Category Archives: Journal

Cruising Scared

I don’t like to think on vacation.

We’re just back from the Norwegian Bliss, and this was an anniversary celebration so we chose the Ultimate Beverage Package (UBP) as a perk, since the UBP means free unlimited drinks, maybe. This was the first time we’ve taken the package in quite a while, because it’s never really been worth it for us – I don’t drink that much, although nobody believes that, and Virginia has maybe two or three drinks in a cruise. It’s cheaper to just pay for each drink.

The UBP is not actually free, since you pay a 20% gratuity on the cost of the package. That’s why it’s not worth it to us because “free” is really over $100 each. I can probably come close to that in drinks in a week, but there’s no way Virginia will ever come close, and the package rules say everyone in the room has to take it. (20% of $99 per day times two people for a seven-day cruise is $277. So, you pay $277 for “free” drinks.)

I do like unlimited options because then I don’t have to think about it – anything I want is covered. That’s the only reason I would choose it – not because I drink that much, but because then I don’t have to keep track. I just don’t choose it, because if I take it, Virginia has to take it, and then I’m paying $138 for two or three BBCs or Bailey’s.

The major issue with the UBP is that the rules are somewhat fluid. Just before we sailed, Norwegian changed some of the rules, which is their prerogative, but it managed to stress everyone out – and the one thing a vacation is not supposed to have is stress (at least from the vendor.)

Usually, Norwegian had just changed the price per day for the package – I think it started in the seventies and now it’s $99 per day. I don’t think many people actually pay $99 per day for the package, but people who take it as a “free” perk pay the 20% gratuity, so if the retail price goes up, the gratuity goes up. If nobody really buys the package, it can be priced astronomically, since you’re really just raising the “free” price. $277 for two people to drink whatever they want for a week is not that bad. Paying $1660+ retail price is probably insane.

So, you can raise the price per day at will because nobody pays it, and if they do, it just makes a lot of money.

The other way to raise prices is to reset the base price of drinks covered. You can’t actually have any drink with the UBP, you can have any drinks $15 or under. Otherwise, you pay the difference. So, a $20 drink costs $5 (plus 20%) with the UBP.

If you don’t want to reset the base price and cause a rebellion, you raise prices of specific drinks above the $15 threshold and only offend a percentage of the people. That’s what Norwegian did just before we sailed.

(Of course, the other way you save money is to water down the drinks. It’s interesting how much “rum punch” I’ve consumed on excursions without a buzz. It’s also interesting that Norwegian premixes many of their frozen drinks now.)

Raising individual prices didn’t affect me, because I drink relatively cheap booze. It did affect one of our friends, who drinks Patron.

Norwegian changed the prices of a whole host of brands (including Patron) which pushed them out of the UBP and into “extra fee” territory.

First of all, the UBP is a marketing ploy that assumes everyone that has it didn’t actually pay retail because retail is $99 per day plus 20% gratuity. So, when they raised drink prices above the $15 per drink package price, they were assuming everyone had the UBP, because otherwise people would be paying $19 per shot for some liquor that’s not really worth that. With the UBP, the $19 drink would be $4.

“Wow! I can get a drink for $4!”

Now, Norwegian marketing probably thought that people would think $4 is a good deal, but only if they had forgotten that they already paid for the package or at least the gratuities.

I’m not sure what millennial MBA came up with this, but people do not forget paying almost $300 for “free” drinks.

Worse, we were traveling with someone whose drink of choice (Patron) was suddenly $4 extra per drink.

So, the cruise started with a cloud, and even though the change for many of the brands was rescinded (“it was a glitch”) and Patron went back to the previous price and was covered by the UBP, every time I asked for something more interesting than Captain Morgan and Ginger Ale, I had to wonder if the drink was going to be on the upcharge menu. (I had Grand Marnier one night and expected to pay extra, but the menu was apparently not updated.)

I also had to think about our future cruises, where we won’t take the package, where I could end up paying $20 for a drink just because it was priced so people with the package would pay $4.

