Contest Closed – Winner TBA

The winner is: Commenter #5

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I’ve come across a little holiday surprise that I’d love to give away to a reader. I’ve got four Delta drink coupons free for the taking.

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Fret not, that’s a file photo, but these drink coupons do expire on 12/31/14, making them perfect for your holiday travel plans. Thanks to Rapid Travel Chai for hooking me up. We’ll keep the rules simple.

  • Enter for a chance to win by commenting to this post. Any comment is fine as long as it’s not profane. If it’s travel-related, all the better.
  • The contest will remain open for entry now through 12:00 p.m. EST on Saturday, December 13, 2014.
  • One winner will be chosen randomly using Random.org shortly thereafter.

Be sure to tell a friend so they can enter too. Good luck and cheers!!!

-MJ, December 12, 2014

 

Yes, I’m quite the fan of carrying a passport. Having held a job a few years back that required frequent international travel, it was a necessary tool of the trade. But is a passport really necessary for someone who might take a cruise to the Bahamas once every 5 years? Or a flight to Aruba? Well…in a word…no for now, but get one anyway. You will need it soon enough.

Passports will be required for all persons traveling to or from the United States by air effective January 23, 2007. These new requirements apply to essentially all international travel including to and from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean. You can read more about the new requirements at the State Department’s website.

The new requirements were to apply to cruise ship passengers as well, but the industry successfully lobbied the Congress to delay implementation of this requirement for cruisers until January 1, 2008 indefinitely. Don’t let this (not so) brief reprieve stop you from getting a passport if you are planning a cruise. Get it over with, and don’t worry about it. You’ll be ready to go without any last minute stress of wondering whether or not you’ll get your passport in time for your trip.

Frankly, I was never a big fan of flying (or cruising) to some island with your drivers license and birth certificate anyway. This leaves way too much up to someone’s interpretation as to what represents a valid birth certificate and what does not. Check out the Ombudsman article in December’s issue of Conde’ Nast Traveler for a good example of why you need to get a passport if you plan on traveling anywhere outside of the USA!

I just completed the first trip on a non-Acela, non-Northeast Corridor Amtrak train that I’ve taken in something like…. oh well…never mind. Let’s just say I was 8 years old the last time I did this. In truth, I had a thing for trains way before I had a thing for planes, so rail and I go back a ways. I mentioned on the blog a few days ago that I was booking a one-way journey aboard Amtrak’s Palmetto from Washington DC’s Union Station to Fayetteville, NC. I booked the trip at Amtrak.com, and upon searching for availability found that the only accommodations available on the train were in Business Class. As I mentioned yesterday, I could not have been more wrong in my thinking that Business Class would offer a sedate and spacious travel experience. On the contrary, the Business Class car was quite full. For the record, the one-way fare on this route was $141 dollars in coach, plus a $32 dollar upgrade fee to Business Class.

But about halfway through my train ride, a few of my fellow train enthusiasts reached their destinations allowing me to move to a row where I had 2 seats to myself. At that point, I finally got comfortable. Don’t get me wrong, the seats are enormous compared to your average airliner, even in Coach. Legroom is expansive, and frankly, I found the Business Class car to be especially comfortable except for my seatmate. He was a pleasant enough fellow, but a little larger than average, and even with the wide seats seemed to have an issue keeping all of himself in his seat and not spilling over into mine. Yes, I was thankful when the row behind me opened up.

I tried to snap a few pictures with my iPhone that give you some perspective on the seats.

I think the crowding issue may have had to do with the time of year. There were a lot of families with children, even in Business Class. This particular train was also equipped with AmtrakConnect, Amtrak’s Wi-Fi service. I’ve tried AmtrakConnect before with not so much luck. I usually travel with a 4G Mi-Fi device, and this trip was no different. I used that most of the time, but did give the AmtrakConnect service a try for a few minutes. It actually worked….not exactly blazing, but it did work. Certainly better than when I tried on Acela a few months ago. I still wouldn’t plan on doing any heavy duty web surfing and file downloads, but it was acceptable for email and a little light web browsing.

