Why we don’t take cruise line shore excursions

DSCN0448

Two days ago I wrote all about Cruise Critic and why if you cruise, you should be on Cruise Critic and on the roll call for your particular cruise. Today is the follow up and it’s all about shore excursions. If you aren’t a cruiser, a shore excursion is what you do when  you arrive in a port of call on your cruise. You have a number of choices. Of course you can stay on the ship. (We often do that when we go to Alaska because we have been there six times and have pretty much done all the shore excursions we want to do.) Or you can arrange a private tour or you can take a cruise line shore excursion. When we go to a new port we have never visited before, we ALWAYS do some kind of tour to see as much of the port and area around it as we possibly can in one (or if we are lucky) two days.

The other day someone on our current Ireland/Iceland cruise roll call posted about shore excursions. This is what they said:

We are new to sailing cruise line X and I see that everyone is booking excursions through other sources besides cruise line X. Are there issues with the excursions that cruise line X offers? The cruise line X excursions look so much more adventurous than most of these sightseeing trips, which is why I’m asking.

This was my answer to this person’s post:

We stopped doing cruise line tours after our fourth cruise for the following reasons:

First, when you take a ship-sponsored tour you only get to tour as fast as the slowest person on your 55 passenger bus. Many times we would be done with the attraction and be ready to get back on the bus when the last person had just gotten off.

Second, There is no room for any spontaneity on a ship’s tour. They must stick to their schedule. When we are on a private tour with just our group and we see an interesting place, we can just ask the guide to stop. If we go someplace that is on the schedule and it turns out to be boring, we can just ask to leave. When you are on that 55 passenger bus, you go where they want and when they want and there is no chance to change anything.

Third, one of the biggest complaints that experienced cruisers have about cruise line shore excursions is that they often include shopping stops that no one on the bus wants to make. They are stopping for the shopping because the store, factory or attraction they have added to your tour is paying them to do so. I can’t even imagine a private tour guide that we have hired stopping anyplace that we didn’t want to stop.

Lastly, the cruise line shore excursions are very often more expensive than the private ones we book. As a travel agent we have a number of shore tour options that are outside the ones from the ship. Many of these are tours with local guides that take you in small groups to see just what you want to see at much less cost than going on the ship’s tour.

So how do we tour? We do it privately. The pic at the top of this post is from an amazing private tour we had in Bangkok a few years ago that was planned completely by a close friend. Only eight of us in a van touring all over Thailand. More about private shore excursions later this week.

 

 

If you cruise…use Cruise Critic

cruise-critic-logo-vectorThis entire post is just to let you know about Cruise Critic before I write about something that came up on our current Cruise Critic roll call. I realized that some of you may not know what a Cruise Critic roll call is.

If you are a reader who doesn’t cruise, then you may not know what Cruise Critic is so I need to explain how important it is that if you cruise, you find out about it. If you take a cruise and don’t go and find the Cruise Critic website then you are NUTS! It will change your entire cruise. It is an amazing website that houses just about every piece of info on cruising that you can imagine but beyond that it also has forums about every aspect of cruising and Roll Calls for every cruise that sails. Cruise Critic is where you can go to meet the people who you will be cruising with before you cruise with them.

Why do this? Well for us it will show you the main reason we cruise. Up until we joined the agency, we both worked in places that are not conducive to socializing. Our neighborhood where we live has a lot of turnover so other than our immediate next door neighbors, we don’t have a lot of close friends here either. It is because of these two things we don’t have a lot of friends at home that we socialize with. We do have family and our best buddy Bob (about a hundred miles away) but that’s it for us.

We cruise to meet people. To socialize. Cruise Critic helps us do that. It lets us meet a lot of great people (like just about every close friend we have) before we cruised with them and many of them have become life-long friends. We have friends from all over the world that we have met through Cruise Critic. It’s how we met other great friends who have come to see us and we have visited them. On our next European trip we are staying with our British friends…who we met on a Cruise Critic roll call for our Baltic cruise back in June of 2013. I guess it makes sense that we find our friends through Cruise Critic since we found each other online as well.

I can’t say enough about how valuable we have found Cruise Critic. I should mention that you can also meet people on your Cruise Critic roll call that you can share private shore excursions with and we highly recommend this. See my next post for more about this topic in greater detail.

The main part of the Cruise Critic website that we use are the conversation boards where people who love cruising trade info. There are conversation boards for just about every cruise topic, destination and cruise line. There is hardly anything that has to do with cruising that you can’t find out about. If you are a regular reader you know that I often do quick research to find out things for clients. Like which veranda isn’t really a veranda or which bathroom is widely hated by everyone who sails on a particular ship. If you have a question that you can’t find an answer for, just post it and someone will come to your rescue.

