Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Shocking Truth of Booking Your Own Vacation Online

How many of us use prepaid services? Our family uses prepaid gift cards and even prepaid cell phone services. According to our recent survey MANY of you use prepaid gift cards and cell phone services as well. But how many of us would pre-pay a service…and then not use it? Nobody…right?! Would we prepay a Landscaper…and then mow our own yard? Would we prepay our Tax Professional…only to prepare our own taxes every year? Would you prepay your Housekeeper…so that they could watch TV while you clean your own house? Of course not!!!! And yet every year MILLIONS of people unknowingly prepay for a service that they never even use.

How many of us have spent hours online researching our Dream Vacation…and when we finally found it…we booked it online. It’s okay to admit it. I have done it myself. I’ve spent days…even weeks looking for the perfect Vacay. I had seen so many itineraries and resorts that they all seemed to blur together. The infinite options literally made my head want to split wide open. My family was unsure if it was safe to speak to me. My husband would tell the kids, “Code Red…do NOT engage”. Searching for the “perfect” vacation can literally be Life Consuming. And yet we do it every single year (sometimes more than once).

So here is the secret that I want to share with you. Did you know that each and everysinglesolitary time that you have booked a cruise or a resort vacation online…that you PREPAID for the services of a Travel Professional? Each and every time!? GULP! Mind Blown? You name it…Carnival, Norwegian, Disney, Sandals…the list goes on! The cost of using of a qualified Travel Professional is already added into YOUR online booking. WHAAAAATTTTT??!!!! Oh yeah, it’s true. You paid for the use of a Travel Agent…and then did all of the work…only to have all of that money go to a nameless..faceless…Corporate Abyss. You paid for it…and never even got the chance to use it.

“But I am so savvy with booking online...why would I use a travel agent”? For one...because you have already paid to use one. And two, because when you call to talk to someone about your reservation you want to be able to speak with the same human being each and every time. Someone who is already familiar with your travel plans. Someone who isn't going to say, “you had better book now, because there is only one spot left.” Someone you can send a text message to and say, “Can you make my final payment for me? I know its due today, but I'm at my son's baseball game and I don't think I can get home in time to make it”. Someone who REALLY wants to know how your vacation went and wants to genuinely find out how much fun you had when you return.

A travel agent is all of these things and more. They are a friend, the wife of someone your spouse works with, someone you go to the gym with, or the parent of your child's best friend. Travel agents are a part of your community...people who buy insurance from you, buy cars from you, dine at the same local restaurants as you, and use the same local services as you do. My personal conviction is that I do business with people that do business with me. The person who does my taxes is my client. My dentist is my client. My insurance agent is my client. Reciprocity...Karma...call it what you want and it is still universal that the service you provide to others comes back to you. In an era where we are trying to keep more revenue in our local communities and ask people to “Buy Local”, “Support Your Local Small Businesses”, or even to “Buy American”, wouldn't you agree that the right thing to do is to become a customer of your friend...your neighbor...your local travel agent? Because why? Because, you are going to pay for their service anyway...so why not support someone you know...someone you are friends with...and someone who will care about you and your family? And besides, how cool is it to be sitting beside your friends at the local Sushi Restaurant when you get the opportunity to say, “Psst, there is my Travel Agent who just booked my Oceanfront Penthouse in Belize. They have such a beautiful family.” That has just a bit more prestige to it than, “I booked my vacation to Belize online”. Doesn't it? PS...if you had used a travel agent they would probably have warned you about the Manchineel Trees (Google it).

