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Sunday, April 26, 2015

Cruising with a Travel Agent

The cruise industry wants you to use a travel agent. In fact, some cruise lines turn finding their phone numbers into a treasure hunt.
 
But don’t despair, there are really many good reasons for using a travel agent when you cruise. I recapped these in an earlier blog post.
 
Finding an agent is like finding a doctor or hair stylist—you might have to go through a few before you find the right one. Here’s my take on the right one:
 
Cruise-wise. Cruising is a special kind of travel and unless a travel agent has done a fair amount, it’s going to be hard to give advice. You’ll want one who’s cruised, books a lot and knows the lines.
 
Willing to share. When a travel agent won’t tell you what’s right or wrong about a ship, find someone else. While the agent gets paid by the cruise line, it won’t do you any good if you get steered to a ship or trip that’s wrong for you.
 
Shows they care. You want the agent to care if you had a good time, be interested about your experience so he or she can learn from it and be more useful to others. One travel agent called us after every trip to find out how it went.
 
Available when you are. Work during the week? It’s not too useful when the agent has no weekend hours. Trip planning takes time and if you’re like me, the only time that works is the weekend.
 
Doesn’t procrastinate. After all the planning and you’ve finally booked, it can be pretty frustrating to then have to wait weeks for the confirmation/booking number. The best agents will turnaround the paperwork quickly.

Tells you what you need to know. Like you’re going to need a passport, even if you’re just going to the Caribbean. When you need to be at the pier. That you’ll give up your luggage way before you get on board.

Doesn’t make a cancellation worse. It’s painful enough when a trip has to be cancelled. You don’t need that pain deepened when the travel agent socks you with a fee. Some agents do, indeed, charge for cancellations, and this fact can be hidden in small print on their documents. Be sure to ask upfront to prevent unpleasant surprises.
 
Find out how you benefit. With the competition for business, most travel agents will offer bennies to book with them. Don’t be shy—ask. We’ve received a wide range of extras—from free drink packages to free travel insurance to shipboard credits.
 
Where to look. So, how do you find a travel agent? The usual ways, like asking friends and family. If your community hosts a cruise travel show, that’s a good way to way to hook up with an agent—that’s how we found ours.
 
Or, visit the website of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the cruise lines’ trade association, to find an agent near you who specializes in cruising. Their agents have the designation “Certified Cruise Counselor,” which they earn both through coursework and putting in time at sea. CLIA offers agents levels of certification—up to a “PhD” in cruising. To use the search tool on CLIA’s website, on the homepage, select “Vacations” and from “CLIA’s Cruise Tools” in the middle of the screen and select “Cruise Expert Finder.”
 
Do take the time to find a good agent—it will pay off by making sure you get the vacation you want and your hard-earned dollars go the furthest.
 
Musing’s Top Tip: For more on the benefits of using a CLIA-certified travel agent, see this brief video put together by the association.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

What Gets Better as it Gets Older? Cruising.

Those of us who have been cruising for a while tend to look back wistfully at what’s gone out to sea—midnight buffets, five-course dinners, chocolates and cards on our pillows, little shampoo bottles and Q-tips.
 
But in many ways, cruising is better than ever. Consider this:
 
Bigger ships make a bigger bang. Think of all the bells and whistles that didn’t exist before. Like
Chicago on the high seas, via the Allure
more balcony rooms. 3D movies and bumper cars. Rock climbing and zip-lining. Broadway shows. Glass-blowing and cooking demos.

 
Ships come in all sizes. The cruise lines keep pumping ‘em out, large and small, and that’s only a good thing. Want to go to exotic ports and get to know your fellow travelers? A small ship’s for you. Surfing and skating is your thing and don’t mind sharing space with 5,399 other travelers? There’s one for you too.
 
Backstage is the new front stage. Once a word-of-mouth thing, galley tours, backstage tours and if you’re lucky, even bridge and engine room tours, are standard fare on today’s ships. Think of the useful tidbits you’ll walk away with—pounds of coffee consumed each day and how fast the ship goes at night.
 
Stainless steel galore on a Princess galley tour
The smoke out. We all breathe easier these days with smoking banned on most ships in most places. Even in those palaces of puffing—the casinos.
 
