Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Photos of my Travels to Punta Cana This has been a long time coming. I should have written this while on travel so you all could get a day to day account of how great my trip to Punta Cana was. For the few who are unaware, Punta Cana is located in the Caribbean. In the Dominican Republic to be exact. I took this trip as opportunity to celebrate my birthday (9/18), to take a break from work and all that has transpired in a years time, and to do a sight visit. Though short, the trip was well worth it. To book my vacation, I used Apple Vacations. This gave me the opportunity to review Apple's current customer service and to also conduct a site visitof the Iberostar Bavaro resort. I booked an early morning direct flight from BWI airport to Punta Cana aboard Frontier Airlines. Apple Vacations provided excellent services and was very helpful in booking me the best flight that fit my preferences. The customer service rep was very eager to please and answered any questions I had. There was a slight snag though...well two. I booked ground service transportation via Super Shuttle. When we arrived to the airport, I noticed that the driver assisted the first customer out of the van but when it came to me, I was left to handle myself. I can take care of myself but service really matters in business. I thought that was very rude especially since I'd tipped the driver well when I placed the booking. When it came time to check in, the representative at the counter failed to greet me with a good morning at least and started barking orders. Well, for those who know me well, you know what I did. I paused, looked the gentleman in the eye and told him that we will start this with a good morning. I smiled and then proceeded to give him what he needed. Going through security checks at 6 am was pretty easy at BWI. That was not a hassle at all. The flight was not bad either. On both flights I had an entire row to myself. I appreciated this because the seats are kinda cramped. On the departure flight, the airline offered free TV and movies. On the return flight, that was not the case. They also offered free snacks on the departing flight but did not do so on the return. Luckily, I pack my snacks. I'm a health nut as you can see from my post on the Fit4Travel FB page. We finally landed and I felt myself getting so excited. The temperature was at 80-85 that day and humid. So it felt like a good 90-95. I didn't mind so much because I knew I would be relaxing poolside within the hour. Apple Vacations, of course, provided ground transportation. Roughly nine of us were packed into a mini van. Not so cool. The driver and the coordinator were very friendly however. It is good to note that when returning to the airport, we were carried in a airconditioned passenger bus with reclining seats. We drove through the city and then hit the resort area. For those who aren't familiar, the resort areas are located right outside of the city. You can tell that they were built to look like a completely different world absent of the hussle and bussle of city life. The hotel staff greeted me with a refreshing non-alcoholic drink and proceeded to check me in. I arrived in enough time to grab some lunch and take in the scenery. The landscape was gorgeous. The front desk staff were great. They were so inviting. We arranged for my bags and myself to be dropped off at my room after lunch. The bell man was so sweet and I definitely tipped him for his assistance on the day I arrived and left. (Note: When tipping, it is best to use USD. I ran out of dollars when I returned to the airport and only had pesos. The guy who was not necessarily hired to do so, nor did I ask to assist me with my single bag got snippy). The rooms are comfortable for a family. It is a budget friendly resort that will allow both parents and children the opportunity to relax. It is not luxury but it is not cheap as well. The rooms are due for some updates. While there I did notice that they were pulling out old fixtures and furniture in some rooms. They may be in the process of updating now. Also be mindful that critters from outside (insects) will try to find their way through the pipes. It was not grossly bad. I hate insects. For someone who can tolerate seeing one or two outsiders, you should be fine. When I arrived to my room, fruit and the staple beer was waiting for me. I'm a fruit eater. I'm not a beer drinker. The room was neat and the temperature was comfortable. It was not too hot nor was it too cold. Housekeeping kept the room clean and would visit in the evening to prepare the beds for slumber. The beach was beautiful. I found myself walking the beach daily or resting by the ocean on several occasions. The pool was nice as well. As a single parentless traveler, I will admit I spent less time away from the pool. The resort is all-inclusive. That means drinks (non-alcoholic and alcoholic) were included. The bartenders could hook up some nice beverages and were prepared to mix a special tonic if your stomach was upset. They were very friendly and very entertaining. The same can be said for those who were designated to provide games and entertainment for those staying. Children were well taken care of if parents needed a break. Evening shows were fun and the food was good. My suggestion though, for the better dining experience, would be to book at specialty restaurants. The main dining area and those that are poolside provide a buffet style selection of food. However, it is prepared for everyone. Therefore, it was less flavorful than what was offered in specialty restaurants. I'm a gym rat so you all know I did not slack on my workout routine. I was able to locate the gym. It is not the best in the world but with 80 degree temps outside and no real air conditioning inside, an hour of circuit training will get the job done. There are barbells, cardio machines, and a smith machine. I pulled it off to accomplish my fitness goals. In line with that, I was able to stick to my diet. I did splurge some. It was my birthday. ;) When departing, Apple Vacations provided enough time to arrive and get through security. That was a plus because security was not a walk in the park. It seemed as if everyone in Punta Cana decided to leave that day. My tips would be to ensure that all of your goods are packed away (liquor especially), all documents are filled out prior to going through customs, and please please please make sure your passport is valid. Moreover, if everyone on your flight has arrived prior to take off, be mindful of the possibility that you may board earlier and hit the skies earlier than expected. All in all, the trip was excellent. If you go, stay away from the local salesmen who are constantly trying to get people to purchase cheap jewelry and paintings. If you don't want it, keep it moving. They will hassle you to the point where you want to scream or find different ways to get to your room.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Carnival Pride Review

