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Archive for March, 2006

Is your shore excursion safe?

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On March - 24 - 2006

In March of 2006, a bus crash in Chile claimed the lives of 12 American cruise ship passengers; it served as a wake-up call reminding us all of the potential hazards of touring in another country. The victims were passengers aboard Celebrity Cruises’ Millennium. The crash occurred as the passengers were returning to the ship after visiting Lauca National Park in northern Chile; the bus plunged 300 feet down a mountain ravine.

The U.S. State Department estimates that more than 200 U.S. citizens die each year due to road accidents abroad. While the cause of the Chilean bus crash is still being investigated, it is known that the tour operator was unregistered and not authorized to transport passengers.

Celebrity Cruises, which is owned by Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, was quick to release a statement saying it was “working in close coordination with Chilean authorities to assist in their investigation” and that these passengers were on an independent private tour not affiliated with the cruise line.

Cruise tours vs. independent tours

Cruise lines and cruise directors routinely warn passengers not to take certain independent tours because of known safety issues. One thing is for certain: if a cruise line recommends a tour, it has been thoroughly investigated.

“We only work with well-established tour operators that have done business with the cruise industry in the past,” says Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz. Indeed, all the major cruise lines carefully monitor their shore excursion programs for both content and passenger satisfaction. Before a tour is recommended to guests, the cruise line will complete a thorough investigation of safety and maintenance records, as well as an onsite inspection. “We continually send employees on our recommended tours to make sure they are running properly,” says de la Cruz.

Excursions recommended by the cruise lines usually cost more than independent tours, but they are often a better choice for travelers. Besides the safety endorsement, there is also the convenience of not having to haggle in a foreign language or to negotiate in unfamiliar currencies.

Investigate your options

But not all independent tours are unsafe or difficult to deal with. The key is doing some research before you go. Recent travelers to your destination can give you excellent advice. Still, being on vacation can make one lackadaisical when it comes to safety. Don’t hesitate to ask tough questions of independent tour operators. Consider doing the following:

* Make sure your tour is with a well-established company that carries insurance.

* Don’t be afraid to ask how long the company has been in business or to ask about its accident record.

* Never go on a water or air tour if it is windy or looks like it will rain.

* If the tour operator will not answer your questions willingly, move on to another operator that will.

Besides asking tough questions, the U.S. State Department advises travelers to “carefully assess the risk potential of recreational activities. Sports and aquatic equipment may not meet U.S. safety standards nor be covered by any accident insurance.”

Things happen

If you take part in certain high-risk activities like scuba diving, Jet Ski (wave runner) tours, helicopter rides and parasailing, you will be asked to sign a waiver releasing the cruise line from liability, even when the operator is recommended by the cruise line. This is normal practice, but should serve as a reminder that there is no guarantee these activities will go smoothly. They aren’t called “high-risk” for nothing.

While vacationing in Tahiti several years ago, I took a wave-runner tour around Bora Bora that was recommended by the cruise line. About halfway through the tour, my wave runner had mechanical problems; it began to take on water and eventually sank. Experienced guides were quick to assist — and good thing, too, because there were sharks swimming some 30 feet below me as I treaded water. Eventually, I was able to finish the tour on another wave runner. Mishap and all, the tour was the highlight of my vacation, but I can’t imagine ever taking this type of tour without licensed and experienced guides.

I was lucky that day, but another 15 minutes and it could have been the sharks that went away smiling.

Filled Under Advice

Cruise Planning 101

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On March - 17 - 2006

Missing the boat. It’s the cruise traveler’s worst nightmare, and it happens more often than you might think. There are several culprits. Sometimes, it’s a poorly planned connection to the port city. Sometimes it’s a failure to carry the necessary documents. Whatever the reason, it scuttles your cruise — and leaves you crying on the dock.

Don’t let your cruise set sail without you. Follow these five tips for pre-cruise planning, and you can board your ship without a care in the world.

Sailing from a distant port? Arrive a day early.

Tim Johns and his new bride just wanted to celebrate their honeymoon in style: a New Year’s Eve Caribbean cruise aboard Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s Radiance of the Seas. But as soon as they boarded their United Airlines flight in Cleveland, things started to go awry. The de-icing truck broke down, and it was an hour before another truck could service the plane.

“We were on a bit of a tight schedule,” Johns remembers. “As soon as the pilot announced there was only one functioning de-icing truck for the whole airport, we knew we would miss our connecting flight to Miami.” Sure enough, the Johnses missed their connection, and no available flight would get them to Miami in time for the ship’s departure. They would literally miss the boat.

