Cruise Tips and Tricks

Now that Jim and I have sailed on seven cruises aboard three different cruise lines, we are learning tips and tricks for making the most out of cruising. After all, we want the most bang out of our buck. The first trick is pretty obvious. Look for a sale on the cruise line’s website. You can often find sales during hurricane season which is in the Fall. Yes, of course, there is a risk that you might have some rain or heavier weather, but you can often sail for a reduced rate, and in the Caribbean and Mediterranean, the weather will be more temperate and balmy. Jim advises getting the travel insurance if you decide to travel during hurricane season. Jim and I often travel during spring break or in the summer because of my teaching schedule and believe me, Mexico and Italy are hot as Hades itself in July. I don’t mind the heat, and Jim is impervious to hot or cold, so we are fine, but not everyone is. My parents, who joined us on our Mediterranean cruise, complained that all they did was, “walk and sweat, walk and sweat”.

Even if you can’t travel in the Fall, there are often promotions available. Celebrity Cruise Lines has a pick two or pick three deal which gives you a choice of a free alcohol package, free gratuities or onboard credit. We got a pick three deal on our Mediterranean cruise and a pick two deal on our last Caribbean cruise this spring. We chose the alcohol package both times as one of our picks.

As far as the alcohol packages are concerned, Jim and I only get those when we can get them for free on a promotion. They are not inexpensive if you pay for them outside of a promotional deal. An alcohol package makes the cruise more all-inclusive, and it’s nice to not worry about how much the bar bill is going to be at the end of the cruise. Drinks aboard any cruise line are expensive. In the end, try to get a promotional deal that includes the drink package, but if you can’t, then it’s a good idea to weigh how much you drink against the price of the package before purchasing it.

Another consideration when cruising is ship’s excursions. Which ones to take? How much money do we have to spend on excursions? Ship’s excursions have become increasingly more expensive, so it’s not unusual for excursion prices to be $150 to $200 per person. There are a few factors to think about when considering your excursion options. First of all, be aware that when everyone is supposed to be back aboard the ship at the end of the day, that time is non-negotiable. Ships have a schedule to keep and they leave on time. If you are left at the port of call, it is your responsibility to catch up to the ship at the next port. I never thought people would be late for a ship, but when my best friend and I were staying in Cozumel, our favorite bartender at the Flamingo Hotel told us that it isn’t as unusual as it seems. He claimed to have seen his share of people who were left on Cozumel and needed a room until they could make further arrangements. So, remember, be back at the ship on time, or even a little earlier than last call.

You also have to know the port of call you are visiting. Some islands, like Cozumel and St. Kitts, are very safe and friendly. Some, like Jamaica and Roatan Honduras, are not. We met new friends on our Celebrity cruise this spring who said they ran around Jamaica alone and bought a brownie from some guy in front of Bob Marley’s house. The wife ate most of it. Needless to say, she slept the next two days of her cruise. My response was, “You ate what? From where?! What were you thinking?” Funny, not funny. Do some research online. Sites like Trip Advisor are fantastic. Hotels, resorts, islands, and cities are all there complete with reviews and photos by recent travelers, not just the glossy pictures paid for by the resorts.

If you do your research and find that the port is relatively safe, hire a taxi and do your own thing. Jim and I once hired a taxi driver on the island of St. Kitts and paid him $70 for the day. He took us to the oldest church, the British fort, and a beach and waited for us at the each stop. He even stopped and got us each a beer for that price. In Villa Franche Sur la Mer, France, we walked through the village to the train station and hopped a high-speed train to Monaco for a few hours. Then we came back to Villa Franche in time for a late lunch and walked back to the ship. Even though Jamaica can be a more dangerous port, we hired a taxi driver to take us to Dun’s River Falls. The trick when hiring a taxi driver is to hire them right at the cruise pier. Don’t ever walk into town and hire a taxi on the street. The taxis who are allowed at the cruise pier have to be approved by the cruise line and are therefore far less likely to try any hijinks. Find another couple to share the taxi and you’ll save money on the fare and have more people with you.