What is boils down to is that most of the time the offers that you find online are the exact same offers that your local Travel Agent can get for you. But you have to give them the opportunity. And guess what? It won't cost you any more than you were already going to spend online. Social Media and technology has helped to create a society where we are becoming more technologically adept...while we become more socially INEPT. Our kids are so sucked into their cell phones and tablet pcs that they can't even look a waiter in the eye to make their order at a restaurant. So I challenge YOU to set the example for them...to get out and REALLY be social. Go and meet your insurance agent. Sit down and meet your tax professional. And even find that perfect vacation online if you choose to...but call your friend...your neighbor...your fellow gym rat...and say, “Hey my husband was just telling me that you were just in his Veterinary Office for your dogs follow up visit. Well, I was looking at vacations online, and then the thought hit me that this is what you do for a living. I think I am ready to book. Would you mind taking care of it for me? You would?! Great! Hey would your kids like to come over this weekend? I'm having a birthday party for my son, he's turning 11 years old.” And if you happen to see me out and about somewhere, don't be afraid to take a second and say, "Hello".

Monday, January 6, 2014

3 Common Cruise Misconceptions:

Original Article by: Fran Golden
Over the years I've heard some interesting things expressed by people contemplating a first-time cruise. Even boarding cruise ships, I've had to giggle at some of the comments. Let's just say not everyone gets on a cruise ship confident they've made the right vacation choice.

So let me address three top misconceptions.

1.        I'm going to gain weight

You can eat four meals a day (or even five and six) on a cruise ship if you want to. Food is a constant – served in many venues, available at all hours. But a little willpower goes a long way. I typically start off well, splurge, and then end the cruise picking the healthy choice option, passing on desserts, and doing a lot of walking around and around the Promenade deck. On a good cruise, I break even.

2.        Cruising requires you to be formal

This may have been true if you were cruising in first class on the Titanic, but standards have gotten much more relaxed. You won't be able to wear shorts or flip-flops into most cruise ship dining rooms at dinner (some ban jeans too) but you can wear whatever you want to the casual buffet option. While men once wore tuxes and women gowns on formal nights, the term "formal" is now more akin to what you'd wear at any nice restaurant. Some lines including Windstar Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line never require you to dress up.

