Traveling

Thanks for visiting and we appreciate your support.

We will be traveling starting April 14th with very limited access to the internet until mid May. I will hope to make a few posts along the way provided I can get to the net. Hope to see you again when we get home.

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Cell Service at Sea (Update)

Another Thought on Cruise Ship Phone Calls

We are getting ready for an extended trip, which will include a trans-Atlantic cruise and are going thru our check lists. Reviewing our communications options is high on the list involving several decisions we usually need to make.

Our primary cell service is with Verizon. With them we can choose between a 30 day package called “International Travel 100 (minutes) Talk” for $40 or “TravelPass” which costs $10 a day, only when used*, for basically unlimited calls and text and uses our data allotment. Normally we go with the Travel 100 with back-up on my OneSimCard phone. If a situation arises we can have Verizon switch us over to TravelPass during the trip.

In the last couple of years Cruise ship communications has been the biggest problem. AT&T controls this business and without having an AT&T account and buying a “cruise package”, most calls average $2.50+ per minute. As a general policy we try and restrict communications to text (incoming is free and sent messages are 25¢) and email.

We have now realized that we have some additional options. We use MagicJack for our home phone service. We’ve used this service for over six years. When we started this service we transferred our home number to the MagicJack service and since that time we have moved twice and it has allowed us to keep our number wherever we move. We also have friends that travel with a MagicJack and if they have internet they can make calls from their laptops.

Now MagicJack has a mobile App. You can use it with a cell phone, a pad or a laptop and make calls using WiFi. You can also take calls that are made to your home number while traveling (on a cell phone you can also do this thru cellular service).

We have now loaded the app on a pad we take with us and will try it out and report when we get back.

After talking with OneSimCard they suggested we take a look at their VOIP app on the phone using their sim card and call using WiFi.

These could represent serious savings. WiFi service on cruise ships has been getting faster and cheaper over the past few years while cellular service cost has been going up. Many people are now buying internet packages when they cruise and in our case, because of our frequent cruising status, we get a large allotment at no charge.

We loaded these apps and have made a few no cost test calls using our home WiFi and everything worked fine. This still needs to be tested on the cruise ship and we’ll let you know in June when we’re back.

Cruising and the Panama Canal

Lock up to Gatún Lake

In 1880 the French tackled one of the biggest engineering projects ever. The intent was to dig a canal from the Caribbean across Panama to the Pacific Ocean. They were defeated by a mosquito and a single celled organism that causes malaria.

In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt of the United States took on the responsibility of getting done a long-term United States goal, completing the trans-isthmian canal. In order to get the U.S. authority a number of treaties were attempted and finally the U.S. backed a revolutionary movement to gain Panama independence from Columbia.

The new canal projects success was partly the result of healthcare advances made during the construction, led by William Gorgas, an expert in

Gatún Lake

controlling tropical diseases including yellow fever and malaria. Gorgas was one of the first to recognize the role of mosquitoes in the spread of these diseases, and by focusing on controlling the mosquitoes greatly improved worker safety.

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The American engineers abandoned the French plan of a sea level cut and went to a design using locks to lift ships up to the level of Gatún Lake and back down again. One of the biggest projects was the Culebra Cut through the roughest terrain on the route and remains one of the largest earth –moving projects ever.

Later in the construction it was discovered there would not be enough water reserves to operate the locks. Several dams were built with one being a dam at Pedro Miguel which encloses the south end of the Culebra Cut (actually an arm of Gatún Lake). The Gatun Dam is the main dam blocking the original course of the Chagres River, and created Gatún Lake. Additionally two dams were built at Miraflores that impound Miraflores Lake.

Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

The best way to visit the canal is on a cruise ship. Generally these cruises go back and forth from the American coasts with Miami and Ft. Lauderdale being at one end and San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco at the other. They usually include a number of stops that can include Grand Cayman, Cartagena, Columbia, Colon, Panama, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras and Mexico but the star of the trip is the Panama Canal.

