Travel Planning: Asia in our sights

It’s mid-April and here in the northern hemisphere the calendar says it’s spring. One look out our windows here in Toronto, however, tells a whole different story. We’ve been in the grips of a late-season ice storm for the past few days and it could not look more like winter out there. What better time to be thinking of Hong Kong and its current 25° C temperatures!

We’ve been actively planning this Asia trip for some time. It all began some time last year when, despite Asia having been on our travel bucket list for some time, we mused that perhaps we didn’t really need that 15-hour flight. When our son got wind of our thoughts on the subject he implored us not to give up the idea. In his view we HAD to visit Hong Kong and Tokyo at least. He had performed in both cities on various tours with Les Ballets de Monte Carlo a few years ago and told us that we’d love both experiences. So, we decided to take his advice and plan a trip that would include both.

ashford castle
It was just the two of us and Kevin, our guide, in his Mercedes when we toured Ireland a few years ago. Here is our transportation parked out front of Ashford Castle. 

We looked at land-tour options and those included a number of regional flights in China. We wondered if we really wanted to spend that much time in airports where we didn’t speak the language, and worse, couldn’t even read the language characters. That seemed like a bit of a drag to us, although we considered a Kensington private, guided tour, since we had used them before in Ireland and were more than satisfied. But there were other options. We could consider transportation between cities by ship.

As long-time readers know about us, cruise ships are really just comfortable methods of transportation for us usually. Okay, we sometimes do like an island hop in the Caribbean on a six-star ship, but in recent years, our “cruises” have been selected based on their itineraries. So, we decided to check out our favourite cruise lines to see what they offered in Asia.

We explored Oceania, Regent and Cunard. We even considered Holland America, although we haven’t travelled on them in years. It turns out that the vast majority of the itineraries on offer include one but not both of the must-see cities on our list – Hong Kong and Tokyo – and truth be told, most cruise lines don’t actually seem to go to Tokyo at all. Then we hit on Silversea. (You might remember that we sailed on Silversea’s new ship the Silver Muse in the fall down the western coast of South America – in actual fact, we had booked this Asia cruise even before we left for that one!)

silver shadow
We’ll be sailing aboard the 382-guest luxury cruise ship the Silver Shadow. [Photo credit: https://www.silversea.com/ships/silver-shadow.html]
Silversea was the only one we found that began in Hong Kong and ended in Tokyo. That was perfect: we could spend a few days in Hong Kong before sailing, then end with four or five days in Tokyo. So, we booked. One of the nice features of this itinerary was also that the ship spends two days in each of the important ports of call: Shanghai, Beijing, Osaka. It also offers a couple of mid-cruise land tours where you leave the ship for an overnight on shore so that you can explore places you couldn’t do in a single day. Next on the agenda – right after touching base with our long-time travel agent Angela (Maritime Travel) who booked our non-stop flights to and from our destination – was to plan how we would see the sights.

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First, we looked at the cruise line’s own offerings. We decided to book their overland trip in Beijing. When the ship docks in Tianjin (the port for Beijing) we’ll be on the fast train into the city for touring. Then we stay overnight at the Four Season’s Hotel in Beijing. The next day we head to The Great Wall then back to meet the ship. Unlike the shore excursions which, on Silversea, you book in advance but pay for when you disembark the ship, this overland trip had to be paid for in advance. Done.

As we looked at the other offerings, it occurred to us that there were choices among them that would permit us to see as much of the stops as possible. So, we booked a number of excursions. Silversea’s shore excursions, in our experience, appear expensive to the untrained eye, but they do have fewer people on buses and are generally good value for the money. That took care of planning for Shanghai, Hiroshima, Osaka and Kyoto. That left us with our book-ends: Hong Kong and Tokyo.

Naturally we looked to Tours-by-Locals, our go-to company for private touring around the world.

tours by locals banner

Our private guide in Hong Kong has now arranged our transportation from the airport to our hotel on Hong Kong island, will provide us with a private tour of the city and arrange for our transportation to the pier. Our Tokyo guide has arranged three days of city touring and a day of touring outside the city – then will drop us at the airport after four days there. And all of this was arranged through Tours-by-Locals’ web site where we were able to arrange all the details which are personalized for us. Our Tokyo guide has even provided us with materials to help us acclimatize to Japanese culture as well as an extensive list of recommended reading. Well, we opted to prepare for this trip not through too much reading, but via two video-based courses.

