Cruising, DESTINATIONS, International, Road Trips, TRAVEL

Welcome to the Galveston Cruise Terminal

Not Galveston!

TRAVEL HERE: CLIMBING ABOARD OUR CRUISE

After all the difficulties Bill had faced trying to get out of town, our actual departure was fairly smooth.  We left within 15 minutes of our targeted ETD.  We miscalculated where the HOV lane would dump us, but even going out of our way in downtown Dallas, the traffic was so bad on I-30 we made time with our mistake.  About 11, we exited at a rest stop to use the facilities and change drivers.  By 2, we were at the cruise terminal, but so were a whole lot of other people.

Not Exactly a Tourist Destination

I want you to know that Galveston is a wonderful place to visit, but you wouldn’t know that from a picture of their port.  It is an industrial port with a couple of cruise ships thrown in for good measure.  What can I say?  It’s ugly!

We dropped our bag off at the terminal and made our way to the parking lot. (Yes, that was a singular bag!  I got everything in one suitcase!)  We’d saved $5 by booking online (Thank you, Sherry!)  We needed to be on board by 3:30 and I hadn’t been worried when we got to the terminal, but the parking lot made me nervous.  I don’t even think a hurricane would have lit a fire under these people, but we did make the deadline.

Going Through Security

I understand the need for security measures, but I hate it.  You’re passing around important documentation and taking valuable items out of your carry-on, not to mention dressing and undressing.  When I’m flying, I try to dress around the metal detectors, but to tell you the truth, I didn’t even think about going through a metal detector to get on board the cruise.  Maybe that’s why I had on a metal belt and shoes with metal decorations on them.  I took off the offending accessories and tried again.  That time my sunglasses set it off.

I went through all the rigmarole of getting dressed again and headed for check-in.  Suddenly, I needed my glasses and I couldn’t find them.  This would cause a panic in any situation, but if you read my blog last week, then you know why the disappearance of my glasses made me absolutely frantic.  I ran through the terminal back to the place where I re-dressed.  I made the people at the metal detector and x-ray machine prove my sunglasses weren’t there.  I felt tears brimming in my eyes.

I ran back to the pile I’d left next to Bill and started rifling through my backpack again.  Bill wasn’t happy.  At the moment he was more interested in checking in, but if I had lost my new prescription sunglasses, he was going to be even more unhappy.  Sitting in the floor, dumping everything out of the backpack I did find the glasses, but by then I was already suffering heart palpitations.  It would take me awhile to get back to normal and before that could happen, I would misplace another pair of glasses.

But enough about my glasses, lets go have lunch.

Cruising, DESTINATIONS, DFW Metroplex, Road Trips, Shopping, TRAVEL

I Interrupt This Blog to Freak Out Over My Glasses

The sunglasses I left behind

TRAVEL HERE: YA GOTTA SEE IT TO ENJOY IT

My life is pretty busy.  Last year, before I went to Egypt, I really meant to get my eyes checked and update my lenses.  My sunglasses were so scratched up I could barely see out of them, but one thing led to another and I ended up with my beat up sunglasses on vacation.  That turned into a blessing, because I lost the sunglasses going through security in Sharm el Sheikh, but that was only the beginning of the saga.

Juggling My Glasses

While the part of me that is reasonable and practical was sad to lose my sunglasses, there was also a part that did a little happy dance.  The loss was unfortunate, because the frames were fairly new.  I’d worn my previous pair of prescription sunglasses for a long time with complete satisfaction.  I bought them in 2006 and just kept replacing the lenses, until I realized I had actually worn off all the decoration.

In 2015 I had my eyes checked and there was a new development.  Glasses and sunglasses weren’t enough.  I also needed computer glasses.  So, my regular glasses, a pair of wire frames I’d been dissatisfied with for a long time became my computer glasses and I bought new frames for my regular glasses and my sunglasses.

My new regular frames were great.  They were red Calvin Kleins and I felt snazzy in them.  The sunglasses were a fail.  They looked marvelous, but they just wouldn’t stay on.  The arms weren’t curved enough behind my ears, so they fell off all the time.  Hence the many scratches.  They’d bounced off every surface from the bottom of a dumpster to pavement.  So losing them gave me the opportunity to buy some new frames that would actually stay on my face.