3.        I'm going to be bored

It's true when you are on a cruise ship at sea you aren't required to do anything. It is not true that there is nothing to do. There are constant activities day and night. On a recent Holland America Line cruise in Alaska, during a one-hour afternoon time slot, I could have: played bocce ball, gone to a sidewalk sale, taken an acupuncture seminar, learned some new computer skills, taken a Pilates class, participated in a slots tournament, taken a dance class or sat by the pool. Finding time to nap is the real issue.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Ten Cruise Tips
Tip 1: Pack your carry-on bags wisely. Pack a change of clothes and important meds or toiletries in the bags you will take on the plane and personally transport onboard. This is important for two reasons: First, if your luggage gets lost by the airline on the way to your cruise, at least you'll have some essentials with you. It can take a while for your luggage to be found and then shipped to the next port of call. Second, in case your suitcases are delayed in being delivered to your cabin, you'll have a bathing suit or dinner attire on hand and can enjoy all the onboard activities right away, rather than waiting for your bags to show up.
Tip 2: Know the dress codes.  While some folks still like to dress to the nines (formal gowns and tuxedos) for ships' formal nights, most people dress in business attire (suit for men, cocktail garb -- flowing pants suits or silk dresses -- for women). The irony is that the more luxurious the line (with the exception of the upscale Crystal Cruises, whose passengers really do like to dress up), the more elegantly casual passengers dress. The more contemporary the line -- like Carnival and Royal Caribbean -- the dressier folks are on formal occasions. If you love to dress up, know that some lines do offer tux rentals so you don't have to pack your own. Allergic to formal wear? Most cruise lines offer buffet-style dining for dinner, even on formal nights (or sup in your cabin via room service). Check out our comprehensive feature on cruise line dress codes.
Tip 3: Consider doing laundry onboard.  If you want to pack light (and do laundry en route), make sure to read our cruise reviews -- not all ships offer free (or for-fee) laundromats. Otherwise, laundry is a service provided by cruise lines, but it can get expensive (though cruise lines often offer complimentary laundry and pressing services to suite guests and top-tier past passengers). You can always save on laundry costs by bringing travel detergent and rinsing out underwear and shirts in your cabin's bathroom, or packing a bottle of travel-sized Febreze to get one more day's use out of a gently worn outfit.
Tip 4: Don't assume your favorite toiletries will be in your cabin.  You'll always find basic toiletries onboard, such as soap and shampoo. In main cabins on some cruise lines -- Royal Caribbean, NCL, Carnival -- toiletries offered are limited (in some cases to pump bottles of mystery soap affixed to the wall), so you may want to make room in your luggage for your favorite brands. Same goes for hair dryers. Most staterooms come with weak dryers so if you're picky, pack your own.
Tip 5: Bone up on the bathrobe policy.  In most cases, you don't need to pack a bathrobe. They're provided in all cabins on most luxury lines, as well as mainstream lines like Carnival and Holland America, and in balcony cabins and above on most other lines. On Princess, they're available by request. If you're not sure if your cabin will come with a robe, read the FAQ section of your cruise line's Web site or ask your travel agent (or on Cruise Critic's message boards). But be forewarned: Bathrobes aren't souvenirs. You have to pay if you like yours so much you want to take it home.
Tip 6: Dress for your destination.  Simply put, some places are more formal than others. Expect to pack more resort-casual wear if traveling to Europe (all regions) or Bermuda (duffer alert: golf courses in Bermuda have strict dress codes). In contrast, other cruise itineraries are more casual than the norm -- in that category we include Hawaii, the Mexican Riviera, the Caribbean and French Polynesia. And don't forget to think about your in-port activities; flip flops are fine for a beach day, but you'll want more comfortable shoes for long days of sightseeing or active excursions like hiking or biking.
Tip 7: Save some room in your suitcase.  Don't forget that you're likely to pick up at least a few souvenirs during your cruise and that you'll need room in your luggage to bring them home. This is particularly prevalent on Hawaiian-based itineraries where, by voyage's last night, just about everyone has dispatched their continental garb for Aloha-wear. Consider packing an extra duffle that can fold up into your suitcase on the way to the cruise and later be filled and checked for the trip home.
Tip 8: Mix and match.  If you can make your clothes do double duty, you won't be hit with excess bag fees or find yourself fighting with your spouse about who gets the last hanger in the cabin's small closet. Stick with one color theme so you can re-wear bottoms with different tops, or bring shirts that can be dressed up for dinner on one night and worn sightseeing the next. Opt for the layered look to handle differing temperatures in the various cruise ports. Change up the look of one formal outfit with different accessories (jewelry, ties, scarves), rather than bring two suits or cocktail dresses. Remember -- you will never see most of these people again (with thousands onboard, you might not see the same person again before the cruise ends!), and most won't remember if you wear the same outfit twice.
Tip 9: Remember the basics.  Most cruise ship cabins don't come with alarm clocks, so if you want to know the time and set an alarm (rather than a phone wakeup call), bring your own. If you're using your cell phone for this job, make sure you don't incur roaming charges simply by leaving it on in foreign waters. Other items you might want to pack because they're not provided or super-expensive to buy onboard include: extra hangers, over-the-counter meds, batteries, camera memory cards, sunscreen, ear plugs, plastic bags for transporting liquids or wet things (or keeping water out of your gear on water-based tours) and power strips to charge all your electronics.
Tip 10: Keep all important documents with you.  Always make sure you pack your necessary IDs and cruise documents -- and never pack them in your checked luggage. You'll want your passport or other photo ID and cruise ship boarding pass on hand, so even if your suitcase misses the boat, you can get onboard. Make sure you have the correct type of identification, as wannabe cruisers have been turned away from the pier for having just a copy of their birth certificate (and not the required original) or a passport with a name that doesn't match the one on the ship's manifest (often in the case of a honeymoon cruise). Also, remember to acquire any necessary visas and immunizations necessary for your cruising region and carry them with you, too.