planning

Cruising for the Clueless

After five years of working on-board a cruise ship, and another five months of working logistics for multiple cruise lines, I think I can finally pin point some of the most common mistakes or oversights people make when travelling by cruise ship.

Planning A Cruise

Why Cruise? – There are three reasons I can justify travel by cruise: 1) It’s a place that is only or more easily accessible by sea, 2) the ship is your destination (a city in its own right), or 3) it’s a place that you would be extremely nervous to travel alone, and you want to sample it before travelling there for real.  The latter reason could be interchanged with guided land tours as well though.

Where to cruise? – Using the above reasons, I recommend places that are groups of islands (such as the South Pacific, Japan or the Caribbean – though try to avoid the tourist trap islands and head a bit more south), remote areas like the Arctic and Antarctic, crossings of oceans or canals (like Panama and Suez), Mediterranean (which you could also drive, but cruising is pretty nice as well), Norway or Bermuda (a cruise is cheaper than a hotel there), or somewhere you’ve always wanted to go but are a bit scared to – I felt this way before I cruised to South East Asia.  If you only want to go once particular place, I recommend just flying there – there is always the chance that a ship will miss a port due to weather or other uncontrollable factors – don’t let it be yours!

Which cruise? – This is especially important if the ship is your destination.  Do you like big cities, medium suburbs, or tiny villages.  Do you want adventure sports, parties every night, or a relaxing spa-like atmosphere?  So many people book a cruise full of “old people” and are disappointed.  Do your research on various lines and ships for the amenities you desire.  CruiseCritic.com is a great resource for this.  For a bit more adventure, consider an expedition style cruise or cruising on a line where the main language is not your own!

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Going on A Cruise

Packing – The beauty of a cruise is you only have to unpack once!  Go crazy, pack that overweight suitcase.  But, please please please, pack a few items in your carry on.  With a cruise, you risk the chance of both the airline and  the cruise line misplacing your luggage.  At the very least, pack a change of underwear, you’ll thank me.  A few extra items that can be dressed up/down aren’t a bad idea either though.  Also remember, if you are going to a cold region, the ship will likely be warm and heated and if you are going to a warm region, the ship will likely be airconditioned to the max – bring layers either way!  Don’t assume the ship has everything – if you need a specific medication, or piece of equipment, bring it with you or at least write to the cruise line in advance and inquire about it.

Communication – It’s best to assume you will have none most of the time.  WiFi on ships is slow and expensive, and spotty at best depending where you sail and how satellites align (there are no cell towers in the middle of the Pacific Ocean or in Antarctica!) Before you leave, notify friends and family that you will be out of touch.  It’s also never a bad idea to print hard copies of your itinerary just in case you can’t get internet or lose your device entirely (trust me, I’m an expert in that).  Keep your cell phone in airplane mode while sailing.  Cell phone’s run on the ship’s satellite once you are 12 nautical miles from shore – when docked, you are using whatever local cellular network might be available.

Health – Book travel insurance!!!!  Even if you are going to somewhere mostly in America (i.e. Alaska) it can be VERY expensive to medivac you from the ship.  An ambulance costs around $600-900, an AIR ambulance costs thousands.  Book travel insurance.  If you have recurring health issues, consider booking an insurance plan that allows you to cancel if you become ill before the trip.  If you fall ill with the flu or a virus, please follow the instructions of the ship’s medical staff and isolate yourself.  You might not want to miss your vacation, but if you infect the rest of the ship, they can actually be denied docking in a port – meaning you’d ruin it for everyone.  My best preventative tips?  I use Emergen-C packets, one every morning, and hot beverages.  Drink lots of water as the ship air while dry you out, and WASH YOUR HANDS.  This Public Service Announcement is brought to you by the people who can’t believe how gross some people are.

So if I haven’t scared you entirely, and you’ve done your research on your destination and your cruise line, happy sailing!

 

 

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Experimental Travel

Have you ever heard of experimental travel?  It’s essentially a collection of ways to travel based on method over destination – many don’t even require you to leave your hometown!  A few years ago, Travel gurus Lonely Planet published a book on the subject.  It is now out of print, but remains a hot topic of travel conversation across the web.

