Today, I visited the home office for a few minutes. It’s no secret to anyone I work with that I like to cruise. Frankly, I’ve been referred to as my office’s private travel agent on more than one occasion, and that’s not far off. As I was walking between offices today, I was stopped by no less than 4 people to discuss the situation surrounding Carnival Triumph and my thoughts on it. One or two people seemed perplexed that I tacitly waived off the situation and stated that I had 4 cruises booked through early 2014 right now, and really thought the whole thing was a bit of hyped up drama.

Let’s face it. I wasn’t there, but neither were any reporters. Here’s what I expect happened. The higher up your cabin was, the better your experience was. I don’t doubt that some toilets overflowed, or that the experience itself was less than ideal. I expect food was rationed because people being people, some began to hoard what was available. Booze was rationed because people that drink too much on disabled cruise ships act much like what they do at your average frat party….and who needs that when you’re on a disabled cruise ship? No one wanted it to happen, and no one wanted to be there once it did.

In my 30 cruises, a number which is small compared to many cruisers, but I expect a number that seems big to many that read this blog, I have never experienced adversity on a level that rivals that of those on Carnival Triumph. What I have experienced is comfortable vacations with an opportunity to really get away that just doesn’t exist on land. Service that exceeds my expectations. And experiences that I enjoy. Cruising is all about the freedom to choose. I hate to be corny, but Royal Caribbean used to have a marketing phrase, “Like No Vacation on Earth.” That pretty much sums it up. I choose to cruise, and Carnival Triumph hasn’t changed my mind. Cruising for me is “vacation” not travel, though it certainly can be both. Sometimes you need a vacation, and I’ll continue vacationing on cruise ships, thank you very much.

 

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.

Royal Caribbean just announced that their next two ships will be named Quantum of the Seas and Anthem of the Seas. These ships will be part of the new Quantum Class of vessels, according to the cruise line. “The new ship will be such a leap forward in terms of vessel design and guest experiences that we thought the name Quantum of the Seas was perfectly appropriate,” according to Royal Caribbean International President and CEO Adam Goldstein.

So there you have it. Can’t wait to see more details on these new ships.

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.

A reader writes:

Hey Marshall, I enjoy reading your blog and also enjoy traveling and…CRUISING (esp. with Celebrity!)!  I thought you would like to know the current season of Top Chef (Seattle) will have an episode where they cook on the Celebrity Millennium during an Alaska itinerary.  Do you have a credit card you recommend using to pay for cruises (free insurance/trip interruption/etc)?  Keep up the good work!
Thank you very much,

MJ Responds:

Hi there. Thank you for your email. I had seen a couple of advertisements for that Top Chef episode. Looks like fun. :) Credit cards and cruises are a trick. There is no one perfect solution, and I am not aware of any card that provides the kind of insurance that would cover the cost of a cruise if something went wrong and you were unable to cruise. The American Express Platinum Card and the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card do offer some travel insurance that covers things like lost baggage, flight cancel protection, etc.

The Amex Platinum Card offers a program called Cruise Privileges which includes onboard credits, possible upgrades, and some ship board amenities. I weigh those benefits against booking through another channel which may include a bigger onboard credit or other benefit when making a decision on how to pay for the cruise. If the Cruise Privileges bennies win, then I pay for the cruise with my Amex Platinum Card. The downside of this card is that it carries an annual fee of $450 dollars. That said, I fly a lot, and the card offers airline lounge access with Delta (my primary airline). If I didn’t carry the Amex Platinum card, I would be buying lounge access from Delta, which incidentally, costs the same as the Amex annual fee and offers none of the other benefits that come with the card. There are other benefits with the card for travelers that in my mind, at least, pay for that annual fee, but those benefits aren’t worth the same thing to everyone.
Now, if I decide that the benefits of using the Amex Cruise Privileges program are outweighed by another offer like a significant onboard credit by booking with the cruise line, I pay for my cruises with the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. This card offers 2 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar for all travel purchase including cruises. I like Ultimate Rewards a lot. They can be transferred to airline programs like United or British Airways, Hotel programs like Hyatt or Marriott, and you can even use them to pay for your cruise. I actually wrote a blog based on a reader question about cruise credit cards a few months ago. You can check that out here.
I have links to each of these credit cards on the blog. Please note that if one applies for and receives a credit card through those links, I will receive a referral bonus. There is no requirement to do so, and you are welcome to just click on those links and read the information available on the cards I mentioned without applying for any credit.
I appreciate your email, and hope this information is helpful. Feel free to write back if you have any questions.
Disclosure: There are no direct links to my credit card offers in this post as it is a cc of an email between a reader and myself. However, I do reference my “Credit Cards for Traveling Well” page, so in the interest of full disclosure, it is possible to click through to some links that will offer me a referral bonus if a credit card is applied for and received through those links. As always, your readership is appreciated whether you use my links or not.