Mules prepare to receive a tanker

We have taken a couple of cruises that transit the canal and are always enthralled by the trip thru the locks and lakes of this remarkable place. Ships are pushed and pulled by tugs and canal engines called “mules” into locks with only inches of clearance. Water roars out of exhaust ports and massive ships rise and drop effortlessly within the locks.

A new electric Mule

Cruising across Lake Gatún is like a journey thru a primitive and beautiful rain forest with numerous islets as dozens of ships glide along near us. Transiting the Culebra Cut with its walls towering above leaves us overwhelmed by the shear tonnage of dirt that had to be hauled away.

Many cruises stop at Cristobal Pier near Colon where locals offer crafts and wares for sale with usually Kuna Indians from the San Blas Islands among the merchants. Many of the cruise ships require a quick paint touch-up at the exit dock to cover up numerous rubs and scrapes from the passage..

Up until recently the canal could only accommodate ships designated Panamax. These original locks are 1,050 ft (320.04 m) in length, 110 ft (33.53 m) in width, and 41.2 ft (12.56 m) in depth. These limits have influenced the ship building industry to build Panamax vessels for the past hundred plus years

On September 7, 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed the Panama Canal Treaty and Neutrality Treaty promising to give control of the canal to the Panamanians in the year 2000. After that the Panama Canal Company began an expansion project. The expansion project started construction in 2007 and opened for commercial operation on 26 June 2016. The new locks allow transit of larger Post-Panamax and New Panamax ships, which have a greater cargo capacity than the original locks could accommodate. Unfortunately many of the cruise industries new mega-ships still cannot cruise the canal mainly because they are too tall to cruise under the bridge at the Pacific end of the canal.

All-in-all this is a fascinating journey and one of the three or four  best itineraries we’ve taken. The ports-of-call are an opportunity to visit a number of Central American countries and get an introduction to this interesting region.

Index to Cruising Articles

Ways to Save Money on Booking a Cruise

Getting the best deal on booking a cruise is a process very much like getting the best fare on a flight. Like all businesses, cruise lines want to get the most for every cabin and, like the airlines at the moment of departure, anything unsold has no future value. Economists call these items non-fungible, meaning they cannot be exchanged in the future. We’ve booked more than fifty cruises over the years and have discovered a few truths in this process. We have also discovered a few tricks that help us save money and reduce the outlay of deposit amounts.

Start By Researching Fares in the Market You’re Interested In

Like the cost of everything, cruise prices vary based on market conditions. Prices vary by the cruise line, the itinerary, the time of year and the cruise’s popularity.

Just like hotels and restaurants, cruise lines are generally priced by their expected level of service and their intended clientele. Carnival, an economy line, is structured to appeal to a younger group looking to party. Royal Caribbean, a mid-range price point, focuses on young families while Celebrity, a higher priced choice, focuses on an older demographic with higher expectations in service. Taking a quick look at a number of similar cruises will quickly give you an idea how this pricing element works.

An owners suite on RCL

Some itineraries are more popular than others and pricing reflects this difference. Alaska can be more expensive than the Caribbean and trans-Atlantic cruises are usually much less expensive than European cruises.

Finally, the time of year has a huge effect on pricing. The easiest example is Caribbean cruise prices in August compared with October. While summer is usually off-season in the Caribbean it is also school break time. By October the kids are back in school and demand has dropped accordingly and so have the fares.

Look at Add-On Expenses You’re Likely to Use

In addition to the cabin rate, you should also consider onboard expenses you are likely to incur. Included services vary by cruise lines and frequent cruiser status. In addition, most cruise lines are now offering onboard packages that can include laundry, internet, sodas, fancy coffees and bar drinks. Another major onboard expense is booking tours.

Make sure you understand what things are included in a cruise and if not what they are likely to cost you specifically. For example, some cruises include drinks while others may cost $500.00 or more for a drink package. Making this price comparison may actually justify the expense of an upgrade.

Decide What You Want in a Cabin

Picking a cabin category isn’t as straight forward as you would think. Most people assume that an inside cabin is the choice for saving money and, often it is, but not always. More and more the cruise lines are offering free add-ons as a sales promotion. These can include prepaid gratuities, drink packages and onboard credits. Sometimes incentives include one and at times all three. Often, inside cabins do not qualify for these free add-ons and that can have a big impact on the overall cost of the cruise.