We bought two courses from The Great Courses, a site that we’ve gone to throughout the years for a wide variety of educational programming: Foundations of Eastern Civilization (Craig G. Benjamin PhD), which was 48 half-hour lectures and Understanding Japan: A Cultural History (Mark J. Ravina PhD), 24 half-hour lectures. And yes, we watched every one of them.

Both professors are experts in their fields, but more important perhaps even than that is that their passion for their respective specialties is palpable in their terrific delivery. We didn’t take notes, but we feel that having done this in advance, we can more fully experience the history and culture of our Asian destinations. We’re looking forward to seeing in real life many of the places and experiences both shared with us.

Now that we’ve booked and finalized everything, and prepared our brains for new adventures, we’re just about ready to board that plane. We leave in five days. Hope you’ll come along with us!

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Getting ready…trusty Briggs & Riley carry-ons. 

Cruise industry advertising: Smoke & mirrors?

Perhaps it's time the ultra-luxury cruise lines started rolling out the red carpet before booking.
Perhaps it’s time the ultra-luxury cruise lines started rolling out the red carpet before booking.

Only occasionally do we find ourselves in the position of feeling a travel rant coming on.  This week is one of those weeks.

For many years we’ve been dividing our travel time among various adventures: resorts, road trips, private touring, and often cruising.  Since we’ve both been very busy in in our work lives, when we are choosing a cruise we have to book far in advance at whatever price is on offer for the itinerary and suite that we know will make us happy.  Notwithstanding the exorbitant prices that we’ve often found ourselves paying over the years, we have been completely happy with our choices after the fact.  Unlike many people we know who search for bargains, we have never returned home complaining about accommodation, service or overall experience.  You get what you pay for, we’ve often opined.  So why are we complaining now?

We have moved into a phase of our lives when we don’t need to plan so far in advance.  This means that we’d like to be able to take advantage of at least a few of the copious numbers of offers that find their way into our real and virtual mailboxes every week.  God love the cruise industry: if it weren’t for them, we’d hardly have any real mail!

We have often wondered if the cruise lines really think that we’re dumb enough to believe that what we are paying are two-for-one prices.  For example, every single piece of material that comes to us from our favorite lines (ultra-luxury Silversea, Seabourn, Regent and recently Oceania) tells us that we will be paying essentially half fare.  The fare is always listed in two columns: “brochure fares” and “savings fares.”  Brochure fares are always (at least) double the savings fares.  Indeed, they never seem to be charging brochure fares at all which leads us to believe that they don’t have to adhere to the usual advertising laws that force retailers to actually offer the merchandise at the full price for a minimum period of time before they can advertise it as being on sale.  And, just who in their right mind would pay some of those fares anyway?

DSC00628Two recent examples:  Just over month ago, we tied to book a Regent cruise from Athens to Turkey for the fall on the day we received in the mail a brochure indicating special past-guest savings for the itinerary we wanted.  We immediately emailed our travel agent who, within minutes went to work on the booking.  When she contacted Regent to book it, the offer was not being made available to us.  Sorry, they said, they should have booked earlier.  We had the brochure right in front of us.  According to our travel agent, Regent told her that the offer had changed and referred her to the asterisk that indicated subject to change without notice.  We could only conclude that that would kick in about one minute before a past-guest actually called to book.  We even attached a screen shot of the newly-arrived brochure to a return email to our travel agent.  Regent would not budge.  We are now booked for almost the same itinerary on a different cruise line and are feeling very sour about Regent on which we have sailed three times before.   So much for perks of being a past guest.

The second example was just this past week and was what set us off on the rant.  We received another tempting offer last Friday and contemplated taking advantage of this advertised fare in a Seabourn brochure.  We were considering booking a veranda suite aboard the Quest for 35 days in South America this coming winter.  We were delighted to see that this category of suite was on a promotion: a savings fare from $10,999 down from a brochure fare from $36,500.  Let’s ignore for a moment that we wouldn’t even look at such a fare for this small suite even on a Seabourn ship (and the fact that they never really offer it at that fare because no one would pay it) and concentrate on the asterisk that followed the word from.  Yes, of course we see the asterisk and expect that if we are not planning to sail on the asterisked date (October 25) we will pay more for February 24.  However, given that this is being promoted as a great saving, we expect a reasonable sum more.  We would be wrong.

When our travel agent tried to book this for us, she found that indeed the price we would have to pay would be $14,999 per person not including taxes which would bring it up over $16,000 per person.  We called Seabourn to inquire ourselves with the brochure in front of us.  They simply reiterated what she told us and pointed to the asterisk. This is a difference of over 25% and is unacceptable as a hidden piece of information.  The cruise line may believe that the asterisk protects them from liability for false advertising, but as a customer (and past guest of this cruise line) we think it is disingenuous and this kind of advertising needs to stop.

