Saturday, December 31, 2011

Bad Weather while cruising

I write this post in my cabin as we crash thru waves on the way to Grand Cayman. Although these are not overly large waves they are big enough to likely close Stingray City and make tendering a bit tougher than normal. The ship handles the seas just fine and there aren’t even any barf bags out by the stairs as happens when the waves get really bad.  As I look out and see an overcast sky where we are now and know that we are likely to have a cloudy day the entire time we are in port I thought I’d chat about bad weather days while at sea.

I admit I enjoy watching video shot by ship crews who are caught up in really bad weather. They can easily be found on You Tube when you search ships and bad weather. There are some videos that would make you think cruising can be really dangerous.   Generally though, cruise ships are able to avoid the worst of the weather and provide a nice smooth cruise experience for all aboard. That doesn’t mean that mildly bad weather is always avoided and that ports are not affected by the bad weather.

Ports come in two types, ones with docking facilities and those where you ride a tender to shore.  Where you dock typically weather has minimal impact on the docking operations and if the waves are really bad offshore tying up to the dock really can be nice for those who don’t like rough seas.  Tendering ports however can really be impacted by bad weather.  The waves may not affect the ship too much but may be bad enough that tenders can’t safely ply the waters between the ship and port. Even when the tenders can operate it may be too rough to load tenders on the ship end which can throw it all into a tizzy.

Generally the tender ports that are unavailable due to bad weather are replaced with an alternate port when possible, although in some cases it is just not possible to replace the port. In the case of a cancelled port where there is no replacement port, they typically end up spending the day at sea, which depending on just how bad the weather is may be a blessing or a curse.

I for one don’t get too worried about the weather because of two things, first I am glad to be on a cruise, and secondly, the Master of the Ship (aka Captain) doesn’t want to sail in bad weather knowing his job in part is ensuring guest comfort. Thus, they do their best to avoid bad weather and when we encounter it, it’s a function of the bad weather being unavoidable.  When we are stuck in bad weather new events are scheduled to allow guests to keep busy and have a good time while aboard the ship. If the bad weather forces the closure of outside decks, which can happen if the winds get too strong on the outer decks, the activities planned will all happen inside the public space of the ship.

Most ships will provide sea-sick pills to those who need them if the wave action gets that bad. Generally though, the weather does not get bad enough for most folks to need these pills.  If you know you are likely to get seasick, you may want to consult your doctor about various alternatives to control the symptoms from the outset to ensure a nice cruise experience.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Norovirus Outbreaks

One of the worst mass-passenger health related issues is a Noro-virus outbreak on a ship. This is a term used to cover a wide spectrum of gastrointestinal viruses that occur not only on cruise ships but in the general public realm as well. The reason these are so bad when they occur on ships is that you have a closed audience of passengers and crew together for a number of days, so if the illness spreads, it can spread quickly and multiply. 

People on vacation don’t want to get sick and often if they know being sick could hold them back from enjoying vacation may hesitate to admit they are sick. That can be one of the biggest issues unto itself. Not reporting or taking appropriate steps to isolate oneself from the rest of the crowd tends to lead to quicker and wider spread exposure of others.  Once folks get sick they need to be totally well and even then usually stay away from others for an additional 24 hours to help cull the spread of the virus.

Ships tend to operate with cleanliness at the forefront of their operating plan. Watch them deal with an outbreak and you will see cleaning taken to an even greater level with almost hourly wipe downs of the handrails on the stairs and areas outside of cabins where folks are sick are even fumigated. (I personally saw that happen last evening several cabins down from where I am staying.)

Those with gastrointestinal illness symptoms should report to the infirmary for a check-out by the ship’s doctor. Generally the cruise line does not charge for those check-out visits and where the illness is present often the treatment provided is also provided by the cruise line at no cost. Those found to be sick do end up in quarantine which can be unpleasant but then those who have the illness generally aren’t that keen on doing much anyhow.  

Norovirus is something you can encounter anywhere. It does more often occur on land, but that is in part because more folks are on land. Also, people and companies are often more lax in cleanliness on land than the cruise lines are. If you are on a ship where an outbreak takes place be sure to wash your hands as often as you can and especially after using the bathroom and before eating.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Does the cruise line owe me anything if we skip a port?

This is a topic I see come up somewhat often in various forums. There are many who feel if they don’t get every minute in every port advertised when they decided to book a specific cruise they are owed all sorts of compensation. However, those who read their cruise ticket contracts know that really the cruise line can change the entire itinerary with no obligations to the passengers.  That said most cruise lines like to land somewhere between the two extremes depending on the circumstances.

Unless it is unsafe for any of many reasons to go to the scheduled ports that is where the cruise will most typically end up.  Weather and political concerns are the two primary reasons for changes in itinerary. Of course it is possible mechanical problems with the ship can also lead to itinerary changes, but most frequently in these circumstances the cruise line does a lot to make good for the situation.

Weather is the one situation that comes up at the last minutes and can be stressful for the crew and passengers. These situations are outside the control of any human which is what adds to the stress in most cases because human nature is to put blame somewhere. Weather related itinerary changes generally lead to no special compensation and generally no extra cost in the event there are higher port fees, as the cruise line typically eats that extra cost.

