Welcome to the January 2008 issue of "Smart Traveler". The newsletter with tips and information to help make your traveling smoother.


How to choose your cruise

There are more than 160 ships in the fleets of the 24 major cruise lines and more than 7,500 itineraries, from Alaska to Zanzibar. So how do you decide which one most suits your style? Follow these 10 steps to ensure smooth sailing



1. Where to go: Decide on the destination first, the ship second. Alaskan and Caribbean cruises have long been mainstays, but cruise lines are adding itineraries to unexpected places: Asia, the Indian Ocean, South America.

Next, look at the specifics -- with Alaskan cruises, for example, ships tend to follow two routes. Inside Passage itineraries run round-trip from Seattle or Vancouver and call in southern Alaskan ports like Juneau and Skagway; Gulf of Alaska itineraries, which sail farther north, are typically one-way trips from Vancouver to Whittier or Seward, or the reverse.

2. When to go: Shoulder seasons can offer bargains and may be even more appealing than high season: a mild fall day can be more enjoyable than baking under the August sun in the Mediterranean. Alaska's popularity with families means that going in May and September (when children are in school) often translates into fewer visitors -- and better deals. Fewer people can also mean more chances to see black bears and humpback whales up close.

3. Which line to book: Select the cruise line, and the fellow passengers, that best match your personality.  This is crucial for the first time cruisers. It can make or break your experience. If you aren't matched to the line, you probably won't cruise again. Some have dress codes and assigned seating times for meals. Some, like Carnival Cruises, are more kid-friendly. Norwegian Cruise Line is more casual than other lines and doesn't have assigned dining times. Royal Caribbean and Celebrity cruise offerings are more traditionally geared toward baby boomers. Finally, lines like Crystal and Regent are more upscale and, in turn, more expensive. A travel agent can help you make sense of the different options.

4. What it costs: Don't look at the daily rate for a stateroom and then simply multiply by the number of nights you'll be at sea. Remember to factor in airfare to and from the originating port, the costs of incidentals such as alcohol and shore excursions. A helicopter ride over the glaciers of Alaska can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but it can also add as much as $1,000 to your final bill.

5. Beat the rush: Many cruise lines give discounts for booking far in advance. It's an issue of supply and demand. As bookings come in, cruise fares go up in the most popular regions, like Alaska, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. It's never too soon to start planning your cruise.

6. Ship tips: Size matters. The size of the ship can dictate the itinerary. Smaller ships, like those operated by Cruise West (the largest of which carries only 138 passengers) and SeaDream Yachts, can dock at smaller ports and offer a more personalized experience. They are often best suited for nature-oriented cruises to Antarctica, the Galápagos and the Sea of Cortés. The downside: entertainment and dining options are often more limited.

7. Cabin splurge: Consider your itinerary when deciding whether to reserve a balcony stateroom. For a repositioning cruise across the Atlantic, when there will be nothing to see from your balcony but the open ocean for days, it may not matter. But on Alaskan and Mediterranean cruises, it's all about the views. And in Alaska, remember to book a cabin on the starboard (right) side of the ship on a northbound cruise and on the port (left) side of the ship on southbound itineraries so you'll have a view of the coastline.

8. Arrive early and stay on after your cruise: First, if you don't book your flight through the cruise line, your ship won't wait if it's delayed. As canceled and delayed flights have become commonplace, it's wise to arrive at your starting port at least a day before you are scheduled to set sail. Second, cruise extensions are an increasingly popular option. You can cap off a Crystal sailing, for example, with a safari organized by the line -- with fewer hassles and less expenses than on a separate tour. Holland America and Princess Cruises offer luxury railway and lodge trips for passengers in Alaska.

9. Before you board: Don't waste time waiting in line after you've pulled out of port. There are enough activities to make the most adventurous cruiser happy, but popular shore excursions often sell out. Be sure to plan your onboard activities early. Spas on ships have a limited number of treatment rooms; book your massages and facials in advance, if possible. Also, ask if there are discounts for booking treatments on days in port.