The Bureau of Consumer Protection of the US American Trade Commission’s guidelines for truth in advertising are contained in a document titled: Big Print. Little Print. What’s the Deal?[1]  which clearly lays out the expectations for truthful advertising as follows:

Your ads should clearly and conspicuously disclose all the information about an offer that is likely to affect a consumer’s purchasing decision. Disclose the most important information – like the terms affecting the basic cost of the offer – near the advertised price.

Print advertisers should not attempt to hide the real cost or the critical terms or conditions by:

  • Putting them in obscure locations, such as the border area on a print ad;
  • Burying them in numerous, densely packed lines of fine print; or
  • Including them in small-type footnotes.”[2]

 

The Advertising Standards Council of Canada is equally clear in the first clause of the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards as follows:

“…(b) Advertisements must not omit relevant information in a manner that, in the result, is deceptive.

(c) All pertinent details of an advertised offer must be clearly and understandably stated.

(d) Disclaimers and asterisked or footnoted information must not contradict more prominent aspects of the message and should be located and presented in such a manner as to be clearly visible and/or audible…”[3]

As far as we are concerned, these advertisements are misleading doing more than putting pertinent information in “obscure locations” and contain “disclaimers and asterisked footnoted information” that contradicts the main message.  The cruise line may believe that the asterisk provides legal protection (which is arguable), but it certainly doesn’t provide them with moral protection.  Shame on them.

Our bottom line is that we are a bit sour on Seabourn now and will reconsider our winter cruise plans.

 

[1] http://business.ftc.gov/documents/bus44-big-print-little-print-whats-deal

[2] Don’t bury the details, http://business.ftc.gov/documents/bus44-big-print-little-print-whats-deal

[3] Accuracy & clarity, http://www.adstandards.com/en/Standards/the14Clauses.aspx

Early travel planning: Phase 2!

We have now moved into phase two of our advance planning for winter travels to come.  As this past long, hot, summer weekend drew to a close, we checked our email and found that our travel agent, Angela, has been hard at work (as usual) trying to find us the perfect hotel accommodation to book-end our February 2013 cruise.  But, it needs to be said that discerning travelers will want to be flexible in their planning.

Art on board the Regent Seven Seas Mariner in Montenegro. It was a great trip, but not a ship we want to revisit this winter in the Caribbean.

When last we visited this topic, we had pre-booked a cruise from Rio to Buenos Aires.  Well…that’s now a memory.  When we began to drill down into the cost, and whether or not it was really going to fulfill our desires for a South American holiday, sadly, we had to conclude that it didn’t.  We had wanted to cruise on Crystal since we have yet to try it on our trip through the luxury cruise lines, but we weren’t able to come up with a single suite on the cruises we want even this far in advance.  Angela went right to the source, but to no avail.  That’s proof positive for us that advance planning is essential.  So we booked on the same itinerary on another line.  This time we were able to book the suite we wanted on Regent Seven Seas cruises.  Which we’ve already been on.  Twice.  And it was on the Mariner.  Which we’ve been on.  And it was OK, but not an experience we need to repeat yet.  So many cruise ships, so little time! So we moved on to plan B.

Plan A for cruise planning always starts with an itinerary we want, at a time when we can get away.  Plan B starts not with the itinerary, but with a cruise line.  Our second choice was Seabourn.  The February time frame when we need to take a dip south is a bit challenging if you’re trying to avoid the Caribbean as we originally were.  However, what we were really trying to avoid was repeating a series of islands that we’d already visited – either for a day on a cruise ship, or for a longer stay.  What we found was the Yachtsmen’s cruise in the Caribbean that takes in small ports that the larger ships can’t reach.  After all, the ship we’re now booked on, the Seabourn Spirit, has a grand total of 204 passengers.  A yacht, indeed! So, that and the airline booking was phase 1 – phase 2 is a bit more challenging at this time of year since it involves finding the perfect hotels in Barbados

We were considereing staying at The Crane in Barbados again – but at this time of year, the prices they’re offering for February are out of this world and not worth a return.

and St. Martin where the cruise begins and ends.  That might sound easy, but when you’re trying to be discerning and the hotels haven’t really formalized their winter season yet, you can easily fall into the trap of paying too much for those 5 and 6-star properties.  So, we’re going to wait.

