Four days in Florida

Mid last week, we headed down to Florida to drop our daughter off at Eckerd College to start her freshman year (if you’re interested, more on that here). Being that her best friend of 10 years is also going to Eckerd, we decided to caravan down there with their family a little early and spend a day at Universal Studios. Before we get to that, however, I’ll mention a little about where we stayed.

Thanks to my daughter’s competitive cheer schedule over the years, we’ve stayed in several hotels in Orlando over the years, usually ones associated with Disney. With this trip not including a Disney stop, we decided to go with a house my wife found on AirBnB. We’ve used AirBnB in the past, most notably last summer when we spend a couple of weeks in SoCal touring colleges, and have never had an issue. This trip was no different. The house is located in a gated community in Haines City, and fit the bill perfectly. We aimed for something outside of Orlando in the direction of St Petersburg on purpose, knowing we’d be making a couple of trips between the house and her college. In hindsight, we probably should have booked something a little closer to St Pete, but considering we paid $500 for 4 nights in a 4 bedroom house that had a pool and hot tub, and were splitting the cost with another family, we were pretty happy.

Back to the trip itself. We spent last Thursday at Universal, and it pretty much lived up to our last trip there. The last visit was right after the Harry Potter section first opened in Islands of Adventure, and suffice it to say the park was way too crowded that day. So much so that it took 20 minutes to walk from the Hogsmeade entrance back to the Forbidden Journey ride. For anyone who’s been there, you know that walk should take closer to 2 minutes, if that. On that day, I think we maybe got 3 rides in across the entire park due to the lines. This time around wasn’t much different.

Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of Universal, but we all had one day left on our passes from that previous visit, and had to use them before the end of the year. For the money, I’d rather spend the day at Disney. At $136/pp for one day, it’s a pretty steep ticket. Yes, that single day price gets you in to both parks, but even with that, I think we only managed to get in 5 rides this time around (total, in both parks) due to lines. We never did try out the new Gringotts rode, as the wait was 240 minutes. None of us were interested in waiting 4 hours for any ride (an employee told us the longest she’d seen so far was 7 hours. Yikes). We did jump in the single riders line, but in the 20 minutes we were in it we never moved, so we cut our losses and headed for the Hogwarts Express to have some fun over in Islands of Adventure.

The positives for us when it comes to Universal:

  • Butterbeer. Yum :)
  • The Harry Potter sections themselves are pretty cool. Very well done on Universal’s part:

Castle Diagon Diagon2 Dragon Hogsmeade

The negatives:

  • The lines. At Disney you can deal with this by utilizing the fast pass. At Universal, they do have an express pass, which brings me to the next negative:
  • The express pass: When we first got to the park, I asked about this, and was quoted $89/pp for a one-time pass, or $109/pp for an unlimited pass for the day we were there (apparently this price fluctuates). Uh, you have to be insane. Not a chance. I know certain hotel guests have that included, but I’m not going to pay more to stay at the Hard Rock just to get an express pass. I made my choice and voted with my wallet, and the likelihood of me going back to Universal is slim in part because of this.
  • The staff. We live close to Carowinds, and rarely go in large part because the employees just don’t seem to have their heads in the game. Universal seems to be approaching that same level of employee discontent. As an example, we ate lunch in the park at Mythos. The wait was about 40min right at lunch rush, no biggie, but as our waitress was walking us to our table, our waiter saw he was getting someone new seated in his area, and very vocally said “you’ve got to be kidding me!”. I get that you very easily could have been overloaded with customers, but as someone who’s in front of customers all day, there’s simply no excuse for complaining like that in front of them. Just one example of what seemed to be a huge difference between the staff at Disney and those at Universal.

All in all we spent around 12 hours at Universal that day, minus heading out to the City Walk area to meet up with a few other people for dinner. Wasn’t a bad way to spend our last day together as a family before dropping my daughter off at college, but as mentioned, I think we all would have preferred Disney :)

Packing for a Cruise

One thing we’ve gotten pretty efficient at over the years is packing. My wife and I maintain separate packing lists with quite a bit of overlap, which is probably somewhat inefficient, but it helps us ensure we don’t forget anything major. I also tend to go over mine two or three times *after* I pack to be sure I didn’t miss anything :). I figured I’d post our combined list in the event it helps anyone looking for cruise packing tips. Have something on your list that’s not on mine? Add it in the comments!

