Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Nickels and Dimes

It seems as if the common carriers (airlines and cruise ships) want to nickel, dime, and dollar you to death. Take, for example, our last cruise. We thought it was all paid for. However, when we got our final bill, it was a shock. Sure, I like shopping on the ship, but $10.50 a night per person to tip all of the people who supposedly helped you? To me, this is just a way for the ship company to make extra money to pay the salaries of the crew. When we first went on cruises, we had envelopes given to us so we could give the cabin attendant and dining room staff tips. Now we can't even get good service in the dining room because the staff already knows they will be tipped, no matter how good or bad the service is. We always gave our cabin attendant extra because every one that we have had on the many cruises that we have taken has done a superior job. No wonder cruise ship jobs are so lucrative to people who are not US natives!

Shore excursions are another very expensive added expense. Why do you have to have a gourmet meal during a shore excursion? The restaurants on the shore excursions try to make the meal as ethnic as possible - then passengers get ill and are confined to their cabins for stomach problems caused by eating unfamiliar food. No wonder nobody would eat the chicken feet in China! And why do we get taken to very expensive shopping venues to purchase items that must be shipped home instead of going into the local marketplaces?

Up to now, we have not paid for luggage to fly either domestically or internationally. Now we are told by our airline that for our October trip overseas, we must pay $50.00 for a second checked bag. That defeats my purpose of taking the 22-inch carry-on onboard, putting a backpack in my large suitcase, checking the carry-on full of items we have purchased on the way home, and using the backpack as my carry-on. I just hope we can really squash Hard Rock bears in the one suitcase along with clothes, shoes, everything else we've bought, etc. Or we'll just have to shop less.

And you would think that you would get a gourmet meal on the plane for the price you have to pay for a turkey sandwich and can of Pringles. Think again!

We just need to remember that there are a lot of hidden costs in travel. And although we do pay a fee and a higher exchange rate, it is still good to get foreign money in the US - beats standing in line at airports to exchange money at even higher exchange rates than you originally paid in the US. You'll have your train or taxi fare in hand when you need it.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Very Thankful

I am thankful that the delegation from my church who were supposed to spend 9 days in Honduras are safely back in the US. It must have been a harrowing experience to be in a country where the government was overtaken, knowing that you had to find your way home the easiest and fastest way possible. According to the emails and Facebook messages that I have received, the group left their location in the southwestern part of Honduras and rode in an old school bus traveling very fast over very mountainous roads. They were stopped at eight checkpoints and arrived at the Tegucigalpa airport only 10 minutes before the plane to Houston took off. One of the members said it was really scary for a soldier with an assault rifle to board the bus and demand to see your passport in a language you didn't understand.

Bill and I went on a mission trip to Honduras two years ago. Although we stayed in the capital and worked at a medical clinic, we were told to not even walk down the street unless we were in a large group. For a couple who walks in cities all over the world independently, this was quite a change. One night we decided to go to a fast-food restaurant across the street from our 5-star Marriott and quickly changed our minds. I am not used to being in a place where all businesses have an armed guard and the majority of buildings have razor wire on them.

The best part of the trip was seeing the people of Honduras and helping them. These people are so thankful for our help. One lady was so happy with the used eyeglasses that she got that she gave all of the ladies in the group a gift. Mine was a crocheted doorknob hanger in the shape of a dress and it now occupies a prominent place in my china cabinet. The children are precious. You can see my video for Honduras at http://www.mlbuchanan.com/Honduras2007.wmv. The video is also on YouTube under my name Read2gro for those people who cannot access .wmv files. We taught them Bible lessons at the clinic and they were so excited to go home with a Jesus puppet made out of a paper bag. We went to the hospital with stuffed animals for the children who were patients and the parents swarmed around us to get them. This makes me very appreciative of what I have in the United States.

I hope that in the future, this military action in Honduras does not prevent Americans from going down there to help the people and to teach them about God. It is a very rewarding experience to be able to help others.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


We have taken cruises to many different parts of the world. While cruising is not the ideal way to see the interiors of countries, it does have some advantages. One is that you are in the same room each night and don't have to drag luggage from hotel to hotel. Another is that you can get food on board the ship so you don't have to worry about local cuisine and its problems. Many times you don't even have to change money into local currencies because the ports will take American dollars.

However, there are disadvantages of cruising besides the fact that it is hard to see the interiors of countries. Although food is available at all times, you do get tired of it, especially if you are on a long cruise. I am not a fan of ethnic eating and on the last cruise, it seemed as if you had very little choices, even in the buffet, besides the food of the country that the ship was featuring that night. I am one of the only people who loses weight on a cruise because I find the desserts, although very plentiful, too rich for me.