The other part of Cruise Critic that we use most of the time is the roll calls. For most every cruise that is going to sail, there is usually a “roll call.” That’s a conversation board about just that cruise. It is a place to plan excursions with others going on your cruise, trade cruising advice and just get to know the people you are going to be sailing with for a week or two.

Some roll calls are fairly dead. Hardly anyone posts. There is no activity whatsoever. This is especially true for Alaska cruises because these are often the first cruise many people take and they haven’t discovered Cruise Critic and roll calls yet. Also, some cruise lines are famous for having better roll calls than others. Because we often sail Celebrity, we are lucky enough to have some awesome roll calls. But when we have sailed other lines, not so much. Length of the cruise can make a difference as well. Shorter cruises have less active roll calls.

Others roll calls are huge and take over your life. In 2016 we did a British Isles cruise that had more than 5,000 posts by the time we sailed. We planned a bunch of activities including a sail-away get together for 200, a pre-cruise dinner for 50 the night before we sailed, buses to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo for 156 roll call members and lunch on the last sea day for more than 100. See what I mean by taking over your life. That particular roll call is one of the reasons I realized that I should pursue a “funtirement” job in travel.

So now you know all about Cruise Critic and the roll calls. So my next post will make a little more sense. It’s coming soon.

 

It’s never too early—NEVER!

TravelPlanning.jpgSorry I haven’t posted in a week. Shame on me. It’s been a busy week with my grandson’s birthday in snowy Wenatchee and our traveling buddy Holly coming north to visit. But I was back in the office again today trying to figure out how to help out an old friend who was looking to take his family of five on a cruise this summer. Here’s their story.

About a week ago this old friend (who is also a client of mine in my other life) sent me an e-mail that said, “My wife and I are thinking of taking an Alaskan cruise all by ourselves and we thought that maybe you have cruised to Alaska and could give us some recommendations.” Immediately after slapping myself on the side of the head for not having told him that we were now in the travel business and that we had cruised to Alaska six times, I offered to help him set it up. So armed with three possible cruises for him out of two different ports, I sent him some numbers. He got back to me right away. Forget Alaska.

He and his wonderful wife had decided that maybe they would take their three teenage kids along after all and not to Alaska but to the Mediterranean. Someplace he had seen an ad for Norwegian (NCL) Cruiseline’s Epic and wondered if I could check on prices for that ship. Of course I could. In fact, I came back to him later that day with pricing on a suite that would fit all five of them or two adjoining/connecting staterooms on the sailing of the NCL Epic he was interested in. After some questioning and answering back and forth they reserved the two side-by-side verandahs that connected. They would take one the the kids the other. We booked their flights through the cruise line and we were good to go…until my friend asked, “Have you been on the Epic?” I replied that I had not but I had been other NCL ships. He was worried about what a friend had mentioned to him about the stateroom bathrooms being “different” on the Epic. I assured him they were the same as every other cruise ship stateroom bathroom. They had to be… didn’t they? Of course as it turns out, they weren’t.

Early the next morning I was lying in bed at about 3:30 wondering, “What if he was right? What if there is some problem with the bathrooms.” I decided to post on the NCL boards on Cruise Critic and see if I could find anything about the Epic bathrooms. When I got to the NCL boards the first thread I see is, “Why does everyone hate the Epic so much?” Yikes! All of a sudden I knew I was in trouble. So I did some more searching (the Internet is a wonderful thing) and found this video that will show you the problem. Or this video which I like even better. Aren’t those bathrooms the stupidest thing you have ever seen? And they definitely would not work for three teenagers when two of them are  17 and 16 year old boys and the other is a 14 year old girl. Not a chance. BTW: I also texted my personal cruise expert, Seth Wayne who told me he and Jason had cruised on the Epic. They had a great cruise but the staterooms were HORRID! (The capitalization was his.)

So we cancelled that cruise. And I went off looking for others that fit my friend’s time frame (June 22-July 15) and the destination they wanted (the Western Mediterranean). I first tried Royal Caribbean (RCL) and they have one of their bigger ships, Oasis of the Seas sailing that route. That ship would be PERFECT for his teens. Lots to do.

