Wishful Thinking Wednesday: Cruise The World

Do you suppose you could handle the cruising life for 111 days? What if you were visiting 36 ports of call and 23 countries?

“Next year, passengers aboard Holland America Line’s Amsterdam will have the opportunity to earn their stripes as world travelers when they set sail for a 111-day Grand World Voyage.”

The concentration of stops will be in Southeast Asia. A full description of the journey can be seen HERE.

But you might want to start saving now, as the Neptune Suite (Featured Image, above) runs about $68,000…per person. Traveling on a budget? Snag an Oceanview Room for only $20,000 per person!

A Morning in Santorini – A Lesson In Perspective

In the middle of our fabulous European vacation, we stopped in Santorini, Greece. As a reminder, this port was the reason we chose this vacation and this particular cruise in the first place. My friend started planning this 40th birthday vacation-of-a-lifetime almost two years ago, solely based on this dream destination.

Before we embarked, he and I confirmed that we definitely wanted to be together in Santorini, but we thought we’d enjoy the freedom of being able to explore on our own more than we would appreciate a guided tour or excursion. So, we planned to leave the ship as soon as it docked and eventually make our way to Oia.

Quick Geography Lesson: Santorini is a small island in the Aegean Sea, off the coast of Greece. It is a remnant of a volcanic caldera – the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions ever recorded in history. What remains today is, essentially, a city atop a mountain.

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Fira, Santorini

Photo by Henryhartley – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3158185

Seeing as there are only a few main roads on the island, we thought it’d be fine to arrive at Athinios Port, take the cable car up to Fira and make our way to Oia on foot.

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It looks SO simple, doesn’t it?

In the spirit of full disclosure, I need to own up to a few mistakes I made in regard to Santorini, which ended up having an effect on the day’s events.

Mistake #1: I skipped breakfast because our dock time was ridiculously early – 7 a.m.! I was so excited to get out and see Santorini, I didn’t want to take the extra 20 minutes to get some food. Guess what? Nothing was open at 7am. Commence cranky…

Mistake #2: I researched and planned every single detail of every single port on our entire itinerary except Santorini. Looking back, I can’t believe I didn’t read or learn more about the logistics of the place before we left. This actually kind of boggles my mind,  considering this was the reason we were on this trip in the first place!

Mistake #3: So, I am a little embarrassed to say this out loud and put it out there for the world to see, but here it is anyway. Confession: I might be a bit of a perfectionist and/or control freak. And I have a tendency to possibly build things up in my imagination ahead of time and then, when things don’t go exactly as I expect them to go, I sort of have a history of meltdown.

OK, so what do you think when you think of Santorini? You didn’t know I’m a mind reader,  but I can see into your brain. The answer is: THIS PHOTO.

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Oh yeah…all those beautiful blue-topped churches and buildings overlooking a gorgeous cliff and the sea beyond. Yes. That is iconic Santorini. That is what I had built up in my mind for two years. But guess what, guys? That is OIA. And the city we were dropped off in was FIRA. And they are not the same.

No problem, right? We can just walk to Oia! We have all day! 

NOPE. The road is incredibly steep and windy, with blind turns and the worst traffic you can imagine. It is completely unsafe to walk that road all the way to Oia.

Next plan: let’s take a bus. Yeah! It only costs 1 Euro and the bus comes every 30 minutes. Ok, perfect. 

WRONG. The traffic was so bad on the hairpin turn roads that it was nearly at a standstill. Buses blocked everything and no one even bothered to stay in their correct lane. It was mayhem. That means, the actual bus that was on its way to Oia was stuck in traffic further down the road. So the schedule for the bus was already shot. Then, when it FINALLY arrived (after we had wasted almost an hour of our time on the island), it was jam packed with people, to the point that not even one more person could squeeze in.

We really had no choice but to stay in Fira and enjoy the remaining time we had there. If you’ll remember, I was suffering from major hanger and it was also over 100 degrees in July. As much as I tried to keep my spirits up for the group, I honestly felt I had failed them. I’m supposed to be a travel agent and I didn’t plan for this?! (Granted, I was not one when we planned this trip. This was in the works waaaay before I learned one single thing about the travel industry.) But, still. I felt a little humiliated. However, instead of just apologizing or expressing my true emotions to my loved ones, I funneled all my frustrations into petty annoyance and anger.

I remember feeling deeply disappointed once we’d re-boarded the cruise ship. Here I had built this location up in my mind for over a year and it just wasn’t…what I had wanted it to be. Truth be told, it was a rough day. And, you know, we all have them. Even on our dream vacations.

But time has a way of healing heart wounds, and that is no less true for situations like this. When I sat down to write this blog about Santorini, I felt a sort of dread. I didn’t want to return to the feelings of that day. But, now that I look back upon the entire experience, I can see that my behavior was ridiculous. And the idea that I somehow missed out on the real Santorini because I only went to Fira is absurd. What was I wanting from Santorini in my dream scenario? Blue-topped churches, beautiful buildings, a delicious meal overlooking the caldera, authentic island experiences and unmatched memories of one of the most dreamy places in the world?

Here are the facts that I can finally see, now that I am past the initial grouchiness of the actual day…

I have realized…I was in the real Santorini! I docked at Athinios Port and I took the cable car up the mountain.

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Athinios Port
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Guys, I even saw donkeys on those tiny mountain trails!

I ate a delicious meal on an outdoor patio, looking right out onto the ocean below. Gyros in Greece! What more could a person ask for?

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I looked out over the caldera and I did, indeed, see the magnificent views from the top of the island. I witnessed some of the most gorgeous architecture in the world – something about the arches and the color of the walls makes the sky look so blue!

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I even saw a few blue-topped churches!

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In retrospect, yes…I could have planned better. But there was absolutely nothing wrong with our stop in Santorini…except my attitude. I realize now that there are people who might never have the chance to see the places I’ve seen or experience the things I have experienced. And, rather than be disappointed that things didn’t meet my unrealistic expectations, I should be thankful that I’ve been able to experience them at all.

This is actually a belief I’ve had for awhile. My husband and I sometimes like to joke with each other about cruise passengers who somehow find reasons to complain about every single little thing that is wrong (not gonna lie…usually Diamond Club Members). We always thought they were ridiculous. We always want to shake them and say, “For God’s sake, man! You’re on a CRUISE! In the Mediterranean! You could be at home! Working! In…Indiana! But, nooooo. Right now, you are in Europe! Be happy! It’s vacation!

I suppose I have a little bit of understanding for those people now. But just a little. Even though I failed to see the signs in myself at the time, I can easily look back now and see how my experience in Santorini was altered by my mood that day. It’s true, though, isn’t it? Travel is colored by our frame of mind and our attitude. Your vacation is what you make of it.

Today, I have memories from Santorini that are beautiful…and I will always cherish them.

Stopover in Kusadasi – a Hesitant Visit to Turkey

As I continue to review my recent European/Mediterranean vacation, it should be obvious to you that I’m saving my favorite cities for last!

So far, I’ve shared some in depth insights into Dubrovnik and Katakalon. Today, I’ll share our rather interesting experience with Kusadasi (a port city in Turkey).

