Banning Airbnb in Lawrence, Kansas???

Tomorrow evening, the City Commission of Lawrence, Kansas will discuss short term rentals in the city.  I have some very strong feelings about the subject and made sure I completed the survey the city sent out several months ago.  My perspective is not one of someone who owns a short term rental or who has any plans to have one in the future, but instead, is that of someone who has a great deal of experience using services such as Airbnb when traveling both throughout the United States, and internationally.


My husband and I have been customers of Airbnb since 2013 when our first experience with the service was renting an apartment with my parents in Barcelona, Spain.  The apartment was located one block from Sagrada Familia and, from the balcony of the apartment, we had a spectacular view of the cathedral from an angle few tourists would ever have the opportunity to experience.  None of us spoke Spanish, but we were able to communicate with our host (who spoke no English) easily through the Airbnb platform.  The apartment was across the street from a grocery store and in the same block as many local restaurants.  Because we were able to get such a great deal on the apartment through Airbnb, we spent significantly more just being “tourists” in a city we fell in love with.

Since our trip to Barcelona, back in 2013, we have been completely sold on the sharing economy idea of Airbnb.  We do not travel anywhere for pleasure without looking for an Airbnb property to stay in.  In fact, since 2013, the only time I have stayed in a hotel was when I was traveling for work, and we have even started to shift business travel lodging to Airbnb when possible, because it allows for collaboration between colleagues in an environment that isn’t full of the hustle and bustle of a hotel lobby.  We can sit around a dining room table and debrief all the things we learned at a conference, or we can work on presentations while sitting comfortably on a couch in the living room.  It’s really a fantastic way to travel with colleagues.

Vancouver, BC
London, UK
Washington, DCBoston, MAAustin, TX

My husband and I have stayed in Airbnb properties all across the US (Seattle, Downtown Kansas City (twice), Austin (twice), Denver, Washington, DC, the North Shore of Oahu, and Boston) and internationally in London (twice), Vancouver (in the same apartment on three separate trips), and Barcelona.  We feel like utilizing available short term rentals allows us to experience cities like locals do.  We eat at more neighborhood restaurants, shop at more locally-owned stores, spend more money, and really get to know each city we visit.  Because we’re able to experience the true nature of each city, we find ourselves much more connected to each place and much more likely to return for another trip.  Additionally, booking through services such as Airbnb has allowed us to stay in areas that are much closer to city centers and in much more popular areas for far less than we would have had to pay to stay in a hotel.  I can say, without a doubt, that we have been able to travel more and visit more destinations because we are booking with Airbnb rather than with a hotel.  Hotels in many of the destinations we have visited would have made the trip cost-prohibitive.

Lawrence is a city that’s primed to make people fall in love with it.  I’ve lived here my whole life and my love for this city is contagious.  Whenever I have friends coming into town, or even old high school friends coming home to visit for a holiday, I feel compelled to tell them about all of my favorite places in Lawrence and about all the new places that I’ve recently had the opportunity to love.  In my experience, Airbnb hosts are some of the very best ambassadors of the cities in which they have property.  They want the experience of their guests to be as positive as possible.  They want those guests to come back.  They want people to love place they call home as much as they do.

I understand the purpose of regulating short term rentals, but I’ve encouraged our City Commission to do it in a way that will not suffocate their existence in Lawrence.  By keeping them around, we’re encouraging people who love the sharing economy to add Lawrence to their list of desired destinations.  I’m certain people staying in these properties are spending more money in town than those who are staying at a hotel.  My husband and I are those people in other communities and we wouldn’t want it any other way.

 

 

 

 

How to Experience New Orleans Like a Local

One of the favorite parts of traveling for Josh and I is trying to experience every place we visit as if we were a local.  Because Josh lived about an hour outside the city prior to Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was one of the first cities I was able to ease into this travel style.

My definition of traveling like a local means avoiding the typical tourist traps (with a few exceptions – who isn’t going to stop at Cafe DuMonde when in the French Quarter???), eating at restaurants that are off the beaten path, enjoying the amenities cities provide for their citizens (parks, museums, etc.), and taking time to just explore.

After our first trip to New Orleans together, Josh and I compiled a list of recommendations for a friend who was planning her own trip.  I’ve saved that list and every time another friend is planning a trip, I make sure to offer it up, as my contribution to their trip planning.  We have friends who have come home and raved about our recommendations and one who lets me know every time she goes back to one of the restaurants we originally recommended when she visits the city.  

Below is our list of recommendations.  I hope they are as beneficial to you as they have been to some of our other friends.

(Photo Credit: Bacchanal Wine)

Bacchanal

600 Poland Avenue

Bacchanal is in the ‘super cool’ Bywater neighborhood.  It’s a wine store, but out back, they have a pop-up restaurant where you can enjoy live music while relaxing on patio furniture sipping your favorite cocktail or a local Abita beer.  When the weather is nice, it’s an experience that can’t be beat!  Bacchanal has been featured on Top Chef several times, as well as on the HBO show Treme.