Political situations on the other hand can be very problematic since they can pop up literally overnight and lead to very dangerous conditions for tourists. Egypt and other Middle East and Northern African Nations are among the places recently suffering from political unrest leading to tourist activity decreases.  In these situations where possible the cruise line makes changes well in advance and tries to reasonably accommodate passenger concerns and problems related to these itinerary changes. When the changes occur well in advance of the cruise departure date some passengers are even allowed to reschedule with no penalties and when closer to the sail date cruise lines may offer special perks or on board credit to make up for the missed port.
Ultimately it is a case by case (cruise by cruise) basis where special accommodations are made to account for changes in plans. The cruise lines strive to deliver the itinerary and service level promised when they book someone onto a cruise but must be free to make changes to keep the cruise safe for everyone, passenger and crew alike. Thus, when you book a cruise you should know it is possible changes could occur, but also should know the cruise line is not out to change plans just for the fun of it.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Why all the hype about Balcony Cabins?

If you know people who cruise frequently generally you will hear how much they love cruising in balcony cabins. I like many first time cruisers thought why spend more on a balcony cabin…I am there just to sleep. Turns out that really you will be in the cabin more than you think, but not to the point it is horrible or anything.

One reason I prefer a balcony cabin, and I hear the same reason cited by others as well, is the fresh air. Inside and Ocean view cabins don’t have an option to step out and breathe the fresh sea air. For those in an ocean view cabin, don’t break open the window…it could be problematic.  Seriously, going out on the balcony for a breath of fresh air and a five minute break from whatever else was going on can be so refreshing.

Balconies also offer a quite refuge from the others out tanning or just sitting back in a chair, or on larger balconies lounging in a lounge chair. Who wouldn’t want a private place to sun themselves topless or whatever.  Most ships do not allow topless tanning in most areas of the ship, although balconies are fairly private.  Some folks go a step further and have co-ed fun on the balcony and join the so called balcony club.

Balconies also offer a private place to watch the ship come into port or set sail. It is even an interesting place to stand and watch those late getting back to the ship run to try to make the ship before she sails. Some great video has been captured of folks missing the ship, usually shot from a private balcony.

If you are one who prefers to sit and read, relaxing while soaking in the sun, or otherwise spending a lot of the cruise outdoors without being stuck in the middle of the crowded pool deck, a balcony is you answer.  Get a suite and get a bigger balcony with more stuff on it…take a top level suite and often you can soak in your own hot tub while sipping bubbly and watching the ocean off in the distance.  That is the way to sail!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What is all the fuss about cruising in a Suite?

Suites are a great way to sail on one of the mega-ships while enjoying the finer touches you want on vacation.  For those who have cruised often and in all different levels of accommodations you already know that small inside cabins can be a bit tough if you spend much time in them.  Also, if you have a family traveling it’s usually impractical to sleep 4 in what amounts to only a bit more than a bedroom at your home. The ships have quad-occupancy inside cabins but they are definitely a tight fit.

Suites serve the cruise a couple of different purposes. First is more luxurious accommodations and second preferred status and perks on the ship.  First let’s examine the larger accommodation.  The cabins designated as suites typically are 50% Plus in size over the standard cabin size. The ones only around 50% are typically Junior Suites where the primary benefit is a larger cabin and maybe priority boarding.  Full Suites are usually at least 2x the size of a standard cabin.  These cabins are typically designed with bath tubs instead of just showers. Full suites also tend to have larger balconies (there are a few exceptions) with more chairs, loungers, and in some cases hot tubs.

Suites are designed with maximum comfort in mind. We have sailed in a Royal Suite on Royal Caribbean, which is the largest suite on that ship, measuring in at 1000 square feet. That specific suite, comes equipped with a grand piano and a dry bar. We also had a full size dinner table, large enough to seat six or maybe eight if really packed in tight. The bathroom in that and other very large suites is always much nicer than you find in standard size cabins. Suites often receive better in cabin dining options as on many lines whatever is being served in the dining room is available in the cabin.

Perks and additional points in the cruise line frequent cruiser program are among the other reasons people choose to cruise in suites. Often there are areas of the ship reserved for suites guests. Suites guests frequently are given priority for dining time selection as well as preferred seating in the dining room.  Some cruise lines host special parties for those sailing in suites and may even provide special tours not available to other guests aboard the ship.
Ultimately suites provide guests with a far nicer cabin, better amenities, at times butler service, almost always better in cabin dining options, and a really nice cruise experience. Suites are for those who have the money, love cruising with more space, enjoy spending time in their own cabin watching the world sail by and like to enjoy a larger private balcony.  Despite what some say about never being in their cabin, with a suite you will enjoy your cabin and will have a great place to go lounge when you don’t want to be out in the crowd.  Book a suite today.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Trans-Atlantic crossings are they cruising or just intercontinental transportation?

Trans-Atlantic cruise sailings offer a chance for the cruise line to move ships from one profitable location to another, as seasonal changes dictate the ships move to an alternate profitable location for the off season. These sailings also serve as an opportunity to move people from one side of the ocean to another.

