Monday, March 26, 2012

Should I use a specialized travel agent to book my cruise?

A Cruise Agent who is certified by CLIA and various cruise lines and has lots of actual cruises under their belt is almost always going to be the best bet for a top cruise experience.   The reason for this, they generally know the product far better than someone who just reads a brochure and takes orders. Many of the large on-line agencies are of the order taker style where the agent has never even been on a cruise.

I saw this first hand on a pre-inaugural sailing on Royal Caribbean where in chatting with some of the agents aboard I learned many had never cruised before, and those who have only cruised one or two times before.  I was pretty shocked to hear first-hand how little cruise experience many agents have. That is one reason I specialize in cruise sales because that is where I have tons of foot on deck experience.

In order to become CLIA certified an agent must sail on a short cruise and a week-long cruise, and they must be with different cruise lines. That is just to start. Those who want to add a Luxury Certification need additional cruise experience as well.  This helps to ensure the agent actually knows the product they are selling.  By experiencing various cruises and destinations an agent understands how the process works from checking-in at the terminal thru getting off the ship at the end of the cruise.

Trained and certified agents come in a couple of varieties. First are those who have completed a training course from only one or maybe more cruise lines with no additional training or experience. They are in fact trained and certified by the line, but often have no practical cruise experience which is important to have in addition to the certification. CLIA certified agents are the other kind, where not only do these agents have a certification based on diversified training and usually certifications from more than one cruise line, these agents have to prove that have sailed on cruises and inspected ships.  (Ship inspections can be difficult to arrange, especially if you don’t live near an active port, hence many of the CLIA certified agents actually cruise to get all their ship inspections.)

To be fully certified by CLIA, agents must take and pass a number of classes, take at least two cruises at their own expense, and inspect at least five additional ships. Thus a CLIA Cruise Counsellor will have been aboard at least 7 different ships from 2 different cruise lines.  Many cruisers never set foot on 7 different ships so that helps show that CLIA wanted to ensure the agents are educated.   On the ship inspection days typically a Manager from the ship will spend 2-3 hours touring the group of agents around the ship before they stop for a lunch break in one of the dining venues to taste the food aboard.

I have seen these groups touring the ship to get that elusive ship inspection. It is an educational experience, but personally I prefer see the agents sail on at least seven ships and two lines to get the certification.  I’ve been on 13 different ships and two lines in the process of getting certified by CLIA. I have far more than the minimum training requirements and am well on the way to higher training certification levels. Also, I have the highest training certification available from many of the cruise lines with whom I deal.

So, you think you want to book a cruise; who do you call?  It is best to find an agent that has a CLIA certification and ideally is also certified by the various cruise lines as an expert on their products. This type of agent is more prepared to help you find a cruise that best fits what you want, not just tell you about the deals their agency wants to push. Thus, with an experienced agent you will likely end up having a more enjoyable cruise vacation.  Ultimately it is your vacation and your choice. I however prefer where possible to deal with experts in their fields when spending my hard earned money.

Monday, March 19, 2012

What is the Dress Code aboard the ship?

That can become a controversial subject depending on with whom you speak.  Depending on the cruise line and venue the dress codes can vary greatly.  Let’s start by discussing the mainstream lines and even there break it down to specialty dining, main dining room, and the buffet and other casual dining spots.

The main lines include the likes of Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Line, Disney, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Princess, Costa, and MSC. These lines sail with a product offering aimed at the bulk of the general public. For that reason they end up with passengers from all walks of life.  On these ships cruisers generally find many dining venues on each ship. As such it is possible to dress how you want and not be out of place if you choose the dining venue correctly.

The main dining room has suggested attire guidelines which change based on the night of the cruise. At least one night will be a formal night when you will see mostly suits and some tuxes on the men with most women in nice dresses. On the smart casual and casual nights attire is generally slacks and a shirt with a collar. Women dress in a similar style.  Nice jeans are generally acceptable however t-shirts, swimwear, shorts, and other clothes are generally not acceptable. Some of the lines are stricter about the enforcement of these rules while others are only suggesting dress codes and allowing pretty much anything to happen.

In the specialty dining, the dress code which is more often enforced is either dress casual or formal. It is best to follow the dress code when in the specialty dining venues because other diners expect it.  On the other end of the spectrum are the more casual venues where pretty much anything goes. Generally swimwear is unacceptable except at the pool area grilles, but shorts, t-shirts, jeans, etc…generally are acceptable in these settings.

The more upscale lines such as Cunard, Oceania, Regent Seven Seas, and Azamara Club Cruises tend to have a more homogeneous grouping of passengers so they tend to already understand and many expect the dress up experience of dinner in the formal dining rooms.  On these ships you find fewer venues but one that is available for those who want to skip out on getting dressed up even to a smart casual level, is room service. Just be sure you have some clothes on when it arrives. 

On the upscale lines when dining in the specialty venues as well as the main dining room you will be expected to dress either smart casual to formally each night. Some of the ships even see most cruisers dressed formally every night of the cruise, so come prepared and expect that if you show up in shorts and a t-shirt that you will be turned away.

There are also Expedition cruises where dining is a totally different affair as is the dress code. On most expedition cruises casual attire is the rule of the day. Most skip formal nights altogether so it’s casual wear every night.  These are general rules, it is important to see exactly what it is for your ship or yacht before you book if you want a specific atmosphere for your vacation.

