Our worst shore excursions ever

Disapoint copySo in case you missed it, a couple of days ago, I listed our favorite shore excursions of all our 25+ cruises. Now the bad ones. Its funny that all but one of them were cruise line shore excursions that were in one case dangerous and in the others just terrible. The real theme of this post is disappointment.

Horseback riding in Hualtuco, Mexico

So this one was the closest we have come to being injured on any of our cruises. It was our first Celebrity cruise, through the Panama Canal and we stopped in the beautiful little town of Hualtuco in Mexico. We had decided to go horseback riding on a ship’s excursion. Happily, it was limited to only 12 people. Sadly, 14 people took the tour. The extra two were crew members who decided they would like to join us. As soon as we got there the people running the stables had a problem. They only had 12 horses. They had us all stand around a corral and they told us which horse to take. When they found a nice one for Kathleen, one of the guys helped her up on to that horse which promptly decided to lay down on its side. Since this was pre-hip replacement, she was able to scramble out before the horse put its full weight on her. Disaster avoided. We thought.

Then before they assigned me a horse, they ran out of horses. The two people that were left horseless were a very nice lady who had decided not to go and…me. The man running the stables said something to one of his workers who brought down a huge, black horse and the boss indicated that horse was for me, I guess since I was biggest person on the tour.

I did my best to get on the horse but that horse did NOT want to be ridden. I am not now nor have I have ever been a horse person but I got up on the horse. They put the horses in a line to head to the beach and I was in the middle of the line on a horse who was really mad about being ridden. He kept biting the horse in front of mine and the horse he was biting kept kicking him. Finally he got tired of being kicked so as we walked a trail  through a bunch of nasty, prickly bushes he took off through those bushes at a gallop. I had a heck of a time staying on. When he finally stopped, I got off as quickly as I could (kind of fell off, really) and when the guys from the stable caught up with us, I told them I would walk back to the stables. They could keep their big, nasty horse.

When I got back to the stables there were a couple of young ladies working there who were from Canada. They asked me what had happened and when I told them my story, they say, “You rode El Diablo? Even the boss won’t ride El Diablo.” Suffice it to say that when we got back to the ship and lodged a complaint, we got our money back from the cruise line. Had a nice rest of the day in the village and haven’t been horseback riding again since.

Ship’s shore excursion in Constanta, Romania

Ship’s shore excursion in Odessa, The Ukraine

I am grouping these two together because they happened on the same cruise on two successive days. We were on a Celebrity Galaxy cruise back in October 2006 that was called “Exotic Mediterranean” because it went to Istanbul and then into the Black Sea for two stops. It was the first time that a cruise ship, any cruise ship, had ever stopped at these ports and they were NOT ready.

In Constanta, we  (52 of us on a great big bus) were first taken to a church (within sight of the ship). It was an interesting church but there were no pews or seats and we were told a choir was going to come in and sing for us. Sure enough, a choir made up of seminarians joined us. We thought, great they are going to sing a song for us. No, we were told that they were going to sing for us…for an hour. While we stood there. We snuck out and sat on the steps of the church until they were done as did most of the group. Then we reboarded the bus to head to a winery for a wine tasting.

When we got to the wine tasting (after a long bus ride) we met a group from the ship coming out. They told us we would have a choice of tasting wine or having a bottle of water. They said, “Take the water!” We did. Smart move on our part.

After the “water tasting” it was off to do some local shopping and have lunch on our own. The bus drove us another our back into the city where we pulled up outside a really big building. We were told that there were shops in the building that the city of Constanta had specifically invited to open for visitors. Guess what shops were in the building? If you said American-based stores like Gucci, Armani, Rolex, Banana Republic, etc. What was in the building was a second-world country’s idea of what an American mall of that time would be like and it was sad. If we did want to go shopping, we would have wanted to see some Romanian products, made by locals. Not what we got. So we tried to find someplace to have lunch and try the local cuisine. But no luck. Guess what kind of food was in the “American mall?” If you said American chain, fast food, you win. KFC, McDonalds, you name it but with prices three times what they charged back home. Not what we had in mind. Pretty much that was true for everyone on the bus.

By this time, it’s around 1:00 pm so a lot of us went back to the bus and asked how soon we would be heading back to the ship. The guide from the ship said we were “lucky enough” to be there to eat and shop until 4:00 pm. THREE HOURS! We asked the guide how far it was to walk to the ship (we had been driven all over the place so it was impossible to tell on our own, and this was pre-iPhones so we had no GPS not that there would have been coverage in Romania) and were told we were miles away from the ship and there was no way to walk. We were also told that because of the type of port we were in, it would NOT be advisable to try and take a cab (also pre-Uber). So we were stuck. Some of us tried walking away from the “American mall” to local stores that served locals but in many cases we were either asked to leave or ignored when we tried to buy something. It was spooky. After an hour, many of us just went back to the bus, got on and sat to wait. At 4:00, with the entire bus full we headed back to the ship. The bus had gone about three blocks when it drove over a hill and there was the ship. It had been about a 20 minute walk away the entire time.