Cunard is the one cruise line specializing in moving people from one side to the other on regular trans-Atlantic crossings not associated with repositioning of cruise ships. The other cruise lines are just moving ships between homeports. The Cunard crossings are different from other cruise line crossings for a couple of reasons.

Cunard’s ships are all purpose built Ocean Liners where most ships sailing with the other lines are designed for cruising and trans-Atlantic crossings are just a way to move ships. The ships are designed to provide a great cruise experience, but what makes them great ships for the Caribbean for instance the large spaces and high profile ships can make for a bumpy ride across the ocean.

Ocean liners are built to deal with big seas on a regular basis. They are designed to cut thru the waves and wind, as wind against the side of the ship can affect how much the ship rocks, a ship with a smaller profile will have less wind effects. Ocean liners are also built for greater stability in rougher seas.

On the contrary, Cruise ships designed for Caribbean style cruising are designed for maximum passenger comfort and designed to typically sail in calmer seas. That is not to say they don’t handle in rough seas or that they aren’t stable.  Some of the larger ships handle quite well in rough seas, but as high profile ships are prone to being rocked by the winds.

Now that we have clarified the ship differences, we can get to the core question; are these sailings all about transportation or are they cruising.  Cunard is purely transportation between continents. They of course do this in grand style as sailing Cunard is a luxury cruise experience.  On the Trans-Atlantic sailings they do typically leave Southampton and sail for New York City or vice versa.

The other cruise lines try their best to make it into a full-fledged cruise. They make stops at various ports off Africa and in the Bahamas on the way to the ports. It is dependent largely on the embarkation and disembarkation ports.  These are far from regular cruises though since most of the time you are at sea. You also tend to lose internet and communications in the middle of the oceans as you end up outside the reach satellites providing the communications.  Thus, those who look at this as a cruise will miss out on some of what they expect on a normal cruise.

Many will tack on a cruise before or after the crossings when on the big line ships as they are usually sailing the Caribbean or Mediterranean before or after the crossing. Some folks will do several back to back cruises (in cruise speak) and see lots of ports with the crossing being their built in relaxation time.  Cunard has set their schedule where on several occasions a crossing pairs with a sailing on either end to other destinations.

The Atlantic is not the only ocean crossing you can enjoy as there are also repositioning cruises in the Pacific Ocean as well.  Most of the Trans-Pacific cruises stop in several ports, some along a Northerly route thru Alaska, Russia, Japan, and Korean ports, and some along a South Pacific route thru the various tropical paradise islands of the South Pacific.  The Pacific cruises are a function of where the ship leaves and is going.
One last thought, there are also world cruises where you can sail one way segments or all the way around the world. I will talk more about those in a future blog.   Regardless cruising is enjoyable and with so many different options can be a great experience for most all vacationers.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Choose the ideal cabin for your cruise

Picking the ideal cruise cabin can be a tough decision. If you are a first time cruiser, it can be even more difficult depending on what advice you get.  Cabin location and type also affect the price you pay to cruise. Thus, one big consideration on picking a cabin is what creature comforts do you want and expect when you cruise? Also, how important is location within the ship to you?

Do you want to be out on the deck all of the cruise or in other venues where you only sleep in the cabin? If that is the case you may not be as keyed in on cabin location as much as price, whereas someone who wants to relax in the cabin and enjoy use of their balcony will likely be more focused on where that cabin is located. Cabin location can also be important for those who prefer to sleep into the day and stay up all night as locations under active areas of the ship could be loud.

If you want to be close to the action choose a cabin on an upper deck so you are close to all of the outdoor activities. Most indoor activities around various ships are spread out more than the concentration of outdoor activities.  The Theater is one big draw inside ships and usually is active with things going on during the evening and nighttime ours. Of course different ships have different amenities so for instance on the RCCL Oasis of the Seas, locations on aft deck six are ideal for getting close to many activities as are the upper decks.

If you like to walk a bit every day, for exercise consider a cabin at the ends of the ship instead of around the elevators. Conversely, those who are a bit more mobility impaired may want to consider a cabin near an elevator for easier access around the ship.  These are my ideal picks of course depending on when you book these ideal location may not be available. Further, some may want to exercise and still be near an elevator while others with mobility assist devices will want to be away from the elevator.  Ultimately cabin location ends up a personal choice if you book far enough in advance of what is left when you book close to departure time.

When I help clients pick a cabin for their cruise, it’s important to know what they like to do when cruising, if there are mobility issues, if they want to spend lots of time in the cabin or just go there to sleep and shower. I have to look at all of these aspects together to make recommendations of what cabin category and then what cabin specifically will work best for them. It’s all about having an enjoyable cruise experience.

For those who prefer to eat all of their meals in the cabin a larger suits tends to be a good choice as in smaller cabins you’d be eating from the bed or on the very small coffee table which is about at the same level as you are sitting.  Eating in the cabin is a nice way to really relax, enjoying the cruise but not the crowd.

