Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

My travel magazine grumpiness: An example

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2017

Some of you may remember that somewhere (apparently not here) I wrote a brief elegy mourning the death of the Conde Nast Traveler I’d read and loved for years–the new editorial team increasing page size, making it mostly Pretty Photos for Beautiful People, and–most of all–abandoning prices when discussing hotels and restaurants. I didn’t renew what had once been a first-rate travel magazine; I don’t miss it. I believe it’s become a magazine for the eight-digit crowd: those with $10 million or more net worth who can go along with “If you have to ask…” price irrelevance.

More recently, it appears that National Geographic Traveler has been redesigned: still more text, but, well, there go the prices.

Meanwhile, Travel + Leisure has become more substantive since Time Inc. acquired it–with, wonder of wonders, price notes in most hotel/restaurant discussions. What a concept!

I’m reading the March 2017 issue (I’m usually two months behind on magazines) and hit a little item about chefs who have opened up restaurants with a few hotel rooms attached. Consider:

  • Restaurant Alma in Minneapolis wants $58 and up for a three-course meal…and $166 and up for a double room. So that’s $282 plus tax and tips and wine for two people. Not bad.
  • Coombeshead Farm in Cornwall wants $61 and up for a farm-to-table dinner and $215 and up for a double room. Figure $327 plus tax and tips and wine. Also plausible.

And then there’s the nearby one:

  • SingleThread in Healdsburg wants $294 and up for a fancy tasting menu…and $700 and up for a double room. Figure $1,288 plus tax and tips and wine.

See, without prices, I might either believe that all three are “If you have to ask…” situations or ponder whether the Healdsburg place–just a couple of hours away–might be worth a try.

But with prices: well. $961 (the smallest differential) would pay for a pretty decent two-night Monterey vacation. We live in Livermore, only “reasonably priced” by the Bay Area’s odd standards, but at one of our favorite restaurants a good three-course meal (salad, entree with starch and vegetables, bread, and dessert) goes for $23. At another good local restaurant I see the bill for dinner for three, including wine and tip, as $136.

We’re not poverty-stricken, but in planning possible vacations and visits the difference between $327 and $1,288 is decidedly worth noting…and knowing about. A travel magazine that deliberately hides that difference–and the decision at Conde Nast to get rid of prices can’t have been accidental–is doing a disservice to all but the wealthiest readers.

Oh, and if SingleThread is actually a life-changing experience well worth the fee, well, I guess my life just won’t be changed.


The Lords of the Universe Don’t Worry About Carbon Footprints…

Thursday, September 24th, 2015

…Especially if it’s under the hallowed sanction of the National Geographic Society.

Today’s mail brought another slick brochure (28 pages this time) for National Geographic Expeditions “Around the World by Private Jet.” We’ve received them in the past, along with thick catalogs of overpriced travel offerings from NatGeo (which, I guess, is now deeply in bed with Rupert Murdoch, but I’m not going to get into that here…)

Here’s what it is: 24 days. Looks like 10 or 11 stops. First-rate hotels along the way (no problem there).

Oh, and you’re flying on a Boeing 757 that seats 75 people rather than the usual 233.

So even if the 757 was one of Boeing’s most fuel-efficient planes (I can’t tell offhand; the 233-seat configuration isn’t typical), you can triple the fuel consumption per passenger for these flights. And the plane’s going around the world to visit 10 or 11 places.

Text in the brochure about mitigation for this humongous carbon footprint? None that I could find.

But hey, we’re talking masters of the universe here: the price for this 3.5-week adventure is just under $86,000 for one person or $154,000 for two people.

That does include booze, tips, hotels, etc. It does not include the travel insurance they strongly recommend, which (if I remember correctly) would add around 6%. But hey, if you have to ask, you shouldn’t be despoiling the environment on this trip anyway.

There are a lot of masters of the universe out there, I guess: the brochure is for four different tours between October 2016 and February 2017.

(And now I’ll go recycle the brochure.)

Nature always bats last

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

Seeing today’s news story of raising the floodgates on the Morganza spillway (on the Mississippi River in Louisiana) brought to mind one of the riverboat cruises we took back in the day–probably the one that reached the confluence of the Mississippi River and the Mississippi Atchafalaya River–in which a lecturer informed us of the great work the Army Corps of Engineers was doing to prevent an “ecological catastrophe.”

The nature of that “catastrophe,” and the grotesque misuse of the word “ecological” to describe it, was clear at the time–and the crossout above says that almost as clearly as the map in the news story does.

To wit: The ACE has, for the last five decades, prevented the Mississippi from being the Misssissippi–from flowing along the course the river carves. That course, at this point, is called the Atchafalaya. The only reason Baton Rouge is a navigable port and New Orleans is effectively a seaport is because the structure at Morganza has fought mightily to prevent the Mississippi from being a river and turn it into a managed waterway.

Updated: As noted in the first comment on this post, I’ve apparently confused Morganza with a larger upriver control structure that’s almost failed once in its attempt to prevent the Mississippi from being a river. I think the rest of the post still stands, though. End update.

Eventually, that effort had to fail. It’s a damn shame for the Cajuns and others within the Atchafalaya basin, whose livelihoods depended on their belief that people are more powerful than nature and, thus, willingness to live and work in a flood plain–more specifically, the natural course of the Mississippi. It’s fortunate for the people of New Orleans, who’ve had more than enough bad luck (aided by bad flood-prevention measures, bad planning, bad…well, if it wasn’t for bad luck…) to last them a while. And yes, I’m very much looking forward to ALA Annual: if it wasn’t in New Orleans, I might not be going.