Ways to health. There are more and better ways to be healthy onboard, with well-equipped fitness centers and classes, jogging tracks and health-food style restaurants. Royal Caribbean’s Oasis class ships and many Celebrity ships have no-cost healthy dining choices that, for the most part, are better than what they serve up in their MDR or buffet.
 

Hand wash reminder on
Celebrity's Constellation
Sanitation savvy. Alas, the cruise lines have had their share of experience with norovirus, which has made them pros at avoiding and containing it. Sanitizers are everywhere and Princess won’t let you near the buffet without a spray.
 
Safety takes center stage. There is no better time than now to cruise when it comes to safety. With the Concordia and engine room fires still fresh in everyone’s memory, the cruise lines are going out of their way to reassure the public that cruising is as safe as ever. There’s new attention to muster drills, installation of backup generators and other safety measures.
 
Steady and stable. The big new ships today are more stable than the ones that came before. There have been many improvements in design that have made them more solidly built. We’ve been amazed that we’ve felt very little movement onboard. In fact, after 16 trips, we’ve not used seasickness medication once.
 
More demand equals more fun. Demand for cruising—at least outside the U.S.—has been growing, encouraging the cruise lines to build more ships, each outdoing the next with fun features and other ways to entice and excite us, making cruising more intriguing than ever. And best yet--keeping costs on an even keel.

 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Cure for Deck Plan Distress

Well, maybe I’m exaggerating the agony of trying to select a stateroom with those microscopic cruise catalog deck plans…or am I?
 
If you’re like me, you’ve pained and strained to read those numbers that seem to get smaller every year. We’ve done a Sherlock and wielded a magnifying glass. Stacked as many eyeglasses as our noses would hold. Held the catalogs up to the light and pushed them as far out as our arms could go.
 
The good news is that after the all the eye strain, the migraine and a dose of research, I now have a few decent suggestions for dealing with deck plans for picking that perfect stateroom:
 
1.      Blow it up. We’ve taken a page from the catalog, enlarged on the copier and then did it again and again until it got legible. Then, we mounted it on foam core.
 
2.      Look it up. Here are some websites that are a real help:

cruisedeckplans.com –Perhaps the best of the sites, it promises to “make cruise deck plans fun.” It certainly has a lot of neat features, which enable you to:

·        View a number of decks on one page, convert it to PDF for printing, and make the display larger or smaller (select “Deck Plans” from top menu)

·        Drag decks over each other to see what’s above and below (select “Drag Decks” from top menu)

·        Hover over a cabin to get a diagram and general square footage for a category

·        Where you see a photo icon on the deck, see actual photos of the area on the ship

·        Be alerted to possible issues in a deck area, such as “This blank space is a crew area and you may hear doors opening and other noise coming from this area” (a star on the deck plan indicates a comment)
 
And if you join for $8.99 a year, you get actual photos of rooms submitted by readers, as well as downloadable photos of public areas. There were quite a lot of photos, which makes the reasonable fee well worth the cost. 

In fact, they’ll even pay you—if you submit your own photos ($.25 each).

icruise.com—A great feature of this site is that you can plug in a room number and it takes you right to it on the deck plan, flagged by a can’t-miss-it flashing square. To use this feature, from the homepage, select “Cruise Lines,” then your ship and “Deck Plans” from the left menu. Enter your room number in the “Find Your Cabin” search. Be sure to include the letter with the room number when searching (e.g., D415) or it won’t work. 

Also, the deck plans are oversized and clear, and can be enlarged or reduced. If you select the “Public Rooms” tab (in the middle of the screen), it will show if there are any public rooms on that deck.

deckplangenius.com—This site claims advice on 83,000 staterooms. From the top menu, select “Cruise Ships,” your ship and then scroll down the page to select a deck. The deck plans are easy to read, but not enlargeable. Click on a room to get info about it, and pros and cons of the location. However, this info is very general in nature.

For example, the first room we chose, in a bump out, said, “At this time, there have been no extraordinary issues identified with this cabin. However, that does not mean that there are not possible issues with this cabin.” 

And the caption under the stateroom photo said: It is not the actual picture of the stateroom, but should be quite similar to the actual cabin.” In fact, we’ve stayed in a mini-suite on the same Princess ship and this was not an accurate representation.