Electronics:

  • Camera gear: I take my Nikon DSLR, lenses and chargers in case I really need them, but the gear doesn’t leave the bag much after getting my Nokia Lumia 1020 last year.
  • Cell phone and charger. The phone stays in airplane mode, but as hinted above, the camera in it is outstanding :)
  • GorillaPod and Lumia 1020 camera grip
  • GoPro gear: Including charger, memory cards, dive housing, floaty back door and anti-fog inserts. The inserts are essential in places with high humidity, and you should have extra inserts to swap out during the trip
  • Power strips: We’ve been taking two of these Belkin travel strips with us the past few cruises. They work really well and we never have issues with them being pulled from the luggage
  • 2 pairs of sunglasses: I always take a backup pair in case something happens to my primary pair
  • Laptop & charger: Note that I only take this if I really need it for some reason, as I hate lugging the additional weight (photo backup is about the only reason)
  • iPad & charger: In addition, I always load up a couple of books in the Kindle app to read during any downtime on sea days
  • Load up some music on my phone to listen to while reading, or during morning runs (yea, right :))
  • Waterproof camera case as a backup in the event the GoPro has issues (this came from experience). I’ve got an older version of this AquaPac, which holds any of our phones

Clothes:

  • Pants
  • Shorts
  • T-shirts
  • Undershirts
  • Dinner shirts
  • Socks / underwear
  • Bathing suits (usually two or three)
  • Pajamas
  • A light jacket or hoodie for cool nights

Shoes:

  • Sandals (usually two pairs)
  • One pair tennis shoes
  • Water sandals, which come in handy for any excursions where you may get wet or muddy (ATV/dune buggy tours, for example)
  • Dinner shoes

Random Stuff:

  • PASSPORTS!!!
  • Toiletries
  • Snorkeling gear. We generally drive to ports, so I don’t have to worry about fitting this in to checked luggage
  • Door organizer to hold all kinds of random items. Ours looks something like this
  • Medication, including any aspirin, ibuprofen, allergy pills, etc
  • Ponchos, just in case it’s raining while you’re in port somewhere
  • Downy wrinkle releaser
  • Zip lock bags. Good for packing wet bathing suits in for the flight or ride home. Also useful for storing snacks to take off o the ship (where allowed)
  • Extra hangers – Some lines will provide them if asked if you don’t want to carry your own
  • Sunscreen
  • Hot/Cold cup with a lid. That way you don’t have to keep refilling up their little cups with water, lemonade, juice, and coffee or ice tea

  • Post-it notes – good for leaving quick notes in the room for family members

  • Cash for on-shore purchases / tipping (including small bills)

  • Nightlight
  • Highlighter so you can highlight the interesting things to do in the ship’s dailies.

  • Duct tape- Many uses for this from fixing a broken suitcase to taping the drawers closed when there is bad weather.
  • Towel clips similar to these Boca clips
  • Old used gift card in case the in-room safe is card-controlled.
  • Waterproof money/card/ID holder similar to this for beach or rainy port days
  • Lanyard for those who find it easier to carry your ship ID card around your neck
  • Hat or visor

I think that about covers it, but if I find that I left anything off, I’ll add it later! Oh, and if this seems like overkill, it may very well be, but it works for us. We did take t0o many clothes this past trip somehow. My wife ended up with almost half a suitcase of stuff she didn’t wear :)

Choosing Cruise Excursions

Alright, with the weekend trip behind me, it’s back to cruise related posts.

After all that time spent finding the cruise we want to book, and selecting the right cabin, our next step is to plan our excursions. My wife’s generally in charge of this one, at least until she’s narrowed it down to a few that look to be the most interesting. One rule of thumb we tend to stick by when starting out: One stop/day must be a beach day. That’s not to say we won’t build in more when everything’s set, just that we want to ensure we at least have one day at the beach on the trip. For anything heading west, that day is usually reserved for whatever stop we have in Mexico, which is usually Cozumel. Beyond that, we’re pretty open to trying new things at the remaining stops.

As far as tour vendors go, we don’t use the cruise-sponsored excursions very often, we generally try to book with a local company. There are some exceptions to that rule, but of the independent tours we’ve done, we’ve never been disappointed in or had issues with the staff. Now, as others will be quick to point out, there are risks in booking with independent operators. Some of the key ones:

  1. If you have to pay anything at the time of booking, odds are you aren’t getting a refund if you have to miss that stop for some reason (generally tender ports where bad weather prevents tendering)
  2. Unlike a cruise-sponsored excursion, the ship will not wait for you if your tour is late getting back. If the tour requires a long drive away from port, be sure to check past reviews to see if that could be an issue.
  3. There’s going to be some level of uncertainty until you’re actually on the tour, since you don’t really know what to expect when you first arrive.

Number one hasn’t been an issue for us to date, as we usually book with tour companies that don’t require up-front payment, and we’ve only ever had to miss one port due to weather. Number two is always in the back of our minds, but in all the excursions we’ve done in different countries, we’ve never had an issue. Remember, cruisers are a key source of livelihood for the tour operators, and if they don’t get you back, they know people will hear about it and look elsewhere.