If you want to explore anything that will take an entire day, or is a distance from the cruise pier, it’s advisable to then pay for a ship’s excursion. Ship’s excursions are guaranteed to get you back to the ship on time, and if something doesn’t go as planned, the ship will wait. Jim and I took an excursion from Costa Maya on our Mexican cruise that bussed us two hours into the Mexican jungle to explore recently excavated Mayan ruins. The whole trip, including the guide, was vetted by Celebrity Cruise Lines, and we had a once in a lifetime experience. Our guide was a retired teacher who claimed Mayan ancestry and spoke several languages. He provided us with a whole history lesson on Mayan culture as we walked through the ruins. We have also taken cooking and tasting excursions in Mexico and the island of Mallorca. We got to make a three-course meal with an adorable Mexican chef while overlooking a gorgeous beach on Cozumel. On Mallorca, we went tapas tasting at three restaurants which involved lots of foods we had never tried before, such as flash-fried finger-sized fish, as well as three large glasses of sangria. Both were fabulous experiences well worth the excursion price. My advice? Pick only the excursions you really are excited about and can’t do by yourself. The rest, hire a taxi and have at it. You’ll save quite a bit of your travel fund that way.

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Cozumel, Mexico

I have had the pleasure of traveling to Cozumel twice now, once 6 years ago on a cruise with my husband, and then a few months ago with my best friend, Susan, who writes a lot of Trip Advisor reviews as Super Susanita. Cozumel is one of my favorite islands. The food is delicious; it offers some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving in the Caribbean; fantastic jewelry shopping, and best of all, it’s safe and inexpensive!

The first time I went to Cozumel, Jim and I were on our Mexican cruise. We did a ship’s excursion that allowed us to prepare a three-course Mexican meal with an adorable Mexican chef. We cooked in a room with huge windows overlooking a fabulous beach while drinking margaritas. Then we shopped. Cozumel is a great place to shop for silver or Mexican fire opals, which glitter an orange-red color. As we shopped at the jewelry stores, the shopkeepers plied us with free margaritas or shots of tequila. We sloshed back to the ship with Jim threatening to sacrifice me to the Mayan gods if I bought any more fire opals or silver.

A few months ago, I went back to Cozumel with my best friend Susan Nichols. I was a little nervous traveling with a friend instead of my husband, and Jim was concerned about our safety, but there was no reason to worry. Cozumel felt very safe. Susan and I stayed at the Flamingo Hotel, which is a small boutique hotel on a side street near the ferry dock. The room was not upscale, but it was clean and decently appointed. There was an open air lobby with a bar that was open in the evenings. The bar itself was worth staying at the Flamingo. Ivan the bartender squeezed limes and oranges to create the base of his margaritas and then added his favorite tequila and Grand Marnier. Ivan truly makes the best margaritas I have ever had. Period. The price for one of the margaritas was only $6. Not bad for a hand- crafted drink. Our room was a very decent $70 and included coffee and a continental breakfast. For only $2 more, you could get omelets and pancakes. Overall, the Flamingo Hotel was a great deal. What’s more is that I only saw one child at the hotel during the five days we stayed there.

During the day, Susan went diving during the day with Blue Magic Scuba. She researched getting her dive certification and decided that Blue Magic was the most accommodating shop for the best price. While she dove, I took a short $5 cab ride to another hotel, Playa Azul, where I laid on the beach and read or swam. There was always a helpful employee to bring drinks at Playa Azul. Pretty little hotel, and pretty beach with a tiki bar and an open air restaurant next door. Since it was a bigger hotel on the beach, there were some children. Playa Azul seems to be popular with vacationers from mainland Mexico.

One of the days we were in Cozumel, Susan took me to Sky Reef, a beach restaurant, and bar for lunch and snorkeling. For $15, you get a small drink, tequila tasting, snorkeling equipment and a five-minute chair massage. We paid the $15 considering all it included and had tacos, avocados, rice and refried beans for an additional charge of about $15. Those were some of the most delightful tacos I have eaten in a long time. We had a lot of good meals in Cozumel, most of which were around $15 or under. Cozumel offers a lot of great local food at great prices. In fact, the island is worth visiting just for the food!