Here are some of my favorite “travel experiments” (though I haven’t tried them all!)

ABC Travel – This blog’s namesake!  Pick a letter of the alphabet and go around town doing only things that start with that letter.  Good choices are ‘B’ or ‘M’.  Alternatively, you could go through the whole alphabet in one day/trip but doing things that start with the next letter of the alphabet.

Lucky Number – pick a number and use public transport based on that number.  For instance, take Bus or Train line number 5, get off at the 5th stop, walk to the 5th building and go in, etc.

Barman’s Knock – Look through TripAdvisor, a guidebook or the yellow pages for a nearby (or far away) bar.  Go in and order your usual drink.  Then, ask the bartender where their favorite place to drink is and what they typically order there.  Go there next and order the recommendation.  Repeat until inebriated.  If you are staying for a while in one city, you coud also do this with restaurants – giving yourself a local foodie’s perspective of the city (obviously spacing your meals at regular intervals still).

Travel by Night – Travel somewhere so that you arrive in the evening.  Spend the entire night exploring the city and then depart at daybreak.  Good cities for this include Las Vegas, Paris, and Buenos Aires.

Tourist at Home – Stay in a hostel or other shared accommodations in your own city. Make friends with other people staying there and go along with them to do whatever they want to do.  A great way to get a new perspective on your town!

Sector of the Map – Predetermine a sector of the map (ex. D2).  Travel to the edge of that sector and spend a day doing everything in that section of the map.  The next day you can pick a different sector if you want.

Travel by Chance – Use a die (a D-20 is useful for this) to decide where you go and what you do.  Roll first and use that number to pick a train or bus line or street number.  Roll again to determine which building to go into.  Roll again and order that item off the menu, etc.

Last Minute Deals – great for extended travel – travel only by last minute deals.  Specify a time period for travel, and the week before you leave, book a last minute flight/train/bus ticket to the cheapest destination.  Once there book last minute tours. When you’re tired of it, book a last minute deal to another destination.  And so on, until you have to go back to “the real world”.

These are just a few of my favorites that are pretty versatile.  For more ideas, check out some of the sites below:

 

 

A couple of years ago, I wrote this post on Budget Airlines around the world (and particularly for trans-Atlantic flying).

Now check out this updated list from Travel & Leisure: http://www.travelandleisure.com/flight-deals/cheap-airlines

I have flown on quite a few of them, and know people who have flown on others.

Learn to Love Layovers

Many people stress over trying to find a direct flight (and the cost of some of those direct flights).  I’m going to tell you why you shouldn’t.  Embrace layovers.

As you may be aware from my previous post on finding bargain airfare, most of my flying had previously been booked by my company – who would fly you the wrong way around the world to save $5.  I learned to use this to my advantage though.  They once flew me from Florida to Amsterdam to Hong Kong – but with my five hour layover in Amsterdam, I was able to take the train into the center and meet up with a friend for a canal tour.  When I got to Hong Kong, I also had less than a day before I was leaving again, but I managed to go out with some friends.  The second time I had less than 24 hours in Hong Kong, I used it to go to Disneyland and Victoria’s Peak.  My job working on cruise ships was often like a bunch of long layovers strung together – a few hours in this city, a few more in that one.  With the right mindset and a bit of research, you can use layovers like a bonus mini-holiday! And you don’t even have to pay for a hotel.

A few years ago, Iceland Air started a “stop over” campaign (stop overs being more than 24 hours between flights) – allowing you to spend time in their country before travelling on to Europe or North America.  Finland’s Finn Air announced something similar last year.  There’s an entire websites, such as layoverguides.com and sleepinginairports.net with guides on what to do with long layovers in airports.  Or you can download the Smart Layovers App.  Some airports, such as Korea’s Incheon-Seoul Airport offer layover specific city tours based on the length of your layover.  (Check out this blog for a list of cities offering FREE layover tours.) A new site called airwander.com actually lets you pick your flights based on where you can stop over and tells you how much extra it will cost – and in many cases it’s cheaper to stop over (hotel not included)!

