Monthly Archives: January 2015

Excursions on Cruises – Do Private or Do the Cruise Line Excursion?

You sail into port and see the beautiful turquoise waters.  You’re excited to explore this new port or to visit areas that you didn’t see your last time there.  The cruise line has many excursions for you to choose from and yet you have heard that friends of yours do private excursions because they are less expensive and fewer people on the buses.  You are under the strong impression that if you take the ship sponsored excursion and it runs late, the ship will not leave without you.  What do you do?

This is a very personal decision and it depends on how comfortable you are in being a little independent.  For me, we almost always use a private tour company and do not book any of the ship’s excursions and I have always felt very comfortable in doing so.

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HOW TO FIND A TOUR OPERATOR – I feel that the key to doing this is doing your homework – at least some of the time.   I begin finding tour operators by googling “shore excursions in XXXXX”.    Many tour operator’s web sites will come up and I read them and their reviews written by those who have taken their tours.  I then go to Trip Advisor to see how they are rated and what is written about them.  Finally, I go to the cruise critic website and go to their Ports of Call thread and read what is written about the port and what tour companies people have used.  Blogger Hubby will sometimes write to the Chamber of Commerce to get names of reputable tour operators.  At that point, once I find a tour operator I email them for more information.

In my email I let them know what ship I will be on, the date and time that it arrives in port and when I needed to be back.  You can find the latter information on your itinerary where it will list when you leave port.  I always tell them that I need to be back about 30 minutes before I need to be – it gives me a cushion.

If I am not back, most likely the ship will leave unless there are a lot of passengers who have not returned either.  There are times when, even if you are on a ship sponsored excursion and they are back late, they will leave without you.  Ships pay to dock and if another ship is scheduled to come into port or if the extra expense of waiting for you is not worth it, then the ship will leave you behind.  If on a ship sponsored excursion, the cruise line  will make sure you get to the next port of call.  You are on your own when you book a private tour.  I will say, having taken private excursions for many, many years never have I been late for a ship nor have I heard of anyone arriving late on a private tour. It is a risk that I am willing to assume and don’t give it a moments thought.

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BENEFITS – what I love about private tours, especially when prebooked, is that you can suggest to the tour operator what you would like to see.  On the ones that I have organized we have been in clean mini-buses with about 10 people.  We are never in a commercial bus seating 44 people always waiting for that person who thinks that the time to come back applies to them.  I have felt very herded at times on the larger buses.  These experiences have led me to find private excursions.

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PRE-BOOKING A PRIVATE EXCURSION AND GETTING OTHER PASSENGERS – I enjoy planning what I want to see when there is so much to choose from.  Some operators will solicit passengers for an excursion and just fill up the seats with people you may not know.  I have been very happy with that but there is a better way, in my opinion.  When I am going somewhere like Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Asia  or anywhere that I do not know much about then I will see about booking the entire van.  I have not put any money down but told the operator that I would try to fill it myself.  I then go back to Cruise Critic (love that site) to my Roll Call.  The Roll Call is where you find your cruise line, find your ship and then find your sailing.  You’ll get to meet and converse with others on your sailing.  I will announce that I have booked an excursion, what we are seeing and how long we will be out, what the cost is and how much it costs.  Others will join is – trust me they will.  Some people are planners and some are not.  Before you know it, you have the van filled.  When in Dunedin, New Zealand I worked with Chris of Back to Nature Tours, custom designed our excursion including a box lunch that we would eat while out.  The tour cost about $135 NZD, not unusual for this part of the world and a great conversion rate.  This tour was so popular that I filled two vans and Chris showed his appreciation to me by not charging me for my tour.  This was filled by people that I got to know over the weeks and months we  that we communicated on the Roll Call.  Another great benefit to doing it this way is that you are paying in local currency which could give you a great conversion rate.

In setting up this excursion rules are set that if they cancelled and did not find a replacement within a few weeks before sailing, then they still needed to pay.  Many times you book the van for a set dollar and not a per person charge and if they cancelled then our per person charge would change as well.  I had one experience where someone did not come due to illness and her spouse paid for her to keep our per person rate the same.  In setting it ip I assign people to a van (van #1 or van #2) in the order that they signed up and brought that list to me as well as sending it to our tour operator.  It was as smooth as could be, we had a great tour and it was much more comfortable and less expensive and we saw more than what the cruise line was offering.