It is sad–but it was also pretty much inevitable. I’m sure that, post-flood, the powers that be will try to reassert man’s dominance over nature along the Mississippi, and work really hard to move its flow back to the old path, the path the river wanted to abandon some decades back. And, for a while, they’ll succeed. Until the next time around.

Slight background. My father was a civil engineer and also the irrigation engineer for the Modesto Irrigation District. I rarely saw him as angry as when people were encouraged to rebuild in flood plains following floods, and were able to buy subsidized insurance to do so….and, to be sure, when government then had to spend enormous sums either “preventing” the recurrence of absolutely natural phenomena or rescuing the fools who knowingly rebuilt in flood plains.

Oh, those riverboat cruises? Thanks to several factors–9/11 for one, corporate arrogance and overreach for another, the sheer costs of running U.S.-flagged cruises for a third–the three overnight authentic steamboats that used to cruise the heartland rivers are all out of business. One’s for sale; one–the most authentic, the Delta Queen, originally built for the Sacramento Delta–was briefly a hotel and is also for sale; one’s being broken up.

The cost of being inclusive and the charm of 2-for-1

Friday, April 9th, 2010

Fair warning: This post is about cruising, as in on the ocean. It has nothing to do with exclusivity, ethnicity, or anything else related to social issues.

High-end cruising is expensive. That’s sort of a given. By “high-end” I mean primarily luxury cruises (Crystal, Regent Seven Seas/RSSC, Seabourn, Silverseas and some tiny little lines…plus luxury-priced exploration lines)–with an oddball, Oceania Cruises, as a semi-luxury line.

Note: “Premium” is one step below “Luxury” in the cruise world–i.e., Luxury cruise lines are the equivalent of 5-star and 6-star hotels, while Premium cruise lines are the equivalent of 4-star hotels. Holland America is the most clearcut Premium line, with Celebrity and, to some people, Princess as others. Notably, most Holland America (HAL) ships are medium-size, in the 1,300-1,900 passenger range, while luxury ships always carry fewer passengers–400 to 800, sometimes up to 1,000–and most contemporary ships carry well over 2,000 passengers. Of those discussed below, the Crystal Symphony carries 900+ passengers, the Seven Seas Navigator 490, Oceania’s ships 680, and HAL ships for these cruises around 1,400. The Symphony and Navigator have much more space per passenger than the others. Noted briefly, the Seabourn Odyssey carries 440 passengers, the Silver Shadow 382.

2-for-1 fares?

Lately, there’s been a rash of 2-for-1 pricing in the Luxury field. Nearly every Regent Seven Seas (RSSC) cruise in their brochures is advertised as 2-for-1. Ditto Oceania. Ditto Crystal. Silversea seems to be advertising a lot of 55%-off fares.

But what does 2-for-1 “off brochure fares” mean when the 2-for-1 fares are part of the brochure?

Since we haven’t kept brochures from past years (for Crystal and RSSC; we’ve never cruised on Silversea or Seabourn), I can’t prove this–but to me, the “brochure fares” (RSSC’s in particular) are a lot higher than they used to be. Maybe almost twice as high–or, at least, the discounted fares seem substantially higher than before. And 2-for-1 and 55%-off fares can be called “capacity controlled,” so the line can nick you for a much higher fare if you book late or otherwise screw up. But the prices sound like great bargains, don’t they?

I think of this sort of thing as “Ma..err, certain nameless department store pricing”–setting a very high “list” price then offering a Big Percentage Discount…which may still be higher than the manufacturer’s suggested list price, although that’s not a factor where cruising is concerned.

Maybe not so much. We took two RSSC cruises in the past. We look at the new brochures, at the 2-for-1 prices, and think we may never do so again, even if our income wasn’t down.

But that’s only part of the story.

All-inclusive and partially-inclusive: At what cost?

With mainstream cruise lines, you have (or should have) a pretty good sense that the quoted fare is just the beginning. That–plus a possible “port and security charge” that appears elsewhere on the invoice or fare statement–covers your room, meals in the primary restaurant(s) or Lido/buffet restaurant, usually room service, most shipboard entertainment, books (and possibly DVDs) from the library and that’s about it.

Extras? Drinks except at mealtimes (although many ships now have 24-hour complimentary coffee & tea service); alcoholic drinks, period (although you may get a free drink at the Captain’s Reception); shore excursions; gratuities–and these really aren’t functionally optional, since that’s the only real money most of the hard-working hotel staff makes; laundry & dry cleaning; internet (if you must); casino expenses and shop expenses; and, to be sure, air fare to and from the ship.

It can add up. If you drink a lot (or have high-end tastes) or if you go through a lot of sodas, if you go on fancy shore excursions, it can add up fast. On the mass-market cruise ships, where fares are sometimes under $100/day, it’s not at all unusual for the “everything else” total to be much larger than the cruise fare.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

  • Every luxury line includes all nonalcoholic drinks as part of the fare.
  • Every luxury line includes meals at all restaurants as part of the fare, where most premium and mainline cruises have surcharges for the best restaurants. (Every Crystal and RSSC ship, at least, has at least four or five dining venues; ditto Oceania.)
  • Until recently, RSSC included wine with dinner and a stocked minifridge (beer, wine, soda). Now, RSSC includes all alcoholic drinks on board, period, except for high-end wines (the regular RSSC wines have been pretty good). Silversea and Seabourn, I believe, both went to all-drinks-included fares some time ago.
  • Currently, Crystal, RSSC, and Oceania are all including coach air fare from “gateway cities” (most major cities) as part of their fares (business-class air for some categories of cabins on some ships).
  • Most luxury lines–Crystal excepted–now include gratuities in the fare.
  • RSSC’s taking it a little further: Most ordinary shore excursions–the ones typically costing up to around $150–are now included in the fare, although the kind of special shore excursions that luxury lines specialize in are still extra (sometimes thousands of dollars extra). I believe Seabourn and Silversea also include some or all ordinary shore excursions.

