Summer is here, and many readers of this blog (and its writer) are considering a summer cruise vacation. The arrival of June also means the arrival of hurricane season here in the USA. While the peak of the hurricane season comes later – think late August, September, and October, if you’re cruising to the Bahamas and the Caribbean in the summer, you need to consider the possibility of a storm. If you’re cruising to Canada and New England, it may be a little less likely that a storm will make it that far north, but it can happen.

I’ve taken several cruises during hurricane season, and they’ve all been great. I have missed a few ports of call because of storms, but that’s about the worst thing that’s happened to me. Nonetheless, when cruising during hurricane season, I follow a few basic principals to make sure I enjoy my trip.

Travel insurance – If you turn on the television and find the talking heads preaching about a storm that’s already on the way, it’s too late to buy trip insurance. While some inexpensive short cruises tend to not reach my personal threshold for buying insurance, the math changes a bit with hurricane season. Travel insurance is personal decision as is financial tolerance, but I buy it for the majority of cruises that I define as “expensive.”

Get to port early – I’ve often called arriving at your embarkation port the day before your cruise “the cheapest travel insurance money can buy.” The investment in a hotel room for one night is worth the price of not stressing if you run into any weather or operational issues with your airline flight.

Keep an eye on the weather – During the week before departure day, I start looking at the National Hurricane Center’s website for any possible storms that could impact the trip.

Unless your embarkation port is bullseye for the storm, your cruise is going to depart on time. If you are sailing to affected islands the cruise line will adjust your itinerary accordingly. If a storm is in the western Caribbean, your western Caribbean itinerary may turn into an eastern Caribbean itinerary. They are going to do everything they can to find good weather for your cruise. Be flexible and keep an open mind if you’re cruising during hurricane season. It’s not likely you’ll be impacted at all, but if you are, try to roll with it and enjoy the good weather the cruise line finds. Most of all, enjoy your summer cruise vacation!

-MJ, June 3, 2014

Cruising with MJ – The Series

Cruising with MJ – Setting Sail on Your Own the MJ Way

Cruising with MJ – A Word on Picking the Right Cruise Line for You

Cruising with MJ – You’ve Booked Your Cruise So Now What?

Cruising with MJ – Let’s Get Packed

Cruising with MJ – It’s Almost Time to Cruise! What Do I Do Now?

Cruising with MJ – Three Days Until Sail Away

Cruising with MJ – Embarkation Day (It’s Time to Play)

In the third post in my Cruising with MJ series, I’m going to talk about the weeks and months leading up to your cruise. I’ll talk about things you should consider at booking or within a few days after like travel insurance. Then making plans on getting to the port, and finally a word about shore excursions. So let’s get started.

Travel Insurance – Yes or No?

I do not buy travel insurance for every cruise I take. I haven’t done the math to confirm my recollection, but I would say that the majority of my cruises are what you might call self-insured. Simply put, there is a certain amount of money that I can afford to lose. I won’t like it, but I can deal with it. Your typical 3-day “booze cruise” to the Bahamas falls into this category, as does any “inexpensive” cruise. Tolerance for this is subjective, and varies. At the other end of the spectrum was the 3 week trip to Europe that MrsMJ and I took during the fall which involved a relatively expensive cruise, a weeks worth of land-based touring before the cruise and  a few days after as well. It was an extremely costly trip (by my standards), even with airfare covered by miles. Insuring that was a no-brainer for me due to the costs involved.

Generally, when I do purchase insurance, I do so through my travel agent. If you book a cruise through an agent, ask them what they have to offer with insurance, and do a little comparison shopping. There are multiple ways to purchase insurance, with one of the easiest being online at insuremytrip.com. You can also purchase the “vacation protection” offered by the cruise line if you book directly with them. I generally prefer traditional insurance, but if you have price shopped and find the option offered by the cruise line is more affordable, it is better than nothing in my opinion. Generally, it will reimburse you in cash for certain covered reasons, or with cruise credits up to a certain value if you cancel for any reason.

