Writing Updates!

Monday, May 30, 2016

If you have followed our blog for a while, you know we often cruise to the same ports. Favorite ports where Stu can indulge in his passion for scuba diving. Me? I'm supposed to write - or maybe read a little.

The past week of cruising has been spent marketing, posting promos for my latest book. I guess it's working, along with the efforts of my HOOT TROOP. My new novella in the Lei Crime Series Kindle World, Paradise Down, made it as high as number two on the Amazon Hot New Release list. It has settled into third place for now. The ranking in the Kindle World mystery grouping has been as low as #31 and as high as #9. Right now it's hanging in the upper teens and low twenties, so I guess it's still selling.

For those who haven't read it, I hope you will give it a try. The reviews are rolling in and so far the consensus is for more books in the series. That's a good thing and I plan on two more novellas in this series, sometime in the future. One will feature Nicky, Lu and Polo and the other will feature the Thompson twin sisters!

Today was laundry day, then I had lunch with several members of our favorite band here on the ship. You will see more when we finally get all our photos/videos together for a blog post next week. But if you have a chance to see #SixAppeal on a Carnival ship - DO IT!!! Great group...we've so enjoyed getting to know them and listen to their music.

Oh, writing. Sorry. LOL! Tomorrow I promise to get back to book three in my Klondike Mystery Series. I had hoped to get more written but will spend every spare moment in June, getting it done. Promise!

One last note, if you aren't following my author blog, I made an announcement there and I hope you will take a peek at my most recent post, A New Look.

Ciao for now!

What to expect on your cruise...

Friday, May 27, 2016

First a disclaimer, most of this post will be referring to our experience on Carnival Cruise Line ships. Each cruise line is different in many ways. Some are casual, others are very dressy. Some offer educational seminars, others offer 80's parties and kid games. Ask questions, talk to others who have cruised that line, research to get the best fit for what you are looking for.

Yesterday we posted a lot of basic information for first time cruisers. Most of it was applicable to any cruise line while some was more Carnival specific. Today our Q&A will speak more to Carnival since that is what we have cruised the most.

Again, please feel free to post questions in the comments below.

Is the amount I see advertised the full cruise cost (less the items mentioned in the first article)?

Yes and no. There are taxes and port fees added to the base cost of any cruise. Read carefully to be sure you are looking at the cost including those fees.

What about cruise insurance? Should I get it? What does it cover?

We always get cruise insurance for two reasons. One, you never know what life might toss your way to delay your trip. It's never fun to have a fully paid for trip, including plane tickets, and have a family emergency, someone get sick or weather/traffic other delays or lost luggage. Basic cruise insurance should cover these items (always read the fine print).

The other type of coverage is medical. If you fall ill on the ship, you will have to pay the cost for the medical care provided. There is a medical staff but they are also limited in what they can treat. For serious things you may be taken to a local port facility or even airlifted somewhere (and not necessarily the US). There are plans to help defray these costs. As full-time RVers, we have carried the Good Sam Travel Assist insurance. There are higher level plans from Skymed and MASA.

Because Stu belongs to Diver Alert Network, he carried some coverage for diver related issues through them. With all our cruises this year, we upgraded to their higher plan that covers everything for both of us.

What should I pack to wear?

This is a common question and it can be partially answered by checking the weather in your port destinations for the time of year you are traveling. Summer months in the Caribbean can be quite hot. Europe, not so much, in many areas.

For us, cruising on Carnival, we pack several pairs of shorts, one pair casual pants, one pair of dressy pants, two dressy tops, two long sleeve shirts and at least five short sleeve shirts in addition to nightwear, underwear and 1-2 bathing suits. For shoes we have a good pair of walking shoes, sandals or flip-flops for the pool and daily on-board use and one pair to go with our dressier outfit. We both carry a light jacket, sweater or sweatshirt (sometimes two, depending on time of year). Some areas of the ship can be quite cool.

I recently purchased a great dress that packs well and looks good on all body shapes and I also have a couple of very lightweight kimono type jackets as well as a black lightweight dress jacket to mix and match over my dressy tops.

Others love to dress up and will bring much more formal wear. Suits for the men (and yes, we have seen a tuxedo from time to time) and both short and long formal dresses for the ladies.

Will they take my picture?

Oh my, YES! First, anytime you want a photo taken, anyone of the staff members will take an informal shot for you. But there are professional photographers who take photos as you board, as you get off at ports, at dinner and every late afternoon (in front of fun backdrops). There is no requirement to buy the photos they take and there is also no requirement to let them take your photo. For a guideline, here is Carnival's photo pricing page. Every day the photos get added to the Pixels gallery photo boards. It is always fun to browse them, hoping to find your photo as well as see others.