Some detailed reviews on specific rooms have been submitted by readers, which can be very useful, because they comment on everything from noise level to condition of the room. Unfortunately, there’s a limited number of reviews; for the Caribbean Princess, for example, there were only four.

cruiseshiprooms.com—Deck plans on this site are also easy to read, but, again, can’t be magnified. If you click on a room, you get just general info.  It provides an area for reviews and photos, but none was available for a room on either of two ships I searched.
 
3.      Give it up. The easiest way to pick a cabin, of course, is to let your travel agent do it. Or, select a “guarantee” room, which will save you some money, but you could end up with a room anywhere—including next to the laundromat.
 
Musing’s Top Tip: Other helpful resources for trip planning are cruise reviews—by folks like you and me who actually took the trips on the ships you’re considering. Check out this posting for some of the best cruiser review sites.


Friday, March 6, 2015

Fun Ship Photography: Unleashing Your Inner Artsy-Fartsy

There’s nothing like a hot-orange sunset or palm-lined seashore to transform a photo frame into a sweet cruise memory.
 
As fabulous as outdoor shots can be, there’s plenty indoors too to woo the lens. And with digital photography so cheap, it can unleash the creativity in just about anyone.
 
Zooming in on the Constellation's
Chihuly chandelier
Every ship is photogenic. You just need to know where to look. And you’ve got hours and hours at sea—take advantage and explore the nooks and crannies of the ship. Take photos from inside and out. Up and then down. This way and that. Find your inner artsy-fartsy. You’ll be amazed at the really neat things you’ll end up with:

Be practical. Documenting the room, the food and public areas will jog your memory should you plan another trip on the same ship. Amid the chaos of Disembarkation Day, we’ve snuck into some empty rooms categories above our own and taken photos for future reference. And appreciated it later.

Be experimental. Shoot the artwork from different angles, use it as a backdrop. Do super close-ups, use interesting grid work for framing. Even some of the murals make great shots.
 
Be goofy. Photograph you and your companions looking in a mirror or glass for a different kind of selfie. You’ll find your reflections in all sorts of places, like elevators and shops. And if you’re on an Oasis class ship, be sure to check out the Boardwalk funhouse mirrors to see what you’d look like if you took a world cruise.
 
On the ball in Allure of
 the Sea's Central Park
For some funky examples from our trips, follow this Dropbox link.
 
And if you need some ideas on what to do with all those photos now captive in your camera, see this posting: What To Do With Those Cruise Ship Photos.
 
Musing’s Top Tip: While your smart phone or tablet can take photos indoors, they’re pretty limited. They don’t do well in low light, you can’t zoom much and it’s hard to keep them steady. A better choice is a subcompact with a large sensor, like the Sony RX100 iii. It’s better in low light, it has a viewfinder and the camera is so small that it fits in a pocket or purse. Which is great for taking those surreptitious photos (but you didn’t hear me say that).

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Packing It In

I love to cruise. But boy, do I hate to pack.              
 
Fighting the urge to take too much. Afraid to take too little. What if it’s really hot? Or we get rain? Did we decide on a beach? Are we doing formal night? And on and on.
 
After 16 cruises, I’m sorry to report that it’s only gotten a tad easier. If you’re like me and look forward to packing as much as a root canal, you may appreciate a few tips, accumulated from many trips of taking the right—and wrong—things along:
 
List your to-dos. It works at work and it works at home. Simple but invaluable. My cruise to-do list has on it things like: book a hotel for the night before, online check-in, print up luggage tags, turn off the water, stop the newspaper and mail, tell the neighbor we’ll be gone, forward the landline to the cell.
 
Digitally document. If you do a lot of cruising like we do, it really helps to put your packing list on the computer. You can easily add and subtract over time. We print up the lists and cross off each item as it makes it into the suitcase. This just about guarantees you won’t forget anything.
 
Pack early and often. The next best way to make sure you don’t forget anything is to start early. Pull things aside that you’re taking and either load them into the suitcase or put them in a box or crate for packing later.
 
Forget cotton. Alas, I don’t follow my own advice. Warmth and cotton were made for each other. But I pay for it; I spend weeks ironing my stuff. Only to pull it out of the suitcase wrinkled as a prune. And do the whole thing again the next trip.
 
