A preferred guest? Or just a member? Which would you prefer?

The Renaissance St. Pancras Hotel, a Marriott property in London, used to be both an old hotel and the train station.  It has been fabulously restored.
The Renaissance St. Pancras Hotel, a Marriott property in London, used to be both an old hotel and the train station. It has been fabulously restored.

There is an old adage of the seasoned – and discerning traveler – and that is this: never set foot on an airplane or in a hotel room without being a member of their frequent guest/flyer program.   Even if you don’t travel often, or are taking that airline only because there isn’t an alternative just this once – you should still be collecting points of one sort or another.  We gave this piece of advice to our then 20-year-old son when he began jetting around the world as a dancer with Les Ballet de Monte Carlo.  So, even on airlines that they booked only once, he collected miles.  Then, two years ago when he began preparations for relocating to London, he had enough frequent-flyer miles in several different accounts to redeem for many a weekend trip between Nice and London.  But not all programs are created equal.

Our own hotel loyalty program memberships go back many, many years.  Let’s go back about 20 years when we first found ourselves as frequent visitors to Toronto.  Loyal to the Sheraton brand, we had only recently learned the lesson of joining various hotel loyalty programs when one weekend our travel agent (that was before the days of online bookings) couldn’t get us a room at the Sheraton downtown Toronto.  He told us he’d put us as an equivalent downtown hotel , and we found ourselves checking into the Marriott at the Eaton Centre – there is no finer location when visiting Toronto.   But it was Marriott’s staff that made us sit up and take note – and in fact, made us eschew the Sheraton for many years of travel there and far beyond, finding as we did the high quality of the staff training extended far outside of their Eaton Centre location.  So over the years we found ourselves rising ever higher in the Marriott Rewards program which has frequently been voted one of the best in the world.  And it’s not hard to see why.

With some 3700+ properties around the world under their various brands, it’s not hard to figure out that there would be a lot to choose from when trying to redeem points for nights.  And we’ve had great luck doing so.  What we also noticed is that as we rose through gold to platinum status, we were treated rather well at the properties.  We worry, though, about how we’ll be treated when we have a year in which we don’t have as many nights at Marriott’s.  Like this year when we’re prepping to sell our house and move, and have to stay around the bay here in Nova Scotia for many more months than we usually do.  When we no longer hold platinum status will being a member be enough?  We’re not so sure, and it’s all because of Starwood.

Last summer we planned a trip to the Blue Mountains area of Ontario to see our daughter in summer theatre in Collingwood.  The nicest hotel on offer around those parts was the Westin Trillium, a Starwood property (who also owns Sheraton hotels among many other brands). So we dusted off our Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) card which had not been used in some time, and made our reservations for a summer road trip.When we arrived to check in to the Westin Trillium we found ourselves really believing that we were, in fact, preferred guests.  We did not have any ‘status’ in the program, and yet found ourselves feeling like we do when we’re greeted at a Marriott property as Platinum members!  (Bear in mind that you have to stay 75 nights in one year to be platinum so well you should be treated like royalty: you are, after all, paying the salaries so to speak!).  We were delighted, but wondered if this was just a pleasant surprise of this particular Westin.  It wasn’t.

The view from our oceanfront room at the Westin Dawn Beach on the island of Sint Maarten.
The view from our oceanfront room at the Westin Dawn Beach on the island of Sint Maarten.

Just this past February we spent six days on the Island of Sint Maarten in the Caribbean and our hotel of choice there was the Westin Dawn Beach.  Although we now had a paltry number points actually showing up on our membership screen at check-in, we were again treated preferentially.  Then again in April, we stayed at the Westin in Dublin and felt the same wonderful treatment.  The Starwood Preferred Guest program (SPG) is aptly named as far as we’re concerned.  So where does that leave us in terms of our evaluation of loyalty programs?

The lesson we take away from this is that belonging to these programs is a good thing in the long run, but staying loyal can actually prove to be an obstacle to experiencing other brands and other types of accommodations.  The same lesson would ring true for airline loyalty programs.

This year we had to take a couple of flights outside of our usual program – Air Canada’s Aeroplan program and its connection to Star Alliance.  Add onto that the fact that we are likely to lose our particular elite status this year because we are putting off much of our travel until next year (and could not take all of our flights on Starr Alliance airlines), and we realize that we will no longer be treated as anything special.  And on an airline that’s even worse!