I tried Amtrak’s Cafe Car for lunch, ordering the cheeseburger and a soda. The cheeseburger wasn’t the best or worst I’d ever tried. It was certainly edible, perhaps even a little better than I’d expected. And one little-advertised benefit of springing for Business Class on the non-Acela services is that you get complimentary non-alcoholic beverages when presenting your Business Class boarding pass in the Cafe Car.

One negative thing about the trip other than being a little crowded at first. We were operating under speed restrictions most of the way due to the heat. The end result was that even though we departed DC right on time, I ultimately arrived at my destination just over 1 hour late. I think this 250 mile or so journey is about the absolute maximum that I would be able to tolerate for most train travel. But in this instance, the positives of taking Amtrak outweighed the negatives. Honestly, it’s a different kind of travel experience, and one that I hope to make more use of in the future. The comfortable seats, power outlets, and Wi-Fi (mine and there’s) allowed me to be productive for almost 6 hours. I actually got work done, which was exactly what I needed to do.

Yesterday, Delta Air Lines announced a big re-definition of it core products effective March 1, 2015. Here’s the gist straight from Delta –

delta air lines, skymiles, delta one, delta comfort plus

  • Delta One, formerly BusinessElite, is offered on long-haul international routes; also between New York-JFK and Los Angeles or San Francisco
  • First Class is offered on short-haul international and domestic routes
  • Delta Comfort+ offers an upgraded experience on all two cabin aircraft around the world
  • Main Cabin experience is provided everywhere Delta flies offering a high standard of customer service
  • Basic Economy offers Main Cabin service with fewer flexibility options available in select markets

 

There’s even a handy YouTube video about the changes.

MJ’s Take

I don’t get some of the bloviating I’ve seen about this announcement. As far as I can tell, Delta is putting new seat covers on some seats, changing the names of some products – the end. They’re even offering something Platinum and Diamond Medallions (maybe other Medallions) who can usually book Economy Comfort (soon to be Delta Comfort+) something that we didn’t get before – comp drinks that I don’t have to print my stupid boarding pass for (they should have told us they were eliminating HOOU coupons or kept offering them until March 1), and a pass of the snack basket from up front. Granted, Golds are losing the ability to confirm Comfort+ seats at booking. In the end, this is a marketing/branding change that breaks things down into five buckets, and that’s about it. You can read more about the changes from Delta’s perspective at delta.com/firstlook and judge for yourself. Doing the important things right still matters most to me.

-MJ, December 9, 2014

 

quantum of the seas, quantum of the seas reviews, royal caribbean reviews, quantum reviews

 

Quantum of the Seas, Quantum of the Seas Solarium, Royal Caribbean

 

quantum of the seas, quantum of the seas reviews, royal caribbean reviews, quantum reviews

 

quantum of the seas, quantum of the seas reviews, royal caribbean reviews, quantum reviews

 

quantum of the seas, quantum of the seas reviews, royal caribbean reviews, quantum reviews, bionic bar

 

quantum of the seas, quantum of the seas reviews, royal caribbean reviews, quantum reviews

Coming soon besides more pictures –

  • An interview with Quantum of the Seas’ Executive Chef about Dynamic Dining and more
  • Some constructive criticism
  • A full review of the Quantum of the Seas’ experience (Hint: this is my new favorite ship)

-MJ, December 9, 2014

I recently completed a little planes, trains, and automobiles (ok busses) adventure to Vancouver, BC via Seattle. It wasn’t the most direct route to Vancouver, but it enabled me to utilize the companion certificate that comes with the Delta SkyMiles Platinum Credit Card from American Express, experience a new train route, and best of all, visit family…especially our 2-year old nephew. His new best friend, LOL Elmo, joined us for the trip.

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You can probably pick up a sample of the accommodations in that photo. The coach chairs were big and comfy. Here’s another photo courtesy of Amtrak Cascades.

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Business Class is offered on the route, and I caught a glimpse of the car on my way to the cafe. Seating is 1 x 2, with wider chairs, newspapers, and fewer people. We paid cash for our tickets $40 or so each way. Business was only a little over $20 more based on some internet searches. It was sold out for our particular ride. If you use Ultimate Rewards and transfer them into Amtrak Guest Rewards, you can buy these tickets for 1500 points in Coach, and 2000 in Business each way.

