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Category Archives: Advice
We’re not going where?
There have been a couple of articles lately about a woman incensed at Norwegian Cruise Lines for completely ruining her long-planned birthday celebration by rerouting her cruise. It’s always interesting to me that the press covers them at all, because some of them know it’s a waste of time.
This will become even more of an issue for the entire industry now that all cruise traffic to Cuba has effectively been canceled.
Cruise lines do not always stick to the original published itineraries. Usually, this is weather-related, determined while enroute (Norwegian is famous for skipping its own private island, Great Stirrup Cay, where it tenders) and sometimes determined months beforehand – we rerouted from Harvest Caye twice because it wasn’t ready to open, and Hurricanes Irma and Maria rerouted our entire Christmas cruise in 2017.
The bottom line is that if you are specifically cruising to go to one special port, just go to that port. (If it’s one of the cruise lines’ private islands, you’re out of luck.) However, if your heart is set on going to Jamaica, just go to Jamaica for a week – don’t spend one day of a seven-day cruise in your “real” destination.
Cruise lines are regulated by the laws of the countries where they sail, and the laws of nature. If you always wanted to visit one place, just go there.
One Thing To Do On A Cruise
There are a lot of lists of “things to do on a cruise” and most of them suggest taking advantage of everything a modern cruise ship can offer – food, entertainment, activities, and so forth. I wanted to talk about the most important thing I do on every cruise.
I remember I’m on a ship.
It’s easy to forget, with all the food and entertainment and activities, but you are onboard an ocean-going vessel, sailing (well, using diesel-electric) across one or more of the Seven Seas.
According to the Galveston Immigration Database, my maternal grandparents and their children sailed on the Lucie from Europe (the port of Bremen) to a new home in Texas in 1854. It took them seventy days to cross the Atlantic, and then sail across the Gulf of Mexico to Galveston to disembark.
My paternal grandfather sailed from England (after leaving Ireland) to a new home in the US (first New York, later Rhode Island) on the Caronia in 1913, although I’m still trying to confirm this. Who knew Patrick was a popular name in Ireland?
Why does this matter? It matters to me because both of my parents are descended from people who decided it was time to find another place to become whomever they were destined to become, and they had to take a ship to do so.
So, I try to take at least a little time each cruise to sit on the balcony, look at the ocean, and remember that I’m not the first sailor in the family, although I may be the first with a balcony.
Ships are the reason I’m here. A cruise ship is a far cry from the Lucie or the Caronia, but it is still a ship, and we’re crossing the ocean, even if we’re just island-hopping.
So, on your next cruise, take a few minutes to remember you’re on a cruise. Most ships today are floating hotels, but they are moving you from port to port. It’s easy to forget there’s an ocean under you. Take some time. Watch it go by.
I wrote an opinion piece on this earlier. This is designed to be factual.
Do you need insurance? Yes.
Do you have to buy trip insurance? It depends. Some people swear their credit card provides trip coverage. (Read the fine print.) Some think nothing could go wrong. Some wait until they get home and threaten to sue the cruise line.
Think of all the things that could happen.
- Get sick before the trip.
- Lose your job before the trip.
- Get sent out of town on business the week of the trip.
- You miss your flight.
- Your flight is canceled.
- Plane to the port is late.
- Arrive late to the port.
- Get sick on the trip.
- Pass away on the cruise.
- A close family member passes away while you’re cruising.
- Miss the ship at a port.
- Miss the flight home.
This is probably not an exhaustive list of what could go wrong. So, the question is – how many of these risks are you willing to take?
Also, consider the insurance source. The least path of resistance is to purchase insurance with your cruise. However, if you’re like us and book your own flights, the cruise line insurance probably won’t cover any problems.
Read the policy. The best policy you could probably get is “cancel for any reason” coverage. If you change your mind, you can get your money back.
Medical insurance will probably cover you out of the country – except Medicare and Medicaid. My corporate Aetna insurance covered all of my (and Virginia’s) misadventures but they considered the ship’s doctor “out of plan”, so the reimbursement was lower.
Yes, I said “reimbursement.” The ship’s medical center charges you cash money to your shipboard account. They’re not going to file with your insurance and bill you the difference. So, be prepared to pay full price onboard. Keep all your receipts! When you get home, file with your health insurance provider, take the receipts and what you reimbursed, and file that with your travel insurance provider. We’ve done this a few times, and have always received 100% of the money back. However, we’ve had medical bills on the ship that were our highest expense by far.
“I can’t afford the insurance.” How did you afford the cruise? More importantly, when the ship sails away in Mexico because your wife spent too much time shopping (or your husband spent too much time drinking), how are going to afford to get home?
Get trip insurance. Visit insuremytrip.com or your favorite broker. Just get it.
