Sunday, February 19, 2006

Cruise Ship Travel Tips

Before I begin, let me say that there are more variables on this topic than there would be with DC Travel Tips. Being on a different cruise line, a different ship, or going to different destinations can make a big difference. My cruise was on the Carnival Elation, leaving from Galveston with stops in Cozumel and Progreso. Your mileage may vary. Also, I would like to mention that it was fabulous, and not just because I love boats.

1. Collect small bills in advance

There are two reasons for this. One is for tipping. In our case, the ship allotted fifty dollars for gratuities, with a breakdown of what went to whom, and if you purchased a fountain card there was a gratuity added on for the bartenders. However, the amounts are fairly low, and you may want to augment that. I certainly did, as we received excellent service. However, you do not accumulate change on the ship because you are signing for everything, and you may be able to get change at the information desk, but otherwise your choice is to either not tip or tip more than intended. Just plan ahead.

In addition, at least in Mexico it is common to bargain, and a lot of the items you are bargaining for are pretty cheap. So, imagine bargaining someone down to two dollars and then needing change for a twenty, which they may not have. It’s just silly. Anyway, having ones and fives gives you some more flexibility that is nice to have.

As a side note, on shore excursions I recommend cash over charge anyway, as you don’t have to worry about fluctuating exchange rates, and you may get a better deal by having cash in hand.

2. Eat in the dining room as often as possible

We had dinner there every night, but we did not realize what we were missing in terms of lunches and dinners there until very late in the cruise. Room service is convenient, and there is always food being served somewhere, but the best quality food is definitely in the dining rooms. Plus, for breakfast and lunch it is open seating, so you get to meet additional people. And don’t leave the dining room early, because they sing and dance for you.

3. Attend the informational talks

We attended one at the beginning of the cruise and a disembarkation talk, but there were also shopping talks and shore excursion information, all of which can prove very helpful. Another nice part of that is that most of them were given by our cruise director, Jorge, who was great. Honestly, he was funnier than the ship’s comedian.

4. Entertainment may be cheesy

But don’t let that stop you! The first night there was a show where you got to watch the singers, the dancers, and the comedian. The singers and dancers tend to work together, and while they were performing my first thought was, so this is what happens to people who leave high school with nothing but cheerleading skills. Except, they were pretty much all Australian, English, and Canadian, so I don’t know if they would even have been cheerleaders.

Anyway, that shouldn’t hold you back. I admit that we did not go to the two Vegas style shows (which would be just the singers and dancers), but we did go to Pure Country (which was them plus a pretty good fiddler) and the guest talent show (which had Jorge doing a lot of filler because they only had five acts).

Bear in mind, the shows are not your only entertainment. There were musical acts on the Lido Deck in afternoons, by the Drama Bar in the evenings, and there was karaoke every night.

5. Decide whether or not you want a Fountain Card early

Meals are included in the cruise price, along with water, juice, milk, and hot beverages. Alcohol is extra, of course, but so are soft drinks. With the Fountain Card you can pay a flat fee and take it to any bar at any time and get soda. It was about $27.00 for five days, with sodas otherwise costing $2.00 each. Whether you should get it or not depends on how much of a pop drinker you are, but if you are going to want it, decide early so you can get full value for it.

6. You’re probably better off with the early dinner seating

There were two dining rooms, each one with two seatings. We took the 8:00 PM seating because we thought on the days we had shore excursions we could come back a little later, and shower if needed, and still make dinner. What we did not realize is that you pretty much always needed to be back on the ship by 4 or 4:30, so making the 6:00 seating is not much of a stretch. Being done earlier would have been better for some things, including the midnight buffets. We did not even go to the fancy Grand Royale midnight buffet because we had just eaten prime rib three hours earlier. Karaoke starts at 8:30. Yes, you can arrive late, but without having a chance to fully gauge the room I was not going to get up there, so yeah, eat at 6.

7. Sign up for shore excursions and spa packages early

They go fast! That being said, I would not sign up for either before getting on the ship. We had several itinerary changes before boarding, and one that I wanted to do did not appear to be available on the web site, but we were able to sign up for it on the ship. By the way, massages are heavenly!