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TOUR OPERATOR ON THE DOCK – since we had booked this cruise about a week before sailing, I didn’t have time to prebook or correspond with any tour operator.  I decided that I would take my chances with some of the tour operators who are on the docks looking for passengers.  We did this twice on our cruise.  Our first time was in Curacao and we were promised a two hour tour for $20 – not bad.  We did have to wait for them to fill up the mini bus of about 16 people.  The tour was just what we wanted and we saw what we could in two hours.  We did ask that we be dropped off downtown so that we could walk around and then walk back to the ship.

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Our second experience of getting on a tour from the docks was in Cartagena, Columbia.  We were offered 3 1/2 hours for $20.  I believe that we were little impacted by he fact that it was a Sunday morning; our ship docked at 7AM and we were leaving at 1 PM.  Not much time in this port.  After we walked through the cruise terminal and past the small little free zoo we went by all the independent tour operators offering this tour.  There was 17 of us  in a minibus when we left the dock.  We saw many sights, did some shopping, went to an emerald museum (Blogger Hubby – I didn’t buy any), walked along the wall surrounding the old part of the city,bought coffee at an outdoor market, viewed colonial architecture, went souvenir shopping and for some, visiting a bar on the beach.  Personally I think we spent too much time “shopping” but for $20 for 3 1/2 hours, I think that I got what I paid for and  I was happy with it.

Overall, I had and would have no problem with booking an inexpensive tour from the docks

Final Thoughts – These independent tour operators know that we rate them and write about them.  this is their livelihood and they are not going to risk you being late for your cruise.  I think they are just as good, and sometimes better than a cruise sponsored excursion.  I would never hesitate to either pre-book or book while at the docks.

Side note – on this cruise I spoke with a woman who was so upset with her cruise sponsored excursion that she complained about it to the Shore Excursion desk while on board and she, and everyone else on her bus, received a complete refund.

What have you done for excursions on a cruise ship?

 

 

Panama Canal Cruise – our First Day on Holland America Zuiderdam

I just returned home after a last minute booking on the 11 night Holland America Sunfarer cruise aboard the Zuiderdam.  Booking at the last minute does save you money however, your choices in staterooms are limited.  I had looked at the deck plan and saw that one of the staterooms available was 4119 which is listed as having an obstructed view due to the lifeboat outside our window.  Looking closely at the deck plan, it appeared that this stateroom was at the end of the lifeboats and that perhaps not the entire ocean view window would be blocked.  I then googled “Zuiderdam stateroom 4119” to see if there were any reviews of this stateroom.  The reviewers were saying what I was seeing – that it is not a totally obstructed stateroom, that it has a floor to ceiling window and it has a bathtub (not important for me but important to some people).  I was feeling pretty good about our chances for a decent stateroom.

Like many travelers, we flew into Fort Lauderdale the day before our cruise.  During the winter months, this is very important to me.  There are so many hotels to choose from that will offer free or low priced shuttle rides to the dock.  We chose to stay at the Hyatt Place mainly because it was within walking distance of the Harbor Shops, a nice strip shopping center that had restaurants, shops and a Publix grocery store.  We paid $169 for the 2 bed suite.  They had a nice breakfast bar but it does close very promptly at 9 AM.  We could walk to the Harbor Shops but elected to have the shuttle bus drive us there.

cruises harbor shops

At the Publix I was able to buy my wine for the cruise (HAL allows you to bring in 2 bottles of wine at the beginning of the cruise per stateroom), my 12 pack of cola and a 12 pack of water.  I would carry the wine on board but for the cola and the water, I taped a luggage tag onto them and had them delivered to my stateroom with my luggage.  I had brought down to Florida my clear packing tape as well as a couple extra luggage tags that I had printed off to use on the cola and water.

