Category Archives: Planning

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CDC Comments Period End Soon

Visit https://beta.regulations.gov/document/CDC-2020-0087-0001 for information on filing your comments on the CDC Cruise Ship Planning request. You have until September 21, 2020.

Reading the questions and reading between the lines, you begin to realize that somebody at the CDC HATES cruise ships. The amount of questions about what cruise ship operators should do, and the amount of money they should spend just shows a prejudice in favor of all other modes of transportation.

The CDC decided this week to remove a number of restrictions on air travel (see here.) There was never a “no-fly” order. So, if airlines can just provide “education” to their passengers, how is it fair that cruise lines are responsible for all COVID-19 cases that came to light on a ship?

The usual comments against cruising is that it’s not necessary. Neither is air travel. Heard of Zoom lately?

Part of my comments were driven by thinking about all of the transportation required for me personally to go on a cruise. I wanted to share that, and let others think about how likely it is that outbreaks spontaneously happen only on cruise ships.

My wife and I live in Dallas. If we sail from PortMiami for a seven-day cruise, we will fly in the day before. So, prior to boarding the ship, we will

  • Take a cab or Uber to DFW or Love Field
  • Be inside an international airport terminal
  • Be inside an airplane for almost two hours (with recirculated air)
  • Be inside another international airport terminal (Miami or Fort Lauderdale)
  • Take a cab or Uber to the hotel
  • Be inside a hotel lobby
  • Be inside a hotel room
  • Visit a restaurant
  • Take a cab or Uber to PortMiami
  • Be inside the port terminal (an international port)
  • Board the ship

So, there are a lot of people I will come into contact with before boarding the ship. Uber says riders and drivers must wear a mask. I know from UberEats that this is not always the case. There are no checks at airports.

Even if the cruise ship checks me immediately before departure, I could have contracted the disease (or any other disease) along the way to the ship. However, the CDC (and therefore, the masses) will blame the ship.

So, cruise travel is the problem?

Unless you hammer all of the travel industry out of existence, singling out cruise travel is patently unfair.

Please comment. Please read the instructions! There are specific questions to answer. Answer the ones you find critical to you. Use the format they request. Just posting, “Cruise now, dammit!” or “Ban cruises forever!” really doesn’t help.

It’s not the ship’s fault.

A Bit Less Hopeful

So, Princess is out until December, Norwegian until after Halloween and we’re waiting for the other shoes to drop.

I’m thinking canceling our Christmas cruise was the right idea. I’m depressed, since that was our last possible vacation this year, but I’m less depressed than if they had canceled it out from under us after final payment. We still have friends with a booking, but they’re wondering what’s going to happen. We had another one cancel because if she got quarantined getting home from the cruise, she’d miss work.

Carnival canceled our Panama Canal cruise in May 2021 but it’s because they’re repositioning all the ships they aren’t selling, and the Carnival Radiance won’t be in Galveston, after all. There’s also no replacement, so the cruise was just canceled.

We just booked a similar cruise on Carnival Dream for October 2022. We sail in 815 days. It’s a 14-day cruise instead of nine so we get a couple of extra ports. We also booked an aft corner balcony.

As I said about next May’s canceled cruise, “it’s gotta be fixed by then.”

It’s ugly.

In spite of that, people seem to still be booking cruises. If you see a deal you like now, take it. (If you need ideas, let me know.)

Cruise lines need income, so if people are making deposits, that helps. It probably doesn’t help as much as making final payments, but it’s a pandemic. I think they’ll take what they can get.

One major (possibly) victory – the CDC is asking for public comment on restarting cruising. Here’s a link to the notice. If you want to ever cruise again, now would be the time to speak up!

Still Hopeful

Carnival announced their 50th anniversary is in 2022, and they had a link to get more information, so I clicked it – I’m a clicker.

Their newest ship, Carnival Mardi Gras has even not sailed yet, but she will have a sister in Fall 2022.