The key to utilizing layovers (which are less than 24 hours) is to give yourself enough time to get into the city, do something, and get back through security before your ongoing flight.  This site will tell you some of the cities in the world with the closest airports (and this is a good one for Europe).  If you have time and energy, try planning for 8-12 hours layover, particularly during the day (then you can sleep on the flight!) Do your research in advance (so you don’t waste your precious layover hours!) Know the best option for getting to the city/attraction, and allow double time for getting back, plus time for security lines.  Also be sure to research visa restrictions for leaving the airport!

As I said before, I easily did this in Amsterdam, where the city centre is about a 15 minute train ride from the airport.  It’s a similar situation in Copenhagen, which if you fly Norwegian Air (again, see my previous post) you will likely find yourself with a few hours in Copenhagen.  In Hong Kong, it’s about 15 minutes by Taxi or 35 minutes by metro to HK Disneyland.  In San Diego, I managed to take a taxi from the airport to the renowned San Diego Zoo, where they even provided left luggage facilities, and enjoyed a lovey day at the zoo before flying on.  There is always something to do with a few extra hours – even if it’s just to go get a local lunch!

My rule of thumb is that you cannot check a place off if you never even left the airport (or cruise port for that matter!).  I know many of you are on strict time constraints, but consider a long layover on your next holiday – you’ll feel like you’ve seen so much more and it won’t have cost you anything extra!

Finding Frugal Flight Fares

My company pays for my flights when I travel for work, so it wasn’t until I started travelling in between my contracts that I realized how expensive those flights can be, especially when you have to be there on a specific day.  So I started shopping around for the cheapest flights I could find, and I was pleasantly surprised.

The two best things I did when trying to find my flights, were to (1) search around online for tips and tricks such as these (congratulations, you’ve already completed this step!) and (2) visit flight search sites like kayak.com and my new favorite – skyscanner.net.

Flight search engines will be your best friend when comparing rates.  Most people are aware of Expedia.com and Kayak.com.  My preferred site though is Skyscanner.net, they don’t advertise (just like kayak.com didn’t in the past) and therefore have even lower fares.  They also search even some of the budget airlines’ sites (read about those in my Budget Air Travel post).  I recommend checking all of these sites in your search.  It takes only a few minutes and can save you loads!

In addition to using these sites, here are some other best tips I’ve collected over the past year for finding the best possible deals on airfare.

Search and book your flights about six weeks out.

Many people think you need to book your flights months in advance for the best rates, this is not the case.  I don’t believe there is a magic number, but experts say that booking your travel six weeks before your departure is the ideal time (even my company books our flights 45 days in advance).  I would start looking 8-10 weeks in advance, this way you can have some time to shop around for a week or two without being under the wire.

Book on a Tuesday around 3:00pm EST.

Again, this is a tip I read that I’m not sure is entirely accurate.  The theory behind it is that jetBlue releases its reduced fares at this time, so the other airlines reduce their fares briefly to compete (what is known in the industry as the “jetBlue effect”).  I’m not sure this really matters if you are flying overseas, but booking on a Tuesday or Wednesday might still be ideal as most people are not worrying about their vacation plans in the middle of the work week so prices go up over the weekend when most people have time to sit and plan their holiday.

Sign up for free frequent-flyer programmes.

Sign up for frequent-flyer programmes from your favorite carrier (or better yet, the main carrier for where you want to go) – they send special rates to their members in their newsletters!  Plus, if you do book from them, you can collect miles to use towards free flights, upgrades, or in-flight services.  And it’s all free!  Additionally, you can sign-up for fare alerts from sites like Expedia or Tripadvisor.  Do this a few months before your travel and you can monitor the fare trends for yourself.

Use the airline’s official website.

Find the cheapest fares for your vacation on a search engine site, then search for those same flights on the airline’s official website.  Sometimes you can get a better deal if you know specifically which flight to look for! Better yet…

…Use Codeshare Partners.

Many airlines partner with other airlines.  For example: Delta / Air France / KLM or American Airlines / British Airways / Iberia Airlines.  You can sometimes book the exact same flight on he exact same plane for less through one of eh airline’s affiliates.  It’s worth a visit to their websites anyways.

Fly one-way.