The Johnses had purchased an air/sea package through the cruise line, so the responsibility for getting them to the ship fell to Royal Caribbean. The Johnses didn’t have to fend for themselves, but the arrangements were still disappointing. “The best Royal Caribbean could do was to arrange a flight for us out of Miami, then fly us directly to Jamaica, where we would catch up with the ship midway through the cruise,” Johns says.

Lesson learned: If you live far from the embarkation port, get there a day early.

Traveling early has saved several of my family’s cruise vacations, most memorably in August 2003, during the Great Northeast Power Blackout, which caused havoc with air travel nationwide. Fortunately, we had planned to arrive in Fort Lauderdale the day before our cruise started. While our departure city wasn’t affected by the blackout, the connecting airport was shut down. We eventually made it to Fort Lauderdale via a crazy routing through Houston, but many people on our cruise missed the ship.

Need identification? Get a passport.

All cruise lines deny boarding to anyone not in possession of the required documentation of citizenship. Sadly, this happens more often than you might think.

Currently, if you are sailing on a Caribbean, Canadian or Mexican cruise and do not have a passport, you will need to present a certified copy of your birth certificate — one that bears the signature and embossed seal of the official in charge of maintaining your birth record. Photocopies don’t count. To obtain a certified copy of a birth certificate, write or go to the vital statistics office in the state, county or city where you were born. More information is available at the National Center for Health Statistics.

But beginning on December 31, 2006, not even a certified birth certificate will get you on board. On that date, the State Department’s “Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative” will take effect, requiring all U.S. and Canadian cruise passengers (including infants and children) who are sailing to or from Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Bermuda to carry a valid passport.

This rule will affect cruise passengers returning to the United States after December 30, 2006, no matter when they departed, so if you’ve booked a holiday cruise and you — or your children — don’t have a passport, you need to get one. You may also need to get a new passport if your existing passport is near expiration. Many countries require that entering travelers have at least six months remaining on their passports or they will be denied entry.

You can print a passport application and get more passport information by visiting the State Department’s passport Web site. Be aware that acquiring a first passport can take several weeks to several months (renewing a passport takes less time) and that first-time applicants and all children under 14 must apply in person at a designated passport office. U.S. passports for adults 16 years of age and older cost $97 and are valid for 10 years; passports for children under the age of 16 cost $82 and are valid for five years.

Kids traveling with one parent? Get a note from the other.

Thinking of taking the kids with you on a solo jaunt? Well, you can’t just take off with them. Due to the rising number of child abductions, child custody disputes and runaways, border officials the world over are paying close attention to minors traveling with solo adults. In fact, children under the age of 18 leaving the United States and traveling with only one parent or guardian (or with grandparents or other relatives) must have written and notarized permission from the other parent (or both parents or legal guardians) to enter many countries, including Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Lebanon and Australia.

A “Permission to Travel” letter should contain the following:

* Written permission from the other parent, parents, or guardian(s) for the traveling adult to enter the country with the child
* Dates of travel
* Accompanying adult’s name
* Airline and flight numbers, if applicable
* Cruise line and/or resort information, if applicable
* Contact information
* A notarized signature

If you are traveling to a country that requires this kind of documentation, the Bureau of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly the INS) will enforce this rule through the airlines or border patrol. Airline agents will request the notarized documents at the gate; border patrol agents will ask at the border crossing.

When planning your itinerary, contact the tourist offices or embassies of all the countries you will be visiting and learn all the rules and regulations that apply to those countries. Foreign countries change their rules and regulations often. Up-to-date information can be found on the State Department’s Travel Warnings and Consular Information Web site.

Kids want to cruise without you? Read the fine print.

Gwenn B. in Ohio wrote to me asking if it was OK for her 16-year-old daughter to travel on a Royal Caribbean cruise with her 21-year-old cousin.

No, it is not OK. Most cruise lines have strict rules for unmarried, underage “guests” traveling with or without their parents. Royal Caribbean, for example, requires unmarried guests under the age of 18 to travel with their parents or a legal guardian, though its cruise contract goes on to say that “these restrictions may be waived at our discretion where applicable.”

It’s not just Royal Caribbean. In the last few years, all cruise lines have tightened their rules about minor children sailing on their ships. Most cruise lines now insist that unmarried, underage guests be booked in a stateroom with an adult who is at least 21 years old (or in an adjacent stateroom). Carnival has the strictest policy: Its unmarried guests under the age of 21 must be in a stateroom with someone over 25.