I don’t like thinking on vacation.

So, this was a breach of trust of sorts – even though it didn’t affect me, I had to start thinking “what are they going to do to us next?”

That is not what you want your customers thinking, unless you’re a monopoly or the government.

Norwegian needs to stop screwing around with their “freebies” because people understand they’re not really free.

As a stockholder, I’m happy to see positive results on the stock price. As a traveler with 18 Norwegian cruises, we’re sailing on MSC at Christmas.

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Unemployed Pirate

As we are currently underway on cruise number eighteen, I can finally admit that am an unemployed pirate. It is an interesting job. Well, it’s not really a job, if I’m unemployed. I suppose I’m an unemployed chef, as well, because I made fish sticks for lunch the other day.

Ye host, the pirate. Arrr.

Jimmy Buffet sang, “Yes, I am a pirate … 200 years too late”, and I know the feeling. I want to be a pirate. Actually, I want to be a movie pirate. For real pirates, the hours aren’t that good, there’s apparently lots of work, and you might get killed or imprisoned.

It seems much simpler (and safer) to just take a cruise, demand drinks and food from the cheerful staff, and say, “Thank ye, matey!” when your order is delivered. I’m pretty sure most pirate ships didn’t have room service.

Still, it seems like putting “Pirate” on a resume (or a business card) would stand out as a desired position, and then you would also have the advantage of writing off all your vacation cruises as job training. Tax piracy is still piracy, right? (This is why http://www.texaspirate.com now redirects to this site. Planning ahead.)

So, take a GPS on your next cruise. There’s probably one built into your phone. Track your coordinates as you travel from port to port. Now, you’re a navigator. Sure, you probably still need to know how to read paper charts and use a sextant, but that’s just if you forget to charge your phone.

Tell your traveling companion to go get you a drink. If you get a drink, you’re the Captain. If you’re told to get your own damn drink, you’re probably just the First Mate. Just don’t ever both wear T-shirts with your “ranks.” It’s very non-pirate, no matter how cute they are.

Yes, I am a pirate. I’m simply unemployed, and I would like a pirate job with decent hours, a medical plan more extensive than just an eye patch and a hook, room and board, and a good chance of advancement. I’d also like a retirement plan a bit more extravagant than a stud earring. Oh, and little chance for arrest.

I should also thank my doctor for the eye test, since otherwise I never would have found a patch. I’m just annoyed he wouldn’t let me keep it. Arrr.

Loyalty Is Overrated

We have been on eighteen cruises (so far.) All but one have been on Norwegian Cruise Lines (one was on Carnival, and I didn’t mind it, but my wife detested the food.) We’re Platinum Plus on Norwegian, and might make Ambassador before we die, but it’s a long haul. (That’s another discussion – the levels in a loyalty program and how unevenly spaced they are.)

Loyalty has its perks, but the perks have lessened over the years. It is nice to preboard (sort-of – behind the gamblers, the handicapped, the Haven, the suites.) It’s nice to just get on a tender instead of having to get a tender ticket the night before – assuming the port requires tenders.

Loyalty has kept us sailing Norwegian, even as the fares have crept ever higher and the benefits have stagnated or lowered. However, this year seems to be the year that they finally overdid it – and not just for us, we’ve had other friends mention that the fares are sky-high all of a sudden.

Now, as a stockholder, I don’t mind too much, because I will reap the benefits in stock value (at this point, they don’t pay dividends.) However, as a passenger, it’s now time to look elsewhere.

I don’t really like starting over with any line (there was a slight difference between how we were treated on Carnival as newbies and Norwegian as Platinum Plus), but sometimes, loyalty is just not worth what it costs.

When Frank DelRio took over Norwegian (the parent of Norwegian, Oceana and Regent Seven Seas), he told analysts that he wanted another $40 per day out of each passenger. Apparently, he has changed that to “per hour.”