(Source: Follow Me Foodie)

Cochon Restaurant

930 Tchoupitoulas Street

Cochon is a restaurant and butcher.  The butcher shop is next door to the restaurant, and provides all of the meat for the restaurant.  It was one of the best meals we’ve ever had in New Orleans.  It’s run by famous New Orleans Chef, Donald Link, who was one of the first chefs back in the city after Hurricane Katrina.  He’s been on Top Chef multiple times and his food is exceptional!

(Source: Mid-City Lanes Rock N Bowl via Facebook)

Rock N’ Bowl

3000 South Carrollton Avenue

If you like bowling and live music (or just live music), Rock N’ Bowl is a spot you shouldn’t miss.  It’s a really cool live music venue that happens to be housed in a bowling alley.  Many fantastic musicians have played at Rock N’ Bowl and it’s a favorite spot for locals to catch their favorite New Orleans bands.  

 

(Source: Willie Mae’s Scotch House)

Willie Mae’s Scotch House

2401 Saint Anne St

Willie Mae’s Scotch House serves the very BEST fried chicken in the country.  But plan accordingly. . . They’re open for lunch and serve until they run out.  You’ll want to get there early because they do sell out.  On one of our trips, we actually ate at Willie Mae’s twice because we thought it was so good.  The restaurant was wiped out by Katrina and the community came together to rebuild it.  

(Source: Napolean House)

Napolean House

500 Chartres Street

Have a Pimm’s Cup here if you get a chance.  It was invented here and Josh loves it.  Their muffaletta is also pretty phenomenal.  🙂  It’s in the French Quarter.

Your Favorites?

What are your favorite New Orleans spots?  Comment with your recommendations and I’ll be sure to add them to my list to check out the next time we’re there!

 

 

 

 

 

Getting Started as a Guest with Airbnb

My First Airbnb Experience

For someone from the Midwest, my experience with Airbnb started out pretty spectacularly. My parents, husband, and an extended family member were traveling to Barcelona to board a Mediterranean cruise and we needed a place to stay for a couple of days. We wanted someplace that was pretty close to the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus route so that we could do that one of the days we were there and close to the top tourist attraction in all of Spain, the Sagrada Familia Basilica.

I’d never used Airbnb or VRBO before, but was really intrigued by the concept of renting an apartment that all 5 of us could share and split the expense of, rather than three separate hotel rooms where we would each have to spend about $200 per night. I decided to take a look at the options that were available on Airbnb and see what we might be able to get. I centered the map on the Sagrada Familia and started my search.

The first property I fell in love with was located about a block from Sagrada Familia and it looked like I may have hit the jackpot right out of the gate. I plugged in the dates we were looking for and discovered that the apartment was available when we were going to be there. Horray!

I put in my request for the dates and waited for the host to respond. I was a little bit intimidated by the language barrier (in hindsight, taking Latin in high school probably wasn’t the most logical choice), but Airbnb includes a super easy translation option, so when the host responded, her message had already been translated from Spanish to English. The apartment was available and we were approved to go ahead with the booking.

I was thrilled to be able to try out Airbnb for the first time with such an amazing location and apartment. This was the view from the balcony off the living room of the apartment:



We ended up spending $404 for three nights in a three-bedroom apartment a block from Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. If we’d booked a hotel, it would have been closer to $1,800.

Now, don’t get me wrong. . . if you want to drop some serious money on a spectacular place, you can definitely do that on Airbnb, but that’s not typically the direction we go. When I’m searching for places on Airbnb, I’m typically looking for something that’s relatively inexpensive, but in a convenient location, and the amenities we can’t live without (AC if it’s going to be warm, an elevator if it’s higher than the 3rd floor – luggage for 14-day trips can be heavy, and the appropriate number of bedrooms/beds if we’re traveling with more than just the two of us).

Beginning a Search

So, where do you begin a search? I highly recommend doing an internet search for the best neighborhoods for tourists in whichever city you might be traveling to. The search is likely to give you some good ideas, so you can start narrowing down your options. In larger cities, this can be a pretty daunting task. I, myself, got pretty overwhelmed trying to figure out where to begin looking for a place to stay in Los Angeles after an upcoming cruise and gave up, booking a return flight the same day we get off the ship.

Once you’ve found a general area you want to search in, you can center your map and get started. Make sure you pay attention to the prices listed, as those are a nightly rate, and additional fees may be included once you get to the booking page. Just be vigilant about paying attention to the total cost and you’ll be fine.

If you’re going to a city with a great public transportation system, I recommend trying to find a place that’s close to a bus stop or a subway station. Being close to transportation opens the entire city up to you, and with apps like Citymapper, you’re just a few clicks away from being a public transportation pro and not looking like a lost tourist.

Referral Program

Airbnb has a great referral program for members. If you refer a friend, they get a $35 Airbnb credit, and if they make a booking, you get $35 in Airbnb credit. If they decide to become an Airbnb Host, you get a $75 Airbnb credit when they book their first guests. If you don’t have an Airbnb account yet and would like to sign up, get a $35 credit yourself, and do some exploring, I’d be honored if you’d use my referral link: www.airbnb.com/c/adavis350. We try to use Airbnb exclusively when we travel, so the credit will certainly be put to good use on a future trip.