Personally I like the fresh air and natural sunlight to be available at all times, at least during the daylight hours. To that end I prefer a balcony cabin if it is just two of us and if there are additional family members then I prefer a larger cabin just to have the extra space. What do you like about cruising? What kind of experience do you want out of the cruise, active, relaxing, privacy?  It is all part of what you need to think about as you decide what kind of cabin is best for you.  No simple answer to the equation it takes a good experienced agent who has a lot of cruise experience to best help pick the ideal cabins.  

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Does Cabin Location impact cruise prices?

Cabin location for most cruise lines will affect the bottom line price you pay for the cruise.  Cabin size, location on the ship, and date of sailing are the biggest factors in the price of the cabin. Of course where the ship is sailing, cruise line, and length of cruise come into play as well but those are likely pretty much understood by all.

When I see advertised pricing for cruises a few questions come to mind, among them are is this price for the base fare only where port charges and taxes need to be added on?  Then I look at what kind of cabin was used to generate the price.  Most often pricing is for an inside cabin with the fare covering the base fare and port charges.  Texas are usually an add-on, but some agents like Brooks Cruise Services prefer to post prices as the total per person fare inclusive of taxes. 

Once you decide what cabin class you want, within the class cabins have different locations.  Cabin classes are Inside, Outside/Ocean view, Balcony/Verandah, or Suite (this class includes mini-suites as well).  On the larger cruise ships, like in the real estate market location is king. The cabins of equal size and amenities are then divided by location into different sub-classes of cabins. Each sub-class ends up with different prices based on the location. Sometimes the price difference is also based on if the cabin can accommodate more than two passengers and/or connects to other cabins, as these cabins are in higher demand for many families.

Cabins closer to elevators typically are in the higher rent district than those far forward or aft of the nearest elevator.  Another area cabins tend to raise in price is closer to the outdoor action, hence high deck cabins are usually more expensive than lower deck cabin.  Some ships have most of the suites in a specific section of the ship and often the surrounding cabins are among those which are higher rent.  Some will argue about the benefit of being closer to elevators and certain activities but on average more people want to be closer than those who want to be further away.

There are some exceptions which usually occur on luxury ships and smaller ships where the cabins are all closer to the action and tend to vary less in size. They still have different categories of cabins so there will usually be price difference but usually fewer price points on the same ship as compared to larger ships.

Some of the newer ships have incorporated some really interesting cabin locations, often priced at quite a premium, but in some cases less expensive for other cabins of a similar category.  Royal Caribbean’s Oasis and Allure are two ships where we definitely see a really wide variety of cabin types and locations. There are a number of balcony and suite cabins where you overlook interior courtyards.  These locations are perfect for people watching. Of course if you can see the people, the people can see you so you do tend to lose some privacy with these cabins.
Ultimately many factors together determine what price you pay for your cabin. Yes the person in the cabin next to you could be paying more or less for a similar cabin. What is most important though is that you have a happy cruise in a cabin that you can be happy with for that cruise.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Cruise Fares; When is the typically best time to book my cruise?

When to book a cruise to get the best price, that is a question I hear often.  The generally most accurate answer when looking across the board for all cruises is that booking them when the cruise is first released for sale generally gets the best fare. There are some exceptions I will explore here as well.

Generally most cruise lines come out with early booking fares that are as low as you will see for most cabins on most sailings. They do this to encourage folks to put down some money to secure their cabins.  This is also when you have the best shot at securing some of the best cabins on the ship.  Both agencies setting up groups and folks who know they want select cabins book in the first couple days a particular sailing is listed.  If you want one of the prime suites on the ship, such as the Presidential Suite, or Royal Suite on the Freedom of the Seas, typically they need to be booked in the first couple of days they are open for sale.  That is not to say these cabins can’t ever be secured closer to sailing, but it is a rare find.

Some cruise lines regularly sell a lot of their cabins when the sailing is first announced.  Disney is one where when they announce new sailings cabins become short in supply very quickly. Many of the sailings operate on a fully refundable deposit basis, so other than tying up some money in a deposit, it’s in most folks minds not a big deal to grab and later release a cabin.  If you think you want to sail a route and can swing the deposit money being tied up for a while, securing you cabin early is worth locking up some money.  If you consider the increase in cost for the cabin, it often represents a great return on your money having the cabin booked.

A number of luxury cruise lines have pricing programs where as a select number of cabins sell all of the prices for the ship go up at a predetermined percentage level. The number of cabins for the first rate increase is often reached fairly quickly after release of the sailings.  There are some lines that offer a single price from start to finish, but these are rare sailings and typically start out quite expensive anyhow. The reason they don’t change prices is the minimal number of guests makes it nearly impossible to offer different prices among the few cruisers on their small ships.

If you plan to sail a group, it is usually a very good idea to work well in advance so you can secure a block of cabins at the very best prices as the cruises are first put on sale. Over time as the supply of cabins dwindles, the prices for new bookings climb. For those who secured their cabins ahead and the groups they keep their lower prices.

Some folks say, at least on certain lines, it’s best to wait for last minute deals. Although on select sailings it is possible to snag a great deal at the last minute, that is the exception, not the rule.  Some cruise lines will put on sale those cabins they want to move to fill up a ship. Most often when those cabins go on sale they are not the best cabins you may want as your cabin on a given sailing. Often the cabins on sale are in only specific cabin categories, so if you have your heart set on a specific category, you may be disappointed by waiting.

