Sunday, October 18, 2009

Southwest Vacations - Traveling from a Travel Agent Perspective

Travel agents are notorious for making sure details are in order when booking a clients vacation. We cross all our t's and dot our i's so that our clients have no complaints when they come home. Seat assignments on flights are one thing this agent makes sure are carefully taken care of. So when this agent decided to travel on Southwest Airlines with clients - well, we found ourselves in a curious position.

The last time we flew Southwest several years ago, the airlines seating policy was "first come, first served". Since we are always early to the airport, this delighted us. Now, Southwest advises obtaining a boarding position number at least 24 hours before flying each way. They also allow some of their ticketing to pay $10 extra for early boarding. That doesn't work for everyone, though. In this agents opinion, this causes more problems than it solves.

First off, regardless of what type of ticket you purchase, this policy requires that you be at a computer 24 hours before flying to get online as soon as possible to get a boarding number. While that is fine if you are home the day before you leave, if you are on a cruise ship the day before you are supposed to fly home, this certainly isn't practical. Many cell phones don't work while at sea and it isn't cheap to sit at the cruise lines Internet Cafe trying to get online to obtain a boarding number.

Now while every airline asks you to do online check in, the timing is not that you must do it exactly 24 hous before - you can do it anytime that is convenient for YOU, because your seats are already assigned. Not true with Southwest - the later you try to obtain a boarding number, the worse position you are gong to find yourself in.

Second, Southwest only allows certain ticket fares to pay extra for a preferred boarding time. If you decide to take advantage of Southwests Vacations vacation packages and book a hotel and car rental along with your air, you are given paper tickets and cannot pay extra for preferred boarding. How is that when you are spending more money on Southwest than if you would just purchase a ticket alone? Because we purchased a vacation package, we ended up being penalized by not being able to pay extra for a preferred boarding time.

What happens if you don't have a boarding time and just show up at the airport? You get on the plane last and if you are traveling with family on a full flight, take a good chance you will all be seated separately. And mostly middle seats are left as well, so if you enjoy being squished in a middle seat, this policy may not bother you.

Our experience as agents traveling with a client now has use thinking twice about recommending a Southwest Vacation package for a client with this ridiculous boarding policy.

Here is our actual experience:

The day before we traveled, we were online 15 minutes before our 24 hour window to make sure we could get as early a time as possible. We kept submitting our info until the website allowed us to get in. The result? Positions B5 and B6 and B 10 and B11. At the airport, this found us with a choice of the last six aisles for seats together. Not a problem.

For the return, here we are at Paris casino in Vegas. Our choices, according to the check in desk for printing boarding passes were to either pay $14.95 for 24 hour access on our laptop in our room or to purchase time at one of the airport check in kiosks located throughout the hotel to print a boarding pass. We opted for the kiosk. And here is where the rubber met the road.

At the kiosk, we are required to prepay with a credit card at least $5.99 worth of time (plus an extra dollar to print the pass). As we watch our time ticking down, I input our information on the Southwest screens and kept getting a message that they are unable to access our flight. In the meantime, I am standing in between two women who are printing A boarding numbers on the same flight. When my time runs out without being able to get boarding positions, I call Southwests 800 number.

The SW clerk tells me I can't check in online because I have a paper ticket. I fully understand this I tell her, I just need a boarding position number. She tells me that they are having problems with their computers and to try later. I tell her if I try later I can guarantee I won't be sitting with my wife. She tells me 80% of passengers will be inthe same position. I tell her that I am standing in between two people who are printing boarding numbers on the same flight. She tells me this is impossible. This argument goes on for five minutes until I ask for a supervisor.

The supervisor gets on, tells me that because of the computer problem they will have to put me on hold and call the Las Vegas airport to see if they can give me a number.I am put on hold for five minutes and the supervisor then comes back and gives me boarding numbers B12 - B15 for us and our clients. I ask if the system is down, how is that I don't have B1 and B2? She can't answer that. I then tell her that we have spent $6.00 on the boarding kiosk and our clients spend $12 and we have nothing. She tells us that it is never necessary to use a kiosk, we can certainly call for boarding times.

Does Southwest give that information anywhere on their website? Absolutely not. Does that help us? Absolutely not, because we still need to stop what we are doing 24 hours before we fly to get a boarding number or risk being assigned to leftover seats. As a client is making sure you get hold of your airline 24 hours before you fly home practical when you are on a relaxing vacation?

It is a shame that SW has this ridiculous policy. They were a pleasure to fly - we left out of a small airport that didn't have the issues and delays that our regular airport, JFK does. The planes actually left on time for both flights and we arrived at our destinations early. The flight crew was delightful.

But having experienced their ridiculous seating policy, we will not only never fly them again, we will explain to our clients exactly how their seating policy works and encourage them to use another airline. Beware of using Southwest if you care about where you will be seated.

Gary Kelly - CEO - you need to come up with a better way to board. Why can't Southwest just do what every other airline does and allow you to choose seats when you book?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Country Inn & Suites - Newark Airport

I recently spent one night at the Country Inn & Suites near Newark Airport. The hotel is located at 100 Glimcher Realty Way. I was surprisingly pleased by this hotel!

There are many hotels in the area. I parked right in front of the hotel and upon checking in was given something to put in my car to show I was a guest. The check in clerk was very pleasant.

Right next to the check in desk is a small "store" that sold snacks, drinks, candy, sundries and microwavable food. There is also a room for continental breakfast (begins at 6 AM), an indoor pool and gym and a spot you can borrow books to read.

I took the elevator to my room which was a one bedroom suite and was very happy with the size. Upon walking in I found myself in the living room which had a cabinet with the t.v. in it, a couch and chair. Also in the room was a cabinet with a refrigerator, a microwave and coffee pot. Past that was the bathroom and shower, nicely sized and clean. There was a hair dryer in the bathroom.

There was also a desk with free internet access which worked perfectly. This is a big plus - I went from here with free internet to a five star resort in Mexico that had no internet access, which was a huge problem because I was working while on vacation.

Beyond that was the bedroom with a queen sized bed. There were the usual amenities of clock radio and ironing board.The bed was very comfortable and the room was very clean.

I checked out at 4 AM and checkout was a breeze.

The hotel is located very close to Newark Airport and offers Stay & Fly - you can leave your car (for a fee) at the hotel and be transported by van to and from the airport. The lot that the car are left in is fenced and I was told has a 24 hour guard.

The Jersey Gardens Mall is also right near the property and perfect for some shopping to kill time!

This hotel was an excellent value - I would not hesitate to stay here again. If I did, I'd leave my car here rather than parking at Avistar. The shuttle was very convenient.

See pictures here:

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

El Dorado Royale Spa Resort - Riviera Maya

We recently had the pleasure of spending four nights and five days at the El Dorado Royale Resort in Riviera Maya, Mexico. This resort is a 5 star All Inclusive Adult Only Spa resort with a Gourmet Inclusive theme. And gourmet inclusive it was! Our stay was just wonderful! Here are some observations and grades based on our A - F rating system.

Check in - A. Upon arrival, we were greeted in the lobby with cool cloths and a glass of champagne. We arrived at noon and our rooms were ready. Check in took 5 minutes with a very courteous staff. We were given a lock for our in room safe and room keys and we were ready to go.

The hotel resort is a very large property. It took 6 minutes to walk from the lobby to our room, but this was not a problem because there are trams that will take you all over the property that run about every 10 - 20 minutes. Since God only knows I need to lose weight, I tried to walk it as much as I could, even in the heat. Near each group of buildings is a tram stop. When walking out of the lobby in the back of the building, to the left are the Casita suites and to the right are the jr. jacuzzi suites. The resort is deceptively large.

Room: A After checking in, we took a tram to our room, a jr. jacuzzi in building 54.suite the back . Upon entering, immediately to the left is the bathroom. There is a double sink, a large marble shower and a separate toilet. The amenity package int he bathroom was great. There was shampoo, lotion, soap, a toothbrush, shoe shine kit, razor and shower cap. Additional amenities in the jacuzzi tub were shampoo, shower gel and a candle and matches.

Outside the bathroom is a desk and the bed. This room had a large super comfortable king size four poster bed. Across from the bed was a bureau that opened to reveal drawers, shelves, a t.v. and refrigerator.

There is a large closet with the safe in it,shelves and plenty of hanging space. On the other side of the bed is the jacuzzi, large enough for two people and placed so you can look out on the balcony. On the balcony were two chairs, a table and a hammock. My view overlooked the beach and the activity pool. There was also a table and two chairs inside the room to enjoy room service at.

The room and bath were spotless and were kept that way during my entire stay.

Food: A+ The food in this resort was outstanding. There are many restaurants, but not all were opened while I was there. All food is ordered off menus but there is a breakfast buffet area at Cocotels (later on that).

The food is artfully presented and everything was delicious. The restaurants do not accept reservations, it is first come, first served. I find that preferable to having to make reservations every day. There were no waits in any restaurants while I was there.

Cocotels: Cocotels is located in the main building . I ate breakfast here two days. You can order off a menu or choose buffet food (or both). I chose the buffet and was satisfied with the available choices.

La Isla - this is an open air restaurant by the main pool. We had lunch there our first day and they had great choices of fresh fish and meats. I had a surf and turf meal (all kabobs) that were very good.

D'Italia - a beautiful Italian restaurant in the main building. I did not eat here, but others staying at the resort said the food was excellent.

JoJo's - this is a beach side restaurant with seafood, beef and chicken dishes. I ate here twice ordering steak once and a pasta dish the second time and was not disappointed. Also very pretty to look at the beach as you are enjoying a meal.