Despite the fact that we have been high-level elite members for many years, because we won’t have as many miles racked up this year we will lose our perks entirely – no priority check-in, priority boarding, free checked baggage etc.  So, where’s our incentive to continue to be loyal to Air Canada?  Well, and this is a message to loyalty programs, there isn’t one.  This means that for all intents and purposes, Air Canada has lost good customers.  The next time we’re looking for a business-class ticket to London from Toronto, we are just as likely to book on British Airways.  Over the years we would not have even considered it.

So here is the challenge for these programs: how are you going to find a way to keep your frequent flyers when they get to a point in their lives when they have the luxury of choice?  Or when they have one year when they fly less frequently?  Perhaps you need to consider how you might make us feel preferred, and not just members.  Maybe the SPG program could give you a few pointers.

You might like to read: The ups and downs of loyalty programs: When is a perk not a perk?

The view from where we're spending summer this year!
The view from where we’re spending summer this year!

The discerning guide to cruising part 2: Packing for your cruise

suitcaseFor some people packing for a vacation is a task to get over with as soon as humanly possible.  For some others of us it’s a real pleasure to think about the very best of our wardrobes and essential ‘stuff’ that  we’ll live with for a week – or two, or three.

We’re just about to bring those well- traveled suitcases up from storage for another outing this coming weekend.  We’re getting readying to pack for our Caribbean vacation; and not a moment too soon since we’ve been dropped in a frigid deep-freeze up here in our neck of the woods.   We’ll begin with almost a week in Barbados and end with a week in St. Maarten, with a week-long Seabourn yacht cruise to Caribbean yacht harbors sandwiched in between.  After eleven cruise vacations, experience tells us that packing for a luxury cruise has a few peculiarities.  Here are some truths about cruising that we will use this weekend as we pack those suitcases.

1.  Cruise ships do not have irons and ironing boards in staterooms.  Ever.  And you cannot bring one.  They are a fire hazard, and unless you want to schlep to the communal laundry cum ironing board cubby that may (or may not, it needs to be said) be available on your particular cruise ship, then possibly wait in line for the privilege of ironing, this fact will guide your clothing choices.  We have two words of advice for you: No linen.

2.  Cruise ships have dress codes.  How many times does this need to be said?  There are different cruises for different people.  If you don’t like to get dressed up, don’t select a cruise line that indicates it is an important part of the cruise.  If you want to truly enjoy your cruise, take advantage of the chance to notch up your wardrobe choices.  There are several brands of clothing for women that can provide fantastic choices for formal, cocktail or elegant casual dressing in pieces that are virtually wrinkle-free even after a day or more in your suitcase.  Our favorites are Joseph Ribkoff, Frank Lyman, Linda Lundstrom Essentials and Simpli.

For men, it’s even easier: just rent a tuxedo.  Most mainstream cruise lines provide this service that you take advantage of before you cruise – and when you arrive on board, there is your tux and all its accoutrements, including shoes if you remember to order them, hanging in your on-board closet. Just be sure to measure accurately.

A family portrait aboard Cunard's Queen Mary 2 last summer.  It's the only way for the three of us to get a professional portrait since we live on a different continent than our son.  A great opportunity when we're all dressed up.
A family portrait aboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 last summer. It’s the only way for the three of us to get a professional portrait since we live on a different continent than our son. A great opportunity when we’re all dressed up.

Despite the fact that Art does, indeed, own a tuxedo and all the trappings, he has rented on more than one occasion and enjoyed not having to pack formal clothing.  Two things we have learned:   first, although some of the formal rental companies attached to the cruise lines do have women’s clothing, you will not want to be caught dead in their selections.  You can do so much better by taking a packable gown; and second, the higher end the cruise line, the less likely it is that they have this rental service.  Ultra-luxury lines do make the reasonable assumption that their passengers who choose to dress formally will own a tuxedo.

For more information and a few relevant stories, you might want to red our post on dressing for dinner on a cruise and on what the heck ‘smart casual’ means.

3.  Cruise ships will ask you to put our luggage outside your stateroom about 11 or midnight the evening enforce you disembark.  This is a double-edged sword.  You don’t have to fuss with packing on your last morning, but you need to be prepared.  You’ll need a piece of carry-on luggage that holds everything you might need in the morning.  And do not forget any vital piece of clothing you might regret not having in the morning– Like your pants!  Just a tip if we may:  do not pack your ship-board key card.  You will need it in your hand to disembark on the last morning.

cruise ships in port5.  Cruise ship bathrooms are very dark and usually have a threshold that you will need to walk over in the dark.  This means that you should pack a night light to leave on in the bathroom if you want to avoid the possibility of injury if you have to get up in the middle of the night.  We always have one of those poppable, battery-operated night lights that you can simply put on the counter or the back of the toilet for just enough light to keep you out of trouble.  It never leaves our luggage so we always have it with us (but remember to pop out at least one of the batteries when you pack it or it will inevitably turn itself on in transit and your batteries will be dead).

