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Saturday, June 20, 2015

Pre-Cruise Prep—What Line Does it Best?

Not that you need any help getting pumped up for your upcoming trip, but the cruise lines do vary quite a bit in what they tell you once you’ve put that deposit down.
And of the lines we’ve sailed with most recently—Princess, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity—my first prize for pre-cruise promo goes to Princess.
Communication from Celebrity and Royal Caribbean was spotty and all about driving revenue with drink packages and excursions. Celebrity, however, gets kudos for being the only one of the three lines to still offer to send you color adhesive luggage tags. (For RCI and Princess, you have to print up your own and staple or tape them to your bags.)
While Princess does its share of tempting you with ways to spend extra dough, it also works hard to inform and excite. Here’s a brief summary of what you can expect before you sail:
Princess’ patter begins early. The cruise line begins its email chats with you even before you’ve paid for the whole trip. The captain welcomes you onboard, tells you a bit about himself, and a column appearing in every email going forward gives an update of what you’ve left to do before the trip. Like submit final payment. Make sure your passport is up to date. And check in online.
Read, see and hear. About once a month and then sooner as you get closer to the trip, you get a message from a different senior officer. There are links to videos of your ship and the bridge web cam. Overviews of available excursions, which you can filter by price range and activity level. Descriptions of dining options with links to videos about the restaurants.
Let them entertain you. One especially useful email spotlights the entertainment—including what movie is actually being shown on your trip for Movies Under the Stars, the featured entertainers and song-and-dance production shows. There’s even a sample issue of Princess Patter, the onboard newsletter.
With all the hours we spend these days our eyes glued to a screen, I have to hand it to Princess for making what we spend online with the cruise line more than worth our time. And for giving us yet another reason to feel our vacation dollars are well spent.
Musing’s Top Tip: Family or friends curious about cruising but afraid to take the plunge? Consider Princess’ “Bon Voyage Experience.” You can bring your guests onboard on embarkation day and for $30 a person, they’ll get four hours of lunch plus wine, guided tour of the ship and souvenir photo. It might be a great way to get them to “yes” if you want to bring them along the next time you cruise. Reservations for this program are required, so see Princess’ website for more.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Is a Balcony Worth the Extra Cost?

If you’re planning your first cruise, no doubt you’ve pondered this question. The truth is, once you get your first balcony, you’ll never turn back.
Your budget may be tight and a balcony may not be an option. But if it is, consider springing for one.
Here’s why:
No better way to nap. The slap of the water against the ship is a built-in noise machine. Add a glass of wine and you’ve got napping nirvana.

Voilà, a two-room stateroom. Spouse still sleeping? Slip out onto the balcony. He can keep sleeping. And you’ve got your personal space.

Ft. Lauderdale sail-away from the balcony
of Celebrity's Constellation
Breakfast and the balcony are made for each other. Slide open the doors, step outside in your robe and breakfast by the sea. A great way to begin the day!

The quiet! Many people get balconies, but hardly anyone uses them. Oh, you’ll see lots of folks on the verandahs on sail-away day. But after that, they’re too busy in the casino, shops and around the pool to hang out on their balconies.
The smoke’s all gone. With most of the cruise lines banning smoking on the balcony, you can now breathe deeply with no ciggie smoke blowing by.

You’ll see things others won’t. The balcony allows you to be at the right place at the right time, camera in hand, fired up and ready to go.

We’ve captured some amazing shots, like stupendous sunsets. A rainbow over the Dominica mountains. A schooner checking out St. Lucia’s Petons just as the sky explodes with color. And we didn’t need to jockey for position on a crowded deck to capture it all.

St. Lucia and the schooner from the balcony of
HAL's Noordam
Soak up the sun away from view. While your balcony may not always be on the sunny side of the ship, when it is, you get to bathe in the warmth without being shoulder-to-shoulder with your fellow cruisers.

Get out of the cold. We debated whether to get a balcony on our Alaskan cruise, but were glad we did. In late May, Glacier Bay was a toasty 49 degrees. We took in the glaciers from our verandah, and then bopped back into the room to feel our fingers again.