We had hopes that the next day in Odessa in The Ukraine would be better but wishful thinking on our part. About the same kind of day except in different venues. We did get a local lunch in a local restaurant but the “lowlight” of the trip was the Odessa Art Museum. They were doing their best to protect the painting from light and fading. To do this in a “low-cost” way, they covered each painting with a towel stapled to the top of the frame. Seriously. To see the painting you had to walk up to it and hold up the cloth and peek underneath. The rest of the day was about at that level. And again, the worst part was that if we were someplace we would rather skip, we were stuck. We couldn’t leave until they said it was time to go.

These two days, in succession were almost too much to take. Thankfully they followed two incredible days with a private guide named Gem in incredible Istanbul. We basked in the glow of those days while being bored to tears in these two ports.

Heat in Portland, Maine

This one was on our last cruise to New England on Celebrity’s Summit. Sadly, it was on a private tour that I had arranged. We were touring in October but the temperature was more like July.

The heat wave we had encountered in Boston (the high there on October 9 was 86) got worse in Portland. It only got to 84 in the shade but the sun was blisteringly hot (my guess is about 92). We had scheduled a food tour (Old Port Culinary Walking Tour) with Maine Foodie Tours. That turned out to be a HUGE mistake. First, when I booked this for our group of eight, we were told that our party (of 8) would be the only people on the tour and SURPRISE there were eight other people on the tour. The tour started at 10:00 AM when we all met at a local wine shop. We were hoping to have wine but the tour never went inside. Instead we moved to the back of the building next door, a spice shop. The shop was supposed to have AC and it might have but we couldn’t tell. 16 of us were crushed into a space about 8 feet by 10 feet where we had to stand for about an hour while we first tasted a tiny glass of mead (honey wine) and then some of the worst macaroni and cheese I have ever had with tiny bits of lobster in it to put some of the spices from the shop on. In the meantime our guide told us some fun Portland and food facts. When we were done eating (by now it is at least 11:00 am) our guide said you can now look at the rest of the store while I do the dishes…DO THE DISHES! On our time?

Most of us went back outside and walked down the street as it was about 90 inside the shop which faced the full sun while our guide cleaned up for about 25 minutes. By now it is almost 11:30 and we have not been offered water (even though some of the spices we tried were pretty spicy) and it is HOT and we were off to our second place. On the way our guide (who somehow had no clue that most of her tour were seniors and perishing in the heat) just took her sweet time getting us to the second place.

And that friends is as much as I can tell you. My bride had heat exhaustion and she and I abandoned the tour and took an Uber back to the ship. Our friends went on with the rest of the tour and told us later that the food was mediocre and that even though we had started the tour with very little food, at the end there was a ton. So much that they couldn’t even eat it. One of the things everyone was looking forward to was the lobster rolls but by the time they got to where they were served, they were too stuffed to eat them.

We have done food tours in more than 10 cities including two here in Seattle, one in NYC, one in Amsterdam, one in Québec and others in Portland, Oregon, Sante Fe, Savannah and Victoria, BC. This was the worst. It was so bad that I refused to take money from the other six people who were touring with us. I had paid for the tickets in advance so I am stuck but I couldn’t in good conscience charge them.

One of the only good things about this tour was that since it wasn’t a ship’s tour, we were able to walk away and go back to the ship when things went south.

Wannemude–Berlin

We were on a Baltic cruise off of Celebrity’s Eclipse and it was a WONDERFUL cruise. The ports were amazing and there were lots of them. On our fourth day, we pulled into the cute little port of Warnemunde, Germany. This is the port where about half the ship did what we did (a six hours round trip on a bus to tour Berlin for 5 hours). The other half either wandered around Warnemunde or Rostock (a nearby town) or went to tour a nearby castle. We chose Berlin because we wanted a taste of the city to see if we would want to come back later. We do that a lot. Use our cruise stop to decide if the port is someplace we would want to do a land vacation. We were traveling with Mike and Carol Preisman so we had booked with a large private tour company, for this and the next four ports after it. The only problem with this port was that because of the distance, they had to combine a bunch of small tours into a one big bus…oh no!

On the three hour trip in we had a guide who thankfully did not think he had to fill up the entire time with info. He did however tell some really bad jokes. But when he did talk it was often to tell sad and pathetic jokes that we think, due to the language difference, never quite had a punchline. We knew they were jokes because he kept announcing he had another joke for us. We all groaned. He did the same on the way back.

When we got to Berlin about half of us were arbitrarily moved to another bus (about the same size) and we headed off with another guide (a Frenchman named Yves) to see Berlin. I need to mention that our entire day in Berlin, it POURED rain. If it wasn’t pouring, it was steady. All day long. It made for a dreary day.