Compare two one-way tickets versus the cost of a roundtrip (return) airfare.  Sometimes this is actually cheaper, especially if your travel involves multiple destinations.  Sometimes it might also be cheaper to fly to one airport in a city and from another.  For example: fly to New York JFK and home from Newark airport.  Or, fly to London Heathrow and from London-Gatwick.  It all depends on the airline.

Browse incognito.

Browse incognito when searching for airfare, or delete your web browser’s cookies before booking.  Some sites will up their prices each time you visit if they know you really want to go there (again, not sure if this is really true, but basic laws of supply and demand dictate that it is quite plausible).

BE FLEXIBLE!

Be flexible in your dates.

This is probably the biggest money-saver right here.

See when “shoulder season” is for your preferred destination.  This is usually a month in between peak travel seasons.  For example, to go to Iceland, it is recommended to travel in April or September, before the midnight-sun filled summer or the aurora-filled winter.  Many people like to visit Paris in the Spring-time (maybe because of the song?!)  Try going in the winter when it’s a little less crowded, you’ll find it easier to get into all of the major attractions too!  The same goes for Venice.  In the summer, the city fills with cruise ship tourists, causing it to be crowded and prices to go up.  If you’re looking for a romantic gondola ride for two – go in January.  The prices will be lower due to significantly less tourists, which means you will also have a bit more privacy and the canals won’t be heated to a rotten stench either!

If you have fixed dates you can travel, see which destinations are the cheapest to travel during those dates!  This way you can still take advantage of shoulder seasons.

Quite often the difference of a day or two can save you a couple hundred dollars.  Most sites now allow you to search flexible dates from anywhere between three-days around your ideal date to the entire month to finding the cheapest fare for the entire year!  If you have the flexibility in time, chances are you will be able to do a lot more with your money.

Avoid peak travel.

As you would expect, peak flights generally offer higher fares (again, basic supply-and-demand economics). Try and take flights at the quieter times such as mid-morning or early afternoon and avoid travelling on Monday mornings and Friday evenings (peak business travel) or Sunday afternoons and Bank Holidays (peak holiday travel) if you want the lowest fares.  I’ve found Thursdays to be a great time to fly, as well as Monday evenings, but it may depend on your itinerary.

Fly multiple airlines to/from a major hub city.

Not every airline can fly everywhere.  Most major airlines have a few major hub cities.  Pick a city in between your departure and destination city and look into flying different airlines direct routes between them.  Some of the easiest to fly to are Atlanta, Ft. Lauderdale, Orlando, New York, Los Angeles, and Houston in the United Sates and London, Paris, and Amsterdam in Europe.  Check out fares between some of these hubs and then add the price of a budget flight (i.e. jetBlue or easyJet) flight from your desired departure/destination city.  Check out my post on Budget Air Travel to learn about some lesser known budget airlines that may offer flights to your desired destination.  Or, if it’s close enough, you could even take a train or bus!

This might be especially useful if you are flying to some more off-the-beaten path destinations.  Be careful though, in doing this you may have to pay double baggage fees which could negate the money you saved on fares.

Go the “wrong way” around the world.

As I said before, my company usually books my flights.  And they book them through an automated system set to book the cheapest fare.  Therefore, I was not surprised when they had to fly me from Florida to Hong Kong that they flew me through Amsterdam.  Yep, rather than fly to Los Angeles and then to Hong Kong as most people travelling from the US to Asia would do, they flew me from Atlanta to Amsterdam to Hong Kong.  The best part?  It still took the same number of “days” to get there and I got a fee mini-vacation in Amsterdam during my layover.  This is a great way to visit multiple destinations for no extra money.  More of that in a later post.  If you have the time, look into flying through a hub city in the opposite direction you would normally travel, you might be pleasantly surprised.

Copenhagen Airport

International Budget Air Travel

The other night, my friend told me that she wanted to take her husband to Paris or London, but that it was just too expensive to fly there.  She is not alone in thinking this. Many Americans think that travelling to Europe is too expensive.  Even though many European countries offer accommodation for cheap, the flight alone might cost your entire budget.  That doesn’t have to be the case.

