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Airport Booking Strategy Budget Travel In-Flight Experience

11 Ways to Upgrade Your Next Trip for $100 or Less

Maybe you can’t afford to fly in first class or stay in a luxury hotel, but that doesn’t mean you can’t indulge in a travel upgrade or two on your next trip. Make your trip a little more comfortable by treating yourself to one of these affordable luxuries for $100 or less.

Expedited Screening and Reentry

Person going through tsa precheck line

One travel upgrade that always feels indulgent is strolling right past those tedious lines at the airport. Global Entry membership costs $100 for five years and entitles you to expedited reentry to the U.S. after international trips. Instead of standing in line at customs along with hundreds of other people after a long-haul international flight, simply enter your passport into a kiosk, offer your fingerprints, tap the screen to answer a few questions, and get on with your day. Global Entry members also get TSA PreCheck membership.

A slightly cheaper alternative is to get PreCheck alone ($85 for five years) and use the free Mobile Passport app for expedited reentry. Note, however, that Mobile Passport is available at fewer U.S. airports than Global Entry.

Skip-the-Line Tickets

Speaking of skipping long lines, why not do the same at popular tourist attractions? You could easily waste an hour or more of your vacation waiting to get into places like the London Eye, Vatican Museums, or Empire State Building if you don’t buy your ticket in advance. In many cases you can purchase tickets online at the attraction’s website. Alternatively, check out SmarterTravel’s sister site, Viator, for skip-the-line tickets that often include other extras such as guided tours or early access.

[st_related]6 Ways to Skip the Line at Tourist Attractions[/st_related]

Airport Lounge Pass

Between the free drinks and snacks and the quiet atmosphere, an airport lounge can be an oasis in the heart of a busy, noisy airport. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a first-class passenger or an elite flyer to get in. Many U.S. airlines sell day passes to their lounges for $50 to $60—or you can purchase passes for hundreds of lounges around the world through Lounge Pass. Prices vary but usually range from $30 to $60.

To learn more, see these seven ways to score airport lounge access.

Credit Cards with Perks

marriot bold and bonvoy, hilton credit cards

Carrying the right credit card can entitle you to a number of travel perks, and you don’t have to pay a hefty annual fee to get them. For example, the United Explorer Card entitles you to priority boarding, two passes into the United Club airport lounge, a free checked bag, and $100 toward Global Entry or TSA PreCheck; the $95 annual fee is waived in your first year as a cardholder.

Opt for the Bold (no annual fee) or Boundless ($95 annual fee) card from Marriott Bonvoy and you’ll get automatic Silver Elite status, with perks such as priority late checkout, free Wi-Fi, and keyless room access using your phone.

Prefer Hilton? Try the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass Card, which offers benefits such as 10 free airport lounge visits via Priority Pass and a free weekend night when you spend at least $15,000 in a calendar year. You’ll also enjoy late checkout, complimentary breakfast at all hotels, and other perks of Hilton Honors Gold status.

To learn more about travel credit cards, see Airfarewatchdog, SmarterTravel’s sister site.

[st_related]7 Secret Travel Perks Your Credit Card Might Already Have[/st_related]

Curbside Check-in

Instead of fumbling with an airline kiosk and waiting in line to drop off your checked bag, use your airline’s curbside check-in service to hand over your suitcase to a friendly skycap as soon as you step out of your car. The cost is usually a gratuity and perhaps a small per-bag fee.

[st_related]Curbside Check-in: The Best Airport Perk You’re Not Using[/st_related]

Airport Chair Massage

chair massage in singapore airport

You may not have the time or money for a full-length massage between flights, but many airports have mini-spas where you can enjoy an affordable 10- to 20-minute treatment to work out the kinks in your neck, shoulders, hands, or feet.

In-Flight Comforts

While nothing can make a coach-class seat truly comfortable, bringing a few key in-flight accessories can help you create your own mini travel upgrade. Skip the thin, dubiously clean airplane blanket and bring a softer option instead, along with a silk eye mask to help you block out harsh overhead lights and flickering screens.

If you can’t afford Bose’s pricey noise-canceling headphones, consider cheaper options from Linner or Cowin.

[st_related]7 Expert Airplane Seat Hacks to Boost Comfort on Long Flights[/st_related]

In-Room Comforts

Just as you’d upgrade your airplane seat with a few accessories to maximize comfort, you can do the same in your hotel room. For example, a white noise machine can help you sleep more soundly by blocking out noises from neighboring rooms, and a pillow spray can cover up any lingering odors from harsh cleaning supplies. For more ideas, see these nine ways to make your hotel room more comfortable.

A Better Airplane Seat

airplane seats exit row

Don’t just settle for any old economy seat. When you check in for your flight, take a look at your options on the seating chart and see if you can buy your way into a better spot. While a travel upgrade budget of $100 isn’t likely to get you into first or business class, you may be able to land an exit row seat with bonus legroom, or a window or aisle seat right near the front of the economy cabin. On shorter flights, you might even be able to upgrade to premium economy for $100 or less.

[st_related]10 Ways to Get the Best Airplane Seat[/st_related]

Breakfast in Bed

Sure, it’s a little overpriced, but there’s nothing like room service for getting a vacation day off to a lazy and relaxing start—especially on the first full day of your trip, when you’re still tired and jet lagged from your flight. Order some coffee and your meal of choice, and enjoy them in your pajamas from the comfort of your hotel bed.

A Vacation Rental Instead of a Hotel Room

In many parts of the world, you can get a lot more space for the same price as a hotel room by booking a rental apartment or home instead. Vacation rentals are a particularly good deal for families and groups who want to share a space—including kitchen and laundry facilities—rather than book multiple hotel rooms. Find properties on TripAdvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent company), Airbnb, HomeAway, and other vacation rental sites.

More from SmarterTravel:

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Follow Sarah Schlichter on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.

Categories
Booking Strategy Business Travel Passenger Rights Senior Travel Solo Travel Student Travel

9 Tips for Surviving the Middle Seat

On a typical commercial flight within the United States, about 50 unfortunate souls will be relegated to the dreaded middle seat. What can you do if one of those tortured passengers is you? Here are nine tips to make it to your destination with your sanity—and your comfort—fully intact.

Take a Tray-Table Nap

airplane-tray-table

Aside from occasionally holding a drink or a meal, the tray table doesn’t have much to do during a typical flight. Make use of it by taking an in-flight nap. No need to invest in an embarrassing Ostrich Pillow, however. Roll your jacket into a makeshift pillow, fold forward at the waistline, and snooze away. Whatever you do, though, don’t place your face directly on that petri dish of bacteria (a.k.a. the tray table), or at least disinfect it first.

Sleep Upright

sleeping-airport-travel-pillow

If a tray-table nap isn’t your speed, sleeping upright is also a possibility—even in the middle seat. It starts by picking the perfect travel pillow for your body, whether that’s a standard neck pillow, a shoulder-wrapping Travelrest Pillow, or even a candy cane travel pillow. Though they may not be as cuddly as their foam-filled counterparts, consider blow-up travel pillows for their space-saving qualities.

[st_related]8 Neck Pillows That Won’t Embarrass You on the Plane [/st_related]

Invest In Noise-Canceling Headphones

For just a few hours, a pair of good headphones can be a middle-seat passenger’s best friend. The right set tuned to a good movie or music can take your mind off the otherwise muscle-contorting rigors of the middle seat.

Claim Your Territory

front of plane

Even if you’re sandwiched between fellow passengers, your personal space needn’t be too limited. Board quickly at your first opportunity so as to make it to your seat before your seatmates, and then mark the armrests as your own. Don’t feel too guilty: It’s widely accepted that the middle passenger gets both armrests. But it’s important to claim them early, lest you find yourself next to a passenger who doesn’t buy into common courtesy.

[st_related]Heading to the Airport? Use This Pre-Flight Checklist [/st_related]

Make the Most of Your Knee Space

man sitting on airplane headphones and phone

Speaking of claiming space, do so for your knees as well. In such close quarters, every little inch counts. Consider politely asking your neighbor to refrain from leaning back if it really causes you discomfort. You’ll be surprised how considerate people can be when asked politely.

Keep Busy

Ever notice how time seems to fly by when you’re busy? Watch a movie, read, or play a game. Whatever your time-kill, just keep yourself entertained and before you know it the “fasten seatbelt” sign will go off and the pilot will announce your arrival.

[st_related]The 15 Best Airplane Books for Long Flights [/st_related]

Bring an In-Flight ‘Survival Kit’

woman using traveling pillow and sleeping mask in plane

Regardless of which seat you occupy—but especially if it’s the middle seat—keep the following items handy for in-flight sanity (or make up your own in-flight packing list): an eye mask, electronics (a tablet, laptop, or handheld game console), headphones, non-electronic reading material or a puzzle book, a sweater or jacket, and snacks.

[st_related]10 Tasty Snacks You Can Bring on the Plane [/st_related]

Ask to Be Reseated

Just because you were assigned a middle seat doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be stuck with it. Inquire with the gate staff about any remaining, available window or aisle seats. They may seat you in a more preferable location if one is open.

If you missed your opportunity at the gate, you have yet another shot at a better seat location by asking the flight attendant. Once everyone’s boarded and the plane’s cruising at a high altitude (but before the drink trolley comes out), politely ask the flight attendant if a window or aisle seat is open. Chances are, the empty seat will move you to the rear of the plane, but at least you won’t be the meat section in a seat sandwich.

Do Better Next Time

suitcases with plane in background

The best way to survive the middle seat, of course, is to avoid it altogether. Book early and, if you can, select your seat during the booking process. For airlines that don’t allow advanced seat selection (like Southwest), check in for your flight as soon as you can (in Southwest’s case, as early as 24 hours in advance). Because Southwest assigns boarding groups based on when you check in for the flight, the earlier you check in, the more likely you are to score your favorite seat.

What to Wear While Traveling this Season

For info on these editor-selected items, click to visit the seller’s site. Things you buy may earn us a commission.

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Senior Editor Patricia Magaña Figueroa writes about travel. Follow her @PatiTravels.

This story was originally published in 2013. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

Categories
Airport Business Travel

A Guide to Global Entry Renewal

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If you’re a Global Entry member, you probably agree: It’s the best $100 you’ll ever spend on travel. Once you’ve skipped the painfully long border control lines on return to the U.S., you don’t want to go back to waiting with everyone else—so you’d better make sure you don’t let your membership expire. Here’s what you need to do for Global Entry renewal.

When to Start Your Global Entry Renewal

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  • You can renew your Global Entry membership beginning one year before yours expires.
  • Customs and Border Protection (CBP) recommends that members renew Global Entry early to prevent a lapse in membership.
  • If you renew early, the additional five years will be added on to your expiration date, so you aren’t losing any time by completing your Global Entry renewal before the deadline.

[st_related]Global Entry: 10 Things You Need to Know[/st_related]

How to Renew Global Entry

  • Log in to your Global Entry account on the CBP’s Trusted Traveler Page and fill out the “renew application” form.
  • Pay $100, which covers your membership for the next five years.
  • In some cases, you may be required to complete an in-person interview, so you’ll need to schedule an appointment at a Global Entry office in order to finalize your renewal.
  • If you aren’t flagged for an interview, you will be mailed your new Global Entry card to the address you have on file.
  • Once your Global Entry renewal is conditionally approved, you’ll receive an email indicating a status change to let you know that you’ve been either approved or conditionally approved with a requirement to schedule an interview. (This information is also posted to your Trusted Traveler account.)

[st_related]How to Get Global Entry for Free[/st_related]

Important Tips for Global Entry Renewal

  • If you also need to renew or get a new passport or driver’s license, you must also update that information on your Trusted Traveler account.
  • Changing your name? You won’t be able to update that online, so once you’ve received your new passport and driver’s license showing the change, you’ll have to go to an enrollment center to add the new documents to your account. Appointments are not accepted for this service, so you’ll need to do a walk-in.
  • If an interview is required for your renewal, and you are booked on an international flight, CBP may offer you the option of doing your interview upon arriving home.

