Tag Archives: tips

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.

Take a Child on a Cruise Day

We had special guests on our annual Christmas cruise this year. My nephew and his family came along, although my niece should get credit because she managed the process. They have two sons, who are ten and twelve.

We traveled with my son once, but he was married with a child, so that hardly counts as children. We’ve traveled with my Mom twice, and she wanders off like a child, but if you leave out the Chardonnay, she will find her way back.

So, this was our first cruise with “proper” children, although the 12-year old will be very annoyed to have been referred to as a “child.”

With pre-teens, all of the stuff that seemed like a waste of space before suddenly became critical.

We were on a Western Caribbean cruise, but we only had three ports in a week-long cruise. So, three sea days to explore the ship.

We were on the Norwegian Breakaway, the first time we had sailed on her since the inaugural crossing, so we assumed we knew the ship fairly well.

Not so much.

Kids love buffets – at least, kids who have been taught to be a bit adventurous with food. There is a variety of items to try, and if you don’t like it, try something else. If you do like it, have another plate (or three.)

Kids with a sense of adventure love the slides. If you are slightly paranoid, having seen the YouTube videos of people stuck in cruise ship slides (yes, more than one), you probably avoid them. Our nephews went down all of them, all the time. Their parents went down them. We watched – and it was the first time we’d ever been near the slides (except when I was on the way to a bar.)

Kids with an excessive sense of adventure love the ropes course. Our nephews did it multiple times, and shamed Mom into doing it – and the zip line. We watched.

Kids will play miniature golf. We actually played with them, after they asked, and we said, “There’s a golf course?” It’s fun – although it also was an annoyance point, since unsupervised kids were collecting the (limited) clubs and golf balls, which meant others couldn’t play. We still managed to get a fun round played – although the main hazards were other unsupervised children wandering around.

Kids play shuffleboard. I’ve been meaning to play shuffleboard since our first cruise. They did it. They also played giant chess.

So, now I understand the stuff that is added to the more recent classes of ships, which always seemed silly before.

I think everyone who only travels with a partner should Take a Child on a cruise. You will discover parts of the ship you never knew were there.

Tips, Gratuities, Service Charges

This is an opinion piece, but it’s really just all the stuff I’ve managed to prevent myself from posting on other sites because this is a discussion that seems to come up every five minutes or so, and it’s always the same two groups – “Just leave the tips alone” and “I want to tip whom I want.” 

It’s just like the insurance discussion – a complete waste of time, in my opinion. 

Most cruise lines today have a daily service charge. It goes to a pool for distribution to some non-specific group of onboard employees, some customer-facing and some not. It’s annoying, but it’s not as bad as a Days Inn charging a “resort fee” which is pretty much the same thing. It raises your fare but they can advertise the fare as lower than you will actually pay. At least onboard, I am using the services of the people in the pool. (Do yourself a favor, and splurge on the behind the scenes tour some cruise. You’ll meet a lot of people in the pool down on the lower decks, and along I-95.)

How did we get to this point? Well, it helps the cruise lines with their books, since the service charge is different income than the cruise fee. Travel agents may or may not get commission on it. There’s a whole bunch of really good accounting reasons to separate the service charge. So, like many policies that seem to make people crazy, accountants and lawyers. 

The other reason to have a service charge? It makes sure more people actually tip. In the golden age of sailing, everyone had assigned seating and assigned dining times, so everyone had the same waiters each night. On the last night, you slipped him or her an envelope with some cash for their service. Or, you went to the buffet and stiffed them.

How to avoid stiffing the waiters? Make the tips automatic and call it a “service charge.”

This incenses some people. I’m not really sure why. I suppose they are the ones who went to the buffet to stiff the staff, or constantly lost some of the tip in the casino on their “hot night”, and therefore tipped less. 

I’m sure that when I tip some waiters in some restaurants, the tips are pooled and they pay out to the busboys and the runners. Some places collect the tips and distribute them on their own. New York chefs get sued for this a lot. 

Nobody complains about that. 

People complain a LOT about the same practice on a ship. 

Now, it’s possible Norwegian and Carnival and Royal Caribbean are pocketing all the money, but the employees still get paid, and they are still working there, so it’s just accounting. I don’t understand the issue. 

The usual complaint is “Oh, those poor third world people. They are so underpaid. The cruise lines are so cruel.” When I see a ship that is staffed 60-70% or more from the same nation, I’m pretty sure word has gotten around that this is not a bad way to earn some money. I’ve had dinner with some of those Third  World people who have been promoted multiple times. They seem happy with the job. 

So, can the virtue police just shut up? If you want to stiff the staff, just go fill out the form. If you had a good cruise, just leave it be. 

