Monday, December 31, 2012

Now Is The Time To Book Your 2013 Vacation!

Well, here it is the end of 2012 and you didn't get that much needed vacation in.  Oh, your intentions were good but for some reason it just didn't happen. Well, I'm not here to brow-beat you for that. No, indeed. I am here to show you a way to get it done in 2013.

I remember when I was a kid my mother would fly to England every year to visit her family. Now you need to understand that we were not wealthy folks. In fact we were pretty much on the low end of the socio-economic scale. But somehow she always managed to get that trip in.

I mention that for several reasons. First, lack of money is not a reason for not taking a great vacation it is an excuse. I have reflected on how my mom was able to make that trip happen every year and the first thing I realized was that this annual trip was a priority for her. It was an important experience to which she looked forward with eager expectation.

Vacations are important to you well being. They are a time of refreshment and rejuvenation. A time to relax and to simply be a family.  You will never take that intended vacation until you make it a priority. This annual trip was so important to my Mom that she would take on a variety of odd jobs to cobble together the cost. So, do like my Mom. Decide early where and when you are going to take that vacation and begin immediately finding a way to fund it. Mark it on you calendar.

Select your vacation date a protect it against any and all intruders.  In selecting a date be sure and make it as far out as you can. This will allow time to accumulate the needed funds to pay for the trip. I really believe that the vacation should be pretty much already covered financially before you leave to enjoy it. You will enjoy it more knowing that you know going home to a lot of new debt.

Deciding on the kind of vacation you want to take may not be as easy as ABC but it is important. The when of your trip will also inform the kind of trip you take.Still, the choices are almost endless.  Everything from close to home cruises to all-inclusive resorts on exotic islands. Visit a travel consultant for a whole range of ideas.  As you make your selections let your imagination run free but always keep you household budget in mind. You'll not want to spend more than you can really afford.

Book your trip early. That way you are invested in the trip and will be more likely to follow through. Besides, contrary to popular opinion the best prices are available early not late in the season.

Finally, develop a plan for paying for your vacation. If you have done well with your finances you might be one of the fortunate few who can just "write a check" and you're all set. However, most families will probably need to come up with a funding plan. This is especially true if a vacation has not been an annual part of your family budget.

I remember I used to keep a 5 gallon water bottle by the front door and every day when I came home from the office I'd drop all my pocket change in it.  A full jar of miscellaneous coins adds up to about $1500.  That may not work as well in this day of debit cards but you can come up with your own unique approach.  The point is, come up with a plan for saving the money you need to pay for the vacation.  I like the idea of a vacation savings account.

If you can't discipline yourself with a savings account make monthly payments on you vacation. Just calculate the amount need to be paid in full by the final payment date.  That way it is thoroughly incorporated into you family budget.

Don't miss out on having a vacation this year. Most cruise and resort vacations are more affordable than you think. You really do need to sit down with a Travel Consultant and check out your options. You probably have more choices than you realize.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Westcave Cellers

Whenever I am in the Texas Hill Country I try to visit some of the local attractions. More and more that means one of the local Wineries.   This week I found myself at a fairly new winery - just a couple of years old. Now the vineyard has been there for some time producing grapes for other winemakers in the area but Westcave Cellars just started bottling their own wines just a couple of years ago.

Located is just 30 minutes from Austin and right in the middle of some of the great Hill Country attractions such as the Westcave Preserve, Hamilton Pool Park and the Reimer's Ranch. It is also within driving distance of Fredericksburg and Johnson State Park. 
Allan and Margaret Fetty
This small estate winery produces several good wines including a Petite Syrah and Viognier. However, it was their red (they do have a white as well) Merlot that in my judgement is as good as any you will find in the Hill Country. Nestled just off Hamilton Pool Road you will there is plenty of room to enjoy a glass of very good wine in the shade of some of the huge oak trees. You will also find that unlike most of these Hill Country Wineries you can actually take you glass of wine and stroll through the vines of the vineyard or just enjoy a wine and cheese paring in the beautiful grove of oaks.
The first stop you'll want to make is the tasting room where you are just apt to be greeted by owners Allan and Margaret Fetty. It is there that you'll have the opportunity to try their wines and hear their story. I found this couple to be most personable and a joy with which to visit. Once you've made your selection you are pretty much free to explore the place. In addition there is a monthly pig roasting and live music event that can really make for an enjoyable evening.

Be sure and check their calendar for dates and times and plan your trip accordingly. As you know I am a big fan of Driftwood Winery just south of Dripping Springs. It is just really hard to beat the view that Driftwood provides. But when it comes to wine quality my Westcave Cabernet was as good as any I have had in the Hill Country. The ability to wander through the vineyards is another real plus. But I think relaxing in the shade of the wonderful oak grove with good company and a good wine makes Westcave just the place to be.

When you stop in tell them that the folks of Texas Cruise and Travel suggested they'd enjoy a Westcave experience. That and $8 will get you a tasting.

Location and Hours
25711 Hamilton Pool Road, Round Mountain, TX 78663
Mon. & Fri. - Sat. 11am - 6pm | Sun. 12pm - 6pm | Tues - Thurs. By Appointment Only

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Mike’s Old Fashioned Soda Fountain

Ordinarily I’d be telling you about some wonderfully exotic resort or secluded getaway where you can let your mind run free and your spirit be refreshed.  However, today I want to do something a little different. I want to share with you a little place we discovered in our own back yard.  It’s not a tourist spot nor a “just gotta see” place. It’s just a small business in our community that offers something very special to its customers.