Number three, now that’s been the fun one for us. When you book with an independent operator, you’re generally basing your choice on their description along with online reviews (more on that later). There’s no cruise line certifying things are safe, that the operator is reputable, etc, so until we’re actually doing whatever tour or activity we booked, that little piece of uncertainty is there in your mind. In fact, some of our most fun excursions started out a bit hairy, so to speak :). To give a couple of examples:

When we were on our Mexico cruise in 2008, my wife booked the three of us, along wither her boss and his wife, on an Argo ATV tour while we were docked in Puerto Vallarta. That ended up being one of the best tours we’ve ever done, but the hour leading up to it was nerve racking. When we booked, we were given instructions on how to get to their office once we got off the boat. It was a walk of just under a mile to some small office building in some pretty humid conditions. Once there, we checked in, and waited for a bit for the van to come get us and take us to the ranch. The 45 minute drive to the ranch made us all a bit nervous initially. We were driving through parts of the area that I’m betting none of the cruise excursions did, over very old, worn down roads, and through very poor towns. At one point, my wife’s boss looked at her with this “what did you get us in to” kind of stare. I have to say that it was all worth it though, we all had a blast, and it was a definite reminder of how lucky we are to have been born where we were.

Argo Argo2 Argo3

My second example is one we did this past Thanksgiving. We’d pre-booked a dune buggy tour in the Dominican Republic through Pro Excursions. We knew ahead of time that it may be a bit chaotic getting to their facility due to the port situation, but even knowing that, were still a bit stressed. The dock Carnival uses is controlled by someone who wants full control over the tour operators allowed at his dock. It’s rumored that he’s got a deal with the lines who use his dock to not allow non-cruise line affiliated tour operators access to it, so when you get off, you have to make your way to the taxi stand, and find the correct taxis to get you where you’re going. Because of the way the taxi/bus area is set up, it can be a bit of a nightmare to find the right ones, especially when it’s crowded. There were others from our ship looking for the same transportation, so working together we managed to find the one we needed after a bit of work. Our transportation to the Pro Excursions building was included in the tour cost, so we didn’t want to end up having to pay for transportation a second time by getting in the wrong cab. Anyway, once we got past that nuisance, we were good. Again, that was one of the best excursions we’ve ever done, and we absolutely loved the Pro Excursions staff. I’ve got plenty of GoPro footage to back that up just how fun that was :).

Buggies Buggies2 Buggies3 Buggies4

The moral of the story here is that while there will be uncertainty, if you do your homework, the odds of an issue popping up will be minimalized. Honestly, our worst excursion was a cruise line sponsored one in Jamaica 8 year ago, where my daughter ended up injured, so issues can happen with official tours, too (saving that for another post).

So how do you find a good tour operator? Research :). This is no different than booking the cruise or finding a cabin. The more you put in to it, the more you get out of it. My wife generally starts in the Ports of Call forums on Cruise Critic. She’ll go one stop at a time, making a list of the most interesting things to do at each stop, and then discuss them with us. We do also look at cruise line excursions for ideas, and to be sure that there isn’t something cool they offer that no local operator does. We’re pretty methodical with this, and narrow it down to one to two activities at each port (we’ll have a backup ready in case the initial activity is booked). Once we have that, we start looking at tour operators, which is again where the CC boards I linked above come in. That area of their forums seems to be less polluted with complainers than the cruise line boards, thankfully, and to date have never led us astray. We also use sites like TripAdvisor, and general internet searches of the different tour operators and tours to get an idea of how others liked them and what sort of problems (if any) arose.

Once all that’s compiled, we book the tours. By that time, we know whether or not the tour operator requires any payment up front, and while we generally don’t like to pay it all ahead of time, we have no issue putting down a small deposit to secure our spot. In many cases, even that isn’t necessary, but when it has been it’s never been a large amount. I hesitate to say we would never use an operator that required up-front payment in full, but we’d limit our exposure as much as possible by not doing it at tender ports, checking to see how many times in the past the ship had to miss that port, seeing if the operator refunded anything if you did miss it, etc. It’s all about limiting risk.

In the end, we’re obviously partial to independent tours, but will go with the option we feel provides the best value and fun for the money. The independent ones we’ve been on have resulted in a much more personal experience, where you don’t end up herded on and off a tour bus all day like cattle. The independent operators tend to take pretty good care of you, and show you more than you’d see otherwise. Your mileage may vary, of course, so as always, I suggest doing your homework when deciding on an independent vs ship sponsored tour. There’s plenty of info out there to help you decide!

Oh, and the main picture at the top of the page was taken in Grand Turk during our helicopter tour this past Thanksgiving. That’s one we didn’t book until we were already off the ship, and the operator cut us a deal as we had 4 of us going up. Another awesome adventure!