6.  Cruise ships sell over-the-counter medications, but they may be expensive and may not be a brand you recognize.  We always take along a stash of common medications.  Of course, since Art is a doctor, we often have even more than the normal supply and have been known on many occasions to share our stash with fellow passengers in need.  Here is Art’s guide to your basic requirements:

  1. Analgesic (acetaminophen or ibuprofen )
  2. Anti-histamine/decongestant
  3. Anti-diarrheal (loperamide)
  4. An anti-nauseant (meclazine is preferred for motion sickness, but it is not available in Canada; dimenhydrinate works)
  5. Band-Aids (you’d be surprised how often these come in handy)
  6. Sun screen (need we say more?)

7.  Cruise ships are usually highly air-conditioned. Even in the Caribbean (or especially in the Caribbean).  Although men usually have this covered in the evening, women often find strapless and sleeveless garments to be cold.  You’ll be happier if you take along a nice shrug that goes with everything.

Well, I guess that about does it.  Now we need to put these guidelines into practice.  Bon voyage!

The discerning guide to cruising: Part 1

Cruise ships come in all sizes and flavors! You may not believe it, but there is something for everyone
Cruise ships come in all sizes and flavors! You may not believe it, but there is something for everyone

Despite the Costa Concordia disaster, hurricanes and the annual Titanic remembrance, a cruise still holds an allure for many travelers.  People who shun cruising usually have one the following reasons:

  • They believe that a cruise will be confining and claustrophobic.
  • They believe it will be crowded.
  • They believe that they will be bored.
  • They believe that they can’t experience other places and cultures.

You may have your own excuse that doesn’t appear on this list, but these are the ones most often reported and we’re here to tell you – every single one of them is a misconception.

Our documents for our upcoming Caribbean getaway just arrived from our travel agent, Angela, this week, and we don’t know about you, but the anticipation of an upcoming sojourn somewhere south is all a part of the vacation excitement.  It’s still two weeks out, but we can already picture checking into our Seabourn cruise aboard the Spirit at the Barbados cruise terminal (we’ve been there before on more than one occasion!) and sipping that champagne that will be in our hands shortly thereafter.  Of course, that will be after we’ve acclimatized ourselves to the southern climes with six days in Barbados at “The House.” And we’ll tell you all about it and the six days in St. Maarten after the yacht harbor cruise when we get back…but back to the why and how of cruises…

If you’ve never been on a cruise but have wondered what it might be like – and whether you would like it or feel safe, or how you could ever decide which cruise to pick – stay with us for a few posts and we’ll take you aboard some of our own cruises to show you what you’ve been missing.  If you’ve cruised before, come along with us and add your own comments to help all those novice cruisers who can benefit from experience.  This week we’ll dispel misconceptions – then we’ll look at finding the right one for you, how to get ready, and how to get the most from every minute on board – and in port. Then we’ll tell you about our latest one when we get back.

A quiet drink on our verandah.
A quiet drink on our verandah.

Let’s begin with the ‘confining’ and ‘claustrophobic’ part.  We have traveled on cruise ships that range from 280 to 2400 passengers (this year’s will be the smallest at 204 passengers), and we can assure you that never once did we feel either confined or claustrophobic.  If you’re interested in the 6000-passenger mega-ships, we can’t really help you since we have not the slightest interest in them.  The only time in selecting a cruise where we believe bigger is better is when it comes to choosing a stateroom – but we’ll get to that in a later post.

Every cruise ship, regardless of its number of passengers, is designed with public spaces that are more than sufficient for every one on board to find a quiet place.  In fact, we’ve spent a lot of time strolling through cruise ships wondering where everyone is!  And that’s on sea days where everyone is on board.  The one thing that would be claustrophobic to us at this point in our cruising career would be to stay in a small stateroom.  That would be confining for us since we do like to spend time away from all others on our own verandah enjoying a cocktail and the peaceful sound of the ocean rushing by.