Today I want to fill you in on one of Southeast Texas’ hidden gems that I’m betting most of the natives don’t even know about yet. But here it is, tucked away in our own back yard. Located on Port Neches Avenue in the heart of old town Port Neches, Texas is a little ice cream parlor that will take you back in time.  Mike’s Old Fashioned Soda Fountain will delight people of all ages. Indeed the last time I was here the place was packed with people ages 10 to 70 years.
I mention this place because I know that I for one am always looking for somewhere to take our out of town guests that is not just another run-of-the-mill place and not part of some touristy mall like shopping area.  The “Old Fashioned Soda Fountain” is a one of a kind venue that will help make the visit a remembered one.  In fact, Mike’s is so “old fashioned” that they do not take credit or debit cards . . . only cash and checks are accepted as payment. However, on my first visit because I was not aware of the “cash only” policy Mike offered to take my I.O.U. and let me pay next time I came in.  Now when was the last time a merchant let you do that.
The Soda Fountain  will especially appeal to those who grew up in the “Happy Days” atmosphere of the 50’s and 60’s.  Mike’s place is exactly as advertised . . . an old fashioned soda fountain. Mike Lisotta, creator and owner, has done an absolutely fabulous job of recreating this wonderfully nostalgic venue. The store is filled with memorabilia from that era. There is even jut box that plays period music.
Not only is the ambiance great but Mike serves only the best Texas ice cream . . . yep, that’s right . . . all you’ll get here is the wonderful taste of Blue Bell Ice Cream.  Whether you select a malt made on an old fashioned malt machine or a great Banana Spit (I opted for the Banana Split) you’re going to be glad you stopped by to say hello.
So, if you’re visiting us you can pretty well rest assured that somewhere along the way were headed to Mike’s Old fashioned Soda Shop and some Blue Bell Ice Cream.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

What Would Be Your Dream Vaction?

Like John Lennon, I am a dreamer and I'm betting that I'm not the only one . . . I'm betting you're a dreamer too.  It really is a big wide wonderful world that we live in and I for one want to experience as much of it as I can. But I don't just want to see it in my dreams. I want my dreams to become my reality. I think you feel the same way.

Over the years many of my travel dreams have come true. I've seen the Great Southland (Australia) with its magnificent beaches, wonderful cities, awe inspiring scenery and its wonderfully refreshing people. I've stood on the Athenian Acropolis and pondered the ages past; I 've walked the streets of the ancient city of Ephesus and relieved the ministry of the great Apostle Paul; I've overlooked Jerusalem and contemplated the life of Christ; I've climbed the Mayan Pyramids and stood in the temples of Luxor and at the foot of the Egyptian Pyramids. I have enjoyed the amenities of cruising the seas and the all-inclusive resorts. From Fiji to Jamaica I have been to the islands.

I could almost say with Johnny Cash:

"I've been everywhere, man.
I've been everywhere, man.
Crossed the desert's bare, man.
I've breathed the Mountain air, man. 
Of travel I've had my share, man.
I've been everywhere."

No, I have not been anywhere near everywhere. The truth is with all the places I've been there are still plenty of places I'd like to experience.

For me, each and every one of these trips began as a dream and dreams don't just come true. You have to make them come true. Had you asked me as a young man if I'd have traveled the world the way I have I'd have said, "You gotta be kidding me!"  I could never afford to do anything like that. And yet I did and so can you.

 So, where would you go if you could go anywhere in the world on vacation? Be sure and share your dream vacation in the comments section below. I'd love to hear about your dream vacation.

Because of my on experience over a lifetime of traveling I believe your dream vacation can come true. It can come true but it will not come true unless you take some steps to make it happen. To that end I encourage you to find and use a travel consultant in whom you have confidence. Don't have one then we will be happy to help. You can visit our website at Texas Cruise and Travel or contact us via email. Regardless, find a Travel Consultant you trust and build a good working relationship with them. They will do you good.

Once you have selected a consultant share with them your dream vacation and work with them to plan it. These folks know travel and they can help you in ways you cannot begin to imagine. So whether its a cruise or a journey to a far away place; whether its an all-inclusive getaway or a trip back in time your travel consultant can show you how to make it happen.

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard folks say,"If money were no object I would go to . . . . (you fill in the blank). Or, they would say, "I'd love to go to (again you fill in the blank) if it were not so expensive, or so far away, or so something or other.

If finances are an issue, start planning for the cost now. I suggest establishing a dedicated "vacation fund" at your local bank or credit union. Put money in that account regularly on a predetermined schedule. The amount deposited isn't as important as the regularity of deposits. We did this years ago and still use it today for all our travel. Once its up and running you'll be surprised how quickly you can cover the cost of just about any trip.

"You, you may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one I hope some day you'll join us." So, why don't you stop dreaming and start experiencing this wonderful world in which we live.  

Sunday, July 8, 2012

River Cruise or Ocean Cruise . . . Which Should I Choose?

River Cruise or Ocean Cruise . . . Which Should I Choose?  Well, it depends on what you are looking for doesn't it. They both visit interesting places and they both provide great food. So what is the difference besides on is on an ocean going ship and the other is aboard a river cruising boat.

Freedom of the Seas
 Today’s ocean-going cruise ship has it all: rock-climbing walls, water parks, ice skating, up to 20 different dining venues for your enjoyment (virtually all at an added cost), accommodations that range from small and basic to large and opulent.  An ocean cruise more like a Vegas-style vacation than a cruise. In fact when I started selling ocean cruises one of our selling points was that almost everything was included in the fare price. Over time something has happened to the all-inclusive nature of an ocean cruise, namely it has all but disappeared.  

I must say that there are a few small high end cruise lines that are experimenting with going back to being all-inclusive but at a high price. However, generally you can expect to be "nickeled and dimed" to death on an ocean cruise. You will have the choice of many dining options but for most of them you will pay an extra charge from $15 to $50 per person. Shore excursions are plentiful but only at an added fee. To be honest when someone tells me they can get a seven night cruise for $499 per person I just smile. You see I know that that $499 seven night cruise is actually going to cost the about $900 or more per person by the time the nickle and dimming is done.

On an Ocean cruise you will find yourself queuing up for just about everything. After all you are sailing with up to 4,000 of your closest non-friends. Most cruise ships are crowded and rushed unless you ferret out some hide-a-way where you can get some respite from the crowds.