Shore excursions are very expensive. It is no fun to sit on a crowded bus where the air conditioning doesn't work properly to see cities four hours away from the ship. It is also interesting to note that you are usually taken to very expensive souvenir shops on the tour where someone profits instead of being allowed to shop the local markets. On one tour in Marrakech, we were taken to one of those expensive shops where few people purchased items; yet were rushed through the souks where we would have enjoyed bargaining with the local merchants. Also the tours guides that are on the shore excursions may be great guides or may be mediocre - it's just the bus you are assigned to that determines who your guide may be. See my post on tour guides a while back.

Lunch on shore excursions can be an interesting experience. The tour companies try to make the food served indicative of the native cuisine. That is fine in Israel, where we were served regular meats and vegetables raised on a kibbutz, but in China, it is a different story. I always like to know what I am eating and how it is seasoned. A sample menu should be provided along with excursion information.

Embarking and disembarking can be the best or worst part of the cruise depending on port regulations. I loathe being forced out of my room on disembarkation day only to sit in a public area for three hours waiting for my color to be called. Most of the time embarkation is not a problem but once someone in line let an entire busload of people get ahead of us and another time we had to wait outside in the hot sun for over a hour.

We have chosen anytime dining on our past two cruises. This means that we supposedly eat when we want and with whom we want to eat. However, to get a table for two means making a reservation first thing in the morning. Otherwise you will get stuck with someone who takes the entire time to go through one course. And the waiters won't start the next course until everyone has finished the present course. I am just not in the habit of taking two hours to finish a meal. After a 9-hour tour, it is a lot easier to eat in the buffet, where you get the same food as in the formal dining room, just not the presentation. Fine with me.

Balcony cabins are great. You can take pictures as you come into port, sit outside in privacy, and have a great window to view the ocean. But you can look out over someone else's balcony or they can look down over yours, depending on the architecture of the ship. And 90% of the time, your balcony is near that of a person who smokes the smelliest cigar ever known to man.

You think you got a deal on your cruise? You will think again when you see your shipboard account at the end of the cruise. In addition to your expensive short excursions, bargains from the gift shop that you couldn't do without, and the cost of soft drinks and bottled water (if you forget to purchase it in port on the previous stop), the cruise line tacks on a daily resort fee that is usually $10.50 to $11.00 per person per day. It can get expensive on a longer cruise. Some people have shipboard bills higher than what they actually paid for the cruise, especially if they spend a lot of time in the lounges (which we don't).

I do enjoy cruises. I like someone else making the bed, cleaning the bathroom, and cooking my free food. I like looking out at the ocean. I like going to bed at night feeling the rocking of the ship (if it isn't too much). But the points above are points to consider when booking your next sea vacation.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

You Can Get Help Sometimes

Travel is fun, but there are also problems associated with it such as late planes which are usually very crowded, lost luggage, and other incidents which I have mentioned in my blogs. However, on recent trip to Europe, we encountered several outstanding airline employees whom I want to mention because of their positive attitudes of helping passengers out in times of need.

In March, I went to Paris to visit a relative. I really dreaded coming back through Charles de Gaulle airport because of the problems my husband and I had trying to board our flight. I made sure I got to the airport in plenty of time for my 9:00 a.m. flight - even taking an expensive taxi rather than the train (mainly because Daylight Savings Time took effect the night before and I didn't want to be in the RER tunnels at 5:30 a.m. on a Sunday). Air France has really improved their international flight process and it was very easy checking in.

Oops! When I checked in I forgot that I had two jars of Mirabella jelly in my carry-on. Of course security would not let me take those on the plane. I went back to Air France's check-in area to see if I could get my luggage back. Of course they said no. I explained my dilemma and they told me I could check my carry on, which, unfortunately, was one of those bags that you fold up when you leave home and open up when you buy too many souvenirs to put in your suitcase. I was very worried but the personnel actually took the jelly jars, wrapped them in several layers of plastic as well as the extra clothes that I had in my carry-on, put the bag in two sturdy plastic bags, and checked them. When I got to Atlanta, everything was fine. Since I had to open my checked luggage for my heavy coat after Customs and before rechecking it for my connecting flight, I put the plastic bag with the jelly in my checked luggage. Guess who had a TSA card in my suitcase when I got home.