Personal Experience with Renewing Global Entry

I submitted my Global Entry renewal about one year before my membership was due to expire. I was not notified that I had been approved, but approximately three months later, I received my new Global Entry card in the mail, along with a letter of approval.

Traveling? Aim for a Carry-On That Does MORE

The Bigger Carry-On from Away

3 words: lightweight, durable, & multi-functional. The Carry-On from Away makes traveling that much easier, especially with its removable, TSA-approved battery for your electronics.

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Caroline Morse Teel posts plenty of travel tips, including on Global Entry renewal. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline for advice and inspiration.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2018. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

Categories
Fashion & Beauty Miscellany Money Packing

7 Things You Shouldn’t Buy Before You Travel

The plane ticket, hotel reservations, and car rental are easy. What’s not so simple is the decision to buy the array of additional perks, products, and add-ons available to travelers prior to departure. Should you insure your trip? Do you really need those extra inches of legroom? Is an expedited-passport service worth the cost? We have the answers. In the interest of saving you money, we’ve rounded up seven things that you can probably do without on your next trip.

Things You Shouldn’t Buy Before You Travel

Think twice before handing over your hard-earned money for the following products and services.

Travel Insurance

(Photo: Insurance via Shutterstock)

[st_content_ad]Travel insurance can be a wise investment. Or it can be a needless expense. Many avid travelers move across the planet without ever even considering purchasing trip insurance. (I’ve never paid for a policy.) They find travel insurance unnecessary because, often, they’re planning budget trips or they don’t consider themselves at high risk for cancellation. To find out whether it’s wise to insure your trip, ask yourself some important questions. For example, are you planning an unusually long and expensive journey (such as a honeymoon or a three-week jaunt to Asia)? If you were forced to cancel your trip due to an unforeseen reason, would you be OK with the financial loss?

Furthermore, if you’re in a higher-risk situation—if, say, your medical insurance doesn’t cover you abroad or you’re heading to the Caribbean during hurricane season—travel insurance might be a smart purchase. Otherwise, maybe you’re better off pocketing the extra hundred dollars or so and taking your chances on the road. To learn more, read 5 Common Travel Insurance Questions, Answered.

Private Passport-Expediting Service

(Photo: Passport via Shutterstock)

Paying for a private passport expediter—a very expensive service—usually isn’t your best option for getting that little blue book in a hurry. Did you know that you can get an expedited passport directly from the State Department? This will run you additional costs, but will be far cheaper than the cost of a rush passport from a private company, which will always include additional charges on top of requisite State Department fees. The only reason any traveler should pay for a private expediting service is if he or she doesn’t live near a passport agency or cannot make it to one. (See a list of passport agencies here.) The State Department also offers a fast-track processing service that gets a passport to your mailbox in less than three weeks.

[st_related]6 Passport Rules for Faster Renewal [/st_related]

Seat Assignment

(Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Certain airlines charge passengers for the “privilege” of selecting an assigned seat upon booking. When booking your flight with one of these guys, you might find yourself wondering whether it’s worth the extra fee to secure a designated seat before your trip. In many cases, it’s not. A seat assignment guarantees that you’ll be plopped in a space next to your partner, or near the window, or wherever it is that you’ve chosen—but that’s the extent of its advantages. There’s no guarantee that you won’t get bumped, that you’ll find enough room in the overhead bin for your carry-on bag, or that you’ll really make it onto the plane before the herds of line cutters at the gate. A far better and free option? Check in for your flight as early as possible. Get to your computer exactly 24 hours before boarding and you’ll likely be among the first to select your seat.

Prepaid Credit Cards

(Photo: Credit Card via Shutterstock)

We all want to keep our money secure while traveling. Prepaid credit cards, which are often billed as a safer and more convenient alternative to carrying cash abroad, might seem like a smart option. You purchase a card and load it with funds in your preferred currency ahead of your trip. And if your card gets lost or stolen, you can cancel it immediately. Simple, right? Unfortunately, it’s not so simple. Most prepaid credit cards come with some surprising hidden fees, such as inactivity fees, reloading charges, monthly fees, activation fees, and so on.

[st_related]10 Countries Where Your Spending Money Will Last the Longest, Ranked [/st_related]

Premium-Economy Seat Upgrade

(Photo: Soon via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)

Premium seats are not all alike. Generally, when flying internationally, a premium-seat upgrade is a big deal, but on most domestic flights, premium-economy seating is paltry. You get a couple extra inches of seat pitch, end of story. As a short person with no need for extra legroom, I’ve found premium-economy seats on domestic flights to be disappointing. Investigate whether the cost is worth the reward by looking up the details of your prospective premium-economy product on your airline’s website or on our sister site SeatGuru.

TV-Show Downloads

(Photo: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

I have a habit of paying to download a season of some kind of mystery TV show on my iPad before a long flight. But increasingly, I find myself watching something on the in-flight entertainment system rather than powering up my iPad and wasting its battery. Airlines have been beefing up their entertainment offerings in big ways in the past year or so, with many major carriers implementing live TV and Wi-Fi services. JetBlue has live DirecTV, while others wow with other onboard amenities.

[st_related]5 Ways to Survive a Flight in Basic Economy [/st_related]

Expedited Security

(Photo: Michael Nagle/Stringer/Getty)

Expedited security can be a really awesome perk when you’re faced with a lengthy line that snakes off into the distance. On the other hand, when there are three other people in line and the sound of crickets in the air, it can feel like a rip-off. So when should you buy an expedited-security add-on? First, consider your travel dates: Are you heading to the airport during peak travel days (holidays or weekends)? If so, expect lines.

Things You SHOULD Buy Before You Travel

For info on these editor-selected items, click to visit the seller’s site. Things you buy may earn us a commission.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2013. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

Categories
Booking Strategy Frequent Flyer

Big Changes at Hilton Honors from April 3

Hilton announced early this year that there were significant changes coming to the Honors program, set to take effect on April 3. This is a reminder of what’s coming, and how it’s likely to affect you.

Earning

The most impactful changes take place in points-earning.

First, members will earn points only—no more points-and-miles or points-and-points.

[st_related]Visa Versus MasterCard Versus American Express – Does It Matter?[/st_related]

Second, the earning rates, including elite bonuses, will change, as follows:

  • Blue (non-elite) members will earn 10 points per $1 (versus 15 currently)
  • Silver members will earn 12 points per $1 (versus 16.5 currently)
  • Gold members will earn 18 points per $1 (versus 17.5 currently)
  • Diamond members will earn 20 points per $1 (versus 20 currently)

Elite Benefits

Perhaps recognizing that the earning changes would be perceived as a net devaluation, Hilton is adding some new perks for elite Honors members:

  • Elites can rollover elite-qualifying nights
  • Gold and Diamond elites can gift elite status to other members
  • Elite members will receive milestone bonuses (10,000 points every 10 nights beginning after 40 nights)

Winners and Losers

On the earning side, there are clearly more losers than winners. Only Gold members earn more, and only marginally more.

Points-and-miles is a program feature that had value for many members. While Hilton claims that only 1 percent of Honors members elected to earn that way, that’s still a big number (1 percent of 71 million equals 710,000 members). It will be missed.

For Gold and Diamond elites, the combination of rollover nights, elite-status gifting, and milestone bonuses will make the program modestly more valuable.

Honors remains competitive overall with the other major chains’ loyalty programs. No thanks to these latest changes.

Reader Reality Check

How do these changes affect your relationship with Hilton and Honors?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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Categories
Booking Strategy Budget Travel Peer-to-Peer Travel

Tip Your Uber Driver, or Else

Remember when Uber was a tip-less service? Indeed, part of what made Uber the undisputed leader in rideshare services was its no-tipping policy, as featured front and center on the company’s website: “No cash, no tip, no hassle … When you arrive at your destination, just hop out—we’ll automatically charge the credit card on file. And there’s no need to tip.”

That verbiage is long gone from Uber’s website, and in July 2017 the company began actively encouraging riders to tip drivers: “Great service deserves to be rewarded.”

[st_related]WalletHub Says Delta’s Is the Best Frequent-Flyer Program. Is It?[/st_related]

[st_content_ad]Now, Uber is using a combination of carrot and stick to encourage riders not just to tip, but to tip extravagantly.

In an interview with CNBC, Uber’s new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi as much as admitted that there is a link between tipping and rider ratings. “I am a very aggressive tipper right now. I pick the highest tip every time. Somehow my rating is getting better. I’m not sure if it’s aggressive tipping. Everybody, tip aggressively.”

Why bother currying a higher rider rating? To begin with, riders with higher ratings are more likely to get drivers with higher ratings. And if that’s true, the converse must be true as well: Lower-rated riders get lower-rated drivers.

And that’s just the beginning. Khosrowshahi also disclosed that the company is developing a package of perks available exclusively to higher-rated riders. No details yet.

Reward or extortion; carrot or stick. Uber has long had a reputation for ethically dodgy business practices. But the service’s ease and convenience and value—anchored by its no-tipping policy—combined to make it the clear choice compared to most traditional and non-traditional taxi options.

If Uber drivers are not adequately compensated from their share of published rates, the company should either raise the rates or increase drivers’ portion of every fare. Squeezing riders for ever-higher tips is a step back to a compensation system that’s not just antiquated, but disrespectful of workers.

Reader Reality Check

How has your relationship with Uber evolved?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

[st_newsletter]

Categories
Airport Booking Strategy Fashion & Beauty Holiday Travel

The Easy Way to Cut Airport Boarding Lines for Free This Week

In case you missed the memo or it failed to appear on your Google calendar, December 15 is National Ugly Holiday Sweater Day. Good to know if—and perhaps only if—you happen to be flying on Alaska Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, or Horizon Air.

Why? Because on December 15, all Alaska Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, or Horizon Air passengers who arrive at their departure gates sporting garish holiday sweaters will enjoy priority boarding.

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According to a statement from Alaska, “Travel during the holidays can be stressful for guests, especially those who do not travel often. This fun promotion not only allows guests to board early on that day, but gives people another opportunity to dust off that ugly holiday sweater hanging in the back of their closet.”

Together with the funny sweater promotion, Alaska will be playing holiday-themed tunes during boarding—another way to take the edge off the stress of holiday travel.

Happy holidays!

Reader Reality Check

That reindeer sweater hidden in the back of your closet …?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

[st_newsletter]

Categories
Booking Strategy Business Travel Frequent Flyer

Air Canada Pursues U.S. Travelers with More Service, Elite Perks

Air Canada is upping its game with an eye toward capturing more U.S. travelers, adding new cross-border routes and enhancing services targeting elite flyers.

Beginning this spring, the airline will add six new routes between Canada and the U.S., as follows:

  • Beginning May 1, Edmonton-San Francisco
  • Beginning May 1, Toronto-Omaha
  • Beginning May 17, Vancouver-Sacramento
  • Beginning May 17, Toronto-Providence
  • Beginning May 17, Montreal-Baltimore
  • Beginning May 17, Montreal-Pittsburgh

The new flights will be operated with 50- or 76-seat CRJs by Air Canada Express.

[st_related]Good News for Flyers – Less Bumping, Fewer Lost Bags[/st_related]

Beginning later this week, Air Canada premium flyers departing from Toronto airport can await their flights in an all-new airport lounge. According to the airline, “The Air Canada Signature Suite provides premium Air Canada customers with a luxury experience unrivalled in North America that elevates Air Canada into the ranks of leading global carriers for discerning international travellers.” That luxury experience includes complimentary restaurant-style meal service with dishes designed by celebrity chef David Hawksworth, hors d’oeuvres, wine, and cocktails.

The lounge will be accessible only to “full fare paying International Business Class customers, excluding upgrades and most point redemption programs.” Americans connecting in Toronto to Air Canada flights to Europe or Asia are clearly part of the targeted market.