Now don't misunderstand me. I love ocean cruises and I have been on plenty of them with a wide range of cruise lines from Carnival to Cunard and any number of those in between. I intend to experience many more before I am done. They offer a great product but you need to understand how it all operates. Ocean cruising is not as inexpensive as their fare prices might lead one to believe nor or they the luxury vacation they once were.

Additionally an ocean cruise will take you places a river cruise cannot. You'll not find any Caribbean islands on a river cruise itinerary. There is something about going down to sea on a ship. The open sea holds a wonderful fascination for us. I know that I love standing on the bow with the sea air blowing in my face. I suggest that if you are under 40 and have never cruised that you start with an ocean cruise and that you do so on one of the cruise lines that offer the Vegas style vacation (Royal Caribbean, Carnival or Norwegian). This is the one group that will probably enjoy an ocean cruise the most.

However, if you are one of those people who prefer a more intimate experience with a hundred or so co-passengers; who don't want to be nickeled and dimed to death; who want the "included" to mean 5-star luxury, world class cuisine; who want every room to have  a view; and free shore excursionsenjoy meeting new people.  River cruises on the other hand are pretty much the opposite of an Ocean cruise

Viking Neptune
 Cruise lines like Viking, Avalon, and Uniworld on average offer boats that only accommodates 130 or so guests and quest rooms are well appointed with every conceivable amenity.  As we said above, the food is world class with much of it prepared al carte at the time you order. Wine, beer, soda and bottled water are all complimentary. You will find that small-group sightseeing excursions are also included in every port. All of this facilitates your having a cruise experience that will produce a lifetime of memories not only of the places you have seen but the people that you have met.

So back to my original question, "River Cruise or Ocean Cruise . . . Which Should I Choose?"  As you can see the answer to that question begs the answer to another question of equal if not greater importance and that is, "What kind of cruise experience do I want and which one of these will come nearest to giving me that experience?"

By the way, you don't have to travel half way around the world for a great River Cruise. You can get a great River Cruise vacation right here in the USA. American Cruise Lines probably has a great river cruise within driving distance of your home.

Have you been on a river cruise? Why not share your experience with others? Done both a river cruise and an ocean cruise? Which did you enjoy the most? Why? Tell me what you think.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Last Minute Cruise . . . . is it a Bargain?

I have recently received numerous promotional pieces from some of the major cruise lines offering what they call "last minute fares" on their Alaska Cruises. As you know, if you are a regular reader of this blog, I generally advise clients to stay away from these last minute deals. I really believe planning and paying for your cruise vacation well in advance of your sail date is the best course of action in buying a cruise vacation. One of the reasons for this is that you can stop worrying about your vacation and begin anticipating it. Besides, I am not at all sure that just because a last minute fare is "cheap" it is really a good buy.  There is an old adage that says, "You get what you pay for." I believe this is especially true in buying a cruise vacation.

Now there is no question that the cruise lines such as Princess and Holland America (two of my favorite cruise lines) as well as others are offering some historically low last minute prices on their Alaska cruises. I've seen some cabins listed as low as $399 per peron based on double occupancy. However, you need to keep several things in mind before you allow them to run your credit card.

First, not everything is include in that $399 fare. Not included in those prices are port fees, taxes, gratuities etc. Be sure to read the fine print in the offer as it may add additional restrictions to your cruise experience.  Keep in mind that the left hand often takes away what the right hand giveth. Just saying, make sure you are buying what you think you are.

Second, the odds of getting anything other than a small inside cabin are slim to none. Oh, there may be a few outside cabins available on a few sailing but the vast majority of these last minute sales are for the less desirable inside cabins. Why, you ask . . .  well, they are all that is left. Early bookers of inside cabins have been upgrade and that leaves only inside cabins available. So, if your OK with a cabin without a view on a cruise where about half the value of the cruise is the view then you're OK. 

You will also want to remember that while a cruise fare may be cheap airfare is not. Airfare in general is up and summer airfare to popular destinations is up even more. The airlines know what cities and which days ships embark for their sailings and seats on flights to those cities are have been adjusted upward accordingly. These will not be available on Cheap Tickets.  Just a word to the wise at this point . . . summer airfare to Seattle, Vancouver and Anchorage (the principle cruise ports of departure for Alaska cruises) is up. In short what the cruise line leaves on the table the airlines have picked up. Before buying that last minute cruise deal make sure the airfare doesn't wipe out any cruise savings.

Oh, your going to use your loyalty points to get your ticket. Don't think so. I believe you'll find that the desirable flights have no loyalty point seats available or even more cruelly they may have just one.

Unfortunately airfare is not the only thing you should consider before shelling out that $399 plus. Truth is, whether your planning a summer vacation or contemplating a last minute cruise deal you need to focus on the ENTIRE vacation package and not just the cost of a cabin.

When buying a last minute cruise you'll want to adjust your expectations downwards. Keep in mind that you're giving up your right to choose and you are settling for whatever you can get.  As I have already indicated you will not get to select a cabin . . . it is probably going to be a small inside cabin.

Additionally, because early bookers have already selected their dining times you're dinning time will be assigned based on availability. Specialty restaurants will more than likely already be fully booked and so you'll be wait listed. You may not learn of your reservation time until moments before you are expected.

Shore excursions will also have been largely reserved by early bookers. So your choices may be very limited or you may just be on your own. You will also want to keep in mind that on Alaska cruises shore tours tend to be pricier than those offered on Caribbean cruises. 

Want a Spa experience on your last minute cruise. Well, get in line. The most desirable times have already been booked. The most likely available times will be when the ship is in port or when everyone else is at dinner.

Another thing to remember is that if you can't find some one to travel with you at the last minute your going to probably pay double as all cruise fares are based on double occupancy. It is worth repeating that these Last minute fares are available in very limited numbers on a particular sailing and they will go fast. Additionally, if there is one thing I have learned in the travel business it is that fares, both cruise and air, change in minutes. So, if your really interested in booking one of these "last minute" cruises you'd better do it now . . . it may not be there tomorrow.