Recently, I booked myself in a junior suite on the Mariner of the Seas and then the next day looked for a client what was available.  The same cabin had gone up $100 per person after I booked my cabin. I see all the time where cabin prices increase and seldom see where cabin prices drop. Most folks I know are in the same boat, usually seeing cabin pricing increase instead of decrease.

The key, if you know you want to sail book early and lock in the best price. Just check the terms of the deposit if you may need to change sailings to ensure you can get the full deposit back if needed.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Cruising as part of a Group Cruise

One way to pick up some overall savings on the cost of a cruise is to sail as part of a group. You will find that you may get discounted fares or additional perks, sometimes both.  If the group you hear about is offering none of the options, consider strongly using another agent, since any agent who is offering you nothing special to put you in a group is purely trying to make more money for their own pockets.

Recently, one of the groups I was involved with started picking up steam.  The group rates over time became just a small fraction of the going rate for the same cruise.  This happens fairly often as cruise ships fill space and the prices go up.  (That is probably a good blog topic for one of the upcoming blog entries.)  As the cruise price increases, the group cabins that were locked in at lower rates become very valuable commodities.

Most cruise lines offer perks for group cruises. The travel agent who sets up the group is able to choose how the perks are delivered, as in what form that take aboard the ship. On Board Credit, a party, and bottles of wine for sail away are among the options frequently given to customers.  One of the options is cash to benefit a particular charity, which is a nice way to cruise with a group of like minded folks, and support the charity all at once, without having to reach into your pocket for more money.

If you are one who likes to pull together a group it’s worth asking the travel agent what extra perks can be given to the tour group leader. Depending on the cruise and number of cabins sold, it’s possible you can get some nice perks for helping to pull together an entire group.

When you have a group of folks who know one another ahead of the cruise you will have a group with whom you can hang out while aboard the ship.  Having folks that you know and want to chat is really nice if you aren’t one who likes to go meet new people.  It also helps if you have enough friends in your group when you want to have private shore excursions.  Private excursions can be really nice as you can usually modify the pace of the tour as needed to meet your group’s needs without having to worry about what non group members think.

If your group is purely a like minded group, at least you know there is a common thread for what brings these folks together. To that end, depending on the type of similar “liking” the group has, it’s possible that small/large group gatherings will be great for folks to get to know one another. When gatherings like this happen at the start of the cruise, it makes for a great opportunity to get folks visiting with one another thru the entire cruise.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Cruising at Christmas!!! What a Blast!!!

Big Holidays are among the top times for folks to cruise. Our family has sailed on 2 New Years Eve Cruises and a Christmas Cruise.  Both were a lot of fun and we will likely take that same kind of cruise again.

Over the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year holiday time frame you will see a ship transform from a cruise ship to a Winter Wonderland.  It can be pretty exciting to go outside in the Tropical heat and walk back in to see displays that are distinctly Christmas, with Gingerbread houses, Christmas trees and the like around the ship. There are usually various seasonal activities for the entire family.

The first Holiday Cruise we took was a New Year’s Eve cruise several years ago on the Grandeur of the Seas. It was an incredible experience.  We brought our daughter along on this cruise after having gone on two without her previously.  She really liked Royal Caribbean, especially the kid programs and the balloon drop on New Year’s Eve at midnight. I believe that we pulled out of Cozumel several hours before the count-down and big celebration.

The following year we were aboard Voyager of the Seas for New Year’s Eve and had our first full suite. Wow, it was a really incredible experience. A larger ship with more space for a balloon drop and a bigger party made it an even more enjoyable experience.  Royal Caribbean hit a home run with the Royal Promenade on Voyager Class and large ships.

There are kids parties and adults only parties in various parts of the ship.  At midnight free flowing champagne was available for the guests. I saw many grab several glasses so they could really get in the party mood.  It is one opportunity though to pick up some free booze on the ship.  Of course if you have access to the Concierge Lounge as is a suites privilege on Royal Caribbean free bubbly is not that exciting.

More recently we cruised over Christmas on the Voyager. (I’ve sailed Voyager four times myself.) This was a really enjoyable cruise. We were fortunately to snag a couple of Junior Suites at the relatively last minute and my parents joined us.  On this cruise we met lots of multi-generation families who were also like us celebrating Christmas aboard. Of course like us many families make the big gift for the year the trip itself.  Yes, many folks do choose to make a vacation the primary Christmas gift, it is one way to give without stacking more ties on the rack in the closet.

With Christmas Caroling, special food, a nice Christmas meal the cruise ship crew work hard to make the holiday sailing special.  Santa usually visits to ensure all kids aboard get a nice gift while they are at sea away from their homes.  The Christmas dinner is usually quite nice with a Christmas theme.  Of course you still get all the normal ports of call, maybe in a different order to ensure you will be at sea on Christmas.

The weather is reasonably good at this time of year, seldom have Hurricanes popped up this far outside of the season.  In the Caribbean it is really quite nice, not too hot during the day but much warmer than home is for many of those aboard the ship.  The seas are generally not too bad this time of year either.  Of course as cold fronts cross the Gulf of Mexico, the front can kick up wind creating a gentle roll on the ship, but nothing that is usually too bad.