8. Don’t expect cell phone reception

Maybe you wouldn’t anyway. I was not counting on reception, but my signal went off about an hour outside of port and did not come back on until we got back to Galveston. Even on shore I had no reception.

9. Don’t be an idiot

The low point of our cruise was probably on the tender back from Playa Del Carmen. As the boat was almost full, with the only empty seating being right in front of us, a woman helped her young adult daughter stagger on board. My first thought was that I hoped they would not sit in front of us, but of course they did. My next thought was that I hoped she would not throw up.

It didn’t happen right away, but when it started it went on forever. If you don’t know how well you can hold your tequila, assume the answer is not very. It’s a powerful drink, and apparently even more so on a hot day. It wasn’t just that she was inconsiderate to everyone on the boat; she was incredibly inconsiderate to her mother. Her mother was the one who had to wrangle the breasts back into the shirt, guide the drunk, find misplaced shoes and scrunchies, and then deal with the vomiting, and she was the only one of the pair who was conscious of the embarrassing nature of the incident at the time.

10. Don’t be a jerk

I was amazed at the capacity of some people to complain and to be rude to service people. There weren’t even that many occurrences, but come on, you are on a cruise! Don’t you feel lucky? I know, you paid for it, but there was a time when it would have been a lot more expensive, or poor people would be put in steerage. Now as far as I can tell the only thing paying more money gets you is a bigger cabin. You get the same food and the same service and the same pampering. Don’t start yelling at someone who asks who you are doing that the lines are poorly managed because one is moving faster than the other.

Granted, with my customer service background, I am extra sensitive to abuse of the working class (that also forms a big part of my views on tipping), but ultimately, there is a limit to how responsible anyone else can be for your good time. Attitude, baby.

Next stop, Mexico!

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Houston, we have a spork!

I am finally back from vacation, and a wonderful vacation it was. I wish the effects could have been longer lasting. I got back late Thursday night, tired but tanned and relaxed. Sunday at church people were telling me that I was glowing and radiant, and I was confident that it was true because I felt radiant. Now, after three days back at work, my back hurts and I’m a different kind of tired and I hate people. So, I’m quickly getting back to my normal state of haggard old wreck, and doing it just in time for Valentine’s Day!

Actually, as the only single person on the team, I will be working late that night so my compatriots can woo their wives. I think I’m going to be needing some Scharffen Berger. I’m normally just fine with Hershey’s, but these are desperate times.

Anyway, we should review the vacation while I can still remember it. Our original plan had been to leave from New Orleans, with stops in Cozumel and Costa Maya. Then Hurricane Katrina came. Not only was the port flooded, but the ship was dedicated to housing for displaced persons. It was disappointing, but since we were not the ones who lost our homes and livelihoods, it would have been in poor taste to complain.

We rescheduled for a similar cruise departing out of Galveston. A few days after we did this Hurricane Rita popped up. Fortunately, the damage was minimal. If we had needed to reschedule again, I would have felt like any port we chose was being doomed to a hurricane, and it would have been hard to make a choice.

Galveston does not have a major airport, so you need to fly into Houston. Flights between Houston and Portland have some odd scheduling going on, and it just seemed too risky to try and leave on the same day we would be boarding the ship. Fine, we would leave a little early and spend some time in Houston. We had planned to spend some time in New Orleans. We instinctively felt that Houston would not be as interesting, but we had no idea how right we were.

Houston is in Texas, but is not of Texas. We began to suspect it while we were there, but we were also able to talk to people from all over Texas while on the ship, and they confirmed it. Houston is the opposite of the rest of the state. Two thirds of the city population did not originate in Texas. So it began to make sense to us why we had not heard any drawls or seen any cowboy gear outside of the souvenir shops.

I’m not sure that this was entirely a bad thing. Texas is not my favorite state. Still, if you’re there, you kind of want to get the experience. As far as I can tell, the Houston experience is driving your BMW to a business meeting, then buying something really expensive at the mall. We would ask people what we should see, and people kept saying the mall.