Kampai: This is an Asian restaurant in the Casitas area. Believe it or not, we had breakfast here and who'd believe Asian inspired fare for breakfast was outstanding? I had coconut macadamia crusted pancakes that were out of this world. One of my friend enjoyed cream cheese stuffed French Toast with mango sauce and another had the most beautifully presented Eggs Benedict I've ever seen!

La Fuentes: this is a beautiful restaurant that gives a live culinary show. You order your meal and then can watch as a chef prepares it on huge screens inside the restaurant. Unfortunately, the restaurant wasn't open when we were at the resort but it is a unique concept and I would imagine quite popular.

Pizza Cabana: This is outside the main pool and you can order pizza and hamburgers.

Health Bar: In the Casitas area, there are fresh fruits, juices and healthy options.

It was also my understanding there was a Fondue bar beach side, but I didn't see this and am not certain it is still there.

There are 13 bars, including swim up bars and a Martini Bar (where we spent most nights). The bartenders were excellent at every bar we went to.

Entertainment and Activities: B+ The pool closest to my room was the Activity pool where games were played throughout the day. You will find a board that tells you what activities are going on during the day near the pool. There were the usual games, like water polo, kayak races, pool bingo and pool volleyball plus some other fun games during the day. There was a water aerobics class I took with the lovely Paola which is held at noon. There are also lots of bicycles you can use to ride around the property.

The evening entertainment did not seem to have too many people in attendance late at night. There is entertainment at Las Guayanas (near the second spa and gift shop on the way to the activity pool) nightly and usually by 10 PM there were just a handful of people left. The last night we were there they had a Casino Night, where they gave you $3,000 in play money to play Blackjack and Roulette and at the end of the night, you could bid on items to purchase. It was extremely hot and I played Roulette for about a half hour and gave my money to a table mate and went back to the room. It was a lot of fun though!

My only complaint about the resorts are about internet access. I brought my laptop as I had to keep in contact with several clients. There was no wireless access unless you were in a Casita. You could purchase minutes to use the computers in the internet cafe. Out of three computers, only two worked and there was always a line to use them. Many people were posting to their Facebook account ( plenty of free publicity for the resort!!) or were checking in for their flights the next day.

I spoke to a rep. from the hotels who stated that management's philosophy was that they wanted people to be able to relax on vacation so they didn't offer wireless in all the rooms. However, in this day and age, you need Internet access, if only to check e-mails and to check in for your flight to make sure you have a seat. I think El Dorado needs to rethink this and offer wireless in every room. It makes no sense that they have it in Casitas but not in other rooms.

Spa: A There are two spas on this resort, one spa with a gym near the Activities Pool and the new Casitas Spa, on the Casita side of the resort. The Casitas Spa is beautiful, with welcoming incense burning in the lobby and a hydrotherapy room. The hydrotherapy is free to those staying in the Casitas who purchase a spa treatment but is charged to those who are not in the Casitas. When purchasing a massage you are given the choice of having a man or woman doing the massage and having it in the spa or on the beach (at no extra charge).

I had a 50 minute back and neck massage on the beach that felt like luxurious pampering to me. What a relaxing way to spend an hour! The spa treatments were very reasonably priced, especially compared to what you would pay on a cruise ship!

Overall rating: A
This resort was just beautiful. It is about a half hour drive from the airport. The staff were always courteous (my thanks to the Customer Service gals who helped me in the Internet cafe with the non-working computer and password!) The resort was clean and well kept.

This is an adult only resort (they have a sister resort, Azul that accepts families with kids). They offer wedding ceremonies and vow renewals. There are over 600 rooms at this resort, but they also have smaller resorts in the area - the El Dorado Seaside, with 282 rooms and the intimate El Dorado Maroma, with 72 rooms and the most spectacular Presidential Villas of all three resorts. (They also have Hidden Beach, which is the only all inclusive luxury "au naturele" resort in the Mexican Caribbean). El Dorado has something for everyone depending on the size of the resort you are comfortable with.

Every guest at the resort we spoke to loved the resort. Not a single complaint was heard.
I highly recommend any of the El Dorado resorts ( we did visit each one and have pictures and video if you'd like to see them).

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Does last minute travel result in the best prices?

In the last two weeks,we've had several clients call and ask for last minute vacations at resorts in the Caribbean for the following week or two, assuming they will get great deals. Why? Because they heard about them on t.v.

Did they get great deals? Absolutely not. In fact, two of them ended up booking resorts in the Carolina's that they could drive to. While we had no trouble finding hotel rooms, last minute airfares made their vacation prohibitive. Of the few flights we found that had any seats left, pricing for air alone was between $1200 - $1500 for two tickets to Jamaica, Mexico or California. That was the budget each client has in mind for their entire vacation.

Meanwhile, a client that booked a vacation in Cancun in April for four nights at a four star All Inclusive paid $1185 for two people including air and transfers from Newark Airport. Why? Because she booked early. We booked our own four night vacation from Long Island to Las Vegas four months ago for the week of Sept. 28. Direct flights on Southwest from Islip and staying 4 nights at Paris with round trip transfers. The price? $993 for two people. (That is the regular price, not a travel agent rate - another fallacy is that travel agents always get discounted travel). That same vacation today is $1106.

We receive daily notices from suppliers of what they consider last minute travel that are actually three to four months down the road. In July, we received reduced cruise rates from several cruise lines for sailings in October. Here is an example of something we received today with
discounted prices:

Mexican Riviera
Sail roundtrip from Los Angeles for 7 days
Ports: Los Angeles, Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlán, Cabo San Lucas

Sep 26;
Oct 3, 10, 17, 24, 31;
Nov 7, 14, 21, 28;
Dec 5, 12
Prices begin at $399* $499* $649*

See the dates? Earliest date for sale prices is Sept. 26.

We checked a cruise from New York to Bermuda for seven days for next week for one last minute client. There were very few cabins left and an interior cabin was priced at $1779 per person. Had the client looked six months ago, that same cabin would have gone for about $800 per person from NY during the summer (the most expensive time to cruise anyway).

Don't believe all the last minute vacation hype you hear. Last minute in many cases means a month or two in advance. By waiting until a week or two before you would like to travel, you are dealing with planes that are nearly full since most airlines have reduced the number of flights to avoid flying planes that are not filled. Of the few seats you can find, the price is two to three times what you would have paid by booking the flights three to six months in advance.

Book early for the best prices. We always check pricing several times before you travel and if we find a better price from the supplier, we will always try and get that price for you. But these days, it is rare to see a price drop when you've booked early, with the exception of some cruises.

Buy travel insurance with cancel for any reason coverage. Several travel insurance companies have cancel for an reason insurance available you can purchase. If something happens with your job or the economy worsens, you can cancel your vacation and get your money back. It is definitely worth looking at that type of insurance if you are worried about the economy changing after you book your vacation. This type of insurance is more expensive that insurance that covers for illness, but for some it definitely is worth the extra money.

This past June, when the swine flu outbreak resulted in people who were booked in Mexican resorts to cancel their vacations or to rebook in other areas, those who had cancel for any reason insurance were able to rebook and not have to worry about penalties - the penalties were reimbursed by their travel insurance. Those who chose insurance that covered for illness only were not so lucky. Unless they were sick enough before their vacation to cancel their trip for covered reasons, they risked having to travel or lose their money.

To sum it up - book early and purchase travel insurance to protect your investment.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Sunset Jamaica Grand Resort - Ocho Rios

We recently went on a travel agent familiarization tour of Ocho Rios and Montego Bay given by the Jamaican Tourism Bureau. This four night tour was a great way for travel agents to see several hotels to make recommendations to clients.

Our first stay for two nights was at the Iberostar Rose Hall in Montego Bay. It was magnificent. Our second two nights were at the Sunset Jamaica Grand Resort in Ocho Rios. This towering resort has two bright yellow towers of rooms. The location is on the beach near the cruise ship pier. The surrounding area is not the most scenic – the houses right behind the resort were shacks and not very pretty to look at.

We arrived early in the afternoon to the open air lobby where chaos was ensuing as guests were checking out and in at the same time. First impression was this was a nice resort but not as luxurious as Iberostar or some of the other resorts we visited.

After a trade show at the hotel, we were given a tour of the grounds, which were lovely. There were two beaches, five pools plus hot tubs, beach activities, a six story water slide, several restaurants, a stage and a kids club. Our first impression seeing the grounds was that this was a great resort. Then we toured the inside of the resort.

We were then taken to see a room on the 11th floor, a suite. I was quite surprised to see not only that is was not very large, but that the bathroom had very low standards. Most resorts have upgraded sinks (many double sinks), nice soaking bathtubs, etc. Not here. The bathrooms were old and not in the best condition.

A tour of the spa left several agents surprised at the condition. In the room where manicures and pedicures were given, the ceiling had a lot of mold and water stains on it. The pedicure foot baths were filthy. The room also was sloppy - there wasn't a place for everything and everything in it's place. It was not even close to comparing to any of the other spa's we saw at other resorts.

After our tour, we were given keys to our assigned room - 916. Upon stepping out of the elevator, the smell of mildew was pervasive on the entire floor. The carpet in the hallway was dirty and worn.

Stepping into our room, the mildew smell got worse. (I sprayed my pillows nightly with perfume as that was the only way I could stand the mildew smell).The airconditioning vent in the room was so full of dust you could barely see into the vent. The bathroom and vestibule had dropped ceilings and some of the ceiling tiles in the bathroom looked like they would soon cave in. There was a vent in the bathroom that did not work. There was a single sink, tub and a toilet in the back of the room. The bathroom amenities consisted of a bottle of shampoo and conditioner and a bar of soap. The towels were gray (but were supposed to be white).