The only problem was that there are currently only around 70 staterooms (out of 2742) that are still available. That’s almost five months before the cruise. And none of those fit what we needed—two adjoining staterooms that connected. You see we needed connecting because if parents traveling with kids don’t have connected staterooms, then they are required to have an adult in each stateroom and that wasn’t going to happen. I was able to find them a Star Class suite but the difference in price between the two staterooms on Epic (bad bathroom or not) and the Star class suite on Oasis of the Seas was a little more than $10,000. But it did come with a Royal Genie (I promise to explain this in a future post) and a whole bunch of other cool stuff. But it was still way outside their budget.

Today I booked them in two connecting staterooms on Allure of the Seas for June…2020. And that my friends is the point of this tale of woe. Book early. Book with a refundable deposit if you are worried that you can’t plan that far ahead. But BOOK EARLY! Many of the big cruise ships going to Alaska this summer are already filling up. We (Kathleen and I) have cruises this summer (one to Ireland/Iceland and one to Alaska with the grandkids) that we booked more than 18 months ago. We also have one booked for February 2020 from Fort Lauderdale to New Orleans during Mardi Gras as well as a Christmas market cruise with Viking River Cruises in December of 2020. And I am sure that we will book another on the day it becomes available for the fall of 2021 as well.

Can you still sail on a cruise ship this summer? Of course you can, but you will need to be flexible with your dates and the kind of staterooms you want. If my friend and his wife had been traveling with just the two of them, I could have easily found them something but when you threw in the short time until the sail date, the particular staterooms they needed and trying to book them on a teen-friendly ship, the pickings got really slim. You may find some staterooms open after final payment is due when those staterooms that aren’t paid for or are part of a group being held by a travel agent are released. But if you absolutely want to take a vacation at a particular time, to a particular place, with a particular bunch of people, BOOK EARLY! 

I think three-to-five years ahead minimum. I have a short-term plan, a five-year plan and a decade plan. —Steve Garvey

A follow up to my frustrations

Frustration2If you read my last post, you know that I had a problem with a client who I suspected would have me a do a bunch of research about her cruise and then take her business to the C word—Costco. If you missed it, it was quite the “verbose” diatribe about Costco travel. You can read it here if you missed it.

Well I am thrilled to let my reader know that she called me back and specifically asked me to find out more. So I put together a couple of great cruise tours out of Vancouver for her with a super cruise line that has been in Alaska for years. If you missed it, the cruises were for her parents who are from Japan and two of their friends.

Today I sent her an answer she had not asked for. I contacted the White Pass Railroad on her behalf (the cruise excursion you MUST do if you go to Skagway) and asked them about Japanese translations of their narration. Found out that they have it along with a printed copy of most of the narration in Japanese as well. I sent it on to the client and told her that once we had arranged the cruise, I would set up the entire thing for them. She was very impressed. I resisted the urge to ask her if she thought that someone from Costco travel would do that for her. Because they wouldn’t. I also checked visas for her to make sure that her parents and their friends would have no problems going into or out of Canada.

Lastly her parents asked why we had them sailing out of Vancouver instead of Seattle with a ride up on the train. Besides the fact that they wanted to do a one-way cruise tour so they could see Denali National Park, I put together a page on why I believe that to really see Alaska, it is better to go out of Vancouver than Seattle. If you are interested, you can grab it by clicking here.

I try as hard as I can to go above and beyond for all my clients and friends…or as I think of my clients…my friends.

Expectation is the mother of all frustration. —Antonio Banderas

Beyond frustrated or why I hate Costco

Frustration.jpgOn Thursday a very nice young lady called the agency and said she had driven by and seen our sign and could someone help her with some questions she had about taking a cruise. Actually, the cruise wasn’t for her, it was for her 70+ year old Mom and Dad and two of their friends who would be visiting her this summer from Japan. They wanted to take a cruise-tour to Alaska and since she (nor they) had ever cruised, she wanted to come in and discuss it. I told her “we are here to help.

About two hours later she came in and we had a very nice talk. I found out a bunch of stuff about what her parents and their friends were looking for in the way of a cruise. I told her that I thought I had all the info I needed and that I would have some options for her before this weekend was over.

This morning she e-mailed me some additional comments and we went back and forth with questions and answers until she used that horrid word that I have learned to hate…Costco.

I have a huge love-hate relationship with Costco. I have been a member forever. We probably spend thousands of dollars there every year. We get all our gas there, we get most of our grocery staples, most of our meat, all our paper goods and a bunch of other stuff from them. Heck, my son has worked at Costco for almost 20 years. But when someone mentions them when talking about travel, it drives be nuts. Especially someone like this young woman.

