Monthly Archives: May 2017

Simple Tips For The first Time Cruise

“It’s not exactly in the middle of nowhere.” That’s what I find myself saying whenever someone says to me, “I’d never go on a transatlantic cruise.”

I have to admit, while not exactly in the middle of nowhere, there isn’t a whole lot of activity going on around you, except maybe for an occasional whale or dolphin sighting. You do feel like you are out there all alone. Kind of.

Never mind my very first transoceanic trip in 1961 aboard the petite Matsonia, from Los Angeles to Honolulu. Fast forward to my first “grown-up” transatlantic crossing in 2005. This would be a litmus test for latent agoraphobia. When you think about it, visualize a tiny cork gently bobbing or violently tossing around in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, with no swimmers in sight. Yes, I was a bit nervous.
When my first transatlantic ship, the Celebrity Century, quietly slipped through the channel in Ft. Lauderdale and out to sea, I drew a deep breath and said to myself, “you can do this.”

And “do this” I did.

Since then, I’ve done a total of eight transatlantic “voyages,” as Cunard prefers to call them. What’s it like and do you really feel totally stranded out there? Here are some of my thoughts and advice to help you with your first trip across an ocean.

  1. Be prepared. Channel your inner Boy or Girl Scout and be prepared. Not only in your mind, but with lazy day diversions. With a minimum of six consecutive sea days, even the most entertaining of the mega ships will have a lull in the activities. All of the ships have some sort of library. For the best selection, get there when it first opens. By the second or third day, the choice for best sellers has dwindled.

    Not a reader? Bring your home craft project (providing it fits into your suitcase.) You’ll find knitters, needle-pointers, scrapbookers meeting each day in some public space, as unhosted activities.
    Wine tasting has expanded into single-malt scotch, craft beer and tequila tastings. There is a fee but what else do you have to do?

  2. Smell the roses. If you find yourself on the verge of activity-overload, scout out a quiet spot to watch the sea. I usually search for both an indoor viewing area as well as an outdoor, wind-blocked vantage point. Sunny days with flat seas warrant an outdoor vantage point. On foggy or rough seas days, you’ll want to curl up in a comfy chair near a picture window. Yes, you will want to look out and see what’s going on. Mid-ship on a low deck and you’ll hardly feel those thirty-foot seas and gale force winds!
  3. Keep moving. On some ships, you can almost walk your way across the Atlantic. On Cunard’s wraparound outdoor walking track/promenade, a mere three times around is 1.1 miles. On other ships, you can walk in circles ten or eleven times to finish one mile.

    If a good fitness center is important, head on over to the cruise line’s website for photos of their workout facility; the bigger the better. A tiny gym means to use one of only five treadmills for 1,000 passengers on a transatlantic crossing is going to take some planning.

    The legendary weight gain. With a stretch of six to possibly ten sea days, one of the biggest concerns is weight gain. I’ve come to realize over time that it isn’t the actual over-eating that is the cause but the amount of salt in the food that is the culprit. Also, I hear a lot of people complaining about swollen feet and ankles. Again, it’s the sodium in the food.

    Solution? Tell your dining room waiter that you would like to be on a sodium-free diet for the cruise. Here’s how it works: every night at the end of your dinner, the waiter (or head waiter) will present to you the menu for the next evening. You choose your entire dinner and the order is brought to the kitchen where there are other special diets orders (gluten-free, allergy requests etc.).

    By eliminating the “built-in” salt, you will avoid retaining water and thus not blow up like a puffer fish. But be forewarned: if you order salt-free, your dinner will be salt-free. This means that the gorgeous bowl of steamy French onion soup will arrive sans toasted French bread and cheese. You can always do a modified salt-free when something sounds too good to pass up.

    A transatlantic is a great time to do nothing. This isn’t a “If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium” experience. Transatlantic cruises are generally not “port intensive.” But if there is a port you would like to visit, chances are you can find a cruise that stops there en route to where you will disembark.