There was a safe in the room with no lock. In order to get a lock, you had to leave a $100 deposit that would be refunded upon check out. I thought this was outrageous -I ended up locking my valuables in my suitcase. We were also given a card for towels at the pool that had to be returned at check out or you would be charged $15 per towel.

We had two double beds with very old bedspreads and thin, aging blankets. There was a dirty carpet in between the two beds. The dresser had four mildew smelling drawers. The t.v. was not flat screen. There was a coffee maker that boiled water and you could use teabags or Sanka for coffee, but there was no milk or coffee mate for it. There was no refrigerator.

A table and chair held an empty ice bucket with hair in it. The floors were dirty – there was black hair throughout and it needed a good scraping to get the dirt off of it. At Iberostar, we had been given slippers and at the last minute I took mine and I was so thankful I did, as I did not walk on the floor or carpet with bare feet. We had a balcony overlooking the pools that was impossible to slide open. We could open it enough to go out sideways and then has to push it with all out body weight to close it.

We needed internet access in the room and were directed to the Business Office where we paid $5 for 60 minutes of access. They handed us a cable for the room and a code to access.The first cable they gave us did not have any ends on it, we had to bring it back and swap it. There is also wireless access in the lobby.

We ate at the buffet restaurant for breakfast and lunch and the food was adequate. Eggs were made to order and the chef was able to cook eggs for six people at a time. There was plenty of fruit for all meals. In the morning there was a juice machine, in the afternoon it was switched to soda. For breakfast, there was also a choice of French Toast, delicious cinnamon pancakes, some Caribbean meat and vegetables, sausage, bacon, pastries and cereal. For lunch, spaghetti in red sauce or cream sauce, salad fixings, hamburgers and French Fries, and more Caribbean dishes. Coffee was served by waitresses, but you had to wait until they had the time to get to you.

My only issue with this open air restaurant is that cheese was melting in the heat and there were bugs flying around, which were landing on the food.

The service was substandard in all areas. I waited on line for 15 minutes to ask to see the Sales Manager to ask if our room could be changed due to the moldy smell. The one staff member at the Guest Services Desk was tied up with one client and the others at check in couldn’t be bothered. They chatted among themselves and when I really pushed them, finally called the Managers office. The Manager never came out. I ended up leaving and when we came back for dinner, spoke to our Jamaica Tourism Board guide. He was unable to obtain another room for us as the hotel, so we had to live with the smell. As travel agents being trated like this, I would be horrified if I sent a client to this hotel that received the same treatment.

Service at the bars was very slow. Most of the bars had only one bartender (during very busy times, maybe two). It took quite awhile to get a drink and the drinks were very weak. Beer and wines were watered down and the red wines were downright terrible. They had a daily special drink which was okay the two days we were there. If you asked for a pina colada or strawberry daiquiri, you had to ask for rum to be added or you received a virgin drink. At the bar in the main lobby, I was ignored so long by a bartender that a very nice British man stepped in and got the bartenders attention so I could order a drink.

The light in our bathroom over the sink was out of service. We called twice requesting it be fixed to no avail - it was not fixed during our stay. It's very hard to take a shower and dry your hair in a dark bathroom.

Many staff just couldn’t be bothered to assist if you had a question. After staying at the Iberostar, the lack of service here really stood out. Another example of poor service – on the second day, we found a letter under our room door to someone named Patricia welcoming them to the resort and room 916 (our room) and hoping their stay went well. On Monday morning, the only day we had to relax and sleep late, our phone rang at 7:30 AM by someone from the front desk welcoming Patricia. I told the front desk clerk Patricia wasn’t in this room. She asked if I could bring the paper down to the lobby they had left in our room. I opted not to wait on a line where the staff didn’t care if you were standing right in front of them or not so Patricia could get the form in whatever room she had been assigned to. How difficult was it for the staff to look up Patricia on their data base to find what room she was in? And did they need to call at 7:30 AM?

The evening entertainment was also sub par. A Jamaican group sang on the outdoor stage the two nights we were there. While the girl singer had a fantastic voice, the songs seemed to be the same song played over and over. We tried the Nightclub – there were about 10 people there, with four of them dancing.

There was plenty of music and socializing going on at the pool during the day. There are also plenty of things to do in the Ocho Rios area, from Dunns River Falls to Dolphin Swims at Dolphins Cove. There is a Tour Desk where you can purchase optional excursions.

The one thing I can say was great at this hotel was our air conditioning. It was very cold – while other resorts limit how cold you can turn your thermostat to, not a problem here.

It seemed many of the guests staying at the hotel were British or Canadian. We were told that Europeans receive several weeks at a time off and that this low priced All Inclusive allows them to stay for two weeks at a time without breaking their budgets. The guests we spoke to were mostly repeat customers and indeed were staying there for more than a week. They seemed to be happy with the accomodations. And they did tell me that this was the best for their budget so they could go away for two weeks. We met some delightful guests that were happy to answer my probing questions

This hotel is not for all clients – if you are on a very limited budget, want plenty to do and don’t care about the conditions of your room or service isn’t important to you – you might like this resort. If you do care about these, I would suggest the Grand Palladium in Montego Bay or any Riu resorts-good priced options that are much nicer than this.

Last Minue Travel Deals - Yeah or Nea?

In the last two weeks, we've had several clients call for last minute vacations in the Caribbean. They wanted to travel within the next five to 10 days. The assumed they would get a great deal. Where did they hear this? On t.v.

Did they get great deals? Absolutely not. In fact, two of them ended up booking hotels for a few days (instead of a week) within driving distance. While we had no trouble finding hotels, last minute airfare made their vacation prohibitively expensive. All of these clients said they wanted to spend less than $1,500 for an entire weeks vacation. At this time, there were very few seats available on flights to either Mexico or the rest of the Caribbean and the prices for two seats alone ran from $1200 - $1600. The few rooms remaining were also higher priced than they were three or four months ago.

Meanwhile, a client who booked a four star all inclusive resort in Cancun back in April for 4 nights spent $1185 with air and transfers included. Another example - we booked our own Las Vegas vacation for September in March with round trip direct flights on Southwest, 4 nights at Paris and transfers for $993 - for two people. (This is the regular price that clients pay - another myth is that travel agents travel for free or low cost. We paid what a client pays.) Today that same exact trip is priced at $1106.

Last minute travel deals don't mean plan your travel the week before you plan to go. Travel agents receive last minute "deals" every day. What do suppliers consider last minute? Anywhere from one to six months in advance, not a week or two.

Cruises are frequently sending us cruise sales, but for several months in advance. For the clients I first mentioned, I also checked last minute cruise prices for them from New York. Of the few cabins left, the pricing started at $1700 per person for an inside cabin - which is what they could have spent in total for two people had they booked six months earlier.

When should you book early? If you are flying, you usually get better air prices early rather than late. If you are using frequent flyer miles, you should always book early. You will almost never get low priced airfare a week or two before you plan to leave.

If you are cruising and want a particular cabin, book early. If you want a suite for a land vacation, book early. If you must have a balcony - book early. There may not be suite or balconies left when you choose to book late. Many cruise lines also offer early saver rates - to receive those you must book early.

If you need to budget your money and pay a little at a time for your vacation - book early.

When is later booking an option? If your job doesn't allow you to book too early but you must be prepared for the trade offs. (Although there are more and more travel insurance companies that are offering cancel for any reason policies). One trade off is that you can't be particular where your room or ship cabin is located (some of the last minute cabins or rooms available are not the most desirable areas - the very front or back of the ship, or over a nightclub or dining room, or near the front desk in a hotel). You will be able to book what is left. And you must be able to pay in full for your vacation and may receive a surcharge to have your documents overnighted to you.

As a footnote, when you book early with Promal Vacations, we always check prices before your final payment and if we find a lower price you may be entitled to, we will work with the supplier to get that price for you.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

A Site Review of Beaches Turks/Caicos

We recently did a site visit to Beaches Resort in the Turks/Caicos. This is an all inclusive resort for families and what a wonderful place it was!

We arrived in Provo and were taken to the resort via mini-van. A Beaches rep. was on hand to greet us at the airport. Beaches is approximately 10 - 15 minutes from the airport. Upon pulling into the resort, you will be delivered to the "village" that your room is located in to check in- either the Caribbean Village (the oldest part of the resort but with magnificent ocean views), the French Village (beautiful garden views, no water view at all) or the newest village, the Italian Village.

Our room was in the French Village in a two room suite, rooms 1304 and 1305. 1304 was the bedroom and upon walking in, a bathroom with double sinks and full tub was on the left. One sink was outside the bathroom, another inside. A large closet with safe and luggage valet was also located here. In the bathroom was a wonderful supply of Red Lane Spa toiletries - shampoo conditioner, body lotion and aloe vera (for sunburn!). Not small sample sizes - actual 4 oz. bottle of each item, a real luxury!

Further into the room was a beautiful four poster king size Jamaican bed (on a platform, no boxspring). There were two nightstands with drawers, a huge flat screen t.v. on a dresser with six large drawers. Past the bed in a corner near the window was a gorgeous pull out bed so you can put two more people into this room.

In the adjoining room was a living room with two pullout couches and similar dresser amenities. Another flat screen t.v. and bathroom were in this room as well. You can fit three to four people on the pullout couches.

Outside our room was a wonderful zero entry pool (unheated but will be heated sometime in the near future), a huge hot tub and swim up bar.

