Tag Archives: pain

Viking Sky

The Viking Sky is safely in port after a harrowing day at sea.
The ship lost power Saturday in high winds and heavy seas, and drifted dangerously close to shore before regaining enough power to pull away and anchor. After the engines were restarted, she limped (under escort) into port this morning.
A cargo ship in the area diverted to assist, and also lost power. Her crew abandoned ship and were rescued.
While the Sky was trying to regain power, almost half her passengers were airlifted to relative safety on land by helicopter.
Some thoughts:

  • This was a spectacular group effort. The crew managed to stay in position while waiting for help. A ship in the area went to assist. Government services responded quickly. Locals assisted with those plucked off the ship. Norwegians are prepared for bad weather rescues.
  • The Joint Rescue Center and Norwegian emergency services did an amazing job. I’m still doing the math on how five helicopters got over 400 people off a cruise ship in 12 hours or so – plus nine crew from the cargo ship that tried to help.
  • Muster drill is critical. When you see a room full of passengers in life jackets, if you’ve never cruised, you would probably think, “They’re all going to die.” If you’ve cruised enough, you think, “Bet they’re glad they went to muster drill.”
  • There may be a better way to see the Northern Lights than by sea. This was a Northern Lights cruise, which explains why they were sailing as far north as they were this time of year.
  • There’s a reason most cruise lines relocate their ships to Florida for the winter. The weather sucks in the winter, especially in Northern Europe and Scandinavia.
  • Even Hurtigruten (a delivery service as well as a passenger service that sails the Norwegian coast) had held their ships in port. Why did the Viking Sky sail?
  • River cruises and ocean cruises are not the same. For all the older folks onboard who chose the Viking Sky because they had been on a Viking River Cruise, the service may be the same, but the water is different.
  • After years of watching Deadliest Catch, when I heard the crew of the cargo ship was jumping into the water to be rescued, my first thought was, “I hope they have survival suits.” Then I thought, “If your cruise ship goes down in the North Atlantic or the Norwegian Sea, what’s a life jacket going to do for you?”
  • The best news sources for a crisis on a cruise ship are Cruise Critic, Cruise Industry News or social media.
  • It constantly amazes me that in times of crisis, there are still people who think, “I should post a video of this.”
  • The US media didn’t seem very interested in the crisis or ongoing rescue. Part of this was probably the lack of visuals available since TV is a visual medium. However, CNN can talk about Robert Kraft (“rich man caught with hooker”) with only a stock photo, so why not something about a ship with over 900 passengers onboard?
  • The media don’t understand cruises and they don’t care about details. There were not over 1300 passengers onboard, there were 1300 people (passengers and crew.)
  • There is no 24 hour news service in the US anymore, if you need to get news, just go online – and you may want to go offshore, like to the BBC, for example. CNN, Headline News, Fox News all have scheduled programs – not live news. Then, they wonder why their viewers are plummeting.

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.

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 his 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?”

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.

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 Link√∂ping, 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.