  4. With careful planning, you can find an itinerary which will visit two to five ports along the way once you’ve crossed the ocean. Some cruise lines are eliminating the “cruise” portion and are almost mainlining straight across with only one port visit before debarkation in Europe.
  5. Hop on the bus, Gus. Important to note, Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 is the ONLY cruise line offering regularly scheduled non-stop transatlantic crossings nearly year round. The Queen Mary 2 is also the ONLY purpose-built actual ocean liner, not cruise ship, in service today. She’s built for transatlantic voyages and sails them beautifully.
  6. Make a new plan, Stan. My suggestion is that once you’ve decided on which transatlantic voyage to take, book yourself into back-to-back cruises so that you stay onboard for either the first cruise once you arrive in Europe or the last cruise before the westbound crossing. That way, you not only feel “special” in saying that you are “continuing on…”, but you get to spend time in many wonderful ports throughout Europe.
  7. What time is it, anyway? One of the best advantages of a transatlantic crossing is the elimination of jet lag. Yes, you arrive at your destination either in Europe or the U.S. without needing two or three days to catch up to the local time zone.
  8. Which direction is better? Personally, l prefer a westbound crossing because it results in 25-hour days. Here’s how it works. Say, for example, you are booked on a crossing with seven sea days before you get to Florida. Starting on the first or second night after departure from Europe, clocks are set back one hour at bedtime. You continue to do this for maybe two consecutive days, take a break to adjust and set the clocks back again until you reach your debarkation port. I find that I do wake up a bit earlier than usual towards the end of the voyage, but I’m well-rested and ready to go.

    Going eastbound with 23 hour days, you might find yourself at the buffet at 2am because your body is telling you it’s only 9PM! If you are sensitive to time changes, be sure to check that the ship you are on will have a 24 hour food option, even if it’s only room service. Otherwise, you might find yourself, like I have many times, 2AM at the 24 hour coffee and tea location, getting a flavored tea to bring back to my room to have with cookies that were saved from the afternoon.

  9. Is anyone out there? For a little piece of mind along your journey, remember that the ship travels in shipping lanes. You are never too far from another ship, even though it may not be visible.
    However, there is a portion on the north Atlantic where you may find yourself in “no-man’s-land” for a day or so depending upon the route that your captain decides to follow. Be prepared for a brief blip in satellite communications which affects the internet and television.
    On my recent Cunard voyage, we never lost a second of communication via wifi or TV. Ships’ satellite technology (meaning the company that they contract with for access) vastly improves every year.
  10. Roundtripping. Finally, if you have the time, why not do like I do and make the transatlantic crossing in both directions? This does take a bit of skillful planning and occasional maneuvering but it is quite frankly, the best way to visit Europe.

    For example, cruise from Ft. Lauderdale to Barcelona. Continue onboard for a Mediterranean cruise, which returns to Barcelona. Spend a couple of days in Barcelona and then make your way via train from Barcelona to Paris. Depending upon your schedule, spend a night or two in the City of Lights. In 9:00AM, take a taxi to the Gare du Nord Eurostar train station. In two and one-half hours, with twenty-one minutes of that spent zooming under the English Channel, you arrive rested and relaxed at St. Pancras train station in London. Walk a few yards from your train to the departure hall, find the Cunard representative and board their motor coach to Southampton. In another two hours you’ll board the Queen Mary 2 for your voyage home.

    With the mystery of a transatlantic crossing hopefully solved, why not start planning your trip today? If you would like the convenience of staying in the same cabin for back-to-back cruises, book early. Otherwise, your room attendant can help you change cabins on turnaround day. But if you can remain in the same cabin, it’s so much easier and less stressful.

    Once you’ve experienced the exhilaration and excitement of crossing an ocean, you will be hooked. For a very memorable experience, sail into New York City. Cruise ships arrive into New York harbor at dawn, pass under the colorfully lit Verrazano Bridge and quietly sail past the illuminated Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

    Everyone is out on deck at 5:30am to view this amazing sight. I’m sure many passengers reflect on how their ancestors might have felt hundreds of years ago. I’ve seen grown men cry and overheard people speaking in hushed voices with thick Irish brogues. Others blankly stare at Ellis Island. It’s a very moving moment, indeed.

Avoid Sneaky Airline Fees

This summer is proving to be the busiest travel season. According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), agents screened more passengers and crews during the weeks of June 18 and June 25 than ever before. With more and more people traveling, it’s important to plan accordingly for your trip in order to avoid unnecessary fees.

Airlines have gotten more creative at tacking on charges for perks that were once free — like choosing your seat. Fees vary by airline. Ultra low-fare airlines, for instance, are more likely to charge additional fees to make up for the cost of those discounted tickets.

