Category Archives: Lessons Learned

Lessons learned

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. 

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The Simplest Travel Insurance

There are two topics that arise over and over on cruise discussion boards – tipping and travel insurance. I will have to discuss tipping later, because I don’t think my blood pressure can take writing about both at the same time.

Travel insurance is very simple – it’s a way to limit your risk from the things that can go wrong on a vacation. In that way, it’s exactly the same as homeowner’s insurance limiting the risk of things that could go wrong with your house or auto insurance limiting the risk of things that could go wrong with your car.

So, why do so many people think that not buying insurance for a cruise implies the cruise line absorbs their risk?

There are an infinite number of “poor couple about to embark on a dream cruise” scenarios, usually driven by the local TV news investigative team lambasting the cruise line for not refunding their cruise fare (which is always an expensive cruise fare) because something happened and prevented the trip. The something is usually easily preventable, had the poor couple done any research or planning ahead of time.

The last one was a couple who were stuck at the airport which was on lockdown, missed their plane and therefore missed the ship. How this became the cruise line’s fault is a bit beyond me. Why isn’t the Channel 5 Action Team yelling at the airline or the TSA?

The risk that travel insurance could have covered is missing the cruise ship. However, there is another very easy way to do this – and not doing so is a common thread in almost all of the “horrible, greedy cruise line” stories.

Don’t fly in the morning of your cruise. Just don’t. 

The first rule of travel which has nothing to do with insurance, but is all about lowering risk is DON’T FLY ANYWHERE THE DAY OF THE EVENT. If you buy airfare from the cruise line, this is the default – make them change it. Actually, if you need domestic flights, just do it yourself, as it will probably be cheaper and you have control over your schedule. (Cruise lines, in our experience, can get good one-way international fares. Anything else, we can beat by booking ourselves.) Find a hotel near the port and start your vacation a day early. Just remember that travel insurance from the cruise line won’t start until you’re on the ship. So, get travel insurance from someone other than the cruise line for these trips, or just know you’re really buying insurance against getting sick on the cruise or getting left in port – which at a certain age, becomes a reasonable risk.

Traveling on the day of anything important happening is insane. I used to travel for business constantly, and I always went in the day before. Always. I don’t know how many meetings got canceled because some idiot would try to fly in the morning of the meeting and the plane got delayed or canceled. There were some instructors that would take the “first plane out” in the morning their class started – and then miss the first half day because the flight was delayed. I never missed a class, because I always flew in early. We had one guy that always scheduled the first day to start at noon, and he usually arrived by 3pm. For business travel, you’re giving up part of your weekend, but you will retain your stomach lining. For leisure travel, the people you were leaving at home on your business trip are coming along with you – just leave a day early.

Here’s something people forget – airlines fly routes that are all interconnected. “But, I’m flying from Dallas to Miami! The weather won’t be a factor.” Yes, but your plane is coming from Chicago, which is having a blizzard. Good-bye, flight.

After scheduling your arrival into the port properly, buy travel insurance. It won’t guarantee you the trip of a lifetime, but it might get you the money you spent refunded. We’ve had medical issues on two or three cruises, and the basic cruise line insurance has always made up the difference after our health insurance paid out their portion. (We are at the dangerous age where our medical bill can exceed our bar tab.)

Just remember travel insurance for health issues (like the ship’s doctor) pays after the fact. The doctor onboard doesn’t file insurance. He charges your ship card. So, have the money available, because you may get it back, but it’s not immediate.

A cruise line sells travel insurance for two reasons – one, to make a bit of additional revenue, and secondly, so when people ask for a refund because they did something stupid, the cruise line can say, “Didn’t you have travel insurance? We offered it to you.”

There’s a part of me that wants to ask, “So, if someone runs into your Escape, and you don’t have auto insurance, are you just going to call Ford and ask for a new car?”

More Passengers than Citizens

Alaska has a great resource in the Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska website. It has port schedules for all Alaska ports, every day of the cruise season. This does not excite everyone, but for scheduling nerds, it’s nirvana.

I found the site because I was trying to determine if we were going to be tendering. (We weren’t.) However, the site shows every ship that will be in port by day, so you can find out who your neighbors will be.

Somewhere along the line, I started wondering how many passengers were being dumped on these rather small towns – so I got the double-occupancy numbers for all the ships from Wikipedia. I knew the ships would all be carrying above that number, but double occupancy is what is considered “full.” Since I was on Wikipedia anyway, I got the latest population counts for the ports.

There were a couple of towns where the populace could have boarded the ships, and had extra room.

Alaska Recap

Wow. That was fun.

So, we survived our first Alaskan cruise – our first with my wife’s family, first on a Breakaway Plus class ship, first cruise from Seattle, first visit to Canada… and so on.

Seattle to Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, Victoria (It’s cold! We must be in Canada!) and back to Seattle.

The good?

  • Alaska. The scenery is amazing, so if you don’t like looking at nature, this is not the cruise for you. We didn’t see a lot of the ship because we spent so much time on our balcony (get a balcony for Alaska), just looking at the world go by.
  • The ship. Norwegian Bliss is a massive ship (for Norwegian), and I was really concerned about that many people in an enclosed space. However, it wasn’t bad. There were a couple of times it felt crowded, but again – if you’re on your balcony a lot, nobody is going to get in your way.
  • The people. Much like the Caribbean, the people you interact with in Alaska make their money from tourism, and they have six months to make enough money to last a year. They tend to be nice.

The bad?

