Category Archives: Cruising

Come With Us to South America – Really!

We are already planning our next big trip.  We decided to take 2017 off from a big trip and are focusing on 2018 – February 14th to be specific.

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After a false start with Holland America, we have booked a cruise on the Emerald Princess, one of the ships with Princess Cruise Line.  We sail from Valparaiso (outside of Santiago) Chile to Buenos Aires, Argentina.  This cruise will sail for 2 weeks exploring the southern half of South America – a land that I have not been to and am anxious to see.  The Chilean fjords are more numerous than in all of Scandinavia, a visit to the bottom of the world when we stop in Ushuaia, another stop in the Falkland Island.  We will also stop in Montevideo, Uruguay, Puerto Montt, Puerto Arenas, Amalia Glacier, Puerto Madryn, and around Cape Horn.  The scenery will be nothing short of spectacular with mountains, glaciers, wildlife include the Emperor penguins.

Glaciers galore
Glaciers galore

What I do when we cruise is find local tour guides to take us around while we are in port.  I do this for several reasons.  First, I like smaller tours and just hate being on a 44 passenger bus always having to wait for someone who thinks that the time to be back at the bus doesn’t apply to them and I like to customize as much as possible our tour.  Finally, the price is general either the same for a smaller, more intimate experience or it is less .  Less is always good.

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The beautiful glaciers

Of course, the price depends on which stateroom category you choose and its location.  Yo would need to talk to our group travel agent, Michelle, to get the price.

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You may be asking yourself why am I bringing this up now.  It’s because Princess is having a special promotion where you get your gratuities free!  That’s right and that is a big savings.  Also depending which stateroom you choose, you may also receive a discount.  This promotion ends on November 16th.  If you are interested in being part of my group, getting special pricing and benefits, I suggest you contact our travel agent at michelle@mccabeworld.com or call her directly at 703-762-5049screen-shot-2016-11-08-at-3-35-44-pm

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The AMA Dagio

I got a little ahead of myself when I spoke about our tour to the Artist Experience.  I neglected to tell you about our ship, the Ama Dagio.

We had been on the newer AMA Primo the year before and for the cruise up the Rhone, we were to be on their oldest ship.  I had been told that it was in great shape, which it was, but on first glance, it left me a little wanting.  Before on the Prima, our bedroom had a small little round table with chairs by the French balcony.  Our stateroom on the Dagio did not have that or a mini refrigerator.  We had bought cheese anticipating a refrigerator.  Also, on the Sun Deck (the top deck) there was a hot tub,not the small pool that we had on the Prima.  There was also less furniture and groupings than on the Primo where there were many rattan sofas and chairs as well as loungers and chairs with canopies and screens to shade you.  The only seatings under the umbrellas on the Dagio were loungers.  We had to move some chairs so we could sit and have shade while we were playing cards.  A reoccurring problem for us on the Dagio was the very loud dining room.  On our first night we could barely hear our table mates.  The Prima had a divider down the middle with booth seating.  I think that might have absorbed some of the noise.  We found out the next night that if we sat in a rear corner near the doors where the food comes out, that the noise was much more tolerable.  That’s where we sat for most of our meals.img_1366

What made up for some of these minor problems was the crew.  I have never had a better cruise director than Rachel Couto Gomes.  Not only did we learn French in an amusing way, we learned a little French etiquette.  We all left her daily briefings with a huge smile on our faces.  She was really a part of “us” – she participated in the dancing one night, came along to some of the tours, helped with problems that were not cruise related as well as helping with cruise related questions.  I would follow her on any AMA cruise and to be honest, before I booked another cruise, I would email her to see what her schedule would be.  Every single crew member went out of their way to be helpful to all of us.

On one of our first cruise days I learned why our staterooms were as small as they were – the locks!  I could open our French balcony and touch the lock wall.  There were no ships on the Rhone that had regular balconies because of these narrow locks.  Also, for many of the times that we were cruising during the we were not allowed on the top deck due to the low bridges that we would be sailing under.  In fact, while we were on our cruise a Viking cruise line ship’s bridge was not lowered (and no one knows why yet) and it was flatten and torn off the ship with the occupants inside killed.  That made our captain’s decision to close off the Sun Deck even more meaningful to us.

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p1060418Something new on the Dagio from the previous year was when we boarded the ship, our photograph was taken, like an ocean cruiser.  Whenever we left the ship, we had our room key card scanned so they could be sure it was us getting off and us getting on.  They were increasing the security because of events that had been happening in Europe this past year.

We found the food to be delicious and there was always something that we wanted to eat.  What we especially liked was that their food was lighter than our American food.  The Fettucine Alfredo’s sauce was delicious and light – unlike the heavier versions that I have tasted.  The same with their salad dressings.  I asked the Maitre ‘d for the recipes and he complied.  I look forward to making some of these recipes.

We did have dinner one night at the Chef’s Table on 3rd deck aft.  It was a beautiful view as we sailed down the Saone on our way back from a winery to Lyon.  It was a fixed menu and it was received mixed reviews from those on the ship.  It was more like a tapas meal, small offerings and there are a few choices you can make.  The service was outstanding as they only have a few tables and stagger their reservations.  I’m not a seafood fan and felt that there was a lot of seafood.  On the other hand, Blogger Hubby loves seafood and pates and he was in seventh heaven and thoroughly enjoyed it.  I’m not sure that I would do the Chef’s Table again though some people did enjoy it. The experience was worthwhile to me. My only suggestion is to look at the menu before you book

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I did book myself a massage on the ship and although the massage was fine the room and location where it was done was not good.  The hairdresser and the masseuse share a room, a tiny room at the back of the ship.  There was no room to change into or out of clothes and barely with the chair for the hairdresser, the room was tight to open up the folding massage table.  Throughout most of the 60 minute massage I listened to the boat rattling and the sounds of a ship that was moving.  I asked if this was unusual and she replied that it wasn’t.  It did distract from the relaxing environment that I had envisioned for my hour long massage. Before I book again, I’ll take a look at the room where is done.

Our first night on the ship, we had a very special treat.  If you read my previous blogs, you will recall that this weekend was the Festival of the Harvest of the Rice.  This area of France, the Rhone Valley, is known for the mistral winds.  They are a strong, cold, northwesterly wind that blows from southern France into the Gulf of Lion (a gulf of the northern Mediterranean but can reach about 115 mph.  It is most common in the winter and spring, and strongest in the transition between the two seasons.  The Rhone Valley is particularly susceptible to these winds and in fact the winds get faster as they go through the valley on the way to the coast.  Seems like the mistral winds went through this area on Bastille Day in July and they were not able to have the fireworks for their national holiday.p1060196They “saved” the fireworks and chose to combine them with the fireworks for the Harvest of the Rice festival.  As it got dark, we all headed up to the Sun Deck (or maybe Star Deck) to grab a chair and watch the festivities.  We had the BEST seats in the entire area, at least in my opinion.  We were on one side of the river and the fireworks were shot off directly opposite of us.  It was amazing and rank up in my mind with fireworks that I have seen in both Boston and Washington DC on the 4th of July.

