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

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.

ART, Attractions, Decorative Arts, DESTINATIONS, International, Shopping, TRAVEL

My Sharm-ing Shopping Opportunity

TRAVEL THERE: A MIDNIGHT TRIP TO THE LOCAL SOUK

Bokra is a word you hear frequently in Egypt.  It means tomorrow, but just like the Spanish word for tomorrow, manana, it also means ‘maybe tomorrow or maybe never.’  Since I’d been in Sharm I’d been promised a trip to the souk to do a little shopping and this was to be our last night in town.  As the clock ticked towards midnight, my anxiety grew, but I should have realized there was no need for worry.

THE SHOPPING

Mirette made good on her promise. It was well after 10 PM, but this was Egypt, so everything was still going strong. Maggie came along, because she still had some shopping to do, too.  The sisters headed off in one direction and I headed in another with Bill. Now that my mom is gone, souvenir buying is not as urgent, but I do like to pick up something for my bestie.

We wandered the shops but I couldn’t find exactly what I wanted. I like pharaonic jewelry, but it’s no longer fashionable in Egypt. Most of the jewelry looked like pieces I could buy anywhere, lovely, but they didn’t seem representative to me. Then there would be the pharaonic section, with huge scarabs or an elaborately decorated eye, but that wasn’t what I was looking for either.  I wanted something that would be worn frequently with pride, but I also wanted it to have an Egyptian flavor.

At one of the few shops which was closed, I found a lovely piece in the window that was just what I wanted.  The shop was locked up tighter than a drum.  Some shops were sitting wide open with no one inside, but if you entered a nearby vendor would come to help you.  I looked around helplessly and complained about the shop being closed a little louder than I normally would, but I was hoping someone would hear me, and then come over to offer their services.

Mirette showed up just about then to see how we were doing and I pointed out the necklace.  Darling Mirette disappeared for a moment or two and before I knew it, there was the shop’s proprietor, opening his shop and apologizing for his absence.  I’m not sure what it took to get the man back to the shop.  Perhaps Mirette was a friend or the shopkeeper understood her husband Ayman’s influence.  Whatever it was, we were very grateful, because nothing else in the bazaar was anywhere as lovely as the necklace in the window.

Come to find out the beautiful hand-made piece was beyond reasonable. I’d picked out the necklace for my bestie, but wished for one for myself. However, the proprietor was also the craftsman and he had only made one. I can understand why, because the necklace consisted of many tiny talismans and intricate beadwork, which is why I couldn’t believe the price. It was truly a unique piece. I satisfied myself with a lovely lapis lazuli lotus pendant. Bill pointed out that I could have taken the elaborate necklace for myself and given Deb the lotus, but then that wouldn’t have been quite fair now, would it.

Maggie too, had found just what we needed and we headed back to Mirette’s house.  The young ones had been put to bed long ago by their grandparents and a group of neighbors had joined the family, sharing sheesha and laughing at one another’s stories.  Soon the shoppers were gathered around, relighting the hookah pipes and telling their own stories – in Arabic.

I hate being the party pooper, but it was far beyond my bed time and all the chatter in an unfamiliar language only made it worse.  We were traveling in the morning.  I had my bags ready, but I needed to sleep.  Mirette carried us back to the hotel and another day in Egypt ended.

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

Stateroom, Suite or Cabin?

TRAVEL THERE: WHERE WILL YOU LAY YOUR HEAD?

How tight is your budget?  How particular are you about your personal space?  Are you claustrophobic, acrophobic or prone to sea-sickness?  These are the kinds of questions you have to ask yourself as you consider what kind of accommodations will best suit your cruise experience. 

Keeping It Affordable

Are you all about economy? Check out interior cabins on the lower decks. That’s the most economical part of the ship. Don’t plan on spending much time in your cabin though. It will have the basics, but it will be tight and you might find yourself wishing for a little sunshine. And here’s another tip. If you’re afraid of seasickness, try to get a cabin mid-ship.