There several restaurants in this area - Le Petite Chateau,serving French Food, Cafe de Paris, where we enjoyed wonderful pastries and specialty coffees, and Guiseppe's, an Italian Restaurant.

Walking from the French Village straight to the water, you will arrive at the Waterpark, which house Pirates Island, waterslides, and a surf simulator. There was also an outdoor stage area where shows happen almost every night. And rest assured, the outdoor shows are over by 9:45 PM. There is also Octopus, a swim up kids bar in this area.

For teens, there is also an XBOX 360 Game, a Scratch DJ Academy and Liquid, their very own nightclub.

Also in this area are three restaurants, Bobby D's, a 50's theme diner style restaurant (great chicken nuggets here!), the Sushi Bar and Kimonos Restaurant. (You need reservations for Kimonos).

The Red Lane Spa and Fitness Area is also a left hand turn from the French Resort. This spa has the normal spa amenities, such as massages, facials, wraps, etc. The air smelled wonderful!

Walking toward the water behind the Waterpark is the newly opened Italian Village. There is a huge pool that is lit beautifully at night (and is heated). The Italian Village features two and six story building featuring suites. There is a Octagonal Bar as you walk into the Village from the Italian Village check in area and of course a swim up bar at the pool.

Many restaurants are located in this area as well. There is an Italian Restaurant, a Pub (where we had a terrific dinner and was uncrowded) and Barefoot by the Sea, a seaside restaurant on the beach.

The the left of the Italian Village is the Caribbean Village, which was the first part of the resort. There are several buildings with many rooms here, from villas to . The kids play area is located here. There is a parade in the early evening that the kids can participate in.

Also in this area are several restaurants, Sapodillas, Arizonas, Reflections and Schooners. There are several pools, the Octupus Swim Up Bar and Turtles Lounge.

Beaches hosts wedding at the resort and there are several chapel areas on the beach which provide a lovely backdrop for pictures.

How about free scuba diving? Canoes and kayaks, windsurfing, sail boats and hobie cats, and hydrobikes. All included. On land you can find table tennis, croquet, lawn chess,beach volleyball and billiards.

For the kids, there is a staffed nursery, supervised activities (we were participants in a scavenger hunt) and Sesame Street characters. Our observation of the kids activities showed us kids having a wonderful time and excellent staff members.

Beaches allows no tipping and we found the service impeccable, from check in to dining and bar servers. The dress code is casual wear during the day and a bit dressier at night - we saw men in long pants and golf shirts at the fancier restaurants.

I would highly recommend Beaches for families and couples. Take a look at our photos:
Videos will be posted soon on our website!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Cruise Review - Celebrity Solstice - March 2009

Sailing with a Group on the Solstice

Embarkation: A+. We arrived via bus at the terminal at 12:15. By 12:45, all 44 passengers were checked in and on the ship. Embarkation is very well run with so many open windows that there were virtually no lines. Upon entrance to the ship, we were given a glass of champagne or a mimosa.

Ship: B+. This ship is a beauty. It is elegant with subdued tones and warm, rich colors. The public areas were for the most part laid out very well. We liked the fact that the Entertainment and Promenade Decks comprised of most of the entertainment and alternate dining venues. It was convenient having all on two decks.

The theater was lovely but there are quite a few seats that are obstructed by pillars. In addition, there were just not enough seats to accommodate all of the passengers who wanted to see the early show. Why cruise lines don't make enough seats in a theater to accommodate at least half of the passengers is beyond me. During the lifeboat drill we asked the Celebrity employees how many passengers the theater held and was told 1600 with the entire back area filled with people who were standing. While that would seem to be more than half of the passengers, the reality of several hundred people standing to watch a show is not viable.

The only complaint our group had with the ship layout was the fact that there are no aft elevators. It was a very long walk for passengers who had rooms toward the back of the ship.
The Lawn Club showed signs of wear. While this looks neat on the ship, it is really wasted space. While there were a few bocce, golf and croquet tournaments on the ship, when these activities were not taking place, we didn't note anyone partaking in these sports on their own. The space could better be utilized for additional seating for the Hot Glass Show or for lounge chairs, as the pool area loungers were always packed during sea days.

Cabins: A We had an inside cabin on deck 8 - 8188. The cabin was very spacious, on a par with some balcony cabins we've experienced on other lines. The bed was in the center of the room with plenty of room to walk around. Our luggage fit under the bed easily. There were two chairs in the cabin, a small table and a desk with two small nightstands. Our only issue was that there were not enough drawers - only 5 small drawers next to the desk. The closet was also small, but we surprisingly had enough room for our hanging clothes. But the lack of drawers required we put much of our clothing in the cabinet over the bed, which was a bit difficult to reach.
The bathroom was also spacious with glass doors in the shower and plenty of storage space. The sink was a bit inconvenient as water splashed on the vanity and floor when you washed. The bar in the shower for leg shaving was a great addition, but was a bit high for the older ladies to get their foot on. We did miss a clothes line in the shower for hanging wet bathing suits - it took two days for our suits to dry hanging on hooks.

We loved the flat screen tv. But we hated the lack of channels. Besides two CNN channels and two ESPN channels, there was little else to watch besides the many ship channels. Thank goodness there were Free Movies on Demand, as that was a life saver. The interactive features were a little tricky to use. We tried accessing the internet with the keyboard in the room but the mouse was impossible to work and we ended up using the Internet Café when we needed to check e-mail.

Food: B. We ate breakfast and lunch most days in the Oceanview Café. The buffet is set up very well, with stations holding various related items. The set up eliminated long lines at the entrance to the café. There were the usual lines for cooked to order eggs in the morning and hamburgers, steaks and hot dogs in the afternoon. The waffles were excellent, as was the veggie pizza. The ice cream selections change daily and were very good. There were Asian selections daily for lunch and standard pasta and many different salads.

What I found to be missing were sandwiches. There was a station that had cold cuts and tuna, etc. with bread where you can make your own sandwiches, but I have enjoyed having pannini's and small pre-made sandwiches on other ships at the buffet.

We did eat here one night and I was very disappointed. Most of the stations were closed and what was available was again pizza, pasta, pre-cooked steaks, salads. On other lines, the buffet at night mirrored what was being served in the dining rooms, but not here.

Grand Epernay Dining Room: We ate four nights in the main dining room. We were at table 135. Our group of 44 dined together at six tables and Celebrity did a great job of assigning the tables together.

Food reviews are very subjective. Having traveled on Celebrity when the Executive Chef was Michel Roux and having found the food at that time to be superb, we were disappointed in the food on this ship. That said, we didn't starve, but were simply not as pleased as we thought we would be with the food. The first night I had the lamb shank which was very good. I am also a great fan of the cold fruit soups and they were very good. But the rest of the nights, I found myself ordering the always available steak, as nothing struck me as particularly interesting. Now trust me - we didn't starve, but we didn't think that there was anything that stood out enough for me on the menus that sounded interesting. Even the desserts were so-so.

We ate one night at Silk Harvest. The food and service were very good. The sushi was excellent with some interesting choices. They brought plenty of dishes out and all were very good.
We also ate in the Bistro on Five and thought the food was very good here as well and again, great service. One of us had a crepe and one had a paninni and the server told us we could order several items if we wanted, but we just couldn't eat that much. We had a dessert crepe that was also very good.

We ate some of the free pastries at Café Bacio and they were good as was the gelato at the Gelateria. However, once we found the free ice cream in the buffet every day, we didn't feel the need to pay for gelato anymore.

Pools and Spa: A - Mid-ship found two pools, the Family pool and Sports pool as well as a wet zone that was never turned on along with four hot tubs. At the front was the Solstice pool with two hot tubs. On sea days as usual the chairs around the pool were always filled by chair hogs that leave their items and never sit on the chair. Just once I'd like to see a cruise line with the guts to tell Pool Attendants to remove items after an hour of no one sitting on the chair. We found we enjoyed the Solstice pool - it was slightly quieter since no one under 16 was permitted and it was inside away from the wind. They do keep the room a little too cold - many were bundled under towels because the air conditioning was too cold.

My wife made an appointment for a manicure at the salon on Thursday. Even though no one was having a manicure when she arrived she still had to sit and wait 10 minutes before being taken. The girl who did the manicure was very nice; she had a pleasant conversation and a decent manicure.

Entertainment: C+ This is one area that I, as well as many of the others in our group, felt Celebrity has really cut back on. Celebrity doesn't have Headline Acts anymore. The majority of nightly shows in the Main Theater were done by the production singers and dancers. Perhaps because we live near New York City and go to Broadway Shows all the time, I am a bit jaded about these production shows at sea. They were okay, but just okay. The singers were good, but not terrific. I got tired of seeing the same faces each night. On the night in St. Martin, there was no show at all, just a movie ( Iron Man which I had already seen in theaters last summer). I wholeheartedly recommend Solstice, the Show. It was very well done - not as good as an actual Cirque show, but considering that these are the same kids that do the production show, they did a fantastic job.

The first nights show featured Oceans Four, an acapella group that sang during the week at night in various areas on the ship. Their first song was barbershop quarter and I cringed, but then they did some Frank Valli and the 4 Seasons and others and were better. The Broadway style show on the second night was okay, but again - because I go to Broadway Shows all the time, I compare to that and probably shouldn't.

The night they had a featured xylophonist, we couldn't stay more than 10 minutes. The guy was good, but not good enough for a 45 minute show - it was interminable. If Celebrity is looking to satisfy the over 70 crowd - well, this is great entertainment. If they are looking for a younger [passenger - this isn't going to cut it.