The travel experience itself was leisurely and comfortable. In addition to big cushy chairs, there was wi-fi that I wouldn’t bet money on, but did work, and power outlets. Life was good. In short, I quite liked the train, even if it did probably take longer than driving. We traveled early and enjoyed the breakfast sandwich, coffee, and….well…wine. Hey, MrsMJ said surprise her, so I did….with a half-bottle of Chateau St. Michelle Chardonnay we saved for a little later. There was a selection of regional craft beers too, but even I have my limits. You clear Canadian immigration at the train station in Vancouver. There were 4 agents working, and we were through in about 45 minutes after arriving. There was still quite a queue behind us, so I expect it took an hour or a little more for folks unlucky enough to be in the last car. If you are returning to Seattle via train, you pre-clear US immigration at the station as well. We took a different way back.

There are only two Cascades services each way, so we purchased bus service through Amtrak for our return. I have to tell you that I was not looking forward to that, but it was the best way to maximize time in Vancouver and still make our redeye out of Seattle Sunday evening.

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You board the Cascades motor coach service outside the main entrance of the station towards the north end, so there’s no need to go inside unless you need to pick up your ticket. In the end, the bus was on time, and actually gets you back to Seattle about 1 hour faster than the train. The downside, no cafe car, and you have to do immigration at the border stop. Busses have their own line, and it wasn’t excessively busy heading south this Sunday afternoon. The whole thing took about 45 minutes from beginning to end and we were back on our way to Seattle for an on-time arrival at King Street Station.

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Tips to Make Your Amtrak Cascades Experience Better

Get to the station a little earlier than you might otherwise for a train. Unlike the open seating situation I’m used to in the northeast, Amtrak actually assigns seats for the Cascades routes. I don’t know if it’s a boarding crossing and keeping a little better handle on who is onboard or not? They have sticker charts like the old days at the airlines. I say get there a little earlier than normal so you can assure yourself a seat on the lefthand side of the train when heading northbound. The scenery is beautiful all around, but especially so when facing towards the bay and the Pacific beyond that. I missed a lot of great photographic opportunities because I was on the wrong side of the train. While there is not a tremendous increase in amenities for Business Class, I think the low price differential is worth it for the bigger chair and a shorter line to get your seat assignment….. way shorter.

If there’s anything I miss about DC vs Atlanta, it’s the absence of frequent and reliable rail service to cities in the region. Amtrak Cascades was a great way to get to and from Vancouver from the Seattle area, and I wouldn’t hesitate to use the service again. Sometimes it’s good to slow down a little bit.

I routinely review my Google Analytics data for a lot of reasons. Page views matter, but among the most interesting bits of data to me are the search terms that bring readers to the blog. On a daily basis, someone usually visits looking for information on traveling with diabetes. Further, it seems that I frequently read articles about some individual having an issue with TSA screening and their medical conditions, including diabetes. While I readily admit to being annoyed with the totality of the TSA experience from time to time, I can honestly say I have never had a negative personal interaction with any TSA agent. Yep, I said that.

Given the interest in the topic, I’m going to launch a four-part series on traveling with diabetes. I will write from the perspective of a traveling insulin pumper for over 15 years. While I no longer routinely use syringes, and multiple types of insulin, I haven’t forgotten my time with a 75 percent travel job, worldwide travel, and managing injection schedules, etc., so I will bring a little of that in too. What I write is in no way meant to replace the advice of your physician or improve upon what you are already comfortable doing. I’m simply looking to share some tips that have worked well for me with the goal of helping people with diabetes travel well too. And hopefully, we’ll generate some discussion and share ideas.

Traveling with Diabetes – The Basics

Traveling with Diabetes – No Sweat Security

Traveling with Diabetes – Cruise Specifics

Traveling with Diabetes – Insulin Pumper Specifics

It’s day 7 of my cruise aboard Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas. Each day I discover something new to like about this ship. It’s taken me a few days, but I finally made it to the Bionic Bar after an incredible meal at Wonderland (more on that later). As you might imagine, the Bionic Bar has a futuristic theme – if you don’t like the techno you hear when you walk into your average W Hotel, you’ll need to tune that out to enjoy a drink mixed by a robot. Overall, the Bionic Bar was a pretty cool experience.

