Category Archives: Planning

Brave New World

I never thought it would happen, but after seventeen cruises, we have finally booked an excursion outside the ship’s excursion offerings. Sure, we’ve had a couple of ports where we just wandered around on our own, but we were never that far from the ship, and it was usually pretty well-planned (and limited) – like going to lunch or meeting people for drinks.

Now, booking through the ship is usually considered a badge of shame on Cruise Critic (which should really be called Cruise Whiners much of the time), because the ship excursions cost more, the selection isn’t as plentiful, and usually because the ones telling everyone not to book through the ship are selling their own excursions.

Me? I like booking through the ship, if there is something interesting available. It goes on the same statement, it’s paid over time with the rest of the cruise fare, and there is some hope the ship will wait if the excursion gets back late.

The last part was never much of a consideration, until Alaska, when excursions were ending just before the ship was going to leave, mainly because the time in port was so short.

So, I never really considered anything else – we either did a ship shore excursion, or we didn’t do anything organized at all. In Cozumel, we would just get a taxi to go to Pancho’s Backyard, which was conveniently in the same building as my wife’s favorite souvenir store, and I would have a margarita or two, and try to pay my bar tab while there was still money in the account.

So, it’s time to shake it up a bit. We’re sailing at Christmas. Again. We’re going to Cozumel. Again. Cozumel is one of the default destinations for all Western Caribbean cruises, and we’re sailing out of New Orleans, so that’s where we’re headed. We’ve done all the interesting excursions, some twice, some that weren’t that interesting, and we’ve just gone to eat and shop.

What’s left?

There are a couple of Cozumel suggestions that always come up – Mr Sancho’s (a beach resort) and the Cozumel Bar Hop. You can’t book either of these through the ship, so it was time to cross over to the self-service excursions.

I always wanted to try the Bar Hop, mainly because it has the word “Bar” in the title, but also because it visits the ocean side of the island (the east side, where no tourists generally go.) We almost decided on it, but then we looked at Mr Sancho’s, and they have an all-inclusive plan – all you can eat, all you can drink.

You can find YouTube videos of people hammered at both places, so that’s a push.

However, when you’re married to a diabetic, as I am, food options are important. There are snacks on the Bar Hop, but it wasn’t clear how much food there is available – or whether someone nameless would actually partake in what was offered. So, all-you-can-eat is a good bonus, especially when the someone nameless approved of the menu. (When you’re married to a diabetic who goes on and on about needing food options, all-you-can-drink is a necessity.)

(It turns out there are a lot of resorts selling day passes in Cozumel. Mr Sancho’s is just the one I heard about first — and most often. Apparently, there is a whole lot to do in Cozumel that is not available through the ship.)

Mr Sancho’s, it is.

So, I booked my first excursion without going through the cruise line. They took a $5 deposit on a $55 all-day fee, so we owe them money when we arrive. We need to have money for the taxi over there and the taxi back. The taxi ride back is the money many people forget about.

Also, we have to remember to get back to the ship on time. This is where all-you-can-drink could be a slight negative.

I will have to see if you tip the waiters enough, if they will pour you into a taxi to get back in time.

They do close at 5pm, so if you’re there at closing time, you’ve missed the ship.

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Freighter Travel

It is still possible to travel on a freighter – not the tramp steamers of old, but a massive, scheduled container ship. Companies offer minimal numbers of cabins on freighters in service around the world.

You have a cabin, but the only difference between you and the crew is that your cabin is nicer and you don’t have to work.

Some information I’ve found so far:

This is on my bucket list, because I want to experience the sea – there are few distractions, no excursions, no casino, just a ship across the oceans.

The challenges?

  • My wife has no interest, and with no medical services on board, it’s a gamble for her, anyway.
  • It is quite the time commitment – an Atlantic crossing can take 15 days or more (it can take twice as long as a cruise ship’s crossing.)
  • There are no schedule guarantees – if the ship has to wait for cargo, you just stay in port.
  • You may get a shortened cruise, based on shipping requirements.

The advantages?

  • It is quite the time commitment – the perfect time to finish that novel or write your autobiography.
  • You will share the ship with the crew, and maybe 10-12 other people, max. Hopefully, no idiots on their first cruise.
  • I’m pretty sure you can visit the bridge.
  • You may get a longer cruise, based on shipping requirements.
  • You can pretend to be a sailor more convincingly than on a floating hotel.

I still want to do it! This page is to track information as I find it.

Alaska Excursions

We managed to get our excursions chosen and booked. Since we’re traveling with my niece and sister-in-law, there were twice as many votes as usual. Still, a consensus was eventually achieved.

We booked through Norwegian, although we could probably save a bit by booking independently, but the port times in a couple of places are short enough where we wanted to be on an excursion that was run for the cruise line.

In Ketchikan, we are on the Bering Sea Crab Fishermen’s Tour. We are going out on a The Aleutian Ballad – a ship that was on Deadliest Catch (season two – she was hit by a rogue wave) to catch crab. Well, to watch trained people catch crab, and then handle the catch before it’s thrown back. It’s a good chance to be on a crab fishing boat (with its slightly inauthentic heated stadium seating), see what pulling a pot is like, and see what comes out of the ocean. This was one excursion I really wanted to do, so I’m happy. (I don’t remember anyone on Deadliest Catch drinking hot chocolate, but I like it, so hand over the mug.)

In Juneau, we will go on another boat to visit Mendenhall Glacier and go whale-watching. An interesting aspect to Alaska whale-watching tours – almost all of them have a money-back guarantee! This either means there are a lot of whales in Alaska or there’s a boat that goes out first and releases them.

