurbishments enhance trip, cheaper than building new

Some friends cruising to Alaska next summer emailed me looking for advice on ports and ships.

Some friends cruising to Alaska next summer emailed me looking for advice on ports and ships. After mulling over my suggestions, they narrowed down their choices to a couple of ships, but emailed again and asked: "When were the ships last refurbished?"

While cruise lines are busy ordering new ships for 2013 and beyond, there's another way they can go: refurbish or rebuild. That saves them lots of money and provides consumers with new venues and a new look. Refurbishing a ship costs anywhere from $10 million to $30 million, while the cost of a new 4,200-passenger ship can run to $900 million or more.

Carnival's 2.0 refurbishment and enhancement of its entire fleet will cost $500 million, according to cruise-line officials - less than building a new ship.

While it's nice to be on a newly refurbished ship, for most cruisers, the journey, ports and cities are the major factors when they're planning a cruise. Last year, I went to find out for myself what goes into refurbishment. I spent a few days in the spring of 2011 at the Victoria Shipyards watching 1,000 workers with $30 million of Royal Caribbean's money refurbish the Radiance of the Seas. The project was finished in 21 days.

The workers refreshed each stateroom with interactive TV systems and new flat screen TVs, and added wireless from bow to stern. They also built a new, larger pool deck, new bars, six new or remodelled restaurants and an updated propulsion system and fins that will save the line 11,000 gallons of fuel on a seven-day return cruise to Alaska out of Vancouver.

Most refurbishment is not quite that elaborate and usually accomplished in 10 to 14 days. Many changes simply consist of new bedding, carpeting and other cosmetic enhancements.

If you're getting away from our Canadian winter this year or next, here are the ships from major North American cruise lines that have completed or are undergoing refurbishing in 2012:

? Carnival: Spirit, Dream, Conquest, Glory, Splendor

? Royal Caribbean: Enchantment of the Seas, Serenade of the Seas, Grandeur of the Seas, Mariner of the Seas, Rhapsody of the Seas.

? Celebrity: Summit, Millennium

? Princess: Sapphire

? Crystal: Symphony

? Azamara: Quest

As a rule, cruise ships go no more than three years between refurbishments.

Having said that, they're continuing to update ships on a yearly basis.

If a refurbished ship is not good enough for you, the large North American brands built four new ships this year: Disney Fantasy, Oceania Riviera, Carnival Breeze and - being launched in Florida in December, Celebrity's final ship in the Solstice class, the Reflection. All those ships are sailing to the Caribbean, Bahamas and Mexico.

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