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Saturday, October 25, 2014

Free and Worth Every Penny

Savvy cruisers know that freebies can be had—you just need to know where to look. Here are the two I’ve found to be the best for scoring freebies and extra fun on your next trip: loyalty clubs and cruisecritic.com’s “Meet and Mingle.”
 
Loyalty Clubs
These are the clubs that reward you for taking the same cruise line more than once. And that throw more rewards your way the more you sail with them.
 
When you take your first cruise, you immediately start racking up points with the cruise line’s loyalty club. Each club is structured differently—some award points based on the number of cruises you take, others on the number of cruise days.
 
And there’s huge variation in the benefits. Here’s just a sample of what you can get—all at no cost:
 
Discounts on cruises. We’ve saved hundreds of dollars on trips when we’ve checked the box that asked, “Have you sailed with us before?”
 
Parties with free drinks. These can feature live music and dancing, and drinks or drink tickets.
 
Special entertainment. We’ve been to events that range from an exclusive diving performance on Allure of the Seas to special appearances of the ship's singers.

Behind-the-scenes tours. These allow you to get a peek behind the curtain of the workings of the ship, and can include the galley, theater, engine room or bridge.
 
Meet the senior crew. Loyalty club members often get invited to cocktail parties to hobnob with senior officers.
 
Other free or discounted benefits. Benefits can range from free dry cleaning to price breaks on wi-fi, to special lounges for disembarkation.
 
For specifics on each program, such as Celebrity’s Captain’s Club, Royal Caribbean’s Crown and Anchor, and Princess’ Captain’s Circle, check the cruise line’s website.
 
Meet and Mingle
Sponsored by cruisecritic.com, Meet and Mingles are free get-togethers onboard that are co-organized by cruiser volunteers and the major cruise lines. They’re not available on every trip, so you’ll need to do a tad of research to find out if there’s one on your trip. And the cruise lines each handle sign up differently.
 
Celebrity, for example, requires a minimum advance sign up of 25 people before hosting an event. When you sign up, you’ll get a confirmation email, and once onboard, a special invitation. Princess has Meet and Mingle events on every sailing; simply check the Princess Patter onboard for when and where. See the Meet and Mingles page on cruisecritic.com for info on how to sign up for an event on your ship.
 
The Meet and Mingles are great opportunities to talk cruising with like-minded folks, and always include some light refreshments. The best we’ve been to have featured:
 
Cabin crawl—As a group, you tour a range of cabin types in different locations throughout the ship. This might even include a suite.
 
Crew members up close and personal—Recently on the Allure, in a small and intimate setting, a panel of divers and skaters took our questions about onboard life and work.
 
Giveaways and raffle prize drawings—With some luck, you might go home with more than great memories!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Cruising’s Biggest Secret


You can find plenty of advice on the web on how to get the best price for your cruise. And some of it is on my own blog.

But what I recently uncovered is cruising’s biggest secret. The key to saving bucks—big bucks— is to hold off final payment and keep a watchful eye on the pricing. Here’s my story: 

December 2013: Booked a nine-day trip on Celebrity’s Constellation for December 2014. Put down a deposit (reduced deposit during promotion) and delayed full payment.

September 2014: Brought up same trip in travelocity.com; found there were still a lot of empty cabins. Did as if we were booking a new cruise, selecting the same room type and category. A senior discount (55 and over) is suddenly available where there previously was none.

Celebrity—like other cruise lines—will match the new lower price if it’s not in the penalty period. We call our travel agent, who calls Celebrity.
 
Result? A savings of $500!
 
Now this won’t always work. The Constellation is an older ship, the itinerary is longer than usual (nine days) and the trip sits right smack in the middle of the Christmas season, coming back just shy of the holiday, which is not too desirable for many people.
 
Another caveat: the cruise lines may not allow you to use more than one promotion. So if you booked with promotion, you may have to choose between the new discount or the old one.
 
But here are my suggestions on how to get a really great deal:
 
Book early to get the initial best price and best cabin (middle of the deck always goes first). You can always get your deposit back if you cancel before the penalty phase.
 
Put off final payment until just before the penalty period begins (this varies by cruise line and can sometimes be different over a holiday, so check its website).
 
As you near the penalty period, check out the pricing. Go to a website like travelocity.com or the cruise line’s site. Simulate booking a new cruise, pick a room with the same category and deck location as your current booking and check out the pricing.

If the prices have gone down, call your travel agent to have her/him match the price.

Consider checking other room categories as well. The prices might go down in some categories and not others. And you might even be able to upgrade for the same price or even less than your original booking.
 
Important note: you must do all this before the penalty period begins. If you try it during the penalty period, your travel agent will have to cancel your trip and rebook it, which means you may lose the cabin you selected. You’ll also have to pay a penalty, but you may still come out ahead.
 