For our first cruise, we had an interior cabin and yes it was tight, but we had a great time.  Not only was it our first cruise, it was our honeymoon.  Tight quarters added to the romance, but it was pretty spartan.  The tiny pedestal sink had no counters and no drawers, but I managed to brush my teeth and apply eyeliner as needed.

But that’s me.  I’m not the luxuriating in my cabin sort of person.  If you are someone who needs to see the sun when you wake up or navigating tight quarters puts you in a bad mood, then don’t save so much money you are miserable every moment you are in your cabin.  If you are really looking forward to some private time on the ship, then you should also look elsewhere.  In an inside cabin you will barely have room to walk around your bed.

Taking It Outside

If you can’t stand the thought of a windowless week, but still want some economy, look for an exterior cabin. At the very least you will get a porthole.  Some some lines have huge picture windows in the exterior cabins. We’ve had these accommodations, too.

A porthole graced our first outside room.  To be honest with you, that small spot of sunshine was not the best part of the upgrade.  Suddenly we had more space.  That’s what made the extra dollars worth it.  With a little more space the ship can start throwing in exciting extras like counters, storage and perhaps someplace to sit besides the bed.

Our next outside room was actually on a river cruise and instead of a porthole, one wall of the cabin was a huge picture window.  That’s been one of my favorite cruise experiences.  It was a treat to open the curtains and watch the banks of the Nile pass by.  The space was light-filled, airy and even roomy.  That cruise is what turned us on to river cruising and we have become solid fans.

But back to ocean-going ships.  These outside rooms can come in a wide variety and what’s there makes all the difference.  Usually there are pictures or drawing of the room online, but that’s still only going to give you a hint of what to expect.  For instance, on a Carnival cruise, we were in the last room on a hallway and our huge window faced where we had been, rather than where we were going.  None of my research told me how much we’d enjoy that window.  We loved looking out at the wake of the ship and if my memory serves me right, we could actually open the window a bit for fresh sea air – something that  big picture window did not allow.

Interior and exterior cabins are the easiest ways to watch your cruise dollars, but if economy is not your first concern, then have you ever got a world of opportunity to relax in.  Come back next week and we’ll take it to the balcony.

Accommodations, Attractions, Cruising, DESTINATIONS, International, TRAVEL

How to Google Your Way to the Perfect Cruise

TRAVEL HERE: FINDING YOUR TRAVEL DREAMS ONLINE

So, last week I shared a few secrets I’d learned about Google and how knowing those things can give you a better experience if you decide to shop online for a cruise.  Most of those suggestions were pretty basic, but their primary focus was what to avoid.  This week you’ll learn more about what to do.

Where Do You Want to Go?

And don’t say I don’t know!  I love to travel and in theory, I would pretty much get on any cruise ship going anywhere.  In practice, I’ve only been on one cruise for every decade that I’ve lived.  I’m doing everything I can to raise the ratio of cruises to years, but the point is this, don’t hesitate over where to start.  Close you eyes and point at a map.  Dreaming is free!

If you’re curious about Bali, then start your research there.  Before you actually book a cruise, you may be taking a 3 day cruise to nowhere out of Miami, not Bali, but you’re just practicing!  The first thing you need to know is what cruise lines go to where you want to visit.  As you research Bali, you will start discover things that will help when you start narrowing down your real search.

I hope my next cruise is to the Mediterranean.  When I Google “Mediterranean Cruises,” I quickly discover there are at least 12 cruise lines with itineraries in the Mediterranean and that’s just on the first page of results.  If I’m just shopping, then why not start clicking.  Don’t think of this as work.  Think of it as organized day dreaming. Get comfy and maybe get a glass of wine.

When Do You Want to Go? 

At this point, your research can take you in several directions, but if you have a specific time for your cruise in mind, then go with that.  I want my next cruise to be on my 25th wedding anniversary, which is in May of 2019.  If I Google, “Mediterranean Cruises May 2019,” the number of cruise lines goes down significantly and I start seeing sites like Expedia, Cruise Critic and various cruise lines.  Start sampling all of these sites.  Some will draw you in and you will find you’re still on the site an hour later.  Others will just look like a list of prices or you won’t like the font – so just skip these.