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We looked forward to more experiences and memories like these.

Who Wants to Cruise With Us to South America?

Yes, I admit it…..I’m a planner.  I like to have a goal, or trip in mind so I can have fun researching, planning and of course saving for it.  Blogger Hubby and I have looked at our bucket list again, re-prioritized it and found what we want to be our next trip.  Since we are taking off next year from big travel (putting money into our house) I had to begin looking at 2018.  I know, I know – that’s a L O N G time off but because it is a long time off, I was able to get a really great deal.  The best deals for trips are really far out or last minute.travel world

 

One cruise that we have wanted to do for about 5 years now is the cruise around South America and Antarctica.  Having Antartica as part of the trip  added on about a week and several thousand dollars more to the. Regretfully, I let go of that dream.

My next decision was when to go. Obviously, their summer was the best time or was it?  Summer is considered the rainy season, not like monsoons but more like here where the heat of the summer will cause afternoon thunderstorms.  I’ve also become sensitive to the heat and that needs to be taken into consideration.  Last year’s trip to Europe, where it was in the high 80’s and low 90’s almost every day was a major drain on my energy as well as how much time we spent out of doors and waiting in long lines.  I read that the early fall is a wonderful time to visit – think of New England in the fall.  From what I read, drier air will move up from Antarctica and will give us those azure blue skies that we see in the spring and fall.

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I have been on Celebrity, Princess, Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Holland America as well as two river cruise lines.  I fee like I have a taste of their personalities and know what to expect from the ships.  I chose Holland America (HAL) because of what it offers me.  I really enjoy their Culinary Arts Kitchen where they will give you small group cooking lessons, large group demonstrations, the rocking and rolling Piano Bar, easy access to loungers and tables around the pool, entertainment that we enjoy.  With all this information in hand, we chose to begin our cruise on March 5, 2018 on Holland America’s Zaandam.

zaandam

We begin our cruise outside of Santiago, Chile and sail past beautiful, green and lush forests and lakes, through the Strait of Magellan, Beagle Channel, seeing many glaciers.  Did you know that there are more glaciers in Chile than in all of Scandinavia?  We will go to the southernmost town in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina.  We will enter Glacier Alley and stand at the front of the ship with warm beverages in hand as we gaze at the glaciers that may be gone in our grandchildrens time.  Have you ever seen a glacier calving – that’s when a chunk breaks off and falls into the water and hear the noise they make?  We will see penguins in their natural habitat and so much more.  But it’s not all scenery.  We’ll spent a day in Montevideo, Uruguay and overnight in Buenos Aires.  I’m planning on having a custom made leather jacket made for me in Buenos Aires.  We’ll also stop in the Falkland Islands and be able to have a spot of tea, British style.

The beautiful glaciers
The beautiful glaciers
Glaciers galore
Glaciers galore
Ushuaia, Argentina - the southernmost city in the world
Ushuaia, Argentina – the southernmost city in the world

While in are in South America, this would be an opportunity to visit Machu Picchu, Easter Island, the Galapagos, or Iguazu Falls

My fantastic travel agent, Michelle, of McCabe World Travel outside of Washington DC, will be coordinating the group travel.  She has been able to lock in for our group the lowest prices for us.  In addition to the lowest prices, there will be amenities for our group.  I’ll try to arrange some excursions that are more personalized and smaller than what the ship offers though you are free to do what you want.  Remember, we are a group in name only so we can get the best prices.  Of course, we are all a friendly group and it will be run to see each other and share stories.  Don’t you want to be part of this great group?

Am I tempting you a little bit?

 

 

Snorkeling in Bonaire

Having never been to Bonaire I was super excited about this stop.  Bonaire is part of what is known as the A, B, C islands which lie about 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela.  Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao make up the A, B, C islands and are all part of the Netherland Antilles.  They generally do not get hurricanes because of how far south in the Caribbean they are and are in a perfect location if you want a fall vacation and want to stay out of the paths of hurricanes.

I knew that Bonaire was considered a diver’s paradise so I thought it would be great for snorkeling since I am not a diver.  I have gone snorkeling several times with Blogger Hubby but, this is confession time, I am not a confident snorkeler. On this cruise I wasn’t traveling with my husband but rather a friend and she was not a snorkeler.  I put on my Big Girl panties and decided to do a snorkeling trip by myself (of course there would be others on the boat).

After a recommendation from a couple on my Cruise Critic Roll Call (thank you Lisa and Travis) I booked with Woodwind on their catamaran.

Jane on boat
I have never had such a positive snorkeling experience.  Sitting on their catamaran as we sailed around the harbor and island near the capital city in Bonaire, it was a very peaceful and serene experience.  There was no music blaring, no racing to see who could drink the most in the shortest amount of time.  It was almost as if we were communing with the water.  There were about 16 of us on the cat and the two guides gave each of us their utmost time and attention.  They went to each of each to see if we had any concerns or fears and whether we had snorkeled before  I had told that that I had but was more of a tentative and nervous snorkeler.  When they asked what my concerns were, I told them and they assured me that I would be fine after listening to me.  Our guide actually stayed very close by two people who had never snorkeled before.

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Additionally, they told us that they had full face snorkel mask if anyone had problems breathing out of their mouth.  They also had about 4 pairs of prescription masks for those who wear glasses.  Clothing – they had plenty for us to borrow.  I put on a pullover top so I would not sunburn my back as I snorkeled.  The woman next to me, who was fair skinned, put on one of their skins, like a diving suit only thinner.  I borrowed a hood to put over my hair and to keep it from flowing into my face.  Fins were optional.  She had float belts, vests and noodles.  We didn’t need to bring anything – they had it all and much more!

Jane thumb up

What surprised me was that the guides got into the water with us and stayed with those who had never snorkeled before and helped those of us who felt like we needed reassurances.  Our guide pointed out fish, two different types of turtles as well as different corals and sponges that were below us.  She would give us the hand signals that we learned before getting in the water checking to see if we were okay.  We had a full 90 minutes snorkeling and it was wonderful.  We saw two different types of turtles, brain sponge, needlefish, lion fish and so many more tropical fish that I do not know the name of.

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We all got back on board our boat and as we were heading back to the dock we were served a hot dinner – noodles, spring roll and of course Rum Runners.  It was delicious and I had no idea that I was even hungry.

IMG_8932Before we got to port, the guides came around to collect their money – either by credit card or cash.  For my tour, it was $55 US dollars.

One little antidote, as we were looking for a place to get into the water, our guide and our captain noticed another boat “The Coral Buddy” and our guide did not like what they were doing.  Some of their passengers were in the water standing on coral, they were anchored in a coral restoration area.  There were words in Dutch and strong feelings on the part of our crew.  I appreciated their feelings about coral restoration and doing no damage to the sensitive coral.  We all felt like we made friends with our guides.