We’re sailing on the Norwegian Bliss this month, and it is almost as expensive as a Christmas cruise – and it’s not that spectactular a cruise. It’s Eastern Caribbean, but it’s St Thomas (meh), Tortola (haven’t been in eight years or so) and Nassau (bleh.)

The selling point for this cruise I think is that it is a new ship (she just completed her inagural season in Alaska – including our first Alaska cruise), and now is sailing the Caribbean for the winter. So, new ship, high prices.

Here’s the issue (for me) with the megaships – they have a lot of stuff I don’t use. I’m never going to do the ropes course or slide down the slides or have someone in the kids’ club (unless the grandkids travel with us someday.) So, that’s a lot of wasted space that attracts families with … teenagers. I am rapidly becoming one of the “get off of my lawn” old farts. I don’t need that many teenagers.

I prefer smaller ships.

The other issue is that megaships can only dock at so many ports because of their size and because of the number of passengers they hold. I asked about it at a Q&A session on one cruise, and the Captain said the ships could go anywhere, but you don’t want to spend the amount of time it takes to tender 5,000 people off and on the ship, so you go where you can dock, which makes loading and unloading much faster and easier. This means St Thomas, Tortola, Nassau on the East.

The smaller ships go to more interesting ports. Choose accordingly – sail for the ship or sail for the destinations.

So, we’re paying to cruise and see a ship we were already on – but the Alaska itinerary was about the sights. With the Caribbean itinerary, there’s time to actually see the ship and all she has to offer.

However, this is a really expensive way to see a ship. Granted, it’s over Valentine’s Day, but I didn’t expect there to be a premium like a Christmas cruise.

This was the first cruise where the final bill made me say, “Ouch.” Alaska did, but it was a new ship (then) and it’s Alaska where everything is trucked or shipped in and the people have to make enough on a six-month cruise season to last all year. Everything’s expensive in Alaska.

This is a Caribbean cruise with ports that for me are fairly boring.

The charges creep up on you, which is always a warning I give new cruisers. Don’t just look at the base fare. The base fare may be $1900, but by the time you add taxes, port fees, pre-paid gratuities, insurance, gratuities on the “free” perks, and WiFi (I’m working and going to grad school, so I need WiFi), it’s a five thousand dollar cruise.

That’s a lot of money.

Worse than the actual total fare for some of the people traveling with us, the Ultimate Beverage Package (UBP – often billed as “open bar”) had a number of items reclassified from “included” to “extra charge” in the last couple of weeks, and Patron (the only alcohol one of our friends drinks) is now “extra charge.”

That’s a problem.

Now, the cruise lines all have very similar contracts, and they all pretty much say they can change anything at any time, but this is getting ridiculous. Drink prices especially are through the roof and it’s because the prices are all based on the UBP, which means they can charge $19 for a shot of Patron because people with the UBP will only pay $4 (the overage.) Find me a bar that charges $19 for Patron and is still open.

My assumption is that the marketing department thinks people will get the UBP as a “free” perk, pay $200 for gratuities (instead of over two grand for the full-price package), and then when they have to pay $4 to get their brand of choice, they’ll think, “$4 for a drink is cheap.”

They haven’t noticed yet that what actually happens is people begin to think, “I need somebody with less upcharges.”

So, on one hand, I have to admire Frank DelRio. He’s made the stockholders some money, he makes the analysts happy and the bottom line is pretty good. As a loyal passenger, I really don’t like him very much. As a stockholder, that worries me, because if he chases us off, how many of the formerly loyal passengers are fleeing?

We’re sailing on the MSC Divina for Christmas this year. We were able to get a cabin in the Yacht Club for just over what Norwegian wanted for a regular balcony. The Yacht Club is MSC’s version of the “ship within a ship”, with a private restaurant, butler, concierge, private pool and more. MSC’s included stuff is actually included – there were a lot less hidden fees. If you’re in the Yacht Club, all drinks are included. The minibar in the room is included. You get a free spa treatment. (We’ll see how it goes.) That’s when even my wife decided to try someone new. This will be our eleventh Christmas Cruise, and the first that’s not on Norwegian.