The Cruise Director himself was also a bit subdued. He had a joke each night at the theater. But he was not one of those bouncy, overly enthusiastic guys who continually tells you to applaud, applaud, applaud. His staff was pretty good - the girls that were at the golf and bocce tournaments were good as was his assistants at the Newlywed show.

I will say that the Celebrity Orchestra was great. They played in the foyer a couple of times and were terrific. I could have listened to a whole show of them only - why didn't Celebrity think of that?

In room entertainment - I liked the music channels on the interactive TV., the free On Demand Movies (which I wish had a larger selection) but the regular TV. channels were awful. CNN didn't even show the weather temperatures from back home or any of the islands we went to. Cruise lines need a little more mainstream TV. Two of the passengers in our group caught norovirus and were stuck in their room for 24 and 48 hours and almost went insane from the awful TV. choices.

Service: I will break out service in three areas - room stewards, food service and Customer Service Desk.

Dining Service: B. The service in the Grand Epernay Dining room on the first two nights was chaotic. It got a bit better after night 4, when we spoke to the Maitre 'D. We were with a group of 44 people spread out over 6 tables with four different servers. Celebrity did a fantastic job of keeping the group together. We were in tables 123- 135 on deck three near a window.
Our table was 135 and our servers did not serve the other tables in our group.

Celebrity waiters tend to like to wait for their entire group of tables to be seated before taking orders. The first night, we sat for 15 minutes before our Head Waiter came over to take our orders. The other tables had already ordered. We ordered drinks from someone else, and then a woman came over to take another drink order. Why two people for drink orders? It took over 20 minutes to get our drinks (and this went on every night), until the Maitre 'D happened to be talking to us at our table and asked how the service was and we told him that we had already been waiting 15 minutes for our drink and still they hadn't come. Even HE couldn't find the guy who took our drink order. After that, we ordered from the woman server and our drinks were delivered in less than 10 minutes. If you wanted iced tea, even ANOTHER person had to take that order and we waited 15 minutes for that as well. The service was so nondescript in the dining room that I don't even remember the name of our Head Waiter. Throughout the cruise, the dining room service was slow, but did get better that last two nights of the cruise. It was not the quality of service we experienced previously on Celebrity.

I will say that the Maitre 'D was very good. We had some issues with birthdays and anniversaries that were supposed to have been delivered that didn't happen. I spoke to the Maitre 'D and he took care of making sure that these were celebrated.

We ate in Silk Harvest and Bistro on Five and the service in both of these restaurants were excellent. The quality of the service here is what brought my overall rating to a B.

Room Steward : B. Our room steward was good, not exceptional. I noticed on the first day that the bathroom floor was dirty - there was hair in the corners of the floor. The rest of the bathroom was fine, but the dirty floor was a turnoff. We had a bottle of champagne in our room, and he brought ice for the first two days, but we didn't open it and the ice never reappeared after the first two days.

What we did like was that the room steward was very unobtrusive - we rarely saw him and he did a decent job with the rest of the cleaning. I did have to ask him to bring us a dry cleaning bag - there was none in our room and we usually do use this service at least once on a cruise.

Customer Service Desk: D . Because we were leading a group, we did have to use the Customer Service Desk a few times for requests. The people at the desk were very unfriendly and condescending. I have never seen a group of people who seemed to not like the jobs they were doing. Every one of them tried to brush off my requests and it seemed that I was bothering them.

Two of our group went to the ship Dr. and were quarantined to their room for 24 and 48 hours. The ship Dr. told them they could have free room service, free pay per view movies, and free soda during the time they were quarantined. They were told differently by room service - only one free soda, they could not order what was being served in the dining rooms, etc. They called the Customer Service desk and were told that was the way it was. We tried to get answers for them and were brushed off as well. Once they got out of their quarantined status, they went to the CS desk too and were brusquely dismissed by the Customer Service person when they asked to have the auto tip removed so they could tip accordingly, since their room steward was the only one permitted in their room during the time they were quarantined. They became outraged and finally were permitted to speak to the head of Customer Service, who, when he sat down with them, told them that they WERE given incorrect information from room service the first people they spoke to in CS and that they should have been allowed to receive what was served in the dining rooms and they should have had soft drinks at no cost. They suffered unduly for 48 hours because of misinformation and the lack of assistance by Customer Service.

I will say service in other areas of the ship - the buffet, ice cream counters, etc. was very good.
We also had an event coordinator for our group who was outstanding; from the cocktail party we had to getting our group disembarked at the same time when they received varying disembarkation numbers. She was the one who did what Customer Service should have done.

Disembarkation: A+. We got up and ate breakfast in the dining room, then went back to out room and retrieved our carryon and headed to the Theater to our waiting area at 8:20. We were there merely 20 minutes when our number was called. We found our luggage immediately and headed to our bus for the transfer to the airport.

Overall rating: B++ We enjoyed the cruise very much and so did our group. We did like the ship and would recommend it. Their Customer Service Desk needs some improvement and they need to get their act together in the dining room and perhaps do a little better with Entertainment. But none of these were deal breakers or would prevent us from sailing on the Solstice again.

Cruise Review - Caribbean Princess - Sept. 2008

Wonderful Cruise to Canada/New England!

Embarkation: Ah, the joy of driving to the port! We began a wonderful sailing aboard the Caribbean Princess to Canada and New England on Sept. 28, 2008. We drove to the pier from Long Island and parked on the pier. We arrived at 12:40 PM. Parking for the week was $136. Parking is right next to the ship, a two minute walk. As Elite passengers, we checked in quickly and were on the ship by 12:55.

Cabin: We went to our cabin, a mini-suite on the Dolphin Deck, #D330. The cabin was good sized and clean. Our cabin steward was Rogelio. He was very pleasant but it was very difficult to understand his English. We requested a top sheet and foam mattress topper and he quickly brought them to us.

Being elite, we had a free mini-bar set up. We contacted room service once we arrived and asked them to swap the liquor in the mini-bar that we don't drink to wine and that was done by the time we returned from exploring the ship.

We left New York in a strange haze of fog after a morning of heavy rain. We sailed right into a fog bank that left us eerily thinking of Ghost Ship! Passengers had a wonderful time photographing the Statue of Liberty as the ship left port to the tunes of a pool side band.

Fellow Passengers: We quickly noticed that the majority of passengers on the ship were older. We are in our 50's and at times felt like youngsters. If there were 20 children on the ship, it was a lot. We always sail at this time of year, but I have never been on a ship that had so few children. The mix of passengers was delightful. We commented constantly that the crowd was quieter and we didn't hear any cussing by passengers during the entire cruise. I guess I must finally admit middle age has set in and we enjoyed the more relaxed crowd except for what we referred to at the Lobster Claw debacle at the Sailaway Seafood Buffet.

You would think that people never had eaten lobster before. People piled two and three dishes with lobster claws, resulting in the delicacy running out for latecomers. They weren't even that good - the lobster was cold and there were no nutcrackers to break them with. But that didn't stop this crowd! I felt sorry for the people who arrived a half hour after the buffet was opened -the lobster claws were gone.

Ship: The ship is in good condition. It was very clean and well kept. MUTS (Movies Under The Stars) was running and even though the weather was downright cold people were bundled under blankets happily watching movies. A few brave souls actually swam and were in the hot tubs during the cruise- my hats were off to them.

Food: As always, food is subjective. We found the buffet food was just that - mediocre buffet food. There was nothing I ate that I could say was outstanding, but I sure didn't starve.
Because it was a little cold for me, I wasn't really outside the ship that much and didn't go to the grill for any hamburgers, hot dogs or pizza.

We had Anytime Dining and usually ate in the Palm Dining room in the rear of the ship. We did not have reservations and never waited for a table. The latest we arrived for dinner was 6:15 (along with half the ship) and we were able to get a table for four every night except for the last night. That night, we shared a table with two wonderful ladies from Canada and had a delightful dinner together, again with no wait for a table. We had no standing reservations (which defeats the purpose of Anytime Dining in my opinion.)

Food in the dining room was better but again, not outstanding. There are a lot of seafood choices for dinner and I don't enjoy seafood. The cold fruit soups were satisfactory, not up to those on Celebrity. I ended up ordering the Always Available Steak most nights, because there was just nothing that really stood out for me. However, I didn't find a dessert I didn't like! We did not indulge in any of the alternative restaurants. We've done them on other Princess ships and didn't really feel the need to do them again.

We did go to breakfast and lunch several times in the dining room and found the food much better there than at the buffet, particularly for lunch.

Service: For the most part, we found the staff to be pleasant. I did find though that at the buffets, on the first two nights the staff weren't too quick at cleaning up dirty tables. Twice we had to ask waiters to clear tables so we could sit after they had walked by them several times. The buffet area certainly doesn't have enough tables to accommodate 3,000 passengers and they should have been more diligent about cleaning them quickly when people left. We also found service spotty in the mornings for breakfast for juice. Some waitstaff would quickly ask if we wanted juice or coffee, some days no one asked and we fended for ourselves. Never once did any of the waitstaff approach us for coffee refills - we went to the coffee stations and poured our own. Princess also requires staff to speak English only in passenger areas and we found in the buffet, many of the waitstaff spoke to each other in their own languages. In fact, several times the Buffet Supervisor would come around and break up the groups of waiters and as soon as he walked away, they would congregate again and stop speaking English.

We found the staff in Passenger=s Services to be polite but not as knowledgeable as other Princess ships We've been on. We asked questions a few times about the ports and were usually directed to the Princess Patters.

One thing that I don't like that I have found to occur on every Princess ship is that if you use the card in the cabin to order fruit or room service breakfast or the bag and slip to have laundry done, they do not return a new card or bag so you can order again. It happened again on this ship. When a passenger uses one of those, they should be replenished without having to ask again.