Getting to Your Ship

Well, now that you’ve booked your cruise, you need to think about how you will get to the ship. If you live near a port, that’s easy. You drive and park in a garage not unlike a trip to the airport. The rest of us must fly. OK, let me qualify that. I lived in DC for 12 years. The Port of Baltimore was 26 miles from our front door. That was nice, but in those years, we sailed from Baltimore exactly twice. The itineraries or timing just didn’t align enough for us for whatever reason. So more often than not, we found ourselves flying to Florida to board a ship.

You have some options. You can book the airfare on your own, which I’ve always done. Or you can book cruise line air. Nothing wrong with either. And there are some benefits to booking cruise air. Most notably, they know when and how you are arriving, and I’ve heard stories of ships being held for those who’ve been delayed but booked cruise air. The cruise line will also make sure you get rerouted to the next port of call should you wind up missing the ship if you book with them. I’m leaning towards trying cruise line air for our next cruise for these reasons, and for blogging material to share with you too!

This leads me to something I get preachy about sometimes. The cheapest travel insurance you can buy is an airline ticket that arrives at your port of departure the day before your cruise. (Off soapbox) But seriously, the stress of not knowing you’re going to make it to the cruise outweighs the cost of one night in a hotel for me. Opinions vary on this, but it is always my recommendation that you fly in the day before your cruise. Yes, I’ve successfully flown in day of, but I don’t make a habit of it.

Shore Excursions

You’ll find a lot of opinions on this, and frankly, mine varies. I book a mix of ship-sponsored shore excursions, private excursions, and no excursions at all. Ship-sponsored excursions may cost a couple of bucks more, than booking directly with a tour operator, but there is a little peace of mind knowing that if you miss a port, you’ll get your money back. When a ship arrives in port, you’ll find a plethora of people offering tours of various descriptions. They may be just fine, or they may not be. Overall, I prefer to book a tour through the ship if I’m not booking a private tour through my travel agent. That’s just me. In many ports, I’m just as happy reading a travel book and touring on my own. There is no right or wrong way. In some of the ports I’ve been to frequently, I’m also happy to let the masses do the touring while I enjoy peace and quiet on the ship, no hunting for pool chairs, and bar service without crowds.

Cruise lines make it pretty easy to book excursions online in advance of your cruise. If you don’t book in advance, you can also book onboard your ship. Private tours can be booked online in advance as well. You may have good luck researching tours through Trip Advisor, or you may find good information on tours from those with actual experience using a particular operator on the message boards at CruiseCritic.com as well. The bottom line, cruising is all about choices and the choice is yours.

Look for a future post on what to pack for your cruise.

-MJ, February 23, 2013

Cruising with MJ – The Series

Cruising with MJ – Setting Sail on Your Own the MJ Way

Cruising with MJ – A Word on Picking the Right Cruise Line for You

Cruising with MJ – You’ve Booked Your Cruise So Now What?

Cruising with MJ – Let’s Get Packed

Cruising with MJ – It’s Almost Time to Cruise! What Do I Do Now?

Cruising with MJ – Three Days Until Sail Away

Cruising with MJ – Embarkation Day (It’s Time to Play)

I get a lot of questions on cruising, none more so than “will I be happy if I purchase a cruise with XXX cruise lines?” My first answer is usually that it’s important to remember that most any cruise beats a day at work. Then I get into a few details about the individual I’m talking to, and usually give them a few options. What I am about to write is my opinion, and my opinion only. But that opinion is based in either actual experience, or real conversations with people I trust. As always, you should do some research and reach your own conclusions about what is right for you. Finally, There are no hard and fast rules, but I expect the following is pretty close to workable for most people.

The mass market lines like Carnival, NCL, and Royal Caribbean have a little something for everyone. From surfing simulators to rock climbing walls, you’ll find entertainment. Well-equipped gyms, nightlife, and good (not necessarily 5 star) food all add to the vacation experience, and these cruise lines offer all of it. The majority of cruisers on these lines are going to be 20-something to 40-something, many with families, depending on the itinerary. As I said, there are no rigid rules about this, and I’ve met plenty of very retired older people on Royal Caribbean cruises who frequented Royal as much as I do. I’ve talked to retirees who cruise Carnival more than anyone else as well. No matter the cruise line, a short 3 or 4-night itinerary will typically feature a younger crowd than a longer itinerary.