One of the tricks of saving money on a cruise is to be flexible about your dates.  If I demand to be at a certain place on a certain day for my anniversary cruise, then my choices will at least be limited and I may find no cruise ship will be where I want on the day I want to be there.  So keep your mind open about a date.  You want to narrow the choices down to a reasonable number, but not be stuck with only one choice.

What Itinerary Best Suits You?  

This is very subjective.  Many factors play into choosing an itinerary.  What cities do you want to see?  Do you want to spend some time at sea, enjoying your ship?  Would you like to spend a few days at the beginning and/or end of the cruise in a particular city?  Do you want to visit cities with museums and historical sites or do you prefer one beach party after another?  How many days do you want to cruise?

My husband and I are in this phase of our search for the 2019 cruise.  He’s leaning towards the Western Mediterranean with stops in places like Monte Carlo, St. Tropez and Portofino.  I’m more interested in the Eastern Mediterranean with beautiful Venice and Croatia, Montenegro and perhaps a bit of Greece.  However, we know we want something in the 8-10 day range, so this helps us narrow the search a little more.

By now you should be enjoying the process of shopping for your cruise.  If this all sounds like too much work, just call your travel agent.  They’ll ask you all the questions and help you find a cruise you will love, but you’ll have to trust them.  Doing your own research ensures you’ll love your cruise.  Come back next week and we’ll talk about what kind of room you want.

Cruising, DESTINATIONS, DFW Metroplex, International, TRAVEL, Travel Planning, United States

Teach Google to Help You Travel

Royal Caribbean’s Vision of the Seas

TRAVEL TALK: GET OUT THERE!

This afternoon I’ll be boarding Royal Caribbean’s Vision of the Seas for a short cruise in the Gulf.  We dreamed up this idea one recent Sunday evening to celebrate Bill’s birthday and by Tuesday afternoon our cruise was booked.  I would have had it booked the next day, but Bill needed a day to cogitate.  Three weeks later, we’ll be on board.

CTC – Tell Sandra I sent you

How’d You Do That?

Moments after booking our cruise, I shared my glee on Facebook.  That Sunday a friend asked me how I had done it, because she figures that’s the only way she’ll ever convince her husband to go – a last minute decision.  I was a little surprised at the question.  I am so travel-focused I thought nothing of booking a cruise on short notice.  I Googled around Sunday night, had a list of the best bargains ready for Bill Monday morning and called my travel agent Tuesday morning.

Let’s start with the travel agent.  Use one!  Mine is Sandra Rubio at CTC and I highly recommend her, but wherever you are, find one and use them.  I like to do my own preliminary research, but when it comes to booking, I trust Sandra.

See, I have booked online.  It takes forever.  I’ve booked on the phone.  It takes even longer.  What’s worse, you cannot trust anything they tell you.  They don’t know.  They’ve never been there.  They may never have been out of their small town in Minnesota, but they are advising you on how to book your cruise.  You’ll have this one-time transaction with them and you could never find them again if your life depended on it.  Yet you are willing to trust them with at least $1000 of your money and more importantly your vacation!

Any deal you see online, your travel agent can get for you for the exact same price and you don’t pay them a penny in commission.  It’s their job and the cruise lines are so happy for them to do it, they gladly pay them for it.  So please, once you have an idea of your budget and where you want to go – call your travel agent!

What Not to Do!

Amazed that my friend needed coaching on booking a cruise, I asked a few pertinent questions, trying to find out what her issues were.  There were two.  She was using her phone to click Facebook advertisements.  Don’t do that!  Google what you want and do it on a computer – either a desktop or laptop.

My friend said, “When I click on the link, what I get has nothing to do with the ad.  It’s called click bait.  Just don’t.

The other issue is space.  There is only so much you can see on your phone – even if the site is optimized for it.  On a cruise site, whether it is an actual cruise company, your local travel agency or a travel consolidator, there are all kinds of tabs, buttons, searches.  You can look for places, ports, dates, ships – all kinds of stuff, but if you are looking at your phone, its like kissing through a screen door.  You can’t fall in love that way.