Entertainment: In all the cruises I've been on, I can recall one Cruise Director. Not on this ship. The Cruise Director, Dan Styne was outstanding. He was funnier than many of the Comedians on the ship and had a great relationship with his Assistant Cruise Director, Sam. I actually watched their daily morning show because the two of them were so funny together. Most of the Cruise Director staff were very pleasant.

We saw several of the shows in the Princess Theater and found them to be okay. Beware though - if you are going to the early show, get there at least 45 minutes early. Why Princess makes theaters that seat 800 people when there are over 3,000 passengers is beyond me. And particularly for this crowd, it was impossible to get seats if you arrived 15 minutes before the start of the early show. We felt the best production show was Piano Man.

The comedians we saw in Explorers ran the gamut from being very good to being so-so. We enjoyed James Michael and Gary Delena. Impressionist Jason Neistadt was okay, not our favorite though. We passed on his second show where he starred with Gary Delena specifically because we didn't care for him.

One curiosity to me is Bert Stratton. On this cruise, he had the biggest crowds at nights for his sing-a-longs in Crooners. I think this was the perfect crowd for him. We found his singing awful, but he could sure get these Seniors going. They LOVED him. Many passengers said that he was the only entertainment they went to for the entire cruise.

Ports: Newport: In Newport, we got off the ship, walked left of the ship about two blocks to the Visitors Bureau and bought tickets for the Hop on Hop Off Trolley for the day. The price was $5.00 for the entire day or $1.75 one way. There were also many tours sold there in which you can save money buying tickets there vs. from the cruise ship. We went to the Cliff Walk and walked most of it.

Boston : Again, we got off the ship, walked a block to the right, then made a left and walked out of the pier and up to the Westin Hotel, a 15 minute walk. We bought tickets inside the hotel for the Old Town Trolley Tour and toured Boston that way. Just beware - if you get there too early, the buses that stop there are packed with passengers who aren't getting off and we had to wait a half hour until the company sent a bus that wasn't filled. We listened to the tour operator complain that Princess should contract with them so this doesn't happen. If you took the bus later on when ship passengers were going back, there were enough getting off so there were plenty of seats. We had lunch at stop #7 near Trinity Church . We got off the bus and went to a great restaurant called Papa Razzi on Dartmouth St. They had $9.99 lunch specials and the food was fantastic.

Bar Harbour: We booked a whale watching trip through the ship. We went out in the afternoon (it was cold, bundle up if you do it) and saw about three whales. If you think you'll see tail flapping and diving like the pictures in the brochure - forget it. They looked like giant porpoises. All we saw were the backs and the back fin, but it was a fun. In the morning, we got off the ship and walked through the lovely town. You can buy tour tickets and get Ollies Trolley at the ship pier as well here if you don't want to purchase an excursion from the ship.

St. John : the only port I didn't care for. We were here on the only day of the cruise that it rained. We chose not to do anything off the ship, we spoke to one of the woman working in the parking lot at the pier who told us that we could do a bus tour of the city on a City Owned bus. We walked to the left on Water St. , about four blocks and there was a sign offering City Tours for $17 per person. The buss arrived at 9:45 AM, we got on, it went to a camp ground for more passengers (there were none) and we had a nice tour of the City. We stopped at an old theater that had been refurbished, at the City Market, and then on to the Reversing Falls , where we spent about a half hour. We then had a tour of the rest of St. John and were dropped off by a shopping mall within walking distance of the ship that we purchased a few souvenirs at.

Halifax : Loved this port. We purchased tickets for the Hop on Hop Off bus through the ship (it was $5.00 more on the ship than doing it ourselves) and toured the City. We spent a lot of time at the Maritime Museum and saw Titanic artifacts as well as artifacts from the great explosion in 1917. You can also walk off the ship and go to the right and walk the Boardwalk that goes into town - you can buy tickets for the HOHO or the Harbor Hopper in town as well.

Disembarkation: On Sunday, I woke up at 5 AM to the ship not moving and assumed we were in port already. A look out our balcony door revealed no such thing - we were anchored under the Verazanno Narrows Bridge . I then heard the air conditioning go off. One of us went upstairs to get coffee to bring down to the room. It was there we learned that the ship has no propulsion system and half of the ship had no electricity. And to top it, there was no hot coffee - now THAT is a disaster! We both got showered and dressed (luckily our cabin had electricity) and went back up to the buffet, which was half lit. By that time, servers were giving out coffee in coffee pots and people were eating.

The Captain made an announcement that they were having problems with the propulsion system and were working on the issue. He also announced passengers could stay in their cabin as long as they wanted rather than be inconvenienced waiting in the meeting rooms.
We finally shoved off at about 8:30 AM, and it took nearly an hour to get from the Verazanno to the pier, with assistance from tug boats, which actually pushed the ship sideways into the dock. Disembarkation began at about 10:30. Many people missed flights and had to change flights and incur large change fees from the airlines.

The staff made everyone as comfortable as possible, but I was very happy we had driven to the port. Our color was called at 12:15 (and there were only half way through the colors at that point). We found our luggage immediately, proceeded quickly through Customs and were on our way. The next cruise did go out, so they fixed the problem rather quickly if it was able to go out again.

It was a very enjoyable, relaxed cruise. I'd rate it a four out of five, taking one star away for the quality of the food. We highly recommend the ship and itinerary.

Cruise Review - Explorer of the Seas - Oct. 2007

Explorer of the Seas - Bermuda

I sailed on the Explorer of the Seas to Bermuda Oct. 21, 2007.This was a five night cruise to Bermuda. I must preface my review by saying I previously sailed the Freedom of the Seas and loved that ship. I found myself making comparisons between the ships.

EMBARKATION: We drove to the Cape Liberty port and embarkation was a breeze. We arrived at the pier building at 12:30 PM, dropped our luggage and continued past the terminal to the long term parking. Parking was $80 for a 5 night cruise, payable in cash or by Visa or Master Card.

We walked back to the terminal after parking and showed our i.d. and Seapass printout for access to the inside and given a bus number. We were in cabin 1343 and proceeded to the line for deck 10. We were immediately greeted by an agent, the check in process took five minutes. We were directed around the corner to have our picture taken for our Seapass card, took an embarkation photo and by the time we were finished, our bus number was called. We got on the bus and were on the ship within 15 minutes.

Since it was a little before 1:00 PM and too early to get to our room, we went to the Windjammer Cafe for lunch. It was fairly crowded and we shared a table with two others. Food was okay - nothing spectacular, but plenty of choices. I felt we had more choices on FOS than Explorer and the quality of food was a bit better as well. We then proceeded to our dining room to try and have our dinner changed from late to early seating. We were quickly accommodated and then proceeded to our room.

CABIN: We had inside cabin 1343 on deck. 10. It was a very short walk from the aft elevators and in a great location. The room was small, but there was plenty of storage space. The beds were pushed together, which left absolutely no room to get out of the side of the bed to use the bathroom. We found our cabin attendant (Amanda, who provided outstanding service throughout the cruise) and she moved the beds and also cleaned out the mini-bar in the fridge for us. With the beds moved apart, there was plenty of room to walk in between the beds. The carpets and couch were a bit worn in our cabin, but not filthy. The quilt on the bed when the beds were doubled had a few holes in it. With the beds split, the bedding was fine. no holes or worn spots. I was concerned about noise in our room because we were directly under the Windjammer. There was nothing to fear. The only noise we heard was on the second night at about 11 PM and sounded like something being dragged across the room. Other than that, it was very quiet.

We did notice during the cruise bags of cut up carpet in the hallways during the day. It seemed that some of the cabins were having their carpets replaced, but not ours.

FOOD & DINING SERVICE: We were assigned to Columbus Dining Room, table 524 early seating. We were not happy with the service by our head waiter. We and our table mates arrived promptly, yet our waiter did not take any orders until all three of his tables were seated. Then he was able to serve all three tables at the same time rather than one at a time, making service easier for him. That was a big issue, since neither of the other tables was ever on time. The first night, we sat without him taking our order for nearly a half hour. The second night, he had begun taking our order after we sat for 15 minutes when the next table came in . He stopped taking our order to put the napkins on the laps of the late guests.

Those at our table were very unhappy with this situation. We weren't served an appetizer until 40 minutes after we were seated. On the third night, the only show was at 7:45 and we knew we would not make the show if we ate in the dining room. We decided to eat in the Windjammer, but did go to the dining room to tell our waiter so he would not hold up the dinner for our table mates. The waiter was no where to be found, but we approached the Maitre D and told him of our situation.

He was very apologetic and asked us to please eat in the dining room and he would ensure we would be out in time to get to the show. We opted to not take a chance and the head waiter assured us he would take care of the problem. He did take care of it - our table mates told us later on that dinner was served promptly and they were out of the dining room in a little over an hour after sitting down. We did go back to the dining room after that and found that the service had improved and the waiter was no longer waiting for all three tables to start taking orders and serving.

The food was good, but not the best I've ever had. Steaks and filet mignon were outstanding and cooked to order. Some of the fish dishes were excellent but people did complain that the same fish (cod) served the first night was terrific, but terrible on the third night. I love the cold fruit soups and found all of them good. The desserts were not as tasty as the desserts on FOS. Lobster was on Wednesday night and very good. We had lunch in the dining room on Monday and I did enjoy that - I felt the food quality was much better than the Windjammer and should have eaten there more.

