Passengers waiting to board their cruise ship in Vancouver.
No doubt about it, cruising can be a relaxing way to see the world at a leisurely pace away from the daily grind of busy lives. While cruise companies would like you to believe that you will be sharing your adventure with few other passengers, this is simply not the case. As ships increase in size, so does the number of passengers on board. With a number of ships now carrying 4000 to 5300 passengers each, they are really like floating cities.While there are bottlenecks or choke points along the way
where you may feel like your part of a cattle call, the cruise lines have developed methods of quickly organizing and moving large groups of people. If you want to avoid feeling crowded on your next cruise, consider some of the following strategies:1. Avoid the new, mega-ships. Holding in excess of 5000 passengers, mega-ships manage these numbers relatively well while at sea. Upon reaching land, it takes a while to disembark this many passengers and get them away of their shore excursions. Even if you are not taking a tour, you are left in town with a huge number of fellow passengers doing the same as you. The streets and shops become crowded and local sights are difficult to get near. God help you when two other mega-ships are in town at the same time that yours is!
My advice - find a "smaller" ship - there are great one out there that carry 1800 to 2300 passengers that will give you a more intimate experience. Several cruise lines also offer "small ship" options where there are 800 or fewer passengers on board.2. Use Cruise TT (Timetable)
to determine what ships are in port with you on a given day. Once you have chosen an itinerary and ship, drop by Cruise TT to see if there are many ships in port at the same time as you. You may find that going a week earlier or later means that there may be less passenger traffic in town with you. Travelling earlier or later in the cruise season also means there should be less ship traffic to compete with. The fewer ships in port with you, the less congested the streets and sites will be and the more you will enjoy your time on shore.3. Consider private tours in the ports you visit. It is now possible to make your own tour arrangements, often at a discounted price, online before you leave. The cruise lines will scare you by telling you that you will be left behind if you aren't back in time (this is entirely true) and that the quality of the tours will not be a good (not entirely true). With the ability to read reviews online, you can usually be assured that the tour will be of equal or better quality th
an the ship can offer, and with fewer participants. Make certain that your tour gets you back to the ship one or two hours before you sail, just to give you a time buffer should things go wrong. 4. Go against the flow whenever possible. Many passengers go on tours early in the day when the ship had docked and shop once they are back. Consider doing your walking and shopping first thing and then take a later tour. If you are taking a ship sponsored tour, the ship will never leave until the tour had returned and everyone is on board.
Another option is to avoid the main tourist areas of a port and move a block or two off the well travelled tourist trail. Ask your crew on board where there are interesting things to see and do in port - often they know how to avoid the crowds and the tourist traps.5. Think creatively on sea days. Many passengers find sea days the most crowded as everyone is on board and apparently on the same schedule. Everyone wants breakfast in the cafeteria between 8:00 and 10:00 am, lunch between noon and 2:00pm and dinner between 6:00pm and 8:00pm. If you are an early riser, no trouble, but lunch can be a problem. Rather than fighting your way through the cafeteria, consider a civilized sit down meal in the dining room or order in room service. Many ships have specialty restaurants that are open on sea days for lunch at no additional charge so this may be your chance to try a different location to eat. Most ships also have pizzerias as well as hot dog and hamburger stands so you can grab a quick lunch on the go without fighting for a table in the always crowded cafeteria. 6. Sit back and relax. There are bottlenecks you just can't avoid. One of them is usually in the embarkation and disembarkation halls - especially in Canada and the US where US Customs agents are involved. Vancouver's Canada Place is a great example of this. With sometimes three ships sailing on a given day, the number of passengers who must pass through customs and check in can be quite large. Customs clearance and boarding usually won't start until noon and then will carry on until 4:00pm or 4:30pm. By the time you clear airport-style security, customs and make it through check-in, you will have been standing in line for quite a while. Carry the least amount of weight you can - drag or wheel your carry-on and leave the heavy bags with the longshoremen to wrestle on to the ship. Everyone has to go through this process and whether you arrive early or late, there will probably be some waiting in line. Disembarkation can be just as long, especially if US Customs is on high alert. We have stood in line for close to two hours waiting to clear Customs in Los Angeles. Having said that, we have walked right on to and off at ports like Southampton and Dover in the UK, so your mileage may vary!Finally, enjoy the company! Ships become like small towns - almost everyone is up for a conversation about the weather, the scenery or the last tour they took. If you enjoy meeting and visiting with people, a cruise ship is a great place to make new friends and acquaintances.