As far as I am concerned we got off on the wrong foot with this guide immediately when Yves told us that he was taking us someplace not on our itinerary, the Olympic Stadium. Now if we had wanted to see the Olympic Stadium (looked pretty much like every other stadium) we would have asked to see it or made sure it was on our itinerary. But we were not given a choice. We spent almost an hour driving to it, stopping for a few minutes in front of it, driving around the back of it, stopping to take pics (not a single person got off the bus to take pics) and getting back to the tour. Now if you had asked almost any of us, we would have skipped the Olympic Stadium and spent the time at Checkpoint Charlie (which we drove by at 35 mph) or any of our other stops.

After the Olympic Stadium it seems like we spent the rest of the time before our 2:00 pm lunch driving around avoiding construction. This was in no way the fault of our guides but certainly the detour to the stadium was. And what is it about Olympic Stadiums? Our Helsinki guide pulled the same thing on us.

Our tour said, “Time for lunch.” The one thing it didn’t say was a decent place for lunch. While other people from the ship who were not on our tour got great German food for lunch we were dumped in a spot with no choices at all but tourist fast food. Not at all nice places. The kind of place I would never go to here at home.

We did get to see everything else on our itinerary which included the Charlottenburg Palace (from the outside when we returned), the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, the Tiergarten and Victory Column, the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate, the site of the Hitler Bunker, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Holocaust Memorial), Potsdamer Platz, the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, Gendarmentmarkt, Unter den Linden, Bebelplatz (Book Burning Memorial, Humboldt University, State Opera House), Neue Wache Memorial, Museum Island, and Alexanderplatz (TV Tower and Red Town Hall). We did see all of these…many at about 30 mph through rain-streaked windows. Other places we got out for a quick picture and back on in no time. At more than three sites only Mike and I got off the bus and shot photos and everyone else just stayed on. We promised to share. One thing that really bugged some people on the bus was that the guide took us to many of these out of order. Now we understand they did that in order to avoid traffic delays but he never announced where we were going or in what order.

We had the same bus set up on the way back and we arrived back at the ship at 10:40 pm. Our only stop on the three hour drive back was at a truck stop for a 10 minute “comfort break.” This meant no dinner (not that we were in any way in danger of starving to death) but it would have been nice if we had stopped at the same type of place we stopped in the morning that had food other than candy bars and ice cream.

Helsinki, Finland

On the same Baltic cruise, four days after Berlin, we did the last large-group shore excursion we will ever do. That morning we sailed into the port of Helsinki, Finland. If we had to skip one port, this would have been it. Even as much as I did not like Berlin, Helsinki was a bore. Again we were on a big bus. We drove to a church, to a square in front of a church, to another Olympic Stadium, through downtown, the Sibelius monument (which would have been pretty cool for about 20 minutes, not 90)  and that was about it.

Here’s the thing. We spent 45 minutes at the Olympic Stadium (What is with guides and Olympic Stadiums?) and driving by and hearing the entire history of Helsinki and Finland. The guide was like the elderly lady in the old medical alert commercial, the one that’s fallen and she can’t get up, except that this guide was talking and she couldn’t shut up. Seriously, she started talking from the minute we got on the bus until the minute we got off. And when we did get off for what was supposed to be a scheduled full hour of free time in downtown Helsinki that had shrunk down to a very short 15 minutes at the local farmer’s market due to our unscheduled Olympic visit. We might have really liked downtown Helsinki if had had more than 15 minutes there.

So for us, it’s not just the ship’s shore excursions that are a problem, but in many cases, it’s the size of the group. Even the last two of our least favorite were private tours, but they were BIG tours. Big tours where we were captives. Keep that in mind when booking your future shore excursions.

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

Grumpy?

So my incredible bride thinks I am being grumpy because I keep criticizing my favorite cruise line, Celebrity. We have taken almost 20 cruises on Celebrity, and they have long been our favorite cruise line. They have just launched a new ship, The Edge, that two of our best friends are sailing on in the Caribbean as I write this.

My “brother from another mother” Bob (Kathleen says that’s what we are because we are so much alike) is live-blogging their cruise and I have not been responding to it well. For that reason, I have been designated as, “grumpy.” You can see Bob’s posts by clicking here.  But I don’t think I am being grumpy. I think I am being proactive about my favorite cruise line.

Yesterday Bob got to meet and take a quick selfie with Lisa Lutoff-Perlo (not sure if I spelled that right), the CEO of Celebrity. He was really excited about it. I just asked him if he got a chance to ask her about the problems that X (that’s what long-time Celebrity cruisers call the line because all their ships have HUGE Xs on them) is currently having on all its ships—a qualified crew.

This is such an ongoing thing that I am going to give it a rest today and write about it a lot later on. Not just as it effects Celebrity but the entire cruise industry. And about that, maybe I am grumpy?

“There’s a fine line between angry and grumpy. Angry isn’t nice, but grumpy is funny.”–Rick Wakeman