So RSSC cruises must be better values, right? After all, everything’s included!

Not so fast.

Let’s look at very similar cruises on six different cruise lines–all of the luxury lines, Oceania, and Holland America. The cruise is Auckland to Sydney or vice-versa, typically with stops in Melbourne, Hobart, Dunedin, Christchurch, and one or two other places in New Zealand.

Australia/New Zealand cruises are typically on the expensive side, but these are all roughly the same itinerary, making them reasonably comparable.

  • A 12-night cruise on the Crystal Symphony, air included and with a $2,000-per-couple shipboard spending credit to be used for drinks, shore excursions, gratuities, whatever, will cost $17,200 for two people in a veranda suite. Figure $15,200 (not including the spending credit) as a comparable veranda-suite fare. [Call it $1,266 per day for two people.]
  • A 15-night cruise on RSSC’s Seven Seas Navigator, all-inclusive, will cost $27,000 for two people in the lowest-category cabin (they’re all veranda suites). [Call it $1,800 per day for two people.]

There’s a head-on comparison. Is $566/day a fair differential for gratuities, drinks and shore excursions? Well, gratuities are typically $19/night for two people, maybe $21. My guess is that you’d spend about $250/day-$300/day for shore excursions for two people–but not every day, since these cruises include some days at sea. (The RSSC cruise has seven stops excluding start and end; Crystal has five.) That leaves $250-$300/day for drinks. That’s a lot of drinking! (Excellent wine on the Symphony is $5-$6/glass: The prices just aren’t outrageous.

In practice, I’d guess $2,000/couple would just about cover shipboard expenses for a 12-night cruise: $228-$250 gratuities, say $360 for drinks ($30/day), leaving almost $1,400 for shore excursions ($280 per port). So, realistically, unless you’re a big drinker or go on two shore excursions a day, the full Crystal fare at $17,200/12 days ($1,433/day) is considerably cheaper than the full RSSC fare–and I know of almost nobody who would claim that RSSC outshines Crystal significantly, certainly not to the tune of nearly $400/day.

Consider some of the other options, looking at verandah suites for comparability:

  • Seabourn: 14 night cruise, $20,300/couple–but while that includes alcohol and gratuities, it does not include airfare; figure at least $23,000 with air, or $1643/night. (May include some shore excursions.)
  • Silversea: 15 night cruise, $20,700/couple–not including air, and Silversea quotes $4,000 as a coach air price. That does include alcohol and gratuities; figure $24,700 total, or $1647/night.

Is it purely coincidental that Seabourn and Silversea have nearly identical prices? Could be. Maybe not.

  • Oceania: 16 night cruise, $16,000/couple for a veranda suite–includes air, but nothing else, so it’s really comparable to the $15,200 price for Crystal. At $1,000/night per couple, it’s less expensive, to be sure.
  • Holland America: 14 night cruise, $8,000/couple for a veranda suite, plus around $3,000 for air. Figure $11,000 for a comparable price, or $786/night.

From experiences on Crystal, RSSC, and Holland America, and what I know of the others, I’d say that RSSC is a little overpriced–and the rest are all “fairly” priced given the ship qualities and number of passengers.

But that’s a little misleading as well. Those are all “minimum” prices–but for RSSC, it’s literally the cheapest cabin on board. With Crystal, you can get down to $13,600 (including the $2,000 shipboard credit) for a suite that doesn’t have a verandah; for Oceania, you can get down to $12,000/couple for an ocean-view cabin with no verandah; for Holland America, you can go a long ways down if you don’t need a suite or a verandah. (Silversea and Seabourn also have non-verandah suite categories, saving a little money.)


You pays your money, you makes your choices–but “all-inclusive” and “2-for-1” can be somewhat misleading. RSSC, Seabourn and Silversea most decidedly aren’t appealing to the “drunk all the time” crowd; they can lay out a lot less money for a constant stream of Bud or margaritas on a mainstream ship. Eliminating by-the-drink and wine charges simplifies shipboard life in some ways; it’s not at all clear that it saves you money.

As it happens, I know exactly how much we spent for extras on a wonderful 14-night up-and-back Alaska cruise two years ago, this one on Holland America. The cruise itself was $4,913 (for a good cabin that didn’t have a verandah) for the two of us. Air was $800 for two (this was SFO-Vancouver, admittedly a lot cheaper than flying to Auckland and back from Sydney, or vice versa). Everything else–shore excursions, drinks, laundry, gratuities–totaled almost exactly $1,500. In other words, the total was roughly $7,200–or $515/day. More significantly, the “inclusives”–good but not great wine, all the shore excursions we wanted, air, gratuities, and even $90 worth of internet time–totaled $2,300 for 14 days, and only $1,500 of that was for on-board expenses.

That may be a bit misleading. It was our fifth Alaska cruise, so we skipped some pricey shore excursions–but we did quite a few, actually.  Given that, we look at all-inclusive with a slightly jaundiced view. Well, that, and our experience back when RSSC only included wine with dinner: People drank more than they realized because the glasses were constantly refilled. There’s some virtue to knowing each time you have another glass of wine or beer or whatever.

World Cruises–and an extreme case

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything about cruising and cruise lines–partly because it’s been a while since we’ve been on a cruise (and will probably be a while longer). But we get lots of literature, we’re thinking about it, and there are some oddities worth noting.

Take, for example, world cruises–the extreme case of getting away, unless you’re one of a few wealthy eccentrics who’ve simply started living on a cruise ship fulltime.