Go Googling

Just for fun, I googled “I want to cruise” as I wrote this post.  The first three listings were ads.  Ignore those.  They are actually marked as ads on the results page, but you have no idea how many people I discover who are amazed at this.  They’ve been looking at it for years and never saw it.

The next four results were for a site called “iwantacruise.com.”  Ignore those, too.  Somebody paid big bucks to get that url, but that doesn’t mean they know anything about cruising.  Suspect all sites that mirror your query.  In addition, I usually ignore everything from Yelp, Trip Advisor, Urban Spoon, Thumbtack, Expedia and such until I know more.  All these types of sources let companies pay to get noticed.  It might as well be a straight out ad.  Yes, there are reviews from consumers, but until you know more, you aren’t ready for reviews.

Below that is where the good stuff is – the actual cruise lines and Cruise Critic (which is a great resource).  Because it was a non-specific query, I then got a You Tube video.  A few responses later I found Carnival Cruise Line and found out they have a pretty good website crew, because they dominated the next 10-20 listings.  That still doesn’t tell you whether Carnival is going where you want to go or even if they are a good cruise line, only that they invest money in SEO (search engine optimization) specialists.

In the search above, the first cruise line I got was Royal Caribbean.  You want to know why?  It has to do with what I’ve been looking at recently.  I’ve been all over the internet looking for information for my cruise.  I’ve researched shore excursions, looked for reviews of the on board dining, maps of the ship and the price of beverages.  I’ve been in and out of the Royal Caribbean ‘My Cruises” site, booking my cruise extras.  I’ve got emails in my Gmail from my travel agent about my cruise and an email from Royal Caribbean about my Crown & Anchor membership.  In case you hadn’t realized it yet, Google is nosy.  It makes itself aware of what I am doing on the internet – whether it’s online searches, emails or even social media.  When I asked about a cruise, it assumed I wanted to know about the cruise I was about to board.  A little creepy, but true.

So, to find out what you want to know on the internet, you first have to know what you’re looking at.  What’s clickbait?  What’s an ad?  What’s real?  I live and breathe this stuff, but Google is gambling that we don’t.  If you’re going to use Google as your resource, invest the time in getting to know it.

Long-Tailed Keyword Phrases

This day and time, the more specific your query is, the more likely you will get the information you want.  These types of queries are called long-tailed keyword phrases.  You may not care what they are called, but they are your friend.  When I came home on that recent Sunday night, I didn’t google cruises.  I googled “3 day cruises from Galveston,” because I knew that’s the port I wanted to depart from and because I wanted the shortest cruise I could find.  I also googled a couple of other things like “cheap Galveston cruises.” I usually try several queries to see which gives me the best responses. Then I start shopping, but I’ve already gone on too long about this for one post.  Come back next week and I’ll tell you more.

Accommodations, Cruising, DESTINATIONS, International, Road Trips, Shopping, TRAVEL, Travel Planning, United States

Travel Show Treats

TRAVEL HERE: VACATIONS START HERE

Remember when they tried to tell us travel agents were going to disappear, because everyone was going to shop for their travel online.  Well, go ahead and shop, but when it gets time to buy, call your travel agent.  They haven’t gone anywhere and they still book the greater majority of travel.  Besides that, they are free and that’s my price.  My travel agency is CTC  and my travel agent is Sandra Rubio.  Let me tell you about their recent travel show.

What I Didn’t Know

I’ve traveled a lot in my life, but it would be impossible to know everything about the travel industry, because things change all the time.  The the more you know, quite frankly, the better you will travel.  Most of the things I heard at CTC’s travel expo I already knew, but as always, I picked up little tidbits.  Some things help me get better value for my travel dollar.  Others introduce me to exciting new opportunities.

