Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Cruising – A General Overview

Cruising aboard the “Love Boat” was something many enjoyed on television every week a few decades ago. While many cruised while on their couch other actually went to the port and boarded ships to sail the waters around the world. Cruising has grown by leaps and bounds not only out of the USA but around the world and more recently out of Asian ports. Cruising tends to be a great way to vacation where you are entertained while moving between various ports so you can sample various areas of the world. It is of course not an in depth vacation at a single destination though.

Cruising is an experience many really enjoy. This is because you turn the transportation to the final destination, the ports of call, into an exciting experience for everyone aboard. With onboard entertainment, dining, and many other activities available cruising offers many opportunities for everyone to have loads of fun.  Cruising is ultimately a means to get from where you embark to several fun ports of call and to a disembarkation port. The embarkation and disembarkation ports may be the same or may be different.  As part of the transportation many fun activities are offered. Further the ship offers shore excursions to help you have a great experience while in the various ports of call.

Cruising is a unique vacation because it offers the chance to board your transportation and then unpack and begin enjoying the vacation while on the way to your destination. Not only do you unpack and begin enjoying yourself, you get to do so one time and not have to repack until your cruise comes to an end. This makes seeing several destinations much easier. Further because the cruise is set up to entertain as well as transport, you will get an opportunity on most cruises to go casual or dress up depending on what you are involved in doing or what dining experience you are taking in.

The cruise experience is not a vacation that can be experienced anywhere other than on a cruise. Even the best land based resorts can’t deliver a cruise experience because the land resort stays in a single location. They can do a fantastic job of delivering the same service levels as on a cruise, but just can’t move you between islands every day. (It doesn’t even need to be islands, it could be historical European cities or the major cruise ports of Alaska.)

Cruising is available to all segments of the population. It is definitely not for the nearly dead and newlyweds only. With different cruise lines working to attract different segments of the cruising population as well as selected segments of the non cruising population there is a line for everyone.  Families have several big lines focusing on that demographic while others focus on luxury and primarily upscale adult cruising. Thus, everyone can cruise. In fact the cruise lines and other vendors have made it possible for those with physical impairments to fairly easily cruise as well. (I’ve seen sign language translators aboard to help passengers recently on a Princess cruise, and know a few years ago one was paid by Carnival to be there to assist my niece.)

I have seen and booked cruisers who travel solo, as retirees, as families, as young newlyweds, and even some who have commented that they hope they live long enough to make the cruise they had me book them eight months out.  All kinds of different people regularly book cruises.  Girls weekends, religiously affiliated friends, and just friends who know each other travel together on cruises. It is a great way to spend some time reconnecting with friends.

Cruising, much like the people who cruise, offers a wide variety of destinations. When most people think about cruises the first place to come to mind is the Caribbean, which is probably the most cruised destination. The Mediterranean is another area very frequently cruised. Mexico, the Middle East, Alaska, Hawaii, Asia, South America, and Northern Europe are all other destinations where getting a cruise is not too difficult to see. Some more difficult destinations but still viable cruise options include India and Africa. Both though are gaining popularity as cruise destinations.

Again, like cruisers and destinations there are plenty of different cruise lines. They differentiate themselves in an effort to capture different market segments. Of course there are usually more than one line that focuses on specific market segments so there is competition among lines for the same cruisers, making for generally better cruise experiences. There are family oriented cruise lines more commonly in the industry called mass market lines. They tend to have the biggest ships and largest fleets. Then there are several more upscale lines which tend to serve a more refined crowd focusing on service levels and food quality more than hitting the most popular destinations. They also tend to sway the onboard experience towards the culinary and higher service level experience.  For the really upscale experience there are various levels of luxury cruise lines.

In addition there are several specialty cruise lines available. These include lines focused on specific destinations such as Alaska where they get to the outback of the destinations. These lines focus on passengers who are most interested in seeing the areas not visited by the big ships. Other boats include paddle-wheelers on US rivers and long boats sailing rivers in Europe, Russia, Asia, and Egypt. Together these specialty lines offer some great unique cruise experiences for those who want the experience offered by the destination above what a huge ship experience offers.