Bionic Bar, Royal Caribbean, Quantum of the Seas, Quantum of the Seas Bionic Bar

Not only did NIC (they have names – NIC and BIO) pour me a double of Johnnie Walker, they routinely perform dance routines. :)

-MJ, December 7, 2014

All images and video © 2014 by Marshall Jackson

Did I save the best for last in the series? I think so, but that’s not really the rhyme in my reason. Royal Caribbean is the cruise line I’m most experienced with, I hold the highest elite status with, and frankly, I just like the way they do things. As I told the folks who attended The Cruising Crowd last fall in Chicago, I am an unapologetic Royal Caribbean fanboy. That’s not to say that I can’t find things I like better about other lines, believe me, I can. It’s just that for me, overall, Royal Caribbean provides the all around cruise vacation that best fits the most of my desires.

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The crown and anchor are a symbol of Royal Caribbean, and the name of their loyalty program is The Crown and Anchor Society (CAS). Past guests are eligible to join after their first Royal Caribbean cruise, when you will be afforded Gold status. Gold is just the beginning as there are six, yes, six levels of elite status in the program. Those levels are Gold, Platinum, Emerald, Diamond, Diamond Plus (aka MJ level), and Pinnacle Club.

The Six Levels of Crown and Anchor Status

As you might imagine, each of those levels requires an ever increasing number of points. Program members earn one cruise point for each night of your cruise with opportunities to earn bonus points for Junior Suite and above accommodations.

Gold and Platinum levels offer a basic level of elite benefits. including onboard discounts, a welcome back party, and priority check in. Platinum members, in addition, receive robes for use on board, the much coveted lapel pin, and an onboard even in addition to the the welcome back even all returning cruisers receive.

At 55 cruise points, you will be elevated to Emerald status which offers a welcome back amenity in addition to the usual Platinum and Gold benefits. At the Diamond level (80 points) the amenities become more respectable with access to a Diamond Lounge on select ships or an exclusive nightly Diamond Event on ships that don’t have a specific lounge. The nightly Diamond event is a favorite of mine because it offers the chance to sit down with your fellow cruise enthusiasts over a complimentary drink and share stories. Mrs. MJ would tell you that this is the biggest difference between lounge access with an airline vs. lounge access with a cruise line. On airlines, you’re looking to get away from others while on a cruise, you look forward to visiting with like-minded cruisers. In addition, you’ll receive priority wait lists for shore excursions and spa visits, a daily breakfast including complimentary specialty coffees, and priority departure services.

At 175 points, members are afforded Diamond Plus status. Diamond Plus status offers onboard dining table choices, special onboard gifts, exclusive cruise reservations phone access, and even special luggage tags. Beyond these benefits, Diamond Plus members receive complimentary stateroom upgrades when available. Diamond Plus members are also afforded Concierge Lounge access on equipped ships.Notably, single members who have achieved 340 cruise points are afforded with a discount or a 150 percent single supplement for staterooms as opposed to the usual 200 percent supplement. You’ll also be dining with an officer of the ship at 340 points.

The next level of status is known as Pinnacle Club, and pinnacle it is. 700 cruise points are required for this truly elite status. In addition to all the benefits afforded Diamond Plus and below status members, you wil receive a complimentary cruise at 750 and 1050 points, and a complimentary cruise in a Junior Suite stateroom at 1,400 points and every 350 points thereafter.

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Pinnacle Club offers additional benefits that I’m sure aren’t even published. You can review the specifics of each elite level here.

As a Diamond Plus member, I’ve received bridge tours, fruit baskets, any number of snacks in the stateroom, bottles of wine, etc. In fact, I have the option of selecting what kind of wine and snack I want delivered on day 1 on the Royal Caribbean website.