So, the next cruise you take, bring your curiosity and patience and you will be rewarded with some wonderful new experiences to bring home with you.Had any crowded experiences or have you developed ways to avoid/manage crowds? If so, leave us a comment to help fellow passengers!
We are sometimes asked if folks with special dietary needs will have difficulties finding things to eat on a cruise ship and the answer we give is always the same - there is always a way to accommodate your specific requirements.
Your first action is to identify what you need in the guest profile you fill in on the cruise company's website once you have registered for a cruise. If you require Kosher or gluten-free meals, they can be provided for you as long as you let the cruise company know four weeks in advance. If you are booked for a cruise, do this now! If you have ANY questions about having your needs met, don't wait until you are on the ship, phone your travel agent or the cruise line today and discuss this with them - better to know in advance what is possible than to have surprises once on board.
You will notice that vegetarian and vegan diets are not listed on the guest profile as cruise companies work to meet these needs every day on every cruise. There is always a selection of fresh fruit and salads on the buffet and two or three vegetarian selection in the restaurants. The secret, whether you eat in the restaurants or buffet, is to get to know the head waiters. They will consult with you about which items on offer meet your needs and what they can do for you if there are none that interest you. In the restaurant, the head waiter can bring you the next day's menu and help you make a selection that works - or they can help you order off menu. There always seems to be excellent vegetable stir fry and curries to order and the kitchen will go out of its way to meet your needs - you just need to identify what you require as soon as possible. Head waiters are programmed to produce acceptable solutions to each guest's dietary needs so your request will not be the first they have had.
At the buffet, talk to the servers behind the line and if they are not able to help you identify vegetarian or vegan options then ask what else they can make for you - the kitchen is not far away and can make off menu items just like in the restaurant. I have found that working with the same waitstaff each evening means that they remember your needs and will more readily be able to help you. In the regular restaurant this will not be a problem. In the "Anytime Dining" restaurant where you may be seated anywhere, you are going to want to sit in the section with the same head waiter so he/she knows what your requirements are. In the buffet line, try to speak to the same servers or locate the same head waiter on the floor to deal with.
As with anything else on a large cruise ship, you need to be proactive in identifying your needs, deal with the same staff as often as possible and give staff some lead time to meet your requests. Remember, if you don't get the assistance you need, ask to speak to the guest relations representative on board as soon as possible so you are not disappointed during your adventure.
This fall Jan and I decided to take a Canada/New England Fall Colours cruise and flew to New York to begin our trip.
We stayed at the Novotel on 52nd and Broadway, a hotel that was reasonably priced, in an interesting area of Manhattan and minutes from the cruise pier.
The only online criticism that I could find regarding the hotel was that it had altogether too many foreigners in it.
As we too were foreigners, this seemed like a very good reason to stay there.
New York at present seems to have a rather widespread instance of bed bugs in hotel rooms, although we never found a single bug at the Novotel or any of the other hotel properties we stayed in.
Some suggest that the bed bug issue is overblown, but the begbugregistry.com
reports a large number of hotels in New York harbouring these nocturnal vampires.
While supposedly not carriers of any known disease, the mere thought of a tiny, blood sucking creature sharing your bed makes most people a bit uneasy (and scratchy) to say the least.
These little critters are paper thin and can hide almost anywhere, feed on blood and are more than happy to travel with you from where you visit to where you live.
To avoid this disappointing outcome we decided to take a few precautions which may be useful as you decide how to deal with the possibility of bed bugs on your next trip.
- Consult online hotel reviews or bedbugregistry.com to determine if your hotel of choice has had any bed bug sightings.
- Consider using hard-sided luggage rather than the usual soft-sided kind. If you take a close look at most luggage there are many cracks and crevasses where bed bugs may hitch a ride. Avoid the hard-sided luggage with zippers – they can fail and may not prevent bugs from entering the case itself. Luggage such as Samsonite’s F’lite cases (right) has a rubber gasket and clamps to lock the two parts of the case together. Note that the gasket does not extend all the way around the case opening – I completed the seal by gluing weather stripping into the case. Even these are bug resistant and not bug proof, i.e. they are not airtight and aren't a guarantee against picking up hitchhikers. For that you will need something like a photographer's Pelican case.
- Upon entering a new hotel room, put your luggage on the (usually) hard bathroom floor and inspect the entire hotel room. A flashlight at this point will help you look under the bed, the mattress and desk drawers as well as behind the headboard. If you see any critters about, leave the room immediately.
- After inspection, set up the (inspected) luggage stand and put your suitcase on it. If you are travelling with someone else who also has luggage, ask the front desk for a second luggage stand. Don't put your luggage on the bed.