My beloved Brightons!

Time to Upgrade

I really shopped around for sunglasses, because I have very sun-sensitive eyes.  I probably wear my sunglasses more than I wear the other two.  I wanted to find a pair I would love as much as I did the ones I’d purchased in 2006.  Then I found out Brighton sunglasses are prescription ready.  They are my favorite sunglasses in the world, but I hadn’t been able to wear them since 2006, when I had to start wearing prescription sunglasses.

Let me tell you something, optometry shops want you to buy frames.  They must mark them up about a 1000%.  All this second pair free stuff is a dead give away.  I didn’t realize how serious they were about this until I tried to get my new prescription filled at Costco.  Even though they charge you hundreds for your lenses, its the frames they care about.

The clerk did everything she could to discourage me from using my old frames.  I had to sign a waiver  releasing Costco from responsibility should the frames break and even then she couldn’t guarantee that wherever it was they sent them would fill the prescription.  I’d just have to do without my glasses for 10 days.

To add insult to injury, they wouldn’t fill my sunglasses prescription at all.  The frames had stones in them. Puh-leez!  Tough luck for me.  I walked in with three pairs of glasses to update, but only left behind one pair, because they wouldn’t do my sunglasses and having to wait 10 days while they sent them off meant I’d have to use my computer glasses for every day.  I wanted to just tell them no thanks, but Costco was the vendor my husband had approved and I was trying to cooperate.

Then I went to find someone who would fill a prescription in a pair of glasses with stones in them.  I don’t want to talk about how much it cost.  I am still traumatized!

The Agony Continues

Eventually I had new lenses in all my glasses and for a short while I was a happy camper, but it didn’t last long.  My beloved red Calvin Kleins fell apart.  I’d just spent a fortune getting all those prescriptions filled and I loved my red glasses, so first I went back to the people at NorthPark, where I’d bought the glasses originally, hoping they could repair them.  Too bad, so sad – they sent me to a jewelry repair place.  The jewelry repair place referred me on to a place in Richardson where they repaired glasses.  I don’t want to talk about how much it cost, but I was desperate.

I felt the same way when the darned things broke again.  So I went back to NorthPark place one more time, hoping that by some sort of magic I could special order a replacement pair – something I hadn’t asked about when I’d gone in hoping they could repair the glasses.  Finally, the glasses elves smiled on me.  I couldn’t get the red glasses, but they still had the same frames in black!  Yes, I had to pay for them, but they did give me a discount after I wailed to high heaven about their “second pair free” promotion.  It just seemed wrong that I’d been through such a painful series of glasses related issues and now they were going to charge me full price to replace the frames I’d originally bought from them.  As I wailed, I never admitted how glad I was that I was not going to have to start from scratch and get new lenses also.

What Now ?

So, I went on for several months more, juggling three pairs of glasses and wishing for the days when I could see without them.  I make do with the computer glasses around the house and keep the other glasses in my purse for use when I am away from home, but it still seems like I am continually looking for one pair or the other.

One day in December I was out running errands when I realized I had my computer glasses on my head.  I walked back to the car and put them there so I wouldn’t lose them – but of course, I did.  Back at home, after I’d changed my clothes I realized my glasses weren’t in the dish in my bathroom where I usually keep them.  So I went back to the car, but they weren’t there.  So I checked the pocket of the jacket I’d worn, but they weren’t there.  I scoured the entire downstairs over and over, thinking I might have set them down somewhere along the way without realizing it.  I checked my purse, the pocket of my jeans, anywhere I could think of that had even the remotest possibility of hiding the glasses.  In the days to come, I would tear up the whole house and go back to every location I visited while running errands.  The glasses had disappeared off the face of the earth.

Weeks later, for some forgotten reason, I wanted the old blow-dryer I used to use, which I keep shoved in a hidden corner of my closet.  Bill uses it sometimes to help build a fire on the grill, but that wasn’t the reason I went digging for it this particular time.  Whatever the reason, I found my computer glasses on the closet floor.  Of course, they were shoved so far back that I had missed them the other  3000 times I’d looked for them.

You may wonder why I’ve taken so much time to tell you of all my recent woes with my glasses, but I had to tell you or the next chapter in my travel tale would not have made any sense.  Come back next week and I’ll tell you about our embarkation on Royal Caribbean’s Vision of the Seas.