On the balcony of the Caribbean Princess.
Stargazer’s delight. The night sky, unbroken by trees or power lines, presents a planetarium-worthy view of what’s above you. There is, however, a definite downside to a balcony. Once you start to use it, you may become so mesmerized with the view that you won’t want to get out and see the ship.

But then, again, a cruise is all about the sea. Isn’t it?


Saturday, May 23, 2015

These Ports are Made for Walking Part 2: Western Caribbean

Here’s good news for budget-minded cruisers who don’t want to shell out extra money for excursions at the Caribbean ports: there’s plenty to do just on foot. In an earlier posting, I covered some walkable highlights of the Eastern Caribbean, featuring San Juan and St. Maarten.
Here, I’ll do a quick take on the Western ports of Grand Cayman and Cozumel:
Fish and other fun in Grand Cayman. Most ships dock in the center of George Town. The harbor
Slice of the Grand Cayman waterfront
horseshoes around the blue waters, and provides plenty of shops—both high and low end—and a Margaritaville, as well as a bit of history in the form of (very few) remains of Fort George, originally built to protect the island from Cuban invaders.

Along the waterfront’s Harbor Drive, merely steps from the cruise pier, is a small fish market on the sand, where you’ll be as likely to find a snoozing local in the shade of the market tent as an array of snapper, grouper and other fruits of the sea laid out like handicrafts.

Take your pick among these fruits of the sea
The fishmongers throw chum into the water a few yards away, drawing two-feet long tarpon and other species, delivering an aquarium-like experience literally at your feet.
And if watching all this gives you a craving for fresh seafood, you only need to venture a bit further down Harbor Drive to find a restaurant sign beckoning with “You hook it, we cook it.”

Mexican mementos in Cozumel. The docking for most ships is Puerta Maya pier, two miles and about an $8 taxi ride into town. We did the walk a few times, but it’s not for the faint-hearted, especially under the scorching Caribbean sun. Perhaps the only benefit of doing so (along with walking off those newly accumulated calories) is the chance to spy an iguana scurrying in and out of the brush or check out the large modern supermarket (with public bathrooms upstairs) along the way. 

Fortunately, a plethora of shops have sprung up at the cruise terminal and during a recent trip, we found ourselves so immersed in the shopping, we never left it. 
Tchotchke shopping at the pier in Cozumel
While mass produced, there are plenty of inexpensive and different trinkets to bring home as mementos—from costumed dolls (actually made in Mexico!), colorful ceramics and onyx chess sets to the local specialties of vanilla and tequila.

If you want to spend a bit more, the jewelry store owners would be only too happy to show you their silver and stone. The shopkeepers can be quite aggressive, but it does work to your advantage. The price of a silver-and-lapis piece I was eying had dropped in half by the time I exited the store door. Needless to say, bargaining is strongly recommended.

Try to make it to the far end of the shopping village, where you’ll find Los Cinco Soles, the best of the shops. It’s an outpost of the bigger store in town, but has same higher quality of ceramics, jewelry, onyx, folk art, clothing and more. 
Fill your fruit bowl at Los Cinco Soles

One unique offering at Los Cinco Soles is a huge variety of watermelons, mangos, red peppers and other brightly colored papier-mâché fruits and veggies. Filling a lovely wooden bowl from the Western Caribbean port of Roatan (watch for a future posting) with these makes a great centerpiece (and conversation starter) for your table back home.

And if shopping’s not your thing, the pier’s got several places to eat and drink. Or, get your photo taken with a modern Mayan, submerge yourself for an underwater oxygen infusion or turn yourself into mush with a massage by the sea.