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First, I should mention that I traveled to Izmir, Turkey on Spring Break many years ago, when I was in college. Izmir is a larger city and the group I traveled with back then was completely immersed in Turkish culture, so it was quite different from a one afternoon cruise port of call. Still, I have such wonderful memories from that trip. The food, the language, the culture. I just couldn’t wait to share all these things with my husband and my travel companions! Unfortunately, political winds shifted just before we left the U.S.

In light of the attempted military coup, which took place just one week before we arrived, we went back and forth as to whether we would even get off the ship in Kusadasi. Frankly, we were surprised that the city was still on our itinerary, as I had called the week before and learned that Royal Caribbean had diverted two of its ships to Crete.

After quite a bit of discussion, we decided that, if the ship was going to stop in Kusadasi, then it must be safe for us to disembark. We decided not to purchase any shore excursions and, instead, opted to stick close to the port area and not venture out any further into the country – just to be on the safe side.

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We got off the ship, walked through the main duty free/cruise line shopping thoroughfare and crossed the street to look at some of the local shops. I had a request for a couple of rings from my younger sister and I thought, “What better place to buy sterling silver at a great price than Turkey?” The shopping area was packed with stores, all the shopkeepers just outside, beckoning shoppers with all sorts of pleas and bargains.

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Ummm…at least they’re honest? Haha.

I remembered learning on my college trip that bartering was quite common in the Turkish markets, and was expected. I must not have remembered correctly, though, because these shopkeepers were extremely pushy and forceful in their sales tactics. It was humorous at first, but after some time, it began to wear on us. It was especially awkward as a woman, because we could feel the men’s eyes crawling all over us. If it weren’t for the rings, we would have turned right around and left.

Luckily, I did find a shop with exactly what I was looking for. The owner asked me for much more cash than I actually had on hand and I was ready to leave. I, honestly, couldn’t afford his price, but I also didn’t feel it would be fair to low-ball him. That was when he admitted to me that the cruise ships had not stopped in Kusadasi in 10 days, so he had not had any business at all. He said, “Any money is money. We will take anything. We’ll take Euros, Dollars, even Yen.” Heartbreaking. It did give me some insight into the reasons we were being pressured so heavily to buy. Still, we were uncomfortable, so we headed back to the ship.

On the way, we actually found a nice little seaside bar and ordered some drinks. We sat there for a long time talking and enjoying the breeze.

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I was a bit disappointed with the port overall. For one, all that great culture that I couldn’t wait to show my husband and my friends just wasn’t there. There were no city-wide prayer calls ringing out over the landscape. There were no authentic restaurants serving iskender or kofte. Aside from one statue, way up on a hill, there wasn’t a statue of the great founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, on every single corner. It was just really touristy and shopping-focused. I understand, though, that our reluctance to move further into the mainland or purchase a guided excursion had quite a bit to do with this lackluster experience.

We did have a nice time together at the bar, though. The view was lovely and I could see one Atatürk up on the hillside (pictured above). I got the rings I was looking for at a rock bottom price. And, at the very least, we got some free nazar amulets to ward off evil. All in all, an OK day. Next time, though…we’re definitely snagging that tour of Ephesus.

An Afternoon in Katakalon – Kourouta Beach

On our recent European vacation, we stopped in the Port of Katakalon (Olympia). We had a decent selection of Royal Caribbean Shore Excursions and it seemed like most excursions were geared toward the ancient city of Olympia (site of the world’s first Olympic Games) and the fabulous regional wineries.

However, before we embarked on our journey, we had decided, along with our travel companions, that we’d like to have at least one relaxing beach day on this vacation. Quite honestly, this was one of our only opportunities to do that in port without missing some other amazing tourist attraction. So we paid roughly $35 per person for a coach bus transfer to and from Kourouta Beach, which is supposedly the nicest beach in Katakalon on the Ionian Sea. In fact, it’s been called “the Mykonos of the Peloponnesse” by the locals.

The port area in Katakalon is gated and enclosed. Although there were constant shuttles running from the ship to the port gates, it was easily walkable. If you stop here, pay attention to the water near the ship – we spotted schools of fish, beautiful jellyfish and colonies of sea urchins everywhere!

Just outside the gates, there’s a nice little street with a bunch of shops, restaurants and a church (St. Nicholas). Some of the shops are your typical cruise line stores that you see in every port and, of course, you have your souvenir/tchotchke dealers aplenty (which isn’t to say they are a bad thing – we buy plenty from those places when we travel! They are perfect for purchasing gifts for kiddos and pet sitters!) There are some really great shops along this row with authentic Greek alcohol, candy, wine, olive oil, etc. It’s a fun stretch to browse and there are lots of free samples! But this area probably wouldn’t fill an entire day. I’d definitely recommend some sort of shore excursion in this port.

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We were rather surprised to find that our tour bus transfer included a tour guide. This wasn’t mentioned in any of the descriptions, so it was an extra bit of fun for us. The ride to the beach took about 30 minutes, so we welcomed the stories and facts that our guide shared along the way. It was particularly interesting to see a “real life” Greek city, sort of behind the “tourist veil”. On the way to the beach, the guide apologized for the great piles of garbage lining the streets. Apparently, the financial crisis hit the country so hard, they haven’t had garbage pick-up service in months. When we visited, she said they were just beginning the effort to restore service and get everything picked up. It was sad and eye opening. The fact that they desperately need our tourist dollars was evident. But it wasn’t all stark economic realities – we also got to view the magnificent beauty of the Greek countryside, full to the brim with olive groves and farmhouses. Beautiful.

The small city just outside Kourouta Beach was pretty sparse – our tour guide said it was mostly abandoned. But, once we got closer to the beach (which was very small), the boardwalk area brought some life to the landscape.

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Our transfer dropped us at a popular coffee shop and let us know that we were welcome to use any of the beach chairs/umbrellas on the beach in front of the coffee shop, as well as their wireless internet, as long as we made some sort of purchase. Another nice bonus!

The beach itself was small, decent and we had no complaints. I wouldn’t call it a white sand paradise, by any stretch of the imagination. But the water was nice and we found some beautiful rocks (when you get into the water,  you tread on thousands of them for about 20 feet or so until you get into the deeper waters where the sand is finer and soft on your feet). Even further in, the water isn’t too deep. We spent quite a bit of time in the ocean and enjoyed it immensely.

All in all, it wasn’t really anything to write home about, but we found some good food along the boardwalk, had some great sunbathing time, and we were able to relax and cool down after almost a week of non-stop walking and baking in the Mediterranean sun. We truly enjoyed the down time.

You can read more reviews of Kourouta Beach from TripAdvisor here.

A Day in Dubrovnik: The Tale of a Game of Thrones Geek

As promised in my last blog, I will be reviewing and sharing memorable moments and practical travel tips for each city we visited on our recent Royal Caribbean cruise through Europe and the Mediterranean.

One of the cities my husband and I were most looking forward to visiting was Dubrovnik, Croatia. I will admit that we had never seen one episode of Game of Thrones when we booked this cruise almost two years ago. However, when I researched ports of call and saw that the King’s Landing portion of the show had been filmed in Dubrovnik for years, I thought it was time to jump onboard. We wanted to be able to appreciate that aspect of the destination…for our geeky friends, of course! Update: We are now completely addicted to, and way too emotionally involved in, a world of fictional characters. But, that’s not what this is about.