And speaking of premium passengers, Air Canada also announced this week that, beginning later this year, the airline would provide elite members of its mileage program with free Gogo inflight Wi-Fi service. Altitude Elite 75K members will receive six-month unlimited-use passes, and Super Elite 100K members will receive 12-month passes.

It’s obvious that Air Canada is making a play for U.S.-originating travelers, and high-yield American travelers in particular. With moves like this, the airline’s chances look good.

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

[st_newsletter]

Categories
Airport Booking Strategy Health & Wellness Holiday Travel In-Flight Experience

How to Survive the Thanksgiving Travel Rush

Do your Thanksgiving travel plans include flying? Here’s what to expect, and how to cope.

Airlines for America, the trade group representing the interests of U.S. airlines, today released its forecast for the Thanksgiving travel period, between November 17 and November 28. The big picture: U.S. airlines are expected to carry 28.5 million flyers over the holiday, 3 percent more passengers than last year.

A4A naturally puts the best face on the increase, reassuring travelers that there are plenty of seats available for sale. “Airline passengers continue to benefit from the highly competitive air-service landscape this holiday season, as low fares and increased availability of seats continue to make air travel widely accessible.”

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Of course, seat availability isn’t really among travelers’ top worries. More urgent concerns include onboard comfort when planes are packed to capacity, and long lines at airport security checkpoints.

Thanksgiving Travel by the Numbers

The three heaviest travel days, busiest first:

  • Sunday, November 26
  • Wednesday, November 22
  • Friday, November 17

Unsurprisingly, the lightest day will be Thanksgiving day itself, Thursday, November 23.

A4A didn’t provide a predication for the busiest airports during the Thanksgiving holiday period, but the top 10 shouldn’t be much different from last year’s:

  1. Atlanta
  2. Los Angeles
  3. Chicago O’Hare
  4. Dallas-Ft. Worth
  5. New York – Kennedy
  6. Denver
  7. San Francisco
  8. Las Vegas
  9. Charlotte
  10. Phoenix

Surviving the Holiday Crush

On the busier days, planes will be running close to 100 percent full, especially on more popular routes. And security-screening at the busiest airports will be stressed to the breaking point. Travelers for whom comfort is a priority will want to avoid flying on those days, if possible. If you don’t have the luxury of contrarian timing, however, do what you can to eke as much comfort and peace from the flight experience as you can. Some tactics that have proven themselves over the years:

  • Allow plenty of time to get to the airport, especially if you plan to park at an airport lot
  • Book early flights to increase the odds of being accommodated later the same day in the event of a cancellation
  • Travel to/from secondary airports
  • Avoid checking bags if possible
  • To avoid the coach crush, use miles to upgrade or pay extra for premium economy
  • Have phone numbers for your airline, hotel, rental car readily at hand
  • Fully charge your smartphone before leaving home
  • For a respite from the gate crowd, consider buying a day pass to the airline’s airport lounge
  • Sign up for PreCheck for expedited security clearance

None of the above will make holiday flying a breeze. So relax. Expect travel to be stressful. Observe the Golden Rule, and hope that other travelers do the same.

Reader Reality Check

What’s your strategy for stress-free holiday travel?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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Categories
Arts & Culture Booking Strategy Experiential Travel Peer-to-Peer Travel

Rent a Frank Lloyd Wright Home for Your Next Vacation

If you’re going to be using an Airbnb-like service to rent someone’s home during your next vacation, why not upgrade your accommodations by renting a home that has architectural significance?

That’s the premise of PlansMatter.com, the online service that connects travelers with owners of historic properties.

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Options include the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Kinney House in Lancaster, Wisconsin, available to rent for $395 a night, with a minimum two-night stay, and Rudolph Schindler’s Mackey Penthouse in Los Angeles, available for $220 a night, also with a two-night minimum.

You could easily pay that much for accommodations at a generic Marriott or Hilton.

The site currently lists 39 properties, in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Asia. Most are modernist in design; all are worthy to be covered by Architectural Digest (and most have been).

You could use PlansMatter the same way you use Airbnb, as a convenient way to find and book lodging outside the traditional hotel ecosystem. But the prospect of a few nights in a home designed by a renowned architect also raises the possibility of an entirely new category of travel: architectural tourism. Trips arranged with the specific purpose of experiencing first hand life in a designer home. Or, in the words of the site founders, “travel planned around significant architecture rather than a specific country or city.”

The destination becomes the journey.

Reader Reality Check

Would you plan a trip around a stay at an historic home?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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Airport Booking Strategy Entertainment Experiential Travel Frequent Flyer Luxury Travel Money Travel Trends

Are Independent Airport Lounges Worth the Price?

Private, independently operated airport lounges are expanding in major U.S. airports, and offering one-time access for a fee. The typical airport lounge’s entry fee is $40 to $50 per person per visit, but some lounges charge as little as $25. Airline-sponsored lounges have been around at least 70 years, but independent ones are a fairly recent development in the U.S.

Are Independent Airport Lounges Worth It?

[st_content_ad]The business model for independent airport lounges appears to be based on two sources of income: fees for individual access, plus, in some cases, deals to provide premium-class lounge service for airlines that lack the traffic to support their own lounges. These days, if you want into a lounge, you can get in—for a price. 

What You Get

When I first covered lounges, I called them an “oasis of calm” in the airport’s typically hostile environment. Since then, that contrast has changed a bit: As they’ve grown popular, lounges are no longer as tranquil as they once were. Airports, on the other hand, have improved somewhat in offering places to wait out a departure. Still, lounges retain a big edge in providing a comfortable environment for those times when you have an hour or more to kill. They offer comfortable seating, workplaces, Wi-Fi, laptops, maybe printers, TV, magazines, newspapers, and private rest rooms, sometimes with showers. Typically, you’ll have to present an ID and a valid boarding pass for same-day departure or arrival.

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To many, the primary appeal of independent lounges is now in what you get for “free” once you’ve paid your way inside. In most cases, that means no-charge coffee, soft drinks, beer, wine, and liquor. It also means food—snacks and (more increasingly) hot food that can actually serve as a full meal. Given that a typical airport drink costs around $10, having even one or two at the lounge substantially offsets the cost of entry.

Almost all independent lounges are located past security. An independent lounge operator may have multiple locations in large airports with decentralized terminals. Some lounges post flight information on display, others don’t. Guest privileges vary by operator, but in most cases, guests will cost you extra.

What You Pay

A provider called The Club is the U.S. leader for independent airport lounges. Lounge locations include Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Cincinnati, Las Vegas, Orlando, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Jose, and Seattle-Tacoma airports. Day passes cost $40 per person and are available online.

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American Express operates Centurion lounges at Dallas-Ft Worth, Houston/Bush, Las Vegas, Miami, New York/La Guardia, San Francisco, and Seattle, as well as in a handful of foreign locations. Day entry at U.S. airports costs $50 for holders of most AmEx cards, and entry is free to Platinum cardholders and their guests at most locations. AmEx lounges are ranked among lounge-using travelers as some of the best. Because AmEx has a deal with Delta lounges, Centurion lounges tend to be located in areas frequented by American and United Airlines.

The leader in Canada is Plaza Premium, with locations in Edmonton, Toronto, Vancouver, and Winnipeg airports. Day passes start at $30.

Swiss-based Executive Lounges operates Aspire Lounges at Calgary and Montreal, but is mainly operating across Europe and Asia. Prices vary by location.

One-of-a-kind lounges include Mortgage Solutions Financial at Colorado Springs, Club America at Miami, PGA MSP Lounge at MSP, Wingtips at New York/JFK, Art & Lounge at Newark (landside), Salon VIP at Quebec, and Royal Palm at Sanford. Prices start around $35 per person, per day.

Priority Pass

It seems that most independent lounge users gain access through Priority Pass, the 800-pound gorilla of the lounge membership business. It provides access to more than 1000 lounges around the world—a mix of airline lounges, airport premium lounges, and independent lounges. Coverage in the U.S. is limited to a mix of independent lounges, including many available on The Club, plus Alaska Airlines Lounge clubs, at 21airports: Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Cincinnati, Colorado Springs, Dallas-Ft Worth, Houston/Bush, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis-St Paul, New York/JFK, New York/La Guardia, Newark, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Portland, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle-Tacoma, and Washington/Dulles. Notable exclusions include Cleveland, Denver, and Salt Lake City. Canadian locations are Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Quebec, Vancouver, and Winnipeg. Coverage is extensive in Asia, Europe, and the Caribbean.

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In addition to conventional lounges, Priority Pass is expanding into new territory: partnerships with airport bars and restaurants, starting with Portland, Oregon airport options like Capers Café Le Bar. Priority Pass members get $28 off the bill. Also new are programs with airside mini-hotels: Minute Suites at Atlanta, Dallas-Ft Worth, and Philadelphia. As with the bars, the deal is $28 off each visit, with regular rates starting at $40 per hour or $140 overnight.

Priority Pass offers three membership options:

  • Standard, unlimited visits at $27 each, $99 per year.
  • Standard Plus, 10 free visits plus additional visits at $27 each, $249 per year.
  • Prestige, unlimited free visits, $399 per year.

Many Priority Pass users in the U.S. gain membership as a feature of a premium credit card. Cards that include Priority Pass membership are AmEx Platinum, Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase Ritz-Carlton, and MasterCard Black. The “Select” membership level available through credit cards provides unlimited free lounge access for the member, plus up to two guests, depending on local lounge policy.

[st_related]Priority Pass vs. Lounge Pass: Which Is Better?[/st_related]

Lounge Locator

Priority Pass members can locate participating lounges on the Priority Pass website. Other travelers can search on LoungeBuddy, which sells day passes to more than 250 lounges worldwide and provides useful information like reviews. As yet another approach, you can visit the airport’s website to find information about both airline and independent lounges.

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How Good a Deal?

The value of one-time airport-lounge access depends on your individual trip, your travel habits,you’re your budget. For many, the lounge value equation depends on what you consume there: If you have two free drinks, you can figure those, alone, offset about $20 of the entry fee, and the snacks can easily offset another $10 to $20. You might assign some value to the environment: Opting to pay $25 to $50 for a private area and free booze for a five-hour layover in a busy air hub might sound like a good deal. On the other hand, paying several times that for your family if you’ll be there for just an hour may be unnecessary.

For frequent travelers, the most compelling case for independent lounge access is to get annual Priority Pass as a key benefit of a premium credit card. Add lounge access to the various other credits and benefits, and the value of the total package can easily exceed the card’s $450 to $550 annual fee. That’s how I get into private lounges, and I consider lounge access a big plus for my premium card. Given all the other premium card features and annual fees of $450 to $550, most travelers would be better off accessing Priority Pass through card perks rather than separately at $399 for Priority Pass only. And paying $99 then paying $29 per visit doesn’t seem as attractive, either.

Have you used independent lounges? Was it worth the price? Comment below.

More from SmarterTravel:

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Booking Strategy Budget Travel In-Flight Experience Travel Trends

How Much Would You Pay to Have an Empty Seat Next to You?

What to do with unsold airline seats? Sell them, of course! Or rather, allow passengers to pay extra to surround themselves with some of those empty seats.

That’s the idea behind Etihad Airways’ new neighbor-free seat option, which lets coach-class flyers bid for as many as three empty seats next to them. On one of the airline’s B777 planes, configured 3x4x3 in coach, reserving three empty seats in the center seating section would give you a relatively spacious four-across row of seats to yourself. Raise the armrests and spread out across four seats — effectively a lie-flat seat in coach.

No word yet on how much travelers are willing to bid for the extra elbow room.

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The move is one of several ancillary-revenue initiatives launched to shore up the bottom line, as Etihad and other Middle East carriers find themselves with more capacity than the market will support, and declining yields as discount carriers capture greater market share.