What happens the first day on the ship?

Once you are on board and have checked out your cabin, most folks walk the ship or go to the buffets for lunch and maybe a dip in the pool. Just before leaving the port, there will be a MANDATORY safety briefing. Each cruise line differs. Some require you to bring the life jacket from your cabin, some don't. Some require you to line up outside on the decks, some in the theater areas and other places.

If you have ANY type of disability (I can't stand for long periods), talk to guest services to find if there is a designated meeting place that is better suited for you. There are often folks in wheelchairs, on scooter, using walkers and canes that might need assistance if lifeboats were needed. They MUST be sure guest services know they will need special assistance.

What kind of dining is offered?

There is typically one to several main dining rooms. We have moved from an assigned dining time to the 'Your Time Dining' plan. Both plans allow you to chose a table for just your group or a table with strangers. Both can be fun. You will be presented with the menu with the appetizers, main courses and side dishes. Ask questions. Special needs? Tell them! Special diet? Notify the cruise line in advance and they will do the best they can to meet your needs.

Did you know? Just ask!
  • You can order double entrees
  • You can order more than one appetizer
  • You can order off the kids menu (hamburger, PB&J, banana split are some of the items available on Carnival)
  • You can request smaller (or double) portions
Of course everyone talks about the buffets. One thing to note is they aren't open 24/7. Your daily guide will give you the hours for each eating spot. We tend to do both breakfast and lunch at the buffet but others choose to eat all meals in the main dining room. One note, the table you are assigned for dinner will not be the table for other meals.

Most ships will also offer one or more specialty restaurants. A steakhouse is fairly common, also Italian and other cuisines on some ships. Same for a hamburger shack, pizza spot, deli sandwich corner and more, especially in pool areas. Check the ship your are considering to see what is offered.

Then there is room service. Carnival offers several items at no charge, a few specialty items for an additional charge (like Buffalo Wings) and a continental breakfast. They do suggest you tip your server.

What if I don't like something I've been served?

Two choices, off hand. One is to get it replaced, corrected, etc. The other is to order something else. The waiters will go overboard hoping to keep you happy.

Is smoking allowed on the ship?

Yes, with exceptions. On Carnival, there are designated smoking areas in certain outside deck areas. There is also smoking allowed in the casino. Since I am allergic to smoke, I avoid the casino area as much as possible.

Note, there is NO SMOKING on the stateroom balconies! If you know someone on either side of you is smoking, please report them to guest services. A lit cigarette butt can start a fire when carelessly flicked away.

Is there more than one pool?

That varies by ship (and size). On the ships we have cruised recently, there is an open pool and an adult only pool as well as several hot (warm) tubs. Also, don't be surprised to find the pool filled with salt water. In addition, some pools may have a cover so they are usable even during bad weather.

On Carnival, you will have two blue beach towels in your room for use on excursions or the pool areas. Do not lose these or you will be charged! In the pool areas you can pick up towels, as well, but they are signed out to your room. Again, return them to the area where you got them and get them signed back in.

What else is on the ship?

There are typically night clubs, stages for various performances, multiple bars (often a sports bar with TV sports coverage), areas for kids, spa services (usually high dollar but daily specials might be offered), exercise facility, walking/jogging track, mini-golf & other game areas, possibly a water slide for the main pool, serenity/quiet deck area (adults only), library (games/books), movies, shopping and more.

Shopping? On the ship?

Oh yeah! And it all goes on your account, no cash or credit cards used. Some clothes, jewelry, watches, candy, sundry items (high priced snacks and toiletry/drug items) and, of course, lots of souvenirs. We've bought t-shirts, some jewelry, candy, mugs and a few other items. There are often daily sales announced as well.

What is available in the ports?

Shopping! Be careful, the cruise lines will steer you to shops for "bargains" in jewelry. We've never bought any in ports. You will find a lot of souvenir places, food & drinks, music as well as places to walk and sightsee. You may even see big name stores like Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville, Harley-Davison, PiraƱa Joe's and more.

Some ports will have free beach areas, some will have pay areas. Bigger ports will have many excursions that can be booked. Side note - we ALWAYS book our excursions through Carnival. Why? Two main reasons. If an excursion is late returning (for any reason), the ship will be held for you. If you are on an excursion you booked yourself and miss the boat - oops! It's up to you to get to the next port to pick up the ship. Here are some good tips!

The other is if you are hurt or injured in any while on an excursion booked through the cruise line, you pay nothing for any necessary medical care.

What happens when we get back home?