This walk-through of Dubrovnik will include photos and video and a healthy dose of GoT geekery. Enjoy!

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Welcome to Dubrovnik!

First, I should mention that I’m focusing pretty much only on the Old City of Dubrovnik. Dubrovnik is actually a pretty large city and most of it could be mistaken for any other average city across the world. This is what we saw from the ship as we headed into port.

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Nice little seaside city

Our travel companions opted for a ship excursion, which was a guided tour of Dubrovnik. (Royal Caribbean even offered a Game of Thrones tour, which is a new excursion option – sold out, of course!) But, since we weren’t looking to spend a whole bunch of money in this port, we decided to venture off on our own. We did, however, purchase tickets for a bus transfer from the port to the Old City. For $12 each, it was a great deal! The trip took about 20 minutes and the roads were steep and narrow. In addition, a bus left from the old city every 20 minutes to return to the ship, so we had control over how long we stayed. This ended up coming in handy because we assumed we’d stay all day and be on the last bus back to the ship. But, with a heat index of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, we saw what we wanted to see and we were pretty much done. We ended up only spending a few hours in port. The heat was just so oppressive!

When you arrive at the site of the Old City, you basically have to follow the crowds to get into the city. There is one main entrance (that we saw) called the Pile Gate. I guess it seems pretty obvious, but I never really thought about what the term “walled city” means. It means there is literally a huge wall with an entire city inside. And it makes for some absolutely stunning views.

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Pile Gate

Once inside, there is a single, long main road through the city. But, off of this road, there are a BUNCH of tiny side streets, which allow access to a dizzying number of restaurants, stores, residences, etc.

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Main Road – Don’t ask me what it’s called. I didn’t pay for a tour, remember?
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One of the side roads – you can see the millions of steps as the buildings get closer to the walls.

GoT GEEKERY: Remember Cersei’s Walk of Shame? It was most certainly on one of the many side roads in the Old City.

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Cersei’s Walk of Shame

Right inside the Pile Gate (to the left), you can pay 120 Croatian Kuna (~$20 USD) to climb the hundreds of stairs to get up onto the walls and have a birds-eye view of everything (along with some amazing photo and video opportunities).

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Looks easy, doesn’t it? WRONG! These are just the first of literally HUNDREDS of very steep, grueling steps to get to the highest lookout point on the wall. It is, however, worth the trek…bad knees and all. Because look at the view!

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View of the Main Road from the Wall
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I don’t know about you, but I kind of see a skull in those rocks. Cool!

GoT GEEKERY: Remember the scene in this season’s finale where Daenarys is supposedly “surrendering” to the slavers and you see just a hint of Drago flying in the background before he comes up and Daenarys jumps on him and kicks some major slaver a&*? I’m almost 90% sure the actors were standing atop that fort (in the photo above) looking over at the walled city when they filmed that scene.

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This scene…

Here’s a video that shows the view from pretty low down on the wall, starting with the regular city outside the Pile Gate, panning around to the view of the fort, then eventually showing Old Dubrovnik and ending with a view of the main road from up on the the wall.

In this selfie, you can see the rest of the wall behind us, which turns and heads off to the left as it rises. This will be important for the next GoT Geekery tibdbit.

Selfie From Wall

GoT GEEKERY: While it’s not the greatest photo I could find and while there has clearly been some CGI castle edited in, this is a great shot of Tyrion and Varys on the wall, pretty close to the spot where the path on the wall turns to the left.

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Finally, some views from the very top of the wall. Just gorgeous.

Side Note: Some brilliant business woman set up a beverage and ice cream stand at the very top. After climbing 180+ steps in that heat, people would have paid $20 for a Popsicle. Absolute genius!

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The Fort – that’s not really what it’s called. But I call it that. LOL.
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I hate kayaking, but this would be an amazing way to spend the day.
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What I’m calling “the regular city of Dubrovnik”.

Aside from the views, there are all kinds of restaurants inside the city, as well as some amazing shops (with plenty of GoT regalia available for purchase, of course). Rumor is there is even a shop (called the Dubrovnik Shop – uh, real helpful) with a full-sized replica of the Iron Throne, where you can take photos (if you buy something in the shop). We never found it, but if we had more time, I’m sure we would have. There are beautiful churches you can tour – we also missed these, but my friend says there is a fragment of what is believed to be Christ’s cross in one of them?! And, for some reason, there are cats everywhere! They just mosey along the sidewalk and lay near the shops (some of them even saunter into the shops like they own the place) and no one pays them any mind. It reminded me a lot of the cats of Old San Juan in Puerto Rico. Cute. I, honestly, feel I got just a tiny taste of Dubrovnik and it’s definitely on my Bucket List to go back someday and explore some more and spend some real time not only in Dubrovnik, but on the entire chain of Dalmatian Islands along Croatia’s coast.

Until next time, friends!

 

 

 

 

 

10 Travel Planning Tips For Your Next International Getaway

My husband and I have returned from our 16-day international adventure in Europe – and what an experience it was! In the coming weeks, I will be blogging in detail about each of our destinations and various other aspects of our trip. But, seeing as this was my first international travel since college, I thought it would be fun to share some helpful tips from this experience of planning a vacation abroad.

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Several months ago, I spent 15+ hours budgeting out and researching every single detail of our vacation – airfare, currencies, tourist sites, hotels, restaurants, transportation, geography, local customs & culture, etc. It was an enormous amount of work. But, so many times during our trip, I found myself beyond thankful for my hours of preparation. And, even though I had yet to conceive of the idea of becoming a travel agent at that point, this intense experience definitely contributed to my overall expertise as a travel agent today. To put it bluntly…this ish was complicated!

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At this juncture in life, my job now is to save you those 15 hours. I perform all the research and planning so you can relax and enjoy your vacation. Thankfully, I’ve got a few more tools in my belt these days to cut that research time down considerably. Still, there are invaluable things I learned on this trek that might be of use to you in your own travels.

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1. Start Planning Early

To give you a general feel for the magnitude of this trip…a friend of mine turned 40 in early July and I received an invitation two years ago to celebrate with him and travel to one of his Bucket Lists destinations, Santorini (Greece). Seeing as Santorini was close to #1 on my Bucket List, I immediately accepted that invitation!

About 18 months ago, we put down a $500 deposit on the Royal Caribbean Vision of the Seas, departing Venice (Italy) on July 23rd with ports of call in Dubrovnik (Croatia), Kusadasi (Turkey), Santorini (Greece), and Katakalon (Greece). Ever since that day, we have been paying for this vacation. And, believe me…it took the full 18 months to finish paying! This was no impulse travel and we aren’t likely to replicate this any time in the very near future, that’s for sure!

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2. Take Advantage of Best Price Guarantees

Whether you are booking a cruise or a package deal, it’s good to know if a Best Price Guarantee is available. About a year after we made our deposit on the cruise, there was an amazing sale on our particular ship’s itinerary. All it took was one call to Customer Service and they took $1,000 off of our remaining balance due! As a travel agent, it’s part of my services to monitor these sales for you and call when a better offer becomes available.