While I was clicking, the site asked for my VIFP Club number, which I never remember, so I added it and after getting info on the second Mardi Gras class ship, the site reminded me I was a member and could log in.

I logged in, and was reminded I’m sailing in 295 days.

Sailing.

Now that Princess has canceled all cruises until December 15th, I am thinking canceling our Christmas cruise was not an unreasonable decision.

Still, I’m hopeful. Carnival Radiance isn’t out of drydock yet, and her first cruises are being canceled because the work was delayed, but still, I’m hopeful.

This is the one cruise I want to do. There are very few places in the world that can only be experienced by cruise ship, and the Panama Canal is one of them.

295 days. Fingers crossed.

Update: Not ten minutes after I typed this, I received the cancelation notice. Sigh.

Update: Screw COVID-19. Booked Panama Canal on the Carnival Dream for Halloween 2022. !4-day instead of 9-day plus extra ports.

Planning Ahead

We were comparing cruise notes with some of our friends yesterday in our weekly virtual happy hour (these are strange times, indeed), and some of us have a cruise coming up in 204 days over Christmas and New Year’s. Our final payment is due in 84 days, in August. This would be our eleventh Christmas cruise, one of the longest, and the most expensive, by far.

I’ve never been this close to a final payment without knowing whether we were actually going to sail. I’ve never been this close to a final payment where my wife and I were both a bit ambivalent on whether we’re going. We’re both in a high-risk group for COVID-19 so it’s a bit stressful. My wife is the “hide under the bed until it’s perfectly safe” type, and I’m the “whatever happens, happens” type, so there will be interesting discussions to come.

I’m sure that if Norwegian cancels the cruise, it will be after final payment, so we’re going to have a lot of money invested before we find out if we’re really going to go.

Our cruise after the Christmas cruise is 348 days from now, from Galveston to the Panama Canal. This is a bucket-list cruise for me, and I’m actually concerned about a go/no-go on that one.

The cruise industry was hammered by COVID-19. I think time is showing that much of the original reaction to the virus was blown out of proportion, but a cruise ship is one of the few places on earth that any disease can spread rapidly.

It’s not the close quarters, although that doesn’t help. It’s the people.

My biggest concern is not the crew or the infrastructure or the updated safety and health procedures. It’s the other passengers.

A system is only as secure as its weakest part – and when you see the behavior of people during quarantine, and the behavior I’ve seen on my past cruises, I really doubt that everyone traveling on any cruise will actually follow the guidelines that are put in place.

As a stockholder, my fear is that some idiot will manage to travel sick, infect others onboard and that will be the end of cruising for good.

As a passenger, my fear is that some idiot will infect me.

If you wanted to start a cruise line today, unlike Sir Richard Branson (who managed to launch a cruise line in probably the worst possible year ever), I would not target millennials. I would target the traditional cruise audience – the ones who gave cruising a bad name – namely, the old farts, like me. They might actually follow the rules.

You can’t just make a cruise experience expensive to attempt to filter out the idiots. Watch any of the Below Deck charter boat “reality shows”. Travel in the Haven on Norwegian. Travel in the MSC Yacht Club. There are rich idiots everywhere, and many of them are very self-centered – which is a major issue.

I would have more liberal cancellation policies or just include basic insurance in the fare. One of the reasons people cruise sick is because they can’t afford to not go. Either they will lose their money (didn’t buy insurance) or they will lose their vacation (their jobs or managers or vacation policy are inflexible.)

I would include everything in the fare. If people start their journey by figuring out how to smuggle things onboard (like liquor), they are not in a mindset to follow rules.

I would go back to smaller ships. (It’s interesting that Norwegian’s next class of ships – Project Leonardo – will hold less passengers than their current Breakaway Plus class.) This would be a cruise line for people who enjoy traveling at sea, not visiting a floating resort. The smaller the crowd, the lower the likelihood that someone is sick.

I would try to avoid the over-commercialized ports (Nassau, Cozumel, St Thomas come to mind.) They have big ships calling there all the time, they’re very commercial, and many who have been on multiple cruises have been there multiple times. Plus, you want to avoid places where everyone else is going.