Most Americans are well aware of budget airlines like Southwest, Spirit Air, and jetBlue, but these operate mostly in North America.  Most Europeans are aware of budget airlines like easyJet and Ryanair, which operate in mostly in Europe.  What many people on both continents are unaware of, are budget airlines between the two.  I’ve had the fortune of flying a couple of them.

Norwegian Air – This was one of the first budget airlines to offer transatlantic flights.  They offer a la carte offerings (you pay extra to pick your seat, for a meal, and to check your luggage – and doing so online in advance can save you a ton on!)  I flew one way from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida to Amsterdam in August for about $480 (including the meal and 1 checked bag!)  Not bad.  The meals might not be worth the money, you could probably pick up something in the airport for cheaper and it will taste better.  Their planes are mostly brand new “Dreamliners” which give you plenty of headroom and natural lighting to minimize jet lag.  The seat backs are thinner, which allows for more leg room without being too uncomfortable.  And, bonus, they offer free Wi-Fi on all of their inter-European flights!  Don’t be fooled either, their main hub is actually Copenhagen, Denmark, not Norway.  They offer multiple flights a week from Ft. Lauderdale, Orlando, New York JKF, Los Angeles and Oakland, California flying to numerous destinations in Europe as well as connecting to Israel, Morocco, Thailand, Turkey and Dubai.  Use their “Low-fare Calendar” to find the best rates around your travel dates.  They’re biggest complaint is that they tend to get delayed quite frequently (my flight with them was actually delayed two hours, but I still arrived on time!)

Thomas Cook – This airline might be more well known to people in the British market.  They actually offer full vacation packages as well – mostly to places like Disney World or Las Vegas.  From the US, they fly to/from Orlando and Miami, Florida, New York’s JFK, and Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada.  They also fly to many Caribbean, European, and Turkish airports.  I booked a direct flight from Glasgow, Scotland to Orlando in September last year for 309£ or roughly $550 – again, including the meal and checked bag which you again had to pay separate (and again, it is cheaper to do so online).  Bonus – if you want to fly to/from Asia, South America, Canada, or South Africa – check out their Belgian sister site, thomascookairlines.be for more destinations!  Plus, the rates are in Euros, which at the time of this article gives better exchange to the USD than the Pound Sterling.  I recommend this airline if you are looking for cheaper direct flights. (Note:  Neither of these sites lets you pay in $USD, so you will likely be charged a foreign transaction fee by your bank if they do not allow for such things).

Condor – If you live in a less major city in the US (i.e. not New York, Miami, or Los Angeles), check out Condor Airlines, a German airline that is actually affiliated with Thomas Cook.  They fly to Thailand, Africa, and South America as well, but they have more US destinations than our previous two.  That being said, they also go up a bit in price – a ticket to London from Fort Lauderdale is still about $550 each way.  However, they make it easier to get from Europe to farther out places like Honolulu or Anchorage, Alaska.  If you live nearer some of these farther cities, perhaps it’s easier to see where the cheapest flights are to around your travel dates and plan your vacation from there!  Condor charters flights from other airlines, allowing them to give you more variety of destinations still at a low cost, however these flights will be operated by other carriers quite frequently, you can see which airlines operate your flight when you select an itinerary.

 

The above airlines all operate on an “a la carte” budget system – one where you pay extra for everything (isn’t that all airlines anymore though?!?).  To compete with them, a few of the more traditional airlines have lowered their transatlantic fares.

Aer Lingus – Many people don’t think to fly this Irish airline if they are not going to Ireland.  But chances are you can get really good deals to Europe, and especially the UK, simply by flying through Dublin.  One-way from Orlando to London starts at just over $300USD depending on your travel dates, and you can find return tickets for $800-900USD. You also get one free checked bag on trans-Atlantic flights (or three in Business class) – which can make their low-fares even more appealing.  Bonus – you might get a long layover in Dublin!  Guinness anyone?

Iceland Air – This airline is becoming more well-known nowadays, thanks to its clever marketing and getting its country to modify laws allowing people to spend a layover “holiday” in the country.  You can book a flight between North America and Europe with a layover in Reykjavik of just a few hours to multiple days at no extra cost!  It’s like two vacations in one!  Be careful though, you get two checked bags on trans-Atlantic flights, but within Europe you only get one, so if your layover is long, you might get slapped with an extra baggage fee.