“They charge for everything,” says Rick Seaney, CEO and cofounder of FareCompare.com. “The ticket price is ridiculously low. And if you fly naked and don’t eat, you’re in good shape.”

You don’t have to go that far to avoid add-ons. Here are some common fees on domestic flights and ways you can bypass them — or at least lessen their impact.

Checked bags

Many airlines charge to check luggage, often starting at $25 for the first bag and quickly escalating. For instance, the fee for three or more bags on United, American and Delta can range from $150 to $200 each.

What to do: If packing light isn’t possible, your baggage fees may be waived if you buy the ticket using the airline’s branded credit card. Or fly Southwest Airlines, which doesn’t charge for the first two checked bags. And when flying ultralow-fare airlines Spirit or Allegiant, baggage fees will be lower if you pay them at the time of booking rather than later at the airport. Some travelers also avoid this fee by checking a bag at the gate, which is often — but not always — free, Seaney says.

Big bags

You’ll pay extra for oversized or overweight luggage. You might even owe two fees on United and JetBlue if your bag is too big and too heavy. Oversized fees often run $75 to $200. Overweight bags cost $75 to $100, but can climb to $200 for each bag over 70 pounds on American, United and Delta.

What to do: Make sure your bag isn’t bigger than the 62 inches allowed by many airlines, and weigh luggage before going to the airport to stay within the 50-pound limit. Or, mail your luggage ahead of time to your destination. Shipping a 51-pound bag from Chicago to New York via FedEx costs as little as $41.

Change tickets

Most airlines charge extra to switch a nonrefundable ticket. Delta, United and American slap travelers with the steepest fee — $200 to change a domestic flight days before departure.

Cancellation

You’ll pay similar fees to cancel a flight as you would to change it.

– What to do:

If you must cancel, do so early. Federal regulations require airlines operating in the United States to refund your money if you cancel a reservation within the first 24 hours — provided you booked seven or more days before the flight.

Seat selection

Not all seats are created equal, and many airlines charge for extra leg room or to sit by a window or aisle, says Jami Counter, with SeatGuru, a website that provides info on seats and flight entertainment. Seat fees range from $15 to $150 on domestic flights, depending on distance and demand, he says. Spirit Airlines also offers spacious “Big Front” seats for $12 to $199 if you pay in advance.

What to do:

For some lanky travelers on long trips or families wishing to sit together, selecting seats in advance may be worth the extra money. Some airlines will waive or discount fees for frequent fliers. Or, let the airline assign you a seat for free — usually in the back or middle — and then 24 hours or less before departure, check to see if a desirable seat has opened up that you can now grab without paying extra, Counter says. (Starting next year, airlines must seat children under age 13 with their adult companion without charging a fee, says FareCompare’s Seaney.)

Priority boarding

The cost for getting on planes early — otherwise known as the cutting-in-line fee — ranges from around $4 to $30.

What to do:

The fee may be worth it for travelers wanting to get the first crack at overhead bin space or to choose an unassigned seat on Southwest before the crowd. You might be able to avoid the fee altogether by using certain airline-branded credit cards.

Carry-ons

Airlines don’t charge for one small personal item like a purse or briefcase. But go too big and take up bin space on low-cost carriers Allegiant, Spirit and Frontier and you’ll pay a carry-on fee of $15 to $100, depending on the flight. United’s new “bare bones” fare doesn’t allow passengers to use bin space, and oversized personal items will be checked for $25.

What to do:

Make sure your personal item fits under your seat.

Food and beverages

After years of no frills (meaning no meals), airlines are bringing back food — for a fee. Main cabin passengers pay $4 to $12 for a snack or sandwich. Although major carriers don’t charge for sodas, water, pretzels or other light snacks, freebies generally aren’t available on deep-discount airlines.

What to do:

You may be entitled to free meals if you’re an elite status passenger or your credit card offers this perk. Otherwise, pack a snack for the trip and drink only complimentary beverages. Be aware: Some foods, such as peanut butter, may count toward the liquids and gels you can bring through security.

The human touch

Talking to a real person often costs money. Allegiant charges $15 for this per segment (each stop on an itinerary). American assesses $25 to buy a ticket over the phone. United charges $50 for purchasing a ticket in person at the airport.

