Category Archives: Planning

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.

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Planning Time

It’s almost time for our next cruise – our first on MSC Cruises – and we’re beginning to realize how much we ended up taking for granted by sailing the same line most of the time. (This is cruise #20 for us, with one on Carnival and eighteen on Norwegian.)

It’s almost like starting from scratch, but it’s really not because there are so many preconceived notions. Time to learn how to cruise all over again.

The preconceived notions cause questions which are probably strange to a new cruiser:

  • Why can’t I get my eDocs when they were emailed to my wife?
  • What do you mean you don’t give them a credit card at check-in?
  • Why are the port times weird (see below)?
  • Do you need to bring life jackets to muster?
  • Is there a behind the scenes tour?
  • Are there photos with the Captain?
  • Is there a mini golf course?
  • How do the different experiences work?

Between the MSC Cruises site, Cruise Critic and Facebook, we have some of these answered, but we shall see, since online answers are not always reality.

Packing is different: MSC has a formal night. Actually, there may be two. We’ve never had a formal night. It’s not that we don’t dress up at all on cruises, it’s just it hasn’t been pre-defined.

While I was contending with packing a jacket (no ties!), we discovered MSC doesn’t just do formal nights. They also have theme nights. Let’s see, so far we’ve heard about:

  • Italian night (which may just be in the main dining room)
  • White Party (which may be a late-night party like on Norwegian)
  • 70s Night (party)
  • Pirate Night (unclear – may be a rumor)

It’s like every night has a theme. That’s exhausting to me. I would like to wear a Hawaiian shirt and slacks and call it good.

Now, what’s exhausting to me was a shopping occasion for my beloved wife. I decided since I usually wear a Hawaiian shirt in the evenings, I needed to find an Italian-themed Hawaiian shirt for the Little Italy celebrations because I can wear that any time. I found a pizza Hawaiian shirt. So, that’s a good sign.

We finally got excursions booked for all the ports this week. MSC excursions seem cheaper than Norwegian excursions. We probably could have just wandered on our own, because we’ve been to many of the ports before, but we decided to find a tour to take us where we were planning to go, anyway.

I was updating our TripIt itinerary with our newly-booked excursions when I realized there are no start times for the excursions listed. There is a length of time in the description, but no start time. We get the start time when we get our tickets onboard. For those of us who like planning, this is a bit disconcerting. I know they won’t leave before we get into port, and they’ll be done before the ship leaves, but not knowing the exact time is freaking me out a bit. I’m not sure why, since finding out onboard is plenty of time, but it just does.

The port times are different than most – but I like them, mostly. We leave Miami late (I think), and the first port is San Juan, Puerto Rico (a new port for us). There’s a sea day, and then most of the next day because we get into port at 5pm. We leave at 1am the next morning. I don’t think we’ve ever had an evening in port before. (Update: Norwegian actually arrives in San Juan about the same time. It’s 922 nautical miles in just over two days – about 19 knots average speed.)

It’s a short sail from Puerto Rico to St Thomas, our next call. I would say “overnight”, but we leave at 1am. We get twelve hours in St Thomas, which is an extended day, compared to most port calls. So, we should have time to wander after the excursion.

After St Thomas, we head to St Maarten, but it’s a short day – we arrive at 7am and leave port at 2pm. So, a good day to take a ship’s excursion, so the ship will wait if you’re late.

We then have a sea day and a little more, since we arrive in our final port of Nassau at noon and sail at 7pm.

So, it looks like MSC sails based on minimal time between ports and Norwegian sails for consistent time in port. With Norwegian, I would expect two sea days to Puerto Rico, with an arrival at 7am or so the third day. I think getting in the night before and having an evening in port will be an interesting change.

I have to find the distances between ports and calculate average speeds required, given the time available. I think Norwegian tends to cruise more slowly (less fuel) to arrive in the morning. MSC Cruises is born of one of the world’s largest shipping companies. I assume they make schedules based on time required, not speed. Also, getting in at strange times means other ships may have left already and it may help with port costs.

I will be watching our speed as we go. My GPS app tracks speed as well as location.

This will be interesting. I still think the greatest challenge will be not assuming we know how everything works because not everything is the same from cruise line to cruise line.

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.

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?”

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.

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.