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Cruise Post-Mortem

June 30th, 2008 · 5 Comments

After completing projects at Intel, we had to prepare a “post mortem”. It doesn’t mean that anything died, but rather is a summary of what we learned, what went right, what went wrong, and recommendations for future projects. Here’s my post mortem of our recently completed Baltic Cruise.

You don’t have to gain weight on a cruise.
The general expectation is that with all the good food and leisure time, you will always put on pounds on a a cruise. I actually lost 2 pounds. Gisele thinks it’s because when I am at home I like to snack a lot — potato chips, popcorn, etc, while sitting in front of the TV. I think the only between-meal snack I had on the whole trip was the chocolates they put on the pillow at night. I think it also helped that our days were filled with tours, and lunch was almost an after-thought — sometimes skipped, always minimal. Running up the stairs to get to meals and other events I’m sure helped keep my heart and lungs in shape, but probably didn’t contribute to weight loss.

However, I didn’t scrimp on dinner. I usually ate everything they served, including the rich desserts. Dinners were almost always excellent.

Research the ports before you leave home
We got on ship not knowing much about what to expect at the ports. The result was that we bought an expensive tour in almost every port. Other people who had done their homework knew when it was just as good to walk into town and tour on your own, or arrange a local (much cheaper) tour in town. I don’t know which are the best websites to use, but I will find out before we go next time.

The mini-PC was great
I took my eee PC along on the cruise and found it very useful. Because it is so small and light, I didn’t even notice it in my backpack when we went ashore. In most towns you can find unencrypted WiFi to get connected. Since we were on scheduled tours I didn’t get a lot of opportunity to use it in this way, except in a couple of towns.

On the ship, it was also very useful to have a laptop. The ship sold internet access at $.75/minute over a very slow satellite connection. If you used their internet cafe, it would typically cost you $10 – $15 by the time you got connected, downloaded your email, read, wrote and sent replies. With your own laptop, you can connect wirelessly, download email, and immediately disconnect. This usually took about 2 minutes ($1.50). Then you can write replies at your leisure, marking them all as “Send Later”, to go out the next time you connect. The same with blog postings. Prepare them in a text editor, then when you connect just cut and paste into the edit window on your blog. If you need to read a web page, bring it up when you are connected, then either save it as an html page, or just keep the browser open after you disconnect. Using all these tricks, my internet charges were only about $45 for the whole cruise, vs. the $100 or more it would have been (or just not used internet at all).

If you’re going to be spending a lot of time in airports, you might want to by a subscription to one of the wireless networks. All airports have WiFi, but it’s almost never free. A subscription to Boingo, for example, costs about $22/month, and gives you unlimited access, available at most airports. I did not do this, since our airport time was limited.

Cabin Choice
On both of our recent cruises we have had a balcony cabin. We loved having the balcony as a private place to sit and enjoy the scenery, or read, or nap. However we talked with other passengers who considered it a waste of money, since “you spend so little time in your cabin on a cruise”. I will admit that on this cruise, as on the Alaska cruise we took a couple of years ago, it was often too cold and windy to sit outside for long, but we still enjoyed it and would do it again. I don’t think the extra cost is unreasonable; as I recall an extra $100 or so per person. Next best would be a cabin with a window, and finally an inside cabin. Again, we think the balcony adds a lot to the experience.

Nickels and Dimes
If you are very disciplined, you can really do a cruise without spending more than the initial payment. But it’s hard! Besides the outrageously-priced tours ($50 – $400), there are charges for specialty coffees (espresso, latte, etc), soft drinks, internet, photos, and the high-priced shops onboard.

On our previous cruise, at the end there was an opportunity to leave a tip for the crew, and designate a specific tip for a specific crewman that you wanted to especially reward. On this trip (Princess) at the end of the cruise when the itemized bill came, there was a $10.50 charge per person per day. If you had read the fine print on the pre-cruise info it mentioned this, and stated that it was an optional item, and that you could designate how much, if any, you wished to tip. But I bet very few people read that carefully or went to the trouble to “opt out”. It left a bad taste in my mouth. Tips are supposed to be a show of your appreciation for excellent service. If you are going to include it in the bill, why not just increase the price of the cruise, pay the staff better, and institute a “no tip” policy. I know why they don’t, but I still don’t like it.

The ship “strongly recommended” that we buy a transfer to the airport from them on our arrival in Copenhagen. They said that taxi service was very limited. So we spent $50 apiece for a 20-minute bus ride to the airport. On our way down to get the bus we saw about 10 taxis queued up waiting for passengers. A taxi trip would have cost about $30 total, so we wasted around $60. It’s true that the cruise provided private airline check-in, which was worth a little, but not that big a deal.

