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5 posts from May 2013

8 Tips About Cruise Ship Vacations And Cruise Ship Maintenance

After fires this year on board Royal Caribbean cruise line's Grandeur Of the Seas cruise ship and Carnival cruise line's Triumph cruise ship, plus a 2012 fire onboard Costa cruise line's Allegra cruise ship, a reader asked what I thought about the cruise lines and cruise ship maintenance. These events severely interrupted passengers' vacations, and nobody wants to experience a ruined vacation.

This reader knows that my wife and I have completed 20 cruise ship vacations. We have sailed on many cruise lines: Carnival, Celebrity, Costa, Holland America, MSC, Norwegian, Princess, and Royal Caribbean. We have sailed to Alaska, Bermuda, the Caribbean, the Mexican Riviera, the Panama Canal, the Hawaiian Islands, portions of northern South America, and the Mediterranean Sea. My thoughts about cruise ship maintenance are numerous.

First, bad things happen. Bad things happen both at hotels on land, and on cruise ships at sea. It seems that the events regarding cruise ships more often gather news media headlines. Know that land-based hotels have events, too. You may not hear about them.

Second, the cruise lines frequently offer big discounts for unsold cabins on cruise ships; especially as the departure date nears. It's in their interest to keep their ships full because cruise ship staff rely on tips for income. If you get what appears to be a too-good-to-be-true cruise vacation deal, visit the cruise line’s website to learn when that ship was built.

If the cruise line's website does not disclose the year the ship was built, then visit, the official website of the cruise industry operated by Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). In the left column, select the cruise line and then the specific ship you are considering. While at the website, consumers should also read the CLIA Passenger Bill Of Rights, so you know what to expect and what to demand.

There seems to be a somewhat higher risk with older cruise ships. I define "older" as a ship that was built 14 or more years ago, regardless of whether it has been renovated. The Grandeur Of The Seas was built in 1996. The Carnival Triumph was built in 1999, and renovated in 2008. The Costa Allegra cruise ship was built in 1992 and renovated in 2005. The ships are used heavily since they operate year-round with passengers, and sail during both good and bad weather.

Third, I advise consumers to learn about the ship you plan to sail on. One website I use is Cruise Critic, and specifically the message boards which include unfiltered comments by cruise ship passengers. This is an excellent way to learn about any recent problems on a cruise ship you are considering.

Experienced travelers use Cruise Critic, and I have found the comments informative for a couple reasons. The comments are timely as they are posted by passengers who have recently sailed on a cruise ship. The comments, both good and bad, are accurate because they are posted by experienced travelers. I researched the Grandeur Of the Seas cruise ship on Cruise Critic before we sailed on it from April 24 to May 3. To me, this is the benefit of a social networking website: unfiltered, accurate, and reliable comments. Sadly, the (marketing) websites by the cruise lines won't disclose this information.

So, we were aware of the specific problems (e.g., plumbing, odors) the ship had experienced previously; and that the ship had been renovated. Cruise lines periodically take a cruise ship out of service for a few weeks to fix problems, and to upgrade on-board amenities. So, we were comfortable sailing on the Grandeur OTS.

The Cruise Critic website has some gravitas. When I worked previously at a digital advertising agency, I worked on an account for one of the cruise lines. I can tell you that the cruise line executives definitely read the Cruise Critic website and comments by passengers.

Fourth, ask your travel agent. He or she might know, and suggest a different ship or different cruise line. Many consumers make their reservations directly at a cruise line's website. While this is a huge convenience, experienced travelers do more research first and often use a travel agent.

Fifth, customer service matters. Consumers can use the news reports to learn about how cruise lines respond when things go wrong on a ship at sea. You may or may not feel comfortable with the response. That can guide your choice of ship and cruise line. Again, comments by passengers at the Cruise Critic website will give you an idea of which cruise lines respond better than others.

Royal Caribbean posted the following message on its website:

"Unfortunately, the damage caused by the fire on Grandeur of the Seas will require us to cancel the rest of the current sailing. We are currently working on making the necessary arrangements to return all guests to Baltimore, Maryland, tomorrow... Unfortunately, due to the time needed to repair the damage caused by the fire, it is necessary to cancel Grandeur of the Seas’ next voyage, which was scheduled to depart Baltimore, Maryland, on Friday, May 31."

Royal Caribbean announced on its Facebook page:

"The May 31st sailing of Granduer of the Seas has been cancelled. All booked guests will receive a full refund of the cruise fare as well as a 50% future cruise certificate. We will provide an update regarding future sailings on Grandeur of the Seas by the end of this week."

Is this customer service response sufficient? That only you can decide for yourself. In my opinion, it is sufficient and makes the best of interrupted vacation plans.

Sixth, buy travel insurance. Most cruise lines offer this and it is available through independent insurance carriers such as Travel Guard. Travel insurance covers a lot of things, including but not limited to lost luggage and interrupted travel. The price varies, based on the total cost of your trip. When I travel, I always buy travel insurance. Peace of mind is important to me. And, the insurance might cover items the cruise lines don't. For example, when Costa cruise line's Concordia cruise ship sank in the Mediterranean, some passengers died but most who lost luggage had to buy replacement clothes and personal items. Travel insurance would usually cover this.

Seventh, it may be helpful to know that Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian are largely entry-level cruise lines -- the cruise lines first-time travelers typically sail on. Just like land-based hotels, there are different tiers of cruise lines. You might consider one of the mid-range cruise lines: Celebrity, Princess, or Holland America.