For those who are afraid of everything, here are some notes from Virginia’s research for our niece before their first cruise:
There is trip insurance that covers everything, which you can buy directly through an independent insurance company. My research found the most comprehensive plans are offered by Nationwide Insurance. None of the other plans we have looked at cover as much, especially when it comes to pre-existing conditions and actual situations (both medical and ship related).
Most plans don’t cover pre-existing conditions. They have a “Look-back Period”, which varies from 90 or 120 to 180 days. This means if, for instance, you had to cancel your trip because your Dad had to be hospitalized in an emergency for his COPD, and you decided it was serious enough not to leave, they would look back at HIS medical records for that period of time, and if there was any treatment, change of meds, or anything that indicated this was not an unforeseen outcome, they would not cover your trip cancellation.
Nationwide has a pre-existing condition waiver. They also cover stuff that surprised me! If your itinerary gets changed, they actually will compensate you per port. This is an unusual benefit.
Not many insurance plans cover trip cancellation as well as medical while you are on the trip. Compared to the coverage we have through the cruise line, they are a little more expensive, but they cover the flights, hotel, etc., rather than only the cruise. While Virginia was writing this note originally, there was a big discussion about insurance on Cruise Critic, and many people were recommending Nationwide.
This is not a recommendation, since we haven’t used them (yet), but to get a quote and the complete details on the plan, call Nationwide at 877-970-9059. This is different than their main number. It is direct to the group that handles travel insurance.
Muster Drill is held on every cruise ship at the start of every voyage. It accomplishes a number of goals – it teaches all passengers where their lifeboat gathering place is, it shows passengers how to wear their life jackets, and it follows international standards.
Cruise lines are serious about passengers attending the Muster Drill. The muster location for your cabin is usually on a placard on the back of your cabin door – the specific sub-location is generally on your keycard. (The door map will show you that muster station B is the main dining room, for example, but your keycard will show your specific group – B6. In that example , you would go to the main dining room (muster station B) and look for a crew member holding a B6 sign (group B6).
Look around you at the drill. This is not just people-watching (although it is interesting to see how hammered some passengers are this early in the cruise), the people around you are the people who will be in your lifeboat. That’s what muster is – it’s the preparation to abandon ship.
Not all lines require you to bring your life jacket, so check before the drill or listen to the announcements. Life jackets are usually in the closet in your cabin, but on the larger ships, they are sometimes only kept at the muster stations.
You must attend the drill. Yes, it’s as exciting as the airline safety drill, but it’s still mandatory attendance. Being at the drill proves that you have found your evacuation point once. If you don’t attend, the staff will track you down and make you attend a makeup session. Muster drill could be really short if everyone gets there on time.
The elevators stop during the drill, so if you’re allergic to stairs, go a few minutes early. (There is one available for handicapped passengers.)
Make sure you have your keycard scanned or check in at the muster station! It’s how the staff know you attended.
Listen for the description of the general alarm. On Norwegian, it’s seven short blasts of the horn, followed by a long blast. (Just remember seven dwarves and Snow White.) other lines should be the same or similar.
An interesting historical note – muster drills are part of SOLAS – the International Convention on Safety of Life at Sea. The first version was drafted after the RMS Titanic sank. So, thanks for nothing, iceberg.
Another interesting historical note – muster is done before ships leave port because the Costa Concordia ran aground before the muster drill had been held. Oops.
I thought I would start writing down subjects we think are obvious, but new cruisers might not have considered. A FAQ for the sea.
One of our friends messaged us a week or so back and said his son was leaving in a cruise the next day, and didn’t want to take his laptop, were there computers onboard?
My answer would have been “Yes”, but since we’ve been on one of her sister ships, Virginia actually gave directions to where the Internet Cafe is located, probably.
Everyone wants to disconnect on vacation, but few of us can. So, how do you get connected at sea?
- The “no-hardware” method is to use the computers onboard. This means you’re in line with everyone else that left their laptop at home. You buy an Internet package, and you must login to your account to use the ship’s PCs. Your minutes count down as you work. SIGN OFF WHEN YOU’RE DONE. If you don’t logout, your minutes keep winding down, and anyone else that uses the computer will be using your minutes.
- The “lightweight” method is bringing a tablet and using the ship’s WiFi. You buy an Internet package and login to your account on the tablet. This is a more secure method and you can check your email in your room or by the pool (if you’re lucky.) You still have to remember to logout!
- The “cheap” method is using your cell phone in port, assuming you have an International plan (or one is included.) Our Sprint plan has cheap talk minutes in the Caribbean, but data is free (it’s 3G, but it’s free.) Check with your carrier. Make sure your phone is on Airplane mode on the ship! Ships have cell towers and most carriers are happy to have you use them – for a large fee.