I wish I felt more guilty about it.

I don’t.

How to write an annoying review

This was the worst cruise I’ve ever taken. People were rude. It was cold the first two days. My wife got sick and Medical charged us $500, and the cruise line won’t reimburse us! Food sucked. They skipped Grand Cayman, the only reason I took the cruise. Never again.

There are a number of review sites for cruises – and other generic travel review sites, as well.

Many rookies depend on these sites to choose their perfect cruise. This is unfortunate since many of the reviews are misleading. Some are useless. Luckily, many rookies don’t find the review sites until after they get home. Unfortunately, they find them to blast the cruise line for all the “problems” they had on their cruise.

So, when you get back from your cruise, here’s the key points to writing a review that might make you feel better, but will help absolutely no one. If you’re one of the people looking for useful reviews and you see these, just move along and read a different one.

Weather

Believe it or not, the Captain of your ship does not control the weather! If your ship misses a port because of weather, it’s not really something you can blame on the cruise line.

Here’s an interesting fact – weather in the Northeast generally sucks in the winter. Christmas is in the winter. Therefore, sailing out of the Northeast for Christmas almost guarantees bad weather for the beginning and end of a cruise. Just fly to Florida to start your cruise there and you can skip the bad weather.

There are other people who believe in grand conspiracy theories that ports are skipped on purpose to force passengers to spend more money on board. These are the type of people the crew would probably really like to have off the ship for four to six hours.

There are also armchair meteorologists who see no reason why they can’t go ashore. Think of this – the ship runs tenders for two hours or more and unloads thousands of passengers onto a Caribbean paradise. Then, a storm comes up. Now, the tenders can’t travel. How do you get them back on the ship, Mr Forecaster?

Passengers

It always amuses me when people from anywhere else sail out of New York and are horrified (horrified, I tell you) that the ship is filled with New Yorkers.

I’m not sure why this surprises them. If you have a choice between flying somewhere or driving to a port, which would you do?

Some ships have reputations that are based on their home port, which means it’s based on the local population. Blaming the ship for its passengers is like blaming the ship for the weather.

Ports

This goes along with the weather complaint. “The only reason I was on this seven-day cruise was for the five-hour stop in <fill in the port>”. Ports get skipped. The weather can change, schedules change, things happen. We had one Christmas cruise that didn’t go to any of the original ports because of hurricane damage from months before we departed. If you only care about one destination, do yourself a favor and just fly there.

No Insurance

This has been mentioned elsewhere, but I think the main reason cruise lines offer travel insurance is to protect them against idiots. Passenger: “We can’t go on the cruise because my Mom is sick. We would like a refund, please.” Cruise Line: “Did you purchase trip insurance?” P: “No, it’s so expensive and we don’t need it.” CL: “Actually, you do need it specifically for times like this. Sorry.”

Vague Comments

My favorite complaints – “the food sucked.” So, was it taste? Quality? Portion size? They didn’t have your beloved corny dogs? If you’re going to lodge a complaint, do everyone a favor and be specific. If nothing else, provide a bit more detail than “sucked.”

So, comment by all means. Review your cruises. State your complaints. Just make sure it’s actually something where the cruise line was at fault.


The Brown M&Ms of the Sea

There is a famous story (that is actually true) about Van Halen and the (lack of) Brown M&Ms. The point was not excessive vanity or crazy rock stars, the point was to see if people read the entire contract.

We have a similar situation coming up. Virginia hates chocolate-covered strawberries with a passion usually reserved for one of my bad jokes. Hates them.

Unfortunately, cruise lines seem to think everyone considers them a delicacy, so it is the treat of choice for their esteemed guests.

Since we are Platinum Plus on Norwegian, we get chocolate-covered strawberries every time we board a ship. Every time. Virginia asked for something else. She finally had our Personal Cruise Consulant put in her record that she is allergic. Still they came.