I like to get to the docks early and this time was no exception.  We signed up for the first shuttle from the hotel which was at 10:00.  The shuttle to the dock cost us $7 and we had to pay the driver separately from the hotel bill – make sure you sign up for the shuttle when you check in to the hotel.  If you elect to leave your car here while on the cruise, the price as of this date is $7 per day.  By 10:30 we were at the dock, luggage, cola and water dropped off outside, checked in and received our boarding group number, with the deck plan and our ship card in our hand, which is used whenever you leave or return to the ship or when you want to purchase something on the ship.  Getting there early allowed us to find a seat to sit and wait in comfort.  As we were waiting we could see the line to check in was getting longer and longer.  We liked our strategy to get there early.   At 11:45 we were boarding our home away from home for the next eleven nights and going to our stateroom to drop off our carry ons.

cruise 1 port

Since we had sailed on Holland America previously, we were Mariners.  I was a three star and my friend was a one star – the number is based on the number of sea days you sail and how much money you spend while on the cruise.  Many people do not know that one Holland America Mariner perks is that  you can eat lunch in the Vista Dining Room upon embarkation rather than the crowded Lido buffet.  We had a delightful luncheon with a couple from Canada that we would see off and on throughout our cruise.

We explored the ship going to one of my favorite locations first – the Culinary Arts Center by day and the Queens Row Lounge by night.  In this lounge, cooking demonstrations are held during the day as well as a few hands on cooking lessons that are $29.  The cooking lessons are held on sea days and there were two lessons during our trip.  Ten participants are allowed at these classes and there always is a waiting list.  I quickly signed up for the class and chose which one I wanted to do.  I chose the class that featured Cajun Grilled Shrimp over Greens with three different vinaigrettes, mashed potatoes with surfeit, grilled pork chops with a picadillo salsa and tres leche cake.  We were to work with one of the chefs on the ship as well as the “Party Planner” in preparing the meal.  After we made it, we would be served the meal made by the kitchen on board the ship at the specialty dining room Pinnacle Grill complemented with our choice of red or white wine.

cruise culinary arts center

We continued our tour and went to the spa area.  Holland America has a separate thermal pool, a relaxation room with five tiled heated loungers, and two saunas.  There is a few to go here and if you book on the first day there is a discount.  We signed up for this and knew that we would avail ourselves of the thermal pool with jets to ease our aching muscles and to put me in the relaxation mood for this trip.

cruises spa

We stopped by the Digital Workshop which is staffed by Microsoft.  Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be open for the first five days of the cruise.  Once it was open, they would offer workshops three times a day and then another session for a question and answer period.  Laptops were there but the number of laptops, as well as seats, were limited.  Even getting there 30 minutes prior to the workshop did not allow you to get a seat.  If this interests you, get there about 45 minutes before the class begins.

cruises digital workshop

We had signed up last minute for this cruise and were given the fixed dining time of 7:45.  We did not want this time knowing that we probably would not be having the dining room till about 9:30.  We met with the maitre’d and he could not change us to the early seating and said if we went to the Any Time You Wish seating then we would have to eat at 5:15 as they had no reservations left.  We were a little frustrated but then a waiter whispered to us to just show up.  We decided to take his advice when it was time to dine.

Our final stop before heading to our stateroom to unpack our suitcases was to the Shore Excursion desk.  We had only booked one excursion before we left and although I probably wasn’t going to book another ship excursion, my traveling companion was interested in getting more information for our stop in Aruba as well as Costa Rica.  They explained some of the differences between the excursions as well as the activity level needed for each excursion.  Two booked excursions later we finally went to our stateroom to find our luggage in the room and we began unpacking.

We walked into the Any Time You Wish dining room (Vista Dining room, deck 2) and were seated sharing a table with four other people.  This is the benefit of having Any Time You Wish dining – you get to meet new people every night.  Each night we widen the number of  people that we met and began to know on this ship.

crusie 2 dining

A delicious meal, entertainment in the Vista lounge, going to the Piano Bar and have a late night ice cream in the Lido buffet ended our first day on the Zuiderdam.

I want to say hello to my fellow HAL cruisers who may be reading this blog for the first time.  It was a pleasure meeting you and talking about travel and points.  If you like this blog, please consider receiving my blogs in your email by clicking “Follow Me” on the right side of this blog.  To read more about cruising, go to the category tab and look for it in the drop down menu.