Don’t leave home without it. Some little extras we always take are top of the list—a big portable digital clock so we can see the time from everywhere in the stateroom, walkie-talkies, stainless steel coffee mugs, little reading light and water tumblers.

Stashing Your Stuff
Not as much of a torture but a challenge just the same is finding a place to put all this stuff once you get on board:
 
Do like Russian nesting dolls. When you put your suitcases under the bed, put the small one inside the big one. That frees up space under the bed.
 
Dealing with dirty wear. Once the laundry gets to a certain point, I take the small suitcase out of the big one and store the laundry in the big suitcase. That frees up closet space. All this moving around can feel like a shell game, but how else to pack it all into the little hovel they call a stateroom?
 
Closet help. We bring a shoe organizer—the kind that hangs from the bar in the closet. It provides handy storage for those small things—batteries, charging cables, sunglasses—oh, and shoes, too.
 
Have any great packing/unpacking tips of your own? Let us know!

 

Friday, February 6, 2015

Sizing Up The Ships

Big truck or small car, mansion or cottage, sub or tea sandwich—size matters. And so it is with a cruise ship. Whether you choose a smaller one—like the Celebrity’s Constellation at 90,000 tons—or the world’s biggest, Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas at 225,282—it will shape your vacation.

The biggest ship in the world
has 16 decks
Why should this be, you might wonder? After all, both ships have dining choices (free and otherwise), pools, theaters, shops, a library and casino. They both have a mind-numbing number of stateroom categories, room stewards to meet your needs, and plenty of public rooms and outside decks to hang out in. 

But there are differences and it helps to know about them when planning a trip. Consider these pros and cons:

Big Ship, The Pros

 
Wide variety of facilities and activities. Nothing beats the Oasis of the Seas and its sister ship, Allure of the Seas, in places to be in and things to do. There are the three “neighborhoods” of the Promenade, Boardwalk and Central Park, with their eating places, shops and entertainment. The ship’s got onboard surfing, zip-lining, miniature golf, ice skating and rock-climbing.

Myriad food choices. More space means more room for restaurants, from fine dining to buffets, cafes and pubs. Some free restaurants on the Allure are so underutilized the ship actually promotes them.
 
Lots of exercise opportunities. If you don’t get enough exercise just walking to your room on a ship the size of the Allure, you’ve got other options. There’s a gym with plenty of machines and exercise classes. And a jogging/walking track that runs the length of the ship. Just do 2.4 laps and you’ve conquered a mile.  

Big Ship, The Cons

Lots of exercise opportunities. On a ship like the Allure, you’re going to get walking in—whether you like it or not. Even if your room is as close to the elevator as you can get. As on most ships, the theater’s on one end and the main dining room’s on the other.
 

After the parade on Allure's Promenade
Forget learning how to navigate the ship. Trying to find the same bar twice on the Allure is truly a challenge. At least there are lifelines—digital maps in the lobbies.   
Sometimes, crowds. Though the big ships have many more passengers, there’s also more room for them to spread out. But there will be times you’re woefully aware you’re not the only one on the ship. Like the muster drill. Parades on the Promenade. Disembarkation. Peak meal hours in the buffet. The Allure even has a crew member doing crowd control in the buffet at times.

Small Ship, The Pros

Mastering the ship is a short learning curve. Perhaps the best part of a smaller ship is that fumbling is at a minimum. You can have that baby mastered in a day.
 
Everything’s easier. Because there are few crowds, everything’s easier, from finding a parking space at your embarkation port to getting a seat in the buffet to getting off the ship.
 
You’ll know thy neighbor. There’s a more intimate feel on a smaller ship. Because there’s less room 
Cozy table for two in the Constellation's
Ocean Liners specialty restaurant
to spread out, you keep seeing the same people. Eventually, you start talking to them. Before long, you’re friends.

 
Doors are open at more ports. Some ports can’t accommodate ships the size of Oasis class. Smaller ships can get into more places.
 
There’s less to do, so you'll do more. Unlike a larger ship, you’re not likely to leave saying, “Oh, we forgot to try…” You take advantage of more of the ship.