What to do:

Buy tickets online. Or fly with an airline that doesn’t charge a fee.

Boarding passes

Having the airline agent print out your boarding pass will cost $5 at Allegiant and $10 with Spirit.

What to do:

Print your boarding pass at home for free if you’re flying with an airline that charges this fee.

Wi-Fi

JetBlue offers internet access for free, but other airlines often charge $8 to $16 for a daily pass.

What to do:

Bring a book. But if you must surf the net, check with your airline before the trip. Some offer limited internet access for free, or will give you a discount if you pay in advance, Seaney says.

Danube River

It was in the early morning hours, still and silent, when I slipped out of bed and drew back the curtains on our balcony window. In the darkness, the ship’s hull lights cast a yellow glow on the dark, rushing river, betraying just how fast we were skimming through Austria’s historic Wachau Valley. Inside, snug and warm, I lay back down and was rocked back to sleep by the gentle rolling motions of the ship. A few hours later, I opened my eyes to see the 12th-century Schönbühel Castle appearing out of the mist like a mirage.

Just another day on the Danube, the second-longest river in Europe and street address for dozens of historical towns and villages along its banks. The Danube flows from the highlands of western Germany to the Black Sea, nurturing cultures, cuisines and civilizations along some 1,800 miles. And what better way to sample these offerings—or those of the other mighty rivers of the world—than to sail on big, specially designed vessels that move you from port to port with no fuss and hardly a bump?

River cruising is one of the great travel-industry brainstorms of the past two decades, says Richard Turen, owner and managing director of vacation planners Churchill & Turen Ltd., and the market is growing about 16 percent a year. There are river cruises in the U.S., Europe, Asia, Africa and South America, led by 20 or so companies large and small, each of which offers specific charms and peculiarities.

Last October, my wife, Nichol, and I—first-timers to any type of maritime vacation—spent seven days on the Danube. We set sail from Vienna; headed east to Bratislava, Slovakia; and then traveled upriver, making stops in towns and villages in Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic. Our home for the week, the newly commissioned Savor, is part of a nine-ship luxury river-cruise line started by Tauck, a well-regarded Connecticut-based touring company that’s celebrating its 90th year of providing all-inclusive tours. The vessel, nearly as long as one-and-a-half football fields, was designed for comfort—outfitted with a gym, massage room, hair salon and lots of convenient touches, including Nespresso machines and U.S.-style 110-volt electrical outlets in each cabin, to charge phones and iPads. On the top deck, an outdoor hot tub and putting green beckoned those willing to brave the cold European fall.

Our tour began on land, in Vienna, where Nichol, I and 128 of our fellow travelers spent our first evening together at the Palais Pallavicini, a baroque 18th-century palace where Mozart and Beethoven flattered their wealthy patrons. During a wine-soaked five-course dinner beneath magnificent gilt-and-crystal chandeliers in the Great Ballroom, a local chamber orchestra presented a buffet of kultur Viennese-style: string pieces by Beethoven, Mozart and Strauss; a few operatic duets; and a ballet pas de deux or two to boot. Judging from the whoops, we were an appreciative bunch of culture-vultures. I surveyed the room. It seemed to be largely populated by energetic retirees, mostly experienced travelers, whose average age I would guess to be in the mid-60s. Arnon Reichers, 65, a willowy retired college professor and veteran traveler from Columbus, Ohio, summed up the evening for all the revelers in a single word: “Spectacular.”

Following a couple of days of motor coach touring in the Vienna Woods, Baden and other destinations, we were eager to set sail. The Savor’s 47-person crew welcomed us aboard for an ambitious first-night dinner, including a memorable mushroom cappuccino soup beneath a cloud of creamy white froth. My wife has food allergies, and the staff made every effort to keep her well-fed and healthy and was successful close to 95 percent of the time.

Then the river beckoned. Our first stop was Bratislava, a lovely 10th-century town with more “Original Slovakian” restaurants than is likely to be true. It was a Saturday, and even in the chilly weather, riverboats were double- and triple-parked at the riverbank. Bratislava is a popular port for most of the river-cruise lines, and it can get crowded by midmorning. We passed up the guided tour and did our own walk around Old Town, quirky and charming, with lots of public art, including a statue of one of conqueror Napoleon’s soldiers in the main square; according to area lore, he fell in love with a local girl and stayed behind.