Policies vary on this point, so be sure to talk to your travel agent or cruise line before you book your cruise. Understand that if you show up at the dock without the proper documentation or if you violate underage guest rules, even inadvertently, you will not be able to board the ship — and you won’t get a refund, either.

Baby on board? Get a note from your doctor.

In the world of cruising, pregnancy is regarded as a medical condition, and the cruise line may require a medical certificate establishing the passenger’s due date and fitness to travel. Many cruise lines will not permit passengers who are more than 24 weeks into pregnancy to sail, so try to schedule your cruise sometime between the morning sickness and the midway mark.

Don’t be vexed on your next cruise vacation. If you book your connections wisely and get your documents in order, you can board the ship without a care in the world. And that’s the only way to cruise.

Filled Under Advice

Pick the right cruise cabin

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On March - 3 - 2006

In the old days of cruising, you didn’t ask much of your cabin. A bed, a head, and a porthole would do. After all, you didn’t expect to spend much time in it — not unless you were seasick. But cruising has changed. Today’s cruise ships are floating resorts, and the cabins aspire to be holiday havens. Some succeed and some don’t, so it pays to give a little thought to your cabin selection. Here are some tips from lessons learned the hard way.

Cabin categories

Just the facts. There are four basic types of cruise cabins: inside cabins, outside cabins, balcony cabins, and suites. Inside cabins are located on inside corridors and so have no window. Outside cabins are located on the outside wall of the ship and have a window. Balcony cabins, also called veranda cabins, are outside cabins with a private deck. Suites are larger outside cabins with bigger private decks, separate bedroom(s), and a sitting area. Some suites have two or more bathrooms and perhaps some exclusive services, like your own personal butler.

* Insider tip. Inside cabins are less expensive than outside cabins, yet passengers in these cabins are afforded the same ship’s amenities as passengers in outside cabins and suites. Still, there are some things to think about before choosing an inside cabin. The few times I have cruised in an inside cabin, I have found myself feeling very confined and confused because I couldn’t tell what time of day it was or what the weather was like outside.

* Insider tip. Outside cabins offer a window to the world, and having a view of tropical islands or Alaskan glaciers is a special treat. But what qualifies as a “window”? Some are just portholes; others are full-length picture windows. Moreover, not all outside cabins offer an unobstructed view; some are partially blocked by lifeboats. You need to ask your booking agent.

* Insider tip. Balcony cabins allow you to enjoy the outdoors and listen to the sounds of the sea. But is your private balcony really private? Some newer ships have recessed decks that may give passengers above a full view of you on your balcony. Also watch out for balcony cabins near outside elevators, like the ones on Holland America’s Zuiderdam; these do not offer complete privacy.

* Insider tip. When in doubt, book a higher category. “One of the biggest mistakes people make is underestimating the value of their cruise category,” says Brian Major, director of public relations for Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). “For example, people who book an outside cabin can upgrade to a balcony cabin for not much more money and it makes a big difference in the quality of a vacation.” Sure, he’s an industry spokesman, but after taking dozens of cruises in many different cabin categories, I can assure you he’s right.

Cabin amenities

Just the facts. The average hotel room in the United States measures 300 square feet; in contrast, the average cruise cabin measures about 175 square feet. It’s what you get for that space that’s important. For the most part, standard cruise cabins are sensibly decorated and offer comfortable beds, reading lamps, ample storage space, bathrooms that have either a shower (but no tub) or a small tub with shower, and individual climate control. In addition, most cruise cabins come with a television, telephone, hair dryer, personal safe and a writing area with a desk and chair.

On premium and luxury cruise lines, standard cabins may offer more impressive amenities like high thread-count sheets, pillow-top mattresses, down duvets, larger bathrooms (with tubs), mini-refrigerators, flat-panel TVs, VCRs, DVD players, Internet access, and a sitting area with loveseat and chairs.

* Insider tip. Having trouble picturing how your cabin will look? Check out CruiseStateroom.com, which offers panoramic 360-degree video views of all cabin categories for most cruise lines. This is one of the best cruise cabin resources on the Web.

Sleeping around

Just the facts. Most cabins accommodate two passengers, but you can also get triples and quads. Even larger cabins are available on some ships catering to families and small groups. Disney Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, MSC Cruises and Princess Cruises all offer cabins and suites that can accommodate six to eight people.