The carrier is now allowing coach passengers to pay to use the Abu Dhabi business-class lounge (up to $250 per visit) and airport lounges elsewhere in the network (up to $75).

Similarly, business-class passengers who need even more luxury and privacy can pay to upgrade to the airline’s Abu Dhabi first-class lounge.

And looking at the cost side of the equation, Etihad will suspend its complimentary chauffeured airport transfer service for premium passengers on July 3, replacing it with a paid transfer option. (The current free transfers will remain in place at Abu Dhabi airport, and for Residence passengers.)

Reader Reality Check

How much would you pay to have the coach seat next to you empty?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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Categories
Booking Strategy Frequent Flyer Luxury Travel

Amex Adds New Perk to $550 Platinum Rewards Card

With its eye-popping $550 annual fee, the American Express Platinum charge card has to work hard to justify its existence, especially now that the Chase Sapphire Reserve card is nipping at its heels, with its own long list of travel perks.

In recent months, American Express has upped the earning rate for travel spend on the card from three points to five points per $1. They added a $200 annual credit for Uber rides. They expanded the network of American Express airport lounges. Those moves were made with considerable fanfare, publicized with news releases and all the other communications outlets available to the Amex marketing team.

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By contrast, the newest Platinum benefit has been slipped into the list of card perks with uncharacteristic stealth. Replacing the card’s previous (and mostly useless) two-for-one deal on full-fare business-class tickets, the International Airline Program has been redesigned to provide discounts on premium-class tickets booked via American Express Travel on 18 participating airlines.

The details:

  • Discounts available on first, business, and premium-economy tickets, both refundable and non-refundable fares
  • Travel must begin and end in U.S. or select Canada gateways
  • Discount can be applied to up to eight tickets
  • Eligible for Pay with Points payments
  • $39 fee per ticket

The discount varies by airline, and presumably by flight; cardholders will have to call the Platinum Travel Service for a quote on specific itineraries. While the lack of transparency is concerning, cardholders posting on FlyerTalk, a forum for frequent travelers, are reporting significant discounts.

The new benefit isn’t by itself a compelling reason to pony up $550 for a Platinum card. But it’s certainly worth factoring into the calculation if you’re considering the card. And if you already have the Platinum card in your wallet, you’ll definitely want to see whether you can snag a better rate on your next premium-class international airline booking.

Reader Reality Check

Can you justify paying a $550 annual fee for the Platinum card?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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Categories
Frequent Flyer In-Flight Experience Miles & Points

10 Ways to Get an Upgrade on Your Next Flight

When it comes to flight upgrades, the days of “dress nicely and maybe a gate agent will take a shine to you” are long gone. Today, nearly all upgrades are driven by airline status, class of service, amount paid, computer algorithms, and other dollar- and tech-driven factors—which makes it tougher, but not impossible, to snag an upgrade.[st_content_ad]

How to Get a Flight Upgrade

First, a quick explanation of “class of service.” We commonly think of just two to four main classes on airplanes, including first, business, and economy, with the recent emergence of premium economy or some other similarly named intermediate class.

But the fact is that economy class can have nearly a dozen sub-classes, as outlined in this Points Guy article—and each of these class levels carries eligibility (or lack thereof) for various amenities, including upgrades.

Briefly, the very lowest levels of economy class will rarely be prompted to upgrade, or even eligible to upgrade. Before getting upgraded from the very cheapest fares you may see a pig sail by outside your airplane window.

Airline computer booking systems have become so sophisticated that most upgrades are doled out based on a complex brew of data, and it’s now much more likely that a computer (rather than a helpful airline agent) decides if you get an upgrade or if you are stuck in a middle seat in the back of the plane. This article includes a couple of interesting graphics on how Delta and United assess upgrade eligibility.

In the end, the computer doesn’t know how you are dressed—it just knows how much and how often you pay the airline. Here are your best ways to get upgraded in age of kiosks that don’t care about your clothing.

Be a Seriously Loyal Customer

If you fly a lot on the same airline, your options for getting upgrades soar. High-mile/point travelers are the first eligible and first chosen for most upgrades, so despite the fact that airline experts have been bemoaning the devaluing of airline miles for years, if you are a high-mileage and high-dollar flier, you will see greatly increased upgrade offers, often at no cost.

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Get an Airline Credit Card

In addition to helping you rack up miles or points, some airline credit cards also qualify you for upgrades reserved for only the top levels of loyalty programs. The Points Guy has a list of the best cards this month that’s worth a look. For more information, see How to Choose the Best Travel Credit Card.

Pay a Lot

As suggested above, folks who have purchased fares in the highest grade of service are most likely to see upgrade options in the days before their travel, at online or airport check-in and even at the gate. Read more on this below.

Book Early and Get on the Upgrade Waiting List

Last year, American was upgrading passengers based on both elite status and the time you get on the waiting list (more or less first come, first served). Recently it has changed to priority based on annual spending, and the importance of timing is lessened, but there still seems to be some advantage to getting on the wait list early. Which leads us to the following…

Check in Online at Earliest Possible Time

Online check-in is available beginning 24 hours (usually to the minute) before your flight, and the early bird has the best chance of nabbing an upgrade—though you’ll usually have to pay for it. As the minutes pass and more travelers check in, some of those folks will be looking and paying for upgrades, and once those seats are gone, they’re gone.

Set up Email and Text Alerts

If your specific fare class qualifies you for an upgrade if a seat becomes available, you may receive offers by email or text to purchase (most often in cash but sometimes for miles) the option to upgrade as flight time approaches and seat availability becomes more clear. These tend to disappear quickly, so if you miss the message, the seat won’t last long.

[st_related]Quiz: How Likely Are You to Get a Flight Upgrade?[/st_related]

Ask Again at Check-In

Again, these offers are mostly automated, but if you feel you meet any of the qualifications above, you should probably keep asking about upgrades all the way up to boarding time.

If you get through security and have not been able to upgrade yet, stop at the gate desk to ask to put be on a list if upgrades become available; the practice of overbooking exists in part because folks with refundable airfares often decide not to fly at the very last minute, and seats can come loose almost right up to the point the aircraft doors close.

Get Bumped

Whenever airlines overbook flights and need folks to give up a seat, that is when you have the most leverage for getting concessions and upgrades from the airline. Most of us have been in airports listening to increasingly urgent announcements looking for volunteers to give up their seat; in that situation, you can go up to the gate, set your conditions and then let the airline decide if it can meet those conditions.

You might say, “I can volunteer to give up my seat for X hundred dollars in flight credit or an upgrade on my replacement flight, as long as I still get there by Y o’clock.” This may not work on the first round of volunteer requests, but when the gate agents come up on departure time and still need empty seats, they can often deliver quite a bit.

To learn more, see Overbooked Flight? How (Not) to Get Bumped.

Use Your Leverage When Things Go Kablooey

If your itinerary is botched or implodes for some reason, particularly if it affects only you and no one else (such that the airline is not trying to accommodate lots of folks in the same situation), your case for an upgrade on a subsequent flight becomes more compelling. The airline is not obligated to upgrade you, but if this happens, pleasantly but firmly let the gate agents know that if an upgraded seat is available on your rebooked flight, you would greatly appreciate getting that seat.

If you have been extremely inconvenienced—maybe you were sent back to your hotel a couple of times, or you slept on the airport floor all night—let the gate folks know, as they may have some sympathy for you.

Dress Nicely

If, once all of the cost and technical factors are reckoned, a gate agent needs to pick someone to get a primo business class seat, it just might be the person who looks the part. The kiosk still doesn’t care, but in tricky situations eventually even the computers may have to cede authority to an actual person, and making a decent impression can’t hurt.

More from SmarterTravel:

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Holiday Travel

How I Spent Thanksgiving Week on NCL’s Jewel

Author: Louise Strong
Date of Trip: November 2006
PROLOGUE:

NCL treated me like a goddess and a family member all throughout the week on the Norwegian Jewel. They must have known I needed some R and R, some TLC, excellent dining, great activities, good dance music, fabulous ports-of-call, the opportunity to make new friends, and most of all, to laugh. This cruise will go down in the books as the best yet.

GETTING TO THE NORWEGIAN JEWEL:

I originally booked the lowest level category balcony and was upgraded to the highest level balcony for the same price. About one month prior to 11/19/06 I received the phone call for an upsell to a penthouse suite. Once I saw the suite was in front of the ship I immediately said yes. I flew into FLL on 11/18/06 and knew the week was going to be great when my luggage was the third and fourth suitcases to come through the belt! For 18 dollars I shared a van with seven others going to various places. One lady was my superhero. She goes on cruises for free while giving lectures on board all cruise lines. I want to be just like her some day.

My travelmate, The NewYorker, is a friend who I met on the NCL Sun two years ago Thanksgiving week. We called this our anniversary cruise. My hubby did not mind that I was leaving because he knew if I stayed home, then my large family was probably coming over for the holiday!

We enjoyed the Beacon Hotel in South Beach, Miami for our precruise stay. We walked to Lincoln Mall for dinner and shopped our way back to the Beacon. We bought expensive dresses for formal night that we did not really need for freestyle cruising. You can wear whatever you want on NCL freestyle cruises. We decided to dress every night of the cruise and most of my outfits had a black and white theme. I found a great black and white BCBG dress. We finished the evening drinking and dancing at the Clevelander Bar. The next morning we walked South Beach, dipped our pedicured toes in the ocean and chatted it up a bit with the homeless men who spent the night on the shoreline.

The cab ride from South Beach to the ship was about 20 dollars. I had so many thoughts and questions going through my head as we approached the Jewel. First, I liked her hull artwork. I wondered if there would be a tango-guy to teach me to ballroom dance. Would I never leave my penthouse? Can the bridge officers see down onto my forward balcony? What ports are we going to again and when? Who will show up to our planned Cruise Critic (a website for cruisers) party? Will I finally win the bottle of champagne at the latitudes repeat passenger party? Lastly, since I left my big family behind, would there be a family to take me under their wings during this holiday week…A family to adopt us?

Embarkation was a breeze and once on board we went to the buffet lunch. A lot of yummy food was present! Stations were set up all over with different categories of food. For example, there was a pasta station, a soup station, a sandwich station, a hot selection station, a meat carving station, a dessert station and so on! For breakfast and dinner, the buffet area was also filled with great selections. This ship also had dining rooms and specialty restaurants for extra extra fine dining.

The NYer suggested we check out our suite #10000 and see if our luggage arrived. We loved the couch and chairs, the huge closet with doors on both sides (one from the entry hallway, the other from the vanity hallway), the huge bathroom, the fabulous balcony, the living area, the dining area and the bedding. We concluded if we were thieves, we would have stolen the linens, the duvet, the pillows, and the bathrobes.

Our steward stopped in to say hello and he asked us to close our curtains at night. He said closing them would avoid glare on the bridge directly above us. Once he left we exclaimed, “Yeah, right! If we were young and beautiful, maybe the request from the bridge would be to keep the curtains OPEN at night!”

The craziness began after we noticed fresh flowers on the table, a bottle of champagne in a bucket and fresh fruit in a basket. A note attached said it was compliments of NCL. The doorbell rang and in comes another bottle of champagne with a note attached, “hope you have a wonderful cruise” from Colin Veitch, the President of NCL. Papers started arriving too with special things written on it. Our repeat passenger benefits included 20 dollars off body and facial treatment, 30 free minutes in the internet cafe, a party invitation and a free meal in a specialty restaurant. There was also a 75 dollar credit on our account (37.50 each) which probably had to do with our booking.

The doorbell rang again and in comes someone else delivering a basket of fruit and a nice bottle of cabernet sauvignon…the little note attached is from NCL again. I wrote to NCL regarding their new commercials and the message thanked me for my suggestions. Their new campaign is about being able to eat WHENEVER you want and to wear WHATEVER you want.

