Birds, birds and…gators?

Sitting in the Sky Lounge on Celebrity Cruise Line’s Reflection, having just had an appetizer lunch with three glasses of champagne, I thought this would be a great time to write a quick update on our trip leading up to the cruise.

_8100447
Benny’s on the Beach

Thursday we spent most of the day driving south and east from Sarasota to meet our buddy Mike at Benny’s on the Beach in Lake Worth. We had eaten there with Mike when we were down in October and knew our friend Bob would love it. It’s a very cool beachside restaurant that juts out over the Atlantic and you sit in a screened-in dining area and eat pretty darned good food.

After lunch we headed back to Mike’s place in Boynton Beach where we would spend the night before our cruise on Friday. Judy wanted to see some alligators (doesn’t everyone when they come to Florida), so Mike took her (and me) down to the Wakodahatchee Wetlands, a really super wildlife preserve run by their local public utility district. I had been there with Mike before when we were visiting him in 2009 but thought I could get some more great photos of the flora and fauna—and I did! At least I like them. The photos I took on my afternoon visit are below on top. Scroll all the way down to see pics from the next morning (which I think are much better.)

The best part of this unspellable and unpronounceable wetlands is that it’s free to get in! That meant I could go back the next morning just before dawn and get some of the same great pics but in my favorite early morning light that I love.

I set out at 6:00 am (sunrise was at 7:05) and walked all around taking some photos in the gorgeous early morning light. Many of my readers are late sleepers, so this is my contribution to you. I get up and find the great light so you can sleep 😃. Below you will find pics of the park with the birds identified. At least they are identified by a general consensus of all present (with lots of searching online). If you have better knowledge than we do, please let us know in the comments.

After the early morning photo walk, it was back to Mike’s to shower, eat breakfast, load the car and head south to the cruise terminal. Our plan was to get close to the cruise port, find a gas station, fill up the rental car pre-return, drop Kathleen, Bob and Judy (as well as all our luggage) at the cruise port and then I would take the car back at Fort Lauderdale (FLL) airport. After dropping it off I would catch a cab or a Lyft back to the port and we would all board together. Should be easy, right?

Not so much. First, there isn’t a gas station within about five miles of the cruise port…OR the airport (they are only about 10 minutes apart) so as we got off the freeway coming South, the cruise port gates were right in front of us. So I went ahead and dropped everyone off and then went in search of gas before I could return the car. (BTW: I know I could have purchased the “return empty” option from the rental car company but I hate giving them back a ton of gas and trying to guess how much to put in each day so I don’t give them a bunch back.)

So there I was at the port with an empty car (no people, no luggage and NO gas) to return so I plug “gas station” into my GPS and it finds me a Shell station less than a mile away. I think, “WOW! That’s close—GREAT!” Only problem was, it was less than a mile as the crow flies, not as the car drives. It was on the OTHER side of a large body of water. Getting that  distance from the cruise port took me about 30 minutes because it was actually about four driving miles away. And getting back to the airport there was a BUNCH of construction so what should have taken me 20 minutes quickly stretched to 40. I finally got back to the airport, dropped the car and went looking for a Lyft. Problem was that even with Lyft Pink (which is supposed to get me priority pickup) it was 20 minute wait. So I did what I hate to do and took a taxi.

Why do I hate taxis? Because of their meters. I got picked up and we had not even left the airport and the meter already said $10. My quote for Lyft was only $12.00 all the way to my destination. Because of traffic, this cab ride cost me almost $30. But we did finally get there. Everyone was thrilled to see me and I grabbed my carry-on luggage, my bride, my friends and we got onboard.

Before I say anything about the ship (which will wait until tomorrow), I want to put in my photos from the Wakodahatchee Wetlands.

Day 1 in Boynton Beach, midday photo walk

Day 2 in Boynton Beach, early morning photo walk

I never for a day gave up listening to the songs of our birds, or watching their peculiar habits, or delineating them in the best way I could. —John James Audubon

Mardi Gras Trip—Days 1-3 in Sarasota

Shame on me for not posting sooner on this trip but to be honest, we have just been really busy. Plus, this is the non-cruise part of the trip. The really interesting stuff starts on Friday when we sail away on Reflection to Mardi Gras.