I would want to sail a series of routes, rather than the same route every week. For scheduling, I’m sure the same port every day of each week is the simplest, but it means that people start traveling for the ship, not the ports. (I’m pretty sure that traveling for the ship is what gave us megaships with slides and pools and go-karts and all the other toys that drive up the prices, take up space and are then not used by many of the passengers.)

I hope to sail again soon. We will see if the Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line actually starts sailing in July, and when the river cruises resume. Those are the test cases, since everyone else is looking at August or beyond.

I hope even more people realize that cruising is a wonderful way to spend a vacation. I hope they also realize you’re sharing space with a lot of other people, so we need to consider others and not just our own needs. (This, of course, seems an important lesson for people everywhere these days, not just people on cruises.)

Confusion

Apparently, there is such a thing as too many cruises scheduled. This may not be the first time we’ve had this many cruises scheduled, and we have twenty under our belts, but I know it is the first time with this many cruises on this many lines. I’m getting confused.

When we decided to branch out from Norwegian, we did so with a vengeance. We now have four cruises on four lines in the next two years. After a certain point, keeping all the ports and ships straight is difficult, even with TripIt.

This year’s Christmas cruise is on the MSC Divina, in the Yacht Club. This will be our first non-Norwegian Christmas cruise ever (it’s our 11th Christmas cruise.) This was the year we finally price-compared and discovered Norwegian is very proud of their product. While staying loyal and being Platinum Plus are great, MSC status-matched us to Diamond level in their program and the Yacht Club was not much more expensive than a Norwegian balcony. Consider that for a second. A ship within a ship, with private bar, restaurant, pool, butler and concierge was only slightly more than an aft balcony. So, time to switch.

This cruise would create all sorts of planning because it was supposed to be our first MSC cruise. However, as some of you remember, we went on the MSC Seaside at the beginning of the summer to protect our status-matched Diamond (then Black) status, so now it’s our second MSC cruise and we’re not that panicked about it. (We probably should be.)

This will be our first cruise on the Divina, and our first in the Yacht Club. Even though we are in the Yacht Club, we received an invitation to upgrade. The lowest-priced choice was an Executive suite, which has a panoramic view. I’m pretty sure this means ocean-view or window. I’m not sure balcony people would give up a balcony for a bit more space.

Our second scheduled cruise is our third anniversary cruise (third cruise for one of our anniversaries), and our first cruise on Royal Caribbean. We really didn’t mean to make a tradition of anniversary cruises, but we had a vow renewal by the Captain for our 15th, and went with friends for their anniversary last year, since their anniversary is on Valentine’s Day (very romantic) and ours is on February 11 (it was a Friday), so when our 20th was approaching, we decided to try something new by sailing Royal Caribbean (going to ports we’ve visited many times.)

Never get married in February. It’s so close to Christmas that planning cruises for both tend to get intertwined. If the two cruises were on the same line, I’d be completely lost by now, instead of just confused. It also means your final payment is due just about the time you’re buying Christmas presents. Sorry, family.

We will be sailing on the Liberty of the Seas, departing out of Galveston, which means we can drive to the port. We saw the ship once, when we were taking a dolphin cruise around Galveston. The dolphins like surfing by the large ships. Galveston is the closest port to us, so we can drive pretty easily. The hotels are expensive, but not much worse than Miami, and the driving costs are enough less than flying to cover it. Plus, you don’t have to fly.

The only problem with Galveston is that most of the cruises from there go to the same Western Caribbean destinations: a port in Jamaica, Grand Cayman and Cozumel. Sometimes, Costa Maya. They are all fun ports, but we’re really going to see what Royal is like.