Our phone rang next. Our Concierge called to tell us he had already scheduled a free meal (another one) in a specialty restaurant for us. He asked if the date and time were okay. I reminded him we were on vacation and we could eat at WHATEVER time and where ever place!

The doorbell rang again and we thought it was our luggage arriving. We open the door and in comes another delivery…a bottle of wine and fruit basket! No note was attached and we did not press the issue in case it was a mistake delivery. We were darned happy as we re-organized the fruit, champagne bottles and wine bottles. We were going to crack open a bottle but had to go to the muster drill, a required and necessary safety drill before the ship’s sailing.

After the safety drill we returned our life vests to our suite. We decided to check out the sailaway party as the ship starting moving. Always remember to close the balcony door before you open your stateroom door…if not, then papers fly all over the place. But that can be a good thing too. I looked at what I picked off the floor and I found a letter from the Jewel’s Hotel Director stating we had a free meal in any alternative restaurant!

As we left for our Thanksgiving Week Sailaway we concluded it was more like Christmas week!

THE CRUISE BEGINS:

Everyone seemed to be at the pool deck for the sailaway party. This was a great opportunity to see the overall mood of the passengers and of the cruise staff who entertain all week long. Overall, it was going to be a fun and happy week. We returned to our suite and found our luggage was arriving. We scored a dinner reservation for Teppanyaki, a specialty restaurant.

Teppanyaki is “a style of Japanese cuisine that uses an iron griddle to cook food.” The chef cooks in front of you while “displaying slicing/dicing/juggling” techniques. Their tools make a beat as they perform. Our chef was a lot of fun! We laughed, we cheered, we hollered “yeah” when he caught pieces of food in his hat and we hollered “ohhhhh” when he did not. An anniversary cake was brought out in the end and we all sang happy anniversary to a couple celebrating their 45th.

One of the anniversary couple’s daughters was one of the very first winners of the happy birthday NCL free cruise on the new Norwegian Pearl. I thought this could be the family I was looking for because we shared our parts of our meals with each other. Most of us selected the Land and Sea and a few selected the Seafood Diablo. I had the Land and Sea and it was absolutely fantastic! The family later invited us to sit with them that evening at the 70’s dance party.

The other table had a well dressed family and I could not help but watch the two children stare up in awe at their chef. The kids were so cute. The son had his chopsticks tied together by the waitress in a particular manner so he could eat his food easier. I wanted mine tied the same way but they brought me a fork instead. Something new I noticed was that a black napkin was brought out for me but everyone else got a white one. I asked why and they responded so the white napkin would not leave stuff on my black satin pants or black satin shirt. I responded “oh” and thought to myself that I really should go out to eat more…!

During dinner we missed over 40 singles mingle (for the New Yorker), the ballroom dancing and the family karaoke. The Jewel also had a traveling alone social and dinner where one could meet other solo travelers and go to dinner with them. We thought how nice! Two years ago the NYer and I had to find each other on our own…now NCL helps set up solo travelers. Smart move.

After dinner we went down one deck to check out three bars with unique themes and designs as advertised on NCL. Since I was wearing black, I looked great in all three color schemes. I ordered a cosmopolitan at Magnum’s martini and champagne bar and then we headed up to the Spinnaker Lounge on Deck 13 forward for the 70’s Night dancing. The place was mobbed and they did their signature John Travolta/Gloria Gaynor/YMCA contest. The Cruise Director did a great job with this.

At the end of the night we talked about what we liked so far about the ship. Our suite and balcony was a given. We also loved the open railings with horizontal rungs all over the ship. They were great for viewing through our balcony, the decks, and the pool area. Some ships have that awful Plexiglass that gets fogged up from sea salt. The Jewel is wonderful for viewing the ocean. The furnishings in the lounges were also plush. Our feet even sunk into the ship’s carpets.

MONDAY…A PERFECT RAINY DAY AT SEA:

I got up at 6:30am and headed up to the buffet breakfast in my high-water black yoga pants, white flip-flops, an old skanky white t-shirt and black head-band. I made sure to put some mascara to not scare anyone in case others were awake at that time. It was cloudy and I noticed some of the pool chairs already claimed. Tempted to throw the towels/books/single shoes into one of the four hot-tubs I just chuckled knowing my option was the awesome forward balcony attached to my suite if the weather got nicer. Besides, I had A Cruise Critic party planned at 11am and a latitudes repeat customer party at 1pm.

At the Garden Cafe I had a beautiful selection of freshly prepared food. How wonderful to be an early bird. I asked an older gentleman (the only other passenger up at that time too) at the table nearby what his tag was for around his neck. He replied that over 300 Norwegian dancers were on board. A large group from Norway booked the cruise and they were all learning to dance. He invited me to watch as they were going to practice in Spinnaker’s Lounge at 8am and on the basketball court at 10am. So this is what goes on early morning! Who knew?

After breakfast I could have gone to early morning exercises, the casino, trivia, handwriting analysis seminar, golf seminar or arts and crafts all before 11am if I wanted to. I opted to head back to bed and watch the waves break the bow of ship. As I exited the cafe, I turned a corner and ran into five guys in white. Startled, I bid them all a good morning. I was asked what I was doing up so early on vacation. I replied I wanted to be the first in line for the omelette man and the first in line for the waffle man. I was next asked if I was enjoying the cruise so far. “Yes, it is great” I answered. I then added, “Who are you?”

The rest of the conversation was a blur. Not only were these guys in white, but they were the guys in white with stripes. I remember hearing Something-Director, Something-Director, Head-So-and-So, Big-Wig from Miami office and Assistant to the Something-Director. I could have run away. Here I was in my skanky clothes that I slept in with no make-up on. I thanked God to myself that I had put a bra on and applied mascara prior to leaving the suite. I held my ground and commented on NCL’s new menus. I thanked one of the Directors for dinner the prior evening. I then had to explain what I meant by that and they laughed. I then told them I had to go do a Norwegian dance group. When they laughed I realized I had to explain what I meant by that too. I ended their entertainment by wishing them a good day. I did not need my cabin key to get into the suite. I just crawled under the door…

I later checked out the Jewel’s spa. I began first with with the free area that women can use. You can use a hot-tub, a steam room, a sauna room, or sit on a few chairs overlooking the bow of ship. The spa is directly above the bridge and it has a fabulous view. I assume the guys on the other side had the same thing. They had regular bathrooms and regular showers along with two special showers that give an ice blast (which you are supposed to cold rinse after getting out of hottub or sauna/steam room to close your pores). I ventured down a hallway past the acupuncture room, the teeth whitening room, the massage rooms and the body tanning room into the therapy room which was unisex.

A juice/coffee/tea bar/water was set up as mellow music played lightly in the background. If I had my bathing suit on I would have checked out the therapy pool that seemed built for two with little rollers that one floats on. Instead, I sat on one of ten stone beds ergonomically designed for the body. The stones were heated. I sat there alone for about 20 minutes and de-stressed from my guy-in-white rendezvous. I almost fell back to sleep while looking out at the vast ocean ahead. I concluded that had I not had a penthouse suite to relax in, or if I was traveling with family members and wanted to get away, then this room is definitely where I would hang out!

I was so relaxed after my therapy room experience I returned to cabin to wake up the NYer and get ready for parties. I donned a black skirt, black sketcher sandals and a black/white/pink dress tank top (resort casual?) outfit. I was not sure of the decor in the Star Bar and I did not want to clash.

I brought our champagne to the Cruise Critic party and NCL set up glasses and orange juice to mix mimosas for those Cruise Critics in attendance. I also brought maple sugar treats from my home state of Vermont. NCL provided coffee and cookie treats. The best treat of all was getting to meet the Captain, the Food and Beverage Director, the Hotel Director, the Cruise Director and the group services coordinator. When some introduced themselves to me I reminded them I met him earlier that morning! I then shared the wonders of make-up.

Altogether, the officers were very nice and very personable. I noticed they took time with each of the Cruise Critics in a casual atmosphere. Their conversations were not boring and they were not stuffy at all. As a matter of fact, I began to think they were real people just like us! Overall, this was a great opportunity to ask questions of them if you wanted to. Lastly, it was great to put faces to people I communicated with online. After the gathering ended, we finished off the remaining mimosas.

Our next party was the repeat customer latitudes party at one o’clock. It was fun to go through the entry line and to not be afraid to talk to the guys in white with stripes. NCL served free champagne, wine, mimosas, rum drinks along with nice hors d’oeuvres. We stayed with mimosas. I dislike champagne but I had a nice mimosa buzz and my ultimate goal is to win the champagne bottle in the raffle. The party was well attended…it filled up the Spinnaker’s Lounge and the Captain talked to everyone and introduced the officers.

Prizes drawn included items from the gift shop, a pedicure and facial from the sap, NCL t-shirts and NCL hats. Prizes vary on each ship depending on who sets up the party. Once again, I did not win the bottle of champagne. I know if I ever win I am going to pull a Price Is Right move and run down and make a fool of myself. After all my suite treats, I was not too disappointed…

After the latitudes we were more buzzed and decided we better eat because more champagne was coming at the VIP party early evening. We selected the Blue Lagoon that serves chicken wings, potato skins, hamburgers, hotdogs, noodle soup, shepard’s pie, and some other stuff. This is one of the restaurants open all the time.

Afterwards, The NYer went up to the pool deck and it was time for my nap and solitude on the suite balcony. Upon my arrival, another surprise bottle was in the cabin and I have no idea where it came from. As my head hit the pillow on the lounger in bewilderment, I thought ‘Whatever!’ As I slept, I had no idea what the evening would bring…VIP party, another alternative restaurant, a dress malfunction, suite treats, and New Years Eve Bash…

During my nap I missed the afternoon activities that included champagne art auction, sexy legs competition by the pool, casino blackjack tournament, mega jackpot bingo, Texas Hold ‘Em tournament, spinning, martini clinic and margarita clinic. I wished I stayed up for the beauty seminars because I really could have used the seminar titled “Drop a Dress Size” or the one titled “Fab Abs” with the fitness instructors.

Monday evening and the V.I.P. party was billed optional formal night and we opted to dress up. While in South Beach I purchased a great strapless silk (ish) black and white cocktail dress. Each vertical black stripe and each vertical white stripe overlapped the other from top to bottom. I decided the dress was more important than going on shore excursions and getting my hair cut in the ship’s salon. Since black and white was my fashion theme for the week and it fit perfectly, I bought it.

When the time came to put the dress on, I wondered what happened. How could the dress have shrunk? How come I could not zip up the back? I forgot Caribbean humidity makes me swell. I forgot champagne makes me bloat. I forgot something else that I should have remembered. Since trying on the dress originally, I think I was ten pounds heavier. How was I going to chow down on lobster in a few hours?

We were almost late for the VIP party as the NYer (who is the size of a peanut soaking wet), had to help shove me into the dress. We laughed and laughed at the little flaps flipping up in certain spots whenever I walked or stood up after sitting down. Strange how it did not do that when I was dancing in the South Beach dressing room! I told the NYer I was going to wear the dress and just not move all night long. We could walk slowly; she would let me know if anything was showing, she could sit at the bar and I could stand up against it. When I had to sit down, I would remove my black sheer shawl (a burka head covering from Saudi Arabia I use as a shawl) and wrap it around my waist in a giant bow. Perfect. We were ready to go.

Before leaving, our suite treats arrived. We had treats arrive every night. This night had TWO platters of chocolate covered strawberries. We stuck them in the refrigerator in order to save room in our bellies for lobster. Lobster was being served in every restaurant that evening. We headed off very carefully to the Fyzz Lounge…

The Captain’s VIP party was very well attended. The Fyzz Lounge was very colorful and I did not clash with it in my dress. The Fyzz Lounge is used for karaoke and for other venues such as country line dance lessons. At the party, I did not move from the bar. We met a very nice woman who offered to show us her Garden Villa, an amazing 5500 square foot cabin with private courtyard. One of the officers introduced himself and I had to remind him I met twice already that very same day. This time I got to laugh and what him squirm. I explained to him the wonders of hairstyling and a little extra eye shadow. I thought to myself he probably did not recognize me because I gained weight since I saw him last.

