Blogs Directory

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Getting into the Holidays—or Not


Going on a cruise may to some feel like an odd thing to do over the holidays, but actually, it’s quite ideal, for these five reasons:
 
Family time…or not. It’s a fabulous way to be with your family. Think about it: no one has to cook. No one has to clean. And no one has to drive. Everyone’s in a good mood. And you can see each other as often (or as little) as you want. Or, if you can’t be with family, a cruise is a great way to leave the holidays behind.
 
Do up your door…or don’t. Some folks like doing up their cabin doors during the holidays. It’s not only festive, but the only way to pick out your room from hundreds that look just like it (especially after a few hours at the bar). On the other hand, unlike your neighborhood back home, no one’s going to notice if you don’t hang a wreathe on your stateroom door.
 
Enjoy the festivities…or laze by the pool. The ships do their best to bring the holidays to you while you’re at sea. They get all sparkly, dressing banisters with lights and garlands, adding decked out
The Emerald Princess glistens at the holidays
trees in lobbies and such. There are services and ceremonies for those who want to go. On one Celebrity trip, “Pilgrims” roamed the ship, doling out “Happy Thanksgivings” to anyone who’d listen.
 
But aside from the holiday décor, it’s still a cruise ship and you’re in the Caribbean. Cuddle up on a cushy couch with a book. Hang out at the pool bar in your flip-flops. Grab a slice of pizza at the buffet. Oh, did you say it was the holidays?
 
Christmas in the Caribbean—You get a different glimpse of Caribbean culture at holiday time. Sorrel, which blooms this time of year, crops up in the farmers’ markets. While somewhat surreal at times, trees, lights and plastic figures call attention to themselves there among the tropical plumes
Christmas Bonaire-style
and plantings. My all-time favorite is the Santa-hat cactus tree in a front yard in Bonaire. But you can easily escape it all with a trip to the nearest beach. Or on a catamaran sail. Zip-line though the forest, tram up a mountain…
 
Then there are your fellow cruisers. You can count on them to amuse you. In a recent post, I talked about the white-bearded, big-bellied fellow who walked around in a red stocking cap our whole December trip. Then there are the women with the reindeer headbands and Santa earrings down to their shoulders. Don’t feel like being with your fellow cruisers? There’s always TV and room service (free).

This is one of the neat things about cruising: we may be all together on one boat, but we can each have our own personally designed, get-into-the-holidays—or not—kind of trip.
 
Have you enjoyed a holiday at sea? Tell us about it!
 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Setting Off in Calm Seas

It may be counterintuitive, but going on vacation is stressful. There’s so much to remember, so much to do. And if it’s your first cruise, not knowing what to expect can ratchet this up a notch. But here are a few tips to ensure smooth sailing before your ship leaves the pier.
 
See when you need to show up at the port. This will vary by cruise line and port; check your cruise documents or the cruise line’s website. Usually, you have to be at the ship at least 60 minutes before departure.
 
Research the port and pier. You might want to see where in the port your ship will be and if anything’s going on there you should know about. For example, Ft. Lauderdale’s Port Everglades has been undergoing major construction for quite a while, and some of Princess and Celebrity’s ships are at the far end of the port. Which can mean a very slow trip and you’ll need to build in extra time. Here are links to the major Florida ports: PortMiami, Port Tampa Bay, Port Canaveral.
 
Plot out your path. The best way to avoid panic to the port is planning: where to stay the night before, how long you need to get to the port and where you’re going to park. Check out forums like the one on cruisecritic.com for ideas on where to stay. And know the route to the port in advance. Our first trip, we put the port street into the GPS and ended up on a road with the same name in the next town over. By the time we discovered what went wrong and made it to the port, we were one of the last on the ship.
 
Bring seasickness medicine. That’s the surest way to not need it. My spouse has taken it with us on every one of our 15 cruises and hasn’t used it once.

 Pack the right stuff in your carryon. When you get to the port, you’ll have to relinquish your
luggage, except your carryon. So, you should keep anything you’ll need for the next few hours in your carryon (the luggage may not show up in your cabin for hours—sometimes as late as 6 p.m.). Keep in mind, though, that if you’re planning on getting onboard before about 1 p.m. (when the cabins are usually ready to receive you), you’ll be stuck carrying around that carryon while you’re going to lunch or checking out the ship. You might consider one with wheels.
 
Don’t leave home without it. Before you leave your home, make sure you have your passport and driver’s license with you. Then check again. Have both, as well as the boarding passes you printed up after online check-in within easy reach because you’ll need it when you get to the port.
 
Securely fasten luggage tags on each of your bags. For Royal Caribbean and Princess, you need to print these up at home, and staple or tape them closed around luggage handles. (We bring a small stapler with us and do it just before leaving for the port. Or, you can always ask to borrow one from the hotel front desk.)
 
If you’re taking Celebrity and do the online check-in enough in advance, you can order luggage tags on their website. Color-coded stickers will come in the mail, and you can easily fasten them with their own adhesive.
 
Don’t bother eating on your way to the port; lunch is waiting. Enjoy the hunger—it’s the last time you’ll feel it. Then when you get onboard, you can enjoy a leisurely first meal in the buffet. Some ships have the dining room and other restaurants open, too.
 