Here’s some of the new tidbits I can picked up this time:

  • BOOK CRUISES EARLY and the more you care about when, where, what boat and what cabin, the earlier you need to book.  2019 is already filling up and some of the best things in 2020 are already gone.  And the industry is very, very serious about this.
  • Yes, you can get short cruises.  Used to be the norm was 14-21 days, but that doesn’t work for Boomers or Millennials and that’s who’s driving the industry now.  There are lots of short 4-5 day cruises leaving American ports and 8-10 day cruises all over the world.
  • Say good-bye to losing your boarding card.  Royal Caribbean will be giving you a watch programmed with all your essentials.  Another line is working on a piece of jewelry that can be worn in several ways that will hold you essential info – not just your beverage program, but how you like your martinis!  Thank RFID technology.
  • Being single is becoming less of problem.  Remember those Boomers and Millennials who are driving the industry?  Well, most of them are single and even if they are not, some of them prefer traveling alone.  The travel industry has listened!  There’s an emerging market of single bookings available.  Price quoted double occupancy is still the norm, but you’re no longer required to make friends with a stranger or put up with your crazy cousin to afford traveling alone.  You’ll still have to do your homework, for now.  There are limited choices, but watch for this to pick up momentum.  For now, check out Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and Cunard.
  • Get a passport!  Changes are coming.  Security and documentation for travel, even domestic travel, is quickly getting more and more demanding.  While for the time being you can still enjoy closed loop cruising or domestic flights without a passport, the clock is ticking.  They’ve got things in the works that will make flight documentation so cumbersome that you’ll want a passport – even if you’re just flying from Dallas to San Antonio for a long weekend.  And by the way, 13 airports in our world now have bio-metric security measures.  Expect it on your travels soon.
  • Thank Millennials for  community spaces in your hotel.  Have you noticed business centers have moved to the front of the hotel?  There was a time when finding the business center to check your email or send a fax (Ha! remember faxes?) meant wandering into the bowels of your hotel and you’d be very alone when you got there.  If you’ve visited a new hotel or a newly renovated one, then you’ve probably noticed bright, comfortable workspaces near the entrance.  These inviting communal spaces, the snack/wine bar and other property amenities are there to lure Millennials.  Since so many of them are self-employed, tele-commuting from home or working in other alternative spaces, they crave getting out of the four walls of their hotel room.  They want places to meet with their clients without taking them back to their room or going to Starbucks.  Their demand is our gain.  Not only is there a more attractive place to check your email, chances are there will be an inviting buzz in the lobby around 5 o’clock, the workout room will not be a grungy place where old gym equipment goes to die and who knows, there might even be grill on the patio!
  • All the new fees are not a product of your imagination – get used to it.  It started with the airlines, but it didn’t stop there.  First, it was baggage fees and box lunches.  Now, there’s fee for having an assigned seat or legroom.   Who knows when they’ll figure out how to charge you a fee for the air you breathe!  But that’s not the worst part.  The hotels, resorts, car rental agencies, tour operators, etc., etc. etc. of the world observed what the airline industry did and now you’ll find they are adding fees to their tab, too.  Tickets represent only 71% of airline revenue and with Spirit Airlines, that goes down to 60% – everything else is fees.  Hotels took in $2.7 Billion (with a B!) during a recent year and the number is just beginning to climb.  Bottom line, that online price is just the beginning.  Another reason to get to know your local travel agent!
  • New ships coming!  Cruising just gets more popular everyday.  Ninety-seven new cruise ships are scheduled to be launched from 2017-2025.  Yes, some of them are huge, like Royal Caribbean’s Oasis class, but smaller ships are wildly popular, too.  Ritz Carlton will be launching 298-passenger yachts. Emerald,a river cruising enterprise, is about to enter the small ocean-going ship market.  Celebrity is about to launch a new ship concept with The Edge.  Viking is churning out longships and small ocean-going ships as fast as it can.

That should be enough to tempt you off your sofa (even with all the fees).  So come on out and choose a vacation.  You’ll be glad you did.  Tell them Jane sent you!

 

 

 

DESTINATIONS, DFW Metroplex, Shopping, TRAVEL

So Maybe I Am a Little Neurotic

TRAVEL HERE: HOW HAPPY CAN $4 MAKE ME?

I once thought being a procrastinator proved I wasn’t obsessive/compulsive, but then I found procrastination is one of the first noticeable symptoms of the malady.  My friends politely speak of my perfectionism and I try to be normal, but it’s hard.  Recently $4 saved me from myself.

