Yesterday we were talking to someone about using AirBnB or just vacation rentals instead of hotels and I was telling them why we have pretty much stopped staying in hotels and just stay in vacation rentals now.
Here’s why we have pretty much switched to AirBnB type rentals:
Different rising times. Most of my regular readers know that I get up early (really early—like 3:30 or 4:00 am) and Kathleen likes to sleep in (6:30 or 7:00). When we are in a hotel room, all I can do is lay there and look at the darkness but when we are in an AirBnB there is usually a living room where I can go and sit and read, work on my photos from the vacation we are on or get dressed to go workout.
Check-in is usually a piece of cake. We have done 15 AirBnBs so far and have only met humans twice. Usually they will send you a key code you can use on the front door or on a lock box where the key is.
Check out is just as easy. You just leave the key or lock the lock and you are gone. If you are nice person, you can e-mail or text them and let them know you are out so they can send their cleaning crew.
You can sometimes get in early. We have had great hosts who will text us when the unit is ready. One guy in Tucson sent me a note around noon telling us that if we wanted to get in, the place was ready. I love that.
You can communicate entirely by e-mail or text. No phone calls which is my preference. I think I have only talked on the phone to three of the 15 hosts we have stayed with.
You can save some money by eating some meals in the unit because most have kitchens and dining rooms. Even if you just have breakfast (we have done that) it can save you money or be easier. Sometimes it’s just nice to have a coffee maker you have access to.
Most AirBnB’s have a washer and dryer which is great if you are traveling on longer trips. That means for a two week trip you only have to pack one week’s worth of clothes. When we did our New England trip last year we had been on the road for ten days before we got to our AirBnB in NYC. After four days in NYC we were going on a cruise. It was great to get on the cruise with clean clothes.
They are GREAT for groups. One of the best things about an AirBnB (as opposed to a hotel) is that when you are traveling with other people and you aren’t doing anything, everyone is in the same place. You have a nice living room to sit in and just talk, especially if you are coming from different places and haven’t seen each other in a while. Plus you have a fully-equipped kitchen you can do breakfast or snacks in. It’s a great way to go. We had an AirBnB in Dublin last summer that slept 8 so when my brother, his wife, their daughter, my sister-in-law’s sister and her husband and daughter joined us, we got to have this experience. It was great to have a place to just sit and talk…or play games.
Some tips for booking an AirBnB
If you haven’t booked one yet, I will tell you some tips that Kathleen’s daughter and son-in-law (who have used it for years) told us when we started booking them and that we have learned from booking ours. These rules may not apply to all rental sites. My daughter has used VRBO, we never have. We use AirBnB pretty exclusively.
Always look at the photos of the unit. If there aren’t photos of most (if not all) rooms, move on.
Read the reviews. AirBnB will not allow owners to remove bad reviews (owners can respond to them, but not remove them). Pay special attention to mentions of cleanliness. Most people who stay in AirBnBs will write reviews. The owners will also review you when you do and you can’t see each other’s reviews until you both have submitted them. When you go to rent in the future, other owners can look at your reviews and turn you down (maybe you left a place a mess, had a big party, etc.). It’s a good system.
If it sleeps a bunch of people, make sure there are enough bathrooms. Some of the older homes have 4 bedrooms and one bath. Yikes. We always look for at least one bath per family. When we did Dublin we had three couples and two of them had a 20 something child with them. So we needed four bedrooms and 3 baths.
Check the number of beds/bedrooms. If you have four couples in our age group, they may not be thrilled with bunk beds.😀
Make sure the unit is where you want to be—close to the action. When it comes to location, most will NOT tell you an exact address before you book but they will tell you a general neighborhood and show you a map with a circle that the rental will be in. That can help if you know the neighborhood. We had friends stay here in one who didn’t ask us about the neighborhood and wound up in a part of town I wouldn’t park my car overnight in. You can also look at street views on Google Earth which can give you some idea what you are getting into. If you are coming to Seattle and plan to rent one, just ask us.