At the time we make a reservation, this is a major consideration. When these promotions are being offered, an ocean view or veranda cabin can be less expensive than an inside cabin. There have also been cruises where an inside cabin costs more to book. We believe this happens when we book early and the cruise ship is trying to keep these cabins in reserve.

When we select a cruise we often let the itinerary dictate which cabin we want. Long ago we decided that we have no problem with inside cabins. On most cruises we actually spend very little time in our cabin so upgrading means little. On one cruise we were upgraded to an owner’s suite and while spacious and beautiful, it really seemed a waste of space and certainly would not be worth it to us if we had to pay full price. On a trans-Atlantic, an inside cabin is fine with us but, in Alaska, getting a veranda cabin usually is a must. Often it is all about the view.

Food, food,and more food

Book Early

Many times the best prices are available when a cruise is first announced. After the initial listing the cruise company can discover the cruise is getting a good response and the simple rule of supply and demand allows them to increase fares. Also, unlike airline tickets, the cruise line may allow you to take advantage of price reductions right up to the final payment date which is generally 90 days prior to sailing. That policy usually includes reduced fares, upgrading the cabin or taking advantage of free add-ons.

There are also situations where the opposite strategy can produce big savings. That is last minute booking, usually only a few days or weeks before sailing. Faced with empty cabins and no revenue, many cruise lines will offer super last-minute discounts. This is partly because the cabin fare is only part of the potential revenue from a passenger. Casinos, drink sales and tour fees add up to big money. We generally do not use this option in our planning but will take advantage of last minute cruises if the price is too good to pass up.

Always Book Onboard

The likelihood of a passenger returning to the same cruise line is actually very high and with frequent cruiser programs the likelihood is even greater. Most ships have a future booking office onboard and to get you to commit they offer additional incentives. These may include greatly reduced deposits and special add-ons. Since you can take advantage of price changes or switch cruises up to 90 days before the cruise and also get your deposit refunded if you cancel, this is a great opportunity*.

Watch and Take Advantage of Incentives

Even after you have confirmed a reservation and put down a deposit you can take advantage of special incentives. If you are a member of a buying group (Groupon, AAA, AARP), or an online travel service (Expedia, PriceLine) that sends you emails of special offers, get in the habit of reviewing these on a regular basis. If you see a good offer, see if you can add it to your reservation. Most times these offers are not exclusive regardless of what the agency says.

After You Book Keep Watching the Fares

As likely as fares are to go up, price reductions also happen but you can’t take advantage of them if you don’t know about them. Get in the habit of checking the prices on cruises you have already booked looking for opportunities to save or upgrade.

Work with a Good Travel Agent

There may not be such a thing as a free lunch, but travel agents are actually free (at least to you) when booking a cruise. We strongly recommend getting to know a good travel agent and getting in the habit of booking everything through them. They actually will appreciate the business and most consider it their job to help you manage saving money. They are also much more effective at dealing with the cruise lines when getting fares reduced or adding on incentives. Your way to contact the cruise line is to call an inside agent but the travel agent has a marketing representative that they routinely deal with and have less difficulty negotiating changes.

Also, if your agent is affiliated with one of the growing super agencies, they can offer you specials provided by their agency in addition to the cruise line. Often their agency has booked a popular cruise as a group package and they can add you to the group and get you an additional discount or onboard credit. At times they also offer their own promotional specials like a free tour or an additional onboard credit.

The best way to connect with a good agent is to ask friends or fellow travelers for their recommendation and ask questions about their experience.

In closing, we have an observation about advertised offers. We get emails from a number of travel agencies and they are constantly screaming about their exclusive special deals from this or that cruise line. Usually they are not exclusive deals and often they are cleverly misrepresenting a price structure. “Cruises from $499.00 with a $700.00 onboard credit” sound familiar? It may be true that an inside cabin can be booked for $499.00 but it is not eligible for any onboard credit; the $700.00 credit is only for suites. We have rarely found a unique offer but often these are a clue that there are price reductions happening.