Another officer asked which dining room we were eating in that evening and we had not really thought about it. He picked up his phone and made a reservation in a specialty restaurant. I wondered if we would ever see the freestyle dining rooms, the dining rooms that you go into anytime from 5pm-10pm.

Lastly, I noticed all the officers made sure they spoke to everyone who attended. I concluded this was a great group of officers. I secretly hoped they had fun at these events because they have to do it every week. The best part was that they were all very personable, cordial and funny.

During our fabulous lobster dinner in Mama’s Italian Restaurant, another bottle of wine was sent to our table. The lobster and wine helped stretch my dress appropriately. We had missed the opening main event show by Jean Ann Ryan Company which other people reported as being fabulous. So after dinner, we checked out the ship store instead of arriving late to it. I found the store pleasant. Cigarettes and liquor were definitely a bargain compared to where I come from. You could buy a carton of cigs for 23 dollars or 2 cartons for 40 dollars. If you purchase liquor from the store, you pick it up the night before the cruise ends. Just remind yourself you can not “carry on” the plane. You will have to pack it in your luggage. The regulations might change by the time you cruise, but keep this in mind.

We returned to our suite and found towel animals and chocolate on our pillows. I had been awake a long time and NCL contributed to an appropriate “good feeling.” I do not think I had a bar bill yet but was feeling great. We next headed up to the New Year’s Eve bash in Spinnaker’s Lounge. We arrived to a packed house and everyone was having a good time! The crowd ranged from 18 to 80 years old. I immediately got my glow sticks, my streamers and began to work out on the dance floor. I noticed the older Norwegian dancer from early morning standing by himself. I grabbed him and took him out on the floor. This guy could boogie! I found out later that he was in the same profession as me.

This was the only night I kept track of how long I stayed out at night. The NYer and I returned to suite at 3:30am. I had been awake partying for almost 24 hours. It was a perfect rainy day at sea.

TUESDAY…SAN JUAN:

I awoke early and headed up to the breakfast buffet instead of one of two main dining rooms. It was a new experience for me to see just who was out and about early morning! I sat with a lovely Hawaiian couple from San Francisco. Their plan for the day was to find a long lost friend from year’s ago. I told them I would say a prayer to St. Anthony that they would find her. I never saw them again that week but I hope they made someone’s day!

We did not arrive in San Juan until noon so I caught some early morning sun on the penthouse balcony. The ship was moving slowly and I think I had the best view…even better than the Garden Villa passengers. We had special early debarkation tickets but we were not in any hurry to go anywhere. We were on vacation. We had no plans. We let everyone else get off the ship first. We walked around town and bought souvenirs. I concluded that you must wear comfy shoes in Old San Juan’s cobblestone streets. We walked along the pier boardwalk and throughout the streets. I was so tired that I asked in one store if I would get back American dollars. The shopkeeper announced that I was in the United States and I would get back American dollars because that is all he had. I replied that a certain percentage of Puerto Ricans did not want to belong to the United States…he happily responded, “What do I care? I am Mexican!” We ended our shopping day drinking giant margaritas in a Senor Frogs bar.

My general rule is to be back on ship at least one hour before the recommended time. If you do not go with a ship tour, then there are no guarantees on the ship waiting if a traffic accident ties up the main road back, or if a privately scheduled tour is running late. On the ship I ate yummy pizza, chicken, pork ribs and potato salad. The NYer and I returned to our suite for a nap but it was interrupted by a suite shrimp platter delivery. We concluded no sleeping today and that we must begin to crack open all the wine we had sitting on our counter-top.

We sat out on our balcony eating shrimp and drinking Colin’s Cabernet Sauvignon while watching everyone return to ship. We watched the sun set. We opened the second bottle of Cabernet and heard a report from our suite neighbors out on their balcony about the San Juan tour. We finally met the honeymooning couple out on the balcony of the Diamond Suite (saw their suite at debarkation and it was beautiful…great decor…will book that one next time) and they were having a great cruise. Good thing because I would have felt bad if they were not having any fun!

As darkness fell and the ship started sailing we realized that we had not had dinner since nobody told us where we were going to eat that evening! Would we ever make it to the regular restaurants? The Nyer then remembered the double platters of chocolate-covered strawberries in our refrigerator and brought them out on balcony. We commented on the fabulous lights of El Morro shining in front of us and how great a tour that was the last time in San Juan, we laughed also at the shiny lights of the brand new parking garage directly below it.

As we left port, the gentle wind and night-lights were mesmerizing. I was bundled up in an extra blanket and the NYer could not believe that I was chilly. I said I was just comfortable. She pointed out the constellations as she had once lived on a sailboat traveling the Caribbean for two years.

Once we were full speed ahead towards Antigua, we went back inside and got ready for ’80’s night in Spinnaker’s Lounge. We missed dinner, the main show the Action Comedy Showtime Edge, the Big Band Tribute to Glen Miller, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire Audience Participation gathering and the adult karaoke. Even so, I would not have traded the NYer, the wine, the shrimp, the chocolate covered strawberries, the balcony view leaving San Juan at night for a million dollars…

WEDNESDAY…HOW I FOUND JESUS IN ANTIGUA:

The NYer and I awoke to the ship docked in Antigua. We found the room service request sheets in the cabin booklet’s back pocket the night before. Our butler was on time and he set a beautiful table setting on the balcony. While dining, we basked in the glorious sunshine and wondered whether or not we would ever make it to one of the big shows offered almost each night. We missed the comedy show but had asked a family the night before if it was funny. A middle-aged dad with his family said it was a riot and that we missed a good performance. The NYer and I concluded that it possibly could not have been funnier than the two of us hanging out together all week.

The NYer left after breakfast to get a salon appointment and I continued to work on my tan and to catch up on sleep on the balcony. The Antigua welcome band down below played. As I tried to rest, my eyes kept opening to view this awesome cathedral in hills of downtown St. John. I wondered how far a walk it was…I rested…I opened my eyes again and was drawn to the immaculate structure. It stood out among all the other buildings…I rested again…opened my eyes and felt the beckoning…”Louise…Louise…Come To Me…!”

I asked the NYer if she wanted to walk up and check out the Cathedral. She replied not only no, but “heck no!” I finally fell asleep but awoke once again. “Louise my child, you must come to me!” the church bellowed once again. We had talked about hitting the beaches in Antigua but we were content with just doing our own thing…a perfect agreement when cruising with friends or family. Falling asleep again, I was jolted with a bolt…”Louise you better get up here right now and pay homage!” I got dressed and told the NYer I was going for a walk to the church. She decided to join me.

Before heading out we checked the ship’s magazine, The Freestyle Daily, to make sure of the required return time. We noticed on each port-of-call the advisory notice: “While ashore drink only bottled water, be cautious while dining in port, wash your hands often, and discourage hand shaking.” This is one of the great things about NCL…the multitude stations of hand sanitizers everywhere you go throughout their ships. I truly believe this is the reason one hardly hears about norovirus on NCL ships.

St. John’s Cathedral was not as far a walk as I thought. Closer than it appeared from the suite, I was glad I had comfy shoes on as the sidewalks were in need of repair. The view was beautiful from the outside. The cemetery around the church was interesting. The structure inside was extremely interesting. We read through the brochure that noted the history, the organ, the wood, the stained glass, and the altar. Suddenly a local hands us a bible and a hymn book. Mass began.

We went to leave and turned around. The church was semi-filled with locals. The NYer said, “Let’s GO!” I replied, “NO!, think of the grace we can get by staying!…I will meet you back at the ship if you want!” She stayed as we moved to the back. The mass was very interesting. I remembered the words to most of the responses but followed a local when it came time to stand and to sit and stand again. I even sang…and I never sing! This was great, I thought! I could have been at the beach, on a tour, drinking at the bars while on vacation, but here I was praying in St. John’s Cathedral.

I prayed for my family, for my community, for my friends, for my colleagues, for NCL and for the locals. I thanked God, Jesus and Mary for having the life that I have. The priest’s main message was no matter how great you are (a great teacher, a great doctor, a great lawyer), what truly matters is how GOOD you are at the end of the day. Knowledge is wonderful, but how you use it to help others is what counts.

Then came the sign of peace. Back home we just say peace be with you to whoever you are standing next to. In Antigua, the ENTIRE group leave the pews, walks around and SHAKES HANDS with everyone! The NYer is freaking out and I am whispering, “Just don’t put your hands to your mouth after!” We shook hands with all the catholic Antiguans including the priest who also walked around. There were five other cruisers and we just nervously shook each others hands and gave each other a look of “Oh Jesus!”…

Thirty minutes and four songs later I forgot about the hand-shaking. It was time for the body of Christ. I wanted to go up to the altar and kneel just like I did as a little kid when the catholic masses were done in Latin. The locals were also up at the altar on the left and I was the first cruiser on the right of them. Back home, the body of Christ is now given out in your hand for sanitary reasons. In Antigua, the priest delivers the host directly to your mouth. “Oh Jesus,” I thought…”Please do not let the priest’s finger touch my tongue! Oh Jesus, please forgive me for thinking this!”

I watched as the body of Christ came my way. My turn arrives. I stiffen, shut my eyes and stick out my tongue as far as possible. Then it was over. “Thank you Jesus…no wet finger!” Of course the priest was probably thinking, “Oh Jesus, please do not let my finger touch this heathen cruiser’s tongue!” as he delivered the wafer to me. I watched in glee and in anticipation to see if his finger touched the other cruiser’s tongues. I then bowed my head and thanked God.

Nobody left the altar. I prayed some more yet wondered why we were all still kneeling up there. The priest shuffles, says some prayer and starts going down the line AGAIN. Another host? A blessing on the forehead? What was going on? I strain to see down the row and I spot the holy grail…the chalice of Christ’s blood…placed on the lips of each local in the same spot as they sipped.

“OH JESUS!” I prayed. “Oh Jesus, can’t that priest wipe off the chalice using a little more force with that napkin?” The priest was getting closer. I strained some more to see and thought, “Oh Jesus, how come he is not turning that freaking cup?!” The priest was now ten locals away from me. “Oh Jesus, will I offend these people if I get up and leave?” The priest was five locals away. I turn to the right and look at at the other tourists. They looked as if the devil himself was on his way to steal their souls.

I wish I had a camera to capture one tourist’s look at me. It was sheer horror. I returned the look, shook my head no to her, bowed my head and prayed, “Father, forgive me!” as I stood and left just as the priest arrived. I returned to my pew and prayed more for forgiveness if I offended anyone in Antigua. The NYer wanted to ask me what the heck happened…because all she saw was me get up and then five others disappear in a NY second…but I was too busy praying.

Church closed with everybody leaving the pews once again and standing in a circle holding hands singing a hymn. I think I prayed to Jesus more times in 75 minutes than I did my entire life. I felt like a good person upon leaving. I left a hefty donation to help preserve St. John’s Cathedral. Jesus is going to be with me for a solid two years after that “tour!”

After church, the NYer needed a drink. She informed me that she was not Catholic. Who knew? I then spotted a school across the street and she then had to endure my conversations with the students, the teachers and the security guards. Amazing how things are different yet still the same throughout the world.

We ended up at the “BeeHive” a bar near the ship which serves local beer for 2 dollars a pop. Good thing I was buying. We were so full of Jesus that we found something good during every beer we drank. The beer was good…The tourists were good…The rain shower felt good…The ancient Antiguan street dancer who balanced a pineapple on his head was good…Life was good!

I was so full of Jesus, goodness and Antiguan beer that I decided to buy presents for all the people who had to support my job while I was away. One stop at “Lipstick” perfume factory and I had all my thank you presents. The only perfume shop “packed” with customers, I assumed the deals were good. One Obsession, Dolce and Gabbana, Red Door, Pure White Rain, Wish, Angel, J-LO Glow, and Versace-something later, I was done. I told the lady at check-out that it took 8 people to do my job while away. The male customer behind me replied, “What are you? A Housewife?”