Typical World Cruises

That may be a misleading heading, because I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a “typical” world cruise–but a fairly common scenario is that such a cruise runs about 105-110 days, starts in either Ft. Lauderdale or LA, usually in January…and isn’t quite a full world cruise (that is: It doesn’t come back to the port from which you left, although that’s sometimes feasible with an extension). Every world cruise I’ve ever seen has been sold in (fairly long) segments as well as the whole thing, and usually true world cruisers make up a small portion of the passenger list.

A few examples for 2011:

  • Princess actually has two, one R/T from Sydney, one starting in Fort Lauderdale and ending in Rome. That one is 107 days. It would set a couple back $45K for an interior cabin (which I’m guessing would get a little cozy after three months), $52K for an oceanview cabin, $58K for a balcony, and $80K minimum for a minisuite. Add to that air fare, gratuities (probably $9-$10 per day per person, so figure about $1,900), drinks, shore excursions and any other purchases.
  • Holland America, a step up from Princess (both are owned by Carnival) and with smaller ships (and larger cabins), has a 110-night cruise that’s a true world cruise, round-trip from Fort Lauderdale. I may be missing a fee bit, but I see couple fares of $34K interior, $40K oceanview, $68K for a veranda suite. Add to that all the other extra-cost items as with Princess.

Now compare two luxury cruise lines (Holland America is a Premium line, a level down from Luxury; Princess is sort of a Premium line.)

  • Crystal Cruises–even smaller ships (900 to 1,000 passengers), even larger cabins–has a 110-night cruise, LA to London. For a couple, figure $104K minimum for a window cabin (all of their cabins are “minisuites” by mainline standards) and $112K for a veranda cabin. A lot more–but that does include air, and they add a $5,000-per-couple onboard credit that you can use for shore excursions, wine, etc. Oh, and all nonalcoholic beverages are free on Crystal, which isn’t true of premium and mainstream lines: Water can start to add up.
  • Regent Seven Seas–still smaller ships (490 to 700 passengers), all suites, pretty much all verandas–has a longer world cruise: 131 nights, from San Francisco to Rome. It’s also much more expensive, starting at $140K for a couple. But–and it’s a significant But–that’s all-inclusive: Not only air but all gratuities, mainline shore excursions (anything that would typically cost up to $150/person on other lines), beer, wine, water, booze–unless you want even fancier wine than the very nice vintages they pour for free, you won’t spend a cent on anything but the casino, dry cleaning and laundry, and the shipboard shops.

The Extreme Case

Not so much ‘extreme’ in terms of price–take Regent Seven Seas or Seabourn and book a top-of-the-line suite, and you’ll see extreme, as in more than half a million bucks a couple.

No, this one’s extreme in a different way. Cruise West, which has typically had very small ships (under 100 passengers) mostly serving Alaska and other coastal waters, purchased one of the smaller Renaissance ships and renamed it the Spirit of Oceanus. It’s an oceangoing ship, and they’re going–with the damnedest world cruise I’ve ever seen.

It starts February 22, 2011 in Singapore. It ends January 24, 2012 in Hong Kong. That’s right: a 335-night world cruise. Prices start at $285K per couple, if you book by April 30 (full price would be $446K per couple). That’s for a Superior Cabin–still fairly large by cruise ship standards (a “minisuite” of sorts) but with portholes or a window. Oh, and the whole ship only carries 120 passengers and has two lounger, a game room, a library, and a hot tub. No real pool, no casino, probably lots of lectures but not lots of entertainment choices. That price does include airfare, gratuities, and at least one shore excursion possibility in each port. It doesn’t include alcohol. This is a far more luxurious ship than Cruise West’s usual “exploration class” vessels…

I dunno. Not that there’s any chance we’d ever take any of these, but somehow I think that ship might get to seem very cozy, maybe even a little claustrophobic, well before a 335-night cruise is complete. I wonder how many people will do the whole thing? I wonder whether anybody will?


In case you aren’t familiar with them: All cruise fares (at least all of these) do include entertainment and meals, with the occasional exception of some specialty restaurants (all specialty restaurants on Crystal and RSS are complimentary, and Cruise West only has one restaurant). Most ships do include all nonalcoholic beverages during meals, but non-luxury ships might not include them at other times. The ships all have internet, usually at a price, and fairly extensive libraries. Dry cleaning and laundry usually isn’t included, and neither are medical expenses other than aspirin and meclazine (for seasickness)–but all the ships have doctors and infirmaries.

PALINET08: Random impressions from a short trip

Thursday, October 30th, 2008

I just returned from my annual visit to the home office–that is, attending PALINET08 Conference+Vendor Fair and staying on for a meeting at PALINET headquarters in Philadelphia, PA. Just a few quick random notes along the way…with no deeper import.

The conference

I was mostly there to talk to people about PALINET Leadership Network (PLN)–specifically, what we could or should be doing more of (or doing better). I got a fair number of good ideas and discussed some ways for PLN to improve support of library leadership across the board. I’ll be working on those in the weeks and months to come.

Unfortunately, those discussions meant that I missed one of several breakout programs that sound particularly interesting–and, as I discovered during the reception, I stupidly skipped another session in which a proper pirate discussed copyright issues.

Fortunately, I did not miss two sessions Tuesday afternoon–one on “Hidden downsides and possible future directions of open source software for libraries,” which wasn’t really about hidden downsides but was a spectacular, engaging, informal presentation, and the closing “open source round robin presentation” which was lower-key but also engaging, informative and convincing.

I believe those who attended the conference probably got more out of it than I did. It seems to be a solid, worthwhile annual event. But most of these notes are about the periphery…

The trip

Last year, I did the sensible thing in terms of time: Nonstop from SFO to Philly on USAir.