 

 

Preparing for My Cruise

I’m rushing around like a chicken without her head.  Remember, I booked this cruise five days ago.  With so little time to worry about what clothes I was packing it took much less time.  I am also trying to bring less in general – per Blogger Hubby’s suggestion (err…orders).  He does have a point because when we do our river cruise in 2015, I’ll need to pack less because we will be schlepping around Germany, Prague, Budapest and northern Italy.

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It always seems that I bring so many shoes.  I need some for the white pants I’ll be wearing, some for city walking, a pair for pool deck that I can slip on and of course other evening shoes.  I just wish I could find an answer for my shoe dilemma.

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With the cruise lines, you download your luggage tags and print them out on your printer paper.  I have never liked this always fearing that the luggage tags will rip.  When yo download your tags, there are instructions of what to fold first, second and third.  I did that and rather than staple them onto my luggage, I took the folded take to Staples and had them laminate the tags.  I brought them home and punched a hole at one of the tags.  I attached them to my backpack and will attached them to my luggage with a pice of ribbon tied on with a square knot.  I feel safer with some weight and protective covering to the tag

Today I notified my Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card that I would be traveling.  I am using that card as it has no foreign transaction fees associated with it.  I also notified the Charles Schwab Bank since I will use their debit card at ATM’s while traveling (if needed).  I use this card since there are no ATM fees and it saves me money and who doesn’t want to save money?  Schwab will reimburse you for all ATM charges.  If you don’t have this debit card, you should consider getting one.  Drop me a note and I’ll  send you information about how to get an account.

Other things I have been doing today

  •  Drugstore for any refills that I needed for the trip
  • Little water spray bottle to squirt water onto some of my clothes to get the wrinkles out (it works like a charm.
  • A small bottle with a little liquid laundry detergent so I could rinse out small laundry items.
  • Dollar Tree to picked up a few clothes pins to hang up these wet items
  • books downloaded to my Kindle
  • a few snacks packed
  • wine opener
  • to the bank to get some one dollar bills for tipping
  • hotel reservation in the port city we will be departing from

I think I am set!  Good bye frigid temperatures – I won’t miss you.

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How Do You Find Cheap Cruises?

As I mentioned on my post yesterday, a friend and I are taking a last minute cruise to the Panama Canal, eleven nights for $800 plus port charges.  To me that is a great deal!

cruise in caribbean

Since I have written it, I have had a number of people ask me where to find such great deals.

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I found this one on the Holland America website. I merely went to their site and under their big picture were three cruises listed.  These three will be sailing within a few days to within a couple of weeks.  That’s when you find the deepest discounts.  Of course, you do not have the choicest staterooms but you are paying quite a bit less than many of the other passengers and you get to see the same sights and eat the same food.

Holland America also has a Flash Sale page that lists all the “sales” on sailings.

Celebrity does something similar.  They have Tuesday Sales.  Scroll down the pages until you find something that you are interested in.

flash sale

Royal Caribbean and Carnival also have sales and you will find their best deals on their website as well.

Others have spoken about this site.  Although the title suggests that it is just for repositioning cruises – it’s not.  If the link takes you to the home pages, look for the “Show me the Deals” in smaller purple letters with a yellow box around it.  Once you find something you like, double check back online with the cruise line and see what their prices are – one may be more expensive but you get back a higher On Board Credit.  You need to know what you will be purchasing.

I found the cruise I wanted, I saw online that I would get a $100 OBC from the cruise line if I booked directly through them.  Wondering if I could do better, I emailed my travel agent and she did.  In addition to the $100 that the cruise line would give us, she matched it and gave an additional $50.  I would have booked with her if she had just matched it.

Her service to me is outstanding.  Rather than downloading the documents myself (which I have no problem doing), she did it and Fed Exed it to me.  She also sent me information on all the ports as well as a printed copy of all the excursions that would be available from HAL on this cruise.