IMG_8955To get to Woodwind, as you leave the port, bear to the right.  At the main street, turn right and you will see a casino sign.  Go through the gate and through the Divi Flamingo Beach Resort.  Woodwind is all the way down the sidewalk, past the swimming pool.  If you are with someone who doesn’t want to snorkel, the resort offers a day pass for $15 though when I walked through, there was no one collecting and I just sat down on one of the loungers and went swimming in the pool before my snorkel trip.

To reach them before your trip, you can call them at 599-786-7055 or go to their website. I do not receive any compensation for endorsing this group nor was my trip paid for by them.  I paid for it myself.

 

Cruise Excursions and How To Find Non-Cruise Line Tours

If you have been reading me for awhile then you may remember that I try to never book an excursion with the cruise line when I am in port.  There have been a few exceptions when I have had no choice – I’ll get to those later.

You may wonder why I would book non-cruise line tours.  Doesn’t the cruise line try to get me paranoid about arriving at the pier late from a private excursion and standing on the dock watching the ship sail into the colorful sunset.  I mean, I have heard many people tell me that if you are on a ship’s excursion and are running late then they will wait for you.  Isn’t this all true? NO, it is not.

The main reason that I book private excursions is that they tend to have fewer people on them and that they are less expensive and more interesting.  Do you enjoy being herded by cattle onto a bus that seats 44 people generally waiting for one or two who don’t feel that they need to be back at the same time as others on their tour?  If you found something interesting, wouldn’t you like the option of staying a little longer?

I have found that when I am on a private excursion in a foreign country (and I am excluding the Caribbean countries here since most of them take the American dollar), then you can pay in local currency which may have a better exchange rate for you than paying the cruise line in US currency.  Case in point: when we were in New Zealand, the excursion that I booked was $135 NZD which equalled about $83 USD.  The ship was charging for a similar excursion $150 USD.

With all the cruises that I have been on as well as the number of private excursions, we have never been late to the ship, not even close.  For me, I always inform my tour guide that we need to be back earlier than what we need to be.  I also look around as we are leaving the port city to see if there is construction or some problem that would take extra time in returning to the ship.  On one excursion a few years ago we were with passengers from another ship and we had a much earlier departure.  Our tour guide called a taxi to meet us and return us to the ship so we wouldn’t be late.  How is that for service!

Finally, the cruise line is not guaranteeing you that they will wait for you if you return late.  They will certainly try to but it is not guaranteed because they pay for their berth at the docks.  If it is too expensive to wait or if there is another ship coming in, they will leave.  However, they will get you to your next port of call.  If it is a large group, you all may not be able to get on the next plane; after all, most of the islands are connected by small island hopper planes.  This hardly ever happens so I would not worry about it but if you are concerned, bring your passport with you and a credit card.  That way if you need to get to another island, you will be able to.

Now that you have made the decision that you would like to try booking a private excursion, I’ll give you my trade secrets though they are not that secret.  I simply google “shore excursions in ____”.  I’ll also go to Cruise Critic and find their Ports of Call thread and look for my port of call.  I’ll read what others are saying about their tours. I will also go to Cruise Critic’s Roll Call where I find my cruise line, my ship and my sailing date.  Often times others in your Roll Call will organize a private excursion and are looking for others to join them.

Finally, I go to Trip Advisor and enter in the city/island that I will be visiting and then I enter “Tour Guide” or “Things To Do” in the search box.  Make sure you read all the reviews.  I tend to ignore the very best and the very worse and focus on what the majority are saying.

I’ll email the tour operator with any questions I may have.  During the busy season, I’ll give them about 3 three days to get back to me.

I mentioned earlier that several times I have had to take the cruise lines excursions. While on Half Moon Cay, the private island that the cruise line owns, rather than just spending time at their beautiful beach, we elected to take a Tram Tour of the island.  It was very interesting and something that I had never done.  I saw where they kept the horses for those who wanted to go horseback riding, Sting Ray City where the passengers feed the sting rays (that was amazing), the airport on the island (actually where seaplanes land in case of emergency), where 40 staff members live, desalination plant converts salt water to drinking water, power generators and so much more.  The other time I had to take a ship’s excursion was last year when we were docked in Gatun Lake in the Panama Canal. The only way we could get to land was to book an excursion.

I have had fantastic experiences, met some wonderful people who happened to be my guides and have no qualms about recommending them or their tour.  Everyone has different expectations of what they want on their tour and emailing your tour operator to express what you are seeking is a great way of ensuring that you have the right tour for you.

Don’t let the cruise lines get you scared or nervous.  Wouldn’t you rather have a tour more geared to you and your needs than a vanilla type tour where you are just a person in a seat.  A few days after I returned from my cruise I received a survey from Holland America.  Some of their questions had to do with excursions and they wanted to know how many I had booked with them and how many I booked independently.  they also wanted to know “why”.  I think they are finally getting the idea that many of us are going the independent route.  Hopefully they will make some changes but until then, I’m booking my own private tours and I hope you will consider them as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cruising Questions and Answers

Believe it or not, I have had about 10  different people ask me questions about cruising within the past week.  Although there are different types of cruising (ocean cruising, river cruising, barge cruising, etc) the questions were asked of the big cruise lines which ply the waters of the Caribbean, Alaska and the Mediterranean.

I was first asked how how to choose a cruise line and this may be the most difficult.  Each cruise line, in my mind, has a different reputation and yet that is somewhat subjective and there are always exceptions primarily because of itineraries.  I feel that Carnival has a much younger crowd, particularly when sailing in the Caribbean.  The twenty, and thirty year olds tend to hang out around the pool all day long and it can be difficult getting a chair.  Drinks flow freely and they are all having a good time.  Royal Caribbean, again in my opinion, tends to be more thirty and forty year olds, and again for Caribbean sailing, all the action will be around the pool.  However, for both of these lines, when not sailing around the Caribbean, it can be very different, a little older and not quite as lively as the what you would come to expect on the Caribbean.

cruise in caribbean

Celebrity and Princess, again in my opinion, tends to be more of a middle age/young seniors cruising with them.  Princess made a name for itself on the Love Boat television show and that one show probably is responsible for sparking the interest in cruising among the younger than senior generation.  I am also of the opinion that Princess is the cruise line that developed Alaska for cruising.  They have wonderful lodges if you opt in for their pre or post cruise land portion .  We cruised with Celebrity on our Eastern Med cruise and we thoroughly enjoyed it – not sure if it was the 100 plus people that we met through Cruise Critic Roll Call and we very very tight or because of all the on board lectures that we could attend to hear about our upcoming ports.  They also had, on the Equinox, a glass blowing demonstration every day from Corning Glassworks.