USAir did such a spectacular job on that trip that this year I flew American from San Jose, even though that meant changing planes in DFW (going) and O’Hare (returning) and a net extra travel time of about an hour each way. (About two hours actual in-flight time, but SJC is a lot closer to home than SFO.) I think it was the right choice…

Getting to SJC very early Sunday morning, I didn’t feel like any of the somewhat limited breakfast alternatives. Fortunately, my upgrade for the first leg (and only the first leg) came through, and American provided a very satisfactory cheese & spinach omelet with fruit, potatoes and bagel. (DFW has lots of good choices for lunch; that wasn’t a problem.)

The best meal was probably dinner at Wolfgang Puck’s Air Cafe at O’Hare, but that note comes last…

The hotel and Philadelphia

Pleasant surprise: The HP net PCs (maybe they were real PCs, for that matter…you could see a keyboard and flat-screen display, but you could plug a flash drive into the media console under the TV) with free web service. The speed was spotty and you didn’t really get much screen estate to play with (about half of the vertical space was blocked by Sheraton overhead), but since I travel without technology, this was an unexpected bonus: I didn’t get behind on email or blogs, and could even fix a problem with a page here. )

Otherwise: The hotel (Sheraton University City) was fine. The restaurant, usually mostly deserted, had reasonably-priced options. There were dozens of nearby choices as well, but getting in late Sunday and rain Monday (and lots of food at the reception) encouraged dining in. (Tuesday I went to a nearby place; it was fine.) Oh, and this time the wide-screen high-def LCD TV was getting digital signals on network stations, so it actually displayed shows properly–the first time I’ve watched full episodes in high-def.

I didn’t explore Philly much because of the weather and time commitments. Given comments from locals, I was semi-dreading late Monday evening–until the game got rained out. (The general tone: “Stay in your hotel and away from the bars and you’ll be OK.”) I imagine it wasn’t really that bad on Wednesday, but I wasn’t there…and I’m certain locals are relieved that the quarter-century championship drought is over.

…and the Borg

I knew I’d get home way too late to have dinner, but there was an hour between flights at O’Hare, and Puck’s cafe was about 200 feet from the gate I was flying out of (K-1, an oddly stranded gate that’s on the hallway between the H/K concourses and the L concourse). I had an excellent individual pizza.

The table next to mine was occupied by two men, both business types (OK, I had a coat & tie on, so I was a business type too), both eating…and both talking. Talking fairly loudly. And, I realized (you couldn’t help but hear them), talking simultaneously and on different topics.

The answer, of course, is that two Borgs were seated at the table. They may have been “dining together” but neither of them was really there. Both were busily talking to other people (or other machines) in other places. I wonder whether either one actually tasted what they were eating–not that it’s up to Puck’s top restaurants (I have no idea: that cafe is as close as I’m likely to get to Puck’s restaurants), but it’s very good food.

It all seemed a little sad. (Almost as sad as the woman across the aisle on the plane who, as soon as we touched down in San Jose, brought out two, count them, two phone/PDA thingies, checking both simultaneously for messages.)

Me? I had a cell phone along in case of emergency. It was on twice, for about two minutes each time. Since 1-800 numbers were free at the hotel, I used the years-old calling card minutes to call home instead of the cell phone…and my wife, who loves cell phones as much as I do, didn’t expect me to call On The Road unless something went wrong.

South from Alaska: A few quick notes on Holland America and our recent vacation

Monday, June 16th, 2008

I thought I’d written up our (somewhat negative) experiences with Holland America Lines — HAL, “those dam ships” — back when I did a “cruising” series. Apparently not. In any case, the vacation we recently returned from was a third HAL cruise, and I think some notes are in order–especially because Holland America did a much better job this time than the first two times around.

The cruise was marketed as a 14-day Vancouver roundtrip, but was also clearly a combination of two seven-day Alaska cruises: Vancouver to Seward northbound and Seward to Vancouver southbound. We were surprised by the number of people who took the (presumably somewhat discounted) 14-day option; I didn’t count, but it must have been a couple of hundred out of the 1,400-passenger ship.

It was our fifth cruise in Alaska. We did it partly because we really needed a vacation (not having had a real vacation in two years or a cruise in three years), partly because a dear friend of ours agreed to our suggestion to see Alaska.

The last three Alaska cruises were 12-night round trips out of San Francisco on Crystal Harmony: A great itinerary for people living in the SF Bay Area who love Crystal. Well, that cruise no longer exists–NYK, Crystal’s parent company, renamed the Crystal Harmony and now uses it (as the Aoka II, I think) for luxury cruising in Japan. The two remaining Crystal ships summer in the Mediterranean. Our first Alaska cruise was southbound Whittier to Vancouver on the Regent Sea, a long time ago (15 or 20 years): The Regent Sea is at the bottom of the ocean and its parent company, Regency, long since disappeared.

I wouldn’t attempt to compare Crystal and Holland America Line (HAL) directly; that’s not really fair, since they’re in different market segments (Crystal is a luxury line, HAL is a premium line, which is a lower category than luxury) and have considerably different fares (if Crystal still did this cruise, I’d guess we’d pay about 50%-75% more than we did on HAL). On the other hand, the comparison isn’t as ludicrous as it would have been last time we were on HAL.