River cruises are another of the types of cruises where we tend to see more casual and smart casual attire for the dining rooms.  These vessels are very different than the typical oceangoing cruise ship. As such the dining room is different as well. Typically it’s less formal with a very friendly service environment. The folks cruising tend to dress nicely without getting too dressed up and expect other passengers to do the same.

If your dinner attire is the critical element related to what cruise you will take, please get in touch with us to discuss your desired dinner attire and what cruises meet your needs. Know that on select ships in select cabins you can eat in a robe if that is what you want, while having the food served to you one course at a time.
Regardless of the dining experience you want, be sure get out there and enjoy some vacation time on a cruise.

Monday, March 12, 2012

What happens if I get sick on the ship?

Most ships have onboard medical facilities. Thus, when someone becomes ill or gets hurt there are facilities aboard where they can seek treatment. This is usually an area well marked on maps of the ship’s layout.  Also, a quick call to guest services or in some cases 911 will get you help or directions to the ship’s medical facilities.

Norovirus, a collection of stomach flu type virus illnesses, is one things that sends many folks to the medical facilities. Most cruise lines will evaluate and treat those with norovirus at no charge to the passenger because they tend to spread among passengers when the ill are not quickly and properly treated.

Although ships have medical facilities, it is not an open invitation for the sick and severely injured to travel by ship expecting treatment while at sea. In that kind of situation advanced communication with the cruise line and ship is needed to ensure the care needed while on the cruise will be readily available. Also, if you get injured while on shore on a shore excursion, it depends where you are traveling if you will be better seeking care in the port or back on the ship. Again, it boils down to the ship is not running a full specialty clinic or emergency room but instead hosts a clinic prepared to help in emergencies and treat most basic issues that your primary care doctor would see.

The ship and cruise line typically has arrangements with one of the telemedicine providers back in the USA, much like airlines have, where they can get advanced treatment information as needed. This may include assistance arranging medical evacuation from the ship where needed. In these cases the evacuation may be by air or thru an unscheduled port stop depending on many different factors.  These factors include the needed care and what will get the needed care most quickly for the sick or injured crew member or passenger.

What to do is you get sick on the ship; first if it is something beyond what you can treat with the over the counter medicine you bring with you, go to the clinic during normal hours (it is less expensive than an after-hours visit) and get evaluated. Just because you are sick doesn’t mean you will be treated differently by the crews. Then take the treatment and get well so you can enjoy the rest of your cruise.

If you get hurt and need help getting to the clinic let the nearest crew member know or call 911 on a ships phone. This will begin an emergency response to the scene of your injury allowing the crew to assist you to the clinic for evaluation and management of the injury. Again, the ship may consult shore side physicians for advanced advice and assistance facilitating advanced care as needed.  If the physicians agree an immediate evacuation is needed the Captain of the ship gets involved as a nearest port will be determined and possibly if near US waters a call to the United States Coast Guard will be called into action. There are even cases where the US Navy has assisted getting passengers off the ship to definitive care. Air evacuation is of course a last resort situation.  At least in the US there is no charge by the US Coast Guard or Navy for their assistance, although in foreign countries it is possible a charge will apply.

Buying a travel insurance policy is very important when traveling on foreign trips. They may provide primary coverage for medical care on the ship in addition to helping cover the cost of medical evacuations as needed which can be really important. If you are taken off the ship in a foreign port and have to be evacuated back to the United States it can be a very costly endeavor, thus the insurance is critical.
If needed on most ships you can get medical care for illness and accidental injuries.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Are Pirates a risk for cruise passengers?

Although it may sounds like a funny question I’ve heard people ask the captain about it.  It did hit home as I sailed in the Persian Gulf and there was a pirate attack just a few hundred miles away.  It would have been a day of traveling before we would have hit those waters and the trips are planned to steer clear of those waters as much as possible.

Cruise ships are a nice target for pirates from the standpoint they can make a lot of noise in the world press if they were to capture a cruise ship. However, the ability to capture a cruise ship of most pirates is just not there.  It’s not to say a pirate would not attack a cruise ship to make their point but they would find it hard to take over a cruise ship.

First the lowest deck where most pirates can climb aboard is a good 30’ up on most ships. Also, there are lots of cameras around the ship being monitored full time, and even under closer scrutiny in areas where pirates are known to congregate and attack ships. There are also special security precautions taken by the cruise lines not well known to most crew and definitely not known to the passengers.

The cruise ships are so full of people that unless the pirates have overwhelming numbers there would be no way to control all the passengers.  Thus it would be risky business for the pirates really. Among the passengers likely there are enough willing to fight the pirates would not just have trouble controlling everyone they likely would end up overwhelmed by those fighting against the pirates.

Pirates can chase and shoot at the cruise ships so they can present a danger. That is why the cruise ship captains and other deck officers work hard to avoid specific areas where pirate activity is known to be occurring. Remember the captain and crew, want to get done with their time at sea and get safely home to their family as well. When they have to transit the more dangerous areas full precautions are employed and not detailed to the passengers to ensure a high alert level and the utmost level of safety for the ship and passengers.

Thus, generally cruising is safe from pirates. I’ve cruised not too far from some of the dangerous waters and was never concerned. I’d recommend others cruise there and see the unique ports and sites they can only see in those areas.