- Develop a method to store your worn clothing separately from your fresh clothing in your suitcase. We use large, clear plastic storage bags that have a double, “zip-lock” seal to keep used clothing from contaminating fresh.
- If you suffer from OCD, consider putting your entire suitcase in a large plastic bag and seal it at night – it might help you sleep better.
- Once you return home, wash down the outside of your suitcase and wash everything inside immediately – don’t let it sit around. Remember, it is the drying cycle that kills bugs and their eggs so give your clothes a good dose of heat when you are drying them.
We came back from our trip with no apparent hitchhikers but whether that was because of good management or good luck is unknown. Regardless, there
is now one more thing to keep any eye out for as we travel.
By the way, the bright red Samsonite suitcases we now use are not only bug resistant, but are REALLY easy to spot on the luggage carousel amongst all the black, soft-sided rollers out there!
While the Caribbean is one of the most popular cruise destinations in the world, a transit of the Panama Canal is still seen as rather "exotic". Several things make these itineraries seem more unusual than the regular "island hopping" cruises:
- a different beginning and end to the cruise. For full transits of the canal, ships can start in LA and end in Ft. Lauderdale (or the other way around), so passengers need to make two, one-way travel plans,
- the Panama cruise season does not go all year but is basically a mirror of Alaskan itineraries and runs from October to April with the Central American rainy season not ending until November/December,
- Panama transits tend to be 14+ day plus, making them more of a time commitment than the 7 day Caribbean cruise.
- because of length of the cruise and the cost of the canal transit, these are more expensive than a usual Caribbean cruise.
- the canal can only accommodate ships up to "Panamax" size, making ships like Coral Princess the largest ones that can transit the canal. This leaves the new mega ships unable to do the crossing at this time.
A Panama transit can seem more like an urban tour as the ports of Cartegena, Panama City and Acapulco are large cities and offer a different atmosphere than smaller ports in the Caribbean. Be assured, with stops in Huatulco, Aruba, or Cabo San Lucas, there are still plenty of beaches to explore. With cruise lines also including stops in Costa Rica or Nicaragua, passengers can also do a little jungle exploration.
The transit of the canal itself takes ships through three different sets of locks and Gatun Lake. This literally immerses you in the history of another time as two nations, France and the United States, designed and eventually completed what was the most ambitious engineering achievement of its day. If you approach the canal from the east, your ship will enter the first set of locks at dawn and will take until mid to late afternoon to clear the last locks on the west side of the canal.
Along the way you will see engineering activity maintaining the current canal and work on the addition of new, longer locks to allow larger ships through the canal system. Jungle crowds in on both side of the navigation channel and it is easy to see how difficult it would be to build anything in this area during the dry season let alone the rainy one.
If you have "done" the Caribbean and are interested in a different itinerary in this part of the world, consider a Panama Canal cruise - either into and out of Gatun Lake or a complete transit. The ports are varied and interesting and the transit itself is a true wonder.
Apply for a loyalty card for your pre/post cruise stay. Somtimes you can get in earlier or stay late.
Do you have any hotel tips to share? Comment here!
Hold a piece of fresh orange peel under your nose and breathe deeply. Repeat as necessary.
Add your own cure for motion sickness here
Millennium Off Icy Strait Point
I need to share a bias with you right off the bat. I don't like mega ships and I don't like ships that have crammed so many rock walls, ice skating rinks, shopping malls, surfing experiences and golf courses on to them that they would tire out those riddled with Attention Deficit Disorder. If I want to go to Disneyland I will go to Anaheim - or onto one of their cruise ships. I prefer a ship that feels like a ship. Sure, I like a ship that has its fair share of activities but I also like ones that let me find my own way to pass the time.
Now I know that if you are travelling with kids or if you require a thrill a minute, traditional ships may seem a bit quaint but for my money I still want the classic cruise experience. If you are like me, chances are you will really like Millie
, as she in known to her guests, because you're made to feel special from the moment you step on board with smiling staff eager to welcome you with a glass of champagne, orange juice or a mimosa. Millie is the first of the "Millennium Class" ships that Celebrity took delivery of in June 2000. She was given a refit in 2009 (new carpets and flat panel TVs were added) and in 2012 she will be "Solsticized" with major changes coming to the Oceanview Cafe & Grill and other parts of the ship to bring some of the popular features of the new "Solstice Class" ships to the "Millennium Class".