Take my advice, save your $399 and put it towards the cruise of YOUR choice and as you plan a great cruise vacation enlist the service of a Travel Agent.  

Here at Texas Cruise and Travel we recommend Holland America for Alaska.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Going to Vegas . . . The Take a Look at This

Lobby of Palazzo
Emeril's Table 10
I just returned from attending a Travel Conference in Las Vegas where I spent a few days at the Palazzo Hotel. The Palazzo is a part of a large resort complex that includes not only the Palazzo but also the Venetian hotels and the Sands Expo and Convention Center.

As a guest of either property you have seamless access to everything included in all the properties. There is not a bad room in the place. Every room is a suite and the smallest is some 600 square feet in size and has all the customary amenities.  

This property has dozens of restaurants featuring such master chefs as Emril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck. These eateries include just about every kind of cuisine you can imagine but with a heavy accent on Italian. The facility has coffee shops and specialty (chocolate, pastry, etc) shops and bars throughout the complex.

Not only is there fine dining there are multiple venues dedicated to your entertainment. Live entertainment is everywhere. You have your choice of everything from The Blue Men and The Phantom of the Opera, wandering minstrels, the gondola rides on the canal, and artisans of all sort scattered about.
St Mark's Square

However, for me what really got my attention was how happy the staff appeared to be. I don't mean that they were just professional and courteous. They were happy in their work. Jason and Gretchen who worked at the front desk were not only efficient and knowledgeable they appeared to be genuinely happy. Even George, the security guard at to suite tower elevators always had a smile and a warm greeting.

I have stayed at some properties where the staff always looked as though someone was on their case and they'd just like to hit someone. You can be professional; you can be courteous and helpful; you can even be nice without really meaning it; but, you cannot be happy without it showing and believe me it showed at the Venetian/Palazzo property. This happiness was contagious and that made it really hard not to enjoy the place and its people.

Saint Mark's Square (see above) is the heart of the resort. It is a recreated Italian plaza. Early morning before the crowds arrive it is a delightfully relaxing place. Speaking of relaxing, don't forget to visit the Canyon Lake Spa while at the hotel.
Sports Gaming Area
By the way, when your there be sure and eat at least one meal at the Taqueria Canonita. I recommend the Vaquero Beef Rib. This Negra Modelo Simmered Short Rib with Chorizo Potatoes, Pasilla Oaxaca Sauce is fabulous.  Here as everywhere we went the staff was just terrific.

The Palazzo and the Venetian are in Las Vegas and that means gambling. Both of these hotels have large casinos which features just about every type of gaming you can imagine. It's all there. However, I mention it last because it constitutes less than 25% of the facility's revenue. The other 75% comes from Hotel and Conference business.

I highly recommend this hotel and resort complex whether your going to Vegas on a honeymoon, to celebrate an anniversary, or just have a family vacation.  Don't forget the staff at Texas Cruise and Travel can help you experience this fabulous resort property.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Shore Excursions: Where to Buy?

There are so many things we can do on a cruise that can only be provided by the cruise line. Among these are the on board shows, the deck activities, specialty restaurants etc. In fact, even when your a part of a large group that has it's own on board activities the cruise line plays a large role vis a vis rooms, equipment, food and drinks. However, there are a few things you can do that the cruise line has absolutely nothing to do with unless you choose to allow them. One is, where to shop when ashore and the other is shore Trips.

In both cases the cruise line will make every effort to convince you that if you shop with merchants not on their lists or go on a shore excursion provided by someone else you are putting yourself at risk of either being "ripped-off" by the merchant or missing the ship sailing with the shore excursion.

You need to keep in mind that that both of these are financial arrangements made by the cruise lines and that there is a financial incentive to the cruise line to promote "their" recommended shops and "their" shore excursions.

I know that on my wife's first cruise she attended the on board meeting where the Cruise Director spelled out in detail all the shops on their approved list. He told her how to get there, what to buy there, even how to get a free gift just for having that guide he gave out with her when she actually got there. I am here to tell you she bought it hook, line and sinker. We made every store and got every free trinket and literally missed the town, its people and culture. We came away with a guided shopping tour and missed a travel experience.

Following the "shop" talk she was treated to the Shore trip Desk's presentation on why she should only purchase our shore excursions from the cruise line. She learned how much walking was required, how long the tour would take, what to wear on the tour and whether or not food was provided. But most importantly she learned that if she used some other shore excursion company we would miss the ship and be left standing on the pier. Well, they really didn't actually say we WOULD miss the ship they just stressed that if we were late getting back the ship would not wait for us. However, cruise lines DO try to put the fear of God in people that they WILL miss the ship if they use anyone else.

Truth is, the chances of getting back to the ship from a shore excursion late are slim to none. Now, understand that I am not recommending that you wait until you get ashore to purchase a shore excursion from one of the vendors at the pier. I have done that and I have never had any problem getting back to the ship on time and I did save some money.  However, because I like to have my shore tours planned in advance I do recommend booking them ahead of your sail date.

There are a number of company's that provided shore tours and excursions to cruise ship passengers that are often better quality and frequently a better value than those offered by the cruise line.  A couple of reputable shore tour companies are Shore Excursions and Shore Trips.  One of the owners of Shore Excursions when asked about this said that while he worked for a major cruise line, "Not once in fifteen years or so did a guest that used third party miss the ship because of shore excursion operator issues."

Have your Travel Agent check out the third party tour operators and see if they don't offer something a little more to your liking. If they don't there is always the cruise line tours.

However, just because I do not know personally of anyone ever missing a ship sailing because of a late return from a shore excursion that does not mean I don't know of people missing the boat.  I've seen plenty of folks I miss the ship's sailing did so while sitting at a place like Carlos and Charlies'. But that's another story for another time.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Ever Been on a Cruise from Hell?