Food at the Windjammer was disappointing. The selection was not as big as was available on FOS, the food was over salted and some of it was bland. On many other ships, tablecloths are on the tables in the Cafe at dinner - not on this ship. There were also not as many sugar free desserts.

We did have breakfast in the dining room one morning and it was delightful. Food was cooked perfectly. We ate a few times in Cafe Promenade. Pizza was available, as were sandwiches and some desserts. I prefer the larger ships that have both Sorrento' s Pizza and Cafe Promenade. There were more food varieties and more tables. On sea days, it was hard to get a table.
We ate at Portofino's the last night Service was excellent, food was good.

THE SHIP: The ship is a smaller version of FOS. The ship was in good condition for a seven year old ship. Not a lot of signs of wear and tear. Missing are the H20 water park and the Flow Rider. The Solarium pool was very enjoyable. The other pools were a bit more crowded, but to my astonishment, it was never difficult to find a chair on sea days near either pool. Whether it was because it was cool out and not as many people used the pools, or if this cruise didn't have chair hogs, I don't know, but it was delightful to be able to find a seat after lunch.

The Promenade is lovely, but the shops are really a waste. I haven't been on a ship in which I saw so few people shopping. The high end jewelry store was pretty empty most of the time. The Logo shop had a lot of items, but very few kids sizes. The Liquor Shop was the busiest shop. Since many of the passengers had driven to the ship and didn't have the issue of getting liquor home on an airplane, I believe that drove a lot of business to that store.
There are a lot of places you can go to on the ship and not feel crowded. The 19th Hole on deck 14 was a great spot to watch the Rock Climbing and Basketball activities. There is also an inline skate park (that I didn't notice anyone using) and it also overlooks the mini-golf. The golf course could use new turf. The Crow's Nest, Dizzy's, Viking Crown Lounge, Cloud Nine and Sevens Hearts are on this deck.

We didn't use the gym or the spa but did walk the track every day. Get there early, that was the most popular spot on the ship by 9 AM.

ACTIVITIES & SHOWS: I didn't feel there were enough activities on this ship, particularly on sea days. There was the usual Bingo, Aerobics Classes, Trivia. However, many times the venues were so small and because there was not more activities going on, it was SRO. At a towel folding class in the Schooner bar, there were so many people you couldn't see what the staff was doing.
We missed the show the first night with comedian Rick Starr and magician Peter Gross but heard from people we asked the show was good and did get to see it on the t.v. in our room later on. We only saw one Production Show (Wild, Cool & Swingin')with the Singers and Dancers and it was awful. We left after 20 minutes. We weren't the only ones - everyone we spoke to that night and the next day did not like the show either. We heard better singers at Family Karaoke (seriously - I was sorry that was only one hour).

The third night, the featured singer was John Christie, who was very good. Reminded me very much of Peter Allen. We skipped the productions show the next night and the ship was rocking too hard for us to stay for the show the last night.

Do not miss the Ice Show or Quest. Our cruise director was Dave Chapman. He was pretty good but it was his last cruise on the ship. He is very quick and has a great sense of humor.

BERMUDA: If you love the beach, Bermuda is the place for you. Elbow or Horseshoe Beaches are must see's. If you are not a beach lover (like me), there is not a lot to do. This was my second time to Bermuda and I had already done the Botanical Gardens and Caves. While I usually like doing a catamaran excursion, I didn't bother this time because I was concerned it might be too cool to swim.This time, we opted to buy a one day bus pass on the ship.

The ship docked in King's Wharf. On a previous cruise, we docked in St. George and Hamilton. I prefer King's Wharf. There is not much to do in Hamilton besides expensive shopping. Souvenir shopping on the Wharf was much better. We got off the ship and walked to the high speed ferry to Hamilton. After walking around Hamilton a bit, we walked to the bus terminal and went to St. George to the Perfume Factory. While we were told we could get a tour, there were only two women in the shop and both were busy with customers, so a tour was out of the question (but I did get my Frangiapani perfume).

We took the bus back to Hamilton and decided instead of taking the ferry back to the Wharf, we would take the bus. What didn't appear to be too far on the map ended up being over an hour's ride by bus. Take my advice - use the ferry to go back.

On day two we decided to explore the Wharf and to my delight, I found a Snorkel Park that was not there when I last visited 5 year ago. It is located next to the Dolphin Swim. It is free to get in, you can rent a chair and umbrella for $10 each (or $25.00 for two chairs and two umbrellas) and enjoy a small beach right next to the pier. There is a restaurant and rentals of snorkel equipment and other items. It was wonderful and if I were to ever go back, I'd just spend my time there.

Disembarkation: We were out of our room and sitting at Bolero's by 7:20 AM. Disembarkation did not begin until 9:20. Apparently, it took longer than usual for the ship to be cleared. We had lavender tags and were the third group called off. After a slight back up on the stairs, we were off the ship within 15 minutes and lined up to get a bus. We waited for the second bus and were quickly inside the terminal. For the first time ever, I found my bags immediately - the bags were right where they were supposed to be, and even next to each other. It was a quick trip through Customs and we were in our car five minutes later.

This is a good family cruise - there were quite a few kids on the ship who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. Most of the passengers were from the tri-state area and I didn't see any boorish or poor behavior, with the exception of some people who felt the need to jump on the elevators in front of people waiting in wheelchairs. It was a real pleasure to be able to drive to a cruise instead of the stress of flying.

I did like the Freedom of the Seas a bit better than this ship, but for an older ship, she is in good shape and provides a nice experience. The quality of the production shows was not good, but the shows featuring other performers were good. For a five day getaway, this is a good choice.

Cruise Review - Crown Princess - Nov. 2006

Crown Princess - Southern Caribbean

Embarkation: We arrived at the San Juan port at 2:25 on Nov. 4. Embarkation was a disaster. The line was out of the building, out to the street. We were told that due to problems with Customs when the ship arrived in the morning, embarkation had not yet begun. People stood in the blazing sun with no cover over them. No water or drinks were provided. There was an empty soda machine. To top it, people that arrived via cab were dropped at the front and allowed to cut the line, until one passenger went to the Security Guards and complained. Then people who arrived were told to drop their luggage and go to the end of the line. Once we got into the pier building (which was not air conditioned and had no fans so it was also terribly hot) the process went smoother - we were lined up in rowed seating and rows were called in order to embark. You went to the deck you were assigned to and check in took 3 minutes if your had express check in. Then it was another 10 or so minutes to get through security. The entire process took 1 hour and 10 minutes. However, our disembarkation was quick, so I would think the problems on Nov. 4 were due to this being the first cruise out of San Juan and hopefully, it will not happen again.

Cabin: We had a balcony room on the Baja deck. We loved the cabin. The room was the largest of any ship we've been on. The balcony was comfortable for two chairs and a table. The bed was super comfortable - better than my bed at home. We had asked for a foam mattress topper, which we weren't given but didn't need at all. The bathroom was small as any cruise ship bathroom - I quickly learned to shave my legs before I got in, cause you can't do it while in there. The water was hot and plentiful and the water pressure was good. The room and bathroom were spotless. The t.v. channel changer didn't work so well - we had to bang it to put the t.v. on and it came back on a few times after we turned it off and there was no sleep timer. It took awhile to get the safe thing down - we found that if you closed it gently and didn't bang it closed, we had no problems closing it. Our room steward was Alfredo and he was terrific - he would get ice if we asked quickly and extra towels and brought us a top sheet quickly, as the duvet was too warm for us.

The ship: The ship is just beautiful. The ship is classy looking with beautiful wood, plenty of places to sit, and gorgeous marble tiling. We thought too many elevators were reserved for embarkation - if you didn't have a suitcase, you couldn't find an elevator to move around the ship. I was with my 75 and 77 year old parents, who just could not walk the stairs to see other areas of the ship. And I heard that some people had problems with the employees on the elevators being very impolite when they asked if they could take one of the reserved elevators, although I personally did not experience that. It seemed that some of the employees were stressed during embarkation. We did find a kind English girl who allowed my parents to get on one of the reserved elevators at about 5:30, saying that there were already 2700 people on board the ship and she didn't understand why they were still reserving so many elevators at that point.

We had ordered gifts to be delivered to all of our clients who were traveling with us. One couple who had their room upgraded never received theirs and it took three trips over three days to passenger services before it was rectified. We also asked for robes on our cruise personalizer for all clients - no one got them unless they asked for them during the cruise from the room steward. The couple who had their room moved also received a delivery of flowers to their room for someone named Tammy for her birthday. They called passenger services to report the error and no one ever came for them and they felt that passenger services didn't really care. They went down to the passenger services desk as well and then went to the table where the flower service was located to try and ensure Tammy got her flowers. Even the flower desk didn't know who Tammy was or where the flowers needed to be delivered. We do hope Tammy got the flowers that someone paid for.

Several of the people we traveled with asked about church services on Sunday. There were none. Passenger services told them that unless that had a volunteer on board who would hold the service, they had no religious services. These cruisers said this was the first cruise line that had no services onboard.

Entertainment- we felt the shows started out good and kind of went downhill as the cruise went on. We saw the Motown Review the first night and enjoyed it. We arrived at the theater at 8:00 and had no problem getting seats. The place didn't really start filling up until 8:15 or so. The next few nights, we went to the Explorers Lounge for the comedy shows. Get there early - we had a tougher time getting seats there than at the Princess theater. We found you needed to get there at least a half hour or more before the shows.

The first nights, we enjoyed the comedians - Tony Daro was excellent the second night and Rodney Johnson the third. After that, we felt the comedians went downhill. One night the comedian showed a boring 10 minute video or himself with various Hollywood celebrities before he even came on. On Friday night, we went to the half filled Princess Theater for the final show. That was the first time I saw the cruise director, Omar, in person (saw plenty of him each morning on the Princess channel in the room.)