Business Travelers

In the last year or so, Airbnb has set up a program for business travelers.  If you are traveling for business, the site will now indicate whether or not the property you’re looking at has standard business amenities (WiFi, laptop-friendly workspace, smoke & CO detector, essentials, iron, hangers, hairdryer, and shampoo).

In March 2016, I used Airbnb for business travel for the first time.  Three of my colleagues and myself were traveling to Austin, Texas to attend SXSWedu (the education conference associated with South by Southwest’s larger festival, later in the month).  The experience allowed for significantly more face time with my colleagues, as we could gather around a dining room table each night to talk about the sessions we’d attended rather than around a tiny table in a loud hotel lobby. We were able to cook with each other, collaborate on work projects, talk about the sessions we were interested in attending the following day, and really get to know each other. It made for a fantastic travel experience and 3 brand new close friendships.

Extra Income

Airbnb isn’t just for travelers looking for a place to stay. It can also be a great way to make some additional income if you have extra space in your home, or if you travel a lot and your home is in a home in a high-demand location. I’m not super-familiar with the ins and outs of hosting on Airbnb, but it’s certainly an option for someone looking to make some additional money.

Entire Place or Private Room?

One thing I never thought I would want to do with Airbnb is to select the “Private Room” option when searching for a property.  I had always been pretty adamant that it would be weird to share a home with a stranger.  That was until I discovered the most fabulous place we’ve ever stayed and the first Airbnb property that we have plans to stay in for a second time. . .

In 2014, Josh and I took a Pacific Northwest vacation which included an Alaska cruise.  Prior to heading to Vancouver, BC to get on the cruise ship, we stayed in an Airbnb in Seattle, took a day trip to Orcas Island, in the San Juan Islands, to visit a friend of mine from childhood, and spent a few days staying with one of Josh’s childhood best friends, in Victoria, BC.  From Victoria, we flew into Vancouver to stay for a few days prior to the cruise.

Vancouver isn’t an inexpensive city, so many of the properties were out of our price range or weren’t close enough to the center of the city for our liking, so, on a whim, I selected the “Private Room” option rather than “Entire Place”.  I’m so glad I did, because we discovered a room in the 27th floor Penthouse apartment of a building in the center of Downtown Vancouver, within walking distance to everything we could ever want to see.  The views (below) from this apartment were like nothing I’d ever experienced before.  The amount of outdoor living space was almost as much as indoor, with an outdoor living room, dining room, and balconies off of each bedroom.  It was a truly incredible place and the hosts and their dog were fantastic. It was such a wonderful experience that, when we knew we would be sailing from Vancouver on our October Pacific Coast Wine Country cruise this year, I reached out to the hosts to see if their room would be available for us to stay in again.  I can’t wait to be back on those balconies and in the heart of Vancouver.  It quickly became one of our favorite cities in the world.




What’s Wrong With a Hotel?

Short Answer: Nothing. . . It’s what’s right about an Airbnb property that makes all the difference.  Josh and I truly enjoy experiencing the places we travel to.  We want to get to know the city and feel like a local.  A big part of making that happen comes with staying in a neighborhood, with people who actually live in the city.  While you might not get to meet the neighbors, you still have the opportunity to interact with your hosts both before and during your stay.  The connection with the host can be one of the best parts of the trip.  Hosts are familiar with the area, can give dining tips, can help you get a SIM card for your phone if you’re traveling in a country that’s not your own, and a multitude of other benefits.  Having someone in the city who you can connect with for questions can be invaluable.

Many hotels are situated in areas surrounded by other hotels and not really within a part of the city that would allow you to really feel what it would be like to live there.  Being able to go to a grocery store, bring home local food, and to cook for yourself, in a kitchen filled with local staples is something you could never do in a hotel.

There’s also a benefit to being able to have space to be separated from your travel companions.  For Josh and I, staying in an Airbnb property can be essential.  Josh has a bit of an odd sleeping schedule.  He typically goes to bed around 8pm and wakes up between 3 and 4am (he says he gets his best work done before anyone else wakes up).  I tend to go to sleep sometime around 11pm and I get up around 7am for work, or between 8 and 9am on weekends.  This schedule doesn’t work very well in a hotel room.  An Airbnb property, on the other hand, could have a living room and separate bedroom, which makes our trip much more enjoyable, as we can keep our sleep schedules without disrupting one another.

Now, I have nothing against hotels.  When we’re visiting a city for only one day, we tend to book a hotel because it may just be easier to stay close to the airport if we have an early flight.  But, when we’re staying for more than one night, we prefer the diversity and immersion that an Airbnb property allows, compared to a very cookie-cutter hotel option.

 

Past Trips

We’ve stayed in Airbnb properties in Barcelona, Seattle, Vancouver, Kansas City (twice), Austin, London (twice), Denver, and Washington, DC.  We’ve had fantastic experiences with each and every property and I know that our experience was significantly elevated because we were staying in an Airbnb property rather than in a traditional hotel.