 Have you ever been on a cruise from Hell?  Sometimes a cruise "from Hell" is the result of mechanical problems or accidents at sea. These are really more than a cruise from Hell. They are a disaster and often are the result of the unexpected.

When I think of a cruise from Hell I am thinking more of that cruise you booked with the full expectation of having a fun filled family experience only to discover that the ship had a large group on board that dominated everything. Everywhere you turned, there they were. They were loud; they were pushy; they acted as if they were the only people present; and they had no consideration for passengers not in their group.  You just wanted to retreat to your cabin and hide.

Many people know that from time to time cruise lines charter their ships out to large groups. Some companies charter a ship as part of their incentive program for their employees. For example, State Farm has frequently chartered a Holland America Ship as a reward for top performing agents.  

 There are also certain life style groups that charter ships. For example, Royal Caribbean has chartered a ship in September to a "clothing is optional" group. Additionally, some religious groups charter a ship for their following. I remember when Charles Stanley used to do this for trips to Biblical lands.

Fortunately, "Charters" are not open to the general public so you don't have to worry about ending up taking your family cruise on a ship full of "Clothing optional" folks.  You just know that cruise is full and you will not be able to book it unless you meet the requirements of the chartering group.

However, not all groups are large enough to charter a whole ship. This is especially true in this era of "mega-ships."  So, instead of chartering the whole ship they form a group cruise on a ship which is open for booking to the general public. An example of this is a Drag Queen Group that will be sailing on the Freedom of the Seas in September (16-22). This means you could book your family cruise and discover that you are getting more than you planned.

I know I have personally booked myself on what I thought would be my best ever cruise vacation only to discover that I was sailing on cruise with a group made up of a particular group (600 plus people I learned later or about 1/3 the ships capacity) absolutely made the whole experience a nightmare. 
BTW - this was not a "clothing optional or a "Drag Queen" group. Just a large, loud omnipresent obnoxious group of people who had no consideration for anyone else on board. Had I known there was a group that large and of that nature on that sailing I would have selected a different sailing.

I only mention this because it is virtually impossible for a seasoned travel agent to know what kinds of group space is blocked on all the cruise ships let alone an individual booking through some online travel agency where there are few details given and no one to ask. Besides, if you were to ask someone the odds are they couldn't tell you either. The cruise line will not tell you because they don't want to hinder the sale of cabins not allocated to the group and the online booking engine will not know as it only checks for space availability.

More and more cruise lines are selling their ships as destinations in and of themselves. This is especially true of the mega-ships where just about everything you can do at a resort, carnival, fair, or amusement park can be found on board. The difference is, once on board you are captive to whatever you find there including the various cruise groups.

Now don't misunderstand, we agents make far more money from the cruise lines by booking groups than we do by booking FIT. The bigger the group the more we can make and the more amenities the cruise line will offer to the group. However, some groups become so large that they literally ruin the on board experience for other smaller groups and individual and/or family cruisers.

Here is what I think should happen:  I think the cruise lines should realize that it would be really helpful in servicing clients if they would publish either through direct e-mail or a PDF on their "agent only" websites all Affinity/Interest Groups consisting of 10% or more of the particular ship's passenger capacity based on double occupancy. That list should list the name of the group, the nature of the group, the ship and the sail date.

Another alternative would be to limited Affinity/Interest Groups size to no more than 10% of the cruise ships passenger capacity based on double occupancy. The cruise lines have a minimum group size and they should have a maximum as well. If State Farm, AARP, or some other special interest group wants more than that then let them negotiate a charter.

The advantages of this far outweigh any disadvantages that I can see. It allows the cruise lines to still fill their ships, it allows Travel Agents like myself to still work with Groups and confidently book Families and couples on cruises that will not become "the cruise from hell" because of the size and/or kind of Affinity Groups on board.

All travel agencies have clients whose vacation (and I might add attitude toward cruising) will be ruined if they book a family vacation on a particular sailing only to discover that an Affinity/Interest Group made up of half the passengers on board  dominate all the venues on board.

We understand that Spring Break is a great time for family cruises and apparently so do the cruise lines. I have never seen a "large" Affinity/ Interest Group on a major cruise line during Spring Break or Christmas Week. I also know that these dates sell out quickly and do so at a premium price. You may run into large crowds and obnoxious people during these sail dates but rarely would I worry about a "large" Group durng those dates. It is the other 50 weeks out of the year that hold the potential for disaster in this regard.

I understand that this does not happen often but it happens often enough for us to hear about it from clients. Why should the cruise lines loose even one future cruiser and an Agency loose a return client over something so easily preventable.

I strongly urge you, the potential cruise client, to find a Travel Agent you trust and let them do some research for you. Do your own research if you must but then let a seasoned professional confirm it for you. Most importantly, once you decide on a cruise let the agent who assisted you take care of all the booking details. It's the right thing to do!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Kemah Boardwalk . . . A Great Place To Go!

This past week we had the opportunity to meet my wife's sister and her husband at the Kemah Boardwalk in Kemah, Texas.  This is a local attraction that includes food, fun, and games for all ages.

As you can see from the photo on the left there is a rollercoaster for those who are thrill seekers. There are also a number of other carnival rides and attractions where fun can be held by all. There is even a carousel for the less adventurous.

In addition to the rides and activities there are a number of restaurants serving some of the area's finest sea food. You can get a Cajun style meal at Landry's or upscale dining at the Johnny Walker Room upstairs at Landry's. There is the Cadillac Bar and Grill as well as the Flying Dutchman. Not your style, then you can visit the Aquarium Restaurant for some terrific sea food.

You can even make it a weekend by reserving a room at the Boardwalk Inn. Located right on the heart of the Boardwalk and facing the water it is a great place to relax and watch the sailboats enter and leave the nearby marina from your private balcony.

An added bonus is the fact that there are all sorts of souvenir shops both on the Boardwalk itself and on an area just south of the Boardwalk and within easy walking distance. You're sure to find  something to help you remember you trip.