As well as delicious food, diving and shopping, there are other things to do on the island of Cozumel. There are small Mayan ruins on the island, or you can take a ferry to Playa del Carmen and journey to the larger ruins of Chichen Itza near Cancun. It’s a day trip which we did not choose to do, but I intend to go back with Jim and visit the ruins. Cozumel also offers golf during the day and dancing at night. Susan and I went dancing at a local dance club called Tic Toc and had a great time dancing to the Latin tunes the DJ played.

We checked out several small hotels while were there, and many of them ranged from quite acceptable to quite nice. If you want to vacation on the island of Cozumel, you can get a hotel for a pretty decent rate on Trip Advisor and have an excellent time tasting local fare at the restaurants and going snorkeling or scuba diving. Although I do love all-inclusive resorts, if you choose to do one of those on Cozumel, you’ll miss tasting the local fare, and you’ll spend a lot more money. Cozumel is my pick for a fun vacation at an affordable rate. It’s not all childfree, but if you pick a boutique hotel like the Flamingo, you’ll reduce the number of children you have to deal with.

Sandals Resorts Whitehouse

Last July, Jim and I tried a Sandal’s resort for the first time. If you want a childfree vacation where you will be pampered, Sandals offers the ultimate experience. Everything from transportation to the resort, gratuities, use of the sailboats, kayaks, paddle boards, the snorkeling boat, all dining and drinks was included. You truly can leave your wallet in your room. Many of Sandal’s resorts are on the island of Jamaica. Once we landed in Jamaica, we made our way through customs to the Sandal’s lounge where were offered bottled water and Red Stripe beer as well as rum cake. The Sandals employees took our luggage, and we didn’t have to touch it after that. No bag drag here! From the airport, it is almost an hour’s ride over the mountainous terrain of Jamaica to get to the Whitehouse resort. The ride itself was an adventure. When we arrived at the resort, we were greeted with champagne in a beautiful lobby. Our luggage was taken to our room by helpful employees.

Once we landed in Jamaica, we made our way through customs to the Sandal’s lounge where we were offered bottled water and Red Stripe beer as well as rum cake. The Sandals employees took our luggage, and we didn’t have to touch it after that. No bag drag here! From the airport, it is almost an hour’s ride over the mountainous terrain of Jamaica to get to the Whitehouse resort. The ride itself was an adventure. When we arrived at the resort, we were greeted with champagne in a beautiful lobby. Our luggage was taken to our room by helpful employees.

At Whitehouse, we had eight restaurants to chose from ranging from French, Italian, seafood, Japanese, Jamaican, and gourmet European fusion. There was also a coffee shop which offered pastries, made to order crepes, as well as fantastic coffee. The meals at Whitehouse were all delicious. Even Jim, Chef Fussy Pants, enjoyed the dining. The meals were even better than we have had aboard Celebrity Cruise Lines, and that is quite a feat. I truly enjoyed all the fresh seafood, including the huge Caribbean Lobster I dined on one night, and we both loved the jerk dishes at lunch time.

During the day, there is a breathtaking beachfront with tiki huts to read, relax or nap. While we were there, swimming in the ocean did involve a lot of seaweed, but that’s because Whitehouse sits in a cove and recent storms had pushed the seaweed into shore. There were four pools, three of which had swim-up bars, and lots of lounge areas. Two of the pools had DJs playing reggae music and an activity director who offered pool games. In addition to the beach and pool, there were 16-foot Hobi Cat sailboats, kayaks and paddle boards for guests’ use. I grew up sailing so I took advantage of the Hobi Cats. There were always employees watching the pools and the water, so help was on hand if you tipped a sailboat over. (Yes, I did that, and Jim got his first taste of being dumped into the brine. He was not amused.) The employee in charge of the boats even offered sailing lessons. A snorkeling boat with a glass bottom went out three times a day to offer snorkeling or just gazing through the glass bottom. For those who were already certified as divers, a dive boat was also available. All of these activities were included. Sandals’ did have their own dive shop on site and offered dive lessons and certification for an extra fee. In addition, there was also a 40 -foot catamaran that offered sunset cruises. We got a free sunset cruise as part of our package, and it included a bar, DJ, and a chance to jump overboard and swim in a cove with beautiful azure waters and no seaweed.

