Sunday, December 28, 2014

HAL Veendam Cruise to Home - Part I

HAL Veendam docked at Bar Harbor
I was very fortunate at my old job to have about four weeks vacation per year. In PEI vacation starts at two weeks per year and after eight whole years of dedicated service vacation time jumps up to three weeks. By PEI standards I was completely spoiled and absolutely took advantage of it. For 2014 I was planning on taking most of my vacation in the summer and fall, meaning when we found out in April that we would be closing in three months I had a bit of vacation to use up as it was very possible we wouldn't be able to be paid out any vacation.

What to do? Finding people available for last-minute vacations can be difficult. It's much easier to attach yourself to someone else's vacation. In this case, I was lucky as my friend, Charlene, and her mother welcomed me with great excitement to their vacation! Charlene is a travel agent and gets excellent deals and wonderful perks at certain times of the year. She and her mother had booked a cruise from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to Quebec City on Holland America's Veendam, a ship that visits PEI weekly during the summer. This was the first run of the year of that itinerary, although the only one to originate in Florida. After that the ship's runs are from Quebec City to Boston or vice versa. This particular itinerary skipped Boston in lieu of Gloucester, Massachusetts, which is disappointing for many reasons that I will perhaps elaborate on in another post. That being said, it wasn't like we were surprised by that, it was in the itinerary. Embarkation was in Fort Lauderdale followed by: one sea day; Gloucester, MA; Bar Harbor, ME; Halifax, NS; Sydney, NS; Charlottetown, PE; another sea day; and disembarkation in Quebec City.

I knew I was going to be unemployed and still had three other trips (thanks Air Miles!) booked for later in the year, so price was a pretty important consideration in deciding to go on this trip. Despite Quebec City being only a ten-hour drive away, the cost of a one-way flight back to Charlottetown at the end of the cruise would probably be at least $300. Combine that with a flight to Fort Lauderdale (about $350) and that cost of the cruise (maybe $500?) I was feeling a bit ansy. However, I could easily save myself $300 by disembarking in Charlottetown and basically walking home rather than having an additional sea day and flying home from Quebec City. There are a variety of laws relating to not completing a full cruise and either starting at a different port or getting off the ship early. From what I read, a cruise ship that originates in the US has to travel a certain distance before it is considered to be in.... "something" waters - clearly I forget the actual word. Once the cruise passes that point it is allowed to have official disembarkation at a different American port than it originated. Essentially the government does not want cruise ships becoming a means of transportation that competes with airlines, trains, and gas stations.

Upon initial research it appeared that Canada might not be considered "far enough". I called Holland America and they didn't think it would be a problem to get off in Charlottetown instead of Quebec City, but the process required me to book the cruise and then complete a special form requesting early disembarking. The final decision would be made by the Government of Canada.

Another thing had to work out: Charlene had already booked a cabin for her and her mother. Given that she got a special discounted rate she was actually unable to choose her cabin and many cabins are designed for only two people. In order to go on the cruise, she needed to have a cabin with capacity for at least three people. Luckily, she eventually found out that her cabin was large enough for four people!*

*Four people in that room would had been hilarious based on size and layout. Two single beds against opposite walls, one bed pulled down from the ceiling, and one pull-out sofa. And barely any room to walk.

Once we found out the cabin was large enough we needed to find out if I could be added to her booking. Success! Of course I could be added! And at a cheaper price (taxes and port fees only, around $200) than what Charlene and her mother originally paid! Amazing! I paid for our hotel night as a thank you and to make up the difference.

Next step was securing an overpriced flight to Fort Lauderdale and putting in my request to disembark in Charlottetown instead of Quebec City. Flight was booked without any issues, arriving the day before the cruise left because, warning, you should never plan to fly into the city port the day the ship leaves. Too much potential for things to go wrong.

The following day I received word that I was officially cleared for disembarking in Charlottetown, and one week later I was in the air on my way to Fort Lauderdale!

Because I have some free time and will make this a multi-part series (so ambitious), I'll tie this up with some cruise and money chat, as I used quite a few dollar signs in the above.