I personally enjoy the Boardwalk in May because the temperature is moderate and the crowds are minimal. On weekends, especially when school is out for the summer, you will find the Boardwalk hot and crowded. You really have to be a "stick in the mud" not to enjoy a day at the Kemah Boardwalk. I recommend it to couples and families alike. Like I said, there is something for everyone.

I know I mentioned a number of restaurants on the Boardwalk where you can find some great food. However, there is a restaurant just across Dickinson Bayou on Nasa Road One that offers some really great food.  Valdo's may be the best kept secret in the Clear Lake area.  I really like this place. They have their own unique twist on seafood. This isn't just another Landry's or Pappas seafood eatery. At Valdo's they actually use their spices!  Their Mountain Shrimp Remoulade is a favorite and their version of Pontchartrain is to die for.  The building has been around for many years but what you find inside is  really something different and unique. I don't think you'll be disappointed.   I know I'll be going back.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Cheap or Value: The Choice Is Yours!

Down in the part of the world where I live when you say, "I am going on a cruise," everyone automatically assumes that you mean that you are going on a Carnival cruise. That's because in my little corner of the world Carnival is the "cheapest" cruise around offering 5 and 7 night cruises out of Galveston and New Orleans. An in the interest of full disclosure I have been on my share of Carnival cruises. However, because I am "in the business" I know that Carnival is the least expensive cruise out there but I also know it is not the best value in cruising. To be sure you'll enjoy your Carnival cruise . . . I always do. So, if all your interested in is "cheap" we are happy to put you on a Carnival Cruise of your choice. (Don't think that because the fare is low that your not going to spend some serious money. Plan on doubling the per person cost of the fare as a minimum cost).

However, if its value you want we have some recommendations based on our own experience. If you are not interested in on board zip lines, climbing rock walls or a lot on on deck physically draining activities we recommend you consider Holland America, Princess and Celebrity. All three of these cruise lines offer an elevated level of service with Celebrity leading the way. If you'd like a little pampering these cruise lines will provide it and do so a a good rate

I have sailed on all three and have to tell you that when your cruise vacation ends you'll be refreshed and not exhausted. The food is good, the accommodations excellent and the service a cute above the rest. These cruise lines are all distinctive in what they offer. What they have in common is the extra attention to the details of your cruise. For example, when we boarded the Solstace (Celebrity) and the Eurodam (Holland America) we were greeted with a glass of champagne and escorted to our cabin. On the Solstace room service answered the phone by saying, "How may I help you Mr. Appleby." I almost felt like the knew me.

Now if you really want to kick it up a notch or two there are some other cruise lines out there that offer all suite accommodations, everything is included in the fare, and off the beaten path destinations. My point is simply that unless you are just looking for the cheapest cruise out there going to the same tired destinations then we are happy to help put you hang in there with the mass market lines. But if you want value for you dollar and some extra pampering and new destinations we are excited to help you book that deluxe cruise your heart really craves. If you don't think the value is there you can always go back to the mass market lines.

My advise is don't just grab anything that happens to be close and cheap unless that is what your really want. Instead, explore your options with a trained cruise counselor and make an informed choice.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

One Great Island Hotel - The GALVEZ

People who know me well know that I love staying in historic places. I'm one of those guys that will opt for an old castle in Europe over a modern luxury hotel any day. When I can I try and stay in historic hotels or boutique hotels. When I am in New Orleans just for some down time I always try and stay in one of the small hotels near the French Market and Bourbon Street area. However, my favorite historic hotel is nearby on Galveston Island. It's going to be even better now that the new Pleasure Pier is nearing completion. The hotel of which I am speaking is none other than the Galvez.

The Galvez Hotel is one of the nicest hotels in which I have ever stayed. It reminds me of an age where luxury was expected and no expense was spared. You will feel like you've stepped back into the past, back to the days when hotels were not only a place to lay your head over night, but a fully functional social club that catered to guest like royalty.

The Galvez was built 1n 1911 right after the devestation hurricane that all but obliterated the island. Known as the Queen of the Gulf she is a majestic structure located on the east end of the island looking out over the Gulf of Mexico. The style of the hotel is reminiscent of the gilded age in which it was built and her rooms have been home on the Gulf to such illuminaries as Jimmy Stewart, Frank Sinatra, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson and General Douglas MacArthur among others.

With 226 deluxe rooms and 7 luxuary suites, a wonderful Spa Bernardo's Restaurant, a fabulous lobby and plenty of spacious public areas the hotel can meet your holioday needs. Add to that one fabulous Spa that includes a full-service salon, fitness facility, hydrotherapy room, Vichy shower room, couple's massage room, relaxation room, spa meditation garden and water wall, yoga, mat Pilates, and personal training. What more could one need.

Actually, for me the hotel is a pleasant and relaxing atmosphere that takes me back to a simpler time. A time when life was more elegant and slower paced. It is a great place to make your Galveston Island headquarters for a terrific vacation. It is also the perfect place to set the tone for a large ship cruise.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Let's Wait For A Deal!

Jeff Erbele of Travel Impressions recently posted something on Facebook that caught my attention. I suppose the reason it jumped off the screen at me was because I have heard it so many times. Here is what he wrote: "We sometimes hear a client say, 'I would like to wait to see if the price will go down.'"

I have to tell you that if I had a dollar for every time someone said something like that to me I wouldn't be worrying about by retirement account.

I know everyone is looking for a bargain these days and I really can't say that I blame them. I too am looking for bargains and I am aware that when it comes to commodities new models drive down the price of the previous version. Every year when the new cars are announced the inventory of the previous year's models needs to be cleared. I was in Best Buy a few days ago and the clerk tried really hard to sell me a new laptop computer at what was in fact I terrific price. Problem was he only had one and I had to get it now and I really didn't need it. However, when it comes to travel it doesn't seem to work that way. Travel products have an even shorter shelf life that it literally disappears daily. So it is take what is available or do without.

In my experience every time a client put off booking a trip to see if the price would go down they lost money. In travel waiting almost always results in the price going up. Not only does the price go up the availability and choices go down.