The nightly rate quoted may not be the entire cost. Keep in mind that you will pay more than the nightly fee which is what they show to start. There is also a separate cleaning fee, service fee (I have no idea what this is for that isn’t cleaning, but they all charge it), Occupancy taxes and fees. Check out this example of the charges on a Seattle AirBnB.
The price may be different from one day to the next. One other thing to remember about the price: if you look at rental without putting dates in, you may find that when you do the price changes, sometimes dramatically. For instance, our last stay was in Walla Walla, on our wine tasting tour. We went with our neighbors in August for three days, mid-week and we rented at the last minute. The price for mid-week rentals in the heat of the summer and at the last minute was great! But in the spring or fall (peak months) and on a weekend, the price was literally double.
Set up an account before you look. When you go to the site, click the sign up link and put in your info. This will really help when you want to save particular rentals and come back to them.
Refine your search. When you know where you want to go, search for where you want to go,Then Click Dates, Guests, Type of Place (choose Entire Place) and go. That will show you only what you are looking for.
Save your favorites. Once you have refined your search, look at each one and save it to a favorite list by clicking the heart at the top of the page. When the site asks you which list to save it to, create a new one for the next place you are going. We have lists for all the cities we have stayed in (about 15).
Out of the 15 or so we have stayed in, we have only had one so-so experience (our first) and no bad ones. Here are photo (from their listings) of the places we have stayed. There are notes in the captions.
This place was in Charleston, SC
This is the living room of our huge AirBnB in Dublin, Ireland. We shared this with a total of 8 people.
Edinburgh, Scotland. We met the owners, a wonderful older couple who told us all about the neighborhood.
New York City. This condo was on the 22nd floor at the corner of 7th and 27th and only $165 a night. Beat that with a hotel.
This place in Palm Springs featured some amazing design.
Park City, Utah
Phoenix, AZ. This one was a condo that had two full bedrooms and two full baths. Really nice.
Maybe the best one we have ever had in Salt Lake City.
Right downtown San Diego, CA
The coolest house we ever had. A house once owned by a freed slave in Savannah, GA, fully restored.
We shared this one with our neighbors when we went to Walla Walla to taste wine.
So our trip is done and we are recovering from 27 hours spent in airports and airplanes to get home. Today is all about laundry and resting up. Not a great trip home due to so many things. Among them were weather (Denver airport closed for a time as we were attempting to land so we got to circle for a while), late flights and construction at airports made this a really long day.
I wasn’t going to add this but I want to see it in print so feel free to skip it. This is what our travel home day was like.
Woke up at 3:15 am onboard Celebrity Reflection (As usual, couldn’t sleep).
Left Reflection at 6:45 am (early).
Arrived at Dublin Airport at 7:35.
Sat in shared business class lounge with Bob and Holly until our flight to London Heathrow left at 10:50 am.
Arrived London Heathrow, Terminal 5 at 12:20 pm.
Transferred to London Heathrow Terminal 3 for flight to Denver. Took the better part of an hour.
Sat in British Terminal 3 Business lounge until 2:40 when we boarded our flight to Denver.
Arrived in Denver at 6:15 pm Denver time after circling due to weather.
Stood in line for almost an hour at Customs in Denver as all inbound flights had been held for weather and then all arrived at the same time. It was a bloody zoo.
Due to the fact that we could not get a Business Class award flight direct to Seattle we flew to Denver (instead of home to Seattle) we had to now check all our luggage back in for a short flight to Seattle (that we paid for…in coach) that was supposed to leave at 7:35 pm.
Due to all the late arrivals, our flight didn’t leave until 9:06 pm.
Arrived in Seattle at 10:55 pm.
After getting our luggage we grabbed a Lyft and wound up getting home at 11:45.
So that was our day. Too long. And all to get award seats from BA via Alaska Miles. Which will bring me to a future post on finding award seats in the near future. I promise.
And now to the reason for this post. The schedule of what is to come this week. My plan is to post Iceland day 1 tomorrow afternoon, Iceland day 2 on Tuesday, Iceland day 3 and 4 on Friday. Hope that keeps you all up to date without overwhelming anyone with too much to read.