Christmas 2020 is already planned because we got invited to join some of our friends on their Christmas cruise. (Since we joined them on their Anniversary cruise last year and everyone survived, we thought it would work.) This will be on the Norwegian Pearl, which is thankfully not a megaship, and a ship we have sailed and enjoyed before. (I prefer her sister ship, the Norwegian Jade, but I will take any of the Jewel class over most other Norwegian ships.) It’s also a two-week cruise over Christmas and New Year’s, which is great for vacation, and also means we will see some islands we don’t get to visit often. Here’s hoping the itinerary doesn’t get changed in the meantime.

In May 2021, we’re going to do a partial transit of the Panama Canal on the Carnival Radiance. This is the third time we’ve scheduled a Panama Canal voyage, but I think we may actually make it this time. It’s a partial transit, so we round-trip from Galveston (one plus), and it also means you skip all the ports on the west coast of Mexico (a major plus, since Virginia has no interest and to me, those ports just add days that I don’t want to spend vacation on.)

Here’s why I think we’ll actually go this time:

  • It’s a partial transit. We will traverse the Gatun Locks to get into Gatun Lake, but that’s it. So, we’re not going from sea to shining sea, but we’re doing a 90-foot change in altitude while going through the lock. As a bonus, we’ll sail back through the lock that evening.
  • It’s much cheaper than other Canal trips we’ve booked. Part of this is because it’s a partial transit, but mostly this is because it’s on Carnival. Even with the spa balcony we booked, it’s still much cheaper than the least-expensive Norwegian transit we had ever booked.
  • Carnival Radiance will be almost a new ship. The Carnival Victory is going into dry dock this year and emerging as the Carnival Radiance.
  • We sail from Galveston. For some reason, the eight hours of so of round-trip driving time on I-45 is much less stressful than flying to Florida.

Now, we just have to double-check the excursions, to make sure all our ports are covered.

Planning Ahead – Comparing Prices

It’s been a busy few weeks around here, so please excuse the lack of posts (and follow on Facebook for other information), but I finally stopped to take a breath and realized how many cruises we have planned. I think it may be a record for us – four cruises on four cruise lines in the next couple of years (yes, we plan ahead…. a lot.)

Christmas 2019 is our first sailing on the MSC Divina. It was supposed to be our first sailing on MSC, but we had to go earlier to preserve our Black Diamond status. (See our MSC Seaside journey.) We are in the Yacht Club, their ship within a ship, because even though it is expensive, it was pretty much the same as a Norwegian balcony. (Yes, I think Norwegian is a wee bit overpriced lately.) It will be interesting to compare the Yacht Club service to the Haven on Norwegian.

February 2020 is our 20th wedding anniversary and we decided it was time to try Royal Caribbean, so we’re off on the Liberty of the Seas. This is our first Royal Caribbean sailing, and it’s sailing from Galveston, so we can just drive to the port. The itinerary is the “standard” Western Caribbean, so we’re not really going for the ports, we’re going for the ship. We will be in Cozumel for our anniversary, so I will be broke when I return.

Christmas 2020 is back to Norwegian and 14 days on the Norwegian Pearl. This should be a fun cruise, since we’ve done a similar Southern Caribbean itinerary before, and we’re sailing with friends. Plus, who doesn’t like Christmas and New Years on the same ship?

Then, in May 2021 – which may be the furthest out we’ve ever had a cruise booked (we can’t even check in online for over a year) – is a partial transit of the Panama Canal on the Carnival Radiance. This is a bucket list item for me, and our second Carnival Cruise. It will be an “almost new” ship experience, as the Carnival Victory is going into drydock and coming out as the Carnival Radiance in 2020.

I wondered about the differentials in cost between the lines – we could never find a Royal Caribbean cruise where I was willing to pay what seemed a premium – so I thought I would look at the per-day pricing. After all, a cruise ship is a floating hotel, so a cabin is just a room. How much does your room cost?