Celebrity and Princess might be a better fit for ages 30 (some might say 40) and up, but again, that’s generalizing and you will find younger folks enjoying their cruises with these lines as well. I am 43, and I quite like Celebrity, especially their Solstice Class ships. I love the ambiance of these elegant ships, the welcome champagne, and the vibe. Again, you’re likely to find a younger crowd on 7 night cruises with these lines than you would on a 14-night cruise. You’ll find less late-night partying on these lines than you would on say, a Carnival cruise to the Bahamas, but there will still be plenty of activities to keep you occupied.

At the upper end of the cruising spectrum you’ll find lines like Regent Seven Seas, Silversea, or Seabourn. These cruise lines usually offer smaller, more intimate ships, lengthier itineraries, top end dining, and cater to a well-heeled, likely retired crowd. For example, I just found a 72-night “circle South America” itinerary on Regent. While that sounds awesome to me, let’s face it, you’re not likely to find many people below the age of 60 with the ability to be away from home for that long. I know I’m repeating myself, but again, these aren’t rules, just an opinion on what you are more likely to find. These lines offer among the most expensive cruises, but they’re also “all inclusive” meaning you don’t have to worry about counting your number of drinks for budget reasons.

A couple of random thoughts. While I have a friend not that much older than me who likes Holland America, my subjective personal survey of the typical Holland America ship from across the dock indicates that they tend to attract those 55ish and up. I’d love to hear from any readers with actual experience on that. I didn’t mention Disney in this blog because I hear they are in a class by themselves. I’ll have more on that over the next year with my DINKS Cruise Disney series. Yes, the MJ on Travel team is booking a Disney Cruise, joining some friends of ours. I’ll keep you posted, but our travel agent promises me that we won’t be the first kidless couple to cruise Disney. :)

 I’d love to hear other opinions on this topic. Feel free to comment to the post.

Pay attention to the interwebs tomorrow, as according to Royal Caribbean’s PR Twitter feed, we can expect a major announcement about their upcoming Project Sunshine vessels sometime tomorrow. Could we finally get a glimpse of what these new ships are going to look like? I’ve got nothing but rampant speculation, so I can’t wait to see what the company has to say. My guess: we’ll see the logical extension of the Freedom Class vessels incorporating features from Oasis. And my money is on RCL introducing something brand new and unique to Project Sunshine too. Stay tuned.

Cruising with MJ – The Series

Cruising with MJ – Setting Sail on Your Own the MJ Way

Cruising with MJ – A Word on Picking the Right Cruise Line for You

Cruising with MJ – You’ve Booked Your Cruise So Now What?

Cruising with MJ – Let’s Get Packed

Cruising with MJ – It’s Almost Time to Cruise! What Do I Do Now?

Cruising with MJ – Three Days Until Sail Away

Cruising with MJ – Embarkation Day (It’s Time to Play)

It’s probably no surprise that I get a lot of emails about cruise vacations. In fact, cruising, and information about it is one of the top 2 drivers of visits to this blog. As you know, I am a proponent of using an experienced, professional travel agent for booking some vacations, including cruises. Travel agents can help you build experiences that are hard to replicate on your own. On the other hand, if you are just booking a quick 3 to 7 night “get away” cruise to the Bahamas or Caribbean, you might not be in the market for any kind of special experiences or private shore excursions. I sometimes book cruises on my own, and I thought a post on researching, planning, and booking your own cruise might be useful.

Researching Your Options

There are 2 sites that I recommend prospective cruisers visit before they book a cruise. Cruise Critic, and The Avid Cruiser. Regarding Cruise Critic, there’s the main site with professional and personal reviews, cruise news, etc. Then there are the message boards, which you might think of as the FlyerTalk or Milepoint of cruising. The message boards are quite entertaining, and can contain some good information. You can also visit a Roll Call thread for each cruise. For example, there’s a thread for the February 16, 2013, sailing of Oasis of the Seas. Those threads can be great connection points for either meeting your fellow cruisers (It’s not unusual for there to be a Cruise Critic reception on cruises of 7 nights or longer). Many times, cruisers use these threads to put together private tours and split the cost. It’s up to you whether you actively participate in the boards or specific cruise threads, but they can both be good sources of information to help you decide what you want to do during your cruise. I’ve been a longtime reader of The Avid Cruiser, and find his writing and professional reviews to be very useful when planning a cruise. You can also email me. I’m always happy to answer questions about cruising (or anything else). If I don’t know an answer to your question, I will try and point in the right direction to find what you are looking for.