Technology doesn’t address everything – for example, air travel still sucks. —Brad Feld
Didn’t think I would be back on here this soon but it’s 2:37 on the Pacific Coast, we are sitting in our living room with everything packed except laptops and iPads and in the garage ready for pick up by Seattle Towncar at 3:45. So why not write something I think. It will give me a chance to complain.
I walk a lot. Usually about 30+ miles a week. And I never get injured. Oh, maybe a pain in the toe or something equally trivial. But today. Today I am wearing a knee brace for the first time in my life. About three weeks ago I was just sitting and somehow my knee decided to hurt like hell when I stood up. It got better over the next couple of days but when went to the movies on Saturday, we sat in a row that was so small I had to keep my knees at an odd angle for the the entire film and that really did me in.
I can walk fine ( I walked 5.6 miles yesterday) but going up and down stairs or bending over to pick something up (like two 50 pound suitcases) was really painful. I told Kathleen we might have put the suitcases in my office and bring the clothes down to them. But she suggested I stop at a local drug store and grab a knee brace. Really helped. But not sure what it’s going to mean in Edinburgh. I really wanted to climb Arthur’s Seat. We shall see.
I have this thing about finishing things. As we head towards flying to Europe next Monday I am beyond frustrated today. Whenever I am working toward a trip I make my huge list of things that I need to get done before we can go. Then I work my butt off to get those things done, crossing them off one after the other. But this week has been beyond exasperating. Every time I try and get something completed and off my plate, either I can’t because of something outside my control or more things keep showing up. It is beyond frustrating. Did I mention that already?
Ever since I can remember I have been this way. I hate starting projects that I know I won’t be able to finish with things within my control or in the time frame I have given myself. I guess I am the opposite of a procrastinator. It’s one of the reasons I have gotten so much enjoyment out of owning and running my own business. I set the timeframe on every project and I am the only one responsible for getting it done. When a client sends me stuff day after day to add to something I am doing for them, I want to strangle that person. Just give me everything at once and let me finish! A great example is my e-mail inbox (I have five of them). I feel totally accomplished when I empty them. But I have a friend who brags that he has more than 4,000 e-mails in his inbox. That would kill me!
Right now I am doing my best to redesign the website for our agency. I did it originally (the one that is online now) in Adobe Muse. But Adobe is killing Muse in a two years (DAMN YOU ADOBE!) and it isn’t possible for our agency owner to make changes or additions to the site without me doing it, so I am moving it to WordPress. But not the WordPress you are reading this in, the WordPress(.org) that let’s you download the software and install it on your own server. The one you are reading this post on right now is WordPress.com. You have to pay for this WordPress every year and we are trying to avoid that. Besides, I have my own server, why would I want to pay again to use another one.
So I went out and bought myself what looked like a great WordPress theme to use. It came with a promise of supreme tech support and total ease of use but so far, that hasn’t not been the case. Finished it all up (at least I thought I did) last Tuesday and showed it to our owner and we both agreed there were some little tweaks that needed to be done. Six of them to be exact. I wrote the tech support people (turns out to be one guy…in India) with those six questions. All pretty straight forward and waited. I am still waiting. The tech support guy has sent back basically the same e-mail every day. He says “tell me what you want done and I will do it.” Well I don’t want him to do it, I want to know how to do it so I can do it again later on or in other places on the site. But no, he just wants to fix it for me. And it’s simple stuff like being able to make a text a link in his theme template (which I can’t get into without coding) or making some text bold (which isn’t working—what the hell!) So, another project I can’t finish. And I am not sure I will be able to finish it before I leave. And totally out of my control. Just some guy in tech support who obviously writes his own testimonials.
The only good part of my work life right now is that all my yearbook stuff is done. I mean DONE! That I can control. I can decide when a product or service I provide is finished. I can work forward and provide content through the day we return from the trip.