Set aside some ones for the luggage guys. Tipping the guys at the port who take your luggage is not just customary—it’s essential. If you don’t, you should have a back-up plan for your luggage, like prayer.

Breathe deeply and relax. You’re on vacation!
 
Musing’s Tip: They won’t provide info, but they’re fun just the same—follow these webcam links to live feeds from the ports: Port Canaveral, Port Everglades, PortMiami

 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Where the Wild Things Are

For most people, Caribbean cruises are simply about fun in the sun. Wildlife (unless you’re planning to qualify yourself), is not high on the list.

But wildlife is there for the watching—without even leaving the port. Just look up, look down and look around whenever you’re on the ground:

Iguanas—In Aruba, they feed them. In St. Thomas, they goad them. And in Cozumel, they leave them alone. The lizards seem to be just about everywhere.

Plotting strategy on the rocks in St. Thomas
They’ve nearly taken over Charlotte Amalie’s Crown Bay Harbor in St. Thomas. Dozens climb in and out of the rocks at the pier, mugging for photos or begging bemused cruisers for handouts. They’re the pigeons of Paradise.

In Wilhelmina Park in Aruba’s Oranjestad, they also act like they own the place. They bask in the sun, watch the kids play and fight over the lettuce the park staff throws them.

They’re harder to spot in Cozumel, where they roam the waterfront, blending into the terrain. If you look closely, you can spot them on the walk from the pier into town.


Peering from a palm on
 L.G. Smith Blvd. 
If you don’t get enough of them in the wild, you can always pick up a likeness; they’re on flip flops, ashtrays and many other tchotchkes from China. 

Caribbean parakeets—We spotted the brilliant green birds on Oranjestad’s main drag, picking at the palm trees.

Hummingbirds—While hardly unique to the Caribbean, these little whirlwinds can often be found around vibrant tropical foliage. My spouse captured one mid-air as it headed from one flower to another in Princess Cays.

Pelicans—We’ve seen these on several islands, but where I remember them most is in Grand Cayman. One had planted itself firmly at the edge of a little rickety row boat, perhaps to get first dibs when a new catch came in.

Vervet monkeys—I’d heard about the little green monkeys indigenous to St. Kitts, but was unprepared to see one on the arm of a local as soon as I’d gotten off the ship. Silly me, I quickly learned my photos didn’t come free.

Then there was that day at sea, brilliant and made for sun-bathing, when the cruise director suddenly broke the bonhomie with an urgent address over the PA, “A school of whales was just sighted starboard.” Within seconds, some hundred bathing-suited, sunscreen-slathered cruisers, like a herd of cattle, stormed starboard for a look-see.

Then, a few seconds later, over the PA, “Sorry, just kidding.”

We’d been had. Groans ensued as the scantily clad returned to their loungers and Bahama Mamas.

Wild things do abound, you just need to know where to look. But remember that if all else fails, there’s always Señor Frog!

Musing’s Top Tip: Want quick video snapshots of the ports to help you plan? Check out onboard.com. It’s a travel agency site, but has 50 short and well done videos with highlights of the ports at many Caribbean and other destinations.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Entertaining Thoughts

Think entertainment, and you usually picture a stage. But a lot of cruise ship entertainment takes place off stage and in the most unlikely of places. Here are just a few:
 
Bartender as showman. Juggling, it seems, is a new prerequisite for bartending. Many a cruise lounge features a bartender right out of Cocktail, sending glasses and bottles swirling into the air to a squealing and appreciative crowd. One “Quest” event’s opening act featured bartenders outdoing each other in their alcohol antics.
 
Crew talent night. We’ve seen these on Holland America (HAL), but the listing is buried in the newsletter and the events are late at night. But they’re well worth staying up for and great for the crew, too. They get to show they can do more than clean rooms and deliver food. And it can be a real treat to hear an unassuming room steward from Indonesia suddenly fill the room with a heart-stopping rendition of “O Sole Mia.”
 
Food for fun. I talked about this one in an earlier blog post, how the ships have taken the lead from TV and turned cooking into entertainment. We’ve seen “Iron Chef” knockoffs on HAL, kitchen crew skits on Princess, and been to countless food demos through HAL’s partnership with Food and Wine magazine, and on Celebrity’s ships as well.
 
Towel animals. Alas, towel animals are becoming a dying breed, as the ships try to better manage
room stewards’ workloads. Cruise veterans know the surprise of coming back from dinner to be greeted by a white elephant or swan sitting serenely on the bed, or a cotton monkey dangling from the ceiling. Our last menagerie was recently on Allure of the Seas.
 
Offbeat and memorable. We tend to think of ship captains as a serious lot, but one in particular smashed that misconception forever. He and another senior crew member delighted a loyalty club audience with their mimicry of two bulked-up acrobats.
 
Next to you at dinner, in the bar or the lounge chair. In the end, few forms of entertainment can beat watching your fellow passengers. There was the plump, white-bearded elderly man on a December cruise who showed up each day wearing a red stocking hat. The 30-something partyer who grabbed a wild iguana off the rocks in St. Thomas’ Crown Bay. Formal night’s kilts and kimonos. Bow-tied tots and five-inch stilettos.

The formal entertainment, food and ports on a cruise are a given. But it’s the unexpected that you really remember. And in the end, isn’t that what travel’s all about?

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.

#cruise