- The “free” method is using a cell phone in Airplane mode or a tablet or laptop and finding a place in each port with free WiFi. The crew probably knows some places, so ask around.
Ships now have multiple Internet packages, so make sure you check what you get. For example, some lines have a Social Media package that includes most social media sites, but not email. I can’t live without email. If your laptop is for work, you may need a package that supports VPN so you can connect back to your office.
Whatever package you need, it may be cheaper to purchase it ahead of time, before you board.
If you can, disconnect. It’s a great feeling.
Tips, Gratuities, Service Charges
This is an opinion piece, but it’s really just all the stuff I’ve managed to prevent myself from posting on other sites because this is a discussion that seems to come up every five minutes or so, and it’s always the same two groups – “Just leave the tips alone” and “I want to tip whom I want.”
It’s just like the insurance discussion – a complete waste of time, in my opinion.
Most cruise lines today have a daily service charge. It goes to a pool for distribution to some non-specific group of onboard employees, some customer-facing and some not. It’s annoying, but it’s not as bad as a Days Inn charging a “resort fee” which is pretty much the same thing. It raises your fare but they can advertise the fare as lower than you will actually pay. At least onboard, I am using the services of the people in the pool. (Do yourself a favor, and splurge on the behind the scenes tour some cruise. You’ll meet a lot of people in the pool down on the lower decks, and along I-95.)
How did we get to this point? Well, it helps the cruise lines with their books, since the service charge is different income than the cruise fee. Travel agents may or may not get commission on it. There’s a whole bunch of really good accounting reasons to separate the service charge. So, like many policies that seem to make people crazy, accountants and lawyers.
The other reason to have a service charge? It makes sure more people actually tip. In the golden age of sailing, everyone had assigned seating and assigned dining times, so everyone had the same waiters each night. On the last night, you slipped him or her an envelope with some cash for their service. Or, you went to the buffet and stiffed them.
How to avoid stiffing the waiters? Make the tips automatic and call it a “service charge.”
This incenses some people. I’m not really sure why. I suppose they are the ones who went to the buffet to stiff the staff, or constantly lost some of the tip in the casino on their “hot night”, and therefore tipped less.
I’m sure that when I tip some waiters in some restaurants, the tips are pooled and they pay out to the busboys and the runners. Some places collect the tips and distribute them on their own. New York chefs get sued for this a lot.
Nobody complains about that.
People complain a LOT about the same practice on a ship.
Now, it’s possible Norwegian and Carnival and Royal Caribbean are pocketing all the money, but the employees still get paid, and they are still working there, so it’s just accounting. I don’t understand the issue.
The usual complaint is “Oh, those poor third world people. They are so underpaid. The cruise lines are so cruel.” When I see a ship that is staffed 60-70% or more from the same nation, I’m pretty sure word has gotten around that this is not a bad way to earn some money. I’ve had dinner with some of those Third World people who have been promoted multiple times. They seem happy with the job.
So, can the virtue police just shut up? If you want to stiff the staff, just go fill out the form. If you had a good cruise, just leave it be.
If you had a great cruise, slip ’em a bit more cash.
That’s my take on it.
Planning is Over-rated
Sometimes, there is no time to plan. If you have a desperate need to get out of town and a credit card, you can have an entire cruise chosen and booked with shore excursions and speciality dining in four hours or less.
You’re trying to get away from stress, why not have some stress putting everything together?
That’s what happened on our first Carnival cruise. I really needed to get away – anywhere. It’s just nowhere is very cheap these days, even though we’re after the summer crush. We narrowed it down to driving somewhere in Texas or just going to Vegas, when I looked at cruises one more time.
My wife has a rule to never sail on a cruise less than seven days, but all I wanted was a break, so she caved and said five days would do. Galveston to Cozumel and back, plus a stop in Progresso.
Of course, that cruise was sold out, so we booked the next week. A seven-day cruise from Galveston to Cozumel, Grand Cayman and Montego Bay. In other words, the same as our Christmas cruise coming up. It’s not like we’re sailing for the ports any longer.
So, we’re on the Carnival Freedom. Now, we have to learn about the ship. I’m pretty much ready to wing it at this point, but my wife’s planner mode is kicking in, so she’s freaking out a bit.
By the time we got the cruise booked, got everything registered (and paid in full), booked excursions, booked dining, booked the pet sitter, and finally downloaded the app, I saw something I had never seen before the day I booked a cruise – You sail in 14 days.
Planning? It’s over-rated.
Of course, I wrote this before we left. I may have updates on our return.
Yes, we’re still planning the Erie Canal, but that may be 2018 at the rate we’re going.