Once on board, the midship glass elevators will whisk you away to your stateroom where you can freshen up before heading to the welcome buffet in the topside Oceanview Cafe & Grill on Deck 10. After eating, most passengers do a little exploring and, while large, Millie always feels intimate and easy to find your way around. She sports a great deal of wood and brass which gives her the feeling of a ship and not a 300 foot long Las Vegas showroom. The Cosmos Lounge on Deck 11 is often one of the first discoveries that passengers make. Just above the bridge at the bow of the ship, this is the the largest disco/night club on board and during the day serves as a quiet spot to sit and watch the progress of the ship through the panoramic widows stretching the width of the ship.
Within hours as arriving on board your luggage will appear in your stateroom and you will have the task of finding places to store all that you have brought with you. Thankfully, Millie's staterooms are equipped with all manner of nooks, crannies, drawers, cupboards, hooks and closets to satisfy the pack horse in all of us.Lifeboat drill usually happens about half an hour before sail away and has changed over the years. Time was you had to wear your life jacket
to your assigned muster station (usually in the theatre, lounge or casino), listen to a presentation and then go out onto the open decks to be lined up under the lifeboat that you take you to safety should the need arise. Today, you still assemble at the appropriate muster station but you leave the life jackets in your room and you no longer have to assemble as if on the parade grounds underneath your assigned lifeboat. One of the most exciting events for passengers is the evening meal, taken usually in the Metropolitan Restaurant.
This two-storey temple to the gourmand offers early (6:00) and late (8:15) seatings as well as newly introduced "select seating" where passengers can show up at almost anytime for open seating (you don't get to pick your waiter or your table mates though). This new flexibility in the restaurant also marks the end of the evening bistro in the Oceanview Cafe & Grill. Instead there are several short buffet lines available for casual dining in the Cafe in the evening.
There is one specialty restaurant on board with a cover charge. The Olympic Restaurant,
often regarded as one of the best specialty restaurants afloat, will provide a meal (and service) that is a step above the wonderful treatment guests receive in the main Metropolitan Restaurant. There is a $35.00pp cover charge (additional tipping is suggested but not required) that is actually well worth the cost as food is prepared "a la minute" rather than ahead of time as in the main restaurant, and arrives in perfect unison by "Chef de Rangs", presenting each table guest with their food at precisely the same moment.
As you continue to explore the ship, you will discover the Cove Cafe overlooking the mid-ship atrium. The Cova Cafe serves morning pastries and premium coffee and drinks throughout the day, tapas during the day as well as late night snacks, and is a great place to sit and people watch or listen to live music in the evening. Not far away, near the photo shop, you will discover an intimate lounge called Michael's Club which resembles a 19th century gentleman's club complete with dark wood panelling and overstuffed leather chairs.
As on all modern cruise ships, there is a shopping area, this one called "The Emporium", where passengers can purchase items ranging in price from a few dollars to a few thousand. Once you have explored the shops on board you may want to drop by the Cyber Cafe which has a number of computers available for passengers to check their emails. There is also a separate computer lab where passengers can receive instruction on the use of popular software packages. Wifi on the ship is limited to several public areas including the centre atrium and surprisingly perhaps, the main dining room.
Entertainment includes many different musical groups playing in the various lounges throughout the ship as well as musical reviews and other entertainment in the three-level Celebrity Theater. Millennium also has a convention center which we have used for our photo seminars. This area is made up of a large conference room with theater style seating and smaller boardrooms with seating around conference tables.
Celebrity positions itself as a premium cruise line - a step above the mass market offerings of other companies and is able to deliver this "cut above" experience without a huge increase in the price of their cruises. Whether it is the efficiency of the tendering service to shore, the food, bar or coffee service throughout the ship or the offers from smiling staff to take you and your buffet tray to a table, you will be impressed by how well you are treated while on board. If you are interested in seeing more of Millie, take one of the virtual tours
offered on the Celebrity web site.You might also want to check out some other reviews on the web
Point Retreat with Buoy and Sea Lions
Alaska is a funny place. One day it can be so hot and sunny that you want to dive into your suitcase looking for your Hawaiian shirt and shorts. The next day you could be standing in front of a glacier in the pouring rain wondering why you left your parka at home. The secret, associated with most outdoor activities, is to dress in layers and have sympathy for your extremities as well. This flexibility is really important on an Alaskan cruise because bad weather is often good weather for photgraphers
Jan and I both take fleece vests or sweaters that zip up in the front and then a rainproof outer shell. This protects us in cold and wet conditions and allows us to wear the jacket or sweater separately should it not be as cold or wet. Remember, it may seem quite warm out on your balcony or on the promenade deck, but you may be in a protected area where you can't really gauge weather conditions. Out on a land or sea excursion you may find the weather more extreme than what you experienced on the ship.