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Finally, Holland America which in many reasons is my favorite cruise line as well as being known as the geriatric cruise lines.  Yes, there are lots of seniors in wheelchairs, scooters, etc but there are also many younger people in their40’s, 50’s and 60’s.  They have an on board kitchen where you can sign up for small classes cooking instructions and demonstrations.  We do enjoy that.  They are also know for the large, and at times rowdy Team Trivia where you will have about 200 very competitive trivia experts vying to win little Holland America pins, trinkets and bragging rights.

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Once you have narrowed down your choices, then I highly recommend putting your trip out to bid.  Contact an online travel agency, a brick and mortar travel agency and the cruise line.  See what they offer you for the fare, the On Board credit, whether their On Board credit will go down if the price ofd your cruise goes down.  Do they print out your documents or do you need to do it.  Do you want to pick out your stateroom (which I highly recommend looking at deck plans – what is next to you, across from you, above you and below you) or do you want them to do it for you.  Another tip:  once you decide on your stateroom, google it and see if there are any reviews on it.  For those who cruise and are very familiar, you may not need a lot of personal attention but for those who are unsure and need their hands held, you might want a travel agent at a brick and mortar.

deck plan

Once you book your cruise you still need to do work.  Your travel agent most likely will not check to see if the price has dropped – you need to do that and you can by signing up with Cruise Fish (which I use) or Cruise Fare Monitor.

Look at the ships you are interested in, do they have an indoor pool or an outdoor pool that has a retractable roof (like Holland America)?  Are you interested in computer classes – some cruise lines have it.  Do you need a rock climbing wall, enhanced pool activities?  What are your needs – knowing that you’ll be more confident in choosing your line.

If you have any questions, please feel free to post them in the comment section then come back to read the response.

Happy Sailing

Puerto Limon, Costa Rica – Rain Forest Aerial Tramway Excursion

Our last stop on our eleven night cruise was at Puerto Limon in Costa Rica.  This was the only port that had a number of local vendors right at the docks in a huge tent.  I imagine that there is some government involvement as to who is actually selling their wares as all the vendors are wearing the same “uniform”.  Also in the tent you can get a pedicure, manicure and massage.  I’ve had a pedicure here twice!

I had been here before and had gone on a boat ride on the Tortuguero Canal, stopped at Bonita Beach, visited Dole Banana Plantation, saw cashew trees  and had lunch at an authentic restaurant on a bluff overlooking the harbor.  Since I had seen so much, I decided to stay on the boat (other than getting my pedicure).  Blogger Friend Susan did take an excursion and she has written about her aerial tramway tour in the Rain Forest in Costa Rica.  Here is her account:

Our day in Costa Rica dawned early and brightly. The sun rose as we pulled into port at Puerto Limon (San Jose) on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. After a brief rain shower, the sun came out and the temperatures were warm. It was not nearly as humid as it had been in Panama.

I was up early, excited to see a new place.   I had already packed my day bag with bottles of water, a hat, sunscreen, a few snacks, camera, binoculars and bug spray (which had been recommended.) Those going ashore on HAL excursions gathered in the Vista Lounge and waited to be called by group.   The cruise line offered quite a variety of day trips, as we were going to be in port for a long day.

I chose the Rain Forest Aerial Tram trip, which lasted over seven hours, for $124.95. We boarded a comfortable, air-conditioned bus right at the dock. Our guide Dennis was quite personable and knowledgeable. As we passed banana groves, pineapple fields, coffee plantations and views of the fog-covered semi-active volcano ranges; he gave us many facts about what we were seeing. Our driver Freddie did a wonderful job of navigating the potholes, truck traffic and narrow sections of road. Rain overnight and that morning had caused landslides in several areas. Our drive to the rain forest took almost two hours, but we were allowed to pass traffic on the “wrong” side of the road in order to meet our appointed time there. A baby sloth was spotted in one of the coconut palms, so we pulled over to watch it hang upside down.

Costa Rica is known world-wide for its progressive environmental policies and sustainability, and has a high literacy rate. The government has announced a goal for it to become the world’s first carbon-neutral country.

The Rainforest Adventures Atlantic activities can be found at www.rainforestadventure.com. It received Trip Advisor’s Certificate of Excellence.   Its property borders Braulio Carrillo National Park.

aerial tram sign

 

Our bus of forty passengers was divided into two groups upon arrival. Half the group went on a 20-25 minute walk with Manuel, an enthusiastic guide. The path was clean, packed dirt or concrete with slight elevation changes. He stopped often to discuss the floor and sub-canopy species of plants. We heard many birds, and saw evidence of travel through the area by animals (most of whom are nocturnal.) If you did not want to walk; there was a shaded, covered area with benches to wait. There was also an air-conditioned gift shop with bathrooms conveniently nearby.

When we returned, we climbed aboard a seven person gondola for a 70-75 minute excursion through the canopy of the rain forest. Our guide Damien was thrilled to be able to show us several birds and butterflies, including the beautiful blue Morpho.

blue morpho

 

The tram runs in two directions, one higher and one lower, so you actually see different layers of the rain forest. He pointed out and explained many different plants, bushes and trees at each level.

aerial tram

A wonderful typical Costa Rican lunch awaited us on the patio. We had been encouraged to try to mixed guava/papaya juice and the white soursop drink, both of which were delicious. Buffet choices included chicken, rice, black beans, fresh fruit, salad and warm plantains.

As we awaited our shuttle bus back to the parking lot, a sloth and baby snake were spotted. What fun to watch the sloth right over our heads.

On our return bus ride, a pineapple, banana bunch and large cacao bean were passed around the bus. Trivia questions were asked and answered by our guide. Then Dennis came to each set of seats with a map of Costa Rica to orient us, and answer any further questions we might have. We were the last bus back to the ship, after a very informative day. I would highly recommend this excursion, and would love to return here to try the zip line and stay in the lodge!

Thank you for detailing your day and your excursion into the rain forest of Costa Rica.

Taking a Ferry Boat through the Panama Canal – an Optional Excursion

This post was written by Blogger Friend Deb who was on the Panama Canal cruise with me.  She and I both did different tours while in the Canal.  Here is her account of the ferry ride through the canal and the locks that they went through.

If you are only doing the partial transit of the canal on the cruise ship, I would recommend doing the rest of the canal on the ferry boat excursion (Canal Experience to Colon on Holland America ). Make sure you take binoculars, a hat, sunscreen, and wear cool and comfortable clothes. Water and other cold drinks are provided on the ferry boat, as well as a lunch of finger foods, small sandwiches, pasta salad, fruit, and a muffin. There was ample food and not difficult to carry to any place on the boat to eat.