Stumbling back onto the ship, the security guard just did not understand why after I placed each hand under the sanitizer that I also wanted to try to drink out of it. We returned to our suite and realized we do not have a cabin in the back of ship. Always remember on the Jewel that the carpet fish swim towards the bow. I somehow managed to lose my key along the way. I think I sanitized my purse and my key under the machine and it somehow slipped out. The information desk people were very kind in replacing one. If you lose your key, go there immediately and they will void out the lost one and give you a new one. Others in the cabin will also have to have their key replaced too. So do not go to church, get drunk after, carry around 350 dollars worth of perfume, take a sanitizer shower and expect to have everything you started with.

The NYer headed off to her hot stone massage which she loved and highly recommended. I headed off to sleep in my suite lounger on the balcony. Jesus was happy with me and he finally let me get some good shut-eye since boarding on 11/19.

For dinner that evening, we ate at NCL signature French restaurant, Le Bistro. I donned a black halter top and white sailor pants. The NYer was late meeting me there. As I waited at the entrance a couple came up to me and stated their reservation. I told them they would have to wait 45 minutes to be seated but if they slipped me a 20, then I would get them in sooner. They looked at me as if I had three heads until I informed that I was a passenger and not an NCL employee. Immediately afterwards, the Maitre D arrived and seated them.

I loved my array of lobster/scallop appetizer, escargot, and seafood. The NYer loved her warm goat cheese tart, the salmon and the creme brulee. We both enjoyed the complimentary bottle of wine that came with our meal since I am a platinum member with NCL. I chuckled at how I was turning into a wino. I also concluded by the end of the meal that platinum is now my new favorite precious metal.

Unable to finish the wine at dinner, we brought it to the Fyzz Lounge to see what “Edge Unplugged” was all about. Families were enjoying themselves and a crowd of young and old were learning to juggle on the dancefloor. We met a lovely group from England and we laughed a lot with them. Could this be my cruise family? They were fun and we shared jokes. I gave them my best British, Irish and Scottish ones. Afterwards, we went searching for our photos taken by the ship’s staff. We had fun looking for and finding them but we never purchased any. For some reason we looked old in all of them.

The International Crew Show won over our interest in nightly venues. Instead of karaoke or the Latin Fiesta Dance Party, I knew the crew show would be more entertaining. It is a treat to see your servers, your stewards, your cooks sing, dance and entertain. I believe shows like this add to morale and the passengers appreciate them. The Cruise Director and his staff did a funny finale. We finished the evening dancing in the Spinnaker’s Lounge.

THURSDAY…ST. THOMAS:

I awoke early to the immigration call. Any ship that stops in St. Thomas must go through immigration because of re-entry to the United States. All passengers must show their passports or photo identification to the immigration officials who come on board. I left my cabin at 8pm and was back by 8:04pm. St. Thomas had enough officials show up and the entire process was painless.

The foreigners had to go to Spinnakers Lounge and the Americans had to go through Azura restaurant. I realized later that NCL organized approximate times for passengers depending on various things: 7:45 was for citizens booked on shore excursions, and the remaining 15 minute intervals were for citizens on deck 11 and 14, then deck 10, and downward. I was still asleep while going through the Azura main dining room and noticed it seemed a favorable place to eat.

While eating breakfast on our suite we discussed St. Thomas. Wasn’t he the one who doubted Jesus? Or, was St. Thomas named after St. Thomas Aquinas, the philosopher/theologian/teacher/traveler? We never reached an answer but agreed we had seen and done just about everything on the island in the past. This included Coki Beach, Megan’s Bay, jewelry/watch/linen shopping, island tours and turtle cove. Other possible shore excursions we discussed included snorkel tours, scuba tours, parasailing, St. John beach escape, Kon Tiki Party Raft, coral world and champagne catamaran sail/snorkel.

I have almost everything on previous cruises and by this Thursday morning, I was not interested, especially since I bought that darned dress! The only thing both of us had never done was the screamin eagle jet boat or the skyline ride directly off the ship. Somewhat disappointed in ourselves that we were having to think about making a decision, the crew drill offered some relief.

I commend NCL for their passenger safety. I already mentioned hand sanitizers but need to mention cameras all over the ship. A newer ship, I felt safe and secure knowing they were everywhere. Should a crime occur on board, I am sure that at least one if not four would show one spot. If you are bored on board…try to find the cameras…they are hidden everywhere. Phones are also all over the ship. Portable phones in each stateroom can be used to stay in contact with family members while on board.

In addition to the life-raft crew drill, the crew onboard this week had to participate in missing children simulations. The first simulation was Jill. The announcer described her and the crew had to find her. She was found within two minutes (the crew really has to search until found). The NYer said that was an easy one…she was probably in Jack’s cabin! The second simulation was missing Willey. The NYer had a field day with that one and I laughed for over an hour.

Laying in the sun on the balcony won us over until the shade arrived and we sunbathed at the pool for the very first time. We were soooooo relaxed. While many passengers were on St. Thomas, some of us had the pool to ourselves. Two Sapphire pools are located on deck 12. One for kids with a giant water slide, the other for adults with a waterfall. Swimming under the waterfall gives a wonderful back massage. Be sure to stay under the water unless you want a head pounding. The kids waterslide was uneventful for me. I had a hard time sliding down it. Maybe because it was for kids? The peanut NYer had no problem but I was slighted by getting stuck on the slide. No fast downhill motion-plunge-at-the end for this heavyweight!

I probably ticked off the little kids waiting their turn behind me, assuming their complaints to peers how the big adults were not staying in their own pool. Even so, I took my time as I gently had to push my tush one arm movement at a time all the way down. A little guy at the bottom said I was supposed to lay down to go faster. I said to him “Ohhhh!” while wanting to say “Whatever!”

We had great bar service all day and the pina coladas were great. We knew already to order them in a regular glass so we did not pay the extra cost of the fancy-smancy glasses. The pool band was very good as they played easy-listening music. Showers are located nearby the pool but we found a large shower area on deck 13. It had gigantic fake shower handles with a large overhanging shower head. You press a button and the water flows to cool you off. Do not worry if the water keeps going and going…it shuts off automatically. I am sure if the camera guys were watching, they got a good laugh at the look of panic on my face when the water would not stop for me.

The pool areas on deck 12 and deck 13 began to fill up as passengers returned from the island. I watched one use their cell phone and I remembered The Family! Oh my gosh, it is Thanksgiving! Here I was on the beautiful Norwegian Jewel, it was 3pm in gorgeous St. Thomas, and I was enjoying the warm sun combined with a cool pina colada while they were all eating warm turkey in the cold green mountains. I missed them. I called them (My verizon cell phone worked in San Juan and in St. Thomas). My immediate family is so large that I had to call five houses to wish them all a happy turkey day. My family is so large that some were surprised when told why I could not come over for pumpkin pie that afternoon…I discussed the toss-up over who spoiled me more…my older brothers and sisters or NCL! I told them NCL won out this week!

We left the pool area by sailaway time and decided to work off the pina coladas. The Fitness Center on deck 12 was large and many cardiovascular machines faced an ocean view. The NYer pointed out the corner water fountain with a very long spout. She whispered in my ear. No more Evian purchases the rest of the week. We finished the workout powerwalking the promenade deck as St. Thomas’ view drifted further away. I think 2.3 times around the promenade is one mile. A jogging track is on the upper deck but it is too short for me and it is in full sun which I do not like. You can not run on the promenade as some passengers go out there for relaxation, for shuffleboard, to watch the sunset, to read quietly, to kiss their lover, to think alone, to gather thoughts, to Whatever. Promenade decks are the best-kept secrets of any cruise ship.

I worked up a hefty appetite. An invitation to dine with officers was extended at the V.I.P. party earlier that week. We were suggested to pick a day and time. I responded that they were the ones who had the busy schedules and I thanked them. I commented to let us know what was convenient for them. After 27 cruises, 17 with NCL, I had Red Buttons fever (the comedian on the old Dean Martin roasts who never got a dinner) and always wondered how passengers get the invite. Figuring the invitation was just a nice gesture I assumed it would be forgotten. Besides, think of the stress of it all.

We were told on Le Bistro night to meet in Star Bar Thursday at 8pm with dinner at Cagney’s to follow. Oh My Gosh. How do you decline that? I still wonder as of this writing how we got the invite. I am guessing the following: 1. They know I am a Cruise Critic?, 2. I am an NCL platinum member?, 3. They liked my commercial?, 4. I was in a penthouse suite?, 5. My SouthBeach formal dress flipping up?, 6. Jesus was with me?

Thursday was Caribbean night at sea. While getting ready the NYer and I discussed what we were supposed to wear. Was it formal? Was it resort casual? Was it Caribbean? Should I wear my black and white polka-dot dress? No, Caribbean night is usually the night the passengers and officers/staff/crew wear those horrible looking multi-colored caribbean shirts and goofy pants. We concluded the Star Bar and Cagney’s Steakhouse had the least amount of color of all lounges on the ship so we would wear our brightest outfits too.

I called for help anyways to make sure. The response was this was freestyle cruising and that we could wear “whatever.” At that moment I felt like making a bed-sheet toga to show just what I thought about “whatever!” None the smarter, the NYer ended up in a casual caribbean dress and I ended up in a multi-colored floral halter top with white capris. We concluded they were definitely our worst outfits the entire week. At the very least, we would match the officer/staff/crew’s worst outfits of the week too.

The Concierge, a.k.a our limousine driver, escorted us to the Star Bar and waited with us while the others showed up. We were all going to dine in Cagney’s Steakhouse. I just about died when the officers entered. Seems NCL took my previous advice and got rid of their goofy caribbean outfits. These guys showed up in black dress pants, black dress shoes and Gorgeous silkish solid color Cuban-style shirts. Here we were in our stupid outfits and there they were looking like they just returned from a Gentleman’s Quarterly Magazine shoot. Oh my god, this was going to be the longest dinner of my life, perhaps my last supper. I immediately ordered a mount gay rum and tonic with lime.

After nervous introductions once again of everyone, we were asked how our day was. The NYer responded in an exasperated voice, “I am EXHAUSTED!…I have been looking for Willey ALL day!…Have you guys found him yet?!” Mount gay rum and tonic actually came out of my nose. I almost fell out of my chair laughing as did everyone else. The rest of the meal was fabulous. The only way to describe the dining experience was that I was dining at home with my family, especially my brothers and sisters. How surprised was I? We laughed, we told stories, we laughed, we ate a lot, we laughed more, we talked a lot and laughed some more. The NYer pointed out the ones (including me) from big families talked the most. She described it perfectly how we all grew up…we had to compete for the attention!

Overall, what a special treat for me to have been missing my family earlier that day and to have NCL find a way for me to feel right at home. My perception of officer stuffiness has changed as I realize they are people just like you and me. I come from a family of officers and I should have known better all along. Even so, I thank NCL for one of the best Thanksgiving dinners to remember.

If anything, I hope that they in return enjoyed themselves. Since this is done on a weekly basis, I somehow wonder how they view the dinners. There were a few times they almost had water coming out their noses, so I suspect it was something different for them too!

While dining, I did not have a problem missing The Second City comedy improv earlier that evening. There was enough laughter and joy at our table. After thanking the Jewel officers for Thanksgiving dinner and wishing them and NCL a happy birthday, the NYer and I went to the Caribbean deck party. After the Caribbean deck party, I went to the Spinnaker’s Lounge to dance off my jumbo shrimp, prime rib dinner with au jus and horseradish, Idaho baked potato and steamed asparagus. Since the next day was at sea, the disco is usually crowded because nobody has to get up early. Like having to get up early makes a difference to my late night dancing!

