30 June 2013

Pros and Cons of Cruising from an indie traveler perspective

I just got back from a Baltic cruise. I don't have much experience with cruising. We are not the people that go a couple times a year. In fact, it's been twice in 25 years. The first time was a family outing and I did not make any decisions about it. I showed up when I was told to and it was Caribbean so quite different than this Baltic one. My impressions from that long ago cruise were few: everyone was seasick as we had bad seas, lots of different food I hadn't had before,  brief visits that were far too short to see an actual location, and expensive.

Normally we do independent travel. Plan our own tickets and hotels and go on our own, sometimes in the car and other times flying and pubic transport. Five years ago for example we the Amalfi coast of Italy. We stayed in four cities and used public transport to change cities every couple days.

This year was a special anniversary, so we wanted to do something out of the norm. We also had an exceedingly hectic six months prior to this opportunity to vacation, and really no time or maybe no energy to plan something. We found a last minute deal on the cruise, had a good tax return this year,  and decided to go for it. We needed to relax.

We had free room service available and took advantage of it by having breakfast in our room nearly every morning. It was relaxing and easy. Two mornings we had to be up and moving early we didn't do it and I found the group dining room to be crowded, hard to find a table, and hassle ridden. God bless the wait staff hustling but it was crazy. A much greater selection of food was available in the dining room however, than what was on the menu for room service though.

I also took advantage of room service when we were deciding to eat later by ordering cheese and crackers, or cookies. It was wonderful to eat a light snack and watch the sea go by while sipping a hot tea. It was chilly up there so I enjoyed the tea service a lot. This was one of the more relaxing aspects.

No thinking needed. The agenda is laid out for you on the cruise. What things there are to do at what times and what time you can get off the boat to see the city. This is a season of my life I needed to not have to figure out what was next and this made it more relaxing. Granted I didn't take very much advantage of their offerings and mostly relaxed with my book.

Unpacking once and sleeping the same place. I think that made the trip much more relaxing. I think if you are trying to see a wide scope of places in a short trip cruising is probably much less harried than say a bus trip where you change hotels each night.

We were advised by several experienced cruisers to get a balcony and this turned out to be very good advice. It was really nice to watch the ports come and go or to step out and watch the sun or check the weather. It made our room much more appealing, a good refuge.

If you are a nervous traveler, cruising is a good option. The food is there and you don't have to second guess much of anything. You can even sign up for shore excursions  and be hand carried to see the important sites. It can be a no brainer.

Variety and Service. Our boat seemed full of people from all over the world and in the evenings we chose to randomly eat with different people which was very interesting. We ate with people from Denmark, South Africa, Ireland, England, and even a couple from the USA. A lot of the boat was people from the U.S. actually and because of that or the cruise company policy customer service was more like I am accustomed to in the U.S. and that was pleasant.


Feeling herded like cattle. At the first embarkation I noticed it, we were in rows and rows of wrap around lines and lots of people were complaining. I mean we're essentially going to grown up Disneyland, so we should expect lines, right? Getting off the boat for the ports of call was definitely a herd feeling too. If you had an organized tour, you generally had a tight schedule to keep and for some that means fighting the other cattle to get ahead. The cruise people did a good job of efficiently unloading the boat but it was still 2,000 people to move.

We chose open seating for dinner and generally eat later so we never had to wait, but I noticed others waiting on occasion and wondered if you could run into the same crowded sensation with the food too if you weren't careful.

Expensive. All this hand carrying is not cheap. You get good value for your Euro or your Dollar but this was not our best value trip. Other than the buffet style restaurant and one other restaurant on board, the other eating places required a supplement between $10 per person all the way up to $89. We did not eat at the supplement locations and had good food throughout minus some soggy shrimp, but not as exotic as the first cruise I took. Perhaps though I am just a more seasoned traveler now. The food seemed heavy toward the American side but was generally good quality. The only beverages included were coffee, tea, and water. Soda, gourmet coffee, and cocktail drinkers beware. They would offer drinks at times that were like part of the show and after people took them the servers would come around and ask for your room card to charge you.

The excursions were, for me, shockingly expensive. I saw after the fact that you are paying quite a few people to help you handlers and tour guides, not to mention pre-planned private transport to very specific sites and entry tickets. So it has all been done for you - and that doesn't come cheap. We did two excursions and I will blog about those later.

Still under expensive: tips are not included and there are a ton of people waiting on you. They are doing a very good job and deserve to get paid properly and that involves tipping. The cruise company we went with charges you $130 per person for all the tips for everyone. This is after you get on and in addition to your cruise price. So it's all taken care of, but if you've never been before it might hit your budget if you didn't know.

Sales gimmicks. Everywhere you turned on the boat something was being sold or pushed. Paintings. Jewelery, Faberge Eggs, Russian nesting dolls, t-shirts from past and present cruises, photographs, photograph sittings, spa visits, drinks etc. I guess they must make some good money on all the extras or they wouldn't do it, but it felt a little shopping channel to me. Of course, you don't have to participate but it's always there.

We had a good time and for certain kinds of trips I would do a cruise again. The Norwegian fjords for example I think would be good to see from the water or anytime you are trying to get a lot of countries or a big country like China into a 10 day trip, a cruise would be an easier way to do that. You only dip your toe into the culture with say an 8 hour day trip to one city, but it's a nice taste and let's face it not all travelers are cut out for the deep immersion travel so this is a good way to visit on the lighter side with some hand carrying.

Viva la difference!

03 June 2013

Who said you can tell me what I want?

I was on the search for a new book. I remembered someone had recommended a website for books based on setting and wanted to find it again. I was on a different computer and I couldn't get it to come up.

Then I was on the train coming back from Madrid and in my usual way I'm always jealous of the people commuting who have reading material. I decided to search for my next book on my phone.

I did a search for books by location since I couldn't remember the name of the website and I found this very interesting library mystery list based on locations in the world. (Murder in Far Away Places.) Well, I got interrupted talking on the train, so I didn't finish my perusal of the list.

When I got home on the computer I decided to find that library website and finish looking, but when I did the exact same search, nothing like that came up. In fact the original website I'd seen months ago came up. It definitely is worth a look if you're trying to find a look by location. It has a mystery category but also has books in general by their setting. Books set in

What I find so interesting about this is that on different devices doing the exact same search on Google is resulting in different list. Drastically different. I knew that push marketing and algorithms were at work when I searched, but I always assumed they were somehow pushing the real things I was looking for. After this experience, I have lost faith in Google and push marketing in general. It must be working for them. For me, I know I've seen things that interested me in the side bar push marketing way, but rarely have I bought from there.

When a search has the top color bar of people who have paid to come up first, I avoid those sites unless I'm totally not finding my desires in the list that I assumed were more organic choices below. Now I'm not really sure about any of it.

The same search - a different device - and I couldn't get the same page to come up. Who made you Google or anyone else for that matter the keeper of what I really want or what I'm really looking for? I know in theory they are trying to help me find things faster, but it's disturbing.