Cruising, DESTINATIONS, International, Road Trips, TRAVEL, Travel Planning

T-Minus 4 Days

TRAVEL HERE: BAD NEWS BEFORE THE CRUISE

It was Thursday.  Our boat would leave on Monday afternoon.  I had everything I would wear gathered into one section of the closet, ready to pack.  Bill would wait until the last minute, as always.  I was having lunch with my Bible study girls when I got a text from Bill.  One of his uncles had died.  This was sad news, but since they lived in Canada, no way we’d be attending the funeral.  When I got home and he was in a blue mood, I thought the death was the cause.  I didn’t know the sky was falling.

A Workplace Hiccup Shakes Up Our Cruise

It would take more than a blog post to explain what Bill does, but suffice it to say he’s in the market.  He trades using a series of programs he has developed.  His plan was to turn his programs over to his broker to make the trades while he was gone.  This was a humongous project.  There’s always a little housekeeping you need to do when you turn your work over to someone else and Bill had to put safeguards in place, so that his proprietary information would stay proprietary.  So, in the weeks before the cruise he logged a lot of hours in on his computer to get everything ready.  We were celebrating his birthday, after all.

Then it came time to shift his programs over to the broker and they ran into a glitch.  It would take another entire blog post to explain it, so just believe me – it wasn’t good.  They might have overcome the issue with more time to work on it, but there wasn’t any time.  Like most glitches, there had been no way to anticipate it, so Bill was just stuck with having to monitor his systems himself during the cruise.  He wouldn’t be involved in all the research and coding that goes into a normal day of work, but he wouldn’t be free of it either.

Bill spends his day with an array of pc’s and extra large monitors to do what he needs to do.  He’d spent a couple of weeks getting some of it ready to turn over to his broker, who had his own set of pc’s and extra large monitors.  Since that wasn’t going to happen, Bill now had to figure out how to get all that computer power into his laptop.  The balance of time before the cruise was barely enough time to accomplish this.

Then the Market Blew Up

Friday morning the market blew up, as in fell apart and started dropping like a brick.  Since the first of the year we’d been doing pretty well and that was why Bill had been ready to turn everything over to someone else and really enjoy the cruise.  Now all of his plans were going to hell in a hand basket.  We weren’t going to have to sell the house or anything, but it really wasn’t the kind of thing a trader wants to have happen before they leave town.

Even when it’s being good to  you, the market is stressful.  Trying to keep up with it on vacation with the market going down and no bottom in sight is bad enough.  Throw his technical challenges into the mix and we couldn’t have picked a worse time to go if we’d tried.  We had a standing joke that every time we try to leave it’s the worst time we could do, but he didn’t find it funny when I brought it up.

He kept all of this to himself until some time on Saturday.  I just thought he was reeling from the market dive and his uncle’s death.  When I knew enough to really appreciate what he was going through, I was surprised he didn’t just call off the cruise – but we hadn’t gotten travel insurance and I don’t know if our issues would have qualified for a refund, even if we had gotten the insurance.

So come back next Monday and we’ll head to Galveston and try to have some fun.

Accommodations, Cruising, DESTINATIONS, International, TRAVEL, Travel Planning

What Else to Order Before You Board a Cruise

Royal Caribbean Vision of the Seas
Cruise Compass kept us up to date with what was happening on the boat

TRAVEL HERE: WI-FI, SHOWS AND MORE

We’ve looked at shore excursions, specialty dining and beverage plans.  If you’ve never cruised before you are already worn out.  If you are a cruiser, then you know this is just par for the course.  It takes a little time before you go, but it makes things much more seamless when you are on board – and I promise it’s easier to do the ordering than it is to explain the complexities of it.  So if you were about to give up on the idea of cruising, hang on, we’re almost through with the whole pre-boarding thing.

Different Things to Order on Different Boats

Except for the headaches associated with having to make the food and beverage decisions, this Royal Caribbean Cruise was pretty easy.  Before our Norwegian Cruise we had to schedule all the specialty dining and book times for the on board entertainment.  We also took advantage of their wine program, where you pre-selected and paid for your bottles of wine ahead of time.  On different ships you will have different opportunities.  This might be one of the reasons some people like to keep cruising on the same line.  Once they figure it all out, they don’t want to have to learn a new system.