Weekend Trip to Woodward

Earlier in the week, my wife decided she wanted to go up to Woodward, PA for the weekend to see our daughter. It’s been almost a month since we dropped her off there after our Bermuda cruise, and she was missing her quite a bit. I admit I was against it at first, since she’s headed off to college in Florida next month, and being away from her for more than a month at a time was something we all needed to get used to. In the end, I lost the battle, and I admit it was one I was fine with losing. I miss her too :)

Camp Woodward is a cheer / gymnastics / action sports camp about 30 minutes outside of State College, PA. She’s been going there for six years now for cheer, first as a camper, then as a junior camper (basically low-level staff who work the cost of camp off), and now as staff. We generally stay on the south end of State College, as it’s an easy drive over from there. This time was no different, as we booked a last minute deal on Hotwire for the Courtyard. There really weren’t many hotel options to choose from, as the town was pretty booked up for some reason (more on that later). The night before we left, we also decided to rent a car for the trip, as we’ve been putting a ton of miles on my wife’s car lately, and I’m getting ready to sell mine, so I didn’t really feel like putting 1200+mi on it right before doing so. Fortunately, Priceline had a pretty good deal on a full size that made it worth the money when comparing fuel costs of that one vs my wife’s Ford Flex. The only downside is that the fairly well loaded Chevy Malibu we ended up with wasn’t nearly as comfortable on a long drive as her Flex. We had the same car for two weeks last summer in SoCal when we were out there touring colleges, and really didn’t find that one comfortable either. Oh well, it saved money, as well as wear and tear on her car.

Friday afternoon, we headed out of Charlotte around 2:30pm. It’s generally an 8-9 hour drive to State College with stops, but thanks to some heavy traffic on I-81N just past Christiansburg, it ended up being around 10 hours. We generally take the same route to Woodward for a couple of reasons. First, my dad lives in New Market, VA, which is about half way there. If something happens, or we get a late start or decide to stop for any other reason, we’ve got a place to stay. The second reason is that Harrisonburg, just south of him, is home to one of our favorite ice cream stops, Kline’s Dairy Bar. My dad wasn’t working Friday, so he met us at the Wolfe St location for a treat. I got vanilla in a pretzel cone, and it was absolutely delicious (I love their pretzel cones)

Klines

After finishing that, we moved on. The rest of the drive was pretty uneventful, and we crashed hard after arriving at the Marriott Courtyard around midnight. The room itself was a standard Courtyard room, and the staff were very helpful and friendly.  Not really much to report there :)

The next morning around 7:30am, we headed to Woodward to pick up our daughter and her boyfriend (he works there too). As soon as we saw her, I was pretty happy to have lost the battle on whether or not we should have gone, as I hope  the picture conveys

Woodward

After a couple of long hugs, we loaded up in the car and headed for Hershey. In all the times we’ve driven up to Woodward, we’d never stopped to see the sights in Hershey, so we decided to head over there to see what we’d been missing. We wanted to keep the costs down, so we weren’t headed to Hershey Park itself, just to Chocolate World (free admission) and to Zoo America ($11/pp).

We chose to go to Zoo America first while it was still somewhat cool out. The place was pretty cool. It’s not a huge zoo, but a good enough size to keep you occupied for a couple of hours. We walked the loop, and even managed to catch the scheduled 11am feeding of the wolves.

ZooAmericaBear Tree Turtles Wolf

After a couple of hours there, we headed for the car to drive over to our next stop, Hershey’s Chocolate World. As mentioned, you can get in for free (including parking), although they do have different activities inside that they charge for. We stuck with the basics, just doing the free Great American Chocolate Tour ride, and walking around checking the place out. We did buy a couple of things in one of the stores, and even got some milkshakes. The shakes were incredible. Most of us got the dark chocolate peanut butter shake, which was excellent, and incredibly filling.

Tour Factory Hersheys ReeseCup

After a couple of hours there, we hopped in the car and headed over to the Museum on Chocolate Avenue for a quick bite of lunch at Café Zooka before heading back to State College.

After the long drive back to State College, we decided to relax a bit at the hotel. The kids didn’t have to be back at camp until later in the evening, so we still had plenty of time to do other stuff. After resting for a bit, we decided to head down the street to the People’s Choice Festival, situated near the Pennsylvania Military Museum. This was one of two arts festivals going on this past weekend, as Arts Fest was also going on in the downtown area. These were the reason for the hotel shortage in the area apparently :). The People’s Choice Festival was closer to the hotel, so we walked around that for a while. Cool stuff, plenty of homemade art and other items to buy, along with some traditional carnival food options. We had dinner plans, so we avoided the food, but enjoyed the walk through the festival nonetheless.

Fair Fair2

After we finished up there, we finally headed to dinner. We already had a place in mind, somewhere we stop every time we’re in State College, Hi Way Pizza. They offer an excellent flaky crust pizza that the wife and I really enjoy. We’ve tried some of the other popular pizza places in town, but always end up back here :).