 

Upcoming Reservations

In the next year, we have reservations booked at Airbnb properties on the North Shore of Oahu, back at the 27th floor penthouse apartment in Vancouver, and I’ll be heading back to Austin with colleagues for SXSWedu and SXSW for two weeks in March.  We’ve still got a couple of locations we haven’t booked yet, but we’ll be booking properties in Hong Kong, Tokyo, and back in Vancouver very soon.

 

Wrap-Up

Whether you’re a world traveler or not, Airbnb can be a good way to get out there and explore the world around you.  Immersing yourself in local culture and activities is one of the best ways to really experience a location and Airbnb is a fantastic way to make that happen.  Once you start using Airbnb, it’s unlikely that you’ll want to go back to a traditional hotel for your travels.  We certainly don’t plan to!
Some photos from some of our Airbnb stays:

 

So, you’re interested in booking your first cruise. . .

So, you're interested in booking your first cruise
I get asked quite frequently about my recommendations for first-time cruisers.  Having taken my first cruise in 2004 and having been an avid cruiser ever since, I like to think of myself as a good resource for people looking to plan their own cruising adventures.  I was able to convert my husband (who was staunchly opposed to cruising as a form of travel because he didn’t like the idea of being “stuck on a boat with nothing to do” for any length of time) into someone who sings the praises of cruising to everyone who asks.

Booking your first cruise can be incredibly overwhelming.  There are SO many options.  You have to choose a cruise line, a destination, a cabin, a dining time. . . the list keeps going.  There is so much to know and so many decisions to be made.  Below, I’ll try to help with some recommendations, from my 13 years of cruising experience.

Q: Which cruise line/ship should I choose?

This answer will depend on a few factors:

  • Do you want lots of activities to do on-board while the ship is at sea?

Most modern cruise lines have great activities on-board to keep guests entertained while they’re at sea, but some have more numerous options than others.  For example, some of Royal Caribbean’s largest ships have a carousel and aqua-theater on their ships.  Some of the larger Norwegian ships have Broadway musicals and Cirque du Soleil-style dinner theater entertainment on-board.  Disney’s ships are designed with Disney’s entertainment principles in mind.  You can see Disney elements in every aspect of the Disney cruise experience, from the design of the ship to the menus in the dining rooms.

  • Do you want lots of options for different dining venues?

Norwegian is known for their vast selection of options when it comes to dining on their ships.  Some of the larger ships have up to 23 or 24 dining venues on the ship.  These include the main dining rooms, but also venues like a Teppanyaki style restaurant, Brazilian steakhouse, sushi bar, tapas bar, Italian restaurant, and several others.  The Norwegian Escape even has a restaurant where you order everything from an iPad at your table.

Some more traditional ships have only a few options outside the main dining rooms, usually including an Italian restaurant and an American steakhouse.

Typically, specialty restaurants on a cruise ship charge a small fee, which will be added to your shipboard account, so keep that in mind when you’re budgeting for your cruise.

  • Are pools and water features important to you?

Some ships have better pools and water features than others.  The Norwegian Epic has a pretty fantastic water slide setup, with three slides, including the Epic Plunge.  Sister ships, Norwegian Getaway, Norwegian Breakaway, and Norwegian Escape have free-fall slides and the Escape touts an Aqua Racer slide so guests can race their friends and family members to the bottom.

If you’re looking for adults-only pool areas, many ships have restricted pool areas where all guests must be at least 16 or 18 to enter. These areas can be a respite, especially on cruises that happen over the summer or over school breaks.

  • Are you looking for a great spa experience?

All the major cruise lines have spa services.  If there’s something in particular that you want to make sure you have access to while you’re on vacation, be sure to research ahead of time to see which ships offer those services.

  • Are you traveling with children who will want to spend time with other kids?

All major cruise lines also have programs for kids and teens.  The availability and hours of the program will likely depend on the number of children on the ship.  Josh and I went on a Canada/New England cruise in October, out of Baltimore and found ourselves on a ship with 1,996 adult passengers and 4 children.  We’re not certain we ever saw three of the children, but the one we did see couldn’t have been over 1.

If you’ll be traveling with your children and want them to participate in a program with other kids, be sure to travel during a time when other kids are likely to be on-board (summer vacation, holiday breaks, spring break, etc.).

  • Are you traveling with small children, but you know you’re going to want an evening to yourself?

As with my recommendation about kids programming, if you’re expecting to have an evening child-free on your cruise, you’ll either want to be sure you travel during a school break or be ready to pay a few dollars for someone from the kids program staff to babysit your child for a few hours.  Most lines offer a childcare service after their normal children’s program hours, especially on formal nights.

Overall, our favorite line is Norwegian.  We appreciate all of the different options for dining and the laid back feel of their ships.  They also have the best guest loyalty program for us (double points when you book at least 9 months in advance).  We’ve also cruised on Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess, and Holland America.  We probably wouldn’t sail on Carnival again and prefer Princess and Holland America to Royal Caribbean.  That being said, we just came back from a Canada/New England cruise in October on Royal Caribbean and will be sailing Hawaii to Vancouver on Royal Caribbean in May.  We tend to book based on itinerary rather than ship or cruise line.