Monday morning we (Kathleen, our good buddies Bob and Judy and I) were picked up bright and early (6:00 am) and driven off to SeaTac to catch Alaska Air flight 770 to beautiful Tampa, Florida. It was a totally boring flight (which is a very good thing) and we arrived just a little early (but of course that means that our bags took forever) and after grabbing our rental car we were off.

Just a little disappointed in the rental car we got. I had asked for a large SUV that would seat five people with luggage for five people going on a cruise. What we got instead was an Infiniti SUV that is big but if you put luggage for four people in it, it only has room for four people There are six seats in the car but two are only for tiny children or contortionists. But if you have the back row of seats set up as seats, there is no place to put luggage…and we have a lot of it. We had hoped to be able to take our friend Mike to the ship with us on Friday but now he can hopefully go with his neighbors Barbara and Hans who are also joining us on this cruise. If they can’t take him, I may have to go swap rental cars. Tampa only had this one that was big enough to fit us all, that wasn’t already reserved for someone else.

We arrived at our AirBnB fairly late (Tampa traffic was the cause) and after going to dinner it was pretty much come back here and sleep. The place we are in is nice enough but the host has a lot to learn or maybe this is the standard for AirBnBs in Florida. Don’t get me wrong, the house is very clean, very nicely furnished and HUGE! You can see the listing for the house (with lots of pics) by clicking here. The only real problem is that this particular AirBnB bills itself as “Secluded luxury with heated Saltwater Pool & Spa” but the spa is NOT working. Water won’t get over 72 degrees and we have been contacting the owner every day since we got here. The pool isn’t heating up either but during the day it is in the sun so it does warm up to 74 or so. We are now down to about 6 hours of possible time to use the spa before we leave and still nothing is being done. I suppose it could be worse but that’s one of the reasons that we chose this place, because Bob and Judy like a good hot tub experience.

We were also kind of surprised that there was nothing in the house when we got here. Not even bottled water. We have never stayed in an AirBnB that didn’t at least have that and coffee. This place had neither. But maybe that is just the way AirBnBs are in Florida. We have stayed in AirBnBs (like Salt Lake City) that had an entire breakfast, bottle of wine not to mention bottled water ready for us when we arrived.

Enough about our first world problems, Tuesday was all about us driving up to Ana Maria Island for a visit with a bunch of Canadians. It is a total coincidence that I suggested that we go to Sarasota pre-cruise because when Bob mentioned that to his cousins that live in Ontario, they said they would be wintering on Ana Maria Island, a short (well with traffic, a long) drive away. So in the morning we headed north to visit Bob’s four cousins and to meet up with Bob’s brother who had driven down from their winter perch in Myrtle Beach, SC. We had a true family reunion going on where not only were Kathleen and I the only non-relatives but we were also the only non-Canadians. We had a great time and I assumed my usual roll as the group photographer (samples below).

Today (I am writing this on Wednesday) I took a pre-dawn photo walk on St. Armand’s Key and Longboat Key and then after breakfast we headed off to The Ringling. The Ringling is Sarasota’s biggest attraction besides shopping and the beach. It is the former home of John Ringling of circus fame. On the property is an art museum housing his private collection (he’s been dead since the 1930’s so he doesn’t need it), his actual home (kind of a junior San Simeon) and my favorite part, the circus museum. The circus museum features an ENORMOUS miniature circus from the heyday of circuses, the 1920s-1930s. It is truly amazing and if you are in Sarasota, make sure and stop by and check it out. We only wish we had had the grandkids with us. They would have loved it.

Also toured the bottom floor of his house (they charge you more to go upstairs) and three of us toured the art museum as well. And we all had a little lunch on the property. When we got back to where we were staying I had nothing special I needed to do (except text our host again about the lack of heat in the spa and pool) so I thought, why not do the first post of this trip.