Tours and other Activities
The main activities we participated in were the shore tours. My favorite tour by far was the bike ride in Helsinki. They were simple, one-speed bikes with raised handlebars, but they rolled really smoothly and were very easy to drive. It was a delightful way to see the town.

Gisele also enjoyed the bike ride, much more than she expected to. I think her favorite tours, though, were those where we had an opportunity to shop. Most of the “shopping” places were tourist shops. However, that free time in town was also an opportunity to seek out a coffee shop, perhaps with WiFi, or wander the nearby streets.

If you go to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, try to arrange a tour on a Monday. As I mentioned in a previous blog, on Mondays the museum is closed to the public except the organized cruise ship tours, and was much less crowded.

I played a little blackjack in the ship’s casino. Before you play any of their games, read the writing on the table to be sure it follows standard rules. I stepped into one “Blackjack” game and found out after losing $20 that it followed quite different rules than normal 21. Should have paid attention!

The shows were pretty good. There was a magician who performed standard disappearing lady tricks. Not very exciting but he was a pretty good showman. There were singers, jugglers, and the Russian Dancers were very good. Most disappointing was the “singing sensation from Australia”. I suffered through 45 minutes of her adding heavy tremolo to almost every note out of her mouth. That constant vibrato gets on my nerves, but Gisele thought she was OK.

I won a few “Princess” luggage tags playing Trivia. They were often pretty hard questions; nobody ever got them all right, but a few times I got on a team that won. It was fun. Except the one time they asked “What happens to the level of water in a glass when the ice melts?” Any one who has studied freshman physics knows that the water level stays the same, but they erroneously gave the answer that it goes down. When I confronted the host later on, she said, “Of course it goes down — when ice melts it contracts so it takes up less space.” I couldn’t convince her otherwise from theory, so I did the experiment in my room and took pictures to document. I showed them to her later, but she was still pretty non-committal. There were other questions where the answers were debatable, but this one was so obviously wrong that I couldn’t let it rest.

There was a lecture on “Longitude” by a college professor. Having read the book, I didn’t learn anything new, but after the lecture we went up on deck and all got to look through a sextant. It was quite interesting.

There were lots of lectures on the destinations, and other points of interest, such as Faberge Eggs, amber (80% of which comes from a small region of the Baltic), diamonds, etc.

So the advice from all this is to look for interesting events and try to see as many as you are comfortable with. Most of the shows are good, and you can learn a lot.

Plan ahead, read up on your destinations, watch your money, and have fun. Participate in as many things as you have energy and interest for. Watch your waist line.

Tags: Family Updates · Opinion

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mom // Jun 30, 2008 at 8:47 pm

    Everyone who plans a trip to Scandinavia should read and keep your blog. It looks as though they could save money in lots of ways. But you had fun, most of the time. I’m glad you are back in good, old, hot Mesa.

    I just read that the language (my source didn’t say which country) is from the German.

  • 2 Don // Jun 30, 2008 at 8:56 pm

    Sounds like you had an excellent adventure. Bill and Ted would be proud.

    I bet the trivia problem sat in your craw for a while. I know it would mine.

  • 3 Donna // Jul 1, 2008 at 6:30 pm

    Excellent recap and advice. If (when) I ever take a cruise, I’ll take heed. Brian and Carrie had told me about not buying tours on the ship or even right off the ship, but to go farther into town, or at least away from the harbor to find them.

    I agree the tip charge was a sneaky thing and I’ll watch for that. I wonder how many leave a twenty on their pillow before realizing the cruise lines play this trick.

    I never would have thought the balcony cabin would be worth it, but reading your argument, it sounds rather nice. Maybe Glenda and I should book one for our Vancouver-to-LA cruise this fall. We’d probably enjoy sitting out there to watch the goings on and scenery. However, I think our cruise is only at sea during the night, so maybe that changes the appeal.

    Regarding the water level of the glass of ice water, maybe the stewardess was accounting for evaporation while the ice was melting. Maybe it was a really hot day the day she tested it, and lots of water steamed off into the air. (no?)

  • 4 Dianna // Jul 2, 2008 at 7:21 am

    We’ve always purchased excursions from the cruise line and thoroughly enjoyed them. But our first cruise was 15 years ago and it sounds like prices have gone up exponentially since then. Some I don’t think we could have done on our own, like a flight to Chichen Itza from an island we landed at in the Caribbean. But it is a good suggestion to find out what we can do on our own.

    We had a window on two and a balcony on one. We did enjoy the balcony but not enough to pay the several hundred more it would be on our Panama Canal cruise.

    We will research the ports before going. That is a very good suggestion.

    Glad you’re back safe and sound!

  • 5 Mom // Jul 2, 2008 at 10:06 pm

    Where are all those pictures you took? When and where do we get to see them?