  • The port times. It’s a long way to Alaska from Seattle at twenty knots, so the port times tend to be compressed. There is also one day you visit a glacier (which is amazing) but it really cuts down your time in port. Some of this can be remedied by doing a one-way sailing (or doing a back-to-back), so you don’t have to spend time getting back to Seattle.
  • No sleep. (See port times.) When you’re due at your excursion at 7:30am every morning, it tends to be wearing. Take naps.
  • The prices. When you’re quoted over $300 per night for what is a basic hotel anywhere else, something’s wrong. The Seattle hotel market is vastly overpriced, so don’t plan to stay longer than you have to.

The lucky?

  • The weather was amazing. Even the days it rained, it would stop just as we got off the ship for excursions. I don’t know who paid the extra upgrade for “no rain”, but thank you.
  • The Captain said we got closer to the glacier than any other trip that year. It was a good day.

The random?

  • Don’t expect to just use your cell phone. You need a real camera.
  • Don’t expect to use a point and shoot – you need a fast lens to actually capture whales, eagles and other wildlife. I used my point and shoot for video.
  • Learn to brace – when we were on a whale-watching trip, I got some great video of “it’s the sky, no, the sea, no, the sky, no, the sea” until I learned to brace and move with the boat.
  • Don’t expect to use all the bells and whistles on the ship. I’m not really sure when anyone interested in the Alaska scenery would have time to drive go karts or play laser tag, but they’re available. My note to parents? If you’re spending the prices we spent so you kids can play laser tag, you’re wasting your money on this cruise.

We need to do this again, now that we’ve done it once and learned some lessons. We need a smaller ship, longer port times, and more camera gear.

Travel Lessons

This page is a work in progress.

There was a time when I was traveling a lot. In fact, at one point, I seemed to be in Europe two or three times a year or more. After a while, you find the patterns. The challenge to international travel is that once you stop, you forget. Then, if you ever start up again (say, go to Kuala Lumpur on twenty minutes notice), you have to relearn things.

Painful things.

When I was younger and unattached and working for a company obsessed on treating employees well and not just making next quarter’s numbers, it was pretty easy. If I had my passport and my corporate card, things would work out. If I needed something, I just bought it. If it was work-related, I just expensed it. If not, I just paid it.

That was then. This is now.

I have a wife who really dislikes when I travel. I have dogs that have their schedules disrupted which can cause all sorts of issues. I don’t have unlimited funds anymore, because I have a wife and dogs.

So, travel means planning. Usually, I obsessively plan – for personal trips. For business, I try, but if something comes up last-minute, I just go.

Here’s some things to remember, that came flooding back while I was in Malaysia in March 2014:

Communications

  • Remember time zones! You won’t be able to just call home.
  • Google Voice will let you send and receive texts from your (Sprint) phone or from the web, as long as you have an Internet connection. Texts are better than voice calls (Skype, etc) because you don’t have to both be awake at the same time.
  • There’s always email, for the same reasons – it’s not real-time, so you don’t both have to be awake.
  • Pay for WiFi in the hotel. Don’t just think “I’ll wait until I’m at the office.” If your company won’t reimburse, eat the cost, but ask yourself – why does my company not want me to be productive?

Power

  • Always have a plug adapter in your computer bag. Always. I had left mine in my backpack from years ago, and I’m glad because I really needed it when I got to KL, and I hadn’t thought about it until I arrived.
  • Having a small power strip is also a good idea. Foreign hotels don’t have a lot of outlets. If you have a plug adapter and a power strip, you can plug everything in.
  • Make sure you have USB cables for all your excess personal devices. Worst case, plug them into your laptop, and plug your laptop into the wall. This way, you only need one outlet – but everything takes longer to charge.
  • Along with the plug adapter – make sure you know which electronics you have are dual-voltage. You may need a converter, as well. This is different from a plug adapter. If you plug something in and see smoke, you needed a converter, not just an adapter. Oh, and you need a new device.
  • If you need electronics to sleep (I have a C-PAP), you really need a power strip or you need flexibility. I’ve had to sleep with my head at the bottom of the bed before, because there was no place by the headboard to plug in.

Life

  • Pack light. This is true for all trips. If you don’t need it, don’t take it. I don’t care what your wife says, if you don’t need it, don’t take it.
  • Take a week’s clothing, max. Hotels have laundry service.
  • Don’t expect ice. This is painful for someone who loves ice in drinks.
  • Don’t expect refills or large glasses.
  • Don’t just automatically go find American food, even though it will be around almost anywhere you go. You’ll miss local specialties and it annoys your hosts. Let’s not make people self-defensive about their food, shall we? (My rule is to always let my host choose. If I’m alone after work, eventually, I am going to find an American chain for homesickness. I admit it.
  • Same with drinks – just ask the bartender, “What am I supposed to drink?” In all my years of travel, I’ve never been given American beer, except for one bartender in Linköping, Sweden who was obsessed with Budweiser. (I declined. The local beer was a Pilsner, so the bottle said “Piss” in script, so I decided Piss beat Budweiser.)
  • Take your own entertainment. Pre-load videos on your iPad, eBook readers, something, anything. If you go far enough from home, you will have CNN, maybe Discovery channel and everything else will be local language. TV will not be the crutch it can be at home. Bruce Springsteen once complained about 57 channels and nothin’ on, so he’s obviously never watched TV in Malaysia.

Travel

  • Pay for GPS in the rental car. You will kill your phone batteries if you use the “free” GPS in your phone.
  • If you don’t have to drive, don’t. It’s always exciting to navigate a new city, just not always in a good way.