Don’t get me wrong; the Galleria is pretty impressive. We just kept walking and walking and we still did not see all of it. It was not as fun as a mall could be though, because so many of the shops were a bit upscale for us. Yes, there was Pac-Sun and Claire’s and Hot Topic, but there was also Fendi, Armani, Vuitton, Dolce & Gabbana, Burberry, Kate Spade, and lots of other places that I am not cool enough to appreciate. That was where we spent our first day. We bought some souvenirs, and got pedicures. It was my first time. It was okay, but my feet were kind of tender afterwards, and I think I may be meant to be calloused.

The Galleria has an ice rink, somewhat like Lloyd Center, and we thought there should be a cinema or two, but we could not find any proof. One person we asked suggested that putting in a theater might make things too urban. We finally got on the PC in the motel lobby, and used the nearby businesses feature on Yahoo! Maps to find a theater and show times. That was how we spent day number two.

There are some things that can vary a lot by region, and movie theaters are on my list of things to try. In DC Tara and I had seen Beauty Shop, so I really thought we should see another Queen Latifah movie. We got tickets for Last Holiday and The New World.

I really enjoyed Last Holiday. It was cute and touching and there were some really funny parts, and the casting was generally good.

The New World had a wonderful cast, and there was indeed some beautiful cinematography, but it was soooo slooooow. I know, Terrence Malick is an artist, but that’s no excuse. No one makes more beautifully shot pictures than Zhang Yimou, but it is not at the expense of telling a compelling story. With all the voiceovers and long (pretty) shots of nothing happening, The New World was rather like a long Obsession commercial. At least it was in (muted) color.

We had also wanted to get a feel for local food. I had thought eating Mexican one day and barbecue another would make sense, but we had a hard time finding anything. On the way back from the theater, we thought we could at least find the barbecue place. The first one we passed was closed, and the second one was kind of a dive. That can be okay, but the smell of smoke was overpowering (which was weird because I noticed that at the same time I noticed the No Smoking sign). Long story short, we ate Chinese food our last night in Texas.

We did have fun that night anyway. Our night clerk at the motel was the one person who had made a recommendation for something to see in Houston; he told us to go to church. I thought he was just seeing the heathen inside us, but actually Lakewood Church is known for being very large. Anyway, we had visited with him a few times, and he asked if we wanted to meet someone. Was this a setup? No, his girlfriend had come by, so we started chatting with her and stayed in the lobby for about three hours, chatting up Virgie while Patrick kept an eye on the ball game. So, shout out to Patrick and Virgie at the Fairfield Inn.

Lakewood being large, and the Galleria being large, does fit in with at least one aspect of Texas, and we passed several other large things. I saw a huge cemetery, an enormous liquor store (Fiesta liquor, which had several smaller locations as well). On the way to Galveston we passed two Wal-Marts (big savings) and the Halliburton campus (big crooks). We did not see any armadillos. I was told they are all over the place, but it sounds like they are similar to raccoons out here, and we usually only see them when they did not make it across the street, so perhaps that was for the best.

I will treat the cruise later, but I will mention that we had to wait a long time in the George Bush airport, and PDX is way better in terms of options for passing the time and for security. No one asked us about our bags or even really looked at our Ids, but there was a recording they kept playing that joking about security could get you arrested, so I just kept my head down. I could throw in a Bush joke or two here, but it’s too easy. It is HW, not W; we saw the statue.

I will go over the cruise later, but for a parting thought, the fact that no one could really provide a key destination in Houston made us think about Oregon, and Portland specifically. What is must-see here? We thought of things like Mount Hood and Multnomah Falls, and they have their points. In fact, one of the great things about Oregon is that you are only a short drive away from any type of environment: mountain, desert, river, or beach. Still, that takes quite a bit of driving to discover, and gets a little complex. You could make some votes for Saturday Market, but I think the real heart of Portland is Powells Books. Labor disputes aside, Portland is a city that reads. One of the memorable moments for David McCullough when visiting here was being recognized by his waiter. Was the waiter a student? No just a waiter, but a waiter who read big fat history books and could recognize their author. I have nothing against Barnes and Noble, but Powells is locally owned and operated, and very much a part of the town. Even the Mormon Tabernacle Choir went there when they came to town (yes, they had a long bus ride coming up, but it would have been a good idea anyway). So Powells has my pick, but your ideas are welcome.