We went ashore by tender in Lake Gatun after exiting the Gatun Locks. After a bus ride of about an hour or so to Gamboa, mostly on an expressway, we boarded the ferry, which was fully loaded. We were some of the last people on, and had to take seats on the top deck at the back and in the sun. I first thought we’d be stuck there all day, but once people stopped saving seats and staking out their territory, they began milling around, talking and meeting new people, it was not a problem. We got to see everything up close and personal and more down at eye level and on a different perspective than on the cruise ship. From Gamboa, we left Lake Gatun and went through the Culebra Cut past Gold Hill and under the Centennial Bridge to the Pablo Miguel Locks. Passing through the Pablo Miguel and Miraflores Locks, we were right up against the sides where we took pictures of each other touching the slimy green walls of the locks. Great fun! Exiting the Miraflores Locks, the trip continues past Balboa and under the Bridge of the Americas where we disembarked near Panama City.

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We were able to move around the ferry and even ended up at the very front of the boat with good seats. There were adequate toilet facilities on the ferry. It only got crowded again when we were close to getting off the boat at the Pacific end, and everyone crowded the stairs. We were bused through the out skirts of Panama City and then about an hour by expressway back to the Caribbean side where we re-boarded the cruise ship at Colon.

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The cost of the excursion was not cheap at about $170 each, but when you consider that we had a bus ride each way, a meal on the boat, and the boat had to pay a substantial fee to the Canal to transport through, it was probably not unreasonable. We thought it was well worth it to go through the whole canal, something we would do only once in a lifetime.

Cruising the Panama Canal

Excitement was building the night before we were to sail into the Panama Canal.  We were all asking each other what time we would be up in the morning and wondering how long it would take to go through the locks.  We actually went to bed somewhat early as I had set my alarm to 5:00 AM (yes, you are reading that correctly).  I had been on this cruise before and “knew” a few things that would be happening as we got close to the entrance to the Canal.

We were notified that the ship would be opening up access to the bow on the 4th deck for our viewing pleasure at 6 AM.  When we cruised last, we were there at 6 AM but it was already filled with people lining the rails.  I was not going to make the same mistake a second time – I wanted to be at the rails to get a good view of going through the locks and seeing the lines on the wall on the canal as water entered to lift us up to sail through the Gatun Locks.

The alarm went off and although I  it was really early we left our room and was out on the  bow at 5:20 AM.  It was BLACK outside – not even dusky but pitch black.  We did find a few spots along the rail and watched the few lights along the shore.  We were able to watch the sun rise over the Pacific (that is not a mistake – due to the curve of the Isthmus of Panama and that the canal runs in a north and south direction the sun rises over the Pacific and sets over the Atlantic ( Wikipedia explains it better than me).

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We were going to go through the left berth of the Canal.  The gates were closed as there was a ship already in the locks.  As we made our approach slowly, with the aid of tugs, we noticed around us that there was a road in front of the gates that cars and even school buses were on.  That is the only way that cars can cross the canal.  We were told by the speaker on the PA system that with the new canal, scheduled to open in 2017, that there would be a bridge over the canal.  When the locks are about to open, the portable road splits and each section of the road goes to the side.  Here is a picture of the road:

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As we watched the gates open for our passage, we could see the water from Gatun Lake, the largest man-made lake ever, fill up the chamber of the lock.  Numbers are written on the wall of the locks for us to see it filling up.

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The ship was tied to the electric towing locomotives on either side of the canal in order to pull the large ships through the canal straight.  There isn’t much wiggle room for the large ships.

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After our chamber filled up with water, the gate opened and we sailed out to Gatun Lake.  From this spot on Gatun Lake, those of us who were taking an excursion were tendered to shore.  The Vista Lounge was the staging area for the excursions.  By now it was 9:15 AM, we had been up for 4 hours and still a long day in front of us.  I had my backpack with a deck of cards, bottles water, snacks that I packed from the buffet breakfast in my ziplock bags that I had brought from home and some cash in case I wanted to purchase souvenirs.  Blogger Friend Susan and I took the Panama Railroad to the Miraflores Locks and Observation Tower (this will be in a future blog) and Blogger Friend Deb took the ferry boat ride to the other end of the canal.  She has written about her experience and you can read that later this week.  So many adventures, so little time.

Enjoy some of my pictures from the morning.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

How to Get Cruise Discounts

I was born a bargainista and nothing excites me more than getting a bargain – even if it is a little bit off full price.  In my mind, a little bit off is better than nothing.  Sometimes it is enough to pay the taxes on my purchase.

save money

Combine my passion for bargain with my passion for travel and you’ll always find me looking for a way to save a buck.  As you all might have realized by now, I really enjoy cruising.  If you are flexible, you can just about always find great rates if you book a last minute cruise.  Blogger Daughter and I once booked a 5 night cruise on Celebrity a week before the sailing and although we did not have a balcony we did score an impressive fare of $250 each.  We were looking for someplace to go and $250 probably wouldn’t have covered our food for 5 days let alone our accommodations and entertainment.  We were also fortunate to find last minute flights for $200 round trip; otherwise, depending on the airfare, we could have driven to Miami.

We did have a very early morning flight and consequently arrived in Miami way to early to go to the cruise terminal.  We sat at the airport near the ground transportation door.  As we were sitting there, I saw a family of three also sitting there.  Hmm, I wondered if they were also going to the Port of Miami as well.  Turned out they were but on a different cruise line.  I asked if they wanted to share a cab to the Port.  Cab fares were $25 per cab.  They indicated they would and when it was time to go, the attendant outside called for a minivan to take us.  Instead of paying $25, we paid $10.  Savings:  $15.  I will go on a limb and suggest that you never purchase transfers from the cruise lines.  You sit in a big bus and wait for it to fill up before you can leave.  The cab was less money and we could go when we wanted to.

bus

Another way to save money while cruising is to purchase 100 shares of stock for the cruise line you are interested in.  I have 100 shares of Royal Caribbean – RCCL(which also includes Celebrity Cruise Line and others) as well 100 share of Carnival Cruise Line – CCL (which also included Holland America and others).  Every quarter I receive a $25 dividend and then an OBC (on board credit) for merely having the stock.

This is the chart from RCCL that shows how much of a credit you’ll receive:

$250           Onboard Credit per Stateroom on Sailings of 14 or more nights.

$200           Onboard Credit per Stateroom on Sailings of 10 to 13 nights.

$100           Onboard Credit per Stateroom on Sailings of 6 to 9 nights.

$ 50            Onboard Credit per Stateroom on Sailings of 5 nights or less.

Some have said that it is not a great stock to have in your portfolio but I disagree.  In the last four years that I have owned RCCL, it has grown by over 130%.  Not too shabby.

alaska cruise

If you are on a cruise and know that you would like to take another cruise in the future, head down to the Future Cruise Office where you can put down a deposit for a future cruise.  By basically pre-paying a portion of your deposit you’ll receive several perks among them, another On Board Credit with your cruise line and a lower deposit when you do decide which cruise to sail next.  RCCL does not let you combine a future cruise credit with a stock purchase credit but can combine them all the lines owned with Carnaval Cruise Line.