On September 25, 2011, I embarked upon Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Pride at its homeport in Baltimore, MD.  The check in process was pretty simple and smooth.  My bags were taken care of upon arrival and the only thing left to do was board the ship.

The Carnival Pride, a mid-size Spirit class ship, was constructed in 2002 and weighs 88,500 tons. It can hold up to 2,124 passengers. There are 11 bars and lounges, 4 pools, and 5 hot tubs. It also houses David Steakhouse.

For those who have not sailed, to board the ship, you must walk through what seems like an endless enclosed ramp.  It’s fairly simple for the able bodied person; however, for those who have physical challenges, this may pose a problem.  Once on board, I was hit with some minimal chaos and fairly little direction on how to proceed.  Plan to walk quickly to grab an elevator up or down to your room or do what many decided to do – have a few drinks and wait by the bar.

If you’re familiar with ships, locating your room should be fairly simple.  After spending a day or two on board, you should be able to navigate the ship.  I booked a balcony room on the Verandah deck.  It comfortably fits two people but don’t expect much in terms of space.  When entering the balcony and the bathroom, be mindful to step up.  My suggestion to all would be to inspect your space.  Make sure every necessary item is available to you and, if not, give the stewards enough time to assist other guests before making requests.  Carnival has not fully stepped into the era of flat screens and still has some updating to do to improve upon space and aesthetics.  

The staff on board is exceptionally friendly and absolutely works for every penny of the $10 per day gratuity charged per person.  They make a conscious effort to attend to the smallest of details and consistently manage to place a smile on your face.  The cleaning staff will attend to your room twice a day, in the morning and during dinner.  They will restock your linen if need be, make the beds, clean, and leave little treats behind.  The young lady who cleaned my room throughout the week took a liking to me and would always leave a little extra.

The dinning staff is wonderful and definitely entertaining.  Dinner in the Normandie, the dining hall, is filled with many surprises.  On some nights guests were encouraged to stand up and dance in the dining hall, participate in a conga line, and laugh hilariously at the host dancing on a table.  The food is prepared well and many should be able to find something that will meet their individual tastes.  If  guests do not like something, all one has to do is notify his or her waiter and the matter is resolved.  For guests who prefer a larger selection of items, a buffet style dining hall is open and ready.  One can choose from an array of food choices.
Also on the top deck, guests can find the ships pool and outside bar areas.  Mixed alcoholic drinks on board range from $7-$8.75 and refills are $6-$7.  Guests can also purchase items like non-alcoholic Pina Coladas $4.75.  Guests had to exercise some caution while in deck because it is slippery when wet.  Guests are encouraged to take some time on deck to enjoy the scenery and the bands.