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3. Prepay As Much As Possible

Once we put our deposit down on the cruise, we had to pay the full balance no later than 60 days before embarkation, so a remaining balance of $1,000+ was due by Mid-May. Like I said, we paid in small increments throughout the 1.5 years before the final due date and this was very manageable for us.

Our largest purchase was airfare. I was able to find a package deal with airfare and two nights hotel in Venice. We flew out of Chicago O’Hare, instead of Indianapolis. In addition, I found enclosed/guarded prepaid discount airport parking for $6.50/night at a nearby hotel that provided a free 24-hour airport shuttle. Even after the additional cost of gas to travel to Chicago and parking, we ended up saving $800!

With all these things prepaid, all we had left to financially prepare for was our meals for three days in Venice, spending money, and a final hotel night in Venice on the tail end of our trip.

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4. Notify Your Bank/Credit Card Company

About a week before we left, I went in to my bank to give them our entire travel itinerary. They put a note on our account so Fraud Protection wouldn’t block any transactions that occurred overseas on our debit cards.

Perhaps the easiest option for international travel is a credit card (you should call your credit card company to notify them of your travel dates and itinerary before you travel as well). Still, there are a lot of places in Europe that don’t accept cards, so at least some cash on hand in the local currency is advisable.

An easy way to get cash is to use an ATM at your destination’s airport, but be aware of currency exchange fees and cash withdrawal limits, both from the ATM and your card’s institution. Make sure your card has a chip and a 4-digit PIN, as most ATMs in Europe require the chip. In addition, if you are carrying a large amount of foreign currency when you travel, you will be required to declare it with Customs.

Since we don’t use credit cards and we were on a pretty tight cash budget, I went back and forth on whether to use our debit cards or to bring foreign currency in cash. My fear was that something would go wrong with the cards overseas, or that they wouldn’t work in the ATM, and then we’d be stuck with no backup funding in a foreign place. Despite reading over and over online that people had no problems with their debit cards and ATMs, I still worried. What can I say? It’s in my nature.

In the end, we brought cash with us. But, at the end of the trip, we came up a bit short and needed to use our debit card a few times. I was so thankful I took the extra step to go in and set things up with our bank.

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5. Think About Currency Exchange

This was the most daunting part of preparing for this trip, in my opinion. As I said, we traveled with cash. Estimating how much we’d need in each location was not the easiest, but I spent several hours reading about exchange rates and thinking about how much we might need to purchase in each currency. I even checked restaurant menus for pricing so I could figure out how much we’d need for food in each city.

When it all came down to it, I went to my local AAA and exchanged US Dollars for Euros, Croatian Kuna and Turkish Lira. They also have a nifty TravelMoney prepaid Visa that you can preload with money and use most anywhere in the world.

It was so incredibly helpful to have this cash on hand throughout the trip. I honestly don’t know if I got the very best exchange rate, but the peace of mind I had carrying local currency going into the trip was worth whatever small percentage I might have saved if I would have waited for the ATM at the Venice airport.

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6. Build In Time For Airline Drama

This was actually a lucky accident on my part. We decided we’d like to spend a few days in Venice outside of the actual cruise, so we were going to fly in on an overnight flight, arriving on Thursday morning. Then, we’d have two full days and nights in Venice before embarking on the cruise on Saturday.

Wouldn’t you know it? Our first flight from O’Hare to Newark was delayed. Then, it was delayed again. Then, delayed again. When it was all said and done, we left O’Hare 5 HOURS LATE. And….missed our connecting flight to Venice!

Bad News: There is only ONE United flight per day to Venice from Newark, so we were stuck in Newark overnight.

Good News: As stressful as it was to delay our trip for a day, we didn’t have to freak out about possibly missing our cruise. Phew!

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7. Luggage Precautions With International Travel

As part of my many hours of research, I read that it’s a good idea to pack a change of clothes and toothbrush in your carry-on luggage, in case your checked luggage is lost or stolen en route. I went a step further and also packed my swimsuit in my carry-on.

SIDE NOTE: Listen, a swimsuit for someone my size is not something where you can just pick up a spare at Prada in Venice, okaaaay? That thing was pricey! And I shed too many tears trying on suits to lose that sucker right before a 7-day Mediterranean cruise!

Anyway, the swimsuit might have been a little bit of overkill. BUT, as I mentioned above, we were delayed and missed our connecting flight to Venice.

Bad News: Since it was a connecting flight, the airport kept our luggage, so they could assure it was loaded with the luggage on the next day’s flight to Venice. So, no suitcases for us!

Good News: After a full day in an airport, excessive sweating and an overall gross feeling when we finally made it to our Newark hotel, I had a change of clothes in my carry-on for the following day’s long haul flight to Venice. And I could brush my teeth. Victory!

Additional Helpful Hint: Before we left the U.S., I ordered two RFID Neck Stash Security Wallets as a travel precaution. These specially made wallets are durable, lightweight and made from a material with RFID blocking technology, to protect against electronic pick-pocketing and identity theft (i.e. people can actually scan your passport from outside your bag).

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8. Don’t Fly Ultra Cheap

We didn’t fly First Class or Business Class. We just flew regular old Coach. But, we also didn’t snag a bargain bin airfare from one of those super mega cheap airlines either. We flew United Airlines and Air Canada (mostly due to schedule), but we were glad we did when we heard the horror stories of our travel companions, who chose a discount carrier.

We were allowed to check one bag each (up to 50 lbs) for no charge. That’s about $100 saved. We also had free in-flight entertainment (movies, games, music, etc). We were also given two meals and a snack, plus extra bottles of water every couple of hours. Do you know what our travel companions got on their overseas flight? No food. Of course it was available for purchase, but nothing was free. Our friends also had an extra stop in Canada, which was not listed on their original itinerary. What a pain!

Ultimately, our missed connection turned out to be a disappointment, but not the end of the world because United provided us such excellent service. Not only did they advise us on the best plan of action while we constantly dealt with delays at O’Hare, but once we arrived in Newark, they took care of everything for us and paid for a night in a hotel, plus transportation there and back. And they threw in free breakfast, lunch and dinner for me and my husband. I will admit…I haven’t worked with any of the budget carriers for international air, but I do have my doubts about whether their service would have been nearly as stellar in a similar situation.

NOTE: I’m not saying it’s a bad idea to ever fly a discount airline. In fact, I am planning on doing just that when I fly to Orlando for CruiseWorld in November. You really can’t beat a flight to Orlando for $59! But, in the case of an international flight, don’t skimp on service. It’s such a grueling travel day as it is…you don’t need more headaches. And, under the circumstances, you should spring for the extra pampering in flight. It’s the little things that make or break your experience.

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9. Print All Documentation

So, this tip is a lot easier for a Type A personality (like me) than it is for Type B (like my husband), but it is absolutely essential if you are going overseas. You will want to have a hard copy print-out of every single detail of your travel itinerary. For this voyage, that meant that I had everything in order in a 24-page packet: Airport Parking Receipt, Airline Confirmation & Itinerary, Hotel Confirmations, Travel Insurance Policy (yep, the entire thing), List of Venice Restaurants we found on TripAdvisor, and our Royal Caribbean Confirmation & Itinerary. This monster packet was constantly accessible in my carry-on and I referred to it no less than 100 times on our trip.