Pizza

After a delicious dinner, we had one last stop on the schedule, Berkey Creamery on the Penn State campus. This is another staple for us in State College, as they make some really good ice cream. As usual, the line was out the door, but they do a good job of getting people through quickly with the way you order and pay. We definitely recommend stopping here if you’re in the area for any reason.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Swirl Mint chocolate chip in my daughter's cone, and Lime sherbet in her boyfriend's cup

Our ice cream gone, it was time to drop the kids back at camp and head back to the hotel for some sleep. They both had to be up early to greet incoming campers, so they needed their beauty sleep as much as we needed to rest before the long drive home. Before we headed out of town Sunday morning, we picked up a dozen donuts for her group and drove to Woodward on the way home. Well, it’s not exactly on the way home, but gave us one last chance to see her :)

Woodward Woodward2

Once we said our goodbyes, the wife and I headed home. The drive back was pretty uneventful, and we managed to do it in less than 9 hours, stopping only for lunch. For now it’s back to reality, but we’ll be doing that drive again in two weeks when we go up to get her and bring her home. Yea, it was a lot of driving to only see her one day, but in the end it was well worth it. I love hanging out with her, and as mentioned, will miss her immensely when she’s away at school, so I relish any time we get to spend with her before then. Considering she’ll only be home from Woodward for 10 days before we have to take her to Florida, there’s not much time left. We definitely appreciate the staff at Woodward giving her the day off to spend with us :)

Cabin Selection – What’s the Big Deal?

One of the most stressful parts of booking a cruise for me is cabin selection. As my wife can attest to, I generally put more time in on this than I do cruise selection, and I tend to change my mind more than once along the way.

So what’s the big deal? Why not just select a category and go along with whatever default cabin the booking site selects? Well, for me, the last thing I want to do is end up spending all that money and have the family annoyed by the cabin we end up in. Our first few cruises were group ones with the staff of my wife’s office. Her boss was very generous with them, and if they made goal for the year, he’d take the staff on a vacation, which most of the time was a cruise. On those, I never had cabin selection, we basically went with whatever the travel agent he used gave us. We never really ended up with bad cabins, I’d say, but nothing memorable, either.

Prior to our Thanksgiving cruise on the Freedom in 2011, I’d never actually done any cabin selection research. When we booked that one, I felt somewhat overwhelmed. We knew that within our budget, we could only afford interior or certain ocean view classes. With the available ocean view cabins in our budget being the two lowest decks, I started researching interior options higher up the ship. After a long hunt, I settled on an interior on the Panorama deck, room 1053. It seemed like an interesting location, being one deck above Lido and in the forward section of the ship. This area also seemed like it would have less foot traffic with a smaller number of cabins in that section. Here’s a shot of the deck plan, with our cabin circled in red:

FreedomCabin

We absolutely loved that location. It had the added benefit of quick access to the “secret deck” on that floor that very few people ventured out to, so it was almost like having your own balcony at the front of the ship. One of the really nice things about this location was having easy access to the outside areas of the upper decks. No waiting for an elevator, walking down a long hall, etc. Just walk out the door, turn right, and head out to deck. It was also a very quiet location, I don’t recall ever hearing anyone running, or any voices, and never heard any noise from the Lido deck. That became our new favorite area for a cabin.

When it came time to select a cabin for our Thanksgiving 2012 cruise on the Legend (also my 40th birthday), I went through another lengthy hunt. This time, our budget allowed for a balcony, which complicated things a bit. We’d never had a balcony, and after reading so many people say how they’d never go back to an interior/oceanview after having a balcony, we finally decided to try one. I’m pretty sure I took even longer finding the right one, as I now had drifting cigarette smoke to worry about. The last thing we wanted was to end up with smoke blowing back on us from any cabin ahead, as non of us can really stand cigarette smoke. After a long hunt, I decided on 4204, which had a group of lifeboats in front of it, meaning there were no balconies immediately ahead of us to worry about:

LegendCabin

No complaints on that cabin either, and that lifeboat right ahead of it doesn’t detract from the view in any way, as shown in the Photosynth I did of the balcony while we were in port in Roatan. I will say that we never got the “once you go balcony, you’ll never go back” feeling from it thought. It was nice having it, and we got some great views, but just weren’t wowed to that level.

Moving on, when deciding on a cabin for our Thanksgiving 2013 sailing on the Breeze, we once again found ourselves a little budget constrained, limiting us to inside or oceanview. Somehow I managed to get us booked in to 11203, which is a forward room on the Spa deck, which also meant we got the Spa cabin ammenities:

BreezeCabin

As we discovered later, this is categorized as handicapped accessible, something not indicated on the site we used to book. We didn’t even realize it until a week or so before the cruise when I changed the bed layout to king on Carnival’s site. Regardless, the room was huge, with plenty of space to move around in, and the same went for the bathroom. The window was pretty good sized, and looked out the right front side of the ship. Additionally, this room also had very easy access to the “secret door”, basically giving us an almost private forward balcony. Just turn right out of the room, and walk out the door :).