It also usually means fewer amenities and on a cruise ship it usually a lower category cabin. Anyone who has taken one of those "last minute" bargain cruises can tell you about this. A week in one of those small inside cabins on the lowest deck in the very front or rear of a ship may be the cheapest fare but it is certainly no bargain.

People who wait to the last minute to book hoping for a better price usually loose financially all the way round. First, they generally get less value for their investment but they also have to pay the full amount of the trip when they book. Early booking allows you to incorporate your vacation costs into your budget and pay it out over time thus not straining the family budget. Nothing will ruin a vacation faster than worrying about the cost.

Early booking virtually always produces the best price, most amenities and nicest facilities. To begin with, early booking will usually mean better choices. You have more transportation options, more hotel choices and more cruise itineraries from which to choose as you plan your vacation. This means you will come more near having the vacation you dreamed than the one you for which you had to settle. You will not be getting everyone else's leavings.

Last minute booking has caught on in recent years because people have discovered there are in fact some cheap prices out there . . . . they may be cheap prices but they are certainly not a bargain. But keep in mind, you must want what's being offered and what's being offered is usually available because an operator needs to off-load holidays that nobody else wants (and there is a reason nobody wanted them) or an airline is desperate to fill seats on a half-empty flight.

One of the really neat benefits of early booking is that you have the months and weeks leading up to your vacation for excitement to build and to get personally organized to so you can actually enjoy your trip. Who wants to spend the days before a vacation worrying about flights, hotel arrangements etc. You'll have much more time to buy everything you need for your holiday, from clothes to plug adapters. Wouldn't you rather spend doing that than sweating the trip details.

My conclusion is waiting to book has a much higher risk of paying more for less than it has of paying off. What's your reason for waiting to book this year's vacation.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Gem On the Gulf Coast

Just in case you haven’t heard, Galveston, Texas is more than just a cruise ship port city. To be sure there are some fabulous cruises that sail from this wonderful Texas coastal city. Carnival has two ships (Carnival Magic and Carnival Triumph) that sail from the Island year round. Royal Caribbean has The Mariner of the Seas that does seasonal cruises and beginning this Fall both Princess (Crown Princess) and Disney (Disney Magic)will be bring ships to the Port of Galveston. In fact, Texas Cruise and Travel has blocked space on the Crown Princess and we can help you plan a cruise vacation on any of these ships.

But, like I said, Galveston, Texas is more than just a cruise port city. It is a great destination in its own right. There are plenty of great hotels like the historic Galvez and the fabulous San Luis as well as the Moody Gardens Hotel. There are accommodations to meet your every need from drive up motels to grand hotels.

People living in Texas know that Galveston is the place to go for some of the finest dining to be found anywhere along the on the Gulf Coast. Restaurants abound on the Island with some of the finest situated along the Island’s famous seawall or near the historic Strand district. One restaurant that is a must for visitors and natives alike is Gaido’s Seafood Restaurant. Gaido's has been a Galveston landmark since 1911 and offers some of the finest seafood on the entire Gulf Coast.

The question that I am usually asked is, “But what is there to do there?” Where do I start? First there are all the things that people on islands do. There is plenty of fishing, boating, beaches and other water activities. Just about anything you find on a Caribbean Island you'll find in Galveston and a whole lot more.

There is Moody Gardens with its pyramid shaped Aquarium, Tropical Rain Forest, Discovery Pyramid, 3D & 4D Imax style theaters, golf and much more. You can stroll through the historic Stand District and spend the day at the soon to open world class Pleasure Pier.

Then there are the annual special events such as Dickens on the Strand, Madi Gras and just a whole year of fun stuff . . . all that are family appropriate.

Truth is, Galveston Island is a great family vacation destination. There is something there for the whole family. So even if you are going on an exciting cruise vacation on one of the fabulous cruise ships be sure and arrive a few days early and discover historic Galveston Island. By the way, did you know that Galveston was once the headquarters for the famous pirate Jean Layette?
For a complete calendar of events and fun opportunities visit the Galveston Island Tourism website. Like I said, there is more to Galveston Island than just sand and surf. Check it out.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Are You and Your Trip Protected?

Recent events with the Cruise ship “Costa Concordia” has brought the risk we takes when traveling on vacation to the forefront of our thinking. We've all read about the tragic impact this event has had on the lives of the passengers and their families. However, some of those passengers will be affected more than others because some opted not to insure their vacation.

These kinds of risks, while they cannot be totally eliminated, can be planned for. The answer is insurance. Yes, I said insurance.

You may not be aware that you can insure your trip but you can. Sadly, about 50% of the time people offered the opportunity to do so opt not to buy it. So they invest thousands of dollars in a trip and then reject the security of insuring their trip because it cost a couple hundred more. I believe most of the time when this happens it does so because people don’t really believe they will need it. However, the simple truth is . . . they do!

Here are a few things you might want to consider before closing the books on your trip without buying travel insurance:

Medical Emergencies do occur and they do so at ALL ages. When you have a health emergency outside the United States, you could be left to pay for everything out of pocket -- even if your insurance might provide some reimbursement.

Medicare and most insurance does not pay for healthcare outside of the United States, so while your dusting-off your passport (you do need a passport if traveling to a foreign country) and planning that trip, it's good to know what you and your trip are protected.

An emergency health care event requiring hospitalization and medical evacuation can cost up to $100,000. In fact, in most such cases the only way you can get discharged is if the local medical/hospital cost are paid prior to any evacuation.

The U.S. State Department recommends travelers contact their health insurers to find out about coverage ahead of time. By the way, don't expect to use your insurance card as you do at home. For those with coverage, it is likely to be a percentage reimbursement and they will not pay directly the service provider . . . that will come out of your pocket.

Truth is, there are very few places you can travel that would warrant not having medical and evacuation insurance. There are a few places like Sweden where they have an excellent, socialized medical care so health cost will be free there. Anywhere else you'll need the insurance . . . so why take a chance?