The entire travel insurance policy might seem extreme, but honestly…if something happens, you will want to have immediate access to phone numbers and details of coverage. What if you are in an area that doesn’t have WiFi and you can’t get to your e-mail to look up the info? We purchased an international cell phone data plan and, guess what? It worked ONE TIME while we were overseas. Best to have the information ready. And, hey, we actually used it when our connecting flight was canceled and I had to call and deal with the Venice hotel adjustment (because we missed our first night reservation). Lifesaver, guys.

Lucky for you, I will prepare, organize and send this to your doorstep before you leave on your vacation. One less thing for you to have to worry about!

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10. Don’t Skip Travel Insurance

I’m not even going to go into all the reasons travel insurance is a must-have in this blog. In fact, at the request of a friend, I plan on creating a full blog to discuss this more in depth in the near future. Let me just share why I was, personally, thankful that we secured insurance for this particular trek.

First of all, did you know that the airlines mishandled over 21 million bags in 2013? This is the simplest and most practical reason for travel insurance. When our connecting flight was canceled and we were re-booked for the following day, the airline kept our luggage in some storage room in the basement and promised they would get it onto our newly scheduled flight the next day. We were anxious to say the least. Fortunately, United came through for us and our suitcases appeared like clockwork at baggage claim in Venice when we landed. Phew! But, if we wouldn’t have received our bags, we could have purchased clothes and necessities to get by and our travel insurance would have reimbursed us for the full cost.

Perhaps most reassuring of all…if there were some sort of medical emergency while we were traveling, everything would be covered and taken care of by our travel insurance provider. We’re talking medical care/direction, emergency air evacuation, customs and border patrol, hospital stay, etc.

Everyone goes on vacation thinking nothing like that will happen. Everyone has that split second at booking where they question whether it’s a waste of money to pay $300 for travel insurance. But do you really want to “get your money’s worth” with travel insurance? No way. The end goal is to not use the insurance. Having it in place, though, makes things a lot less scary.

A number of incidents on our trip could have led to medical & financial disaster for us. My husband hauled luggage up and down about 500 steps (on the bridges) in Venice on our way to and from the cruise dock. What if his back went out or he fell and broke his ankle? The day we boarded the ship, I was walking across the pool deck like a normal person and I suddenly hit a patch of water and slipped, spilling the drink in my hand and slamming down on my knee. That’s not even the worst part, though. This actually happened TWICE! TWO TIMES I could have been badly injured ON THE FIRST DAY OF OUR TRIP! No fault of my own…just walking! Furthermore, our ship was about 1.5 hours late leaving port because the ship was “dealing with a medical emergency”. How much do you wanna bet someone fell on that pool deck and actually broke something? If any of these scenarios had occurred and we didn’t have that policy, we would have been stuck in a foreign land, not knowing the language, with very little money and no health insurance. That’s a sure way to ruin the vacation of a lifetime. Anyway, as I said…much more on travel insurance in the days to come!

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I hope these international travel tips were enlightening and might help you in some small way as you prepare for your next dream vacation. If you’ve got more useful international travel tips, feel free to comment or contact me on Facebook, Twitter or via e-mail at leah@drmdestinations.com. To sign up for my monthly newsletter, The Daydreamer, click here!

Destination: Europe 7/20-8/2

Is there any day more exciting than Day Before Vacation? Aside from Day OF Vacation, of course! My husband and I have been busy in a flurry of activity, doing all the things that must be done before an international excursion of some magnitude: cleaning the house, prepping our cat sitters, exchanging currency, double checking reservations, packing and communicating with anyone who might need to know where we are for the next week and a half. Tomorrow, we will leave on the biggest trip either of us has ever taken in our lives. A real Bucket List vacation. And we couldn’t be more thrilled!

We saved about $800 by booking our flight out of Chicago instead of Indianapolis (even after pre-paying $104 for 10 days of parking at an offsite hotel that provides an airport shuttle and 24/7 car monitoring).  So, we’ll rise before dawn to get on the road for a peaceful 4.5 hour drive to O’Hare. After a quick stopover in Newark, we’ll be on an overnight flight to Italy, arriving at 9:05am Venice Time on Thursday.

We booked a package deal with airfare and two nights’ hotel at Casa Baseggio (a small B&B in the Canareggio District of Venice, very close to the cruise port). The B&B is in a quieter part of the city, void of all the summer crowds. And it’s near the Jewish Ghetto, which we are pretty excited to explore. Our goal for our two days in Venice is to RELAX and explore the city, but live like natives. We have no desire to go to any fancy restaurants – or any sit-downs at all. We fully intend on receiving all our sustenance from local groceries, markets and street food stands.

Then, after our short stay in Venice, we will board the Royal Caribbean Vision of the Seas and enjoy the opulence therein, including the Unlimited Beverage Package (a luxury we have never splurged on when we’ve cruised in the past). Ports scheduled are:

  • Dubrovnik (Croatia) – King’s Landing, you guys!!!!! CANNOT WAIT!!!!
  • Kusadasi (Turkey) – We’ll see about this. I know this week’s Vision of the Seas was re-directed to the island of Crete, but as of my last contact with Royal Caribbean, they haven’t yet decided on Turkish ports next week.
  • Santorini (Greece) – THE reason we booked this cruise in the first place. We are traveling with a friend I met in high school – it’s his 40th birthday this month and his dream was to travel to Santorini. We have been planing this vacation with him for over a year and a half, starting with this beautiful volcanic island.
  • Katakalon (Greece) – Not sure what we’ll do at this port. I guess it’s pretty close to Olympia, the site of the first ancient Olympics. But, we’re not particularly dying to see that. There is a transfer to Koroutas Beach we might take. We’re going to go with the flow and play it by ear.

    Add a couple days at sea and we debark in Venice after 7 glorious days. We will stay another night in Venice at Ca’ Pozzo Inn. Then, head home from there, via Toronto this time.

Needless to say, the cities listed above and the entire international travel/Royal Caribbean experience are sure to be the subjects of several blogs to come as we head into Fall. I will definitely have my “travel agent glasses” on and will be looking for helpful tips and tricks and information that I can share with my future clients. Until then, you might want to keep an eye on the Dream Destinations Unlimited Facebook page, for periodic photo dumps. We are looking to totally disconnect, if possible. Which means, we’ll be unreachable by telephone or text message. Occasionally, if we have free wifi service somewhere, we will check in on social media and do a quick read through of e-mail, but our goal for this trip is to disconnect from the world and connect with each other and our friend as much as possible. See ya on the flip side!

 

10 Reasons Why a Group Cruise Vacation Works for Everyone

When most of us begin the vacation planning process, the thought of traveling with a group never even enters our mind. And the idea of figuring out the logistics of a group cruise vacation probably strikes you as too overwhelming. Keep reading – this post will erase all doubts and will explain why a group vacation, particularly a cruise vacation, might actually be the perfect choice for your next getaway!

Reason #1: Cruises are all-inclusive.

It might seem like you could find a better deal with a land-based vacation at an all-inclusive resort. Or, perhaps you believe you could piece together something that is more affordable on your own, using an internet budget travel engine. You can give it a shot. But, chances are, those “super deals” you find will begin to add up and the total price will be much more than you bargained for in the end.