Also, you should consult the website of the particular cruise company you are thinking of booking. You can explore deck plans of the ship you are considering, and research any number of things about your particular cruise itinerary from the number and types of restaurants on board, to pictures of staterooms to the typical weather in your ports of call. There’s also a section on ship sponsored shore excursions that you can peruse as well.

Booking Your Cruise

Since this post is about booking a cruise “on your own,” I’m not going to talk about traditional travel agents. I have personal experience booking cruises 3 ways, my travel agent, an airline portal, and with the cruise line. I’ll speak to all of those, but focus on booking direct with the cruise line. Booking with the cruise line is not all that much unlike booking a typical airline ticket. You go to the site, search for a cruise by date, destination, port of embarkation, or ship, pick a stateroom, and confirm your cruise. If you are booking outside the final payment window (typically around 60 days prior to your cruise), you have the option of just making a downpayment. You can come back to the website later, and make your final payment, or make partial payments along the way towards your cruise.

Once you are booked you can consult the cruise line website for information on ports of call, and research other options to enhance your trip. I am very agnostic when it comes to shore excursions. I will say that if you happen to miss your port of call for any reason, getting your money back for a shore excursion is easy if it’s booked through the cruise line. They simply credit your onboard account for the value of the excursion. If you book on your own, you are “on your own” in getting your money back. Just depends on the terms with your tour operator, so know before you go. You can also use your cruise line’s website for booking enhancements to your cruise vacation like inclusive beverage packages, spa appointments, specialty restaurant reservations, and in some cases onboard shows.

There are multiple ways to book cruises. I’ve successfully used airline booking portals as well, and they work. These sites are typically managed by an online travel agency specializing in cruises. Book through them, get bonus miles. Nothing wrong with them, but you will not have as much control over your cruise reservation as you do when booking direct with the cruise line. To make changes to your plans, or make payments on your cruise, you will need to go through the airline cruise agency. It’s not a problem, just something to be aware of. The same is true for any travel agent. You deal with the travel agent for most details of your cruise booking, but can go to the cruise line’s website to book shore excursions, and other enhancements.

Now What?

OK, you’ve researched cruises, picked one, and booked it on your own. What next? Start thinking about getting to the port and things you will do on your cruise. Next week, I will post on preparing to sail.

Guess what? Chris Elliott wrote an article that didn’t totally hack me the heck off. Yesterday’s piece entitled “Maybe It’s Time to Lower Your Expectations at High Sea struck a nerve…but not an angry one…well, not much of an angry one. I consider myself an experienced cruiser. I’m not the most experienced, I’m just experienced (30 cruises), have some confidence in the lines I choose to frequent, and enjoy being at sea. All the other mostly self-inflicted drama that some unfortunate souls seem to complain to folks like Mr. Elliott about….well…. I’ll leave that to others.

To be honest, I have booked a few cruises during hurricane season, mostly towards the end of the season. The results, so far, have been positive. The worst thing that has happened to me is an extra day at sea, and a trip to Nassau instead of Cozumel. Then there was the time I had to skip Grand Cayman and head to Cozumel so I guess I’m even….or maybe just lucky. I’m not unsympathetic to those who have been disappointed closed pools, rocking ships, and cancelled ports due to storms, I’ve been disappointed by the same. I just never inflicted my disappointment on others, and I’ve never let one-off things like this detract from my ultimate cruising goal…..getting away in a manner that really isn’t possible by spending a week at the local Motel 6 pool.

