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.