Touring the Getaway

As mentioned, the Florida trip I’ve been writing about wasn’t for pleasure, we were down there in training for our CruiseOne franchise. I’ll cover that more in my next post, but back to the trip, the week ended with a tour of the Norwegian Getaway. We’d never done a ship tour like this before, so we weren’t sure what to expect, but I have to say that we really enjoyed it.

First, a ship tour gives you the high of getting on a cruise ship and the low of getting off all in the span of about 3 hours. It was surreal standing in the passenger boarding area waiting for our guide to come get us, and I admit to being jealous of all those who were about to get on and get out of town for a week. Here I was, standing there dressed in business casual, watching a whole bunch of people walking by in shorts and sandals. Made me want to book something right then and there.

Once our guide arrived and all of our people made it through security, we headed for the gangway. We were boarding shortly after the previous guests had disembarked, and right before new passengers started getting on board. With this in mind, they hustled us up pretty fast to The Haven, one of the areas I was interested in the most.  We needed to get through the show cabins and off those floors fast, as those guests board first, and they obviously don’t want us trapsing through guest rooms as those guests are arriving. Now, my interest in seeing this area is because I’m somewhat skeptical of the “ship within a ship” concept that The Haven presents, especially as more lines move to similar models. I can see the pluses (no chair hogs, a quieter pool area) but I’m also not really the kind of guest that this model fits. I like being out and active and participating in the on board activities, so I’m not really sure I’d spend much time in this area, outside of when we’re in our room. I could very well be making poor assumptions about The Haven, so maybe it’s something you have to experience first hand. In any case, I admit to being impressed with the rooms we saw. The one thing that really intrigued me were the forward balconies, which provide an awesome view. It would seem you’d potentially get a ton of wind out there on some days, making the balcony less useful, but that’s only based on my experience on the forward outside areas on some Carnival ships. If anyone’s stayed in one of NCLs forward balconies and can comment, feel free to add your input. Anyway, here are a few shots from the rooms we saw on the Haven floors:

WP_20141018_11_19_03_Pro WP_20141018_11_20_31_Pro WP_20141018_11_21_39_Pro WP_20141018_11_21_55_Pro

 

 

 

 

 

 

WP_20141018_11_25_42_Pro WP_20141018_11_24_57_Pro WP_20141018_11_24_45_Pro WP_20141018_11_24_00_Pro

 

 

 

 

 

 

WP_20141018_11_28_20_Pro WP_20141018_11_28_44_Pro WP_20141018_11_29_06_Pro

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moving on, after we finished in The Haven, we moved on to touring regular cabins. For the most part, they were pretty standard fare, with the exception of the spa cabins. Interesting location for the tub :)

WP_20141018_11_33_09_Pro

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another set of cabins that stood out were the solo cabins, in an area aptly named the Studio. Solo cabins are somewhat rare on contemporary lines, so offering up a cabin where single cruisers only pay a single rate is a plus. Yes, the cabin’s noticeably smaller, but still, you’re not paying up to 200% of a single fare to cruise alone. The Studio also comes with access to a private lounge area, and frankly, the decor of the area is pretty well done, imo. I managed to get a shot of one of the rooms while we were in there:

WP_20141018_11_42_49_Pro

 

 

 

 

 

 

After we finished our cabin tour, it was time for lunch. The Getaway has plenty of food options, and the one set up for our group that day was Taste. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but we’ve only been on NCL one other time, and were far from impressed with the MDR food. We were part of a large group on that sailing, and no one in the group liked it, especially the foodie. The specialty restaurants were good on that trip, but having to pay for decent food left a bad taste in our mouth (pun intended ;-) ). This was the other part of the tour I was really interested in, as I wanted to see first-hand just how much the food has changed. In short: I was pleasantly surprised. We had a full menu, 3 courses. I had the chicken nachos as my appetizer, meatball sub as my meal, and the peanut butter cup cheesecake for dessert. All delicious, except the fries. They were okay, but tasted like they’d been grabbed off the pool grill.

 

WP_20141018_12_27_09_Pro WP_20141018_12_37_20_Pro WP_20141018_12_55_25_Pro

 

 

 

 

 

 

After lunch, we had an hour left to tour the ship on our own, all while guests who had boarded were also walking around, which gave us a sense of how crowded a ship this size might be. Things we found:

  • The ship is very family friendly, which didn’t come as much of a surprise. We chatted with the staff in the kids clubs, who all seemed like they were very good at what they did.
  • The spa staff was just as friendly, and not just to us, but to all of the actual guests they were talking to. This was a big departure from the experience we had with the spa staff on our last cruise on Celebrity, who weren’t friendly at all.
  • The ship is lloooonnngggg. We walked one floor of cabins from end to end, and frankly, it felt like we’d never get to the end.
  • Outside of the previous bullet, the ship never felt “too big” like I was afraid a ship that can hold 4000 passengers would. We walked around the buffet after the vast majority of boarding had taken place, but people seemed to be flowing pretty well. This held true in most other areas as well.
  • The decor is well done compared to other ships in class. Didn’t come off as the normal, classic cruise ship gaudy.
  • The staff, including our guide, were all super friendly. Yes, I get that wearing our guest badges gave them indication that we were likely in the travel business, and they may have stepped up their game, but I’d like to think they were being genuine, and seeing the way they interacted with the regular guests, I’m leaning towards that.