If you had a great cruise, slip ’em a bit more cash. 

That’s my take on it. 

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.

Alaska Recap

Wow. That was fun.
So, we survived our first Alaskan cruise – our first with my wife’s family, first on a Breakaway Plus class ship, first cruise from Seattle, first visit to Canada… and so on.
Seattle to Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, Victoria (It’s cold! We must be in Canada!) and back to Seattle.
The good?

  • Alaska. The scenery is amazing, so if you don’t like looking at nature, this is not the cruise for you. We didn’t see a lot of the ship because we spent so much time on our balcony (get a balcony for Alaska), just looking at the world go by.
  • The ship. Norwegian Bliss is a massive ship (for Norwegian), and I was really concerned about that many people in an enclosed space. However, it wasn’t bad. There were a couple of times it felt crowded, but again – if you’re on your balcony a lot, nobody is going to get in your way.
  • The people. Much like the Caribbean, the people you interact with in Alaska make their money from tourism, and they have six months to make enough money to last a year. They tend to be nice.

The bad?

  • The port times. It’s a long way to Alaska from Seattle at twenty knots, so the port times tend to be compressed. There is also one day you visit a glacier (which is amazing) but it really cuts down your time in port. Some of this can be remedied by doing a one-way sailing (or doing a back-to-back), so you don’t have to spend time getting back to Seattle.
  • No sleep. (See port times.) When you’re due at your excursion at 7:30am every morning, it tends to be wearing. Take naps.
  • The prices. When you’re quoted over $300 per night for what is a basic hotel anywhere else, something’s wrong. The Seattle hotel market is vastly overpriced, so don’t plan to stay longer than you have to.

The lucky?

  • The weather was amazing. Even the days it rained, it would stop just as we got off the ship for excursions. I don’t know who paid the extra upgrade for “no rain”, but thank you.
  • The Captain said we got closer to the glacier than any other trip that year. It was a good day.

The random?

  • Don’t expect to just use your cell phone. You need a real camera.
  • Don’t expect to use a point and shoot – you need a fast lens to actually capture whales, eagles and other wildlife. I used my point and shoot for video.
  • Learn to brace – when we were on a whale-watching trip, I got some great video of “it’s the sky, no, the sea, no, the sky, no, the sea” until I learned to brace and move with the boat.
  • Don’t expect to use all the bells and whistles on the ship. I’m not really sure when anyone interested in the Alaska scenery would have time to drive go karts or play laser tag, but they’re available. My note to parents? If you’re spending the prices we spent so you kids can play laser tag, you’re wasting your money on this cruise.

We need to do this again, now that we’ve done it once and learned some lessons. We need a smaller ship, longer port times, and more camera gear.

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?
[googlemaps https://www.google.com/maps/d/u/3/embed?mid=1Qv5LK8vMJn_8mlcvMA8djIUMn47NkloT&w=640&h=480]

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):

Erie Canal Options

This is a placeholder page for all the links I’m collecting, as I’m still researching cruising the Erie Canal. This includes my currently reading Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation (on the history of the Canal with a lot of interesting parallel histories of canals in general), watching some really bad (and often repetitious) YouTube videos, and lots of searches.
The State of New York has a lot of information on their canal system. (They are also happy to sell you a massive canal cruising handbook which just arrived today with a bunch of maps and pamphlets. It was worth the $20.)
I subscribed to their email list which includes their Notices to Mariners, so I am officially a Mariner now, I suppose.
Here are the most easily found companies that will rent houseboats for cruising the Erie Canal:

The boats all seem similar – they’re English canal boats (which is lucky, since I only speak English.)
I asked houseboating.org for a Captain’s manual, but I don’t think they understood the request. I really would like a guide to cruising from a Captain’s perspective – a driver’s manual. They sent some proposed itineraries, which were useful for generating Google Maps, but they don’t explain how the boat works. I’m still looking for that information.
It seems surprising to me that companies will give you a rather large boat after a couple hours of training and assume they will see you back home and dry in a week. I guess it shouldn’t, since I was once given the controls of a three-quarters of a million dollar Caterpillar tractor and told “Have fun. Dig a hole.”
The two hours of training does seem to be consistent – it’s virtually the same for the Le Boat rentals in Europe.
Le Boat is how this whole journey started, since I would really like to sail the Shannon River some day. The Shannon rises near my ancestral home (if one can refer to a very small farmhouse that my Grandfather fled as an “ancestral home”), so we could see family and then cruise. The Erie Canal requires less flying time and no passports. Plus, I’m pretty sure our cell phones would work the whole time. It would be a good dry run, if anything on the water could be considered a dry run.