One of the things I had a hard time figuring out was what shows would be available on this cruise.  I’m a lot happier when I have an idea of what to expect, but it was pretty much a blank page.  Had I actually known what they would be delivering, I might have jumped ship before I got there, but that’s for later.  For now I just encourage you to be thorough and read through all the material they send you.  It might look like fine print, but later you will be glad you did.

WI-FI

There are so many ways to deliver wi-fi that I couldn’t begin to do them justice.  On Viking wi-fi was included.  On Norweigan, the public areas had wi-fi.  When we sailed with Carnival I still had a flip phone, so I didn’t care.  On Royal Caribbean they have what they call VOOM and you pay for it.  They also say in some of their materials they have free wi-fi in designated areas on board and they might on some ships, but not Vision of the Seas.

VOOM comes in two flavors, wi-fi alone and with streaming.  You can also buy it in a combo package with your soda or beverage packages to get a few dollars of discount.  Bill and I discussed it thoroughly a week or so before the cruise and since he thought he had a plan for off-loading his work for a few days and I thought they’d have an internet cafe with free wi-fi we decided to forgo any wi-fi.  What could we miss in four days, right?

Well, we both figured wrong, so keep coming back, because eventually I’ll tell you the sad saga of VOOM, but next week we’ll head to Galveston.

Accommodations, Cruising, DESTINATIONS, International, Restaurants & Bars, TRAVEL, Travel Planning

Adult Beverage Packages

TRAVEL HERE: STEPPING UP FROM SODAS

Some people think everybody on a cruise is looking for a multi-day drinking binge.  To a certain extent, they have a point.  There are a whole lot of people drinking a whole lot of adult beverages on most cruises – and I think I know why.

Pay As You Go VS Drink Packages

I’m a wine with dinner person, but big ship cruising isn’t geared for that.  Glasses of wine hover at $10-12 – and who can drink just one?  The bottled wine choices are limited and while I can understand why, they certainly charge through the roof for what they have.  To make that even more challenging, I drink white and Bill drinks red.  He’s fine with a beer, but they’re around $8 and his favorite, Bud Light costs more, because for some reason all American beers cost more.  I consider beer to be wasted calories.  We have a bit of dilemma in this department.

On Norwegian they did have a wine program and I embraced it the same way I have the soda programs, but apparently the Royal Caribbean cruises target those people who want to drink mixed drinks – and a lot of them.  Margaritas, Mojitos, Pina Coladas and all their sisters and brothers are the beverages featured in the Adult Beverage Packages.  In fact wine drinkers can’t even get bottles of wine through the programs, they only get discounts.  So it’s not just my imagination that they discriminate against wine.

If you pay as you go on a cruise and you prefer beverages that aren’t on the free list, you can rack up a pretty penny pretty quickly

  • A a bottle of water while you work out
  • Breakfast with coffee and juices
  •  Mid-morning soda
  • A beer with your hamburger for lunch
  • Sitting at the pool in the afternoon a margarita or two & probably a bottle of water or two
  • Dinner a couple of glasses of wine
  • A Cocktail at the show.

Now, this would be a lot of drinking on a regular day, but you’re on a cruise, so you indulge yourself.  Do you have any idea what you have just spent?  The coffee and juices were free, but you have spent $4-12 on every other item.  You just spent $64 dollars and to add injury to insult they will add a 18% tip to your bill for each drink.  Your bill just went up to $75.52.

So, then you think you’ll look over the free beverages again, but remember you’re on a cruise.  You wish you could splurge a little,  so you  go back over the beverage wish list, wondering how much of it you would actually drink.  Somewhere along the way you must decide what works best for you.  The all-you-can drink beverage package is about $65 a day.  It includes mixed drinks, beers, wine by the glass and sodas.  You also get a hefty discount on bottles of wine.  I wouldn’t blame anyone for getting the package, so they can just order what they want when they want it without worrying about it.

But be careful, they still add something for tips.  They also only cover beverages up to a certain price point – twelve dollars on my latest cruise.  So if the drink of the day is $14 (and I saw some that were) you just got charged! A friend of mine said she and her husband used to get one adult beverage package and would just avoid ordering two drinks at once, but the cruise lines figured that trick out.  If one person in the cabin gets an adult beverage program, any other adults in the room are also charged for one.  They get you coming and going.