Honestly, after touring the Getaway, we’d be interested in trying it on an actual cruise. I realize that 3 hours on-board really isn’t enough to pass true judgement, but it was enough time to get me interested in trying NCL again after swearing them off 8 years ago. It was also enough time to make me miss being on a cruise :)

Here are a few more pics from our tour. Sorry some of these are blurry, we were constantly on the move, and I was doing my best not to get in the way of any their actual guests.

WP_20141018_11_59_47_Pro WP_20141018_12_00_33_Pro WP_20141018_12_00_40_Pro WP_20141018_12_01_41_Pro WP_20141018_12_02_20_Pro WP_20141018_13_31_30_Pro WP_20141018_13_35_53_Pro WP_20141018_13_36_15_Pro WP_20141018_13_37_39_Pro WP_20141018_13_37_53_Pro WP_20141018_13_39_48_Pro WP_20141018_13_40_52_Pro WP_20141018_13_42_32_Pro WP_20141018_13_44_36_Pro WP_20141018_13_47_49_Pro WP_20141018_13_49_08_Pro WP_20141018_13_49_40_Pro WP_20141018_13_50_06_Pro WP_20141018_13_50_32_Pro WP_20141018_13_55_53_Pro WP_20141018_13_56_31_Pro WP_20141018_13_58_58_Pro WP_20141018_13_59_18_Pro WP_20141018_14_00_32_Pro WP_20141018_14_01_40_Pro WP_20141018_14_02_30_Pro WP_20141018_14_20_11_Pro WP_20141018_14_20_55_Pro WP_20141018_14_21_14_Pro WP_20141018_14_22_24_Pro WP_20141018_14_23_40_Pro

 

Another Trip to Florida, Part 3

I wanted to be sure to cover the food we had on the trip. Being that we were there for training, we only had to cover dinners for ourselves. Breakfast was covered by hotel vouchers, and lunch was catered at CruiseOne’s facility. One pitfall of travelling for me is that I take full advantage of being able to eat out. I love food, but that’s not to say I’m a foodie. Far from it. I’m very much a meat and potatoes kind of guy, and I don’t stray from that formula often. That combination, when travelling, often ends up in me consuming more calories than I should, which is never a good thing when I’m trying to keep off the 60+lbs I worked hard to drop a couple of years ago. You only live once, though, and I do like to try new places.

So what did we eat that was memorable? I’ll leave Tsunami off, since I covered it in part 1, and just move on to what we had in Ft Lauderdale:

1. Moonlite Diner. Interesting little place, with plenty of choices. This was within walking distance to our hotel, but we ended up driving since we had other errands to run. I had the Ultimate Grilled Cheese with hash browns, and that side lived up to my standards. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s soggy hash browns, and this place served them up crispy, as they should be. The sandwich was good as well. My wife had the veggie burger with hash browns, and she enjoyed her burger quite a bit. The service was fine, and while the guy who initially served us was nice, he seemed like he’d much rather be somewhere else. About half way through the dinner, a friendly waitress took over and took good care of us. It’s somewhere I’d eat again if we were in the area, but it wasn’t my favorite of all the places we went.

2. Carlucci’s Italian Ristorante. This is some of the best lasagna I’ve had in a while. Few places seem to use real ricotta these days, so tasting that in Carlucci’s was a nice change of pace. The garlic bread was pretty good too, but that garlic really had some kick to it. I accidentally dropped a chunk on my salad, and when I ate that bite, wow :). That reminds me, they have a really good  balsamic vinaigrette, which is a dressing I normally don’t enjoy. I decided to give it a shot at our waiter’s recommendation, and was glad I did. My wife had the baked ziti, a dish she freuently judges italian restaurants by, and loved it. A definite winner of a choice in our opinion.

3. Umberto’s. Later in the week (Friday) we were looking for some pizza, and one of the people in our class from Florida recommended this place. My daughter had driven over from St Pete to hang out with us, and joined us for dinner here. She got some alfredo dish, which she really liked, and my wife and I split a pizza. Delicious, and well worth straying from the hotel. Afterwards, we went across the street to Alice’s Ice Cream Emporium for some gelato. Really good stuff, highly recommend stopping if you’re in the mood for a tasty treat.