On a cruise, you pay one price for everything – this includes lodging, dining, entertainment, server gratuities and even childcare. Consider the savings illustrated below in a handy chart created by one of our travel partners, Carnival.

This illustration is based on a 2-person vacation and assumes a rather cheap resort ($125/night), a dining spend of $45 per person per day and just one night of entertainment at a show that costs $70/ticket.

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Reason #2: A group cruise is less expensive than an individual cruise reservation.

Many cruise lines offer group rates for groups booking 8 or more staterooms (or booking 15+ guests). This will be a lower price than you can find on the cruise line’s website if you’re booking your own individual vacation. Sometimes, they only require a small payment (something like $25) to hold your place in the group, with a deposit due within 30-60 days. Deposits vary by cruise line, but you can expect a ballpark deposit of $100 – $250 per person. Then, the full remaining balance is not due until 60-90 days before sailing, depending on the terms of the cruise line. You can also work with your travel consultant to make small payments over time and alleviate the financial burden of having to come up with a large sum of money all at once. With all that flexibility and a promise of a lower rate, why not think about an upgrade to a balcony stateroom or ocean view?

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Reason #3: Cruise groups can receive complimentary bonus amenities.

A lot of the cruise lines offer amenity points for groups, which allow travel agents to gift their group members with a little something special. This can be something small like a free drink coupon or onboard credit, or it can be something larger like a bathrobe or slippers.

In addition, if you work with an agent who is part of a larger, reputable travel network like Ensemble Travel Group, you can take advantage of Ensemble Hosted Sailings, where a designated Ensemble representative is onboard the ship with you as a host. These sailings offer their group guests a private bon voyage cocktail party, free private shore excursion experiences and more.

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Reason #4: You can still do your own thing.

You might be leery of traveling with a group because you feel you won’t have as much freedom or the ability to do things independently that you love. It might seem like the will and schedule of the group will infringe on your own ideas of what a dream vacation should be. This doesn’t have to be the case.

Your group can have as much or as little interaction as you, as a group, decide to have. Perhaps everyone wants to do their own thing every day and just meet up for meals. Or maybe you want to be together in port so you can take discounted group tours of exotic destinations together, but you would all like to spend at sea days relaxing and exploring the ship’s activities on your own. Maybe the group has a set dining time, but you and your sweetie would like to break off one night for an intimate dinner at one of the specialty restaurants onboard. All of these things are OK. There are no rules imposed on any group. And, except for a few cases, most cruise lines don’t require that a group even have a designated leader.

The best part of a group cruise is that you have the opportunity to be with a group of friends/colleagues/family, while also having the freedom to select your own itinerary items.

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Reason #5: There are enough cruise options available to satisfy a wide range of budgets and bucket lists.

Did the image in #1 above (and it’s $1,000 price tag) send your head spinning? Or do you have a taste for the finer things in life when you vacation and desire a much more posh experience? The cruise industry has been growing and working to provide options for every taste, palate, budget and desire.

Simply put, you can find 3-day bargain cruises and 13-day ultra-luxury cruises and everything in between. You can sail on small ships that only hold 100 passengers or on mega-ships that carry 4,000 people, or even sail on luxury yachts that look more like a sailboat than a cruise ship. There are Caribbean, Mediterranean, Arctic Circle, Asian and Alaskan cruise itineraries and more. Most U.S. ports are within a 6-hour drive of a major U.S. city or you can take advantage of airport-to-cruise-terminal transfer services. There is so much variety that you could plan one cruise per year for the next decade and satisfy every type of person in your group.

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Reason #6: Group cruise vacations are FUN!

What better way to celebrate a birthday/anniversary/major milestone/family reunion/school break than basking in the Caribbean sun or zip-lining in the Puerto Rican rain forest or surveying the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu with a group of people that you love? Sure beats the standard rented ballroom with a punch bowl and pretzels.

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And, with so many onboard options (i.e. dance clubs, art auctions, multiple bars and pubs, pools and jacuzzis, rock climbing, shopping, spa services, fitness center, full-scale stage productions, comedy clubs, casinos and gambling, trivia, miniature golf, waterslides, cooking demonstrations, etc.), there is no shortage of experiences to share with other group members.

Reason #7: Chance are, there is a cruise to match your group interests. 

If you’re traveling with a group that isn’t a random assortment of your friends, family or co-workers, chances are you have a special group culture or theme. If there isn’t already a cruise that revolves around your interest, a space for your group can be created. You might already know that there are culinary cruises for foodies, cruises specifically for adventurers and explorers, singles and LGBT-themed cruises for those with a mind for meeting new people, service and volunteer cruises for the world changers, and even wine cruises for budding or experienced sommeliers.

But, did you know that any group can be accommodated? You just have to talk to your travel agent! There have been special group cruises for knitting and quilting groups, animal lovers, bird watchers, book lovers and golfers. Some even included lectures at sea and special meet-up events. Whatever your group enjoys, an experienced travel consultant can craft an itinerary to fit their interests. And it’s not unusual for an idea for a group cruise to come about before the actual group is assembled. It may well be that you just love studying volcanoes and you want to meet others who have the same interest. You could work with a travel consultant to create a group cruise to several volcanic Caribbean islands, publicize the offer and end up on a cruise with 25 new volcano-obsessed friends. The sky is the limit when it comes to group cruises.

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Reason #8: Group cruise vacations are surprisingly easy to plan…

This might seem impossible to believe, but it is true…if you are using an experienced travel consultant. Travel agents have access to booking systems and bells and whistles that the average traveler can’t use. Group bookings, while complicated due to the sheer number of people involved, can be pretty straightforward in a lot of cases. One of the most difficult parts of the process is simply getting everyone in the group to agree on where they’d like to go!

If you use an experienced professional, they will work with each group member and handle all the details of planning and booking for you. Most agents charge a fee for their services, but it is very small in comparison to the peace of mind you will receive in knowing that you have not skipped over any important booking details and that you won’t miss any important deadlines. Plus, as with all travel planning, you know that your agent has your back if anything happens. And that is a comfort worth its weight in gold.

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Reason #9: Group vacations are a great opportunity to build friendships and strengthen bonds.

Do you think you would feel closer to a friend after a few hour-long FaceTime sessions of chatting and laughing, or do you think you would feel more of a connection after you’d boarded a catamaran to a private island and spent the day snorkeling off a coral reef and throwing back rum punches with them? Aside from the obvious fact that shared experiences build automatic bonds between people, there is something to be said for going through all those experiences while you are on vacation. Even if you made it  a point to meet up with your grandmother for coffee every week like clockwork, you have to admit that the busyness of life is difficult to pull away from and it’s not always easy to focus on your personal relationships when things are hectic. Group cruises are especially perfect for multi-generational families and all sorts of groups of friends. With so many offerings of activities for every age group, they provide a chance to pursue individual interests while also providing a relaxed space to just be together.

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Reason #10: Group cruise vacations can change the world!

Have you ever heard of a fundraising group cruise? These are a special niche of the cruise industry that allows you to gather a group of like-minded individuals and decide that the vacation you were going to take anyway should help a higher cause. If you are able to promote your group cruise enough to get at least 15 (minimum – the sky is the limit on maximum) to travel with you on a cruise of your choosing, the cruise line will donate a set amount (i.e. Carnival donates $5 per person per day) to the named non-profit charity of the group’s choosing.