There are, however, places on cruise ships that are crowded.  Think buffet and you’ll get the picture.  Discerning travelers, however, avoid the buffet at all coasts.  Avoid a buffet, you say?  Yes, avoid the buffet.  Even on the smallest cruise ships, there are various places to eat.  Lunch in the main dining room is a relaxing, quiet time, where people wait on you impeccably.  And the larger ships will have other, more casual spots to be served your lunch.  (Cunard has an English pub, for example).  If you want to stay in your bathing suit all day on a southern voyage, you won’t be able to do this, though, so you’ll have to chow down at a buffet of one sort or another.

Another place where it might be crowded is during a Caribbean cruise, on the pool deck, on a sea day.  Discerning travelers will want to have their own verandah.  But if you don’t need to have the pool in view, there is always a deck with a chair away from the madding crowd.

So you think you’ll be bored.  Or as one of our acquaintances who has never been on a cruise ship once said, “Oh, I like to be active.”  The snickers started from over in our direction.

Active folks will find a lot to occupy them on a cruise.  Consider first the possibilities on dry land in port.  This is one reason why your selection of itinerary is so important.  In fact, after you research the cruise lines (we recommend Frommer’s Cruises and Ports of Call which even provides a snap-shot of your potential fellow cruisers based on past-guest statistics), choose by itinerary.  For your first cruise, you might be a bit broader and less discriminating.  For example, if you want to go to the Caribbean, that’s where you start.

We can still remember our first cruise aboard the Carnival Triumph on during its maiden year (you can tell how long ago that is when you note that it is about to be refitted!).  Our travel agent said this to us: “I would never put you two on Carnival except that you’re taking a child.  It’s great for children.”  And he was right – our then eight-year-old son loved it, spending all of his days in the company of other children in the well-designed and supervised program while we enjoyed a bit of couple time.  However, he was also right in that we would never cruise on Carnival without a child – too many partiers, loud-mouths and eaters for our liking.  But then, it just might be others’ cup of tea.

Looking forward to returning to St. Maarten this year by cruise ship.  And we'll stay there for six days!
Looking forward to returning to St. Maarten this year by cruise ship. And we’ll stay there for six days!

So there is a lot for a child to do on a cruise, but there is also a lot for adults.  And being active can be accomplished in any number of ways: aerobics or yoga classes, personal training sessions, basketball on some ships, working out in the gym, walking on land and on board, and the list goes on.

The boredom factor is one that anyone who has cruised simply laughs at.  If you want to spend all day in a deck chair reading a book and sipping on a drink, then you can do that.  If that isn’t for you, select ships whose entertainment fits within your personality (dram/acting workshops, wine-tasting, music, cooking classes, computer classes, art auctions etc.).  There’s a lot more to cruise activities than bingo and shuffle-board, two activities that we avoid like the plague.

And as for those travel snobs who think that they can’t experience other places and cultures on a cruise, you’ve clearly been looking at the wrong brochures.  Our first cruise to the Mediterranean was one of the most incredible ways to be introduced to a vast array of places.  It introduced us to places to which we have returned for longer, more in-depth visits, and for those who cannot afford many long trips in their lives, a cruise will, indeed, let you visit places that you might not have otherwise gotten to before you die.

On a Mediterranean cruise for example, we began in Barcelona (our favorite city in all the world now as a result), then went onto Marseille where we took a day-trip to Aix-en-Provence, then visited Monte Carlo and Nice to which we have returned again and again, then onto Italy to Pisa and Florence and Rome to which we have returned, then to Corsica (when would we ever have had an opportunity to visit Napoleon’s birthplace Ajaccio?).  A more recent Mediterranean cruise introduced us to Sicily, Olympia, Pompeii, Monte Negro, Albania and Croatia.  So, there’s no need to be snobbish about what you can or cannot learn about the world on a cruise.  They are not all the same.

The bottom line for us is that although cruising is probably not for everyone, it is for lots of people with varying interests and styles.  Our discerning style has led us up the cruise food-chain as it were – from a mainstream line like Carnival, through the so-called premium lines such as Celebrity and Cunard, to the luxury lines Regent, Silversea and now Seabourn.

Next time join us as we get ready to leave for a southern cruise!

See “Choosing a Cruise”

Travel for Christmas? You bet!

Big cities are exciting at Christmas! The Eaton Centre in downtown Toronto is always dressed for the season and when you can walk through after hours, the Swarovski tree gleams just for you.