Tomorrow we are off to our friend Mike’s house in Boynton Beach, to spend the night, before we drive to Fort Lauderdale on Friday morning to board Celebrity’s Reflection, a ship we stepped off of last June in Dublin, Ireland. I will keep this going as we go and whenever I have enough photos that I want to post them.

Pre-dawn photo walk

The Ringling in photos

My best vacation is somewhere I could hide, somewhere warm and not a lot of people around. —Derek Jeter

 

 

Thoughts about coronavirus (Covid-19)

Panic2Yesterday I had an e-mail exchange with a good friend about the coronavirus (Covid-19) situation. He was a little worried about it because of all the current news coming down about cruise ships. Not necessarily about the cruise we are both going on next week, but for the long run. Believe me, I have heard some of the same things from other friends who cruise. Plus being someone who sells cruises and is going to be boarding a cruise ship a week from Friday, I have been hearing a lot lately. To those people who are worried and asking why I still want to cruise, here are some things to think about:

  • The quarantined ships we see in the news predominately sail in Asian markets and the cruises on those ships are being sold and marketed primarily to Asians.
  • There are a few Westerners who take those cruises because that is when they can cruise but our news media knows that we relate better to people who look like us, so they cover people from US, Canada, Great Britain and Australia. This makes it look like there are bunch of Westerners on board when there are actually very few. The fact that pretty much every news item I have seen on television is the same woman from the Princess ship who has been diagnosed with coronavirus.
  • The ships with problems originally sailed and visited Chinese ports before anyone knew there was a coronavirus (Covid-19). That’s why we are seeing so many people on that Princess ship that have contracted the virus. You should note that there have been no other ships with that number of cases. That’s because there is a 14 day incubation period and it is barely 14 days since this all started.
  • Driving to an appointment this morning and listening to news radio, there was a spokesman from the CDC who stated that all current US cases were either someone who had been in China in the last three weeks or was closely related (spouses and children at this point) and living with someone who came back from China in that time frame..

So I am still going on my cruise next week. We did receive an e-mail from the cruise line saying that they would be doing some extra screening when we boarded but friends boarded that same ship yesterday and they let us know that the only “extra screening” they received was asking them if they had traveled in China within the last month. That works for me.

I tend to stay with the panic. I embrace the panic. —Larry David

 

Lamenting learning loss

LearningYou have to love a headline that is also an alliteration. But there’s an explanation below. (Warning, this isn’t really a travel post—big announcement on that below—but more of a quick personal thing.)

When the year started I did what I always do—set some goals. It’s a yearly ritual. Some are always the same, like exercising every day, others change. For instance, I always have the goal of losing weight (don’t we all have that one 😀) but this year I decided to change that one and just do “eat healthier” which meant cutting out red meat and switching to a predominately plant-based diet. And doing my usual Dryuary (not drinking in January). It worked. We are eating a lot healthier. Tonight when our older kids come for dinner will be the first red meat I have since December 30 (except for one of Mason’s mini-corndogs). I had other goals as well that had to do with work, travel, etc. Still working on all of them.

But the one that I totally missed was learning. One my goals for the last five years that I have failed miserably at is setting up a day each week that I can schedule (and stick to) for learning. I am supposed to be semi-retired after all—I should be able to do this. Usually that learning has to do with one of three things that I dearly love: travel, photography and cooking. This year I am also taking up videography so that I can better document our travels, especially in the Galapagos this summer.

Kathleen got me a GoPro Hero8 for my birthday and I am ashamed to say that it took me until yesterday to even look at it with videos running and books open. And I still have a ways to go before I will feel comfortable shooting and editing videos. Sadly, I have scheduled at least five full days to watch videos and read books to learn how to use this new camera but had to put each and every one of them aside because of work or personal things getting in the way.

I also feel bad that I haven’t been shooting pictures this year. Haven’t take a single shot with my Nikon since sometime in October that wasn’t pictures of family (mostly grandkids) and that’s just not me. I even did this after I took a photo class with the incredible Scott Kelby in late November. One of Scott’s tenets is practice, practice, practice shooting pictures. I just haven’t been doing that. Part of this I blame on the weather. We have had measurable rainfall every single day since November 30th until today. We are WATERLOGGED and that just doesn’t lend itself to taking a camera out shooting. Plus, I have taken photos of just about everything there is in Redmond.