In May, we flew to Portugal to get on a cruise. When we got to Atlanta, we found out that the connecting flight to Newark, where we had to go to get our Lisbon flight, was over two hours late. Consequently, we would miss our connection. I went to the Continental ticket counter where I received excellent service from an employee who spent over a hour trying to find an alternate solution. She was successful, although we got to Lisbon late in the afternoon instead of mid-morning. She also told me how to make sure my luggage got on the correct flight and when we arrived in Lisbon, our luggage arrived, too. Unfortunately, some of the items in the luggage got wet because of a storm in Atlanta while we were waiting for our new flight (I'm sure the checked baggage was in the carts on the tarmac waiting to be loaded) but I was so glad to have the suitcases that I didn't complain. After all, it was easy to spread the clothes out in the hotel room to dry.

I applaud airline employees who go the extra mile for passengers. It makes a trip a much more positive experience.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Watch Out!

The worst part of any trip out of the United States is trying to re-enter the United States. I'm not really talking about the customs process itself, but the attitude of people in other countries who make you feel like a criminal for just wanting to get home.

After checking a piece of luggage on your way out of the United States, you are directed to take it to a large scanning device so it can be x-rayed to make sure that you don't have any forbidden articles in it. On a recent trip, my luggage was opened and searched, but fortunately I did not find out about it until I opened it later on and found a little card from the TSA letting me know that my bag was one of those picked for searching (probably because of the toiletries I had in it). However, leaving another country to re-enter the United States is another story. Several times we have had to stand in long lines only to have the luggage that we wanted to be checked hand searched only after the searcher put on rubber gloves to make sure that he or she didn't pick up any diseases from our dirty underwear and other clothing that filled our suitcases.

At a recent hand check of carry-on luggage after the scanner at security saw something weird, the searcher mentioned scissors that I carried in a cosmetic bag. It was only after I showed her the scissors had a dull point that I was allowed to re-pack it. She did take my sewing kit and safety pins, which had survived many other trips, and wanted to take my alarm clock. Now why would a simple sewing kit, safety pins, and an alarm clock be dangerous? Fortunately I got to keep the alarm clock but I had a bad taste in my mouth for being hassled like that.

Why can't the countries of the world unite in deciding what is permissible to take on a plane with you? Why can we take a bottle of water purchased after we go through security in the United States and why can we take an opened bottle of water purchased anywhere in Mexico on a domestic flight, only to have it taken away before boarding the plane that will take you to the U.S.? In Europe, you can buy water and have it put in a sealed bag to take on the plane, but I had a hassle with the representatives of another country and finally produced a doctor's card which said I had had stomach surgery and had to have water with me. This bottle of water was taken away at U.S. customs when I arrived in the U.S. but at least I could buy another in the airport for my final flight home.

It is really hard to pack to visit other countries because you never know what is allowed and what is not. I can imagine how our enemies are laughing at us behind our backs because of the hassles we go through before we reach the friendly skies.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Traveling Light

In March, I will get a real experience in traveling light. I will be going to France for a few days to visit a relative and since I am traveling alone, it is imperative that I take as little as possible. It is very hard for someone who weighs under 110 pounds to be loaded with multiple bags to try to carry on a plane, through the Atlanta and Charles de Gaulle airports, and on the RER and metro system in Paris. Therefore I pledge to take one 18-inch carry-on and 1 large healthy back bag for my three nights in Paris.

Fortunately, there are clothes made for travelers that do not wrinkle and can be washed and hung to dry overnight without problems. Unfortunately, these clothes are a little heavier than twill pants but fortunately not as heavy as jeans. I have pants in several colors since I also wear them for dress occasions and they are comfortably large, since they don't come in a size smaller than Chico's Size 0 (regular size 4-6). I hope I can squeeze an extra pair of shoes in my luggage as well as makeup, toiletries, sleeping attire, underwear, etc.

Fortunately I have been to Paris before and know where I am going. Last time I went alone I had no problems with a backpack and a 21-inch carry-on going over there but when I went to board the plane to return to the U.S., the official told me I would have to check one of them because the backpack was too large and too full to be considered a personal item. I had several things in the backpack that I definitely did not want to leave at the mercy of U.S. Airways (we had had problems before with checked luggage coming through Charles de Gaulle) so I ended up going to the restroom and completely repacking. Fortunately I had a small healthy back bag in my luggage that I had used as a daypack so I was able to get everything in that and the backpack and check the 21-inch. When I got to Philadelphia, I was able to get it to take as a carry-on on the plane back to Alabama since it would have to go underneath the communter plane anyway. I was very appreciative of this since I wanted to change clothes before leaving Philadelphia. I don't think there will be a problem with an 18-inch (I hope)

My husband and I are also going to try to travel light on our next cruise. He now has a travelers sport coat that he can use for the formal nights (of course I will use my traveler's clothes as well) which will eliminate a garment bag (it was amazing how his garment bag and best sport coat was torn going through Charles de Gaulle in 2003). We will try to take only what is needed and not what we think we need. I will let you know if we succeed.