The last night, the show was terrible. The house lights were left on when the comedian performed and as soon as the lights went out, half of the audience left - had the lights been extinguished, I am sure we would have seen the audience walk out during his show. We left when the lights went down as well and went to one of the lounges.

We enjoyed the singers in the bars and we really enjoyed the theatrics in the Piazza during the day and night. There was a great a capella group, a funny juggler, a funny Italian comedian, a piano player. Don't pass these up - if you are in the area, stop and see what is going on. On the last formal night, there were more people watching the entertainment in the Piazza than almost anywhere else. We made a Dance Heads video one day - the grandkids are still laughing about their Grandma in a cartoon bikini!

We did some dance lessons with Lisa, the Deputy Cruise Director who was always out on the ship - she was lovely.

We felt that the formal portrait process was set up in areas during formal night that really were inconvenient to passengers trying to get around the Piazza. They were set up in between some of the elevator banks and in front of the restaurants.

We had a few winners in the Casino in our group as well. On the third night of the cruise, two people sitting next to each other at two slot machines each won $250 within minutes of each other. Someone won at the slots on the second to last night and one player of Let It Ride won all his money back on the last night of the cruise.

Food - we found the food to be only okay. We polled over 40 passengers while on the ship - only a handful enjoyed the food, the rest thought it was only okay or poor. Many of those who cruised on Princess before said that the food is much better on other ships and that the food was the worst on the Crown that they have encountered.

On the first night, we ate at the buffet which featured shrimp, lobster claws and crab legs. It was fine. They did have excellent calamari!! The second night, we ate in the DaVinci dining room (as well at dinner Tuesday and Thursday). We arrived at 6:00 and there was no wait, we immediately were seated. The menus in the dining room are heavy on fish, which is a problem for people like me who just don't like fish. I had filet mignon and it was fine - it was a little well done - it seemed the filet was cut in half in order to cook it better and it looked like liver but tasted delicious. Two people had salmon and didn't care for it - they thought it tasted too fishy. I happen to love the cold fruit soups on cruises and ordered them each time we dined at the restaurants - they were okay, but very thin. Dessert was great and the appetizers were good.
When we ate there on Tuesday, there were three fish meals on the menu, which totally turned me off - I had the steak that is available at all times, which was good.

Some of the items that our fellow travelers mentioned they liked on the dining room menus were the Fettucini Alfredo, some of the soups, and the steaks. After that, we decided to try the Cafe Caribe buffets - more on that later. I did eat there again on the last formal night because my parents wanted lobster, which they enjoyed. I again had steak that night. We also had breakfast there, which was the only place you could get oatmeal! We did enjoy breakfast - the eggs were cooked as you asked and hot, the pancakes were fresher and you got real toast that you didn't have to wait 10 minutes for to go through the one toaster in the buffet.

The third night we ate in Sabatini's and the food was delicious. Our server was Joseph and he loved my Dad - kept calling him Mr. Calabria, as he was born in Italy. There was so much food, I skipped soup and just asked for a taste of the macaroni and ravioli, which were delicious. Two people at our table ordered the fish soup they had and did not enjoy it - they felt the soup tasted more like a fish sauce then a soup. The rest of the food was magnificent, especially dessert.

We had our lunches and the remainder of our dinners in either the Horizon Cafe or Cafe Caribe (For dinner). I enjoyed the pannini and specialty sandwiches for lunch, the salads and fruit. One day, there was an Asian theme to the food, which I also enjoyed. But the rest of the meals, the menu was heavy on Caribbean flavoring and food choices, which many people aren't crazy about. By the end of the cruise, the group of 14 we were with finally figured out that there was a real lack of American food - plain meat and potatoes. Someone longed for turkey and gravy and mashed potatoes - you could get turkey scollopini and coconut mashed potatoes. We felt the Caribbean menu just went too far and would have preferred more American food. I found the hamburgers and pizza at the grill more to my taste. Many people we asked felt the same way.

As many people have mentioned, the set up of the buffet is not the best. For instance, for breakfast, the single toaster that took a long time to toast a piece of bread was right in the middle of the hot food. It would have been better to put that on a back counter along with the ketchup, jellies and jams, etc. You had to go back in through people who were getting food to get to sauces, etc. On the last night, I saw that there was horseradish sauce at the entrance to the buffet, so I figured they must have beef somewhere and I was right - it was in the middle of the buffet. This was a slight inconvenience they should look to correct as it doesn't take a rocket scientist to arrange the food in a more efficient manner. The prime rib served was very good in the buffets.

Ports: First stop was Barbados. We did the 4 WD and Monkey Encounter. When we were ready to go, the last guy that got on our open truck told us he worked for the cruise ship (he was a deejay) and that Princess sends a ship employee on all excursions. That was a first for me on any cruise line and I think it was a good thing. The Monkey Encounter was awesome - monkeys ran right through and around your legs. It was a great encounter. There were other animals and the most tortoises I have ever seen. It was quite comical to see them lumber down the path in single file when the food was brought out. We then were taken on a tour to the East side of the island to see where the locals surf. Our driver took us to a high mountain top and drove partially down a dirt road. We asked her if she was taking us down what seemed like dirt on a cliff and she said she was indeed, this was the 4 WD part of the tour. I tried to tape it - all you can see as the truck went down the path is the camera being jostled and people screaming bloody murder. I really thought the truck was going to tip over, but we arrived safely on the other side. We spent a half hour on the beach (but were told not to go in the water) at a small souvenir table and small restaurant.

Next stop was St. Lucia. We took the Best of St. Lucia by Land and Sea excursion. We had a lovely catamaran cruise to the Pitons and a swim of about an hour. We were accosted by several Island residents on canoes trying to sell us souvenirs off the canoes which was annoying. They were pretty persistent. We then were taken to a bus to drive to the volcano. Unfortunately, the bus drops you off near the mud baths and they then tell you to walk down a steep hill to a souvenirs stand. This was impossible for several elderly and handicapped people on our tour, but the tour guide kindly got a bus to come and pick us up and take us down. We then went to a plantation for lunch and a tour of the plantation. Food was very spicy. In fact, we were offered what we were told was Creole Chicken and my Dad swore it wasn't really chicken. He found the cook later and she told us it was the native chickens on the islands, which taste and look slightly different than the fat chickens we are used to in the U.S. Then we got on the bus and took it back to the ship. That was a long drive and took nearly an hour to get back to the ship. I would recommend a catamAran cruise only on this island, but we spoke to others who did the cat cruise only and they felt they only got a short amount of time in the water.

Next stop was Antigua. Some of us were too tired to do any excursions and went into town for some shopping and then we went back to the ship. That was the first time I actually had time to go swimming on the ship.

Next stop was St. Maarten. Several of the guys did the Bubba Bottom fishing tour - almost all of them caught fish. I stayed on the ship to enjoy swimming again and when they came back, we took the ferry to Phillipsburg to shop. We found that of all the Islands, St. Maarten was the cheapest. Forget about St. Thomas - the shops were twice as much at they were in St. Maarten. Absolute vodka was $6.99 a bottle and a carton of cigarettes was $10 and change here. We don't smoke or drink, but you could not beat those prices anywhere on any of the other islands.

Last stop was St. Thomas. We took one of the open air taxi's at the dock into town in the a.m. I am not certain what the deal is with those - they would not take any money from us until we got outside the gates. They then stopped and collected $4.00 from each passenger. Make SURE you tell them you want to be let out near the P.O. - we spoke to people who were on the prior cruise and they didn't know to do that and were let off in a part of town that wasn't near the major shopping area. We stopped at a few stores and found the prices to be more than twice what we paid for items in St. Maarten. We took a regular cab back to the ship (make sure you tell the driver back to Crown Bay). In the afternoon, we did a ship excursion to St. John to swim at Trunk Bay. The beach was magnificent and the fish were plentiful. We had eight with us and we all felt that was our favorite excursion off the ship. We were also the last excursion back to the ship - the ship was waiting for us to leave. But it was the fastest we got an elevator coming back to the ship that day!

Several of our group of 14 took cabs at each port to various beaches rather than do excursions through the ship. Their excursions probably cost half of what ours were going through the ship. They asked cabs to pick them up at certain times from the beaches, and the drivers did it on all islands. They were able to rent chairs and canopies or umbrellas at each beach. They did have a problem trying to get to St. John though - the cab they took from the ship wouldn't take them to the dock for the ferry to St. Johns - it dropped them in town and they had to get another cab to the dock. They then missed a ferry and had to wait another hour for the next one. By the time they got to a beach in St. John, they didn't have a lot of time to spend. That time they said they wished they had done the St. John's excursion with us.

Disembrkation: Disembarkation was fine. We were red 4 and our color was called at 9:15. Finding your bags in the terminal was a problem - they just put the bags in color order, not numbers, so you do have to hunt through all of the color to find your bag, but this is not any different than any other ship we've been on. We took a porter (who also helped find bags) and he took the Customs Forms for us - all we had to do was show our i.d.

We took the Princess transfers to the airport. We were on a bus quickly, but had a bus driver was was very loud and continually beeped the horn trying to amuse us.Cabs ar plentiful and lined up in the road outside the pier if you'd prefer a cab.

I rated the cruise 7 out of a 10. I loved the ship, the ports and excursions. The food and entertainment wasn't a deal breaker for me, I would not hesitate to recommend Princess to others. In fact, we have another Princess cruise booked for March of 2008.