One of the the questions I get more than any other from first time cruisers, or people just thinking about taking their first cruise is what about “that virus thing?” That virus thing, known as Norovirus is on the television news as I type this post, in fact, as Cunard’s Queen Mary II has apparently been stricken with a higher than average number of sick passengers. My friend, The Weekly Flyer, over at Points, Miles, and Martini’s sent me this article and I thought it was worth a blog. I also think it’s worth noting that in the case of the Queen Mary II, approximately 200 passengers and crew have contracted Norovirus, but the total number of passengers and crew on board is 3,868 (2,613 passengers, and 1,255 crew) according to the article. In other words, a lot of cruisers are enjoying themselves and hardly experiencing a “Christmas disaster” as described in the article.

Let’s talk about what this really is for a minute. According to the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) “Noroviruses are a group of related viruses. Infection with these viruses affects the stomach and intestines and causes an illness called gastroenteritis (GAS-tro-en-ter-I-tis; inflammation of the stomach and intestines).” You can read the rest of CDC’s take on Noroviruses by clicking here. You can contract Norovirus anywhere, not just on cruise ships.

I’ve been on 30 cruises, and have yet to have the “dis” pleasure of Norovirus. In fact, the only person I have ever known to contract Norovirus caught it in his college dorm. That said, it obviously can impact a cruise, so what do I do to ensure that I am doing my best to not contract Norovirus? First, I wash my hands regularly and take advantage of opportunities to use anti-bacterial hand sanitizer when appropriate. Hint: If a member of the ship’s crew is offering you the opportunity to sanitize your hands and you haven’t washed them recently, it’s probably a good idea to take the hand sanitizer.

Cruise ships make a big effort at keeping things clean. One thing you will notice on your cruise is that a member of the crew is always polishing the hand rails. That’s not just to keep them shiny, it’s to kill germs that your fellow cruisers might be spreading. Sometimes, the illness breaks through and grows to a certain number and then the cruise lines are required to report it. That is why you don’t often hear about Norovirus outside of the cruise industry even though it may be running rampant at a local hotel right now. The reporting requirements are different for ships than they are for hotels, or college dorms. Further, for an eager reporter, the thought of 200 people having a bad stomach bug while on vacation just sounds like a better story than 200 college kids getting sick in their dorm. (Obviously, that is just my opinion, but I stand by it.) You can read about Norovirus reporting for the cruise industry here (the Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP)), and everyone else here.

The bottom line is that Norovirus could impact your cruise, but cruise lines do take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen. You can do things to make sure it doesn’t happen to you as well. Primarily, wash your hands with warm soapy water at every opportunity. And oh yeah…please don’t stick your nasty used water bottle on the water dispenser to refill it in the buffet line. (Sorry, had to get that in there.)

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.

Hello from the 2012 Chicago Seminars! Rick, Howie, and company have put together an amazing event, and I’ve already met so many interesting people with like minds about all things travel. This is mainly an airline and hotel points-centric crowd, but tonight at 6PM, there’s something a little different on the agenda, The Cruising Crowd with Marshall Jackson. I’ll be sharing my thoughts on cruise vacations and the cruise lifestyle with a focus on the following topics:

  • Why Cruise?
  • Researching Your Options
  • Booking Your Cruise
  • Preparing to Sail
  • Life on Board
  • The Value of Loyalty

Can’t wait to meet more of you during today’s sessions and tonight at The Cruising Crowd. Looking forward to another great and informative day at the Chicago Seminars!

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