With a special Holiday Season environment created aboard the ship, it’s definitely a great time to sail the seas on a cruise ship.  

Sunday, November 13, 2011

We welcomed Royal Caribbean’s Mariner of the Seas to Galveston on Friday!

For those living near the Texas Coast and who prefer to drive to their port the wait for the Summer Season to pass and arrival of a new Royal Caribbean Cruise Line (RCCL) ship to Galveston. The Mariner of the Seas comes in to replace Voyager of the Seas. Voyager now sails out of the Port of New Orleans, which for cruise ships puts it at the end of Canal Street, close to the French Quarter.

Mariner is a few years newer, sports all glass balconies, and had both Chops and Portifino. It makes it a slight step up from Voyager with these features. Otherwise it is pretty much the same ship.  Of course, they are sister ships out of the same class.  Also, Voyager is only a few hour drive away.

Add to the excitement Carnival Magic tied up in Galveston today, recently Carnival Triumph started visiting Galveston, and Carnival Conquest moved to sail from New Orleans today, it’s quite a shake up for the ships in this region. 

Ultimately we now see the Cruise Season kick off here along the Gulf of Mexico.  Only another year and we will see at least two more ships here for the season.  The cast may change in some ports but the stated plan is for a net of two new ships, both in Galveston at that.

Brooks Cruise Services knows the scene well having sailed many times in addition to selling the cruises.

For the cruises specifically out of Galveston advance bookings appear to be king. This is especially true if you hope to sail in a Suite level cabin as they have sold well in this market.  We personally love sailing in a Junior Suite or above as it is more roomy.

Sailing from Galveston or New Orleans offers so many opportunities to see different ships and a hand full of different ports. The distance to ports though makes less than 4 night impossible and for 7 night cruises the list of candidate ports rather small, but there are fun things to do in these ports.  A week long cruise will have sufficient time to enjoy doing a lot of different things while on the cruise.  They are definitely worth enjoying, since for those who live nearby the transit time is significantly reduced. Galveston and New Orleans both offer some neat opportunities before and after the cruise as well.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Cruising on the Same Cruise Line Repeatedly, does it make sense?

Some folks like to explore new ship every time they sail. After a few sailings on many lines you will run out of ships within a cruise that line thus you end up on more than one cruise line. On the flip side I know many folks who like one or two ships better than any others and they will repeatedly cruise that same ship.  Those folks often cite getting to know the crew as one reason they like sticking to just one or two ships.

Personally I have enjoyed exploring a number of ships within primarily one cruise line. I have sailed other cruise lines and really have enjoyed all on which I cruised. Within Royal Caribbean I even have a favorite class of ships, the Voyage Class. That does not negate the fun we had on the Allure, but the Allure and Oasis only visit so many ports due to their size and inability to get into many ports due to their size.

An argument in various circles is how much value there is in sticking on one cruise line, or even just one ship?  Personally, I know that among the cruise lines there are various levels of past passenger perks given out to those who constantly return to the same cruise line. Usually, there is nothing official given out for returning to the same ship, but when you get to know some of the crew it can definitely make a difference.

For sticking with the same cruise line, depending on what cruise line we discuss you may get discounts for booking future cruises, on board credit, past passenger coupons for use on board future cruises, free internet, and free ship to shore phone calls. Some of the past passenger programs really get very generous for their most frequent cruisers, offering hours per day of ship to shore calls and unlimited internet use (which sure would make it possible to work and cruise at the same time).  Others offer free cruises after a set number of nights/cruises on their ships.

Recently one cruise line invited all of their past passengers at a certain level to an exclusive gathering with the head of the line to visit and share feedback.  That is quite a forum for bringing up any issues or changes that would improve the cruise experience further.  Years ago Continental Airlines did some similar things with their top frequent fliers and the head, Mr. Bethune.

Keeping in mind cruising (or yachting as it is on some of the small ships) is intended to be a very enjoyable experience, one can understand where getting feedback from passengers who know how it is really working is very important for the cruise line executives.  One CEO reads all positive feedback emails directly sent to him, because he believes that if someone with positive feedback wants to take time to write a message the least he can do is read the positive response.  I don’t know that he personally reviews all negative feedback directed at him.

Those who are champions of sticking to one line are typically comfortable with the line. Many have explored other lines and know that the one they love most gives them the product they most desire when cruising. I can hardly blame anyone for sticking with a product they like best.  When I think Chevy, Dodge, or Ford Trucks and most folks I know out in the ranching/farming world are die-hard fans of one not the other two.  Other folks say they like one cruise line for select destinations or when certain family members are cruising together and others for other destination or passenger arrangement.  I am among those who prefers, certain lines/ships based on where we want to sail and what family members are together.  If we have our daughter sailing with us, despite her liking the upscale cruise experience, we tend to prefer Royal Caribbean for all of the on-board activities that she enjoys.  If it is just us, we like to enjoy going upscale on the likes of Celebrity.