Further, there are numerous benefits afforded to Royal Caribbean elite members via reciprocity with sister lines Celebrity and Azamara. These are issues I will cover in my elite status reciprocity post. And I haven’t even gotten into M Life reciprocal benefits which have received much coverage on the blogs from an airline perspective, but none from the cruise line perspective.

In summary, I think Royal Caribbean’s Crown and Anchor Society is an excellent loyalty program. I’ve only hit the highlights here. You can research more yourself on royalcaribbean.com, or feel free to contact me directly with questions. While the program is a bit heavy on elite status levels, I think the benefits offered are excellent. Not to mention you get to sail on Royal Caribbean’s beautiful ships!! Feel free to comment with issues you think I’ve failed to mention here!

As we approach the conclusion of MJ on Travel’s cruise line elite status series, I thought it was important to speak to a question I get from time to time. Do the cruise lines status match the way that airlines do? Answer – not to my knowledge. What you will find in some cases is something called elite status reciprocity. Elite status reciprocity means that if you are elite with a cruise line owned by a parent company, another cruise line owned by the same company will honor your elite status.

Let’s start with the Carnival Corporation lines. If you hold elite status on one of the Carnival Corp lines, you are eligible for past passenger discounts on sister lines, but as far as I can tell (I’ve reading and searching for two weeks), that’s it. It’s referred to as Vacation Interchange Privileges (VIP). I have seen some reports on Cruise Critic from guests indicating they received an amenity or two based on their elite status, but this appears to be more a function of a dedicated hotel director, than any clear elite benefit. The other big US cruise company, NCL, does not appear to offer any elite reciprocity within the Star Cruises family.

In contrast, the reciprocal elite benefits program offered by Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd, offers more of the trappings of status for program members of three of its brands, Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, and Azamara Club Cruises. I’m going to speak from the perspective of a Royal Caribbean elite, which I am, and hopefully tie things together in a way that makes sense. I’ll start with a couple of excerpts from the Royal Caribbean website.

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Reciprocal benefits (referred to as Equivalent Recognition) begin at the Platinum level of Royal Caribbean’s Crown & Anchor Society. Platinum and Emerald members enroll in Celebrity’s Captain’s Club at the Select level. Diamond and higher members enroll at the Elite level in Captain’s Club. You can read about Celebrity Captain’s Club here. Here’s the complete fine print.

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While I did not cover the benefits of Azamara Club Cruises’ Le Club Voyage program in this series, I will touch upon it and a few others in my summary which will post next week. The fine print above refers to Azamara’s levels as Select and Elite, and I think they may have once been identical to Celebrity’s program. However, a review of Azamara’s website indicates that Platinum and Emerald members of Crown & Anchor receive Explorer status while Diamond and higher are afforded Discoverer status. Azamara’s website also includes a very easy to understand table that describes reciprocal elite benefits across the three lines.

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Speaking from experience, it is very nice to be able to enjoy your Royal Caribbean elite benefits when sailing on Celebrity. As a Diamond Plus member of Royal Caribbean’s Crown & Anchor Society, I enjoy Elite (that’s the name) status in Captain’s Club. I am treated as a past passenger of Celebrity, invited to various parties and receptions, and receive benefits like internet credits, free laundry, and others. Frankly, I’m looking forward to trying Azamara and their smaller ships someday soon as well. Elite status reciprocity within the Royal Caribbean family makes it far more likely that I will try the other brands within the family rather than defect to another cruise line to “try something else.” The downside of all this? When you sail on a sister line, you are not earning points in your “home program,” you are simply afforded equivalent status recognition. In other words, when I sail on Celebrity, I’m afforded Elite status in Captains Club, and I’m earning points for that sailing in Captain’s Club, not Crown & Anchor. I’m OK with that, but it is something for cruisers to consider.

In summary, cruise lines do not historically “match” elite status in the same way you might be accustomed to with your favorite airline or hotel loyalty program. Some do offer reciprocal elite benefits that vary in value. If any readers are aware of a benefit that I have missed with the Carnival Corporation or NCL lines, please comment to the post. Up next – my series summary, a mini-review of some of the elite programs not covered in the series, and the cruise line I’ve yet to try that I’d most like to sail with based on my research in this series.

-MJ, December 6, 2014

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