Lessons Learned

It’s hard to believe but our trip of a lifetime is over.   They say travel changes you; I must agree. We have seen so many places and experienced so many cultures. Whatever pre-conceived notions I may have had about people and their lifestyles have been completely blown out of the water.   One thing that has been constant is that though we have seen many different lifestyles, from the poorest (slums of Mumbai) to the richest (U.A.E.), people have been nothing but friendly and kind to us.

This has been, by far, the longest trip we have undertaken (so far). It was, all told, amazing, though certainly not perfect. The trick, for me, is to not over-plan everything (I have been accused of being an over-planner!). At the same time, if things are not planned enough that causes problems as well.

When I started planning excursions for our ports, I figured that a few people might want to join us. It ended up that the largest group was 120 people! Would I do it all over again? Definitely not in the same way.   What was supposed to be a vacation started to feel much like a job by the time all was said and done.

Without going into too much detail, these are the things I will do differently if I undertake organizing group excursions in the future:

      1. Smaller groups; probably a maximum of 12 to 16.
      2. Only one group per port; having 3-4 groups of 16 is a nightmare.
      3. Don’t do an organized excursion in every port; do some on our own. Hire a taxi; do something as a couple (not in a group).
      4. Take a day off even if the itinerary doesn’t “allow” it; more than 3 days in a row of intensive touring is too much (even if you miss seeing something).
      5. Half-day tours are preferable to full-day tours. That being said, there are some ports that require a long, full day of touring, such as Luxor.
      6. Require either a deposit or full payment from group members up front.       It was a total nightmare having people either drop out at the last minute or simply not show up for tours.       Many of the tour companies insisted on being paid for the number of reservations. You have no idea how much stress was caused by people not following through on their commitments. I spent numerous hours negotiating and/or arguing with these companies regarding payment (not to mention trying to find people to fill those empty slots).
      7. Don’t add new people to the groups. Though we met some awfully nice people this way, once word spread onboard about the excursions I had planned, people’s friends started calling me to see if they could join. We had no rest in the cabin with the phone always ringing.
      8. I changed my outgoing voicemail greeting to information regarding the following day’s tour. Never again! That phone ringing in the morning and evening drove us nuts! I had assumed that people would have printed out the needed information to bring along; not so. In the future, I will print a page of information daily and post it on the cabin door. Anyone needing information can read it rather than calling.
      9. Stick to the stated itinerary; no additions on the day of the tour (no new stops added)
      10. If time is short, delete stops from the itinerary. Some companies tried to squeeze everything in rather than cutting out a site. Be upfront with people that this may happen (no whining allowed!).
      11. Ask the right questions of the tour company beforehand. Make no assumptions that they will operate as you expect them to. I am developing a list of questions to ask and will post it on my blog later.
      12. No stops at specialty shops (uncle Fred’s coffee shop, auntie Joan’s pottery shop, etc.). Be wary when the tour guide steers you to a particular restaurant choice.
      13. Verify what time lunch is going to be ahead of time. We had lunch at 3:30 a couple of times.       When breakfast is 6 am, that makes for a LONG day.
      14. Always pack a snack or two (see #9)

Of course, there were also many positives! Something that was a nice bonus was that due to all of the email before the cruise, we felt like we already had friends before ever embarking on the ship. For the first two legs we had 5-6 port stops before our Meet & Greet. We would sit in the atrium in the evenings and people would drop by to introduce themselves and chat (I had posted my picture on Cruise Critic so people would recognize me). We met so many nice people through setting up the tours.   Many people were very appreciative of the work that I had put in to planning and executing the tours. It really made my day when people would thank me for my work. And, some people even brought me gifts! This was totally unexpected and really touched my heart.

We were once again happy that we decided to use Luggage Forward to ship our suitcase rather than carrying it with us. It made our pre-trip days so much easier; no heavy bag to lug to the hotel. It also made it easier to take the train from Rome to Civitavecchia and to walk to the ship (or at least to the port shuttle bus).