First, a quick note about the cruise itself: A great way to see southeast Alaska in a relaxed fashion. We stopped twice in Juneau and Ketchikan–with shore excursions one time, exploring on our own the other time–and cruised twice in Glacier Bay (spectacular both times, with a truly astonishing calving the second time) and College Fjord (somewhat disappointing: it seemed much more spectacular 15-20 years ago), plus one stop each in Seward, Skagway and Haines. Seward was new to us and easily explored on foot–and I will say that the last-minute $20 shuttle + SeaLife Center shore excursion was fairly priced, since tickets at the SeaLife Center were, um, $20 (the shuttle–Seward’s own little trolley-car–was free for the day for all HAL passengers, a $3 savings over their regular operation). The other ports–well, they’re all great, and we’ve been to all of them before, and enjoyed them again.

Now, as to HAL, or specifically the Zaandam (all HAL ships end in “dam,” and they use “those dam ships” on various shipboard merchandise):

  • On previous cruises, we hated the way they handled shore excursions: Get in one line, get a sticker on your shirt, wait in a theater, get in another line… Now, they’ve adopted the same procedure as Crystal and Regent Seven Seas: “You’re adults. Here’s your ticket. There’s the time. Meet at the pier/bus/whatever.” No crowding, no superfluous lines, no extra 45 minutes to gather up everybody, no stickers. Bravo.
  • On previous cruises, the beef had ranged from mediocre to too tough to eat. (I gave up on a prime rib end cut halfway through: the taste wasn’t worth the effort.) Much improved–the beef ranged from good to excellent.
  • On previous cruises, the chicken had also been tough. Again, much improved–the chicken was generally quite good.
  • On previous cruises, “plating” had been inflexible: You ordered a main dish and got the starch, vegetable and sauce that came with it–period. This time, we found considerable flexibility, at least with our waiter: You could substitute items from other choices, and one person at our table had rice with every entree, always with some sauce for one of the other entrees.
  • On previous cruises, portions tended to be too large. This time, most portions were plausible–you could eat the full five-course dinner (appetizer, soup, salad, entree, dessert) and not be bloated or have to be rolled off the ship. Sometimes, still a bit large, but mostly reasonable. (After two weeks, I was up three pounds, which went away again after three or four days; my wife actually lost a pound or two. And we were both eating most courses at most meals.) After all, you could always order something extra (or, during the day, just pick up a slice of pizza or make your own taco or get another dessert or get a fresh burger any time from 11:30 a.m. to 5 or 6 p.m.)–but it always feels odd to leave a meal half-eaten.
  • Boarding had been mildly cumbersome last time, although not horrendous: Actually fairly typical, with Crystal and Regent Seven Seas only slightly better. This time, with the ability to fill in immigration information online and print out boarding passes, boarding was as fast and smooth as I’ve ever seen it on a cruise ship. (We haven’t been on Crystal or RSS recently…)
  • Smoking was a big problem in pretty much every space except the main restaurant last time around. This time, while still a problem (my wife’s asthmatic), it was considerably better: Even outdoor dining areas for the Lido restaurant are non-smoking except for one little back-of-the-ship area that’s fully isolated, there seemed to be less smoke in most lounges and, wonder of wonders, the casino was non-smoking on some days. Since the casino always seemed busier when it was nonsmoking (and since on smoking days you’d get one jackass puffing up a storm as he explored the entire casino, assuring that we all got plenty of second-hand smoke), a number of us suggested that they cut off smoking altogether. Actually, there’s another indication of progress: They held some focus groups (we weren’t invited but heard from someone who was) and asked about complete smoking bans, to pretty much total applause–including one smoker who said she’d rather be in a smoke-free environment on vacation and just do without for a week. And the end-of-cruise survey included an extra sheet asking three questions all related to a total ban on smoking on board. There may yet be hope…
  • HAL hotel staff have always been good but seemed much better this time; we had people remembering our names after one encounter, we had dining crew joking with us, the whole scene felt even better. On at least one previous cruise, ship staff (the people who maintain and run the ship, as opposed to the cabin attendants and restaurant crew) seemed a little put out by having passengers on board. This time, they either weren’t around or seemed much better. No complaints here.
  • Note that we weren’t getting special top-dollar treatment. We didn’t even have a balcony cabin; we were in 2nd-deck outside cabins, not that far up from the lowest categories. (The verandah cabins and mini-suites were all sold out when we booked, a mere seven months ahead, and we wouldn’t have paid for full suites anyway.)
  • With one exception, any problems we had were handled quickly and well. The exception, a window that was half blocked by condensation trapped between the two layers, really couldn’t be handled while at sea, but HAL gave us a more than satisfactory accommodation for only having half a view.
  • In general, the public spaces were nicer and the food and service were better than on previous HAL cruises. They claim that they’re improving their operation; although it’s been several years’ gap for us, I’m inclined to believe them.

Not perfect, to be sure, but what is? We could have done without the cruise director’s lengthy morning and lunchtime announcements of all the activities that are listed in the daily paper, although at least there weren’t loads of announcements during the day. The chair and sofa upholstery in our cabin could use cleaning and seem a little tired; even 8 years of cruising is hard on fabric. Some shore excursions seemed scheduled at needlessly difficult times. But, you know, none of those would rise to be particularly noteworthy.

The one real negative item happened at the end of the cruise, and I think it’s a good idea that hasn’t quite been worked out properly. To wit, debarkation–in our case, with a special twist. Debarkation is a problem on most cruise ships, with the tendency to force everyone to sit around in lounges after leaving their cabins too early, listening to dozens of announcements. Supposedly, Princess is fixing this; let’s hope their solution works and catches on. By today’s standard, the Zaandam is medium-sized to small (1,400 passengers–today’s BIG ships carry 2,600 to 3,000 or more). They said they were using a new streamlined procedure without announcements and that you could just stay in your cabin until it was your time to go.