The cruise line goes out of their way to make sure you know what to do. Often the day before arrival in your home port, there will be session in one of the theaters describing the disembarkation process. That will also often be run on one of the television channels in your room.

The fastest ways to get off Carnival are:

  • Be a high level loyalty member (Diamond or Platinum)
  • Stayed in a suite level cabin
  • Purchased a 'Faster to the Fun' package
  • Have an early flight (never a good thing to have, you could easily miss it due to weather, customs, etc)
  • Carry ALL your luggage off with you

Once off the ship, you will pick up your luggage (waiting, just like you do at an airport), then go through customs to turn in your customs form (left in your room for you the night before). Then you head out and grab your shuttle or other transportation.

Any other tips?

Choose your time of year wisely, if you have the option. Christmas-New Year, Mid-February, Spring Break weeks and summer cruising will bring more kids and young folks who enjoy drinking. Hurricane season can bring it's own challenges. The shorter the cruise, the more of a drinking crowd will be found. Our favorite months are Oct, Nov, Jan for the warmer climate cruises. If going to Alaska, Europe and other destinations, other time periods work better.

A couple of key things - RELAX and don't be afraid to ask ANY staff member a question. Smile and chat with them, they love talking to you and telling you about where they live, their families, how long they've been working the cruises, etc. 

Try to not get annoyed at slamming cabin doors (some of the balcony doors have to be slammed to close securely), voices in the hallways, etc. This is their vacation, too. But if you have a major issue with something or someone, talk to guest services. Typically they will do what they can to help make this your best cruise ever!

Ciao for now!

So you think you'd like to take a cruise...

Thursday, May 26, 2016

While we aren't overly experienced cruisers like some of our friends who have been on multiple cruise lines to multiple locations, but we have done a fair amount of cruising this year. This has prompted some questions from folks who haven't cruised but think they might like to. So we thought we'd do a post with some of those questions. Feel free to ask us more in the comments below.

On your first cruise, did you go with friends, or just you and Stu? Do you think going with friends makes it easier, or does going by yourself just make it that much more part of the adventure?

 We usually cruise alone, but did one cruise with a couple of firefighter buddies (and their wives). Stu and his late wife did cruise to Hawaii with friends. The secret, for us, when cruising with friends or family is to set boundaries. You don't have to do everything together. We usually just meet for dinner unless an excursion happens to suit us all. The more flexible you are, the more fun it will be. Don't lock yourself into being together 24/7. Relax!

 How do you normally book your cruises... Thru a travel agent or do you do it yourself by watching for cruise deals?

 We don't use a travel agent, at least right now. If we had a good friend in the business or if our travel plans were complicated, we might. Most cruise lines will assign you a personal planner to help you, if needed. When we have had to cancel/reschedule a cruise, we have used them. But typically we book online or we book while on a cruise (where we can get on-board credit for that cruise).

Some folks only book discount or last minute cruises through a variety of outlets. We subscribe to several newsletters but have never booked that way.
 Did seeing nothing but sea bother you?

 If that is a concern, I would get an inside/interior cabin or one with just an ocean view. When you go to sites like Cruise Critic, you can see deck plans and often even what the room would look like. Spend your days at sea away from the edges of the boat. There is plenty to do without walking on the outer decks. That might help any fears that could crop up.

 Have you ever gotten sea sick?

 I got close once. We were in the Bering Sea, coming back from our Alaska inside passage trip. I had eaten a lot of fruit that date (think citric acid), the sea was rough and after I ate an appetizer of more fruit...oops! I went to my cabin, drank ginger ale and rested that night and the next day.

Stu seems to never be bothered by the boat movement. Last January the seas were a bit rough. I just stayed in the cabin, resting as needed and ordering room service. Love their grilled cheese sandwiches with chips!

We see many folks wearing the patches to fight seasickness. We don't but we do carry a small zipper bag with medical things we might need. Seasickness pills, anti-diarrhea pills, allergy/sinus pills, pain pills, aloe with lidocaine (great for both sunburn and bug bites), hydrocortisone cream, triple-antibiotic cream and both daytime and nightime cold meds. We put this together after we spent almost $40 for Stu to get some cold meds in the ship store, a necessity so he could scuba dive the next port. They are all small containers and now that we have it, we may never need it. LOL!

 What about vaccinations? Have you had to get any?

 The only vaccination we have had to get for our cruises was because we had been in South America recently. We had to get the Yellow Fever vaccination before going to Barbados. The best thing to do is talk to your primary care physician about the countries you plan to visit.

 Which is best - a passport card or a full passport? It confuses me to figure out which I need when.