We decided to pay as we went.  The cruise line allowed us to bring two bottles of wine on board and there was no corkage fee.  For a four day cruise that was really all we needed, but guess who was drinking red wine.  Besides, I knew they would be serving free champagne at some of the events and I had the soda program to fill in.

We were fine, but I can imagine that if you splurge for the adult beverage package, then you want to be very sure that you take advantage of it.  Hence the boat sometimes feels like it is full of drunk people.

The big pool was the scene of several bacchanals.  We didn’t spend much time there, but a few times when we passed by, there were very drunk ladies parading around the dance floor, showing us more of themselves than we really wanted to see. Not sure why there’s never a stunning looker among the drunks, but we’ve found that to be true on virtually every cruise.  We also wandered into a bar late one evening to see an event that promised to be humorous, but the karaoke wasn’t quite over when we got there.  Talk about drunk people!

So that’s the skinny on beverages.  I’ll cover a few more pre-cruise choices you can make next week.

Cruising, DESTINATIONS, International, Restaurants & Bars, TRAVEL, Travel Planning

Beverage Packages on Cruises

TRAVEL HERE: WETTING YOUR WHISTLE

Beverages on a cruise can be a challenge if you have a specific taste you crave.  However, there are plenty of free and inexpensive solutions, too.

Let’s Start with What’s Free

If you don’t drink alcohol and you’re not addicted to sodas ( like someone who will remain unnamed, but does write for this blog) then you need not read any further.  You can get all the tea, coffee, juice, lemonade, milk etc. etc. etc. that you want on a boat.  You’ll have to drink tap water, because bottled water comes at $4 each, but otherwise you’re golden.

With a little craftiness you can manage to get a few glasses of complimentary champagne or a free sample of rum.  You might even score a bottle of water or two on a shore excursions.  You just have to watch the daily schedule and go where the treats are – but you will never ever for any reason get a free soda.

Back in my early cruising, wine with dinner was included and sodas were free.  Obviously, that was a long time ago.  The wine at dinner wasn’t the greatest wine in the world, but I’m no connoisseurI can talk wine all day long and love to attend tastings, but in reality I’m quite happy with a glass of pinot grigio from a box.  Wine with dinner is part of the reason we like all-inclusive cruise lines like Viking, but outside of that, wine with dinner is not included and neither are sodas.  Most cruise lines will allow you to bring a couple of bottles of wine on board, but be careful, some still charge a corkage fee.

Getting My Soda Fix

I’m not really addicted to soda.  When I need to lose weight I restrict myself from having it, as a sort of carrot.  “When you get down to your goal you can have a Diet Dr Pepper,” I tell myself, but while I’m not drinking it, I’m not really suffering.  No headaches.  No cravings.  I just happen to like Diet Dr Pepper – several a day as a matter of fact.

However, cruising is supposed to be about having fun and indulging yourself a little bit.  Being restricted from sodas detracts from the pleasure for me.  The kicker is that a soda is $4.  FOUR DOLLARS. Actually $4 plus 18% for tips.  Were I to get charged almost $5 every time I had a soda, my husband would not be happy with me.

Enter the soda package.  For $8 a day you can have all the soda you want and at that price someone else in this household can get a sip from time to time.  You also get a nice thermal cup to carry around all over the place.  And here’s a bonus for Mr. Bill.  While I love wine, margaritas and rum drinks with little umbrellas in them, if I have a soda package I’m perfectly happy to have another cup of caffeine.  So that $8 goes a long way.

Now if you’d like a glass of wine with dinner, a margarita by the pool or a cold one as you enjoy your day in the sun, beware!  We’ll talk about that next week!

 

Accommodations, Cruising, DESTINATIONS, International, Restaurants & Bars, TRAVEL, Travel Planning

Personalizing Your Cruise’s Foodie Experience

Just one of many desserts

TRAVEL HERE: MORE OPTIONS THAN YOU CAN SHAKE A STICK AT

Last week I shared what we chose to add on to our cheapie cruise, which in the end almost doubled the cheap price that had convinced us to book the cruise, but even at twice the price, cruising is a travel bargain.  We only booked the bare minimum.  Here’s a sampling of what you can get.