Finally, the room selection on our most recent cruise on the Celebrity Summit. This one was a bit of a nightmare through our own doing. When we booked this cruise, I did so with the understanding it would just be the three of us, and our budget allowed for anything up to (and including) a Sky Suite, and having never stayed in a suite, we decided to give it a shot. Adding that in made it far more difficult, as the Sky Suites available were all on deck 6, which frankly didn’t appear to give really clean views of the ocean below due to the presence of lifeboats right below the cabins. After a long process of trying to hunt down pictures, asking advice on the Celebrity forum on CC (which I never did get a response to :) ), and reading reviews, I finally settled on 6128, towards the aft:

CelebrityCabinNo1

Pretty sure that decision took me about a week to make, which all turned out to be a waste of time. About a month later, we (and by “we”, I mean my wife and daughter) decided it’d be fine to bring her boyfriend with us. His parents had agreed to pay for him to come along, and since they hardly ever see each other (they live in another state), we agreed. The problem at that point was that a Sky Suite only sleeps three. That left us with two options, look for something in a lower category that sleeps four, or he can book a single. We ended up choosing the latter, at least initially, as the Family Veranda rooms weren’t available when we called initially. That brought us another snag, you can’t book a single if you’re under 21, and he’s only 18. My wife called the travel agent, who conferenced in Celebrity, and we finally got things set. My wife would be listed in the single interior on deck 2, and the rest of us would be in the suite. When we got on board, we’d switch it up and just have him stay in the interior, which Celebrity said would be fine.

All set, right? Not quite.

About a month before the cruise, I noticed that the family veranda rooms (which sleep up to 5) had opened up. We decided we liked the idea of having us all together, especially since it was his first cruise, so my wife called our agent back. Again, I had to do more research before-hand to see which one of the available FV cabins we wanted, but we ended up moving all of us to 9156, an aft corner FV:

CelebrityCabinNo2

That room was awesome, and we’d finally found a balcony that gave us the “yea, it’ll be hard to go back” feeling. As I mentioned in my review of the ship, there are plenty of pictures of this room available here, and you’re more than welcome to check out my Photosynth of that balcony to get an idea of how big it is, and how wide of a field of view you get. I’d definitely jump on an aft-wrap room again if the budget allowed. The picture I have set as the featured one at the top of this post was shot off the balcony showing the sunrise as we approached Bermuda. We spent a ton of time, including multiple breakfasts and dinners, enjoying that aft view.

So really, cabin selection boils down to the following for me. I want a cabin that meets as many of the following criteria as possible:

  • Provides easy access to upper decks whenever possible. That 10-15 second walk to Lido on the Freedom, Breeze and Summit was awesome!
  • Has as little foot traffic as possible, so we’re not peppered with loud talking / running kids all night. This means selecting something in an area with few cabins, or even at the aft of the ship.
  • If we have a balcony, one that isn’t going to be impacted by smokers, whether they be from another balcony, or from an open deck below. Tip for those wanting to avoid smoke: Most lines only allow smoking on the open decks on one side of the ship. Find out what side that is, and choose the other one if your cabin is near an open deck.
  • Another balcony wish: Has a clean view of the ocean, with no lifeboats in front or below that might obstruct the view
  • If choosing an oceanview, ensure it isn’t so low that we might get to watch waves coming and going over the window (that’s the only thing that’s caused my wife’s motion sickness to pop up so far)
  • Won’t be subject to noise from anything above or below the cabin

That last one is a big one for me. Some of the most common complaints I hear about cabins center around ones situated above or below active areas of the ship. For example: below the gym, directly above or below the main theater or clubs, near the galley, or for higher cabins, below busy decks where you might encounter scraping chairs, noise from sports courts, etc. Our last two cabins, on the Breeze and Summit, violated that rule, but I did a ton of research online to prepare myself. For the Breeze, we were directly below the fitness center, and yes, if you were in the cabin during the day, there was the occasional noise from some of the equipment, but it was never an issue, and we never heard anything in the evenings. On the Summit, we were directly below the outdoor aft bar area. We did hear chairs being moved from time to time, but it was pretty quiet and was never an issue, even for someone like me who’s oversensitive to stuff like that. I’d stay in either one of those rooms again without question. On the Summit, there was one nice benefit of being there. In the evenings, they have live music, so you can sit out on the balcony and enjoy some relaxing tunes :).

So what do I do to find that perfect room?

  • Scour the Cruise Critic boards for the line we’re looking at. In several cases, I’ve found pics of a given room in one or more of those threads, or have been able to get members to send pics simply by asking about a room on the boards.
  • Also check cabin reviews on Cruise Critic
  • Run a search in Google or Bing, as someone may have written about the cabin in a blog
  • Search photo sharing sites like Flikr, Photobucket, etc for pictures of the cabin. I found a ton of pictures of our Summit cabin that way, including exterior shots showing where it was, what sort of view it provided, etc.
  • And finally, spend hours going through all that data to make an educated guess on what the best cabin will be within our budget.

I think that about covers it. I know I probably obsess over cabin selection more than I should, but I’m that way with anything I’m spending large sums of money on. If you have any suggestions to add, feel free to comment!