Jan also brings along a pair of chenille gloves and a headband. Both are small enough to put into a pocket and deploy only if necessary. I have a pair of LowePro gloves
that are woven with little non-slip nubs on the fingers. These gloves are good for most of the conditions that Alaska can throw at you during the cruise season. I also take along a short-billed baseball cap (like the ones umpires wear) so that it doesn't interfere with my camera or lens. I used to wear a regular baseball cap backwards, but at my age it makes me look somewhat odd - like I can't dress myself in the morning odd.
The trick is to be flexible and expect the weather to change. If you are out on a tour in the early morning you will have to dress more warmly than if you go out in the afternoon. It will probably be cooler if you are heading into the wilderness or onto the water than if you are staying in town shopping. Jan and I went hiking into the rain forest on a particularly warm day. As soon as we passed into the shade of the forest canopy, the temperature dropped significantly and it was great to have those layers of clothing to rely on. Finally, please remember that if the words "flight" or "heli" are in your tour description, chances are you are going somewhere cool - and I mean that in both senses of the word!
Try the layered approach and remember, the cruise line will be happy to sell you clothing in the ship's stores if you have miscalculated on your wardrobe choices.
Breaching Whale Spotted From Balcony
I usually waffle a bit answering the question "inside or outside
" as this is a very personal choice. The whole ship is available to you regardless of the "class" of cabin you invest in, so it might not seem like an advantage to pony up for the extra cost of a balcony. Having said that, an Alaskan itinerary is one of those special trips where a balcony can be a real advantage.
Because the scenery is so magnificent and the ship is often close to shore, passengers on Alaskan itineraries tend to be out and about on their balconies for hours. Yes, you can get the same view from any of the open decks, but there are times in the morning, late evening or even as you get ready for dinner that you can take a moment to step out on your balcony for a quick peek at the landscape slipping by.
Whale, porpoise, seal or eagle spotting is a popular past time on board and it's great to be steps away for the chance to see these fascinating creatures. The picture to the left was taken in Glacier Bay, and from the balcony of our stateroom. It was pouring rain for most of the journey through Glacier Bay and we didn't want to stand on the open deck getting soaked. Instead, we ordered coffee and tea from room service and sipped our drinks beside the open balcony door. When anything interesting presented itself, we simply stepped out onto the balcony.
If you are careful and cruise to Alaska in the spring or fall, you should be able to get a balcony for the cost of an inside cabin during the summer. So, I shall not waffle. If you're thinking about cruising to Alaska, consider a balcony - you will not be disappointed!
Alaska Flowers in Juneau
With apologies to the two Johnny's - Horton and Cash - who sung "When It's Springtime in Alaska (It's Forty Below)
", it is NOT forty below at this time of year. And the Red Dog Saloon is in Juneau, not Fairbanks, boys!
Average temperatures in Juneau in May range from 40F overnight to 56F during the day. The record high in May is recorded at 80F. So, what does that mean for you if you're sailing to Alaska in spring? Just like summer and fall - dress in layers and be prepared for sunny and warm conditions as well as wet and cold conditions
. No matter how warm it is or when you travel in Alaska, there are places where you'll need that extra sweater or jacket. You will never be warm enough as you stand in front of Hubbard or Mendenhall Glaciers - there is just too much ice cooling the surrounding air! On other occasions you will find yourself out on deck on in port in shirtsleeves because the temperature has crept up so much.
The marine climate of South East Alaska means that the climate is quite temperate at this time of year. May is also one of the drier months of the year (August gets twice as much rain) so you are bound to have warming sun for part of your cruise.
What draws people to Alaska in the spring? The same thing that draws them out of their homes in the lower 48 - fresh spring air, wildflowers galore, bright sunshine glinting off of snow covered mountains, and Caribou rubbing the velvet off of the antlers (OK, maybe not in all places in the lower 48, but you get the idea).
This really is the only time of the year when the fields will be awash in colourful wildflowers set against pristine white mountains still capped by gleaming snow. The clear, fresh air seems to enhance the colours of spring. Going to Alaska in May means that you will get a second chance to experience spring as it does arrive a bit later up there.
Finally, for all this beautiful weather and scenery, the cruise lines will charge you only half of what a cabin may cost you in the height of summer! With less people travelling at this time of year, the cruise lines want to entice as many passengers as possible in the early season. If you can travel in the spring, you will be the beneficiary of significant savings!