CruiseEmbarkDestinationLengthCabin Rate Per DayTotal Price Per DayNotesHoliday
MSC DivinaMiamiWestern Caribbean7 days$575$660Yacht ClubChristmas
Liberty of the SeasGalvestonWestern Caribbean7 days$408$378Balcony
Norwegian PearlMiamiSouthern Caribbean14 days$521$619Handicap BalconyChristmas + New Year’s
Carnival RadianceGalvestonPanama Canal9 days$278$394Handicap Spa Balcony

All these numbers are for two people. To try to get close to “apples to apples”, I excluded all the extra charges I could (we usually pre-pay gratuities and accept insurance) and any discounts, and used the base “cabin” fee from the invoice. I should note the Canal cruise has really high port fees. The total column is what we paid for the two of us, divided by the number of nights.

We know that MSC is trying to grow their US market, and their prices have gone up recently, but the Yacht Club over Christmas this year is about the same as Norwegian’s balcony over Christmas next year. (We’re actually in the Yacht Club because the price was not that much more than the price for a Norwegian balcony this year.) Perhaps Norwegian is a bit proud of their product? (This is why we have four cruises on four different cruise lines, instead of four Norwegian cruises.)

How clean is your cruise ship?

Cruise ships are inspected, just like restaurants. (There’s probably more to check on a ship.) So, if you’re one of those people that likes to check the restaurant scores from the local sanitation department before your visit, you would be interested in the Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP.) The VSP is administered by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC.)

All scores are public information. You can review the inspection results and any follow-up reports here:

https://wwwn.cdc.gov/InspectionQueryTool/InspectionSearch.aspx

A passing score is an 86 which is a lot stricter than when I was in school. There are a lot of items that are checked, so there are a lot of places to go wrong, but some things are more serious than others.

There is also general information for cruise passengers available here:

https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/vsp/public/public.htm

If you just want the poop (ha!) on current disease outbreaks, go here:

https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/vsp/surv/gilist.htm#2019

Next time you go on a cruise, see how clean you ship is first!

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.

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.

Passports

Another never-ending battle for cruisers – do you need a passport to take a cruise? The answer is: it depends.

If you are on a closed-loop cruise, where you depart and return to the same US port (and you are a US citizen), then technically, you can travel with an official copy of your birth certificate (proves citizenship) and a State-issued photo ID (proves identity.) A passport proves both citizenship and identity, so if you have a passport, it’s all you need

(You’ll need your birth certificate to get your passport. After that, put your birth certificate back in the safe deposit box.)

Most Caribbean cruises are closed-loop, and that’s where a lot of people start, so they just assume you don’t need a passport to cruise. You don’t need one, but only in that one specific case. If the cruise is not closed-loop (say, a Transatlantic from Miami to Barcelona or a Panama Canal cruise from Florida to California), you need a passport. If you want to fly to a resort on a Caribbean island or travel elsewhere internationally, you need a passport.

You usually have to show your passport whenever you enter a foreign country, and when you return to the US. However, when you’re on a cruise, the cruise line provides immigration agents in each of the ports with a manifest – a list of all passengers – before the ship arrives in port. The ship checks passengers off (you swipe your ship card) and back on (swiping the card again), and immigration accepts their count. Why? On a ship, unlike a plane, passengers will usually arrive and depart the same day, and the ship tracks them. Also, cruises produce buckets of tourist revenue for countries that depend on tourism, so the system is easier.

That said, we have been asked for our passports before returning to the ship. Once. In nineteen cruises.

Here’s why I think a passport is a good (and necessary) investment:

  • If you leave the country on anything other than a closed-loop cruise, you need a passport.
  • If you have to fly back to the US (say, you missed your ship or have a medical emergency), you really need one because a birth certificate and drivers license don’t work at the airport. Neither does crying. Also, the most expensive way to acquire a passport is in an emergency, in a foreign port.
  • If you’re going to cruise more than once, the cost per trip starts going down – a passport covers ten years of cruise (and other) vacations.

If you never think you’ll do anything than the one three-day cruise to the Bahamas, then maybe a passport isn’t really necessary. Just don’t get sick, don’t get arrested, and don’t miss the ship!

If you’re never going to do more than one three-day cruise to the Bahamas, I would say you might want to get a sense of adventure first – then, get a passport!