*Unfortunately, in the last year, a number of cruise companies have started adopting a policy of non-refundable deposits and this changes the process some. Currently, Celebrity is offering lower fares for non-refundable deposits so this is going to cause some rethinking of how we address some booking in the future.

 

 

A Tale of a Whale

A Short Story

Sunset at Icy Straight Point

Whale Watching In Alaska

Kayakers searching for whales

A few years ago while on an early season Alaska cruise our ship stopped at Icy Straight Point. For a number of reasons we had decided to take it easy that day. The ship was anchored out and we had gone ashore early in the morning and took a nice hike thru the forest. We were back on the ship well before noon and had gone out on our balcony to read.

Some of our friends had taken the opportunity to go on excursions in the port and whale watching seemed to be the choice of the day. Of the whale watching options one was a kayak trip and as we sat on our balcony we could see the kayaks move along the shore and head out toward open water.

Whale at Icy Straight Point

A little over thirty minutes into our reading we were startled by a load noise coming directly below us. It was a large Humpback whale that had crossed under the ship and was blowing as it surfaced directly below our stateroom.

We had been whale watching before and had seen whales off of Hawaii, Vancouver Island and in Alaska. On one cruse up the Inner Passage we had a pod of Orcas pace the ship for over a half hour. With them I never got a picture because we never knew where they would surface next and before you could react – they were gone.

Whale pod encounter off Vancouver Island

This time at Icy Straight Point our Humpback stayed near us for twenty minutes, circling and diving and putting on a real show. Most of our fellow passengers were off exploring and it didn’t seem this whale was drawing much attention at all.

That evening talking to our shipmates it seemed that the whale watch tours were mostly a dud. The kayakers had seen whales but none had come anywhere near the group and one whale watching boat had not seen any whales at all.

Sometimes lady luck just smile in our direction…

Repositioning Cruises, Another Side of Cruising

 

Carnaval ship leaves the Port of Miami
Holland America in the Panama Canal

A repositioning cruise traditionally is when a cruise company needs to move ships from one seasonal location to another. Winter is cruising season in the Caribbean while Europe is a Summer market. For that reason dozens of cruise ships head out across the Atlantic every Spring. These Atlantic crossing occur  twice a year and are by-far the most common repositioning cruises. There are also other repositioning cruises including Fall Alaska cruises taking ships back to the Caribbean and out across the Pacific. Another opportunity is a late Summer reposition movement down to South America and back in the Spring.

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In the past, many of these cruises have been tremendous  bargains. A number of years ago these 12 to 15 night cruises could be had for four or five hundred dollars per passenger but probably not any longer. At times those repositioning cruise could even be less expensive than airfare. The down side was that you would have seven to nine straight days at sea. The up side was that the ships provided the same entertainment, the same great cuisine and the same attentive service. Additionally most of these cruises also provided a port call or two at each end of the cruise.

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Lately, as cruising gets more popular and more people become frequent cruisers the ships have less trouble filling these cruise cabins and the pricing has regularly adjusted upward as a result. Even so, these cruises are still a very good value considering the length of the cruise.

Five cruise ships docked in Nassau

To decide if these cruises are for you, consider a number of questions about what particularly appeals to you about cruising. In our case we really like the port visits and getting an introduction to exotic locations but we also enjoy the down time provided by “sea days”. We actually look forward to opportunities to catch up on our reading and each of us will go thru a number of books on a crossing. We also appreciate the time to organize our writing and photography. In our case we usually find it easy to stay busy but we know people that claim they would go crazy being stuck on a ship for a week or more.

Royal Caribbean at anchor Grand Cayman
Royal Caribbean New Zealand

In addition to the good value these cruises offer some cruise lines have added additional programs for passengers. They range from painting classes to lectures on varied topics. We’ve listened to lectures from a former director of the Kennedy Space Center, an archaeologist discuss their digs in the Eastern Mediterranean and a young lady talking about her adventures solo-sailing across the Atlantic.

So, the next time you start looking at cruise destinations you might consider a repositioning cruise as a good options.