In addition to the water activities at the beach and pool, Whitehouse has a spa on site that offers hot and cold pools in a lush courtyard garden, as well as massage services and saunas. As part of our package, we were treated to a couple’s massage complete with herbal iced tea and candles. The Sandals employees know how to create the most romantic moods and settings.

At night, Sandals offered homegrown Jamaican music such as reggae bands, steel drum bands and such in a small theater on site. We were there the week before Jamaica’s independence day, and it was wonderful to see people proud of their island culture. We both enjoyed the music, and thought it was well done and a lot of fun. Friday night of that week, we were treated to a white party. All the employees were dressed in white. They set up all kinds of chocolate delights in the courtyard and had a reggae band playing so everyone could dance. What fun! After the evening show, there was always a DJ or karaoke offered at Martini’s, the upstairs late night bar. We met two other couples there and had a good time talking and dancing.

Besides the beach activities and nightlife Sandals’ offers, another part of the resort company that Jim and I appreciated, was that Sandals gives back to the island. Sandals is a part of a program that sponsors teacher training in Jamaica. American teachers come to Jamaica to work with the children and teachers, and in turn, stay at a Sandals’ resort for less than half the average rate. Sandals’ is also part of ocean conservancy efforts.

The best part? No kids. We didn’t hear one whimper, whine or meltdown. Sandals is an adults only resort. It offered quiet spaces if you wanted to relax, beach activities if you wanted to be active, and parties if you were in the mood. Sandals is a top pick for honeymooners or anyone who loves the beach, fine -dining and relaxation with no kids in sight. Sandals’ counterpart, Beaches exists for families. What is not to love about this company? Jim and I are going back this summer to the Grand Plantation resort which will be our first time staying in a room complete with an English- style butler. Stay tuned for new information!

As far as costs are concerned, try to book when Sandals is running one of the 60-65% off sales. We went in July and got the sale price. Of course, if you book another vacation with Sandals, you accrue points. Our price for Whitehouse was $3,200 last year. The Grand Plantation resort with a butler this year will be $3,100 because we booked before we ended last year’s stay.

Celebrity Cruise Lines

Jim and I have sailed on seven cruises using three different cruise lines. We have sailed Norweigan Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean, and Celebrity Cruise Lines. Celebrity is far and away our favorite for couples. Of our seven cruises, four have been aboard Celebrity’s Solstice-class ships. We have sailed on 2 Carribean Cruises, one Mexican cruise and one Mediterranean cruise aboard Celebrity’s Solstice, Equinox, Eclipse. We sailed aboard the Reflection in March. Celebrity Cruise Lines is not entirely child-free, however, there are not as many children as on some other cruise lines, and the Solstice class ships are far more geared to couples than kids from the cabins to the solarium and the nightlife.

Celebrity’s crew does a wonderful job of spoiling passengers. The cabins are modern, and if you get a veranda cabin, nicely appointed with a king size bed, a couch, coffee table, a bar, and refrigerator. The beds are quite good. We are spoiled at home with a Tempurpedic mattress, so Jim often complains about any other bed we sleep in while traveling. Not so on Celebrity. Even he likes the beds (Believe me, no small feat). The bathrooms are big enough even for his wide shoulders. If you spend a little extra and go concierge class, you get fluffy robes, a complimentary bottle of champagne, canapes delivered to your room daily, and extra attention from your cabin steward. We’ve never had a bad cabin steward aboard Celebrity. The canapes are normally quite good. We’ve had mini pastry shells filled with cream cheese and caviar in the past. During our last cruise aboard the Reflection, they were generally olives, chips, and guacamole, which was not quite as fabulous.

The main dining room on all Solstice-class ships has a floor to ceiling wine tower. The food is the best we have had on the three cruise lines we have experienced, and the head waiters go out of their way to make sure we are satisfied with our dinner. I am gluten and dairy free (not out of choice either) and I love that the menus on the Celebrity ships are coded so I know which are vegetarian, gluten-free, and dairy-free. The head waiters also make sure that I am always happy with my meals and have gone beyond my expectations to have the chef make me gluten free deserts at times. During this last cruise, they even had gluten free bread that was delicious. Jim doesn’t like anyone’s cooking except my mother’s, but he has been very pleased with the selections aboard the Celebrity ships. If the chefs aboard Celebrity ships can keep him happy, you won’t be disappointed.