I am a firm believer in experiencing different things and seeing different places. I also feel it’s important to enjoy your experience and return to providers of service who take care of you. Thus, if you like Carnival but want to cruise Europe instead of the Caribbean stick with Carnival. Of course if you really want to see Alaska from a different vantage point, then it makes sense to experience different cruise lines.  It is all about making sure you enjoy your vacation so don’t let someone say you need to stick on one cruise line only.  I like the past passenger status perks I’ve earned on several cruise lines.

Cruising is meant to be fun, so it’s always interesting to hear folks discuss staying on one line only versus picking the best deal for each cruise.  Typically those who are most loyal to specific lines aren’t always looking at the very best price for any cruise they undertake but know how to get a well priced cruise while ensuring they get the vacation experience they want.   I am among those typically loyal, but not to the extent I won't experience something different.  See some of our cruise reviews.

Monday, November 7, 2011

We love to cruise out of Galveston!

Cruising from Galveston is one of our favorite ways to get out to sea. Why some may ask? Because we like millions of others are within a reasonable drive to the port. In the post 9/11 days flying is far more difficult, and if you are heading to a ship where you will want formal, casual, and work-out clothes along with your swimwear with you. That usually means checking luggage if you are on more than a three or four night cruise.  With the luggage come fees unless you have the right credit card, fly the right airline, or have enough miles on the airline where you are considered an elite member of the frequent flyer program.

For those from Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, Ft. Worth, and some areas of Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana getting to Galveston is a matter of a few hour drive. For us, it is almost exactly one hour from the house to the cruise port terminal.  With several parking options available both at hotels with stay and cruise packages as well as cruise port parking lots getting to and leaving your car at the Port of Galveston area is so simple.

Of course Galveston is a great destination unto itself as well. With so many historic sites and specifically buildings to see there are a few days of sightseeing available.  There is a railroad museum very close to the port that reopened not too long ago. I tried to see it with my daughter but they were a couple weeks away from opening once again.  There is an air museum at the airport. Also, out at the airport for those who like to see folks flying in and out to the oil patch in the Gulf of Mexico there are at least two separate helicopter companies flying crews every day of the week.  Last but not least I will mention the beaches on the Gulf Coast. There are miles of beach from which to choose to set up your spread while you bake in the sun.

Aside for the ships pulling in an hour from our front door, we like to sail to Grand Cayman, Roatan, and Belize City. Cozumel and Falmouth, Jamaica are also acceptable ports of call. I really like Stingray City offshore Grand Cayman. I like the snorkeling and scuba opportunities in Honduras and Belize since I love to see the beautiful coral and fish.  In Cozumel the most exciting excursion I have taken is a Salsa making class (you make margaritas as well…and taste test many of them).

Not having to fly in the night before saves a day from travel and at times saves enough to pay for another cruise. Departing the house right before the cruise and getting back home early in the morning after the cruise are definite plusses for us.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Why we like to cruise to dee new destinations!

We find that cruises offer a great opportunity to sail around and see various new ports of call. The new ports of call can eventually turn into destination vacations if we really find we like the specific port of call enough.  By cruising to new and exciting destinations around the world we can sample different areas while cruising.

Some cruises are more port intensive than others.  These port intensive cruises serve a good purpose for those scoping out places to return in the future. Of course some folks only ever want to get a quick flavor of each port which is fine. We’ve been to many ports where we were happy to just get a flavor of them while the ship was in port and others we will see again on a longer vacation. Why this works so well for us, is the advertising for various ports of call make them sound like a great place for a long vacation but when we visit them on the ship we find they are good for a day maybe two only.  

We cruise to both see ports we will see again on land vacations and to get to some ports that are good only for a day at a time as we see them. The Western Caribbean cruises we like are great for getting to some ports for a day of activity and then off for more similar ports. Several of these ports we like as day stops but likely would not visit for a week long getaway. That said I will go to Grand Cayman for a week at some point to relax and enjoy some great diving and snorkeling there.

On our recent Asian cruise, we visited a port in Viet Nam that we expected would be a quick port of call stop only. Wow were we amazed, when we go back to Viet Nam, I hope we can spend a few days there in addition to traveling between other key historical points there.  Nha Trang is a beautifully coastal city with the modern buildings you expect to see in a big city of the Western world and the old world charm of the countryside in Asia.  The water and beaches there are so incredibly beautiful and all of the people we met were very friendly.

Some ports used by cruise ships are primarily ship based ports of call as they don’t have much to do if you were to fly in.  It would be nice to see fewer of these commercial venture ports go away and more new ports added on the Caribbean sailings where we can see more of what makes the country special.  Some of this has happened in Belize and Honduras.  These ports are relatively new and were designed to allow cruisers to interact with locals, see great things and possibly decide to come back.  Both are great places for those who love to scuba dive or snorkel and have many great resorts to go back to see again.

So when I cruise to new destinations I like to see if the ports would serve as great places to come back and spend a week.  In the Southern Caribbean I’ve found several islands I’d love to spend a week enjoying. In Asia we found a gem we never expected to be such an exciting stop.  These are just a couple examples of why cruising can be a great way to sample places for future visits.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Why We Love Cruising Part 2

We love cruising because it is a relaxing vacation, but at the same time can be full of activities.  Cruises are a great vacation for all kinds of folks because there is something to do for nearly everyone. It can be as simple as sitting out on the balcony and reading a book to playing in trivia or sports tournaments.