Q: Where should I cruise?

This question is also up for debate.

  • Do you have a destination in mind?

If you have one destination in mind, that’s a good place to start building your options.  Many cruise lines, and even travel tools like Expedia, have search tools on their websites that allow you to choose ports you want to visit and then they build your options backwards from that.

  • What time of year do you want to travel?

Obviously, you won’t be cruising to Alaska in December, so if your only vacation option is around the holidays, you can probably cross an Alaskan cruise off your list.  Many ships that are typically in the Caribbean over the winter make the trans-Atlantic trek to the Mediterranean for the summer months, so Caribbean itineraries can be more difficult to find.

Remember that Hurricane season in the Caribbean runs from June 1st through November 30th and you’ll find lots of inexpensive cruises during this time.  This can be a fantastic opportunity to get a great deal.

Also keep in mind that summer vacation, spring break, and any other school holidays mean that the ships are going to be filled with families with small children.  It can be a little chaotic during those times, especially on 5-day sailings to the Caribbean.  We only sail to the Caribbean in winter, if we can swing it.

  • Do you know which city you want to depart from?

Similarly to knowing a port you want to visit, if you know where you’d like to sail from, this can help you narrow down your options for itineraries.  Most of the cruise line websites should allow you to choose a departure port.

  • How long do you want to cruise?

If you’re looking at 5 days, your options are going to be fairly limited (mostly Caribbean, out of Florida, but Galveston has options too).  If you have to choose between Eastern & Western Caribbean, my favorite is Eastern or the Bahamas, but I don’t really like the ports on the East coast of Mexico.  They’re beautiful, but there’s a lot of pressure from locals to buy things and I haven’t had great experiences there or in Jamaica.  If you do end up in Cozumel, Playa Del Carmen, Costa Maya or any of the ports in Jamaica, I recommend booking a shore excursion through the cruise line and sticking with the group.  If you really like to shop, any of those ports would be good though.  I’m not a huge souvenir buyer or drinker, so the Mexican ports just aren’t my cup of tea.

With a 5-day cruise, you’re likely only going to be able to get to some of the closer islands in the Caribbean, like the Bahamas and the cruise lines private islands (mostly also in the Bahamas), but those are some pretty great islands.  Based on some of the currently available itineraries online, you may also have the opportunity to go to Grand Turk, Grand Cayman,

If you have 7 or more days to spend cruising, your options will open up significantly.   All of the Alaska cruises I’ve seen are at least 7 days and you can get much further into the Caribbean if you have 7-10 days to explore.  If you’re traveling from the US, keep in mind flight time if you’re looking at cruises that don’t leave from the US.  You can’t leave home for a cruise out of Barcelona or somewhere in Asia the same day the ship’s supposed to sail, so you’ll need to plan in buffer time there.

  • Are you interested in a lot of sea days or more port days?

Some itineraries are heavy on sea days (repositioning cruises) and some are heavy on port days.  I’ve been on a cruise that hit 7 different ports in 7 days.  It’s not common to have a cruise like that, because the US departure ports are a quite a ways away from most of the Caribbean ports, but that particular cruise sailed out of San Juan, Puerto Rico, so we started much closer to other Caribbean islands.

Cruise lines are always looking to fill cabins, so they will stop in a couple of obscure places, that may not get cruise ships stopping by very often, in order to fill up their repositioning cruises.  A repositioning cruise just means that a ship is moving from starting round-trip cruises in one location to another departure port for a different season. For example, a ship that typically sails the Caribbean all winter, may reposition to Barcelona to sail the Mediterranean for the summer season.  This repositioning cruise will likely stop in places like Bermuda and the Azores on the way across the Atlantic.

If you are just looking to relax on a floating city for a week, a trans-Atlantic repositioning cruise may be an economical and fulfilling trip!

All that being said, if you have the vacation time to spend, I HIGHLY recommend Alaska.  It’s the first cruise we ever came home from and were ready to immediately book the same sailing again.  I wish we’d had more time there because it’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced or will ever experience in the lower 48.  Being a Kansan, I’ve traveled to Colorado many times for vacation in the mountains.  Colorado is beautiful, but Alaska is spectacular.  Just imagine mountains that don’t start at 5,000 feet above sea level and rise to 14,000 feet, but actually AT sea level and rise to 14,000 feet.  It’s an incredible place to experience and a place I believe should be on everyone’s bucket list.  If you book an Alaska cruise, make sure you book one that sails through Glacier Bay.  The National Parks Service restricts the number of ships that can sail through Glacier Bay each day, so not every Alaska cruise gets the opportunity, but it’s 100% worth any additional cost you encounter.  It’s phenomenal!

We were lucky enough to cruise through Glacier Bay the morning after a pretty strong earthquake rattled the area.  This meant that we cruised through lots of pieces of icebergs that had calved from the glaciers during the earthquake.  The stories people tell about the sound a glacier makes when it calves is not to be underestimated.  It’s truly a sound like nothing else.