Dining Aboard a Cruise Ship

Food is one of the big components of a cruise.  All cruises have three meals a day and all the grazing you can stand available in some format.  The bigger the ship, the more choices you will have.

Royal Caribbean’s Vision of the Seas has the Windjammer Buffet available at most hours.  If you wanted to, you could spend your days in there, eat as much as you wanted.  The Aquarius Dining Room has formal seating and you order from a menu.  It’s not open for as many hours as the buffet, but you can get three meals a day there.  There was also a small short order cafe open pretty much all the time, called the Park Cafe off the Solarium.  Eating at these venues will not cost you a dime.  You can order whatever you want (Well, almost whatever you want.  We’ll cover this later!) and as much of it as you want, without engaging your pocketbook.

Quite frankly, the formal dining room experience is one of my favorite parts of any cruise.  I’m just not a buffet girl.  I like to be waited on and I like my food best when it is served in fine china on linen table cloths.  In addition, the dining room is where you make your cruise buddies on most ships.  You come in from a busy day and share experiences with a group of people you may never see again in your life, but for a week they are the best friends you’ve got.  So far, we’ve always been lucky in our table mates.

Specialty Dining

Early in my cruising career, the choices listed above were all the choices you had on board.  It was just the way it was. Then cruise lines discovered the formal dining room was the very thing which kept some people off a cruise ship.  These potential passengers didn’t want to be forced to make a choice between a casual buffet and dressing for dinner.  They wanted other options.  The cruise lines also found out these potential passengers would be willing to pay extra for said options.  Specialty dining was born.

We did not opt for specialty dining on this cruise.  We had an eye on the budget and the cruise was only four nights.  When a cruise is longer, having some variety in your evenings is a plus.  Besides the specialty dining was a sushi place, a steakhouse and an Italian restaurant – nothing very exciting.  On Norwegian there had been a charcuterie, French food and a restaurant with a Cirque de Soleil type show.  It made sense to do some exploring and we were traveling with our own cruise buddies.

At first, Bill thought he wanted specialty dining on this cruise, but like me, he wasn’t thrilled by any of the options.  We figured steak and some sort of pasta would be on the menu every night in the formal dining room and while we eat sushi from time to time, it’s not one of our favorites.  Besides, this was supposed to be a cheapie cruise.  Why pay for something that is adequately provided for free?

I did do a thorough evaluation of the offerings and the pricing was interesting.  You could enjoy one of the specialty restaurants on one evening for $35-$45 per person.  The more specialty dining you did, the more the price went down per meal, but of course, the total price tag went up.  If you got the premiere specialty dining package you could go to the specialty restaurants for lunch and dinner everyday and the meals came out to almost nothing.  The price included deluxe beverage packages with all the soda and alcoholic beverages you wanted, as well as discounted bottles of wine.  I was very tempted to push for that package, but then I realized I’d be adding hundreds of dollars to our costs for something that was provided free in the dining room.

The whole issue of beverages took the decision making to a whole new level.  Let’s talk about that next week.

Accommodations, Attractions, Cruising, DESTINATIONS, International, Road Trips, Shopping, TRAVEL, Travel Planning

The Not So Cheap Cheapie Cruise

A Chilly Sail Away

TRAVEL HERE: EXTERIOR CABINS FROM $259

So Bill’s birthday was on the horizon and it was a significant number.  At dinner on a Sunday evening we discussed what to do about it and a short cheapie cruise out of Galveston seemed like just the thing.  We’d taken a Carnival Cruise out of Galveston a few years ago and had a great time.  We expected a repeat performance, with upgrades, but that’s not how it turned out.

A Quick Google

With very little ado I found a four day cruise on Royal Caribbean.  An exterior cabin was supposed to be $259.  That sounded good to Bill.  I’d warned him that Royal Caribbean had a la carte pricing and $259 was the starting point, not the final total.  He wanted a little time to think about it.  A little time turned into a day and Tuesday morning I contacted my travel agent, Sandra Rubio of CTC,Inc.