Saturday, May 9, 2015

Princess Preferred: A Review of the Caribbean Princess

A mouthful of luscious Love
from the Caribbean Princess
From the Norman Love truffle pops at the Welcome Toast to the restaurant-like beverage service in the buffet, Princess is filled with surprises that make it my favorite among the mass market cruise lines.
It won’t blow you away with bumper cars or carousels, but what it does deliver is consistently solid service, attention to detail and an eagerness to please.
The recent trip on the Caribbean Princess, our fourth on the line, proved to be as good as the first. With many of the lines noticeably scaling back, Princess is an exception. Here’s some of what made it special:
Ship shape. Princess’ mini-suite is ideal for those who want more space but not at a suite price. It’s essentially the size of a hotel room with two flat screen TVs, a full-sized couch, large counter, and porch furniture featuring reclining
A mini-suite is a perfect size but
doesn't come at a steep price
chairs, foot stools and a large table. The closets in the mini-suites—as well as the balcony rooms—are the largest we’ve had on any cruise line, and can accommodate three hanging shoe bags, along with a whole lot of clothes.

The staterooms—as well as the public rooms—were immaculate. You’d really have to look hard to find any evidence that the ship was built 11 years ago.
The piazza, the hub of ship activity, this trip featured a pianist, a we-can-play-just-about-anything band and singer, steel drums and a former circus performer who twirled lighted hoops in a blaze of 
A performance in the piazza
color and grace.

The only downside to the handsome piazza is that it can’t always accommodate everyone who wants to be there. Getting a good enough view to take photos of the Mardi Gras party or a seat to eat your International Café quiche can sometimes be all but impossible.
Food; themed and otherwise. Speaking of food, it ranged from fair to good, in both the Main Dining Room and Horizon Court buffet. One innovation in the MDR was Caribbean cuisine, a welcome reminder of where we were. And it was nice to see lobster tail still on the formal night menu.
Horizon Court themed nights were a lot of fun and we found ourselves there more than the MDR. German night was alight with a color-changing, larger-than-life beer stein (in ice, not on ice), landjagger bites and German hams, pretzel rolls, red cabbage, sausages, and linzer and sacher tortes. Italian night, with its gondolier-costumed waiters, served up prosciutto and hunks of parmesan, fennel au gratin and pasta many ways.

Part of the bread spread on German night
The bakery stuff is where Princess really excels. The breads are great—from the sunflower-studded rolls to the cheese-topped croissants to the onion-infused focaccia. The chocolate desserts were excellent, rivaling some of the best bakeries on land.

The ship was as generous with its buffet hours as it was with the food offerings. You can get breakfast until 11:30, lunch until 3:30 (if you miss this, there’s “afternoon snack” from 3:30-5:30, which is a scaled down lunch), and full dinner is available until 11. Late dining was an especially mellow meal, just us, a few other night owls and the crew.
Fun and games. While standard fare, the entertainment was generally good; highlights were a juggler/comedian whose not-G-rated shtick brought on belly laughs, and a magician/comedian with same-but-different sleight-of-hand tricks and fast wit.
In fact, everyone seemed to be a comedian on this trip—including the cruise director, Paul Chandler-Burns. The Brit’s quips shot out like sparks—in an understated, under-the-breath sort of way—and made him the ideal emcee. His banter during the “The Marriage Match Game Show” made it easily one of the best we’ve seen on any ship.
Love Boat disco
There were several themed parties, the most memorable was the “Love Boat Disco Deck Party” held by the pool. The ship’s singers and dancers, dressed officer-like in white pants suits and captain hats, did the hustle and other moves, while the Movie Under the Stars screen revived scenes from the TV show, interspersing its octogenarian cast members somewhat disconcertedly jiving to a disco beat.
Well served. Service onboard was attentive from the room steward to the well-orchestrated disembarkation. Ironically, some of the best service we had was in the buffet. One night, I was asked by three different waiters within 10 minutes if I wanted any water or coffee.
With the generous room space, great service, varied entertainment with plenty of laughs, satisfying food sprinkled with surprises, and four good Western Caribbean ports (seven days of sun didn’t hurt either), we felt gloriously pampered from ship to shore. And felt that Princess did its best—and succeeded—in helping us “come back new.”
Small talk: Princess Patter, the onboard newsletter, was named after the very first Princess cruise ship, the Princess Patricia.

 Photos by RJ Greenburg


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: –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).—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.—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.—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.