One of the best ways to save money is to sail on a repositioning cruise.  At the end of the summer/middle of fall or spring, cruise lines need to reposition their fleet from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean or from the Caribbean to Alaska and other areas around the globe.  Many times you’ll stop in ports that are not traditional port of call for the cruise lines.  I have not done a transAtlantic on a repositioning but I have heard wonderful reviews for the time you are crossing the Atlantic and you think boredom might set in – the crew goes all out to make sure you are still having fun.

Lastly, I suggest going through their Group Sales Department if you have at least a few friends who will cruise with you.  This will get you a certain percentage off your fare (5%).  They want to have at least 8 staterooms with double occupancy for the full discount but if you fall short, you and your group will still get the discount percentage that they offered.

What are your suggestions for saving money while sailing on the high seas?

 

Locations to Avoid when Booking a Cruise Ship Stateroom

Just as there are some great staterooms to book on a cruise, there are also some that you want to avoid, particularly if you are a light sleeper.  I always choose my room rather than a travel agent because I know what I like and generally I study the deck maps to educate myself on the rooms.

deck plan

Here are some locations to avoid:

  • Above or below a disco or dance floor particularly on a cruise line that is known to attract a younger crowd
  • Under the pool deck – lounge chairs will be moved for cleaning and the scrapping of the chairs as they are being dragged early in the morning would wake me
  • Next to or under the jogging track – the pounding of the feet will drive you  crazy
  • I do not want to be near a laundry room.  I do not want to hear the sounds of the washers and dryers running
  • If you are a light sleeper, you do not want to be near the stairs or elevator.  Personally, I like to be about 3 cabins from the elevators for easy access yet far enough that I am not hearing the “dinging” sound that elevators make. People walking past my room, unless it is a loud crowd, does not bother me.
  • Above mechanical equipment or the anchor.  I do not want to hear the engines being turned off and on or the anchor as it is being dropped or raised.
  • Under a cafeteria where chairs could also be moved for cleaning.

What’s in My Travel/Cruise Box

Before I got the travel bug I would occasionally buy things for our trips and since we didn’t go often, those isolated items would get lost in our home.  Once I started cruising more, I decided to dedicate a box for all these miscellaneous items that I felt that I needed for the cruise/trip or for packing.

travel box

I find that having this box on a shelf in my closet has made it easier for me to pick up and go.  Want to see what is in my box?

travel box inside

Let’s look at this a little more closely:

travel bocx clock:dryer

I love cruising but one thing that the cruise lines ALL do is they do not put a clock in your room.  If I wake up in the middle of the night, I want to know what time it is.  For those who book an interior room, they have no window to even let them know if it is morning or night.  I find a clock invaluable and will never cruise without one.  I have a head lamp so if I want to read at night I can without disturbing Blogger Hubby.  I also have a travel dual voltage hairdryer – not that I need one on a cruise but if I am staying at a Bed and Breakfast, they do not provide them.  This was one that I found on clearance for less than $10 at Walgreens.

travel box plugs

I have extra electrical outlets and a converter.  The cruise lines also only give you one, maybe two (if you are in a suite) outlets in your room and since I want my clock and perhaps a curling iron or to recharge my Kindle, camera battery, etc, I need more outlets.  I simply bring my own compact ones.  The converter, we all know what that is for and now it is in a safe spot.

Also in my box are a few miscellaneous items – an evening handbag for formal night, a fabric bag to put my shoes in so they don’t dirty my clothes up, big beach clips for clipping my bathing suit to a chair on our balcony (don’t want that blowing away) or my towel to a deck chair.  I also have a small travel size corkscrew, perfume, hand sanitizer, shampoo, conditioner, lotion and motion sickness pills if needed.

travel box misc

Finally, my safety items whether it is a compact rain slicker which I used recently when we landed in Kona with wind-driven hard rain (they have no jet ways at the airport), a strap to go around my bag to keep it secure, money pouches for each of us, a hopeful Upgrade Me luggage tag and TSA approved locks.

travel box safety

Do you have a travel box or bag and what do you keep in it?

River Cruising

 

While I am traveling this week and part of next week I will be republishing some of my older and earlier posts.  It seems that I can’t always get to a computer – it might be because the sun and surf are calling my name.  Thank you for continuing to read some of these older posts.

Have you ever thought of cruising down one of the famed European rivers visiting the cities along the way?  More and more people are being introduced to the idea of river cruising through the heart of Europe.

Blogger Hubby and I were fortunate to be able to do it and what an amazing time we had.  Let me be perfectly clear from the start – this is in no way like cruising on one of the the big ocean liners.  The experience is totally different and there is no comparison at all.

When we first begin to look into river cruising we didn’t know where to begin.  We knew that we wanted to sail down (or is it up) the Rhine River but which line did we want to book with?  How long of a trip?  What was covered and not covered?  What did we need to know that we didn’t know?

We decided to concentrate on Avalon and Viking cruises.  They each went to different cities along the Rhine.  We wanted to find out what  was special about each city and what did we want to see.  The number of days was also confusing to us since they counted the day you left the US as Day 1 – huh?  We weren’t even in Europe yet and a day was being counted against us.

riverboat

To make it clearer for me to understand the differences, Blogger Hubby did an Excel spreadsheet.  We compared room sizes – and although you don’t spend much time in your stateroom, I like to have a little extra room as we are getting dressed in the morning, or getting ready for bed.  We compared costs, whether the boat was going north or south, what categories of staterooms they had and where we thought we wanted to be.

We chose Avalon because the rooms were a little larger and since they were rated #2 for river cruising in Europe, we thought they would try harder.  Their land portion was provided by Globus, a well known and regarded touring company throughout Europe.

The river cruises provide a city tour every day that you dock on the river.  There is no charge for this.  On our ship we had 100 passengers and we were divided into 4 small groups for each city tour.  Avalon gave us our own earbuds that we would keep throughout the week.  As we left the ship each morning we would pick up a receiver that we would wear around our neck and plug our earbuds into.  This way we could hear what the tour guide was telling us without huddling around her straining to hear what she was saying.  The guides were all local residents and were very knowledgeable.   Afternoons were for exploring on our own or we could choose to come back to the ship. Several days they had optional tours which you paid extra for.  We did that only once and it was to Colmar, France – well worth the extra money.

Beer and wine were complimentary with meals.  After the evening meal drinks were extra in the small lounge area where their was an organist who would play while we danced.  One evening we had a string quartet in from Belgium; another night we had Black Forest wood cutters demonstrating their carving techniques.  Before the entertainment the Cruise Director always told us about what to expect the next day.

cruising past a winery
cruising past a winery

Speaking of the cruise director, he is not like a cruise director on the ocean liners.  He is here to help you.  When someone asked where to buy a souvenir, he told that person to save their money and wait till we got to the Black Forest.  When I needed a new battery for my camera, he directed me to a good camera store in Cologne.  The day that we were going past the many castles on the Rhine, he made a handout and numbered the castles according to the mile markers on the river.  He gave a three hour narrative on the castles. Since there was only one seating at dinner, he circulated around in order to sit with as many passengers as possible.  He also helped us with our rental car for after the cruise going so far as to call our rental company to make sure we got a GPS with our rental car.