A Change of Seasons

When it came time to change my closet to my fall wardrobe, there was an issue.  I had enough hangers for all my clothes, but for some reason I suddenly didn’t have all the “right” hangers.  See, different kinds of clothes need different kinds of hangers and for some reason my clothes weren’t distributing themselves appropriately on the hangers I had.    I fussed over the problem with elaborate mathematical equations for a while, but finally convinced myself to quit being neurotic and instead be thankful I have clothes, because there are those who don’t.

A History of My Hangers

This hanger issue isn’t a problem I’ve always dealt with.  There was a day when I only had two kinds of hangers – the wire hangers from the dry cleaner and those nice clear plastic ones you get with the clothes you buy.  I didn’t think about hangers at all in in those days, but I did use my “good” hangers for my best clothes and everything else was on a wire hanger.

However, I did notice all the clothes in my mom’s closet were on those nice hangers from the store.  Of course, she worked in retail from the 60’s to the 90’s.  She made sure everything she bought home was on a nice hanger and with wardrobe attrition, eventually everything migrated to the good ones.  In fact, in my career girl days, probably the only reason I had those nice hangers was because of Mom’s generosity.  She gave me clothes for pretty much every occasion and even for no occasion at all, when she found something she wanted me to have and there was no occasion in sight.  Yeah, she was pretty amazing.  While I appreciated Mom’s closet, I guess I wasn’t neurotic yet, because I didn’t covet her closeting habits.

Then I went into real estate and we custom built a house.  You might wonder why selling real estate and building a house had any effect on which hangers I used.  Well, my days in real estate gave me some discretionary funds I hadn’t had access to before and when we moved into the custom house, one of the perks was a dream closet – complete with a dressing table.  One thing led to another and I suddenly had very specific hangers for all my clothes.  My evening clothes went on padded hangers.  Dresses, jackets and blouses went on those clear plastic hangers.  I had specialized multi-tier hangers for skirts and pants.  Everything else went on those white plastic hangers you can buy in bulk.  You cannot imagine the joy this brought me.  I would stand in my closet and derive pleasure from the mere sight of my clothes hanging on their appropriate hangers.  By then, Mom had retired and my closet was actually better than hers!

Maintaining My Obsession

There have been five houses since that customized closet and while none of those closets were quite so grand, I have maintained my penchant for hangers.  I’ve even expanded my collection.  I found heartier versions of the white plastic hangers that work great with jeans and outerwear.  I discovered specialized hangers for tank tops and camisoles.  Did you know they have hangers for boots, too?  To my dismay they “improved” the white plastic hangers, so I now have about four varieties of the white hangers in my closet, but I’ve had learned to ignore that hiccup.

Then suddenly my hangers were all wrong and no amount of switching could right the problem.  The bottom line was that I needed more white plastic hangers, but back in October I told myself I could do without them.  I’d just get by with a few variations on the theme.  Every time a hanger would break, the situation got a little worse.  Then I bought a few items from stores that thought tossing my purchases in a bag was enough. (You’ll be glad to know I didn’t lay down in the floor and have a fit.)  Soon it seemed as if some elf tribe was entering my closet each evening as I slept and trading out good hangers for bad, because it seemed as if the situation was worsening daily.  Every day more and more wire hangers were finding their way into my garments!

Mission Drift

So, what does all that have to do with $4 solving my obsession/compulsion issues.  Well, I was in Target to find a couple of items they’d been out of at Ulta.  Since I was there, I looked into several other items on my list, one of which  took me right by the storage department (though I can’t tell you exactly what item that was.)  There, I discovered a HUGE package of white plastic hangers was $1.99.  I’d been gritting my teeth for months over those “inappropriate” hangers and for less than 200 pennies I could just fix my closet.  I bought two packages!  My clothes are all hanging on the appropriate hangers now and unless those elves I talked about return, I’m set for a couple of years – and all for less than $4.