10. Turn to an expert: When it comes to cruises, some professional advice is often indispensable (and it's the main reason most cruises are still booked through travel agents).

      
Passports To Cost More Starting Friday

 

The price of passports will increase Friday, when a new limited-use passport card also will make its debut, the Postal Service announced Tuesday.

As of Friday, the cost of applying for a new passport book for people older than 16 will increase $3, to $100. Passport books for people younger than 16 will also increase $3, to $85.

Post offices will also begin accepting applications Friday for the new limited-use passport card, which can be used for land or sea travel to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and Caribbean countries. The card cannot be used for air travel.

The new passport card will cost $45 for people older than 16, and $35 for people younger than 16. The State Department will begin issuing the new cards this spring

 
International Tipping Tips

Tipping is a cultural obstacle that is unusual in that it falls into that funny netherworld of things extremely awkward, yet people don't often talk about it.  There is often a fear that either someone might be offended, or that a business partner may think they are somehow naive or feeble.

The following is a list of appropriate gratuities in major cities around the world, in U.S. dollars:

  • London: A 12.5 percent service charge is generally included at restaurants; 10 percent for taxis; up to $2 for hotel porters.
     
  • Paris: Between 5 and 10 percent at restaurants, if a service charge is not already included; no tips for taxis; up to $2 per bag at hotels.
     
  • Dubai: Tips are not obligatory for restaurants or taxis; hotel porters are $1.50 to $3.
     
  • Moscow: 10 percent at restaurants; 5 to 10 percent for taxis; $1 per bag for hotel porters.
     
  • Tokyo: Tips are not necessary.
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    Traveling With Your Wheelchair

    With more and more wheelchair travelers taking to the skies you would think that airlines would make improvements that keep pace with the changing demographics of their passengers. Sad to say, when it comes to handling wheelchairs and scooters, not all airlines are taking the extra efforts to see that these vital elements of our passengers' lives are making it to their destination unharmed.

    We can not recommend a favorite airline because in any given situation any airline can be a villain or a saint to the wheelchair traveler. Last year separate groups of clients flying on the same airline at different times of the day. Each met connecting flights at the same connecting airport. The first group praised the airline for giving them the best assistance they had ever experienced. Surprisingly, every member of the second group cursed the same airline for their poor performance stating "they were the worst." The bottom line of your airlines' performance depends on the airport staff, the airline staff, and the airline crew on duty at the time you check into the airport and board your aircraft.

    Reconfirm your airline flights with your airline 24-48 hours before any departure. Flight times and flight numbers are subject to change. Take painstaking steps to notify your airlines that you are traveling by wheelchair. Inform them if you are traveling with a manual wheelchair, an electric wheelchair, or a scooter. When reconfirming your flight, ask the airline for "maximum assistance" at all airport terminals. Reconfirm your request for "maximum assistance" when you arrive at the airline ticket counter.

    At the airport, ask the ticket personnel to "gate check" your wheelchair and obtain a luggage claim receipt for your wheelchair. When you "gate check" your wheelchair it allows you to roll your wheelchair directly to the fuselage of the plane where you will either walk to your seat or transfer into an "aisle chair" for assistance to your seat. Before handing your wheelchair over to the airline staff, remove your leg supports and portable seat cushions and carry these into the plane....these do not travel well when attached to your wheelchair and are likely to be lost. We recommend a small, nylon sports bag large enough to hold the leg supports that is also light enough to fold into your carry on luggage when not in use. This light weight sports bag keeps your leg supports in one place and hopefully prevents them from falling out of the overhead luggage bin onto someone's head. If your wheelchair folds, collapse the wheelchair together and use a small strap or a piece of "duct tape" to hold the sides together. This process makes for a compact wheelchair that is less likely to be damaged with airport handling.


    Remember: Without a travel agent you're on your own


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