Choosing a Cruise

Now that I’m done with posts on our last cruise, I figured I’d walk through our selection process for choosing one. This is something that has evolved over the past few years as we’ve visited more ports, had more sea days, and really taken a look at what it is we like about cruising. Note that these are all subjective and obviously won’t be the same for everyone. We want to get the best bang for our buck and visit places we’ve never been, so we’re not really loyal to one line. We certainly don’t choose a cruise based on loyalty programs, as we like to get a taste of all lines and experience the different things they have to offer while enjoying our time together. So how do we choose? Going in order of importance:

 

Itinerary

This always comes first when we start looking. We weed out the vast majority of cruises in the first couple of days based on itinerary alone, and usually end up with 6-8 cruises that we spend the next few days applying other criteria to. While a cruise we select might go to one or two ports we’ve already been to, we’ve never repeated an entire itinerary. That’s not to say we won’t, and we certainly have a couple in mind we’d like to repeat, it’s just that we like to visit new ports whenever possible.

When reviewing itineraries, we also look at the number of sea days. All three of us enjoy those days at sea, as they provide plenty of time to unwind. The best itineraries in our eyes provide a good balance of sea days and ports, as we find having several ports back to back can make things run together and be tiring. Our favorite cruise to date provided an outstanding mix of ports and sea days, and that was our 2011 Thanksgiving cruise on the Carnival Freedom. That itinerary consisted of:

  • Leave Ft Lauderdale
  • Sea day
  • Cozumel, Mexico
  • Sea day
  • Limon, Costa Rica
  • Colon, Panama
  • Sea day
  • Sea day
  • Arrive Ft Lauderdale

Only having two back to back stops was great, and we loved having two sea days on the end to decompress. Having stops in Costa Rica and Panama was outstanding as well, we loved both stops as I hope I properly expressed in my reviews of both ports.

As another part of our itinerary hunt, we generally hit the “ports of call” forums on Cruise Critic to get an idea of what types of activities people do at a given stop, and to get an idea of what the port area is like.

 

Price

Once we have a few cruises on the list based on itinerary, we start to narrow that down by price. The list usually includes at least 2 or 3 cruise lines, as we don’t cruise for loyalty benefits, so we can usually knock it down further pretty quickly based on price. Now that’s not to say we’re always going with the cheapest cruise, it’s more about combining this with the next item, cabin selection. It just so happens that three of the four previous cruises we’ve done have been on Carnival, and it’s due in large part to what we could get in an itinerary and cabin selection within our budget.

 

Cabin Selection

This and price go hand in hand for us. I spend hours pouring over cabin options to try and get us in to the perfect cabin within our budget. I’m definitely not one who’s happy just booking and seeing where we our room is after we board, I do as much research as possible on a cabin before I book. I’ll go into more detail on cabin selection in a different post, but when we’re booking, I’ll be looking to get the best cabin I can within our price range, so if we decide we want to be in a particular section of the ship, like the upper few decks forward, for example, I narrow our list down further based on available cabins and pricing in that section of the ship. Honestly, this part has been a major factor in two of our past three Thanksgiving cruises not being on Royal Caribbean, as we’re not as fond of the layout of their upper decks. I’ll be sure to cover that in my cabin selection post as well.

 

On Board Activities

As part of our enjoyment of sea days, we like to make sure that the ships we’re looking at are active ones. We’ll spend a bunch of time reading through past reviews, as well as different forums for each line, to see what people have to say about the activities on board. I’ll admit that we did give this one less importance in booking the Summit to Bermuda, as our cruise line choices based on the dates we had available were slim, and there was no way I could have talked my wife and daughter in to sailing NCL again (a topic for another post :)). This last one aside, we’ve learned that the energy on a ship during the sea days is an important factor for us. Now, I do take my sources of information with a grain of salt, especially posts in cruise forums. It seems boards like those on Cruise Critic have turned in to a place where people either spend their time complaining about their chosen line’s loyalty program, or playing “fanboy” and bashing anybody who says anything bad about their line. The most time consuming part about going through reviews and forum posts is sifting through the noise to get to the truly objective reviews.

 

Past Reviews of the Itinerary and ship

This happens in conjunction with the previous item, as we spend a bunch of time reading those reviews and forum posts to see what people thought of the stops and the ship. I will say that this isn’t an exact science, and we do learn from our mistakes here. Our 2012 Thanksgiving cruise on the Carnival Legend was a perfect example, as the majority of the reviewers seemed to love the ship, and many had cruised multiple times specifically because of how much they liked it. I have to say, none of us agreed. It never seemed crowded, which was a plus, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to sail on it again unless it was a really solid itinerary.

 

I think that about covers it for us. People choose cruises for varying reasons, but my biggest tip here is to know what you want out of your time on board, and book the appropriate itinerary and cruise line accordingly. While I get the desire to be spontaneous, these things aren’t cheap, so I like to know what I’m getting myself in to before I drop the money on it. In cases like this last cruise where we really wanted to see Bermuda, we’ll adjust some of the other priorities accordingly, but for the most part I’ll stick to the criteria set forth above. Do you have additional things you look at? Feel free to add it in the comments to share with others!