 We have both. We always carry our passport card, even in the US. It's a great means of  providing valid identification.

Here is what the State Department says:
  • Passport Book. $110 Valid for all international travel.
  • Passport Card. $30 Valid only for return to the U.S. by land or sea from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and the Caribbean.
  • Passport Book & Card. $140 Apply for both documents at the same time.
Since we are cruising by sea with the US at both ends, we tend to carry both. Why? We can go ashore with just the card for ID. If something were to happen to us while on shore that would necessitate our flying home, the cruise line can get our passport(s) out of our stateroom safe (if our spouse wasn't available to do so).

And on your first cruise ever, did you feel a bit intimidated by 1) simply being on a humongous ship going out to sea, and 2) not knowing where anything was and the schedules? 

 The good news is every floor has a map of the ship with a YOU ARE HERE marker. It shows what is on each deck, where the elevators are (you will typically be in one of the elevator areas when looking at these), pretty much everything except the restrooms (we just ask a staff member). You also will often be handed a deck plan when you get your stateroom card. Carry that with you!

Speaking of stateroom cards, your cabin number will NOT be on it. That is for security reasons, so either mark it on your deck plan that you are carrying with you or better yet, memorize it. Yes, we have had to go to Guest Services and ask what our room number was when we forgot. LOL!

On both Princess and Carnival cruises, there is a daily flyer put in your room at bedtime turndown that outlines all the activities for the next day. This page shows a good example of what is in the Carnival Fun Times. You can also pick them up all over the ship during the day, just in case.

 Did you have any expenses shipboard in addition to the cruise cost? Did you do tips on board?

 First, tips. Most cruise lines have gone to pre-paid gratuities. Those will be added to your cruise cost right at the beginning of the cruise. This method allows them to pay a tip to the folks behind the scenes. Here is Carnival's schedule.

Often you may find that you would like to tip a little extra to staff that you feel have gone out of their way to help you during your vacation. For us it might be the head room steward, the head waiter and possibly a helper, the coffee bar waiter you saw the most or the server at your favorite bar.

Extra expenses not included when you initially pay for your cruise:
  • Tips
  • Alcoholic drinks
  • Soft drinks 
  • Specialty coffees
  • Spa treatments
  • Specialty restaurants (or steak dinners in the main dining room)
  • Excursions
  • Casino gambling
  • Buying anything in the shops
  • Internet access
  • Deposits for future cruises you book while on board (credit card is best)
  • Anything in the daily planner with a $ beside it

But the food in the main dining room, all the buffets, the lido/pool area and most of room service items are all included (although a small tip is recommended for room service). Coffee, tea, iced tea, lemonade and in the morning, juices, are free all day. Same for the self-serve ice cream that is open 24 hours.

All the extra items are added to your room charge (all done with your stateroom card - no cash needed until last day if you cash tip as mentioned above). You can view your statement at any time via the TV in your room, kiosks located in several areas or by going to guest services. Typically you put your charges on a credit card, some folks will use a debit card and other put down cash. Obviously, if you exceed your limit - bank account - cash deposit, you will need to find a way to pay your balance on the last day.

So on a normal 6 to 7 day cruise, how much do you estimate expenses, aside from the original cruise cost?

We aren't heavy drinkers, we rarely gamble (I never do), we book our excursions in advance (and thus pay in advance for them when we book them). We allow for tips for staff, tips for Stu's diving guides, a little for drinks (valid prices as of Nov 2015), some shopping both on the ship and at ports (varies by what you want to do - for us, I used to allow $100-150 for shopping, now it's more like $50 and I don't usually spend that), tips for porters on either end of the trip (both land and air) plus one steakhouse visit ($35 each). The spa is pricey and I rarely use it but I have started paying the $60 for internet for the week.

Of all your cruises, which do you think you most enjoyed? 

 That's hard to say since they are all different. Because we winter in Florida, it's very easy for us to cruise the Caribbean. It works out well because we've been to all the ports, some multiple times. Stu scuba dives and I write!

We enjoy our partial transit Panama Canal out of Ft Lauderdale a few years back, we'd still like to do the full transit at some point. Alaska was amazing and we'd like to do it again. We'd also like to do a Scandinavian cruise, possibly on Princess or Royal Caribbean. We are doing a seven day Royal Caribbean next February, we'll see how we like them.

What do you like about cruising? 

 That's easy. You don't have to do ANYTHING - no cooking, no cleaning, no bed making, no cleanup, no laundry, NOTHING has to be done unless you want to! 

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I hope this has answered a few questions, feel free to post more in the comments below and we will do our best to answer them. 

Ciao for now!

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