Q: Do I need a passport to cruise?

Even if your cruise line doesn’t require a passport (for cruises that originate and terminate from the same US port, the rules are murky), I feel like the safer option would be to go ahead and get a passport, just in case.  For any cruise, you’ll want to be sure your passport doesn’t expire for at least 6 months after you return from the cruise.

Obtaining a passport can take a while, depending on how backed up the US State Department is, so make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get yours back before you sail.

Q: How far in advance should I book my cruise?

We typically book cruises about 18 months in advance (it’s January of 2017 and we have an Asia cruise booked for March of 2018 already).  We feel like we get some of the best deals by doing this, and if prices drop later, you can usually get the lower price.

If you live near a port, you can get really great last-minute cruise deals when cruise lines don’t fill up their sailings.  If you can travel on one to two weeks notice and drive yourself to the port, you can sail for significantly less than those of us who live closer to the middle of the country and have to fly everywhere.  While the cruise fare may get smaller the closer you get to the sailing date, the flight prices definitely do not.

Q: Which cabin category should I book?

We usually book inside cabins and spend the extra money on shore excursions or experiences on the ship instead.  We’ve had balcony cabins on our honeymoon cruise (Southern Caribbean) and our Western Mediterranean cruise.  Both were fantastic, but we find that we don’t spend very much time in the cabin, so it was a bit of a waste of money.  My parents, on the other hand, only book balcony cabins, but they spend a great deal of time in their room, reading on the balcony, even on days when the ship is docked in a port of call.

For first-time cruisers, I recommend an inside, mid-ship cabin.  This is where you feel the least amount of movement for the best price.  Anything too far to the front of back of the ship is likely to move a little bit and, until you know if you’re prone to sea-sickness, I’d stick to the middle, if possible.

We also always choose our cabin rather than booking the less expensive “guarantee” rate.  The guarantee rate gets you a cabin in the category you pay for, but allows for the opportunity for an upgrade, if a better cabin is available closer to the cruise.  We choose our own cabin because we have been upgraded before to a part of the ship that we didn’t really want to be in (right under the disco or next to an elevator, where there’s lots of noise all night long).  When you choose your own cabin, you’re less likely to have an upgrade opportunity, but you also know that you’ll be in the part of the ship you want to be (and if you book far enough in advance, you pretty much have your pick of cabins).

Q: If we put down a deposit, do we lose the deposit if we cancel the trip?

While I always recommend confirming with your cruise line, typically, you can get a full refund of your deposit if you cancel a cruise before the final payment is due.  Final payment is usually due about 90 days before the ship sails.  You could put down a deposit for a sailing in March of 2018 and still be able to get all your money back as late as December of 2017. If you cancel after the final payment is made, you lose a percentage of the deposit, depending on how close to the sailing you are.

Q: Is alcohol included in the price of my cruise?

Most ships are not completely all-inclusive (alcohol isn’t usually included, but many lines have an additional beverage package you can purchase where either beer & wine or all drinks up to a certain price are included).  As of this writing, I believe the Norwegian Sky is the only ship that includes an unlimited beverage package as standard practice.

Things that are included with your cruise fare are food (unless you eat at certain specialty restaurants), juice (with breakfast), lemonade, tea, coffee (not specialty coffee, such as espresso, lattes, etc.), and most entertainment.

Q: Why are gratuities so important on a cruise ship?

Because most cruise ships are not US flagged, they do not have to abide by US labor laws.  This means that crew members are not paid the same rates that you would be accustomed to receiving while working in the US.  This also means that crew typically have to work longer hours than US workers would have to.  To balance this, many guest-facing crew members receive required gratuities from passengers.  Typically, these gratuities are either pre-paid, as part of your cruise fare (if you request it), or they are added to your shipboard account while you are on board.  They usually run less than $15 per day and include tips for your room stewards and your dining room waiters.  There is also typically an 18% gratuity added to all drinks ordered from the bar (including soda, whether you purchase it by the glass or in an unlimited soda package at the beginning of the cruise).  If you encounter exceptional service from a crew member, you’re always able to tip an additional amount at any time.

We always make sure to have a few extra $20 bills at the end of the cruise if our dining room waiters and room stewards were truly outstanding.  We find that this is the case more often than not, actually.  These folks work really hard every single week to make sure your vacation is outstanding and they absolutely deserve any additional gratuities you feel like leaving for them.

Q: Can I fly in the day the cruise leaves?

I don’t recommend it.  I always feel more comfortable flying into the departure city at least one day before the cruise departs.  This allows you the opportunity to have a missed or delayed flight and still make it on time.  If you’re not on the ship when it’s scheduled to sail, it’s not going to wait for you, so if you’re in town the day before you’re set to sail away, you’ll have nothing to worry about.

Q: Can I book a flight home for the morning the ship returns?