The ship also houses a fitness and spa area.  If you would like a spa treatment, be mindful that the price tag is not like your local day spa.  A 50 minute facial or massage could cost $119-$169.  Hair services along with manicures and pedicures are also available and are reasonably priced.  The fitness area is pretty small but meets the needs of those guests who want to get in some good cardio and strength training.  It houses roughly 8 elliptical machines, 6 or 7 treadmills, two row machines, and 4 bikes, and a single stair climber.  Also available is a outside track on the top deck and a basketball court.

The ship’s staff has come up with some creative activities to keep guests busy, especially while at sea.  Activities are designed for every age – ranging from a 80s and Motown music battle, comedy shows, bingo, a mixology contest, a hairy chest contest, arts, crafts, and games for children, slot machines, a sports bar to catch the games, a disco, a meet and greet for singles or LGBT guests.
The Carnival Pride docked in three locations, Grand Turks, Half Moon Cay, and Freeport, Bahamas.  It would be my suggestion to clients to book a tour in Freeport only.  Grand Turks is pretty small and not unless you don’t mind spending $30 to see a few historic sites, you may prefer to save your money.  Personally I wouldn’t mind because I am not sure when I would be able to return.  The highlight for many guests in Grand Turks, aside from the beautiful crystal clear water, was Margaritaville.

Half Moon Cay appears to be a man-made island.  Guests were shuttled over on small tour boats where they can relax, enjoy the warm water, sand, and food supplied by the ship.  Excursions are available for Half Moon, however, one would be better off enjoying the waves.  

Freeport was a delightful place to dock.  The guests had the opportunity to finally engage with natives and learn the island’s history and cultural facts.  Excursions consist of swimming with the dolphins, sightseeing, horseback riding, snorkeling, and a culinary tour at the Junkanoo Beach Restaurant.  It is here that guests can grab some conch soup, salad, fritters, coconut cake, fries, jerk chicken, and a beverage and delight him or herself in conversation with the chef, while relaxing on the beach.  If you are familiar with jet skis, they are also available for rental.

Your cruise experience will be what you make of it.  You can relax or you can be an active participant.  Rarely will you miss an opportunity to enjoy yourself.  All in all, Carnival provided a wonderful experience for large ship cruisers.  Additional word of advice: If you must utilize the internet while on board, be aware that wi-fi is costly.  You have the option of paying as you go or purchasing a bundle of minutes.  Pay as you go will cost $0.75 per minute and a bundle of 100 minutes cost $55.  There is also a one-time connection fee of $3.95.  

Just a note: Debarkation upon returning was not organized like Carnival said it would be.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Galapagos Islands

What’s approximately 600 miles off the coast of Guayaquil, one of the most popular sites in Ecuador, and is home to giant turtles, prehistoric iguanas and a variety of other unique species found nowhere else on this planet?  If you guessed The Galapagos Islands and the Galapagos National Park, you’re right.  This unique island is home to some of the most diverse and almost out-of-this-world creatures to ever walk the planet, and was a heavy influence for Charles Darwin’s controversial book, The Origin of Species.

The islands, which are heavily vegetated, are comprised of 13 large volcanic islands, 6 smaller islands and roughly 107 rocks and islets.  For most, including the creatures that inhabit it, it is considered a true paradise, its natural beauty running rampant, white-sand beaches lining the coast with lava tunnels and animals dispersed throughout.  Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, they are also well known by their nickname of “The Enchanted Isles.”

You’ll have a hard time finding creatures any more interesting (or with stranger names) than you will in the islands.  With marine iguanas basking on the rocks or blue-footed boobies flying overhead, you’ll feel as if you are a visitor on a foreign planet, one that has not been influenced by mankind.  It is the closest you will ever get to pure wildlife, and that reason alone is more than enough justification to see it.  Reachable via a short flight from Quito, Ecuador, the combination of the isolation and late discovery by humans, adding in the historical lack of predators, sets the stage for a unique environmental experiment, developing into arguably the greatest showcase of evolution in the world.