Cost: What's Included

Cruise ships might appear to be an all inclusive vacation but they aren't unless you book the most expensive luxury cruise ship ever, which you probably won't. Additionally, the price you see listed isn't the final price. Taxes and port fees are added, which could be an additional $200 depending on the length of your cruise and number of ports. Included in that final price tag is your cabin, i.e., accommodation; food at the buffet and in the main dining room; most on-board activities like trivia, scrapbooking, and food demos; nightly entertainment; gym access; access to all the public areas; and borrowing items from the library. This varies from line to line (i.e., different cruise ship companies), but seems to be generally included in any ships I have read about or been on.

Cost: What's Not Included

A selection of free alcohol obtained on the Carnival Legend
Travel to the port is not included. Even once you are in the port's city you still need to pay to get to
the port. You can often make these arrangements through the cruise ship company or your hotel for an additional fee. In the case of the cruises I have been on, I was lucky to be on a cruise with someone who owned a car and we paid to park at the port or was dropped off at the port by a local friend. In Fort Lauderdale we were without local friends (tragic) so stayed at a hotel the night prior and then took a cab ($20) to the port. Likewise, you are on your own when you disembark and are responsible for your own transportation. Again, you can purchase ship-to-airport transfers from the cruise line, but they are not included in the original cost of the cruise.

While many things on board are included in the cost of your cruise, you could quickly run up a large tab if you aren't careful. Some activities have a fee: internet use, bingo, cooking classes, behind-the-scenes tours, etc. You won't accidentally do any of these and wind up paying for it, they will ask for your cabin/charge key up front and tell you about the cost.

Most food is included, but many ships now have specialty restaurants for an additional cost, ranging from $5 - $75. It's best to make reservations for these restaurants, so like activity fees you won't accidentally find yourself in the restaurant without realizing you need to pay extra.

Room service is free, but you are expected to tip the person who delivers the food.

Your biggest on-board costs will likely be tipping, shopping, alcohol/pop, casino fun, and spa treatments, although it is completely up to the individual and you could easily spend nothing on the latter items. For example, I spend minimal on shopping, a wee bit on alcohol, maybe $5 at the casino, and $0 on spa treatments. However, I suggest you always tip as it's how the staff makes the majority of their wages, sadly. You can pre-pay gratuities up front when you book your cruise or charge them to your on-board account after boarding the ship. You are expected to tip your room steward, who is in your room at least twice per day and your dining room staff. It varies on different cruise lines, but expect to pay about $10 - $15 per person per day in tipping.

If you are on a cruise ship you will likely be visiting at least one port. The cost of the cruise typically includes nothing in the ports thus you have to pay for any activities you might do there. (NB: some lines have excursions included, they tend to be the super expensive cruises on gorgeous ships that make my heart pitter patter.) You can book excursions through the ship, through a private, local company, or just wander the port on your own. One great advantage to booking a tour through the ship is that the ship will not leave the dock without you at the end of the day if you are late. When you are on a ship-sponsored tour they know where you are and have to wait for you. If you are on your own or booked with a private company and are late then the ship will leave without you.

How To Save Money on a Cruise

The easiest way would be to just not spend any money, but that's not overly fun if you feel like you have to constantly restrict yourself. Every evening on the ship your room steward will leave you a times guide for the following day's activities. In that guide it lists shop sales, happy hour specials, daily activities, and any necessary information related to that day's port. If there is something you wish to buy on board you will probably find it on sale at some point during the cruise. For alcohol you can often find two-for-one specials, happy hours at slightly reduced prices, or you can bring on your own alcohol, following specific restrictions. On Holland America and Carnival we were allowed to bring on one bottle of wine per person. On Disney we just brought on whatever we wanted! (NB: Disney is quite a bit more expensive as non-alcoholic beverages are free, I believe, and the lack of casino to supplement their revenue. And because it's amazing.) There are also art auctions which frequently feature free sparkling wine. Lastly, most cruise lines have some sort of loyalty program based on the number of nights you have cruised with that line. While I am not super familiar with them as I'm no where near being at an exciting level, I'm sure at some point you get a few free services, snacks, or beverages.

Next up: Fort Lauderdale, the ship, and other.