In Skagway, we will visit the Best of Skagway and ride the White Pass Railway. I usually avoid “best of” excursions, since you’re rushed through a bunch of places you don’t care about seeing in order to see the one place you want, but I get to pan for gold and see a former brothel, so I’ll take my chances. The White Pass Railway is a narrow-gauge rail line from the port at Skagway up to the gold mines in Canada. The mines don’t need supplies from the line any longer, so now they mine tourists. It’s the first excursion I remember where we will be in two countries, since we’re going from the US to Canada and back.

It’s interesting to see how much there is to do (although each port seems to have a specialty – Juneau for whales, Skagway you have to ride the railway), but also to remember how little of Alaska you actually visit.

Alaska Routing

Our Alaska itinerary, seven days, round trip Seattle:

Day Port Arrive Depart Distance

Nautical Miles

Notes
Day 1 Seattle 5 pm 0 Embarkation
Day 2 Day at Sea All Day
Day 3 Ketchikan 7 am 3 pm 579
Day 4 Juneau 7 am 1:30 pm 201 AM
Day 4 Cruise Sawyer Glacier (Tracy Arm) 4 pm 8 pm 46 PM
Day 5 Skagway 7 am 5:30 pm 113
Day 6 Day at Sea All Day
Day 7 Victoria 4 pm 10 pm 783 “Distant” Foreign Port
Day 8 Seattle 8 am 64 Disembarkation

I’m still obsessed with navigation, so I’m trying to determine why the port times are so strange, compared to the Caribbean “standard” 8am – 5pm. Juneau is short because we will attempt to get to Sawyer Glacier that afternoon, so it’s really a two-stop day. Victoria is our “distant foreign port” to allow a foreign-flagged ship to call on a bunch of US ports without being US-flagged.

Also, Tracy Arm seems to be a bit of a challenge due to ice for much of the season, so it is questionable whether we will get there or go to an alternative glacier. Who knew there would be ice in Alaska?

Alaska Planning

The Erie Canal adventures has been bumped by another bucket list cruise: Alaska. My wife was helping some of her family book a cruise to Alaska and by the time I had heard all the details, I finally asked, “Why don’t we go along?” So, now, we’re going to Alaska on the Norwegian Bliss, during her inaugural season.

We never planned an Alaska voyage before, since we generally cruise at Christmas, and the season in Alaska is May – September. Also, my wife is allergic to cold, and apparently, any place you go to look at ice may be a bit chilly.

It will be an interesting trip, since the Bliss was specifically designed for Alaska cruises, but is much larger than the other ships Norwegian generally deploys to Alaska. (It’s a Breakaway+ class ship, like the Escape and the Joy. The Escape is moving from Miami to New York. You never hear about the Joy because it is in China.)  I think it is interesting they are deploying a ship built to be a destination in a place you go specifically to look at the countryside and not just play on the ship (although I may have to drive the race cars.) How many people will miss whales breaching the surface or glaciers calving because they’re in the casino?

As usual, we did everything backwards, since you should choose the ports that are important to you and then find a ship, not vice-versa. This would have required more research than “let’s go to Alaska.” However, I’m pretty sure my wife chose the Bliss for her family because she was still annoyed we weren’t doing the inaugural Atlantic crossing, so the Bliss it is.

As it turns out, we’re doing pretty much the exact cruise my sister-in-law did about ten years ago, so she may have deja-vu the entire trip. For the rest of us, it’s all new.

Side note: don’t choose a cruise based on the ship and then get a generic Alaska cruise guidebook since every chapter will contain lots of information about things you can’t do, because you’re not going there.

Alaska is not the Caribbean. It’s cruise season is very short (May to September), the ports are limited, times in port can be weird, and everything is really expensive. Our port of embarkation, Seattle, seems vastly overpriced compared to other major cities I’ve visited. Still, it should be a fun cruise on a new ship, assuming we don’t have to sell the house to finance it.

We will also need new wardrobes, since apparently the only way to survive in Alaska is to dress in layers. (I hate dressing in layers.)

I’m putting this post here as a placeholder for my notes as research continues.

Some sites of interest (so far):

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 got 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.

 

Erie Canal Options

This is a placeholder page for all the links I’m collecting, as I’m still researching cruising the Erie Canal. This includes my currently reading Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation (on the history of the Canal with a lot of interesting parallel histories of canals in general), watching some really bad (and often repetitious) YouTube videos, and lots of searches.

The State of New York has a lot of information on their canal system. (They are also happy to sell you a massive canal cruising handbook which just arrived today with a bunch of maps and pamphlets. It was worth the $20.)

I subscribed to their email list which includes their Notices to Mariners, so I am officially a Mariner now, I suppose.

Here are the most easily found companies that will rent houseboats for cruising the Erie Canal:

The boats all seem similar – they’re English canal boats (which is lucky, since I only speak English.)

I asked houseboating.org for a Captain’s manual, but I don’t think they understood the request. I really would like a guide to cruising from a Captain’s perspective – a driver’s manual. They sent some proposed itineraries, which were useful for generating Google Maps, but they don’t explain how the boat works. I’m still looking for that information.

It seems surprising to me that companies will give you a rather large boat after a couple hours of training and assume they will see you back home and dry in a week. I guess it shouldn’t, since I was once given the controls of a three-quarters of a million dollar Caterpillar tractor and told “Have fun. Dig a hole.”

The two hours of training does seem to be consistent – it’s virtually the same for the Le Boat rentals in Europe.

Le Boat is how this whole journey started, since I would really like to sail the Shannon River some day. The Shannon rises near my ancestral home (if one can refer to a very small farmhouse that my Grandfather fled as an “ancestral home”), so we could see family and then cruise. The Erie Canal requires less flying time and no passports. Plus, I’m pretty sure our cell phones would work the whole time. It would be a good dry run, if anything on the water could be considered a dry run.