Tag Archives: Planning

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.)

Still Here, Still Stuck At Home

So, this has been a bad year – for everyone, but especially for the travel industry. I broke my foot and ankle in January, so we canceled our February anniversary cruise – our first on Royal Caribbean – and by the time we started considering a replacement, we were on lockdown. I’m still annoyed I wasn’t able to write about my first Royal Caribbean cruise.

The cruise industry has been vilified as the grand source of COVID-19, which is just ridiculous. If the virus originated in China (it did), it’s highly unlikely it traveled the world on a cruise ship. It took an international flight.

I will admit that any communicable disease will spread on a cruise ship. It will also spread in an airport, on a train, in a all-inclusive resort or a theme park. However, you can close an airport. You can close a theme park, even if you wait until after it’s obvious you should close down. A ship can be days away from port when the decision is made to end the cruise. There are still cruise ships who haven’t been able to port.

So, we’re waiting to see when cruises will begin again, especially since the date keeps moving. Carnival moved their restart date to August 1st earlier this week, so I won’t be surprised if the other majors do, as well.

My other concern is the amount of regulation that is forced on the industry by a government which is now power-crazed since it discovered it could make everyone stay home. If you can wipe out half the restaurant industry, why not sink all the cruise ships?

I’m beginning to think we may not make our Christmas cruise this year, which would suck because it’s a great itinerary, it’s Christmas and New Year’s in one cruise and we have a bunch of friends traveling with us. It would also break a twelve-year tradition. However, I’m really not sure anyone will be cruising by then, and I’m not really sure Norwegian will still be operating, at all. (Yes, I’m a pessimist, but there are multiple investor reports saying dump the cruise line stocks.)

Truth be told, I’m actually a bit concerned about our Panama Canal partial transit and that isn’t until May of 2021.

While I was having my personal pity party, I saw someone on social media saying the cruise lines shouldn’t get government assistance – when everyone else, including dead people are – because they “don’t hire Americans.”

That’s when I stopped and thought about the real victims of the “blame cruises” movement – the travel agents, call center people, back office teams, all the onboard staff and pretty much everyone in an Alaska port who just lost their entire 2020 season.

I’m a travel agent. Sure, I haven’t booked anyone but myself (and one was the anniversary cruise that was canceled – I’m glad I sold myself insurance), but I have the credentials. If anyone wants to book a cruise, I’m happy to help. There are certainly some deals out there.

The saddest part of all of this has been the stream of emails from all the cruise lines to their travel agents, which basically say, “Don’t panic!” However, if cruise sales is your primary business, you have to panic – you can’t sell something that doesn’t currently operate. Even with commissions held constant through 2021, you won’t earn anything if you’re not selling. If you’re in the travel industry in Alaska, you have to make enough from May to September to get you through the entire year. So, if you don’t make anything this summer, you’re going to be hurting until Summer of 2021.

So, the next time someone says cruise lines don’t hire Americans, just remember there may not be a high percentage of Americans onboard, but there are a lot onshore.

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.

Hurricanes and Contracts

I’m writing this because it’s happening again. Hurricane Dorian is in the Atlantic heading towards Florida the Carolinas. PortMiami is on alert. Cruises are being rescheduled. Ports are being changed. So, the torches and pitchforks are coming out on the cruise line discussion groups.
Hurricane Season is June until November each year in the Atlantic. Many cruisers may not know there’s an actual season, and that it happens every year. These are the people who just think cruises seem to be cheaper this time of year.
Hurricanes are the cruise lines’ worst nightmare. One hurricane can disrupt multiple ships and can close ports long after they’re gone (look at the ports damaged by Irma and Maria in 2017, many of which are still rebuilding). While the cruise lines scramble to reroute ships, they get to deal with thousands of outraged passengers.
Why are they outraged? Not only because their cruise was delayed or rerouted. It because they assume they’re getting refunds because their cruise is delayed or rerouted. This is the time of year when people finally read their cruise contracts. Unfortunately, it’s usually after they’ve been told their cruise was changed or canceled.
I already talked about cruise insurance. Just get it. It’s important. It’s really important during hurricane season. However, much like reading a cruise contract, you need to know what your policy covers. Here’s why: cruise lines hate canceling cruises. It’s much easier to reschedule or reroute it, because then it sailed. So, if they reroute you, there’s no claim – unless your policy covers it. If the new route skips the only port you really wanted to visit (why didn’t you just go there?), there’s no claim – unless your policy covers it. If you decide not to go, it’s not covered unless you have a cancel for any reason policy.
So, read your policy.
If you want to know why you need cruise insurance, and understand what it covers, read your cruise contract. Then, when you’re incensed at your cruise line of choice, read another line’s. There’re probably very similar. Here’s an example, with some [embedded comments]:
[Cruise Line] may change the duration and/or itinerary of the cruise at any time. [This isn’t even in the fine print. This one sentence is really all you need to know. However, a lawyer wrote it, so let’s continue.] The Vessel shall be entitled to leave and enter ports with or without pilots or tugs, to tow and assist other vessels in any circumstances, to return to or enter any port at the Master’s discretion and for any purpose, and to deviate in any direction or for any purpose from the direct or usual course, and to omit or change any or all port calls, arrival or departure times, with or without notice, for any reason whatsoever, including but not limited to safety, security, adverse weather, hurricanes, tornadoes, strikes, tides, hostilities, civil unrest, port closings, emergency debarkations of Guests or crew, late air, sea, car or motor coach departures or arrivals, mechanical breakdowns, US or foreign governmental advisories or travel warnings, all such deviations being considered as forming part of and included in the proposed voyage. [In case you didn’t understand the short version, this was the long one. This is still not fine print.] Except as provided in Clause 7(c) with regard to early termination of a voyage, [Cruise Line] shall have no liability for any compensation or other damages in such circumstances for any change in itinerary, ports of call, ports of embarkation and debarkation, and/or or duration of the cruise, other than as provided by [Cruise Line]’s change of itinerary policy at the time Guest or his agent acknowledges receipt and acceptance of the terms and conditions of the cruise ticket contract. [Basically, “no refunds.” You acknowledged receipt when you blindly clicked through on the website. You don’t read software licenses either, do you?] [Cruise Line]’s change of itinerary policy can be found at on [Cruise Line]’s Website or at [Cruise Line]’s FAQ page. [Actually, the link fails, but it really can’t say much to undo everything here.]
That’s only one clause in the contract! (Clause 7C says the only time there’s a refund is if the cruise is completely canceled. Leaving late, coming back early, going to different ports? That’s not canceled.)
However, if you don’t read (and understand) the contract, and your seven-day Eastern Caribbean cruise becomes a six-day Western Caribbean cruise, or your Christmas cruise doesn’t go to any of the originally scheduled ports, you really don’t have much ground to stand on. You signed the contract when you ordered the cruise. Well, you clicked through.
If you don’t agree to the contract, don’t cruise that line. However, again, all the cruise lines have contracts that say pretty much the same thing.
I’m not saying don’t complain. I’m saying two things. First, when you’re bitching about your changed cruise, take a minute to remember our Caribbean friends. You had a vacation trip that wasn’t what you planned. They may have lost their house and their livelihood. Get some perspective.
I’m also saying when you complain on social media about the cruise line that “done you wrong”, don’t be surprised by the amount of people that have no sympathy.
Those are the people that read the cruise contract. Probably after their cruise was rescheduled last year.

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.