So, with a bit of luck and a little extra work on your part, you may see some steep savings. And in the process, dig up the deposit for your next trip!
 
Musing’s Top Tip: Herein lies one of the values of a travel agent: someone who knows how to make these cost savings happen for you. But you must be proactive; most travel agents won’t be watching the ups and downs of your cruise pricing once you’ve laid down the deposit.

 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Cruising and the Sweet Anticipation

Ah, anticipation. “That sanguine expectation of happiness which is happiness itself.” Jane Austen might as well have been talking about cruising.
 
I know it’s not just me who finds the planning of a cruise nearly as satisfying as the cruise itself. That explains the variety of cruise countdowns, roll calls and other tools designed precisely to fuel our excitement.
 
And now, here, I’m going to share some of what’s out there to feed your sweet anticipation:
 
Cruise countdowns—There’s a cute (free!) cruise clock widget at Cruisingtalk for your blog or website. You select your cruise destination, the ship icon with the right logo and trip date. If you want to see what it looks like, scroll down to the very bottom of my blog screen for my upcoming trip on the Constellation. Here are some other countdowns (all of which are free):

Ucruiser—wide variety of tickers you can tailor to the particular ship
Shipmate—designed for your Facebook page
Shipmate app—this cell phone app has a countdown, as well as trip itineraries, photos, deck plans and more

Weather forecasts for ports of call—If your trip is coming up within a month, cruiseoutlook.com will give you the weather forecast at all your ports of call. It will also show you where your ship is right now and where it will be over the next month.
 
Webcams—Watch the port ship comings and goings, get a sneak peek of what your port looks like and check out what’s happening on your ship right from your desk with a webcam. Here are a few places to find them:

larrysvacationwebcams.com—ships, ports, resorts and destinations
cruise-addicts.com—ship and port cams
cruiseoutlook.com—ship cams
cruisedeckplans.com—port cams

Roll calls—These are ways for people who are taking the same cruise to meet virtually. Many of the forums have them, including:

cruisecritic.com
cruise-addicts.com
cruiseline.com
cruisemates.com
 
Advice from those who really know—us
There are many websites with tips on planning excursions, packing and the like. But to get the details—and answers to your most specific questions from those who really know—your best bet is the forums. For a list of them, see my posting from July 18, Cruising the Web.

Musing’s Top Tip: If you sail on Princess, check out the “Downloads” section of their website for screensavers and wallpapers, slide shows and shipboard webcams you put on your desktop.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Cruise Food Hideaways

Sometimes, the best place to eat on a cruise ship is where no one else goes. It’s that little gem—the small café tucked away in a nook or cranny where the food is better—and free. But you could go through an entire seven-day trip and never find it.
 
If you follow the forums on your ship (see my July 18 posting, “Cruising the Web,” for a list), you’ll often find that oyster’s pearl. Here are some of the ones I’ve uncovered:
 
Celebrity’s AquaSpa Café—Like Royal Caribbean’s Solarium Bistro (see below), this fabulous little spot probably suffers from the mere suggestion that it serves health food. But it’s Celebrity’s best-
Salmon can be had already plated or
made to order at the AquaSpa Café
 
kept secret: it’s the only place onboard where you can get salmon, tuna or chicken made to order (you need to ask for it). It’s often hard to find—it’s usually in the Solarium (check the location on your ship), has just a few tables and is only open for breakfast and lunch. But it’s worth searching for.

 
Oasis Class’ Solarium Bistro—RCI’s Solarium Bistro, like the Solarium itself, was minimally used when we’ve been there. Like Celebrity’s café, it’s set up cafeteria-style, with the always-interesting food already plated. And the quality is excellent.
 
Oasis Class’ Park Café —This little place on RCI’s serene Central Park “neighborhood” serves breakfast and lunch. At lunch, you can get you-choose-it salads or hot paninis and while I’ve not tried it myself, the forums are filled with praise for the café’s roast beef sandwich.   
 
Princess’ International Café—While its location disqualifies the International Café as a hideaway (it’s in the piazza, the hub of the ship), it’s surprising how few people actually eat there. There’s a lot to like about the 24-hour café—while the drinks are not free (bar and specialty coffees), the food is. The salad combos, quiches and desserts vary every day, and they’re wonderful. And if you hit it just right, you’ll have live music to nosh by.
 
Making pizza on Princess
Pizza on Princess—While many cruisers already know that Princess has the best pizza on the sea, I’ve classified it as a hideaway because we have a devil of a time finding it on every ship. The last time on the Emerald, we must have circled Deck 15 three times before we found it. If you do take Princess, give it a try (if you can find it). Make it worth the while of the poor crew member sweating in the Caribbean heat who has to open that blazing-hot pizza oven all day long.
 