Shopping, TRAVEL

Happy Holidays

My house, ready for Christmas

TRAVEL HERE: CHRISTMAS MEMORIES

When I was a kid, my Christmas activities were tied to my school, my church and my family.  The other constant was driving around to see Christmas lights.  We moved back to Dallas in 1966 and hit the Christmas bonanza.  Highland Park, specifically Beverly Drive, was the most amazing Christmas array of outdoor decorations you can imagine.  Nowadays there are many neighborhoods vying for top dog status, which is probably a relief to the Beverly Drive residents.  What’s more, my hubby is just not to excited about crawling bumper- to-bumper through any neighborhood for any reason that does not involve profit.  The other big deal in my childhood days was the After Christmas Sales.

Post Christmas Shopping Frenzy

This Black Friday business is a recent phenomena.  The big shopping event used to be the day after Christmas.  Aunt Edie, Mom and I were enthusiastic about this annual event.  My sister Susan and Aunt Tommie would often join us, but they weren’t quite as pumped about rising early to fight the crowds.  For us the primary focus of the day was Christmas decorations.  Susan and I would stand in the long lines while the adults rushed about gathering the deals and parking them with us.  Sometimes I’d make treks out to the car to unload the purchases into the trunk and then hurry back in for the next retail foray.  Sometimes we would fill up the car at one mall, deliver our goodies to the house and head to another mall.  It was madness.

In those days, Mom and Aunt Edie used to trade off Christmas and Thanksgiving.  One year Mom would do Thanksgiving and Aunt Edie would do Christmas.  The next year Aunt Edie did Thanksgiving and Mom did Christmas.  One of the benefits of this was the variety it added to our post-Christmas Shopping Orgy.  In Dallas we hit all the big malls and shopped the department stores.  Aunt Edie lived in Temple – a much more boutique experience.  Aunt Edie’s shopping habits made her a known quantity in her small town and her arrival was always treated with elaborate gestures of welcome.  We’d visit florists, small shops, hardware stores and drug stores.  On occasion, we’d hit Salado rather than Temple.  What fun we had!

All this started when I still lived at home and eventually I did have my own place, but I still didn’t have a lot of discretionary income.  Collecting ornaments was something I did as a traveled, on a one-by-one basis, rather than stocking up at years end.  In defense of Mom and Aunt Edie, they used the sales to buy up on holiday gifts for the next year.  They both belonged to a wide variety of organizations which required them to participate in gift exchanges.  By December 27th of one year, they’d be stocked up for Christmas in the coming year.  Occasionally I noticed, however, that what one December was bought as a gift, might actually end up on our tree or coffee table.

Eventually, the day arrived that I could afford to join in the fun.  I was married with my own two-story house to decorate.  In a few years we moved out to California and built an even bigger house.  Mom and Aunt Edie would come out to visit and though they were no longer so interested in the holiday decor for themselves, they were more than happy to help me find things I couldn’t live without.

Thrice Blessed at Christmas

Now Mom and Aunt Edie are gone.  Aunt Edie didn’t have any kids and my sister didn’t catch the holiday decor bug, so I inherited two houses worth of Christmas.  While I did do some culling and selected only the creme de la creme from both collections, when I declare it’s time to start decorating, I’ve got a lot of Christmas to spread around.  It is a task of joy.  I’m a visual sort, so the very sight of these treasures unleashes so many memories.  I can recall the very day we bought them and from which store.  If they were Mom or Aunt Edie’s I can tell you where they used them around their house.  For the entire month of December, it’s as if they have come for a visit.  We reminisce about the Christmases of the past and enjoy the season together.

I don’t go to the after Christmas sales now.  Why would I?  Every nook and cranny already has it’s own bit of Christmas and there’s always plenty left over, just-in-case.  When we first moved into our house here in Heath, I did realize I suddenly had ten windows on the front of the house, something none of us had contended with before.  That first year I was Scrooge – until I could hit Hobby Lobby the day after Christmas.  In about 10 minutes I’d picked up 10 wreaths with big red bows and made it through the lines.  Bill went with me that day, but so did Mom and Aunt Edie – at least they were there in spirit.