We had a little back and forth, because initially she couldn’t find the deal.  Part of the problem was that we’d waited a couple of days.  The golden rule of travel bargains is grab it as soon as you find it, but Mr. Bill isn’t made that way.  He always sleeps on decisions.  In most cases that’s a good thing and it has saved our gravy more times than I can count, but it did put a dent in our $259 (per person based on double occupancy) exterior cabin.

By Tuesday, interior cabins began at $280 and it was only $67 more for one with an ocean view, so we made the leap for an exterior cabin.  We got it for $313 each, plus taxes ($123.62).  So far so good.  We were under $750 and we were on Royal Caribbean, a line we’d sailed before and loved.

Let the Nickel and Diming Begin!

Something all cruise lines do these days is offer online sites for personal cruise planning.  Once you’ve booked they will send you a link and you can start personalizing your cruise.  Everything from bed arrangements to special events can be arranged through your portal.  It’s great for booking shore excursions, specialty dining, beverage packages and entertainment.  You can also begin to understand what you can expect once you are on board.

Not everything on the portal will cost money, but a lot of it does.  My first concern is always shore excursions.  I compare what the independent shore excursion companies offer compared to what the boat offers.  If you book independently, be sure you are using a legitimate shore excursion company that guarantees you will be back on board in time for your cruise.  Read the fine print and check out comments.

According to what you are looking for you don’t even have to book a shore excursion.  The spa and other services on board are usually heavily discounted when the boat is in harbor.  Sometimes everything you want is within walking distance of the boat.  Shop around and do your research.

What I Did

I was dying to go to Chichen Itza, one of the top archaeological sites in the world, but this wasn’t my cruise.  Bill opted for Discover the Yucatan and Mayan Culture, which was offered by Royal Caribbean.   Our only port of call was Progresso, which is a bit of a backwater in the cruising industry, so independent providers didn’t really offer much.  With a 30% discount for booking before we boarded, the shore excursions were $63 a piece.  I also purchased a beverage plan, because I can’t live without caffeine and I don’t drink coffee.  Again the pre-boarding booking saved me 30% and I had a $25 on board credit from my travel agent (see why you use a travel agent) I got a $40 package for $15.  That brought our total up to $990.74 which is almost twice the advertised $259 person price would be.   

What a bargain cruising can actually be.  If you consider transportation, food, accommodations and entertainment, you can barely stay home for $123.75 per person per day – much less travel.  So we may whine about the price a little bit, but cruising really is a big bang for your traveling buck.   

So far so good.  How did this trip almost turn into a traveling disaster?  Come back next week and we’ll talk about it.

 

Accommodations, Cruising, DESTINATIONS, International, TRAVEL, Travel Planning

The Suite Life at Sea

TRAVEL THERE: STEPPING UP TO SUITES & STATEROOMS

The ultimate experience at sea is supposed to be a suite.  I have one friend who won’t cruise without a suite and another who enjoyed Celebrity’s Aqua Class, but would cruise tomorrow with or without it.  I have to base my comments on their experiences, because I’ve never enjoyed the suite life.

Over the Fence

While I am sure every ship I’ve ever been on had suites, it wasn’t until I cruised with Norwegian that I realized I was missing something.  As we roamed the decks during the Sail Away Party, we ran into a high barrier.  I got out my map and realized we’d come to the section reserved for the suite clientele.

Sometimes suites are virtually unrecognizable as a suite from the outside.  They have a door on a hall, just like everyone else.  Only once you get inside do you start getting the royal treatment.  Nowadays many ships not only have suites, they also have whole sections of the ship that peons like Bill and I never get to see.  That was the case on Norwegian.  They call it The Haven.  Havenites have their own pool, their own restaurant and their own decks.  No need to mingle with the unwashed.

This new suite arrangement is kind of like First Class on airplanes.  You know how you walk down the aisle and stare at all the people in those great big leather seats, fully aware that you are about to subject yourself to several hours of space deprivation.  Well, when you’re strolling along a deck and suddenly come up against the barricade hiding the suite section, you know you’re missing something.  Did Bill figure out a way to look over the top?  I’ll never tell, but it did make us wonder what we were missing.