Musing’s Top Tip: Cruiseline.com, a website I highlighted in a posting a few weeks ago, has just made some improvements, including new ship pages, price drop notifications, itinerary maps and a search by the ship with the highest member reviews. A neat feature: once you bring up all the reviews on a particular ship, you can select “View all tips” to get a list of tips reviewers have submitted.

 

 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Best and Worst of the Buffets

I have to admit, I love cruise ship buffets. But, I also hate them.
 
Or rather, I hate what they do to my self-control. But my spouse reassures me that anything I gain will come off in no time when we get home. So, we both leave the buffet full and happy, and I always know he’s right.

Horizon Court
Whether you love or hate the buffets, they come in handy when you don’t want to dedicate up to two hours to the main dining room, get out of your shorts or rush back from port. So, here’s my take on the best and worst of some of them and why:
 
Food. Maybe not always the hottest and maybe not always the most appealing, but you can’t beat the variety. Overall, the buffet food isn’t hugely different from one cruise line to another. But there are the occasional surprises.
 
Often at dinner, you’ll see the same dishes as what’s in the main dining room. And while the presentation leaves much to be desired (think stainless steel steam tables vs. parsley garnishes and sauce swirls), you do get to see what the food looks like before getting it. Which is something you can’t do in the dining room.  

Windjammer's shrimp crackers
There are also many additional choices, and some of these can be damn good. In the Emerald and Caribbean Princess’ Horizon Court, for example, on Bavarian night, we feasted on Black Forest ham and landjaeger sausage, which is hard to find even on land. And other treats kept cropping up, like dried apricots and pine nuts. Or fresh papaya and smoked mackerel. One night, a crew member manned a table with an array of wonderful cheeses.

We’ve also had some dynamite Asian dishes in the Windjammer on Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas that rival any neighborhood Chinese or Indian restaurant. Some of the desserts are terrific (and even better enhanced with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream), and brie makes a nightly appearance.

Celebrity’s Oceanview Café has a treat no one else has—hard ice cream in several flavors that change every day, complete with a choice of candy toppings.
Windjammer's carrot cake--before
the whipped cream
 
If with all the choices you still can’t find something to eat, there’s always the bread. From Princess’ chocolate croissants to RCI’s pumpkin seed rolls and sugar-sprinkled breakfast loaf to Celebrity’s multigrains, the breads on the mass market ships are more than adequate—they’re outstanding.  

Layout. While some of you might not agree, I think Celebrity’s Solstice Class ships have the best layout. Their food station kiosks are nicely spaced, reducing the gridlock you see on other ships, say, around the bacon. RCI’s Windjammer in the Oasis Class ships has a similar layout. 

Oceanview's ice cream bar
Probably the worst I’ve seen is on the Caribbean and Emerald Princess. The food is dished out from one very small area, and there’s only one way in and one way out, with a crew member monitoring the flow at both ends.
 
Recently on the Allure, during the peak lunchtime, we experienced a new concept in buffet crowd control. A line had formed just to get into the Windjammer. A crew member stood in front of the line and seated people as tables became available. This actually worked quite well. Few things are likely to spark spats between cruisers more than vying for a seat in the buffet.
 
Service. Princess is best when it comes to buffet service. It’s well staffed and the crew regularly brings drinks to the tables, as well as coffee refills. Contrast this with RCI’s Windjammer, where drinks are pre-filled and laid out cafeteria-style at the beverage counter. Want one without ice? You’ll have to ask for it.
 
Musing’s Top Tip: Like to late-night nosh? Princess keeps the buffet going on the Emerald and Caribbean until midnight. To know what theme night it is, check the Princess Patter.

Your Chance to Weigh In
Celebrity’s experimenting with some already-plated options in the buffet on one of its ships. Good idea or not—what do you think?
 
And, what’s the best food you’ve found in a buffet?

 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Knowing Your ABCs

"Arizona by the Sea," otherwise known as Bonaire
Cactus in the Caribbean? I couldn’t believe it either. But, sure enough, the arid climate creates desert-like conditions right alongside the dazzling blue waters of the ABCs, short for Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. It’s enough to have earned Bonaire the nickname “Arizona by the Sea.”

If you haven’t yet made it to the Leeward ABCs in the Southern Caribbean, off the Venezuelan coast, get onboard quick. They’re a confluence of Dutch, Caribbean and Spanish vibes, desert and ocean landscapes, and each is colorful and interesting in its own way. And best of all for those of us who like to cruise on the cheap—there’s a ton to do just a stone’s throw from the pier.

Here, in brief, are some of the walkable highlights of the ABCs:

Aruba: Shopping, Iguanas and Anne Frank
What you notice most about Oranjestad, the capital of Aruba and port city, is color. Buildings in pink and yellow, trimmed in white. Green parakeets perched on palm trees. Hues of blue sea. Princess calls it “Holland meets Disney’s Fantasia.”
 