Our last dinner in Ft Lauderdale was at a place along the water taxi route. We’d been given free tickets to ride it, and held on to them until Saturday night. It was fun to hang out on the boat and ride around the area, seeing some nice houses and yachts along the way.

WP_20141018_17_02_30_Pro WP_20141018_17_25_08_Pro WP_20141018_17_33_16_Pro

 

 

 

 

 

 

When we finally got hungry, we got off at stop 4, 15th Street Fisheries. Having never been there, we weren’t sure what to expect, but looking over the menus, decided to eat upstairs overlooking the water. We ended up with an incredible sunset view to go along with the meal:

Dinner

As far as the meal goes, it was spectacular. Staying true to my roots, I had meat and potatoes, or more specifically, the prime rib. I really wasn’t prepared for just how big that thing was. I wish I’d taken a picture, but it’s safe to say it was a very delicious monster that I wasn’t able to finish. My wife had the Ahi Tuna, and really enjoyed it and the mashed sweet potatoes that came with it. The service was stellar as well, and contributed to our decision to spend a little extra to share a couple of desserts. I chose the Ghirardelli chocolate brownie, which was spectacular. Cooked perfectly, and still gooey on the inside, we really enjoyed it. Highly recommended.

I think that about covers it. I did leave a couple of nights out, as one was a trade show night with catered snacks, and the other we just hit the local Longhorn, and I really didn’t feel it was necessary to talk about a national chain. My next post, covering our tour of the Norwegian Getaway, will include a review of the lunch we had on-board. Our one cruise on NCL, back in 2006, left a lot to be desired food-wise, so it was definitely nice to get a sampling of how their food quality has evolved.

Another Trip to Florida, Part 2

The bulk of last week’s trip to Florida was spent in Ft Lauderdale. This wasn’t a pleasure trip, however, as mentioned in my last post, since we were down there for training on the business my wife is starting. After years of travelling, we finally decided to jump in to the industry and do something we’re both passionate about, so we bought a new CruiseOne franchise. I’m not leaving my job, so it’ll mostly be my wife running things with the business, but more on that in a later post :).

We spent the week staying at the Sheraton Suites Fort Lauderdale at Cypress Creek, along with the rest of the new franchisees. Prior to going down, my wife had looked up reviews, and was surprised to find so many negative ones for an SPG property. Now that we’ve spent a week there, I can see why.

Let’s start with the positive:

  • Decent breakfast buffet: Some reviews on this place knock the buffet, but I found it to be perfectly in line with other hotel breakfasts. The food was kept pretty warm each day, and while I’d have preferred a bigger change in choices each day, everything I had was fine as far as taste goes. The wait staff was very friendly as well.
  • Good sized room: We had a two room suite up on the 5th floor in a quiet corner of the hotel, and it served us just fine. The sofa in the living room was a pullout, making it easy for us to set up a bed for our daughter when she drove over to see us on Friday.

Not sure I really have anything else positive to say, so let’s move on to the not-so-positive:

  • The WiFi: Wow. Worst WiFi I’ve had in any hotel I’ve ever stayed in. There were three options when connecting, and not wanting to pay extra, I stuck with the free “up to 1.5Mbps” option. Can’t say it was ever close to that speed. During peak hours, connectivity came and went, and when you were connected, speed was super slow, to the point that sites were timing out loading, making it impossible to do any work. I got fed up and tethered through my cell phone most of the time. Didn’t matter which device we used (iPad, Windows or Mac laptops, cell phones), the WiFi performance was horrible unless you were on in the middle of the night. The front desk basically shrugged that one off when I asked one morning. I’ve stayed in larger SPG properties where the free WiFi worked just fine, so this was obviously a case of not having enough capacity to cover the hotel. The signal itself was strong, there just wasn’t any bandwidth, and I’m not going to pay for a higher tier just because they’re trying to force me in to it by limiting the free connectivity.
  • Front desk staff: I only interacted with them a couple of times, but wasn’t really impressed either time, as they really didn’t seem to be happy with their jobs. The main issue we had is that we’d stopped down early in the week to ask about the pet policy, as our daughter wanted to bring her cat with her to come see us. The girl we talked to was very friendly, said it was a $25/day cleaning fee, and even chatted with us about the cat for a couple of minutes (we made it clear it was a cat we were asking for). On Friday morning before we headed to training, we stopped at the front desk to leave a key and let them know a pet would be joining us later in the day, and the lady we talked to this time (not friendly) said cats were not allowed. That would have been good information to have a couple of days earlier when we specifically asked, but at least our daughter hadn’t left St Pete yet, so we had time to stop her from bringing the cat.
  • General hotel issues:
    • One of the elevators near our room smelled like vomit all of Friday. The actual vomit was gone, but that smell hung around all day. Either close the elevator until the smell gone, or clean it right the first time.
    • Pillows were way to soft, and the mattress was way too hard. Both are subjective, but neither lived up to my past SPG experiences.
    • Weirdest balcony I’ve ever had in a hotel. I wish I’d taken a pic, but it was a shared balcony with two other rooms. Not all of them are set up like this, most are solo balconies, but with ours, we easily could have wakled over and peered in to rooms next to us, or vice-versa. Never had an issue with it, but still, not a setup we really liked. It also acted as a water collector, as any rain resulted in about an inch of standing water out there.
    • AC really struggled to keep up. We had it set to 62 the whole week, and it never got close (seemed to stay around 71ish), and never shut off.