FRIDAY…DAY AT SEA:

Friday morning arrived and it was a full day at sea. All the documents and information for debarkation were delivered the night before. I suggest reading through them all to avoid confusion on debarkation day. On NCL, one debarks the ship in a variety of ways: Express walk-off (you get off first)…you must carry off all your own luggage, then passengers with flights to MIA or FLL before 3pm, then guests with shore excursions (you meet in a separate area), then guests with independent travel arrangement (arranged by deck locations), following with guests who have FLL or MIA transfers with flights after 3pm. If you do not want to read through the directions, just watch it on your stateroom television.

I suggest you fill out your customs cards, comment cards, luggage tags and check your onboard account within the last two days of cruise. This avoids the potential long line at the purser’s/information desk debarkation morning. Who wants to end their holiday stressed out?

I wrote out my thank-you letters for the Thanksgiving dinner invite and then packed a bit while watching “Pirates of the Caribbean (part 2)” on the movie channel. Oh my gosh, who knew of the selection of free movies along with the selection of other dvd games available? I never get the chance to go to the movies at home so it was a treat to see this one for free.

I decided to spend the day at sea checking out all other area’s of the ship. After the breakfast buffet I went up to sports deck and to the sun deck. A full size basketball court (also used for tennis and volleyball) with stadium seating was impressive. I found a golf swing area, a giant size chess board game, more shuffleboards, and the private area to garden villas. The sun deck was forward and I concluded this was a nice private area away from the pool. A few passengers were vegging out on the loungers and I did not want to disturb them. The ship’s chapel was small and not very decorative.

My attention was captured in the card/lifestyles room and in the library. The card/lifestyle room had a view of the ocean. Tables were set up where one could play games (bridge/cards/checkers/chess). I looked in all the cabinets and found plenty of board games including monopoly, rummikub, cribbage, sorry, just to name a few. I even found decks of cards!

The library room was the best library at sea I ever noted. A view of the ocean, comfy cubby chairs, and tables by the windows, the book selection was fantastic. I noted fiction, non-fiction, best-sellers, children’s, health, travel and other subjects. Passengers have the opportunity to check out books throughout the cruise and to return them by week’s end. I found three great travel books on Paris and spent the next two hours perusing them. My first visit to Paris was soon thereafter this cruise and I learned a lot. I guess while on the streets in Paris I am not supposed to look French men in the eyes nor respond to their greetings…unless I want to get picked up. I also learned how say, “Bonjour Monsieur! Je suis bien! Et tu?”

The Jewel Club Casino is a brightly decorated one with plenty of slots, tables and tournaments. I bought the perfume in Antigua with my gambling money so I never made a donation. I spoke with a nineteen-year old who had beginner’s luck at the crap’s table and according to him, he spoke to people who had won big at various times. I asked him on the last night if he was in the black or in the red. He had broke even yet commented he enjoyed every minute of it. At least he learned the correct way to gamble.

The internet cafe, located on deck 7 had about six computers. A staff member is nearby to assist passengers. An art gallery was nearby and art auctions took place all week. There were some pieces I liked. The Galleria shop staff was excellent in all areas. The employees were cordial and helpful. I bought t-shirts for hubby, boxes of caribbean rum balls and a great carry-on duffle-bag for 26 dollars. I could not bring the perfume liquids on the plane ride home so I had to re-arrange my packing. The store also had perfume, jewelry, gift ornaments, clothing, and toiletries. So, if you ever forget something, the Galleria store will probably have it.

I finished my self-guided tour with a buffet lunch of cold soup, pork ribs and iced tea. Yummy. Back at the cabin I told the NYer I was going to finish packing so I did not have to rush that night. She politely informed me that we still had another port of call the next day (Great Stirrup Cay) and what the heck was I thinking? Having no concept of time or date all week, I thought we were debarking the following morning. Could this cruise get any better?

I still packed a little bit and The NYer attended a towel making demonstration. Once I was done, I attended the ice cream machines. My first dessert of the week, I found two stations at both ends of the Garden Cafe. You can get chocolate, vanilla or mixed. They have sauces and sprinkles available. Cones (the good kind) are present but I don’t eat them. Instead, I gave the ice cream server my best smile when I handed him my giant soup bowl. He grinned as I whispered, “whatever, right?”

I thought of my father, now deceased, as I sat by myself amongst the crowded Sapphire pool area. Having a family of 13, our special treat was taking us for rides in the car and going to the Dairy Queen. If it was just him and I, he would always get me the super-giant size creemee as long as I could eat it all before I got home so my mother and siblings would not find out. I could never do it and he always helped me out as we pulled into the driveway. I remembered toward the end of his life taking him for rides and for creemees. He still finished what I could not. As 1/2 the ship’s passengers gathered at the Sapphire pool area, it only felt like it was just him and me as I ate the entire serving of icecream. I even licked the bowl.

Feeling like a little kid again, I watched a great show at the pool. A grand illusionist performed an underwater escape challenge. In true Houdini fashion, he had the entire crowd in awe. Passengers chained him up and threw him in the water. Amazing how long this guy could hold his breath. The real little kids were jumping and pointing in anticipation as the minutes passed. I found myself jumping and pointing and holding on to stranger’s arms as I watched. This was a great addition to NCL’s program. Totally cool.

I discovered the NYer at the Sky High Bar and we decided to pass on the bingo, casino tournaments, name that tune, exercise classes, seminars at sea, and singles socials all taking place on this sea day. Instead, we perched ourselves on the bar stools overlooking the pool below and met a lot passengers…some new and some familiar. We began with mojitos which were full of mint and yummy. I can only drink one of those though. We continued with her double-scotch and me double-mount gay cocktails. Much to our surprise, the activities came to us.

We took part in a Kid-Bingo-Coverall taking place by the pool. The prize was 400 dollars and it was one game only. NCL set it up in the cutest way. Each little kid received a beach ball. At the top of the slide, the staff had the machine balls and wrote out the number on each beach ball. The little kids slid down with their beach ball bingo number and held it up for the cruise director to announce. It was coverall and some of the little tykes were pooped towards the end. Some dropped out. I admire the ones who endured the entire game. If you want to make sure your child goes to bed early, then have them participate! They got to keep the balls too!

The sun was setting and the NYer and I were still perched at the SkyHigh bar and we met two wonderful gals having just a great time as we were. The four of us laughed a lot and we wished we met earlier in the week. Come to find out, one gal was from Cruise Critic. She did not make it to our gathering earlier that week so I told her what she missed. The four of us remained there until they had 20 minutes to get to dinner and left. The NYer and I met more passengers along their way. Who says you can’t meet interesting people at a bar? It had been dark for a while and it was getting foggy out. We noticed everyone dressed up while we were still in our shorts and bathing suits. After sitting and drinking all sea day long, we left the Sky High Bar with a Sky High bill. Returning to cabin, we realized we were indeed Sky High.

We went to dinner in Tango’s restaurant with a Tex-Mex flair. We had fun practicing on the Tango carpet during the day. The carpet has foot pictures and directions on how to do the tango. Who knew my tango guy would be a rug? We loved the ambiance of Tango’s at night with the lights dim and hearing the live music playing one deck below. Our waiter was excellent. I had the chicken soup and fajitas…the NYer had the spring rolls and quesadillas. Tex-Mex Burger: beef, shredded chipotle, avocado, Monterey jack cheese, lettuce, spicy fries

After Tangos we went to the Fyzz Lounge and watched the cruise staff teach line dancing. A few started out and others joined as they realized just how fun it is! The cruise staffmember was excellent and a very good teacher. I remember she taught me a few moves on the Norwegian Sun a few years ago.

The big main event show that evening was Cirque De Bijou. Held in the beautiful Stardust Theater forward, every seat was a great seat. There is nothing to block a view in this theater. The design was very well thought out. With exception to the peacock curtain, the colors and decor worked well.

The show was fabulous. I sat in the very back at the top and I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. Billed as “an artistic and awe inspiring aerial ballet featuring world recognized aerialists, rhythmic gymnasts, acrobats and bungee jumpers hurling from 40 feet in the air…” I totally agree this is a show NOT to miss and that it is definitely the “the best show on the seven seas.” If you sit in the first 8 rows, you have to stay the entire performance due to safety reasons. You have performers flying about above you coming within feet of your head!

Also not to miss is the after-show farewell by officers/staff/crew. NCL does the best send-off compared to my Princess, Royal Caribbean and Carnival cruises. As the farewell progressed, I realized the answer to my question all week long. As I heard the words sung “This is your home…away from home…you are part of our family…” and saw everyone up there, I reviewed the week in my head. How true those words were for me on this cruise. I opened this review with stating that NCL treated me like a goddess and like a family member at the same time. These are the words I use when anyone at home or work ask how my vacation was.

After the show we had good intentions of attending the well announced chocoholic buffet set up in the Garden Cafe and the Late Night Comedy Liars Club. Instead, The NYer went to sleep. I watched The Da Vinci Code, another movie I was pleased to see for free. I found myself having a hard time following along even though I read book two years ago. I did enjoy seeing the sites of Paris knowing I would see it for real very soon.

Not wanting to think too much about the Holy Grail once again, I ventured up to the Spinnaker’s Lounge and danced with myself. I had a good time with me! I found out that my favorite music is played late late late night. Not hearing it on other nights (although I still liked the DJ’s selections and I was only out late late the other nights), I was very pleased. My favorite music is trance/techno/club music and had I known, I would have taken longer naps during the day in order to stay up later. Even so, I am very proud of myself that I never once on this trip closed down the disco. I think I am growing up!

SATURDAY…GREAT STIRRUP CAY:

We awoke to a beautiful sunny day off Great Stirrup Cay, NCL’s private island in the Bahamas. The wind and the waves moved the stationary ship. I was thankful we could tender to shore because sometimes the island is missed due to weather/strong winds. The NYer was going to stay on board and I was going on island to seek out the lighthouse and secret beaches.

The Nyer ended up coming ashore and we left the ship at about 12:30pm. Most of the passengers were already on island. We took our time getting off although we could have have used our priority tender tickets to leave earlier. Upon arrival, I saw many people sunbathing and not too many in the water. On less windy days, the beautiful calm waters beckon swimmers, snorkelers, and water loungers. We saw the quieter beach to the right but it was closed off probably due to safety reasons. We watched the Caribbean band play as passengers danced. Many of them were the diehards in Spinnaker’s late nights. Passengers rested in hammocks, played volleyball or ping-pong located near the very clean bathrooms. Kids built sand sculptures while others buried each other.

We did not eat the buffet lunch provided on the island by the ships crew, but saw many eating at the picnic tables set up. We did not go to the straw market because I already bought my straw hat there when I was on my April 2006 NCL Spirit cruise.

We did find the lighthouse marked two miles away from the main area. Along the way we found a private rock beach (no sand…just rocks) and had a great laugh at the Great Stirrup Cay Airport. The NYer should have a wonderful photo of her there at the entrance. Where I live back home, we can go into our lighthouses. Since this lighthouse was a working one, it was closed up. I found out later from some that there is another private beach in front of lighthouse. We kept walking past the lighthouse and found a private area with beautiful calm waters. We sat in the sun on a rickety old dock and watched a few crew members and a few passengers enjoy the peaceful water. Some snorkelers arrived from around the bend and reported they saw pretty fish, lobster, a stingray, a shark and starfish. We stayed there for a few hours and ended up watching a couple of passengers catch fish. This getaway was ideal and I shall not forget the serenity I felt upon leaving.

Before boarding the last tender back to ship, we watched the operation of breaking down the island. The crew certainly works hard to bring everything ashore and then to bring it all back to ship again. All the umbrellas and loungers are stored on the island while all the food, drink, and passenger trash returns to the ship on a separate tender. Fortunately for the crew, the red-shirt bar staff versus the blue-shirt kitchen staff could play some volleyball prior to boarding the ship.