It’s that time of year when everyone we know starts turning their attention to home & hearth.  Not these discerning travelers—our excitement is just starting to build as we anticipate the travel season ahead.  And that travel season begins with Christmas away.

This morning’s Globe and Mail greeted us with a travel section headlined “Six Destinations to Get Your Christmas On!” and they weren’t talking about department stores.  So, I guess we’re not alone, but people often ask us how we do it.  When everyone is running around from family obligation to grocery store to the kitchen and back, we might find ourselves in a hot tub at a hotel, basking on a pristine tropical beach or experiencing white-glove service at a wonderful restaurant with a view of the Mediterranean.  All of these are things we’ve done on Christmas Eve over the past years.

It’s been a long time since we spent Christmas at home, and we’re not going to start this year!  It all started back when our now 23-year-old son was eleven.  He was a student at the National Ballet School of Canada, a two-hour trip by plane from where we lived.  It had never occurred to us that when the students performed with the National Ballet of Canada in the annual Nutcracker that it would run over Christmas, and that the students could not go home.  So we adapted.

Ian and a Nutcracker aboard our Holland America Christmas cruise.

That first holiday season away, spending Christmas in a hotel with a child, taught us many things about ourselves and the season.  It taught us that breaking with tradition can be liberating (Christmas Eve celebrations with the family were fine, but year after year after year of the same thing can begin to wear on one).  It taught us that we could be more creative with the Christmas morning ritual under the Christmas tree opening presents (the hotel staff even helped us as we sent Ian on a scavenger hunt all over the hotel to find his Christmas present that first year).  It taught us that having Christmas dinner in a hotel is not without its upside (impeccable service, incredible food and no clean-up: what’s not to like?).  And over the years, it has taught us that experiences are far more important than presents.

After several Christmases in downtown Toronto at a hotel, Ian finally had a year when he didn’t have to perform.  Rather than spending it at home, we took a Christmas cruise (which we’ve talked about before).  The most important lesson from that trip (apart from how utterly amazing it is to spend Christmas eve on a private island in the Caribbean under a palm tree), that the presents are secondary and are only as important as the sentiment behind them.

That Christmas we had a family agreement: one present for each other person, bought after the ship sailed from Fort Lauderdale – and they had to be wrapped.   Streamlining those Christmas presents gave us time to really think about each present and each person.  It was wonderful.

Casino Square in Monte Carlo makes a magical scene dressed for Christmas.

Then there were three recent Christmases in Monte Carlo and the French Riviera.  There were so many wonderful memories that we made together as a little family.  Without the stress of the extended family activities, we have been able to focus on enjoying what the season has to offer – and on the Riviera, there was much to enjoy.  The Christmas market in Nice, the incredible decorations in Casino Square in Monte Carlo, the streets lined with trees highlighted with fake snow, the outdoor champagne bar at Christmas Land on the waterfront in Monaco, the chance to see Les Ballets de Monte Carlo performing on their home stage with Princess Caroline in the royal box, Revéillons (Christmas Eve dinner) at the Fairmont in Monte Carlo.

And now we will prepare for our upcoming Christmas in London.  We’ll take in the English National Ballet’s Nutcracker, several fabulous dinners; we’ll visit the Christmas windows on Oxford Street and visit the Christmas markets.  And the memories will be our presents.

Art takes in the Christmas ambience in Nice, France.

So, how do you get away from the expectations that your extended family has of you over the holidays (for those of you who have often thought about doing just that)?

  • Start getting them warmed up to the idea many months before.  By the time Christmas comes, they’ll think it’s always been that way.  Okay, there will be a few who will balk – but that’s only because they won’t have you to share their misery.
  • Get your little travel group to set some family ground rules. Activities? Budget?
  • Take our advice, agree to one present each.
  • Set up all the important parts in advance.  If Christmas dinner is important, get on it several months before.  You’d be amazed how many people eat out on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, not to mention how many restaurants are not open.  Hotels are your best bet.
  • Do something completely different from what you’ve done before on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.  One Christmas we went to a movie at a theater in a mall late in the afternoon on Christmas Eve.  There were exactly four other people in the theater and when the movie was over, we emerged into a completely quiet mall that had only hours before been pandemonium.  It was like taking a deep cleansing breath.
  • Don’t think that you have to go far away.  Get in the car, drive for a couple of hours, and you’re away for Christmas.
  • Remember to Skype your family at home – and don’t gloat!
Nice dressed for Christmas.