Small Ship, The Cons

See Big Ship, The Pros above.
 
The bottom line? You’ll have a great time no matter what size ship you choose. And if you go with a small one, you’ve got a built-in excuse for booking your next cruise, and try a big one the next time around.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Off Course and Worth It

They’re not on many cruise itineraries. But if you find St. Croix, Bonaire or St. Barts on one—grab it. It’ll be worth it. Here, in brief, is why:
 
St. Croix
Unlike St. Thomas, its overbearing sibling, St. Croix is reassuringly laidback. The cruise terminal is at Frederiksted, known as “Freedom City,” founded in 1751 and the island’s second-largest town (the capital is Christiansted, a short drive from the port).
 
Frederiksted’s lovely Strand Street promenade is perfect for enjoying the crystal-clear waters and rocky shore without getting your feet wet. Birds and crabs do their thing among the craggy shoreline, and unbroken conch shells lay untouched amid other natural debris washed up by the sea. Alas, it’s a crime—literally—to take any of these as souvenirs.

There’s a veterans park along the waterfront, honoring the various branches and those who have served, as well as a number of 18th century homes.
 
Just outside the pier is a plaza, where you’ll find vendors selling mostly craft jewelry and art objects. The plaza is remarkable for its large clock and statue of slave rebellion leader Buddhoe blowing a conch shell in a dramatic gesture of freedom).
 
There’s also a small beach just a short walk from the pier, but the water is rocky underfoot and more suited for sunbathing than swimming.

Bonaire
Bonny Bonaire is one of the ABC islands where the water is so clear and fish so plentiful that you can enjoy aquarium-worthy gazing right from the pier. As we stood looking down, vivid blue and green fish meandered by. The promenade along the shore offers spectacular views of the water’s palate of blue hues. Pass homes and hotels fronted with palms and cactus, and adornments to remind you of the island’s Dutch past.
 
If you head toward the vendors, you’ll think the ship took a wrong turn and landed in Scarsdale. Vendors’ wares are more made-at-home than made in China. Think painted soaps and needlework vs. t-shirts and ashtrays. The main shopping street has some tourist shops and a chance to buy the local craft—painted gourds, which make great Christmas ornaments.
 
And like St. Croix, you’ll enjoy the rare experience of being the only ship in port.  

St. Barts
With no pier large enough to support a cruise ship, tendering is the only way to get to St. Barthélemy, a territory of France (officially an “overseas collectivity”). But when your tender sidles up to the pier in Gustavia, you’ll find yourself in the French Riviera cum Caribbean.
 
French is the language, Euro’s the currency, locals chat over wine and burgers at outdoor cafes, and there’s even a patisserie hidden away on a back street.
 
But this place is all about the water. The harbor is compact and crammed with sailboats. But what you notice first is the volume of colossal yachts, each bigger the next. It’s no wonder that the gourmet shop in town’s business card reads “Yacht Provisioning.”
 
St. Barts—or St. Barths—its nickname is spelled both ways—is clearly an affluent place. Its people are thin, tanned and well groomed. They pull into town on their dinghies from their yacht moorings or navigate the island’s steep and narrow streets on mopeds or golf cart/car hybrids. The streets are so tight that most cars park half on/half off the sidewalk. 

With the bustling traffic, narrow streets, cruise passengers and locals clogging the sidewalks, getting around is a bit of a challenge, but the ambience is unlike anywhere else in the Caribbean. And after dipping into some boutiques you need a pick-me-up, you can choose from many restaurants and cafes, as well as an ice cream shop.
 
For a foodie like me, the supermarket on the centrally located Quai de la République was a wonderland. Rabbit and choucroute in a can, cleaned-out baguette bins and hundreds of wines lovingly displayed in their own metal encasements reminded me we weren’t in the U.S. anymore.
 
But be forewarned: the shops in St. Barts are chic and dear. A simple refrigerator magnet to remind you of your visit will cost about $11.
 
Shell Beach is walkable, which means in this one stop, you can shop, swim, eat and drink—my definition of a really great port stop.                                                         
 
Musing’s Top Tip: Celebrity offers itineraries that include all three of these islands and Azamara sails to St. Barts. Holland America offers cruises that include Bonaire and St. Croix.