These specialty ships and cruise lines tend to offer different cruise experiences as well. They often get to out of the way areas and explore town and cities not explored by other cruises. The river boats get you into the heart of many cities far from the coast which allows more time to explore these neat places.  In Alaska there are a few small ships which spend tons of time in areas only visited by small ships and private boats allowing much more unique wildlife viewing etc...  Additionally, some lines offer special cruises highly focused on culinary experiences where the guests get significant interaction with the chefs. These chefs are often aboard and hail from the corporate culinary team.

While at sea on these special cruises or on regular mainstream cruises there are always plenty of options. Of course you can relax on any of these cruises. On many there will be plenty of time to worship the sun for better or worse. On scenic cruises there is usually tons of opportunity to view wildlife and beautiful scenery as you sail by.  Culinary demonstrations, galley tours, swimming, movies under the stars, the disco, trivia, athletic competitions, and many more activities occur on sea days and even port days. Thus, it is ultimately up to you what you want to do on any given day.  You can almost always work out every day on the ship running laps around the deck or using the ship’s gym.

When you arrive at the ports of call there will be tons of tour options. These are typically sold by the cruise line aboard the ship, and in some cases they can be bought ahead of time. Other vendors also offer up the opportunity to book shore excursions in some areas ahead of time without going thru the cruise lines. The other option is to book the excursion directly. On these shore excursions there are endless options for what you can do.

Shore excursions range from beach visits to America’s Cup sailboat racing. Ultimately where you sail and what you like to do will dictate what you will choose to do in most ports. There are so many options and they vary so much based on what part of the world you visit. One of my personal favorites is the Salsa Salsa course in Cozumel. There is also a cooking class at Playa Mia which was tons of fun.  Equally fun has been fishing in Alaska and various flight seeing trips we’ve been on there.  Shore excursions are available to fit pretty much everyone’s needs and desires as well as pocketbook.
Cruising is a great way to see the world hanging out with the same crew and passengers most of the cruise. You get to unpack once while visiting different ports and enjoying different experiences on the cruise. While onboard, you will find plenty of activities in which to participate and entertainment for you to enjoy. The dining experiences vary by ship but generally are very good and varied. Overall a cruise vacation is a great way to have a nice vacation at a good value price. Cruising comes in various luxury levels to fit most needs as well.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

What is the best way to know more about the ship I am considering for my vacation?

So you have booked a great cruise and want to know more about where you are going and the ship that is getting you there. These are all fair things to want to know more about. Numerous sources of information exist that will help you learn more about the ship and specifically who is on your sailing. Some sources are great and filled with highly accurate information while others are filled with rhetoric and a push to sell ancillary services. Some sites have lots of information but with the good is just as much bad and misleading information.

The best way to see information specific to your ship is the cruise line web site. Each cruise line has a website with maps of the ship outlining various venues as well as diagrams of most cabin types. That is not to say your cabin layout will be an exact match to the diagram, because many are a flip (mirror image) of the diagram. They are though generally the same size, just with beds, counters, and doors on the opposite side. The balcony generally is in the same place though.

Some websites have been created by individuals with more information about cabins on various ships, be it a class of ship, each ship in a fleet or some similar grouping of ships. These usually have photographs and comments from passengers who have sailed in those cabins or suites previously.  Personally when we booked two Royal Family Suites on Enchantment Of The Seas a few years back, we were able to find a set of photos someone posted of the cabin we were going to use. It helped build excitement for the trip as I was able to circulate the link to the pictures among family members ahead of the family reunion at sea.  These kinds of finds though are somewhat rare and are the exception not the rule.

To get answers to specific questions about your cruise, amenities offered to you on the ship, etc…generally again going to the cruise line website is probably your best option.  Most cruise lines have a FAQ section on their website full of useful information.  Often it’s found in the plan your cruise or pre-cruise section(s) of their web site. The information there is provided by the cruise line thus generally more accurate than what you will get from general information cruise related chat sites.