Eighth, when researching your cruise ship vacation look for unfiltered reviews of cruise ships. There are many websites with cruise reviews, but many filter their reviews. While I like Cruise Critic, you may also like Cruise Addicts. Whatever you do, find a website with unfiltered reviews submitted by experienced passengers.

7 Tips To Avoid A Rejected Credit Card During Vacation Travel

Today, banks are more vigilant than ever about spotting potential fraud. One way banks spot potential fraud includes charges outside of the cardholder's normal usage pattern -- the area where you live, work, and use your credit card. Often, when consumers go on vacation you intentionally travel outside of your area. Nobody wants a credit card purchase denied while traveling, especially when you don't have the cash with you.

So, what can consumers do to avoid having your credit card denied while shopping during vacation? Banks and credit card issuers advise consumers to:

1. Understand where your credit card is accepted outside of the United States. You can visit the customer service section of your bank's or credit card issuer's website. For example: the Help Center in the Discover site lists the regions where that credit card is accepted, including an international Country Acceptance Map. This is also helpful to understand any exchange rates used, and/or any fees or surcharges that might apply for purchases in different currencies. The Visa Travel Preparation Page provides similar information for cardholders traveling internationally.

2. Decide which credit cards you will bring. You may decided to leave at home the credit cards with high foreign transaction fees, don't offer purchase protection insurance, doesn't offer frequent-flyer mileage, and/or aren't accepted in the countries which you will visit. Experts advise consumers to bring at least two credit cards, and use one as a back-up in case your primary card doesn't work.

3. Notify your bank or credit card issuer of your upcoming travel, and the specific locatons where you will use your credit card. For example, Capital One directs its Visa cardholders to call its Customer Service department (1-800-955-7070) before their trip to provide the following information:

  • Credit card number
  • Travel destination(s): states and/or countries
  • Travel start and stop dates
  • Which cardholders will be traveling (if multiple people have accounts)

In Capital One's automated voice system, cardholders speak to enter and select voice prompt options. Say "More Options" and then "Report Upcoming Travel" to access the relevant option. Then, you can enter all of the necessary information, or you can speak with a human representative.

Obviously, if your vacation travel itinerary includes several cities and/or countries, you will want to have all of that information ready. When you contact your bank or credit card issuer, they will provide an international customer service phone number you can call while traveling outside the United States, should you have any problems. Last month before my vacation, I used Capital One's automated voice system. My travel itinerary included about six countries, and I found the system pretty easy to use to enter the necessary information.

4. Watch out for PINs. In some regions, automated kiosks require credit cards with smart chips. If your credit card doesn't have this new technology, it may not work.

5. If you want to use your debit card instead, first contact your bank, credit union, or card issuer to report your travel itinerary. Visit their website to find their office and ATM locations in the states or countries you will visit, any other banks they have partnerships with, any fees (e.g., conversion, foreign transaction) that apply, and any PIN number limitations (e.g., fewer digits). Generally, in-network ATM machines have lower fees than out-of-network ATM machines.

Experts advise consumers to keep sufficient cash with you for smaller purchases. The fewer times you use your debit card, the less you expose it to identity theft and fraud risks. If you read this blog regularly, then you already know that I use my debit card only at my bank's ATM machines. To me, it is too risky to use a debit card in a local retail store or gas station, especially in another country. There is no way to know if the card entry pads (or gas station pumps) has been compromised with skimming devices.

6. If you want to use a prepaid card instead, CardHub advises consumers:

"As long as your prepaid card bears the MasterCard or Visa logo and you notify your issuer of your travel plans, you should be able to use it abroad...”

Wise consumers will still check with their card issuer to get a copy of their prepaid card agreement, to find ATM locations in the states or countries you will visit, any other banks they have partnerships with, and any fees (e.g., conversion, foreign transaction) that apply. Again, in-network ATM machines generally have lower/fewer fees than out-of-network ATM machines. Compare the fees for your prepaid card against fees for your credit/debit cards. Understand your rights, protections, and the differences between credi, debit, and prepaid cards. If decided to use a prepaid card, make sure you load enough money onto it before you leave for your trip.

If you are unsure about whether prepaid cards are for you or not, there are plenty of online resources to help you decide. You can learn more by browsing the Prepaid Cards section of this blog. The posts in this blog section contain plenty of links to external sites and resources.

7. Check for foreign travel advisories. These may suggest additional precautions you should take in the countries you will visit.

Having done all of this, you can then travel with peace of mind.

Search The Web's Nooks And Crannies To Find Connected Devices

Most people believe that when they use one of the popular search engines (e.g., Bing, Google, Yahoo, DuckDuckGo), that they have effectively searched the entire Internet. That belief is erroneous for a couple reasons.

CNN Money has a good report about the Shodan search engine, which was developed specifically to search what I call the nooks and crannies of the Internet. Shodan users can find devices connected to the Internet that other search engines don't necessarily focus upon:

"... servers, webcams, printers, routers and all the other stuff that is connected to and makes up the Internet... traffic lights, security cameras, home automation devices and heating systems... control systems for a water park, a gas station, a hotel wine cooler and a crematorium... command and control systems for nuclear power plants and a particle-accelerating cyclotron..."

If it isn't obvious to you, these search results have huge privacy and identity theft implications for a variety of reasons. Many users connect devices to the Internet which they shouldn't connect. Or don't properly secure their Internet-connected devices with firewall software. You can bet that since the good guys already know about and use Shodan, then the bad guys will, too, and hack into unprotected devices, steal identity information, and/or cause havoc.

The second reason: many consumers are trapped in the search Filter Bubble, and don't know it.