We learned early that cruising is not what some portray, do this and do that all at set times.  Yes, there are scheduled activities that take place at specific times. However, participation in any given activity (other than muster drill) is strictly voluntary.  Sports Courts and various other activities are only open at appropriate times.

It is possible to get food generally from when you get on the ship until you get off the ship at the end of the cruise. Depending on the line you can get various food service levels right in your cabin as much as 24 hours per day.  When we were in the Royal Suite we enjoyed meals a few times in the cabin on white tablecloths with the works.  We could have asked that the food be delivered one course at a time but didn’t. Next time we will likely go for the one course at a time.

Food and activities are only part of the package. We also really like to get to and see destinations.  With cruises you can get to and see many destinations in the course of a week, more or less depending on the itinerary you choose.  Some ships are all about seeing things while underway or when stopped. These ships are often called expedition ships and are found in places like Alaska and Antarctica. On our web site we talk more about different cruise lines.

Cruising different lines exposes folks to different experiences. Some will say sticking with one line is best but generally those I know and my own personal experience indicate there are more than one good line to cruise. Cruising on a variety of lines depending on destination desired level of service and who is traveling with us will keep our family happily traveling together for a long time into the future.

The other factor that we have found to significantly affect the cruise is length of the cruise and if it is just over a weekend of not. Generally we see three-night over the weekend cruises as some of the most passenger active cruises. These are what many call party cruises. On the contrary, two-week cruises across the ocean to reposition the ships are some of the most sedate cruises. With so many options though, it is only a matter of having the time and you can cruise nearly anywhere and have nearly any kind of cruise experience.  More in the upcoming blog posts.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Why we love cruising!

Our family loves to cruise! My wife started cruising a few years before we even met and convinced me to give it a try a few years ago. It's not like I haven't set foot on a boat or ship at sea because I did spend 3 Summers and time between my undergrad studies and graduate school working offshore in the oil fields. I also ended up taking supplies to Bermuda and Jamaica 7 times during these Summers.

My personal first encounter with a cruise ship was seeing it at sea while we were waiting on our pilot to take us into St. George, Bermuda. Wow, what an impressive sail in and out of that port every time we went there. Of course I was working (getting paid to go to Bermuda no less) so we did not as a crew get to run to all the tourist spots while in port. Of course Bermuda, with such beautiful sights along the shore and super clear water sitting on the rain and looking at the nearby scenery was pretty impressive on its own.

Back to that first cruise ship though, it was one of the original Royal Caribbean Cruise Line ships running to Bermuda on week-long cruises. It looked so big compared to the 192' ship I was on, which was of reasonable size. In fact as I have seen intra islands cargo ships that are that same size if not smaller often while in the Caribbean. Off in the Persian Gulf (Arabian Sea) I have seen even smaller ships ply the waters. So it was in the dark of the pre-dawn morning when I first saw a cruise ship all lit up, there was no missing it. It was a beautiful ship and looked so huge...of course now it would look oh so small!

Almost four years ago now, my wife was about to start a new job and said let’s take a cruise to celebrate the new job. Ok I said let’s look into it. Having worked as an outside rep at a travel agency several years before I did some research and found some good deals. As at that time I was not associated with any agency we called upon someone we knew did good work and got assigned a really nice inside cabin on RCCL's Explorer of the Seas for my first cruise. Excitement built as we waited to go get on the ship and enjoy a cruise.

As we neared our departure date we made plans, packed, checked that we had everything (and money can buy what you forget) and headed off to Miami. We flew over there early the day ahead using FF miles on American which worked out nicely. In fact we lucked out and had first class seats in both directions making for an even nicer trip. Arriving in Miami we headed grabbed our rental car and then headed for the hotel to drop out stuff off. We then set out to explore the area and get some great Cuban food! Yummy!!!

After a short night of sleep (when heading out for the first cruise, it is hard to get a good night sleep ahead). It was then time to get up and eat breakfast. Then earlier than my wife wanted, we headed to the pier, dropped off our luggage and then headed to drop the rental car back to Hertz's downtown location. It was a zoo in the Hertz office, but after a short time we were on our way to the cruise terminal once again. Check in was a snap and off we went to get our pictures taken and get aboard the ship.

Wow, what a huge and very nice ship we just boarded. It was an impressive ship and during the week we only scratched the surface of all things we could see and do aboard Explorer. We had a great time and said to each other we need to do this again. About six months later we tried a 3 night getaway on RCCL's Majesty of the Seas and from there started cruising on a fairly regular basis.

The past 12 months have been the busiest we have spent at sea, with six sailings for almost six full weeks on cruise ships since last Thanksgiving. We have come to enjoy cruising because it is relaxing, offers so much to do when we want to be active, takes us to different ports, and give us a chance to meet other people who will be around the cruise for the full week as well. More on some of these specific reasons we love cruising so much in future blog posts.