Vicarious Suiteship

So my bestie took a cruise and tried out Aqua Class – that’s your usual stateroom with suite amenities.  Your room will be a little larger than the guys who merely opted for a balcony, but you’ll also get more.  You’ll have special access to the spa, your own specialty restaurant and special amenities – those lovely terry robes and swanky toiletries you find in upscale hotels.  Did she love the extras?  You bet!  Did they ruin her for suite-less cruising?  Not at all.  It was sort of like me and balconies.

Why Suites?

Suites on cruise ships work for the same reasons hotels have suites.  In some situations one room just doesn’t cut it.  Many cruise lines have family suites designed to make traveling with kids a little easier, without putting you in the Ritz. However, most of the reasons people move up to the suite life have to do with luxury.  They just want more – more room, more service, more opulence.

Are you a suite cruiser?  First, look at your budget.  You’re going to pay for the extras and only you know whether the extras are worth it to you.  However, be careful.  What’s the suite life on one ship does not necessarily translate to the next ship.  Know what you expect and what they are offering.

It’s not just about a little extra space, though.  You get preferred boarding and disembarkation.  You often get a butler or concierge.  Special events like dinner with the captain often come with a suite.  Some of the things other people pay for on board, like shore excursions, wi-fi or certain spa privileges are included.  You get specialized treatment in various restaurants, special tables in the casino and often you even have an exclusive restaurant.  The Suite Life is the Sweet Life.

DESTINATIONS, International, TRAVEL

Hanging on the Balcony

The balcony, our favorite part of the ship!

TRAVEL THERE:  DO YOU NEED A BALCONY?

While I am a strong proponent of getting an outside cabin, I can’t say a balcony is absolutely necessary. It did save my bacon on our Norwegian cruise, however. Let me explain.

My Best Balcony So Far

While I had a great time with my hubby and my bestie on the Norwegian cruise, I hated the ship. The pool area was so crowded, it was like Central Expressway at rush hour.

It was a huge ship, but wherever I went on board I felt cramped, like they’d tried to squeeze two ships worth of activity into one boat. Spaces I traditionally enjoy, like a library, were laughable – cramped corners included so they could put them on the list of amenities, but too small to enjoy. To make things worse, I wasn’t feeling all that well, so I needed a quiet place to hang out.

Voila! We had three days at sea on that trip and I spent most of that time on my balcony, quietly reading books on my Kindle. The space was an escape from the hectic nature of Freestyle Cruising, which had everything in the world but what I wanted.  As we entered the ports, Bill and I would enjoy the thrill from our balcony, often sharing the excitement with my bestie, who was two balconies down.  Did I love my balcony? Yes. Did it serve my purpose on that cruise? Yes. Do I have to have one every time? Nope!

Nice, but Not Necessary

For example, we had a balcony on our Viking River cruise, but we didn’t utilize it all that much. For one thing, it was April and still a little chilly along the Danube. Also the longship had great places for relaxation in its public spaces. I liked the peaceful serenity I could find at many spots on the ship, but I also liked that I got to connect a little with humanity, without having their deck chair bump against mine.

Perhaps the main reason the balcony was not so critical to my enjoyment was how busy we were. Every morning was a shore excursion. After lunch we’d head out and do a little exploring on our own. From breakfast to bedtime we had few moments which required us to entertain ourselves, so the balcony was under-utilized.  Did I use it? Yes. I’d go out there to catch up in my journal while Bill took his afternoon nap.  I’d step out in the morning for some pre-breakfast fresh air – but I would have been fine with just a window.

I thought the balcony would come in handy as we sailed through the Wachau Valley, but an announcement informed me most of the important sights would be on the other side of the ship – something I should have more carefully studied as I planned the cruise.  I also discovered my side of the ship was on the river side when we docked.  We liked that, but if I had hoped to sit on my balcony and observe a city at close hand, I would have been disappointed.

So the bottom line is this, take some time to study the ship and figure out if your balcony is going to give you the experience you are hoping for.  You want to watch the Wachau Valley from your balcony, then learn which direction your ship will be headed and be sure you are on the side that will be on the north as you cruise through.  Want to watch the hustle and bustle in port, then be sure you are on the side of the ship which has the gangplank.  The more you know, the better you’ll utilize your balcony.

That’s our balcony experience and I hope it will help you decide whether or not a balcony will be worth the investment when you take a cruise.  Come back next week and we’ll explore cruising with a suite.