Again, not something I recommend.  This doesn’t mean that you have to stay an extra day after the cruise is over, though.  If you book a flight after 1pm (depending on how close the airport is to your port), you should be safe.  Sometimes customs will not clear the ship until later than expected and if that happens, you may not get off the ship until far later than the arrival time that’s noted on the ship’s itinerary.  There’s also a risk of being held up in the individual customs line at the port, after you get off the ship.  This has happened to my husband and I before and it was a really tense experience.  We were traveling with a group and had booked a flight after 1pm, but we were very close to missing our flight by the time we got to the airport.

That being said, 9 times out of 10, you can be to the airport by 9am, if you’re lucky.  I’d rather take my time getting off the ship for a later flight than be rushed and in a panic if things happen to not work out the way you’d planned this one time.

Q: Should I buy travel insurance?

I always pay for travel insurance (and the one the cruise line offers when you check out isn’t always the best deal).  My travel agent recommends Travel Insured and they have a couple different levels.  You can purchase this separately, once you’ve booked your cruise and it will cover your expenses if your trip is cancelled because of a hurricane (and other reasons – just be sure to check the differences in the levels of coverage, because this makes a difference).

Q: Aren’t cruises just for retired people?

Don’t believe what people say when they say this.  They either have never cruised, haven’t been on a cruise in years, or they haven’t been on the right cruise.  Cruising is, by far, one of the easiest ways to see the world.  US cruise lines sail to all corners of the globe and provide a multitude of shore excursion options for people who range in interest from bus tours to mountain climbing.  Many families choose this way to vacation because it’s incredibly simple to get on a ship, unpack once, and wake up in a new country every morning.

And, if you plan things right, you will have done enough research about each destination you’re visiting to know exactly what you want to see and what you want to do.  It’s truly one of the easiest ways to be a world traveler.

Q: Is there a good website resource for all sorts of cruise questions?

Absolutely!  I highly recommend CruiseCritic.com.  I’ve been a member of the online community at Cruise Critic since I started cruising and I’ve learned SO much from other cruisers there.  There’s probably someone in that community who can answer any question you could possibly come up with and there’s also a space for people who are cruising on the same sailings to get to know each other before the cruise.  We’ve met many people who are members of Cruise Critic and we’ve done fun events and meet-ups with them once we’re on the ship.  It’s a great resource and it’s FREE!  Go check it out!

Wrap-Up

Please keep in mind that I’m not a travel agent.  Since 2004, I’ve been to 64 different cities and 30 different countries on a cruise ship.  I’ve been to 26 different ports of call in the Caribbean, and on other cruises that took me to Alaska, the Panama Canal, the Western Mediterranean, New England and Eastern Canada, and the British Isles, and currently have cruises booked that will take me to Hawaii, the US Pacific coast, and to Hong Kong, China, South Korea, and Japan.  I love cruising and I’m happy to share my experiences with anyone who has questions.  I surely don’t have all the answers, but I can certainly try to answer any questions that come up.  Feel free to comment with any questions and I’ll do my best.

 

Liberty of the Seas Group Cruise – Day 1

Day 1 means that we get to have our first look at the Liberty of the Seas.  This will be the largest ship that we’ve ever sailed on and I’m very much looking forward to exploring it’s offerings when we’re able to board.

Before leaving the hotel, be sure to have a carry-on packed.  Typically, my carry-on consists of prescription medications, a swimming suit (if you’d like to swim when you get on the ship) and a change of clothes for that evening’s dinner (in case your luggage is a late-arrival).  Having these items will ensure that you have an enjoyable first day on the ship.  Sometimes, luggage doesn’t arrive until 7 or 8pm and occasionally, even later, so having a few important items will allow you to be able to do things on the ship that you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.

We usually leave the hotel around 10am to head for the Port so that we can be on board as close to lunch time as possible.  Most cruise lines tell you that boarding doesn’t begin until 1:30 or 2pm, but that’s not true.  You can be on board as early as 11am on some occasions.  Early boarding is all dependent upon how early the ship got into port and how smoothly debarkation of the last set of passengers went.  If things were moving slowly, they may not open boarding until 1:30 or 2pm, but we’ve found that that’s not usually the case.  I don’t think we’ve ever boarded a ship later then 12:30pm.

When we arrive at the port, we will be greeted by luggage porters.  These are the men and women who handle all of the luggage for all of the passengers arriving to board the ship.  This means 3,634 passengers luggage is handled by these people each time the ship comes into port.  If you take into account that these porters are also assisting people getting off the ship, this could be 7,268 people in one day.
It’s customary to tip the porters when you hand off your luggage.  Some people believe that a bigger tip means that your luggage will get to your cabin faster, but I don’t think there’s any way that one can guarantee that with so much luggage changing hands.  You should definitely tip the porters though, just as you would tip your cab driver or a doorman at a hotel.

Once your luggage is left safely with the porters, you can proceed to the check-in area.  Sometimes, it will be open by 10am for check-in and sometimes, you will have to wait a bit until they are ready for you.  If you have to wait, generally, there is a seating area for you to wait in, but be prepared, because sometimes, especially with the larger ships, these areas can become crowded quickly.