There are many islands that should not be missed, with the island of Floreana (Charles) Island leading the way.  With a surface area of 67 sq. mi., the island was named after the first president of Ecuador, Juan Jose Flores, whose administration took possession of the archipelago in 1832.  Ideal visiting time for this island is between December and May, when pink flamingos and green sea turtles nest.  Deeper into the island, the “Devil’s Crown” underwater volcanic cone is where visitors can observe unique coral formations.

Stretching over 5.4 sq. mi., Genovesa (Tower) Island is what is left of a large submerged crater.  Also known as “Bird Island” due to the population of swallow-tailed gulls (which are the only nocturnal hunters of the species), visitors can also witness blue-footed boobies, lava gulls, swallows and other tropical birds.

Baltra (South Seymour) Island covers an area of roughly 10 sq. mi. and is the site of the island’s main airport, which was built during World War II by the U.S. Military, branches of which can still be seen there today.  The island is also extremely arid, populated with wild desert flora, predominately cactus, and is a perfect location for surfing, snorkeling and diving.

Spanning over 381 sq. mi., Santa Cruz (Indefatigable) Island is home to the archipelago’s largest settlement, the town of Puerto Ayora.  Famous for their lava tunnels and one of the area’s best beaches, Black Turtle Cove, the clear waters are ideal for surfing and snorkeling.

Bartolome (Bartholomew) Island is a tiny 0.4 sq. mi. across.  Its most distinguished landmark is Pinnacle Rock, which is a stone tower in the shape of an obelisk reminiscent of the archipelago itself.  Visitors can also see seals and the Galapagos penguin, along with lava formations and recently formed volcanic cones.
Finally, Isabela (Albemarie) Island. Another home to the Galapagos penguin, it also provides shelter to marine and land iguanas, blue-footed boobies, pelicans, Salty Lightfoot crab, Galapagos hawks and Galapagos doves, all of which thrive in the lush vegetation.  The third largest human settlement, Puerto Villamil, can be found on the southernmost tip of the island.

The Galapagos Islands are a unique experience, and one that should not be missed by a traveler who appreciates nature in its purest form.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Royal Caribbean Announces 2012-13 Caribbean Cruises

Royal Caribbean International has announced its 2012-13 Caribbean cruises schedule. Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas, the largest cruise ships at sea, as well as Freedom of the Seas, Explorer of the Seas, Enchantment of the Seas, Monarch of the Seas and Majesty of the Seas will continue sailing a range of Caribbean and Bahamas itineraries year-round from five convenient drive-market ports, the line reported.

Six additional ships—Adventure of the Seas, Brilliance of the Seas, Jewel of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas, Mariner of the Seas and Navigator of the Seas—will offer even greater flexibility with four- to 12-night Caribbean itineraries, departing from four domestic U.S. ports in winter 2012-13.

Royal Caribbean’s 2012-13 Caribbean cruises onboard Adventure of the Seas, Mariner of the Seas, Navigator of the Seas, Brilliance of the Seas, Enchantment of the Seas, and Explorer of the Seas are open for booking immediately, while 2012-13 sailings onboard Oasis of the Seas, Allure of the Seas, Freedom of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas, Jewel of the Seas, Majesty of the Seas and Monarch of the Seas will open throughout next week.

In 2012, Oasis of the Seas, Allure of the Seas and Freedom of the Seas will continue to alternate between seven-night Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries. Every weekend, Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas sail from Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, while Freedom of the Seas sails from Port Canaveral along the Space Coast.

Throughout winter 2012-13, Brilliance of the Seas will take over for Serenade of the Seas and join Adventure of the Seas to offer vacationers two ships to embark on a round-trip, seven-night Southern Caribbean cruise from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Explorer of the Seas and Enchantment of the Seas continue their year-round departures from Cape Liberty in Bayonne, NJ, and Baltimore, respectively, to the Caribbean. Explorer of the Seas offers New York-metropolitan vacationers seven-night Bahamas and nine- to 11-night Eastern and Southern Caribbean itineraries. In mid-April 2013, vacationers also can choose a five- or six-night Bermuda or a nine-night Bermuda and Caribbean itinerary. Enchantment of the Seas, on the other hand, will sail seven-night Bahamas, nine-night Eastern Caribbean and 12-night Southern Caribbean itineraries throughout the season.