 

DESTINATIONS, DFW Metroplex, Shopping, TRAVEL

Is Variety the Spice of Life?

TRAVEL HERE: AND THE WINNERS ARE…

We give up.  Perhaps the perfect meal kit service doesn’t exist, but we’ve identified some dogs.  He likes Hello Fresh for this and that, but if Home Chef is going to continue to delight me with dishes like Yorkshire Pudding, well I want it, too. Blue Apron, finally fell off the wagon for a variety of reasons. So for now, I’ll be juggling two services and hopefully I’ll figure out a system to insure that we don’t end up with two boxes of food for any particular week as I did a few weeks ago.  Perhaps someday down the road, one of the services will pull ahead of the others, but for now, I’ll just claim variety is the spice of life.

Why Not Blue Apron?

This journey began with several months of Blue Apron.  I’d done my research and read from several sources they were the best value – not the cheapest, but the one who provided the best product for the greatest value.  I loved it so much.  It wasn’t perfect, but it beat my own meal planning and food management, for a while.  Then Bill demanded a change of pace and did he ever get it!  He’s dizzy from the carousel of meal kit services.

As we sat down to discuss who would win the brass ring, I recounted all the reasons I used to love Blue Apron:

  • Interesting gourmet touches with every meal and lots of variety
  • Unique ingredients never available at the local grocery store
  • Usually the highest quality in meats, fish and vegetables – with some uneveness in the beef department and the occasional vegetable fail
  • Clever packaging that was fun to open and unload
  • Cute knick knack bags for their special ingredients
  • Great recipe cards with easy to follow instructions, helpful upscale photos of the cooking process and finally the best pictures of the plated meals
  • They’d made me feel like an accomplished chef

Even with all these pluses, I had to admit they couldn’t be THE meal kit service, because quite frankly, for the last few months, every time we used them all we had were problems and the food wasn’t as good as it used to be.  All the great recipe cards in the world can’t make up for food we don’t want to eat.

Why Hello Fresh?

Can you say Chicken Under a Zucchini Blanket?  Of all the meals we had from any service, this was Bill’s favorite meal – and I have to admit it was a winner.  Their other strengths were:

  • Not a single packaging or quality issue in six meals (something that no other besides Blue Apron can claim)
  • User friendly recipe cards that did the job (if not as well as Blue Apron)
  • Ingredients that were as least as good as what I would pick out for myself at the store
  • Good healthy food that Bill and I both enjoyed (but nothing in the least exotic)

I didn’t want them to be THE meal kit service because:

  • Unpacking my meal was just not as much fun
  • I don’t like the big brown bag per meal or their graphics
  • A little too main-stream-all-the-time for my palate
  • They said Parmesan Crusted Fish and it turned out to be tilapia
  • While the recipe cards did their job, they were less than excellent
    • less than pristine utensils used in cooking photos
    • a downgrade in overall ambiance
    • instructions were good, but not a s good as others
    • finished plate photos are not inspiring

Why Home Chef?

They had me at Yorkshire Pudding!  Not merely the fact that they offered Yorkshire Pudding, but because the dish was easy to make from scratch and it turned out perfect.  Their other two dishes for the week were quite tasty.  Here’s the other reasons they made the cut:

  • While not as adventurous as my friends at Blue Apron, Home Chef does get creative and almost exotic.
  • None of the ingredients were particularly unusual, but they came up with some unique dishes nonetheless
  • Great quality and no ooops yet
  • Clear plastic bags hold most of the ingredients together for each meal.  While this is not as exciting as obsessing over all the separate items in a Blue Apron Box, it beat the big brown grocery bags from Hello Fresh
  •   The recipe cards are great.  They actually offer a few items of information not provided by Blue Apron, but no points for plated dish inspiration.  They use the same distressed wood table for each shot and the same boring white plate.  (YAWN!)
  • I feel more like a chef with Home Chef than I do with Hello Fresh.

Some day they may actually pull ahead and be THE meal kit service, but till then, I’ll keep juggling.

And there you have it.  Wondering what I’ll come up with next week?  Come back and find out!