As I’ve alluded to a couple of times, I’m fairly methodical when it comes to cabin selection, so my next post will give some insight into what I look for when choosing one.

Visiting Bermuda – Day 3

From the start, we’d decided to hold off on going to the beach until the last day. Most of what we’d read going in suggested not going on day 1, as that was the busiest time, so we decided to heed the warning. As mentioned in my last post, we’d stopped by the watersports booth at the docks the evening before and booked an early morning jet-ski tour, so we had that on tap as well.

We got up a little before 7, and headed up to Lido for a quick breakfast after getting ready. We were supposed to have room service delivery before 7am, but it didn’t show. I think they finally got to the room at 7:30, but by that time we’d already grabbed some food from the buffet. The meeting time for our jet ski tour was 7:45, and even with the kids being slow to get moving, we made it on time. Upin arrival, they went over some basic safety procedures, gave us all life vest, and we hung out for a few minutes while they prepped the jet skis. Once they were ready, we boarded in groups. My wife and I on one, and my daughter and her boyfriend on another. There were a handful of others in our group as well, so once we were on, we did slow circles in the harbor while we waited for everyone else.

Here’s where I should stop and make an important point. If you can’t swim, you probably shouldn’t be out in the ocean on a jet ski. One of the couples in our group included a woman who apparently can’t swim, and in true Murphy’s Law form, as soon as they got on the ski and were pushed off the dock, they rolled it. With the ski completely upside down, they were left to climb back up on the dock. We felt for the woman, after she got helped back on the dock, she sat there hugging the railing for a bit. I’m sure that was terrifying, but it would have been far more scary if it had happened while we were well off shore. The man with her decided to come out on his own, and seemed to have a blast.

Back to the tour itself, we took a 75min tour of that section of the island with one of the guides from KS Watersports. It was spectacular, taking us into Ely’s Harbor, and then out to the HMS Vixen, which was intentionally sunk out there in the late 1800s. While at the shipwreck, the guide feeds some bread to some local fish as well, and they know it. A ton of fish were out there hanging around waiting on it, and once he threw the bread, they were swarming like a bunch of piranhas going after it. After that, we circled back around and came around the end of the dock area, which gave us great views of the two cruise ships. Here are a few screen grabs from my GoPro that I’d strapped to the front of the ski, including one showing the swarm of fish when bread was thrown their way.

Bridge Fish Returning Shipwreck ThumbsUp

Again, it was a great tour, well worth the money. Our guide was excellent, and when he noticed that we were kinda stuck behind a couple of slower skis early on, told us he was fine with us breaking out of line to pass them and go faster if we wanted. I love jet skis, and was more than happy hit full throttle and oblige :). Good times were had by all!

Our tour over, it was time to hop the #7 bus for Horseshoe Bay Beach. Upon arrival, it really didn’t seem that crowded to us. Up near the entrance where the food/showers/restrooms are was where most people seemed to be set up, but walking down the beach a bit wasn’t an issue. Before doing so, we decided to climb the rocks to get a cool view of the beach. The first two shots are from the top of the rock, the last is looking back at the rock itself after we walked down the beach a bit

BeachFromTheRock TopOfTheRockTheRock

After we got back down, we decided to walk down the beach. Having read up on Horseshoe before we came, I knew that if we walked past the end of the beach, we’d hit a section of small coves, and a smaller beach that few people would be on, so that’s what we did, and it was well worth it. While it was still very humid, it was a beautiful day. We found a little spot on the beach with an overhang, and set up shop.

Beach Beach2 beach3 Cove

One tip, and this is probably an obvious one since they have a captive audience: bring your own food if you can. The food at the stand is fairly expensive, which we expected going in. We just didn’t have time to stop and get something on the way.

Horseshoe is awesome, and we were glad we chose it. We’d hoped to make it to Church Bay beach in the early afternoon, but were so happy with Horseshoe that we decided to stay put. Just gives us something to do next time! Anyway, about 2pm, we decided to head back to the ship so we could clean up and be out on deck for sail away. I will say that when you’re already hot and tired, the hike back up the hill to the bus stop is brutal. I admit I wanted to pay the $2 per person to take the shuttle that short distance, but was overruled. We hiked back up, and were met with a large line for the bus back to the dock. Once again, the local transportation board was prepared. While we had to wait 10-15min for it, they had an empty bus ready to go as an express back to the dock.

Once back at the dock, the kids got off at Clocktower Mall to stop and get some fudge from the shop in there (excellent fudge, btw). After they got off, we all realized that I had their passports, so I hung out over by the ship and waited for them to walk back over. While waiting, I snapped one last shot of the ships:

Ship Panoramic

Once they arrived, we headed back to board the ship one last time. As I hope I’ve conveyed in the past few posts, we had an awesome trip, and absolutely loved Bermuda. It’s a beautiful island with incredibly friendly residents, and we definitely plan to visit again!