But no backwater is this; Aruba is vibrant and bustling. And a lot of fun to explore. Pose for the tablet camera while you drape yourself over the giant “I love [heart] Aruba.” And if you haven’t already lost enough money on the ship, there are some casinos that, to quote a cruise director, “would welcome your donation.”

Some of the colors of Aruba
Greenery. If you walk straight up L.G. Smith Boulevard, the city’s main drag, you’ll come to Wilhelmina Park. Queen Wilhelmina herself reigns from the center of this city oasis, and don’t miss the sweet tribute to Anne Frank. Sometimes, there will be picnickers and teens with guitars, but you can always count on dozens of wild iguanas because the park staff keeps them coming by doling out handfuls of greens.

Shopping.  Aruba gets an “A” for shopping. The prices are among the best in the Caribbean for knickknacks. And while most of it comes to the Caribbean by way of China, you can also get the delicate mopa mopa crafts that are made locally from tree resin, Dutch edam and any manner of faux Delft souvenirs. There are several shopping centers and vendors along L.G. Smith, as well as vendors clustered near the port.

Bonaire: No Snorkeling Needed
This lovely island is not often visited by the mass market ships and it’s really a shame. It’s by far my favorite. The ship docks in the capital city of Kralendijk (pronounced Crah-len-deyk) and the port area is positively pristine.
The pristine waters of Bonaire
Ocean walk. Just off the pier is the Promenade, a walkway along the stunning sea. No snorkeling needed here; the show can be seen right from where you stroll, while you stay nice and dry. The water is so unbelievably clear that we watched, mouths hanging open, as schools of green-and-blue fish swam past us. It was as if we were at the zoo and the fish had been put there for our amusement. Shells, crabs and coral litter the beach below the walkway, across from homes adorned with cactus and hibiscus.

Shopping. You will 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 interesting tourist shops and a chance to buy the local craft—painted gourds, which make great Christmas ornaments.

Bon Bini* to Curaçao
Bridging to the Punda in Curacao
Your ship will dock in the capital city of Willemstad. Take the Waterfront Promenade past modern shops and into a small mall bordered by the 19th century Rif Fort. There are a few boutiques and cafes, but the real excitement is just a short walk through the courtyard—the Punda District, or old part of Curaçao. Its colorful fairy-tale buildings line up to greet you as you cross the channel via the Queen Emma Pontoon, a floating bridge that opens and closes to boats and pedestrians.

Strolling. The Punda has some European-style cafes along the water and many shops both for tourists and locals. There’s also the Mikve Israel Emanual Synagogue, circa 1732 and the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere.

Shopping. Unique to Willemstad, in the old town, is the floating market, where vendors from Venezuela sell their papayas and pineapples from their small wooden boats. If you’re not inspired to try some, at least pull out your cell phone for some great photo-taking. And before you leave Curaçao, consider taking home some of the local spirit; you can’t miss it in the liquor store—it’s just about the only thing that’s blue.

Click here for more photos of the ABCs by the pier.

* Means “welcome” in the local Papiamento dialect.

 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Keeping the Cruise Going After It's Gone


You looked forward to your cruise for weeks, months, maybe even years. You spent gobs of hours
shopping for it, probably dieting for it and packing for it. Now, it’s over. And all you’re left with is a de-activated sea card and those extra pounds.
But there are some things you can do to keep the cruise going after it’s gone:

Reach out to your new friends. Remember those phone numbers and email addresses you exchanged? Follow up, reminisce and exchange photos.

Do a review. Let others benefit from your new wisdom. But do it while it’s still fresh. There are a number of sites you can post it; see my recent posting for a list. And here are some tips on writing reviews.

Join a cruise forum. This is a great way to get tips and talk ship. See my posting referenced above for sites with forums.

Use all those photos. Came back with some great photos? Here are just a few suggestions on what you can do with them: make a calendar, load them on a digital picture frame, make a picture book or print for your walls. Here are some other ideas.

Share your photos with others. Send photos and video clips to friends and family. Many people are reluctant to try cruising because they can’t envision what it’s like. Enlighten them with visuals. And consider submitting your best ones to cruise websites or enter them in contests.

Start a blog. Writing about your trip will bring back many sweet memories. This is where keeping a journal on your cruise comes in handy; it helps you remember the little details you forget once you get home.

Tell anyone who’ll listen about your trip. We veteran cruisers often have an uphill climb to get skeptics to try it. But if we want a healthy industry that keeps pumping out ships and delighting us with new surprises, we need to convert more people. So, be an industry champion.

The very best way to relive your cruise, of course, is to plan the next one. So, what are you waiting for?