Her question was typical, “I see that if I buy the cruise from Costco, they will give me a Costco gift card for $350. Can you match that with a discount?” The answer is no, we can’t. And we shouldn’t. Costco uses travel as a loss leader and another way to serve their membership. It’s the way Costco pretty much does everything. The prices are lower to us because they make much of their money selling memberships and they make a bunch more selling prime space in their stores to companies. You know that big line of products on the left when you go into a Costco? The companies that make those products pay Costco to be there. As well they should. It’s prime real estate and the fact that their product is there and not on a shelf in the back means they will sell a BUNCH of extra product.

But Costco should not be in the travel business. Not because they compete unfairly (which they do) but because the people you are dealing with when you buy travel from them don’t have a clue about what they are selling.

If you think about it, Costco people seldom have a clue about what they are selling  product-wise. My son is in the “Majors” department. That’s the one that sells TVs, computers, etc. He knows that stuff. He ought to after almost 20 years. But if you go into his department when he isn’t there, you might end up talking to a new employee that started last week about exactly which TV or computer you are going to buy. Now this if just fine if you know exactly what computer you want. If you know how much RAM, whether you want a traditional hard drive or an SSD or one of many decisions you need to make to buy a computer. If you are ready to make the purchase and have done all your research and you feel like you are an expert—buy it. But if you have no clue about computers, and if you are a smart buyer, you either wait until my son is there (LOL) or you go someplace that knows about computers.

This is even more true when it comes to cruises. If Costco wants to sell car rentals and flights and hotels, that’s fine. Those things really don’t have many variables, while cruises do. If you are going to rent a car, you rent a car. You know what a Ford or a Honda are. If you want to book a hotel and you see a Hyatt on an online website, then you pretty much know what you are getting (although a good travel agent would know about good restaurants and sights near a hotel that was just as nice.)

When you buy a cruise from Costco you are buying it either online or from someone on the phone. If online then you better know exactly what you want stateroom-wise, exactly which ports you want to go to, exactly what perks you are getting, which dining plan you want, etc. Cruises have hundred of variables. But if you don’t, you are in trouble. And this nice young lady who came in to buy her parents a cruise said exactly that, “I don’t know anything about cruises.” If she decides to buy one from Costco online, she will be in trouble.

Let’s say she decides to make a phone call and talk to someone instead of buying her travel online? Will she talk to someone who knows all about cruising? Probably not. In fact my guess is that she will probably talk to someone who has NEVER been on a cruise. Not one. Sure, they may have read some brochures or studied the websites of the cruise lines they sell but have they sailed 20+ times? No. They work in a big phone room (you can’t go to your local Costco and book a cruise—you can only do it online or on the phone), where the next person who calls gets the next employee who is free to answer.

Of course this means when you call back because you need to make a change or something is a problem, forget trying to deal with the first person you talked to (“Can’t I talk to Joe, I really liked him so much when I called last time.”), that person may not even work there any longer. If the turnover at the Costco travel phone room is anything like the turnover at your local Costco, who knows who you will be talking to and what their level of expertise is. And imagine that this nice ladies parents (who, according to what she told me, speak Japanese predominantly) have a problem in boarding or anywhere along their way and they try to call Costco for help. They will get connected to the next person who answers the phone. Then they will get to explain their problem all over again. If they book with us and there is a problem, they will call me. I will know their circumstances and I will deal with the situation. And if I am not here, Mark

I have written before about my friend Seth Wayne. Next to Rick Steves he is probably Seattle’s number one travel expert. When it comes to cruising he even knows more than Rick. Before Kathleen and I got into the travel business he pretty much did not use a travel agent. He and I had discussions about this and his feeling was that he knew more than 95% of the travel agents he had met. As his friend and someone who he discusses travel with a lot, I agree with him. But that isn’t true of all travel agents and he knows that. That’s why when he found a travel agent who knew as much as he did, he started trusting him with his travel instead of booking it all online. (That would be me.)

You see Seth could book online if he wanted to because he is an expert. He knows if he is going to book a cruise, exactly what he will get from a particular cruise line (after 65+ cruises he should) and he knows exactly what to ask for if he buys it online. I have a lot of friends like Seth because we travel and cruise so much. They know what they want, they could book their travel themselves. But they don’t anymore—I do. Because they know that besides knowing as much as they know about travel, I have the time to look at all kinds of options and catch things they might miss. Not because they don’t know those things but because they are so busy they would have missed them. Sometimes they catch things I miss and they call me and I get them what they caught.