I think that’s about it. I’ve stayed in a few SPG properties over the past decade for work, with the last one being the Sheraton Manhattan, and this one certainly didn’t live up to my expectations based on those past stays. Certainly wasn’t any better than some of the lower tier hotels I used to stay in regularly for work (Country Inn and Suites, for example) either. The Holiday Inn I mentioned in my last post beat this Sheraton without question.

My next post will cover the places we ate during the week. With breakfast and lunch provided for us, we got to explore the area for dinner, and had some great food along the way. Following that, I’ll get more in to our new venture, starting with the tour we got to do of the Norwegian Getaway this past Saturday in Miami!

 

Another Trip to Florida, Part 1

Even with our daughter away at college, the past couple of months have been incredibly busy. My wife and I are starting a new business, and the prep work (combined with my existing job) has kept me otherwise occupied. We’re actually down in Florida for the final training on it as I type, but I’ll hold off on posting any info on just what it is that we’re doing until after the week is over and we return home.

This trip requires us to be in Fort Lauderdale for 6 days of training that started on Monday. We decided to leave early Saturday morning and stop in St Pete for a day to see our daughter. With everything else going on, we didn’t get around to booking a hotel until a couple of days before we left, and thanks to Hotwire’s Hot Rates, ended up getting a pretty good deal on the Holiday Inn Harbourside in Indian Rocks Beach. For those afraid of booking a hotel you can’t see until you pay (Hotwire Hot Deals, Priceline, etc), there’s a good site you can use to narrow down the possibilities – betterbidding.com (no, I’m not affiliated in any way). Through the local information in the Hotwire forum, I was able to determine what hotel it was before we bought the deal.

Upon checking in, they upgraded us to a suite at no additional cost, which was a bit of a surprise considering I’ve never had that happen when using a Hotwire or Priceline fare. When we saw where the room was, I admit I was concerned. We were in 143, which was a first floor suite near the outdoor bar. We were on the waterfront side, so not right next to the music, but close enough. Fortunately it wasn’t an issue. The band shuts down by 10pm, so even on a Saturday night it was never a bother. It also gave us (well, me) a great spot to watch the sunrise the next morning:

St Pete Sunrise

 

Anyway, on Saturday night, we took her and a couple of her friends out to dinner, and let her pick the place. She absolutely loves a good Japanese steakhouse, and chose Tsunami in St Petersburg. We’d made reservations for the hibachi side, so when we got there were seated pretty quick. The meal was very good, definitely one of the better Japanese steakhouses we’ve been to, and we had a great chef. Can’t say the same for the group at the table next to us, as they had all kinds of issues (improperly cooked chicken, people not getting what they ordered, etc). We were glad we got the chef we did, as he got everything right from the start, and all items were cooked to perfection. I always get filet mignon at places like this, and was very happy with the quality of the meat. We’d definitely stop again.

Sunday was spent mostly at a local beach on Treasure Island. The weather was great, water was warm, and the beach wasn’t busy at all. We hung out in the water most of the time, until a whole lot of small fish started swimming past us trying to escape the ever-growing flock of birds trying to eat them. At that point it was almost time for us to go, so we hopped out and watched the birds dive-bombing the fish for a bit, then packed up our stuff and headed back to our daughter’s dorm. The plan at that point was to pick up her best friend (who she’s been in school with since 3rd grade) and grab some dinner before my wife and I headed across the state for our week of training.

For dinner, we’d decided on Tijuana Flats, which is sort of a guilty pleasure for us due to the cookie dough flautas. The food’s pretty good for a chain, too, but it’s really the desserts that make the place. Her friend had never been there before, and fell in love with the desserts, too. Probably a bad idea to take him there when we did, as he had a flag football game not long after, and frankly I can’t even imagine the sugar crash that must have hit him during that game. Sorry ;)

After dinner, we dropped the kids back at school, said our goodbyes, and headed out. I always hate leaving her, but she’s been busting her butt so far this semester, and shown that she was ready for the challenge and to live on her own. I couldn’t be more proud :).

As we get further along in the week, I’ll post more on the places we’ve eaten here, along with the hotel we’re in. After we get home, I’ll cover what exactly we were doing down here, as it directly pertains to the theme of my blog, and represents a new and exciting chapter in our lives.

More to come!

 

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!