Banner five dogs celebrating carnival, halloween, new year wearing pirate hat, blue wig, red mask, cape and doctor costume. Isolated on white background..But good news (here’s the travel stuff)! We are leaving a week from tomorrow for a two week vacation in Florida, New Orleans and the Caribbean. This is our first big trip of what will be a year of memorable travel. We fly on Monday the 17th to Tampa (with two of our best buddies, Bob and Judy) and then spend three nights in Sarasota, a city I have been to but Kathleen hasn’t. After Sarasota we head south to Boynton Beach to meet up with another close friend, Mike. Regular readers may remember him as we stayed at his place for three days in October when we cruised on Allure of the Seas.

Then comes the highlight of the trip when we (along with Mike, Bob, Judy and other friends) board the Celebrity Cruiseline ship Reflection (the same ship we sailed to Iceland last June) to sail to New Orleans where we will be moored at the Julia Street Cruise Terminal for three full days during…Mardi Gras. Yes, we know it will be a zoo, but we can’t wait! After Mardi Gras we sail down to Grand Cayman (where we will tour some really cool caves) and then to Cozumel, Mexico where we will practice our snorkeling. We want to kind of know what we are doing when we go to the Galapagos in August so I can snorkel with the penguins and sea lions. By the time we get there, I need to really know that GoPro so I can take it and shoot underwater. Hopefully all of this will take place in beautiful (AND WARM) weather.

For me this trip means non-stop photography. I have been planning my New Orleans photo walks for weeks. And the same in Sarasota as well. So watch this page for daily reports on our travel. I will try to not be verbose (since I will be traveling with my #1 reader who says I can be verbose that shouldn’t be too much of a problem) and stick to some great photos and an overview of the trip.

Hopefully when I get back, I will be able to schedule that one day each week when I can just learn. Can’t wait.

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever. —Mahatma Gandhi

Why do people expect this?

Confused Man.Just finished this and realized that one of my most loyal readers will say I am being verbose and on this subject, I plead guilty. I’m just trying to understand this one thing that frustrates me no end—always has.

I need to write about something I have never understood. People asking or worse, expecting, travel agents to give them money or something else of value for booking their travel for them. Travel agents already work for clients for free.

This last week I received an e-mail from a very nice person asking me about a cruise. She had waited until the last minute (a Viking Ocean cruise this summer—these are usually sold out a year in advance) and wanted me to see if I could find her a stateroom—that maybe there was a cancellation. She did give me the exact date of the cruise and exactly the kind of stateroom she wanted, which I appreciated.

I called Viking and spent about an hour on the phone with them while the excellent customer service rep tried to find me the exact stateroom she was looking for on a sold-out ship. He was able to find a stateroom in the same category she wanted but before he could grab it, another of their customer service reps grabbed it for a client who had money in hand. Boo! We almost had it. But my agent did promise to check that cruise on a regular basis between now and when it sailed in July and let me know if there were any cancellations. The last date for people to cancel with a full refund was approaching and often if staterooms are going to open up, that’s when they will do it.

I got back to the client and told her everything that had happened and that we would continue looking. She was very appreciative and I told her that I would contact her if anything came open. In the meantime she promised to send me all her passenger info so I could be ready to book it if they called, so we didn’t lose it again. Sounded good to me.

But the next morning there was an e-mail from her asking me, Jim, to clarify/confirm: You do offer the Viking-allowed OBC, correct?” I wasn’t sure what she meant by that so I asked her to clarify. She got back to me with this: “Viking is strict with its agents, as I’m sure you know, limiting how much “rebate” they are allowed to give to their clients.  The most above-board thing that agents tend to do is give OBC up to the limit Viking allows – which varies by voyage.  Some agents also do provide additional $$ in the form of cash rebates, but that is not technically allowed under Viking’s policy, and the agents who do it are (obviously) paying it out of their own proceeds.  So, I never expect or ask for any cash rebate, since it’s technically against Viking’s policy.  I’m content to stick with the maximum OBC per voyage (it’s based on length of voyage.)”