Finally, she was able to change our main dining time, 8:00 PM (which is too late for me) to Any Time Dining.  When other friends, on the same sailing, tried to do it the same day, they were refused by HAL because it was too close to sailing date.  I was never one to use a travel agent but I have found a gem and will use her as much as I can.

Have you taken a last minute cruise and where did you find out about it from?

My Last Minute Trip

Even though I am originally from Boston I dislike very cold weather.  I even dislike medium cold weather though I do delight in seeing the snow falling and the winter wonderland after the snow.  Then comes the melting, the slush and mud.  On top of that I have to wear my heavy coat, gloves, hat…well, you get the picture.  Last year we didn’t have any trips planned for the winter and that was a first in a number of years.  This year I again craved the warmth of the sun on my body with visions of turquoise waters surrounding me.

Blogger Hubby wasn’t interested in going on a trip so instead I asked a close friend if she would possibly be up for a trip to somewhere warm.  Lucky for me she quickly agreed.  She began the ball rolling by sending me an ad from American Americans for a vacation package in Aruba.  The problem was that it needed to be booked by Christmas Eve and already it was December 22nd.  Obviously that was a no go but it did kickstart me into finding somewhere to go.  I began looking at all-inclusive resorts but for what we wanted, they seemed a little pricey except for the Cancun area and we were just there two years ago.  Additionally, did we really want to sit on the beach day after day.  Yes, we wanted the beach but not all day long every day.  We needed to be able to go somewhere as well.

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I followed in Blogger Son #2 footsteps and looked at renting a home through VRBO, Home Away and AirBnB.  He was able to snag a beautiful home (not condo) in Aruba with a private swimming pool, and a very short walk to the beach by the Ritz Carlton for a bargain price.  He also booked his flights through Chase for a discount.  All this for Christmas week .  He had been checking airfare to Aruba for several months and he jumped when he saw a price he liked.  Me, I couldn’t do it.  His place was all booked up for the rest of the winter and other places were either condos (which would have been okay) but I did like that he had a private home.  I looked at other islands like Trinidad, Puerto Rico, and St. Martin.  Nothing seemed to float my boat.

caribbean map

I then looked at last minute cruises on the individual cruise line web sites.  My traveling partner was fine with a cruise but she did ask that we not go to the same islands that she had been to before a few years ago.  That proved to be a challenge since she had been to St Martin and Puerto Rico.  Seems like many cruises go to these islands.

But then I saw a real possibility.  On Saturday I was on Holland America website (yes, I do like it), and they had an eleven night cruise from Fort Lauderdale to their private island of Coco Cay, Aruba, Curacao, Cartagena, Columbia, partial transit of the Panama Canal, and then Costa Rica. There were a few staterooms available as the sailing was nine days but it made for really inexpensive fares.  Rather than being on the 1st deck and feeling the engines, we chose to have an obstructed Ocean View stateroom.  I know what you are thinking but at $800 for an eleven night cruise, and one that I have been on before on the same ship, this cabin would be good enough for us.  Port charges are about $330 which is a lot but that is because of the high passenger charge imposed by the Panama Canal.

sunfarer

Can you tell that I am stoked about this trip?  I have already booked my canal excursion.  My regret from the previous cruise  is that I stayed on the boat while in Gatun Lake (part of the canal) and I never saw more of Panama or of the canal.  This time I was going to correct that mistake.  Today I booked an excursion from the cruise line (only cruise lines offer excursions from their ships while in Gatun Lake since they have to tender you off).  We will be riding the rails to Panama City,  spending some time at the Miraflores Observation Tower and then taking a coach bus back to Colon, Panama where we will rebound the ship.

panama canal

Now to plan for the other stops.  Aruba – perhaps the beaches.  Curacao – maybe a walking tour.  Cartagena – I don’t know what.  Costa Rica – my friend is looking at tours there.

Have you planned a trip with about a weeks notice?  I’m finding that I’m not stressing as much as when I have a lot of time to prepare yet I am also trying to tie up loose ends. Canceling and rescheduling doctor’s appointments, getting prescription refills to take on the trip.  The other good thing, according to Blogger Hubby is that I’m so busy trying to do all these other things that I’m not out shopping for this trip.

Stay tuned for more updates about this last minute trip.