But on the travel side, I still have group cruises to work on, vacations and cruises to book for people and a lot of that is on hold as well. Thank God we don’t fly until Monday evening. My current goal is to be completely done with everything no later than Friday morning as we have some fun stuff planned with our local kids on Saturday and want to get Jayesh and Lisa over from next door one more time on Sunday. And maybe I should try packing someplace in there. YIKES!
Do not plan for ventures before finishing what’s at hand. —Euripides
I just finished reading an online article about packing for travel. To be honest, it has been on my mind a lot lately. All because of one spot on our upcoming trip where I am seeing a possible problem. We leave for Edinburgh a week from Monday (May 20) and on Friday of that week we will be heading to York by train to visit some of our favorite people. That’s the day I am just not sure about. You see that morning I need to get us from a train platform into our seats on the train with our luggage. And I am still not sure how I am going to do that.
We travel with the following (see the photo): two checked bags (I know, don’t check bags—see below as to why I have to), two regular-size carry-ons and my camera/computer bag and whatever Kathleen is carrying as a purse or bag (this time a backpack, I think). When we get to Waverly Station in Edinburgh, I need to get those on to the train. Each of the checked bags weighs around 50 pounds. The carry-ons each weigh around 25 pounds. All are fairly big as you can see from the pic. My camera/computer bag weights in excess of 25 pounds.
I would love to do the minimalist packing thing. I hate schlepping bags (one of the reasons we cruise, so we can pack and unpack once) but we are about to leave on a month-long European trip that will hit four countries, 3 weeks on land and a cruise in there someplace. I am a fairly big guy (6’2″, 215 pounds) and wear size 13 shoes. I have big clothes and big shoes (nowhere near as big as my little brother’s) How do I pack for that long without a checked bag? I need shoes for evening wear and shoes for working out at a minimum. One pair of my shoes almost fills a standard carry-on. Even if I stuff them with socks and underwear, three weeks worth of my clothing just will not fit in a carry-on. All that and we think that this trip we may hit snow in June (Iceland) so I need boots as well along with sweaters and other cold weather clothing.
So someone can tell me how to get all this in a carry-on I would truly appreciate it but I have tried for years to do that and the closest I have come was way back when on our first couple of land trips to Italy and the UK when we did it with one checked bag and one carry-on. But that was before I was exercised crazed and could travel the entire of a country with one pair of shoes. It was also before part of every major trip was a cruise where I knew I would need more than jeans to have dinner. And it was before we went all over the place on trips that included stops in four different countries, including Iceland.
Lastly, YES, I have read the quote below and tried that method. On the last trip I brought back exactly three things I did not wear and all three were sweaters. Not my fault that it was almost 90 degrees in Portland, Maine in mid-October.
When you get back from a trip, make a note of what you didn’t wear. This will avoid packing it unnecessarily next time. —Robert Powell
So you know how much we love to travel. And I can say that I love coming home and sleeping my own bed. But the worst part of traveling is coming home to catching up. For some reason no matter how well I plan ahead of time, or how long we are gone, it’s always crazy to get back. With my old job and my new job, I need to write, write and write but not the stuff I want to write…like this site—that’s what I want to be writing. And I need to design websites, brochures and book travel and follow up on other people who are currently traveling or people who are about to travel not to mention catching up at home with things that need doing. Like the stuff I cook once a week that I now need to makes batches of, all on the same day. So much to do and just living as well.
All the while I am trying to get around to updating this site and writing one last post about our trip from Tucson to Sedona. So that is still coming (probably tomorrow) but I have been so busy I just haven’t been able to get to that yet.
The worst part of traveling? Coming back to work. Lots of it. I heard a radio discussion while driving this week about “free time.” I have heard that people actually have that. Kathleen says if I have it, I will just fill it up. She’s probably right. I have to be busy. Always doing two things at the same time. Like right now, writing and watching TV. We went to the movies today and saw Captain Marvel (Really fun film!) and I realized that this is one of the few things I do that I just do one thing at a time.
As much as I love to travel, coming back can be trying.
So 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.
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.
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.
Sorry 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
On 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
Over 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