But…they also offered, and promoted heavily, a special baggage-handling opportunity: For $16 a person, if we were flying directly to the U.S. from Vancouver on the day of debarkation (which we were), we could have our boarding passes in hand and our checked bags already airline-tagged on the ship. Thus, instead of the usual routine in these cases–get off the ship, identify our bags from the mass of bags for our group, watch as handlers put them on the bus to the airport, claim them again at the airport, wheel them to the airline, have baggage tags attached, deal with Canadian and U.S. immigration, then finally go through security–we’d just get off the ship, go on a special “locked” bus into a special area of the airport, and go through security. There were idle comments about it taking up to two hours to get through the process at Vancouver; I have no idea whether those comments were true.

Well, our flight was at 1 p.m. We signed up for the program, assuming it would mean we’d be able to stick around until at least 9 or 9:30 a.m. before leaving for the airport.

Wrong. Everyone who signed up for the program and was using HAL transportation to the airport ($25, and we’d already signed up for that) had to be in the big showroom at 7:15 a.m.

7:15 a.m. Ghastly. As bad as in the bad old days. That’s five hours and 45 minutes before our flight–and we knew that it was at worst about 30 minutes from the pier to the airport.

We weren’t even the worst cases: We were in Group 3 of 5; later groups included people with flights leaving 4 p.m. or later!

So instead of being able to get up a little early, have a reasonable breakfast, freshen up and roll down at 9 or 9:30–or even 8:30–we had the usual get up too early, have a rushed Lido breakfast, rush through preparation…

So there we were, all standing around and waiting. And waiting. And waiting.

The process didn’t start at all until 7:45 a.m. Our group wasn’t called until 8:15 or 8:30 a.m. And when we were called, we went off the ship…and got into a nice long line. I think we got on the bus at somewhere between 9 and 9:15. As I remember, we finally got through airport security around 10:15-10:30–three hours after we had to be in the showroom, but only two hours before boarding would begin.

The idea’s good, I think, but the execution was lousy. I surmise they called us all together so they’d make sure we got the instructions right–but that’s unacceptable. They should reasonably have known that Groups 3, 4, and 5 had no reason to be off the ship before (say) 8:30 or 9:30 or maybe 11 or 12 for group 5, and should have staged things so we weren’t sitting around interminably.

It’s interesting that cruise lines haven’t solved the debarkation problem: You can lose a lot of good will in that last process. In this case, I’ll charitably assume they just don’t have the bugs worked out yet, and a lot of it has to do with HAL’s old shore-excursion attitude. Assume that we’re adults, that we can handle written instructions, and arrange things accordingly: We’ll all be happier!

Debarkation aside, HAL did a good job. Oh, did I mention the string quartet? My wife and our friend were devoted to this group, the Azalea Strings, playing every evening in one of the lounges, with a wide repertoire and excellent ensemble. I heard enough to know they’re first-rate; I just wasn’t as much in the string-quartet mood. (It’s not all reggae and piano bar on board!)

[Will we take HAL again? Probably–but we didn’t sign up for a British Isles 2009 cruise that looked good for an interesting reason HAL can’t help with: The air fare would have been almost as much as the cruise.]

Of wikis, transparency and customer service

Saturday, May 3rd, 2008

Part the first:

I just finished writing a Perspective for the June Cites & Insights (which will emerge well before June 1, but certainly after May 11–I’d guess May 18-20, but that’s only a guess), “On Wikis and Transparency.” It’s mostly about MediaWiki and transparency, but that’s OK, since MediaWiki is pretty clearly the dominant wiki software for library-related wikis. The Perspective’s about 4,000 words long before editing; I plan to do a shorter version (maybe 2,000-2,500 words) to mount on PALINET Leadership Network as a companion piece to the Wikis and libraries article I completed there yesterday.

But first, I’ll give alert, knowledgeable, weekend-blog-reading folks a chance to tell me: Is this obvious stuff? Does everybody already know that MediaWiki wikis tend to be much more transparent than their owners might realize? (Which is, by and large, a good thing–once the owners realize it.) When I say “everybody,” I explicitly mean library leaders who need to know a little about wikis but are probably never going to install one or become intimately familiar with it…

Thus endeth part the first. And hey, if I do write something “obvious,” it won’t be the first time.

Update Monday, May 5: Having heard no cries of “everybody knows that,” I’ve completed the C&I essay and added a briefer version to PLN here.

Part the deuce:

Here’s the setup: My wife and I are going on a real vacation, for the first time in a couple of years. It’s a cruise, and it makes sense to fly to the departure port a day early and stay overnight. To make it even more fun, we’re going with a dear friend of ours–who’s also flying in a day early.

As we investigated places to stay overnight, we found that this is one of those cities where we could either spend a lot of money, or stay in an iffy part of town or in an iffy establishment, or maybe both. But if we stayed nearer the airport, we could stay in a Hilton at a reasonable price.

Which then caused me to think. Given my odd travel, I belong to several hotel affinity programs–as with air frequent-traveler programs, it costs nothing to join, and some hotel programs at least get you a free newspaper or something–but I tell all of them to give me American miles instead of hotel points, since I rarely have the choice of hotel. But Hilton HHonors has “double dipping”–they give you both miles and points. So I’ve accumulated some quantity of points over the years (given the choice, I’ll tend to stay at a Hilton-family property, especially Embassy Suites). Hmm. Let me check…

Yep. I had enough points for one free night at this category of hotel. In fact, I had more than enough points for two free nights. Now, back in the good old days, at least as I remember it (but this may be airline rather than hotel), this was a multistep process: First you’d send in a mailed request for a certain kind of award certificate, then they’d send the certificate, then you’d book the award with certificate in hand. Now, of course, you go to the Hhonors website, log in, find the hotel and verify availability, and the certificate is created at the point of use: You get two emailed confirmations, one your actual reservation, one your award certificate. Fast, easy, well-designed. Cool.