Each time we travel we get a little better at packing. This time we did a great job! We had each packed enough clothes to get through 10 days before laundering. We were delighted to find that due to our Platinum status, we would each receive a free bag of laundry per week!   We had been expecting one per cruise, so had plenty of clean clothes without having to resort to hand-washing in the sink. The only item we ran short of was cold medicine. I had packed two boxes but Clayton got a cold about one week into the first leg of the cruise. I got sick on the final leg and we ended up buying a couple more boxes. Fortunately, we had some non-refundable on board credit (use it or lose it) so it really didn’t cost us anything. We did not use any of our other types of medications, but I am happy we had them just in case. Here is a link to my packing list: Heather’s Packing List.

Bring plenty of $1 bills. We needed them in every port; $1 for postcards, $1 for bottles water, etc.   Also, if you buy a $3 item with a $5 bill, your change will be in local currency. Better to carry plenty of $1 bills. You can always get more from the credit desk (by Guest Services) or the casino; both will break larger bills for you. There is a cash machine in the casino as well, so if you run short of USD, you can always withdraw more. The cost is (as of 12/18) $5.50 per withdrawal, which is cheaper than the 3% NCL will charge you (depending on how much you withdraw).

We had debated ahead of time regarding bringing foreign currency along and had decided against it. This worked out perfectly for us. When we landed in Rome we stopped at an ATM at the airport. We had already calculated how many Euros we would need for excursions as well as how many we anticipated needing for other expenditures. We always over-estimate but were able to use Euros for small purchases all the way until we reached India. We were very happy that we had not brought along Rupees due to the removal of 100 and 500 Rupee notes from circulation right before we arrived. We could use US dollars everywhere in India. Even if the Rupee crisis had not hit, we still could’ve used dollars or Euros for all purchase

We did get some Malaysian Ringgits at the credit desk onboard (cost to exchange money is $10). There were not any ATMs at the ports in Malaysia, though there were money-changers on the pier. We did not want to risk getting to port and finding that the money changers showed up at 9 am when we needed to leave at 8 am, so paid a little extra to NCL for the security of knowing that we would have cash in hand. We were in Malaysia for 3 different days and managed to spend almost every Ringgit! We also purchased Thai Bhat from NCL but due to the ship’s propulsion problems, never got to Thailand to spend them. We were able to sell them back to NCL, though, so we were not “stuck” with useless money. In Singapore we withdrew 20 Singapore dollars at the port building (ATM is on the 2nd floor) for walking around money; US currency is not accepted there.   I can’t speak to any other Asian ports regarding currency issues since we did not get off the ship in Chan May or Sanya.

I have had many questions about Skyroam. If you are not familiar, Skyroam is a portable internet hotspot that does not charge international roaming charges. You purchase day passes (5 for $40, so $8 each, though the unit comes pre-loaded with some “free” days). You can hook up 5 devices at a time to the unit.   Though it was not perfect, it was definitely worthwhile for us. It worked best while on land. Access while on the ship (only available while in port) was spotty. Sometimes we had great access; sometimes we had no access.   There was no access in much of the Middle East so we had to buy extra time from the ship to make up the difference.   If I hadn’t been trying to keep up my blog, the 250-minute internet package through the ship would’ve been sufficient for each 3-week leg (along with Skyroam). But, uploading pictures (even in compressed form) took forever.   So, we paid a little more for the access we needed. Not many ports on this itinerary had wi-fi access (free or otherwise). It was a never-ending challenge for those that did not buy any time through NCL.

It was a continuing challenge to keep up with writing my blog, especially when we had 5-6 port days in a row. I am not sure what the solution is to this problem. If I wait to write, I forget details and I feel overwhelmed. If I write immediately, I am short on time and tired. I will say that trying to keep up on the tours I organized as well as keeping up with my blog was too overwhelming. I can do one or the other, but not both.

We have revamped our future travel plans due to the Asia portion of our cruise being messed up.  As of this time, our future plans are as follows:

  1.  Alaska Cruise in May, 2017 (2 weeks)
  2. Norway/Iceland Cruise followed by European Capitals Cruise (August 2017)
  3. Celtic Christianity Land Tour of Scotland and Ireland (September 2017)
  4. Land tour of Thailand and Vietnam (probably early 2018)
  5. China, Korea and Japan Cruise (March 2018)
  6. South America Cruise – we are postponing this one for now

That is all I can think of for now! If there is anything else you would like to know, please leave a question in the comment section. Thank you for taking the time to read my ramblings. I hope you have enjoyed my blog.