Not all cruise beds are the same. In fact, the size and arrangement of beds (also called “berths”) varies widely. Most cabins on newer ships have two twin beds that can be “converted” (i.e., moved together) to make a king. But not all. You might get a queen, or two twins that can’t be moved, or one twin on the floor and one fold-down Pullman. Third and fourth beds in a cabin are usually convertible-sofa beds or upper Pullmans, which you reach by ladder (a restraining bar keeps you from falling out). During the day, Pullman beds can be folded up against the wall or into the ceiling to provide more space.

* Insider tip. Your cabin arrangement can come as an unpleasant surprise. Several years ago, when I was sailing aboard Princess Cruises’s Sun Princess, I ended up with a quad balcony cabin with four Pullman beds. This configuration shocked me — and my travel agent — since we had researched Cabin A640 before booking and understood from the deck plan that the room had two Pullmans (for the kids) and two convertible twins (for the grown-ups). I hated this cabin. The beds were uncomfortable and it wasn’t fun sleeping without the hubby. I was supposed to be on the Love Boat, but I felt trapped in a 1950’s sitcom.

According to Princess spokeswoman Susanne Ferrull, Cabin A640 still has four Pullmans. “Most quad cabins on the Sun Princess (and her sister ship Dawn Princess) do not have this designation,” she says. “But a few do.” Again, it pays to ask.

Location, location, location

Just the facts. On most cruise ships, passenger cabins are interspersed among the ship’s restaurants, theaters, casinos, lounges, pools, spa, and other public facilities. Only Silverseas Cruises, a luxury cruise line, offers a separate cabin section. Each of its four ships is designed with the cabins in the forward part of the ship; the lounges, bars and restaurants range from midship aft.

* Insider tip. Many cabins get noise and vibration from the ship’s engines throughout the voyage, and some get noise when the anchors are lowered. Some people like these “nautical noises,” but if you don’t, you might find it quieter in the middle of the ship.

* Insider tip. You have more control over human noise, and if everyday hustle and bustle bothers you, you should stay away from the children’s playroom, high-traffic elevators, self-service laundries and crew work stations. Try especially hard to avoid cabins above the disco and below the pool area. New York City resident Cindi Ludaken remembers a long, sleepless night on a Caribbean cruise listening to dozens of passengers on the Lido Deck above her cabin singing karaoke. “There’s nothing worse at two in the morning than a universally bad version of ‘I Will Survive,'” she says.

* Insider tip. Some cruise lines discount cabins that have noise problems. For example, Carnival Cruise Line offers “Night Owl” cabins aboard the Carnival Destiny. These inside cabins cost $200 less per person than identical cabins down the hall because they get a lot of thump and noise from the disco overhead.

* Insider tip. One way to avoid cabin trouble is to study your ship’s deck plan. See exactly where your proposed cabin is located in relation to noisy common areas. Check, too, for any unmarked white or gray spaces nearby; these often represent a housekeeping or room-service station that may house noisy carts and ice machines.

* Insider tip. Even the best-laid plans can go astray. Remember Cabin A640? Not only did it come with the dreaded Pullman beds, it was located directly under the Spa Deck door (door banged constantly) and near the maid’s closets (loud talking and banging ice at 6 a.m.). The only thing you can do in a situation like this is buy some earplugs at the next port.

Assigned cabins and “guaranteed” cabins

Just the facts. If you book early, you can often reserve the exact cabin you want to occupy; for example, Cabin A640. That’s an “assigned cabin.”

A “guaranteed booking” is different. A guaranteed booking gets you an unassigned cabin within a specified cabin category, along with a chance of being assigned to a higher cabin category at no additional cost. How does this work? Like airlines, cruise lines overbook. When demand for one cabin category exceeds the supply, cruise lines use their guaranteed bookings to help control cabin inventory.

Which of the guaranteed bookings actually gets upgraded? That depends on the cruise line. Some will upgrade passengers who booked early on. Others upgrade passengers who book through top-selling travel agencies — yet another reason to put your cruise business with a good travel agent.

* Insider tip. Your chances of being upgraded on a guaranteed booking are unpredictable. It depends on too many demand factors. In the past, lots of guaranteed bookings were upgraded. But now cruise lines are able to move a lot of last-minute inventory over the Internet, so your chances are somewhat lower.

* Insider tip. Guaranteed bookings almost never get you a suite, but you may be placed a few decks higher than the deck you were expecting. On the other hand, you could end up with a less desirable cabin in your category than you’d hoped for. Just remember: An upgrade is not a sure thing, and when you book a guarantee you are giving up the opportunity to pick a particular cabin.

Choose your cabin carefully and you’ll sleep much better — from the moment you put down your deposit. Bon voyage and sweet dreams!

Filled Under Advice