During the daytime, there is the usual outside pool, but the wonderful part of Celebrity Cruise Lines is that on the Solstice class ships, there is also something called the Solarium. It is a glassed in area with its own pool and hot tubs. There is also small cafe with salads and fruit and wine located within the Solarium. The spa is right next to the Solarium and offers a range of services from teeth whitening to Botox. Tranquil music is piped in and it’s a relaxing place to read, relax and talk to other travelers. The best part? No kids under 16 allowed! On Celebrity Solstice class ships, you have a place you can relax and be assured that you won’t be disturbed. Jim and I have spent entire sea days in the solarium reading and chatting with fellow passengers.

One of the new trends aboard cruise ships is having an art gallery. Park West Runs the art galleries on many of the ships. They have fun art talks and raffles, and champagne art auctions. Walking through tons of art in the lobby while drinking champagne is a wonderful way to spend part of a sea day. Just understand that in these auctions you will find original Michael Goddard pieces and lots of Peter Max. None of it is inexpensive. If you have the money and the wall space, go for it, but understand that it is best if you know what to look for and how much to pay.

In addition to the art auctions and talks, you will find lots of live music. There is always a good band at the pool in the afternoons, and another band playing in the lobby as everyone comes to dinner. This last cruise, there was a lot of jazz played in the main lobby, which I loved. There was a string duo in Michael’s lounge every night. On past cruises, Celebrity has had a barbershop quartet roaming the ship which I thoroughly enjoyed. The evening shows are usually quite good with one show a Cirque du Solei inspired artsy, high flying affair. Jim and I have seen seven Cirque du Solei shows, in Vegas and Orlando and generally, Celebrity’s shows are engaging and capture the spirit of Cirque. You must, of course, understand that the performers are working in a ship sized theater without all the accouterments of a full Cirque show. What you won’t find are rock-climbing walls, surf -pools and ice skating rinks.

Nighttime also brings fun at the lounges. Whether you go to the casino, the Sky Lounge on deck 15 to listen to the band or do karaoke, or relax in Michael’s lounge, or visit the martini bar, there are plenty of options. Aboard the Reflection, the martini bar was our favorite. The bar is coated in a sheet of ice. There is lots of comfortable seating around it, and they had a DJ there a couple of nights. The chocolate martinis were delicious! The Sky Lounge aboard the Reflection was subject to what I can only call an experiment. Instead of karaoke or a band, they had what they called a silent disco. People would get headphones at a stand outside the lounge. These headphones had three channels, all of which were color coded, so the headphones lit up either green blue or yellow according to which channel the listener chose. There were people on the dancefloor all with the same color shining from their headphones singing at the top of their lungs and dancing. There was, of course, no background music. This little diva couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Jim refused to even give it a go. We tend to choose lounges where we can relax and chat with our fellow passengers, but there were others who loved the silent disco. We ended most of our nights at the Martini Bar having wonderful conversations with other travelers from all over the States and Europe. Whatever suits you, Celebrity has it.

Celebrity remains our pick for the best child-free cruise line so far, and well worth the money. Our last cruise was concierge class and the cost was $3,200. That included a pick two sale which allowed us a free alcohol package and $300 onboard credit. You do, of course, earn points and perks the more cruises you take aboard a cruise line. Since this was our fourth cruise with Celebrity, we got to go to a free wine tasting with one of the head somaliers, a cocktail party with the captain and officers, and sail away party on the helipad on the bow of the ship. We’ve had good luck booking our cruises with our favorite travel agent, although you can book with the cruiseline directly. You can book your next cruise while aboard ship. My parents are diamond members of Celebrity’s parent company, Royal Caribbean, and they did not think booking through the cruiseline directly was any less expensive. See my page about cruise tips and tricks for more information about how to save money on cruises.