Well I had heard about Viking’s OBC rules but I had never looked into this policy because I don’t believe in giving clients cash or on-board credit back. In the travel industry, this is a standard practice that I have never understood. Some of my best friends go looking for it and that saddens me as well.

At our agency, we make 38% of the 15% commission that pretty much every cruise line pays. The other 62% of the 15% the cruise line pays goes to our franchise owner for him to run the business. That means on every $1000 dollars of travel I handle, I get $57. So if you buy a $10K cruise I get $570.

That would be great but most cruises we sell are around $3-4000. And the cruise lines have this nice little thing called NCF (non-commisionable funds) which are parts of the cost of the cruise that we don’t make commission on. We also don’t get commission on taxes and port fees which can be a significant cost as well. (Last year I had a $1500 cruise that had almost $1000 of NCF and port fees on it). I think I made $30 on that one. Took me a bunch of time because the client was a first time cruiser. On those, I might make $100 if I am lucky (after expenses). Any OBC you get from us that is not directly from Viking (or any other cruise line) comes out of my pocket. If I give every client back even $100 OBC, I end up averaging less than $100 per cruise booked. Since from initial contact to the client returning from their trip, I spend about 20-30 hours working for that client, that means I make $4 to $5 an hour.

So why do I do this? Because I love travel, I love cruising, I love helping people plan travel and in general I like doing all of that really well. And luckily for my bride and I we have enough money coming in to let us do that. (I have another business that helps).

Before we started doing this, we used a travel agent (who is still a close friend) for more than 20 years and I never once asked her for anything off on a cruise or any OBC. She would always send a bottle of wine, a fruit plate or some flowers to our stateroom, she would give us cool Disney stuff to give to our grandkids and once passed on an Azamara bathrobe, but I never expected anything from her other than the superb service and knowledge she brought to our traveling. I knew that any OBC came right out of her pocket and that she did great work for us. She took care of us.

There are lots of online agencies that will give you almost half their commission back. I know of one that on a Viking cruise they will normally give $1000 OBC if you book a suite. But those agents are employees making close to minimum wage. Most have never taken a cruise let alone traveled outside the country. If they research a cruise for you, they are getting paid whether you buy it or not. If you get into trouble while traveling, good luck trying to get a hold of a particular agent for changes or problems. You just get to explain your entire problem again. And if you are on your trip, can you call that agent on their cell phone for help? I doubt it. My clients can…and I could call my old agent.

I do have a question for all of you as you look for a TA that will give you OBC. When you go to a doctor, dentist, lawyer, etc. in order to avail yourself of their expertise, do you ask them for a rebate?  If you sell something or provide a service,  or when you do whatever it is that you do for one of your customers or clients, do they ask you to give them money back? I wish I had thought of this when my I had my rotator cuff surgery a few years back. I should have asked my surgeon for some of the $20K that surgery was worth. (That sounds pretty ridiculous, right?) Why do people do this with travel agents. I just don’t understand.

My clients use my services because we have travelled extensively and I can make recommendations on cruises, staterooms, tours, restaurants and hotels. Your primary goal of using an agent should be the same reason I did for 20+ years of traveling. Because when things go wrong, she was there. When things went bad with a flight at Heathrow and she found us seats home or when we wanted to book a “cheap cruise” on a cruise line I now never recommend, she told us that we wouldn’t like the cruise line we had chosen (we went anyway) and she was right—we hated it but she never said “I told you so.” I do the same thing for my clients.

Lastly, I love doing things for my clients but I want the things I do to be more than “money they are expecting.” I like sending clients wine or getting them a dinner at a speciality restaurant. But I do that as a special gift so they will enjoy the cruise even more. I truly believe when you don’t expect something, you like it even more.

So if you can explain to me why this goes on, please do.

If you accept the expectations of others, especially negative ones, then you never will change the outcome. —Michael Jordan