As I mentioned before, there are various sites where folks chat about cruising. They also offer advice and answers to each other about cruising and specific cruises. These sites offer mixed levels of accurate information, depending on who is answering and their actual level of expertise.  More likely than not if you post a question eventually you will get an accurate answer, but you may not know what answer is correct. Of course then you have to decide what answer was correct. Also, you will see many answers where there are mostly opinions or what happened on one ship which is contrary to policy so may not happen on other ships. Because the information can be spotty and some questions generate a firestorm op different opinions, these sites while helpful to an extent are not the best place to hang your hat on every answer that comes up.

Your best information again, is found on the cruise line websites and they should be your second source of information after your trusted travel agent who booked the cruise for you or will be making that booking.  I do not suggest calling agents for information only and not using them for the booking, as that is stealing their time where they could be helping folks who want to book.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

What should I do in Skagway, Alaska?

Figuring out what to do in various cruise ports is always something folks who love to cruise must face. It can be an easy task to accomplish or difficult depending on how you approach the situation. One thing is for sure, though, it is nearly always a good idea to have some of it figured out ahead of your cruise. Booking independently or thru the cruise line does take advanced planning because once on board you may find your first pick tour is already booked up.
Skagway, Alaska is a great port for those who like natural beauty. It is also great for those who want to see part of the Yukon Territory of Canada.  Skagway is located North of Juneau on the inside passage essentially at the far North end of an area cut out be a glacier many years ago. The area is accessible via roadway connected to Alaska, Canada, and the lower 48 states. In fact from here you can even get all the way to where the road ends South of the Panama Canal.
Skagway was a gold mine oriented town. It was set up primarily as a transportation hub in and out of the Yukon area where gold mining operations were rampant. In fact there is still Gold mining there, but with modern trucks and roadways the Skagway area is less critical than before to those mining operations.  Skagway of present day is mostly a tourist oriented town, in part because there is no fish processing plant there so fishing in that area is primarily for subsistence instead of for commercial purposes.
Skagway is a neat small town with a small group of year round residents. I suspect a visit there in the Winter, one would find many of the stores shut down at the end of tourist season and only the year round shops are open for the locals. To that end, it also means not everything is always right available right when you need it year round.  
Because of the proximity to the Yukon and specifically the White Pass many visitors latch on to the folklore of the gold rush heading out into the mountains to see where the gold rush took folks decades ago. Back then it was quite a hike as compared to now where vehicles make the trip far more palatable. There are both railroad based tours and minibus tours. There are even some full size motorcoach bus tours up the highway into Canada to see the gold rush area.  While at outposts in the Yukon many other activities are available including panning for gold and dog sledding in the Summer training buggies. Both are fun activities, although for me my next dog sledding adventure will be a 2-3 day tour thru the wilderness with outback cabin camping.
In addition to the White Pass railroad and vehicle based tours, there are tours around town and even rafting trips available. The Famous Red Onion Saloon offers shows as well to keep guests in town entertained. Cycling tours down the mountain roads also exist. There are not too many tours from which to choose and several are many hours in length. Overall there is plenty to do there if you want to be active but not so much you can’t get a lot done while there. The helicopter tours are quick and can be coupled with other tours to the White Pass area to make for an enjoyable day.
Tours can be purchased independently or thru the cruise line. Often the prices are not very different between the two unless you do some research ahead. Calling the visitor center and some of the tour shops may get your best deal by booking yourself onto the early tours due to depart immediately after ships arrive.
Overall Skagway is a great place to visit. I’d love to spend a few nights there when we decide to take a month or two to drive the Alaska Highway stopping in various towns along the way. For those going up via cruise ship, there is plenty to do or you can just kick back and walk around town to see what is going on. It is just one of the several fun ports of call on the Alaska Inside passage so go there looking for adventure and enjoy your time there.