 

I started this article when my friend said it was too expensive to go to London.  So I base all of my research on flights between Florida and London.  However, I also just had the pleasure of trying to find myself an affordable flight from Florida to Hong Kong.  And if you thought flying to Europe was expensive….!   Fortunately, I found a few airlines that make it affordable.

Air Canada – Believe it or not, they actually offer fantastic rates to Asia and often with very few connections.  Many of the Canadian hubs (Toronto and Vancouver) have large Asian populations, so it makes sense that they would want to fly home occasionally.  Take advantage of this!  Flights from Ft. Lauderdale to Hong Kong for under $1000USD round-trip/return!

As I mentioned above as well, budget airlines like Norwegian and Condor also fly to many destinations in Thailand – where you can find a beach holiday for dirt cheap.  They offer very few flights from the US though.  Norwegian has almost daily flights between New York JFK and Bangkok in the winter.

Many of the Asian airlines offer really cheap flights in Asia (I bet you can get a Malaysian flight for next to nothing!).  The only problem is, most of them don’t fly but from Los Angeles and San Francisco, if they fly to the US at all.  So what they have done is partnered with domestic budget airlines such as jetBlue and Virgin America to get you a cheap flight to these hubs.

EVA Air – This Taiwanese airline is part of the Star Alliance network (headed by United in the US).  They are apparently trying to take over the budget trans-Pacific market.  I booked a ticket from Ft. Lauderdale to Hong Kong for $675USD.  But, as I mentioned above, I fly jetBlue to Los Angeles first. Their flights all fly through Taipei, so you will likely have a few connections depending on your destination.   I have not yet made this flight, so I will have to update you how the service is, but it seems to have gotten good reviews.  Bonus – if you are travelling with children (or anyone who acts like one!) they have an entire Hello Kitty plane!

China Southern – This Chinese airline flies all over Asia, but again, you probably have to take a budget flight to a hub city in the US first.  The bonus?  China now allows for a 72-hour “transit holiday” without needing a visa!  You can enter a city for up to 72-hours with proof of a departing flight from the same city.  For more on that, visit the the Chinese Embassy’s website.  Another airline with “bonus” mini-vacations!

 

I hope this has given you an idea as to the alternatives out there for your flight needs!  Look out for my next post full of tips and tricks I’ve collected on finding the best air fares in general!

The Ultimate Travel Checklist

There are many different apps and sites and lists out there that help you track all of the places you’ve been.  But I’ve found that some are too basic (the US is a big country!  And Hawaii is very different than New York!) and some are too detailed (like if you pin every city you’ve been to in Italy, you can’t even see the boot anymore!)  Somewhere along the line, someone told me about the perfect list.

It is from Traveler’s Century Club (insert unsolicited promotion here!)

Their list includes every country, as well as geographically/culturally/politically different regions of those countries.  For example, the United States is listed, but Hawaii and Alaska are included separately.  All in all, there are between 350 and 400 countries/territories.  The best part is, after you’ve been to 100 of them, you can join their club, if you so choose.

You can view the most up to date list here (I prefer to view it by region, but they also have an alphabetical list).  I’ve included a handy checklist format here on my blog.  And you can compare your travels to mine right here!

For those of you who insist on having an app – I like the “Countries Been” app for Android and the “been” app for Apple.

ABC Travel

The post that started it all….

Life Happens

I love travelling, obviously, or I wouldn’t be in the industry that I am in.  I love travelling by sea, waking up in a new place every day.  But sometimes, you wake up in a place where you’d like to stay for a few more days.  And there are so many places that aren’t even accessible by sea.  The more places I visit, the more places I realize I want to visit.     [I think this must be some corollary to Socrates’ “The more I know, the more I realize I don’t know” theory.]

When I was younger, I wanted to be a travel agent for a while (of course, I also wanted to be a lawyer and a pop star).  As I got older, and with the advent of the internet and bargain travel sites like Expedia and Travelocity, I thought travel agents were becoming obsolete.  But I…

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