Gulf Coast vacationers will again have three convenient regional ports to embark on a Caribbean cruise in winter 2012-13. Sailing seven-night Western Caribbean itineraries, Navigator of the Seas will replace Voyager of the Seas as a new seasonal product from New Orleans, while Mariner of the Seas will sail round-trip from Galveston again. Jewel of the Seas will continue four- and five-night from Tampa, where the new five-night itinerary will alternate calls at Cozumel and Grand Cayman or Cozumel and Key West.

Liberty of the Seas also will offer four- and five-night Western Caribbean itineraries from Port Everglades. Additionally, Monarch of the Seas and Majesty of the Seas will continue to sail three- and four-night Bahamas getaways from Port Canaveral and Miami, respectively. These quick getaway cruises call at Nassau and CocoCay, Royal Caribbean’s private island in the Bahamas.

Friday, March 25, 2011

We sell Value, Not the Price Tag

Often times as travel consultants, we receive requests from clients with a specified budget in mind. Sometimes a client’s budgetary requests are reasonable while others may have some unreasonable expectations. In today’s economic environment, we all need to have a financial budget in mind. In fact, I encourage my clients to state what their budgets are up front so that I may be able to make recommendations that will fit their expectations. Sometimes, what I’m able to recommend as a consultant comes in a little higher or below what a client has researched via Expedia, Orbitz, or Travelocity.

However, unlike Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity, many travel consultants offer personalized services, expertise, and value through our extended relationship with vendors. In a number of cases, you will find travel consultants that specialize in a specific travel type or travel destination. Travel consultants spend hours researching destinations, educating themselves, and establishing relationships with hoteliers, cruise representatives, and airline reps to better serve our clientele; a clientele we hope are not mere window shoppers.

Often times, what we can’t beat in price, we can beat in value. You will never catch Orbitz, Expedia, or Travelocity, calling the general manager of a hotel requesting a little more in personalized services or discounts on spa treatments, wine and food tastings, or added amenities. It is very rare that you see Orbitz, Expedia, or Travelocity, continuously rewarding repeat clients with gift cards or gift certificates to their favorite restaurant or even tickets to an amusement park. I can never recall a time in which either online agency suggested that I not travel to places like Costa Rica or Panama during their rainy season or even advising on what type of travel documents I will need or how much I would have to pay in entry fees into a country. At the same time, we don’t utilize every vendor available on the market. We utilize trusted vendors that we believe will take care of our clients.  (Please read our previous post on why you need a travel consultant.)

Veteran travel editor and well known owner of Elite Travel International, Stacey H. Small, writes in Agent@Home magazine, “This year, I resolve to focus even more on getting my clients the best possible value for their dollar. This does not necessarily mean getting them the cheapest price, since what they expect from me is more for their money than they can get if they were to book direct” (p 36). This is the goal of any reputable travel consultant.

We are in the business of offering our clients the experience, not the price tag. We want to give our clients the gift of value, relaxation, and appreciation. We don’t want to just book you and send you on your way. That mindset short changes the client and is bad for business in the long run. We want to retain you as clients. We want to make you happy and we want to hear your lovely stories and view your photos upon returning from vacation.

I get excited when I know I’ve done my job well and pleased a client. If a client mentions that they have researched and spotted something cheaper than what I’ve offered, I always ask for a copy of what they have been able to find. I do this to ensure we are not comparing apples to oranges and to also see if a vendor can meet or beat a competitor’s price. It is always in a client’s best interests to share this information because we will go to bat for you. Hotels and cruise lines are constantly changing prices or marketing special promotional rates.

Because of the individualized attention I give to clients along with the added value, many of my clients are more willing to purchase a package that may come in slightly higher than Orbitz, Expedia, or Travelocity because they know that they are safe in my hands. They know that I will go out of my way to address a problem if anything occurs during their travels. They are also aware that I will take care of them after their return. Your dollar is definitely stretched further with a dedicated travel consultant.