So, this year, we’re sailing on the MSC Divina. A new cruise line for us, but the costs were great. We’re in the Yacht Club, their ship-within-a-ship, with a butler and a concierge and … chocolate-covered strawberries.

Virginia had our cruise consultant put in the record that she wanted something else. This is a test to see if people read the contract.

She was told if they arrived anyway, to just tell the butler to get something else. Well, yes, that is a solution, but a better one is understanding the requests your clients make and acting on them ahead of time.

We will see what happens.

Take a Child on a Cruise Day

We had special guests on our annual Christmas cruise this year. My nephew and his family came along, although my niece should get credit because she managed the process. They have two sons, who are ten and twelve.

We traveled with my son once, but he was married with a child, so that hardly counts as children. We’ve traveled with my Mom twice, and she wanders off like a child, but if you leave out the Chardonnay, she will find her way back.

So, this was our first cruise with “proper” children, although the 12-year old will be very annoyed to have been referred to as a “child.”

With pre-teens, all of the stuff that seemed like a waste of space before suddenly became critical.

We were on a Western Caribbean cruise, but we only had three ports in a week-long cruise. So, three sea days to explore the ship.

We were on the Norwegian Breakaway, the first time we had sailed on her since the inaugural crossing, so we assumed we knew the ship fairly well.

Not so much.

Kids love buffets – at least, kids who have been taught to be a bit adventurous with food. There is a variety of items to try, and if you don’t like it, try something else. If you do like it, have another plate (or three.)

Kids with a sense of adventure love the slides. If you are slightly paranoid, having seen the YouTube videos of people stuck in cruise ship slides (yes, more than one), you probably avoid them. Our nephews went down all of them, all the time. Their parents went down them. We watched – and it was the first time we’d ever been near the slides (except when I was on the way to a bar.)

Kids with an excessive sense of adventure love the ropes course. Our nephews did it multiple times, and shamed Mom into doing it – and the zip line. We watched.

Kids will play miniature golf. We actually played with them, after they asked, and we said, “There’s a golf course?” It’s fun – although it also was an annoyance point, since unsupervised kids were collecting the (limited) clubs and golf balls, which meant others couldn’t play. We still managed to get a fun round played – although the main hazards were other unsupervised children wandering around.

Kids play shuffleboard. I’ve been meaning to play shuffleboard since our first cruise. They did it. They also played giant chess.

So, now I understand the stuff that is added to the more recent classes of ships, which always seemed silly before.

I think everyone who only travels with a partner should Take a Child on a cruise. You will discover parts of the ship you never knew were there.

Sailing for the Ship

There is an ongoing debate on whether you sail for the ship (which is one of the reasons all the major lines have megaships now) or whether you sail for the ports (which is why all the major lines still have smaller ships that can fit into the smaller, more interesting ports.)

We are taking our first cruise for the ship in a few weeks. The strange part is that we sailed on the Norwegian Bliss less than a year ago, on our first Alaska cruise.

Alaskan cruises are done for the ports and the scenery. So, while it was amazing being on a ship during her inaugural season, we didn’t really get to see that much of the ship! The port calls were intense, with early mornings (I hate early mornings) and so the afternoons tended to be on the balcony, watching the scenery pass by (often through drooping eyelids.)

After the Alaska season ended, the Bliss repositioned to Miami, where she is sailing Eastern Caribbean cruises. It’s a week-long cruise with three sea days and three ports – St Thomas, Tortola and Nassau. We’ve been to all the ports, so we don’t need to go there, but they’re fun. However, with three sea days, we may actually get to wander around the ship and see all the things we could have done if we hadn’t been napping in Alaska.

Megaships can be fun and there is a lot to do on them, but if you are on a port-intensive cruise (and you’re older), much of the bells and whistles are wasted. So, we will try to find all the activities we can fit into our time at sea, and see what we missed earlier.

The Norwegian Bliss, slightly colder than it will be in Miami.