And here’s the pitch: The best use I could think of for the rest of the points was to pick up another free room for our friend–if the friend wanted it. Which, it turns out, they did. How would I go about reserving a room in somebody else’s name and paying for it with points from my Hhonors account?

So I called the Hhonors 800 number. One clear menu choice. Another clear menu choice. Then a crisp message: You can book awards online, but if you’d like to speak with a representative, just wait. I waited…for about ten seconds, maybe less.

Five minutes or less (I’m thinking three, but could be wrong): That’s what it took to ask whether this could be done (it could), provide my information, validate who I am, give the hotel info, give the other person’s name, deal with a slight variance (yes, a room with two doubles would be fine, if no one-king room was available), and get an award certificate number…following which, an automated voice from the hotel gave me the reservation confirmation code. Within one minute after hanging up the phone, both confirmation certificates were in my email, ready to forward to the friend.

Maybe there’s nothing unusual here, but I’ve surely heard enough horror stories about telephone assistance with even straightforward issues, much less slightly complicated ones like this. OK, I’ve always had great luck with American Aadvantage people–but then, American’s people are one reason I prefer American Airlines (just as Hilton people are one reason I prefer Hiltons). For some reason, this exercise struck me as remarkably smooth and pleasant: No waiting, phone trees used to save me time rather than to avoid actual contact, really slick combined use of the human touch and computer backup–I mean, those emails were there when the call was done.

Just a nice little story for a Saturday. It certainly made my Friday.

Texas on Tuesday

Saturday, April 12th, 2008

Since a couple of other bloggers have mentioned that they’ll be at TLA (I just spell it TxLA to avoid confusion), here’s my mention–but I think the others actually live there.

I’ll be at the Texas Library Association Annual Conference this coming week–arriving Tuesday early afternoon, leaving Friday morning. Staying at the Hyatt Regency.

Presenting “Balanced Libraries: Books, Bytes and Web 2.0” on Wednesday, from 2-3:50 p.m.

No, I’m not going to talk nonstop for an hour and fifty minutes…not that I couldn’t, but nobody deserves such punishment. I’m planning to talk for a little less than an hour. The nature and flow of the talk will depend on who’s there, to some extent. The talk will certainly be based on Balanced Libraries: Thoughts on Continuity and Change. Among other things, I expect to offer some notes on work in progress–some of which will appear in Cites & Insights a few days after the conference. There will definitely be plenty of time for discussion.

It will be my third time at TxLA, and appears to be my speaking trip for this year (although that could always change). I will be a small part of a program during ALA Annual, but I’d be going there anyway.

As always, when I speak at a state/regional library conference (my favorite kind of speaking), I try to go for most or all of the conference. I certainly plan to be at the Tuesday all-conference welcome party, spend time in the exhibits, and attend some programs. I always enjoy meeting people I haven’t met and seeing people again…

I could say “posting will be light for the next week,” since I still travel without computing technology (OK, OK, so I will have an ugh cell phone and my cute little MP3 player), but posting here is so erratic that there’s no point.

Admittedly, this all assumes that American–my favorite airline–has its MD80s fully in the air by Tuesday, since that’s what I’ll be taking between San Jose and DFW, but that seems like a pretty safe bet…

Bye bye, Independence: A nostalgic post

Saturday, February 9th, 2008

Today’s paper has a story about the Independence–“the last [ocean] liner built in the United States to sail under the American flag”–being towed out of its San Francisco berth to an unknown future, most likely as scrap.

The Independence–now it’s called the Oceanic, since they seem to rename ships bound for scrapyards–was 57 years old. It spent its final two decades doing one-week Hawaii cruises for American Hawaii, until late 2001 when, partly because of 9/11, the parent company went bankrupt. NCL purchased the ship (probably as part of the strange deal that allowed NCL to reflag some foreign-built ships as American-built so they could do Hawaii cruises without going to foreign ports), but didn’t find it worthwhile to refit it and bring it up to contemporary cruise standards.

We were never on the Independence–but our very first cruise, a long time ago, was on her sister ship, the Constitution. They both did seven-day Hawaii cruises, visiting five ports on four islands and spending half a day cruising slowly past the magnificent cliffs and waterfalls of Molokai.

The ship was old even then. We couldn’t really afford a cruise, but we saved up and found a bargain price. Our cabin was directly below the bridge, which meant our portholes were covered at night with big wooden shutters (so light from our cabin wouldn’t mess up people on the bridge). That also meant that, when there was a good-sized tropical storm, we caught the brunt of it and found that, at least back then, neither of us seemed to suffer from seasickness at sea. (Half the crew got sick that night; it was a real storm, and these ships didn’t have modern stabilizers.)

The cruise was a magnificent way to see Hawaii in its varied splendors. When we went back for a land vacation, we stayed on Molokai–hardly the usual tourist spot. A few years later, we managed to pay for an Alaska cruise–and we’ve been seeing the world by cruise ship ever since (with a two-year interruption that will end late this spring). The Constitution wasn’t the worst ship we’ve been on, and certainly not the best; I’m not sure it was even the oldest.

But it was nearly unique: A relic of a time when American shipyards actually built liner-size ships and American crews ran them. You still get that on a number of riverboats and very small ships, but American Hawaii’s attempt to build two new, larger ships in American shipyards foundered.

The Constitution? It was deemed to expensive to bring it up to Safety of Life at Sea standards when that was done for the Independence. It was sold for scrap and sank somewhere at sea on its way to the scrapyards.

And now the Independence has left America, probably for the last time. Things change.