With the booking, free stateroom berths are often awarded for every 15 guests you are able to book. This free stateroom can be awarded to special guests/VIPs in the group (so they are able to attend for free), paid in full by the guest (and the money paid goes straight to the charity), or raffled off (and all raffle ticket money earned goes straight to the charity). In addition, you have the option to increase the price of each person’s cruise fare by a small amount ($5-$100) and all the excess funds will be donated to your charity as well. If you are able to find enough people to join your group, you could end up writing a substantial check to your organization! And all you actually have to do is go on vacation, as you would have gone anyway! Your travel agent will handle all the details and keep track of the group and all the funds for you! Your only job is to promote, promote, promote and gather as many friends as possible. Not a bad deal!

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A group cruise vacation is something everyone will remember for years to come! So why not think about who you might like to explore the world with and contact your travel agent today to help you get started?

Guided Tour vs. Independent Exploration

Well, you made it. You somehow navigated those last few hectic work days, packed for every possible scenario, survived the 4-hour airplane ride with negative 5 inches of legroom and you have finally arrived at your hotel! (Or, alternately, you’ve enjoyed your bon voyage cocktail on your floating accommodations for the next seven days!)

Whether you are staying in one location or cruising to multiple ports, all travelers will ultimately make the decision with their travel consultant about destination activities. Specifically, will you have your consultant schedule guided destination tours/shore excursions in port or will you independently explore on your own? Either way, there are pros and cons. See below for some helpful notes on each!

Guided Tours/Shore Excursions

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Shore Excursion: Catamaran in St. Thomas USVI with built-in tour guides, snorkeling, snacks and unlimited rum punch.  A fabulous time!

Pros

  1. Your guides are experts and can give you the most accurate information.When we visited Old San Juan last year, we had not booked a shore excursion onboard. But, once we disembarked in port, we thought we might like to have a guided city tour. We had about 8 hours in port and didn’t want to take up the entire day and we also didn’t want to pay the premium price the cruise line was charging. We happened to bump into a man with a tour bus, just outside the port, who was offering 2-hour tours for $20. His bus was almost full and he seemed legit, so we took him up on his offer. As it turns out, it was a lucky coincidence because he was a local professional Puerto Rico historian who was doing these 2-hour tours on his day off. His day job? Professional tour guide for the rich and famous at an ultra primo resort in San Juan. He told us about his 10-day tour with Vice President Joe Biden, his 3 days with Johnny Depp and his personal favorite client, Mariah Carey. Needless to say, we learned a bunch amazing things about the history of the island, in addition to satisfying our appetite for celebrity gossip.
  2. Scheduled tours will start and end on time, allowing you to plan your day to the full.A great benefit of pre-scheduled tours or excursions is that you receive a reliable timetable. If you know you are leaving for your tour at 8am and returning at 2pm, you can best plan the rest of your afternoon, based on that information. For families, it might be helpful to have scheduled events, so you can work around children’s rest times and keep some of their routines, even though you’re on vacation.
  3. Some experiences are only available to tour suppliers, not the general public.Some guided tour operators can get special access to exclusive hotels (even when they are showing as “sold out”) or are able to provide experiences that even the most influential heads of state aren’t privy to – such as, a lavish dinner on a private yacht situated on the Seine River with a perfect, unobstructed view of the Bastille Day fireworks in France. While anyone can have a wonderful experience on their own in any destination, there are some experiences that warrant a bit of extra planning and budget.

Cons

  1. Guided tours/shore excursions cost money.One reason many choose independent exploration is that guided tours/excursions cost money. While it’s true that many reputable tours and excursions are definitely a great value and give you the most bang for your buck, there is always a risk when money is involved. If you’re unsure about spending the extra cash on a tour, it is helpful to read reviews from previous guests online. Word-of-mouth referrals from friends who have already visited your destination will also help. And never forget that your travel consultant is an expert in certain suppliers and can help you determine whether a structured tour is a good fit for your travel style.
  2. You are at the mercy of the group/tour operator, in terms of pace and speed.Being in a group can be an exercise in patience and discipline. You will find that some group members won’t always respect the time limits put on certain stops on the tour and this might cause delays. In particular, if it’s a walking tour, you will quickly learn that the group is only as fast as its slowest member.
  3. You might feel there isn’t enough time to fully enjoy specific elements of the tour/excursion.On the flip side of the coin, there may be sites that you would like to have more time to explore, but you will feel rushed to return to the group on time. Just as you don’t want to stand around waiting for other inconsiderate guests to return so you can move to the next site, you will want to be on your best behavior and not be the cause irritation for other group members. On one excursion recently, my husband and I thought 3 hours of beach time sounded heavenly, but we found that the time passed rather quickly. It would have been nice to have a bit more relaxation, but we were pretty happy with the excursion overall.

Independent Exploration

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Found the most perfect pina colada in a tiny, off-the-beaten path bar in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico!

Pros

  1. You’re on your own schedule.As long as you return to the ship in time to sail away from port or return to your home base hotel at your pre-scheduled time, you are free to do whatever you like. My husband and I recently meandered through Nassau, Bahamas and lost ourselves in its grid of side streets and alleys. We discovered a pirate museum and a beautiful church that was in the middle of a service, which we quietly slipped into and observed. We ended up on the balcony of the very touristy Bacardi Rum Bar, sipping cocktails and leeching their free WiFi to update our Facebook pages with three days’ worth of vacation photos. It was perfection for us, and we didn’t need any less or any more.
  2. You might find hidden gems that aren’t on a typical tour.Once, on a business trip, I had a free day in Newport Beach, California. I had arranged to meet a friend on nearby Balboa Island for breakfast. Being completely naive of the area, I thought it would be just as easy to walk back to my hotel in Newport Beach as it would be to figure out how to call a taxi or pay for an Uber. So, I started walking. I must say, I was greatly mistaken on choice of footwear that morning and I didn’t realize I’d literally be hiking up some pretty steep hills (might even call them mountains here in Indiana!) I walked along some busy roads and wondered if the cars’ drivers speeding by even noticed me and if they wondered why anyone would be walking on the sidewalk near a highway? But, as I looked for the shortest path, I ended up cutting through some really beautiful, really fancy private neighborhoods. I started a secret game, where I counted how many Lexus’s (Lexi?) were parked on the curb. I happened upon a gorgeous dog park and stopped to watch families lounging and playing with their dogs. And, by the time I reached my hotel several hours later, I felt I had seen the entire city from a fly-on-the-wall perspective.
  3. You can experience true cultural immersion.When I travel to New Orleans, I love to go “off book” and just wander. The French Quarter alone has so many lovely nooks and crannies. And the best part about New Orleans is…she cannot be fully explored in one day, or even in one short vacation. There is always more to her. She’s the only city I’ve been to (so far) that I refer to as a “she” because she’s the one I’ve found to have the most unique personality and ambiance. New Orleans is perfect for independent exploration and, because I already know the language and because the locals are very welcoming, it’s fairly easy to get a feel for the local culture. If you steer clear of some of the major tourist sites and elect to dine in smaller restaurants and visit shops and art galleries and cafes not on the main tourist itinerary, you will sink into her culture. But be warned…you just might fall in love with her.