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map of the castles on the Rhine River
map of the castles on the Rhine River

There was no muster drill on this cruise.  Basically we were told that the captain would get the ship as close to shore as possible and we could walk the rest of the way out of the river.  If you miss the ship when it left port, the cruise director instructed us to call his cell phone number and he told us to take a cab  where we could meet the ship.  That gave all of us peace of mind.

As we cruised along the river, we always had something to look at rather than just the open expanse of the sea.  We enjoyed seeing all the small cities and towns along the Rhine.

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Dress on river cruises is very casual though there is one dress-up night.  No gowns or tuxes were seen but rather a nice business dress.

One of the fun parts about river cruising is all the locks you go through.  I believe there are about 30 between Amsterdam, where we embarked, to Basel, Switzerland where we disembarked.  If you are a light sleeper, you will be wakened during the night.  I was never woken up but several on our ship were.  It is amazing how close you get to the sides of the locks.  I could put my hand a few inches from our cabin French balcony door and touch the lock wall.

Entering one of the many locks on the river
Entering one of the many locks on the river

The ships have three levels of accommodations.  We were on the middle and could open our French balcony door (no balcony to step out on) and look down a few feet to the water.  The lower level you were underwater and closer to the engines.  The upper level was more expensive.  I was very happy with our location.

We have decided that we want to do more river cruising.  How does the Danube in the springtime sound?  If you don’t want to go to Europe for river cruising, you can do it on the Mississippi and Columbia Rivers.

Last Minute Cruise Deals

When you cruise, your final payment is generally due 90 days out from the date of sailing.  At that point the cruise lines know what their inventory is and they may start reducing the fares in order to fill all the beds on a cruise.  From what I’ve understood, the cruise lines don’t make money on your fare but rather from the money you spend once on the ship whether it is from alcohol, the money you dropped in the casino, excursions that are booked through them or your purchases in the shops on board.  They want and need to fill the beds and they will reduce and reduce fares to get those who can travel at the last minute.

I have found that you can get a great deal with a Caribbean sailing because there are so many cruises that are plying the waters of the Caribbean.  Also, if air fares are high to Europe or beyond, then the number of passengers tend to not book because they don’t want to pay the higher airfare to meet the ship.  That’s when fares can be reduced also.

cruise in caribbean

I’ve been looking all summer for a reduced fare to sail from either Boston or New to Maine, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI, Quebec and possibly Montreal.  I am also willing to do it in the opposite direction.  The sailing on the St. Lawrence has a short time – generally only a few months and because of that there tend to be few, if any, sales on these fares.

Right now I’m sure you’ll find great deals on Alaskan cruises.  September tends to be the end of the season for cruising in Alaska but it might be a great year to do it in Alaska as they are having a very warm summer.

alaska cruise

My daughter and I were able to take advantage of one of these cruises within one week of sailing and we found cheap airfare to boot!  We booked passage on a Celebrity ship out of Fort Lauderdale for 5 nights visiting Cozumel and Roatan, Honduras.  Sure , we only had a stateroom with a window and our stateroom was third from the bow BUT we only paid $250 each for this great vacation.

Celebrity Cruise Line published their Tuesday fares at this site and Holland America has what they call Flash Sales at this site.  This is a site I found for Royal Caribbean sales.

If you happen to have some free time, check out the last minute sales with the cruise lines.  If you happen to decide to book a cruise, please refer back to my blog on booking a cruise for tips.

Cruising Tips

Tip #1  To learn the nitty gritty about your stateroom and can’t read the deck plans online head to my favorite site Cruise Critic, find your cruise line and post a question “Is 6029″ a good cabin?”  You will surely get comments that will tell you if you have made a good or poor decision.  Some deck plans do help.  For instance in the Celebrity line of Solstice ships, they have two bumps outs on each side.  Some of those are very prized staterooms since they have double or twice as large balconies because of the bump. Many travel agents are not aware of it.  Do your homework.

look closely for the bump on the Solstice class of ships on Celebrity
look closely for the bump on the Solstice class of ships on Celebrity

Tip #2   Conde Nast compiled information for you on a range of cruise subjects  Click here to go to their site.

Tip #3  What helps seasickness?  Fresh ginger but of course if you think you might be prone, see your doctor before your cruise and get the prescription patches to wear behind your ear or get over the counter medications that can help you.  You are less likely to get seasick in the Caribbean than you are in the Atlantic though you can get seasick on any body of water.

Tip #4  Repositioning cruises are generally a great value and you may see some ports that you generally would not see.  The cruise lines in the fall and spring need to move their ships and will offer repositioning cruises at a discount.  Of course that means you fly into one city and out of another but that is no problem – just book an Open Jaw ticket with your airline.  I generally go to Repostioningcruises.com to see what is available and then book with whom I want.

Tip #5 look at the cruises that the airlines are offering.  You can get airline miles by booking through the airlines.  Don’t forget about checking out the cruise prices with Costco as well.

Tip #6 For excursions an option is Shoretrips  Although I have not used them, passengers on my last cruise did and they were very happy.

Tip #7  Insurance – some prefer to “self insure” their own trips (in other words not purchase any insurance) while others wouldn’t leave home without it – it’s a very personal choice.  If you need pre-existing coverage, you have to purchase your insurance with 14 days of booking your trip.  You can purchase it through your travel agent (generally the ship’s insurance) or purchase it on your own.  There are many good sites such as insuremytrip.com where you can compare different policies.  Most of these policies are secondary and will pay after your primary insurer pays.  Some will pay first so determine what you want.

Tip #8  Staying on the insurance topic, some prefer to just have medical evacuation coverage and the one that is recommended the most is MedJetExpress  You need to find out if it meets your needs.

Tip #9 My must haves – I always bring a small alarm clock with me since there aren’t any in the staterooms – I like to know what time it is.  In my luggage I bring a power strip to plug in my alarm clock, curling iron (ships provide hairdryers), plug in my phone, IPad, laptop, etc.  I also bring duck tape to put across closet door/drawers so they don’t open in case of rough  seas.  I pack my toiletries in a small plastic basket from the Dollar Store and then just put the basket on the bathroom vanity – keeps everything together.  My clothes get wrinkled being packed so again I go to the Dollar Store and get a spray bottle and sprtiz my clothes while on hangers and the wrinkles fall out.

Tip #10  Go with a good attitude, don’t sweat the small things, relax and enjoy your vacation.

 

Excursions….what to do on shore

When Blogger Hubby and I cruise,  most times we take a tour when we are at a new port or even if we have been there before and want to see do something different.  There are many options for touring on shore.  The cruise lines  sell their own excursions, which in my mind are crowded (usually about 45 per large bus) and many times multiple buses, expensive and very rigid in what they do.  I prefer smaller, more intimate tours and if I want to make sure I see something specific I’ll let the tour director know in advance.  To do all this, we make private arrangements, generally in advance, with a tour company.