Now…a few nits to pick. Let me be clear. I am a licensed pilot (as in airplanes), not a licensed mariner. I am informed when it comes to transportation modes, including sea transport. I’ve always been entertained by the assumption that because a ship is not flagged in the USA, said ship must be operated with “zero standards.” Maybe, maybe not. I am pretty darn confident that the cruise lines aren’t out to hurt me. As for paying their “third-world” crew substandard wages….. well, you’ve got me there, but my strong suspicion is that the definition of substandard depends on where you are from and the cost of goods there. I don’t judge, and I don’t hide on the last night of the cruise to avoid tipping either. And then those pesky “gotcha fees and extras” that everyone loves to talk about. It’s only a “gotcha” if you thought you were getting something for free (or more correctly, included in your fare), and didn’t hand over your onboard charge card to pay for it. It is possible to take a cruise and not spend one red cent above the fare, taxes, and gratuities. Really, it is, even if I don’t recommend it! I’ll also let the marketplace determine whether or not the current business model for cruise lines is sustainable. Most importantly, I will continue to cruise with the same expectations I’ve always had – a good time, a good value, and a level of peace I only find at sea. YMMV.

Good morning from the beautiful Celebrity Reflection. We departed Venice last night and are steaming towards Dubrovnik, Croatia for a noon arrival. Dubrovnik, the first of many European ports on our 14-night itinerary, will represent my first visit to Croatia.

We arrived in Venice via Trenitalia and proceeded outside the station. If you turn right, and walk across the bridge towards the Piazza di Roma, you will see signs directing you to the People Mover. For 1 Euro per person, you can then ride the People Mover (which is simply a tram system), to the Maritima Cruise Terminal stop. From there, it is a 5 minute walk to the terminals. It was raining the day we arrived, so we elected to wait for the Celebrity provided bus to transport us the remainder of the way to the ship. If I had it to do over, I would have walked in the rain and avoided schlepping onto the bus with the 50 other people….rain or not.

In any event, we were in front of the terminal soon enough. There was a small line to drop off your luggage, and then we entered the terminal. Once upstairs, it was obvious that we were not the only ones to have arrived early. It was a bit of a chaotic scene as the queues were jam-packed with people. I’m not certain if they were late beginning check in because the Italian immigration authorities were slow to clear the ship’s disembarking passengers or not, but it did appear that way.

We were directed to a sitting area, where we remained for about 15 more minutes before the check in lines began to move. Once they did, we were processed fairly quickly, and then went on to security. There was a bit of a wait as the gangway was backed up with passengers, but I would estimate the whole thing took no longer than 10 minutes. And we finally stepped onto the ship. I found my previous Solstice Class experience to be very impressive. Simply put, these ships are beautiful, and Celebrity Reflection continues that tradition. Elegant, stunning, and cool. Three words that don’t necessarily fit in the same sentence, but all of which accurately describe Celebrity Reflection.

Celebrity Reflection, the last of 5 Solstice Class ships rounding out the Celebrity fleet represents a few firsts as well. In comparison to earlier ships, Reflection is one deck taller. And most important to me, Reflection also introduces Celebrity’s first Aqua Class Suites. This is important because I booked one of those suites for MrsMJ and me.  :)

I would say the biggest difference between the Suite and a standard Aqua Class room is the size. Our room is noticeably more spacious than the standard Aqua Class room we enjoyed on our Celebrity Equinox cruise in the summer of 2010. We have a full-size sofa, ample closet space, large bath with tub, and a butler. Yes, a butler. Not sure what how we will use a butler, but I am sure we will figure it out! Here are a few pictures of the room.

Our itinerary included a night in Venice. In other words, we boarded on Sunday, but did not depart until Monday evening, so we had a day to enjoy Venice which I will cover in a separate post. So far, I am very impressed with Celebrity Reflection. Warm and caring crew, top notch service, and excellent entertainment are the rule here. I am really enjoying our cruise. One of our favorite features of the Aqua Class staterooms (suite or standard) is dining in Blu. Suffice it to say that experience has not disappointed, and has earned a blog post all it’s own as well. I will be blogging as close to daily as possible during this trip with details about the cruise, and specifically our port days as we have a really phenomenal series of ports in store.

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