The State Department maintains lists on its website of companies that provide medical evacuations as well as insurance to cover such a potentially costly endeavor. Your travel Agent (another reason to use a Travel Agent) can recommend a good Travel Insurance company. We recommend Travel Safe but there are other companies such as International SOS, and Travel Guard. I believe the Department of State has a longer list of companies on their website that can be safely used.

These same companies also provide resources in the event your trip cancels or is interrupted for any qualified reason. Some even cover cancellation for any reason.

However, before you purchase Trip Insurance you should make sure what you are buying will meet any travel/medical needs that may arise on your trip. I suggest you ask the following questions:

1. First and foremost check with your healthcare insurance provider and get the facts in writing about what they will and will not pay if you become ill or injured while in a foreign country. If they do pay, find out if they pay directly to the suppliers or do they require you to pay upfront and then they will reimburse.

2. Does the policy cover emergency expenses while abroad and if so what kind?

3. If your overseas emergency requires returning to the USA for treatment will the insurance cover the cost of evacuation?

4. Will the insurance cover you if you are engaged in “high risk” activities such as zip-lines, parasailing, hiking and climbing, off-road driving, and accident in general.

5. Be sure and ask about coverage for pre-existing conditions.

6. Are payments guaranteed and does the insurance pay directly to doctors, hospitals and other service providers or do they simply reimburse you for out of pocket expenses.

7. Do they have a 24/7 support center that can help you with arrangements.

So, before you say no and sign the insurance waiver make sure you have counted the cost and evaluated the position you will find yourself in should you become seriously ill or injured. I suggest, no, I highly recommend that you insure your trip and when you do make sure it includes healthcare and evacuation coverage as well as cancellation or trip-interruption coverage. It will give you one more reason to enjoy your vacation fully.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Is Cruising Really Safe?

Anyone who hasn't heard of the tragic events of the coast of Italy concerning the Costa cruise ship Concordia must be living in a cave. The cause of the accident is still under investigation and so we will reserve judgment as to where the blame for this terrible event lies. Our heart goes out to all those affected by the Costa Concordia tragedy this weekend - passengers, crew and their loved ones.

However, I do want to point out that the kind of tragic accident such as the one involving Costa's Concordia is rare. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, cruising is one of the safest modes of transportation and they are continually working to improve safety for its passengers.

So, as tragic as the Concordia accident is, we need to view it in its proper perspective. Last year nearly 20 million people worldwide enjoyed a wonderful and safe cruise experience. According to CLIA (Cruise Line International Association) more than 90 million people have enjoyed a cruise vacation since 1991. Couple this with the fact that on any given week nearly a half million people are sailing on one of the world’s 456 cruise ships.

According to the CLIA the cruise industry places the highest priority on the safety and security of its passengers and crew and has an excellent safety record. Cruise lines go to great length to ensure that both passengers and crew are safe. The last thing they want is for an accident like the one the Concordia experienced to occur.

The cruise industry complies with all International Maritime Organization (IMO) standards governing the operation of cruise vessels worldwide. These regulations are closely monitored by both flag and port states. These internationally mandated standards, treaties adopted by the United States government, govern the design, construction and operation of ocean-going vessels and are codified in the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention and its amendments. (Source: CLIA)

Other IMO safety standards which have been adopted internationally include: Convention on the Standards of Training; Certification and Watch keeping (STCW), which deals with crew training as it relates to safety; The International Convention in Load Lines; and the IMO's International Safety Management (ISM) Code, which relates to mandatory codes of practice. (Source: CLIA)

To ensure compliance all these rules the Coast Guard examines each new cruise vessel when it first enters service at a U.S. port. After that these vessels are subject to quarterly Coast Guard inspections. These examinations stress structural, fire safety and proper life-saving equipment. They also, observe the crew conduct fire and abandon ship drills. Close attention is given such key equipment as steering systems, fire pumps and bilge pumps.

The Coast Guard also closely examines the vessels and their operation for compliance with both international and U.S. environmental laws and regulations and has the authority to require correction of any deficiencies before allowing a ship to take on passengers at any U.S. port.

It should also be noted that the Center for Disease Control conducts regular inspections of all cruise ships that visit U.S. ports.

Our travel business is largely sustained by repeat clients and so we too have as a high priority our client’s safety (not to mention our own when we cruise). We want to be sure our cruise clients experience a safe and satisfying cruise experience and that everything about their cruise goes off without a hitch. We strongly advise our clients to heed all passenger preparedness drills in the event of an emergency.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Texas Hill Country's Best Kept Secret.

Today I want to introduce you to one of the Texas Hill County's best kept secrets and that is the Driftwood Estate Winery owned and operated by Gary Elliott. Founded in 1998 and located on 20 acres in the beautiful Texas Hill Country just off Ranch Road 12 about halfway between Wimberly and Dripping Springs is a great weekend trip.

The facility is nice but the view from the tasting room and Pavilion is nothing short of breath-taking. The property is absolutely incredible with one of the best views in the Hill Country. It is especially breathe taking on a clear day as the sun sets behind the vineyard. It is a must stop on every trip I make to the Austin, Texas area.

The spacious grounds and the outdoor pavilion make it a perfect venue for weddings, private parties or just a simple picnic lunch with some good friends and a bottle of one of Driftwood's 14 wines (11 are medal winners). A trip to Driftwood makes for a terrific end of day experience for couples and families.

As for the wines, my personal favorite wine is the Alamo Red but I wouldn't pass up the Merlot or the Longhorn Red. They also have a quiet nice Sangiovese. While available in a limited way in a number local stores and restaurants you really need to visit the winery to fully appreciate this Hill Country treasure.

There is a great interview with Gary Elliott on the goodtastetv website. I recommend you give it a look. I also recommend that if your looking for something close to home and not too expensive that you spend a weekend in either Wimberly or Dripping Springs in the Texas Hill Country and while there take an evening to visit the Driftwood Estate Winery.