Cons

  1. You might miss out on local treasures.Particularly overseas, it might be easy to miss some very significant historical or architectural sites if you are on your own. When I traveled to Ephesus, Turkey, we had a full day tour with a knowledgeable tour guide. I was amazed at how much information she shared and pointed out as we perused the city, down to the smallest markings on the pavement! I realized afterwards that, if I would have been on my own, it would have looked like not much more than a bunch of old rocks. As it were, those “piles of rocks” were actually ancient temples, Turkish baths, secret symbols and the remains of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. My Ephesus experience would have been terribly lacking without that guided tour.
  2. Limited knowledge of the area could lead you to some shady areas.Even in amazing places like New Orleans, which is perfect for exploration, it’s important to know the limits and be aware of safety. When we wandered around Nassau, we did find some great spots, but we also turned down a road that made us feel very uneasy. If you feel in your gut that an area is not safe, it’s best to listen to your intuition. Better yet, do a little bit of research ahead of time and learn about your destination if you plan to explore on your own. Talking to the locals at your hotel is also a good idea before you set off. And always know the local emergency numbers and protocol.
  3. Emergencies in a foreign land can make or break a vacation.Some friends took a cruise to Mexico some years back. Instead of booking the scheduled shore excursion, they reasoned it would be more frugal to rent a motor scooter on their own and make their way to the Mayan ruins. What originally sounded like a great idea turned into a travel nightmare. At one point, the husband lost control of the scooter and his wife’s ankle was badly injured. The scooter rental place was not merciful and took all the remaining cash they had. When they finally made their way back to the ship, they were told they could not board, for liability purposes, until a local doctor had deemed her fit to travel. With no passports, this couple knew they would be stranded in Mexico if they did not get back onto the ship in time.  It was a truly dire situation and they basically had to beg the doctor to wrap her ankle and give them permission to re-board the ship. Thankfully, they made it back onboard in time. But, I’d be willing to bed that this couple wished they’d invested in the ship’s shore excursion when all was said and done. NOTE: This is also a perfect example of the importance of preparation – having a passport and obtaining travel insurance.

In summary, every traveler is different and everyone has a preference on how they spend their time on location. Seeing as there are highs and lows with every option, the best plan is to allow your travel consultant to really get to know you and your travel style. Your consultant will actively listen and help you figure out which specific activities will bring you the most joy and the most value for your travel dollar. Because they have preferred relationships and excellent rapport with hundreds of tour companies and reputable shore excursion guides, your consultant can match you with a fabulous tour itinerary. Or, if you prefer to strike out on your own, your consultant can research the location and give you plenty of jumping off points for your personal itinerary, as well as help you best prepare for the unexpected, should it occur. And, if you’re on the fence, your consultant will be happy to give you a nice mix of both – scheduled and unscheduled activity time. At Dream Destinations Unlimited, we look forward to getting into the nuts and bolts of your vacation, to help you have the most memorable and wonderful experience possible on your dream vacation!

If you’d like to speak with a travel consultant, please reach out via Facebook or give us a call at 812-727-0234!

Know before you go! A travel documentation & prep guide

A topic like travel documentation is certainly not as glamorous as browsing beautiful beach scenes, comparing all-inclusive resorts with luxury cruise ships, or working with your travel consultant to schedule private guided tours in port. It is, however, one of the more important aspects of your travel planning experience. The last thing anyone wants is to arrive at the airport, ready to take a dream vacation, only to be turned away at the gate. Ignoring the subject will only put your significant vacation investment at risk. Read on to learn how to avoid possible travel obstacles before they occur.

Domestic/U.S. Travel

Domestic travel includes any destination in the continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii and all U.S. Territories. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents (LPR’s) who travel directly between parts of the United States, which includes Guam, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands – St. John, St. Croix & St. Thomas, American Samoa, Swains Island and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), without touching at a foreign port or place, are not required to present a valid U.S. Passport or U.S. Green Card. However, it is recommended that travelers bring a government issued photo ID and copy of birth certificate. It also is recommended that you carry proof of your LPR status as all times in the event you are asked to prove your status. This may be in the form of a green card or passport.

These guidelines also apply to cruise ships leaving from and returning to the same U.S. port. For instance, if you are a U.S. citizen and you embark on the Carnival Sunshine from Port Canaveral in Orlando, FL and sail for 7 days to the Eastern Caribbean, you may travel with only your government issued photo ID and birth certificate as documentation. This applies even if you are visiting ports that are not U.S. territories (like the Bahamas, Turks & Caicos, etc).

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you choose this method of documentation and you arrive in port and, for any reason, miss your ship’s sailing out of port, you will be stuck in a foreign country without a passport (i.e. without a way to easily return home). The cruise lines are not lenient on this rule. They will leave you in a port if you don’t arrive back at the ship on time. For this reason, Dream Destinations Unlimited strongly encourages all cruise travelers to obtain their passport for any cruise in which foreign ports will be visited. This recommendation is in addition to our standard agency recommendation that every traveler obtain comprehensive travel insurance coverage.

International Travel

For travel outside the United States, a valid U.S. Passport is required. Many countries require that your passport be valid for at least 6 months past the date of your visit. If you have an international trip in the future, it is always good practice to double check your passport expiration date well in advance, and update as needed.

Passports can be obtained by applying at a U.S. Passport Office (in most U.S. Post Offices). Processing time ranges from 4-6 weeks. Expedited service is available, but this can be expensive. Plan well in advance!

NOTE: Planning in advance is key because a passport approval is not a given. For instance, if a person currently owes $2,500 or more in child support payments (even if the person is currently paying arrears to the state and making on-time payments of regular child support), your passport request will be denied. There are ways to set up payment plans and work with the various state and county offices to remedy this, so you can have your passport request reinstated before you travel, but this takes time. Also, some states require a $0 balance before your name is removed from the passport denial list. When in doubt, leave a LOT of room in the calendar before your vacation to handle these details.

BREAKING NEWS: A new bill that has passed both houses of Congress is likely to include a provision that will prevent “serious debtors” of the IRS from getting or renewing passports starting in January. If you owe the IRS more than $50,000, you’d better renew your passport right now.  H.R.22 is in conference, Forbes reported yesterday, “so something could change. But it is expected to pass.” If it does, new section 7345 of the tax code, “Revocation or Denial of Passport in Case of Certain Tax Delinquencies,” will allow the State Department to block Americans with “seriously delinquent” tax debts from obtaining or renewing a passport.

Travel Visas

Some foreign countries (most recently, the European Union nations) require a travel visa for visitors. In many cases, this visa must be acquired prior to travel. The U.S. Department of State has a helpful website with a traveler’s checklist, where you can select your destination country and learn about visa and immunization requirements, as well as any other pertinent travel information, such as personal health, safety, and official travel alerts and warnings.

At Dream Destinations Unlimited, we are committed to helping you with all aspects of your vacation plan. We are happy to counsel, guide and assist you in the process of fully preparing for your upcoming vacation. Feel free to contact us today to schedule a complimentary consultation to discuss your next adventure!