Check-in is typically pretty painless.  Just make sure that you have your passport, cruise documentation and the credit card that you will be charging for all of your on board purchases (no, everything isn’t included – alcohol, Ben & Jerry’s, specialty coffee, etc. is all an additional charge).

Once we board, we have to wait until the cabins are ready, which usually doesn’t happen until around 2 or 3pm.  This will give you plenty of time to explore the ship and stop at the Windjammer for a buffet lunch but be prepared, because this day in the Windjammer is going to be complete chaos.  This is one of the only open locations on the ship during boarding and that means that it’s where everyone ends up.  It can get pretty hectic, so my recommendation is that you find a table first and then have someone stay where while the rest of the group goes to get their food.  If you don’t scope out seating first, you may end up wandering around for 20 minutes while your food gets cold in your hands.

This is also a good time to do some exploring and to get yourself acquainted with the ship.  If you’re not hungry immediately, you can even wander around the ship first and wait out the crowd in the Windjammer.

The rest of day one is filled with muster drills (thank goodness you don’t have to wear your life jackets anymore) and a sail away party.  I usually spend this day getting used to where things are on the ship.  I know this time won’t be any different since it’s a very large ship and we’ll have a lot to explore in 5 days.

Liberty of the Seas Group Cruise – Day 0

On the first travel day, all 23 of us will be travelling to Ft. Lauderdale from various locations across the country.  We’re hoping for good weather as we travel at the end of January since we’ll all be escaping the horrible mid-US winter.


Most of us have flights on Delta in the mid-morning leaving from Kansas City.  Others are flying in from Denver.  We’re looking for a good place to have dinner in Ft. Lauderdale that evening, so if you have any suggestions, please let me know.


We’ll be staying at the LaQuinta Inn & Suites, Ft. Lauderdale Airport.  We got a pretty good deal through our travel agent and we’ll get a ride from the airport and to the Port the following morning.


Getting Back Into the Swing of Things

So, it’s been quite a while since anything was posted to the BLOG.  Hopefully, that will change since I have a new iPad and will have easier access to blogging going forward.  I thought it would be appropriate to start the blog posting back up again by writing a series of posts about our upcoming cruise to Jamaica and Haiti.  How appropriate, right?  My last big series of postings ended with posts about our honeymoon cruise, so why not start back up with the cruise we’re taking next.
 
This time, we will be traveling with many friends and family members.  I believe there are a total of 23 of us going this time, but there’s always room for more.  I’m told that the balcony cabins have been deeply discounted at this point, so if anyone out there wants to get credit for booking with a group on Royal Caribbean’s Liberty of the Seas on her 5-night, January 30th sailing out of Ft. Lauderdale, just let me know and I’ll get you hooked up wi our travel agent.
 
That being said, here are some of the highlights of the ship we’ll be sailing on:


Royal Caribbean Liberty of the Seas
Pools & Whirlpools – 10
Spa Treatments – 100+
Crew Members – 1,360
Gross Tonnage – 160,000
Length – 1,112 ft
Width – 185 ft

Royal Promenade



 Boxing Ring

Flow Rider Surf Simulator

Rock Climbing Wall

H2O Zone

3-Story Main Dining Room

Ice Skating Rink

 
 
 
 
 

Honeymoon Day 10 – May 11, 2010 Oranjestad, Aruba

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I’m pretty excited to be going back to Aruba.  This is the only island on this cruise that I’ve been to before and I’m looking forward to showing it to Josh.  We booked a tour here and it visits a lot of the big “must-see” places on the island.

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The last time I visited Aruba, my dad and I were picked up at the pier by some of the Rainbow Girls from Aruba and given the grand tour of the island for free.  We had lunch with them and visited all of the sights on the island.  After the tour, they took my dad back to the ship and took me back to their Masonic Lodge for a party with some of the local foods and gifts for me from the Aruba Rainbow Girls.  It was a great experience and I’m looking forward to seeing this beautiful is;and again.
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Honeymoon Day 8 – May 10, 2010 Curacao

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Our plans for this island were set back as well.  We really wanted to do the Dolphin Encounter, but unfortunately, by the time we tried to book it, there was only one spot left.  We didn’t want to do it if only one of would be able to go since it was a long excursion, so we decided to do a different excursion instead. 
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We’re planning to do a tour of Sea & See in Curacao.  Basically, you board a semi-submarine and get to see all the ocean life from 5 feet below the surface of the water.  Then we’ll be able to tour some of the island after we do the underwater tour.  It should be a good time.  I’m looking forward to seeing the colorful architecture of Curacao and the suspension bridge that’s 200 feet above the city.
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Honeymoon Day 7 – May 9, 2010 Bonaire

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Well, our original plan for Bonaire (an air-conditioned bus tour of the island) fell through, so we’re going to have to find something else to do with our time in Bonaire.  I really wanted to do a tour because it’s not an island we’re likely to go back to in the future.  There’s just not enough to do there for a couple who has no intention of becoming Scuba certified.  Hopefully, we’ll find something to keep us entertained while we’re there or at least find a nice beach to spend the day on.
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