You may be wondering how I find these tour companies if I have never been to these ports before.  There are several ways to get help.  As I mentioned before, I use Cruise Critic as my go-to for any kind of help that I need.  One of their threads is Ports of Call and you can read about other people’s experiences with excursions, you can ask for recommendations and you might get an idea of what to do at a particular port of call.  Other times I will go to Google and look for shore excursions in XYZ and a number of them will come up.  After I get the name of a tour vendor I go to Trip Advisor and read the reviews for the tour operator.  Once I feel confident about my tour operator, I contact them directly to inquire if they are available for the date I am in port, what their price is and what currency it is in, if a deposit is needed and what the tour includes.  If I need to make any changes this is the time to talk about it with the tour operator.  If I am part of the Cruise Critic Roll Call for my sailing, I mention this on our thread and hope to get more people from the Roll Call on this excursion.

The cruise line’s argument against you doing a private excursion is that they will hold the ship for you if you are on a ship sponsored excursions but will not if you are on a private excursion.  I have never heard of a private excursion being late  but it could happen and it is worthwhile to know the risk.  I always tell the tour operator that I would like to be back on board about an 45 minutes to an hour before we sail which allows me a little wiggle room in case something should happen.  These tour operators need our business and they know that we talk and share our experiences so they are not going to have us miss the ship.

Instead of being on a coach bus, generally we are transported by a 10 passenger van or a mini bus always with plenty of room and in comfort.  It is much easier trying to keep track of 10 people than the 45  that you will find on a ship’s excursions.  The tour operators know the route that the big buses use and they get us to the sites before the throngs of passengers from these big buses get there.

One excursion we were on in St. Lucia  was Blogger Hubby, myself and one other passenger.  One of the stops was at a teacher’s home where she set out two tables on her porch overlooking the Caribbean of local homemade treats.  This was certainly a treat for us and one that we always remember fondly.

For those that want to do it alone, that is fine and certainly we have done it that way a few times.  I will say that in some ports, if you are part of a group with a tour company you get to “jump” the long line waiting to get in.  That happened to us in Istanbul, Rome and Vatican City.  It is definitely worth it to take a tour in those cities.

For those that are going to islands and want to go to beaches, just hop in a cab and go!  This is particularly true in Cozumel – there are so many beach clubs and there are always cabs to bring you back to the ship.  In Roatan, Honduras four of us “rented” a cab and driver for a total of $80 ($20 per person) for the day.  He gave us a tour, took us to a great beach club, negotiated a rate for us for snorkeling, stopped by an iguana cafe so we could eat and try iguana (yes, I tried it), and took us where ever we wanted to go.  I don’t think any ship’s excursion could top our day.

Do you think you will make your own arrangements next time you go on a cruise for your day in port?

Booking Your Cruise

You have thought long and hard about what type of vacation you want and have decided to try a cruise.  You have also decided where you want to cruise.  Wondering what to do now?  Generally I look at the itineraries of each ship going to the location that I want to go to and try to ascertain what are the differences.  Do some ships spend more time at port or more sea days?  Do some include more of the places you want to go to?  Narrow your list down to 2 or 3 and then compare prices.

cruising under the Sydney Bridge
cruising under the Sydney Bridge

Once I have decided which cruise I want to go on I need to determine how I want to book this cruise.  If you have cruised before and don’t need any help then you might want to consider getting quotes from online travel agents as well as the brick and mortar travel agents and also through the cruise lines.  When I ask for a quote I also inquire what type of On Board Credit (OBC) they will give me.  OBC is a credit on your shipboard account – anything you buy on the ship goes on your shipboard account.   The other question I ask is if the price goes down, will they adjust it and will that affect my OBC.  I found last year that one travel agency quoted me “book price” but their OBC was huge.  Another one had a discounted cruise but a small OBC.  I basically had to figure out what the bottom line was for each quote. Another question is what is their cancellation fee? Are there any fees for changes (like a stateroom change). All of these factors will help you decide who to book with.

Santorini, Greece
Santorini, Greece

I generally pick out what cabin I want from previous experience – I like mid – ship and close to  elevators or stairs.  Holland America has three sets of elevator banks so being mid-ship will always put me near an elevator bank.  The other cruise lines, to the best of my knowledge, only have two sets of elevators banks.   Always look at the deck plans that are on the cruise line’s website.  Look at what would be over your room.  You may not want to be under the pool deck or under a cafe as they move the chairs early and late in the day.  Also see what is across from your room.  You may not want to be across from a utility room where your cabin stewart will be in and out all the time or a utility elevator for staff only.

Panama Canal
Panama Canal

You also need to decide what type of cabin you want.  The interiors are less expensive and you have no idea if it is morning or night without a window but they may fit your budget.  Some rooms have port holes, others have windows, some have obstructed views (lifeboat in front of your window), some have balconies, some have larger balconies and some have wrap around balconies (those in aft suites).  I personally like the balconies but have been in all the others except the fancy schmanzy suites.   You, your needs and your budget will dictate what type of stateroom you will have.

Alaska
Alaska

Another option is a guarantee stateroom and those are least expensive in their own category than choosing a particular room in the category of your choosing.   You are guaranteed a room at that category or higher.  I have tried that only once and I was not pleased (had second cabin from the bow and a long walk whenever we wanted to go somewhere or to return to the cabin).  Others have been very pleased with the rooms that were given to them.  You must be willing to accept the worse cabin at your category or higher and some of the higher ones are not that good based on location.  It’s a gamble and you must be prepared to win or lose.

Alaroa, New Zealand
Akaroa, New Zealand

After I book a cruise I want to make sure that I know when and if he price has dropped so I can get an adjustment from my travel agent.  Most travel agents are not pro-active so you have to let them know if there has been a price reduction.  I go to this site and purchase a subscription for $5.  They will send me an email when the price has gone down.

Istanbul
Istanbul

Lastly, one of the best resources I have found is Cruise Critic.   Register, get a screen name and you are good to go.   Find the cruise line you want to cruise on and go to their board.   You might want to start a new thread with your stateroom number and ask if anyone has stayed in this stateroom before and what was their experience.  If you have any questions about anything, you can ask it here.  Like many boards you’ll always find some snarkly posters….just ignore them.  Most people are happy to share their experiences and help those who are new to cruising.  They also have a Roll Call section and here is where you begin to meet people who will be on your cruise.  Fine your cruise line, your ship and your sailing date.  Go on and introduce yourself.  We have met so many great people and have done so many activities with people we have met through the Roll Call.

Monte Carlo
Monte Carlo

I hope you are enjoying this series on cruising.     if so, please consider becoming a follower by signing up to your right.  Please feel free to pass this site on to your friends and family.  if you have any comments or questions, feel free to ask them and I will answer to the best of my ability.

Next up – what to do on shore.