This nice young lady who called me actually told me, “I don’t know anything about cruising.” Should she book online or with Costco? You tell me. Will her parents have a great cruise if she books online or with Costco? Maybe. Will it be as good a cruise as it would have been if I booked with my expertise and the combined expertise of my fellow agents in our office? Probably not. If they have a problem, will they have someone they have met face-to-face to stand up for them, to fix things, to make things right—NO!

When I started this rant, I thought this will help with my frustration but it hasn’t. I have e-mailed the young lady and told her we needed to talk before I did any options for her parents. I had to do this because after being burned recently by a prospective client who had me do hours of research to find just the right cruise for her husband and his father, they went off and bought it at Costco. That is crushing. And I have resolved to never do that again. So as soon as someone mentions the C word, I stop working altogether until I can have a discussion with them. That’s where I am now. I have tried to reach her to no avail and have left her messages and e-mails but have not heard back.

Too many people today know the price of everything and the value of nothing. —Ann Landers

You aren’t bothering me…really

IMG_4119Over the last few days I have been working with two different clients on two different trips. One has me looking for a Caribbean cruise, first for next Christmas and then when that proved way too expensive and hard to find, one in February of 2020. The other was looking for a short cruise to Cuba.

I did most of the planning by going back and forth with e-mails. They would ask questions, inquire about alternate cruises, ask about travel insurance, different types of staterooms and other types of questions. I would send replies with new options for them. In all, I would guess that I exchanged at least 10 long e-mails with each of these wonderful folks.

But the one thing that both of them had in common was that they started every e-mail by apologizing for asking for so many options, for so many changes. On almost every e-mail reply the first line was, “Sorry to be bothering you with this,” or “I hate to ask you about a different option.” I just want to make one thing clear…you aren’t bothering me.

I have had this happen before with close friends. One of my best traveling buddies asks me about airfare and always starts by saying, “only when you have time.” Another very close friend spends a lot of his time looking at travel arrangements to have me book them. When I ask why he did all the research he said, “I didn’t want to bother you.”

If I was bothered by people asking me to find out about different types of travel, I wouldn’t be doing this as my “funtirement” job if I didn’t love looking for travel. I am at a point in my life where I don’t really have to do this job. And I really do love it…most of the time.

Sometimes because I look so hard for different options, I find something truly important. As an example, in looking for the Cuba cruise for these clients I discovered that if they went to Cuba after March 18, the overnight cruises were much shorter than after. The March 18 cruise (and those before that one) have an overnight in Havana. They arrive at 8:00 am on day 1 and then don’t leave until 3:00 pm on day 2. After the March 18 cruise, they arrive at the same time but leave Havana at 6:00 am on day 2 so even though they get a full day and an evening on the island, they don’t get a second day.

We also looked at another cruise that did an entire day in Havana and then sailed away at 5:00 pm and then did an entire day on the south side of the island in Cienfuegos from 8:00 to 5:00. But I also read a lot of reviews by other travelers that had been there that one of the things they loved the most was the evening time in Havana and this cruise didn’t give them that. And I found other options. They ended up getting the exact cruise they wanted along with all the visas and travel insurance they need.

I loved finding that kind of stuff. Digging to find the best thing for the clients. See the smile on my face. You aren’t bothering me…really

I like bothering people and stirring things up. –Tim Daly

Free bottled water on a cruise ship

Big plastic bottle potable water isolated on a white backgroundThis last week I had some wonderful ladies (I have mentioned them in a previous post) in the office and we were going over their cruise for next October. The cruise line they were going to book was offering a lot of “free” items if you booked now. One of those was a beverage package which gave them pretty much unlimited alcoholic beverages, soft drinks and specialty coffee beverages. But it doesn’t give them bottled water.

Now I have never had a problem with the tap water on a cruise ship but these ladies found this to be a very important item that they were truly surprised not to be included. To be honest, so was I. Not sure why it isn’t, but it isn’t. But I told them how they could get unlimited bottled water on board pretty much every cruise ship.

Step 1—Take an empty water bottle with you. You know, a reusable bottle.

Step 2—Head for the gym. This is where the “pretty much” comes in. Some ships (notably river cruise boats) don’t have gyms.

Step 3—Once you get to the gym, look for the bottled water dispenser. It will look just like a big Sparklets bottle. Like the one that is probably in your office. Like the one in the picture. Take the aforementioned water bottle and fill it.

There you have it. Bottled water at no charge for the price of a short walk to the gym. And hey, since you walked to the gym, maybe you should go ahead and work out. You don’t have to but you could. Then you could eat more. Isn’t that why we work out when we cruise?

There are only three things women need in life: food, water, and compliments.

— Chris Rock