From time to time people will ask us why we don’t just wait until the cruise lines start pushing the winter cruises that they start to discount later in the year.  “You’ll get more bang for your buck,” they tell us.  But they’re wrong – unless you think that something is of value just because it’s cheap.  We don’t happen to take that view.

There’s an analogy to shopping for clothes.  If you always wait until everything is on sale, you’ll never really get what you want – and you’ll always be ‘settling’ for what’s left.  If you don’t like something enough to have bought it at full price, most times, you shouldn’t buy it on sale either.  Buy something just because it’s on sale hardly demonstrates discernment – but if it’s n sale and you love it, then that’s great!  Sadly, that happens only once in a while.  So, for the big-ticket vacation planning, get out there early and start turning your dreams into reality!

Tips for early planning:

  • Start by figuring out where you want to go.
  • Then decide how you want to get there.
  • Determine your budget – and shop within it rather than lower.
  • Keep an open mind.
  • Don’t book something just becasue it’s on sale!
  • Set a deadline for when you want all of the final bookings complete.
  • Be prepared to put Plan B into motion if necessary!

Who plans a winter vacation in the summer? Discerning travelers do!

A taste of winter on St. Margaret’s Bay, Nova Scotia last November. It usually doesn’t snow this much!

Our story begins this past weekend when over a glass (or two) of wine, we began to talk about those travel-related things on our bucket list, two of which include a South American vacation and trying out Crystal CruisesBut…it’s only June! You rightly suggest.

The sun is shining, the temperature is rising on our deck, the dock is in the water waiting for the boat to arrive from the marina – sure signs that summer in Nova Scotia is about to arrive.  And not a moment too soon in this part of the country.  So, why in the world have we begun planning our winter vacation?  The reason is simple: long years of experience.  Being a discerning traveler often means taking action many months before actually setting out for the airport.  So, that is precisely what we did this week.

Our first step in planning this vacation was to revisit our bucket list.  A South American adventure was right on top of that list alongside a desire to cruise our way through the luxury cruise lines. Regent cruises?  Check. (Actually check more than once). Silversea cruises?  Check. Cunard Queen’s Grill? Check. Crystal?  No check yet.  So putting those two desires together, we’ve decided that we want to visit Rio and Buenos Aires and travel between the two by ship.  Next stop, the web.

Visiting Crystal’s web site uncovered the perfect cruise for us departing from Buenos Aires on February 26 (a bit late in the season for our taste, since we’re trying to avoid winter weather up north,  but occasionally you have to compromise to get what you really want) and landing 12 days later in Rio.  We’d plan to spend a few days in each city before and after – we could feel the flamenco coming on already. We chose the level of suite we wanted, and were on to our next stop, Angela, our wonderful travel agent.

Perhaps we’ll have another wonderful lunch like the one we had here in Tulum, Mexico.

Angela was quick to respond to the query about prices on Penthouses and Penthouse suites that we were interested in.  “Sorry,” was the reply.  “None available.  But there are deluxe staterooms.”

A quick look at the size of the “deluxe staterooms” was enough to send us scurrying over to Regent’s web site to have a look at a similar itinerary.  There it was – and the suite we wanted was available – just one left, we might add.  So, that one is now being held for us while we figure out all of the other things that go along with planning a big cruise.  Getting to Argentina, visiting Buenos Aires, visiting in Rio at the end of the cruise etc.  But it isn’t over yet.

Just today we found a couple of Silversea cruises that sound interesting though: Cape Town to the Canary Islands and Bali to Singapore.  So many cruises, so little time!  But there is a real lesson here.

We were going to wait until September to book our February holiday.  In years gone by when we were looking to get away to a resort in the Caribbean, that strategy worked.  If price is your only criterion, then waiting for a sale and taking what you get might work.  But not for us.

But…we’re hoping to dine on our suite verandah again this winter.

As we’ve gotten older, we’ve gotten more discerning in our travel choices, and we’ve found that each trip is imbued with a kind of nostalgic feeling: we may never travel to these destinations again (but we’ve thought that before, and you know what happened!).  This means that each decision is significant.  Sure, we occasionally do something more or less on the spur of the moment (we did book our April vacation only six weeks before), but we’ve been seeing a pattern over the past few years when it comes to booking cruises in particular.  The higher end the cruise, the more likely the suites will be booked far in advance.  It seems that discerning travelers everywhere are simply not taking a chance.  Neither are we.

John Steinbeck once wrote that “…a journey is like marriage.  The certain way to be wrong is to think you can control it…” Hold that thought – right from the moment you begin to plan that journey.  Think you’re in control?  Think again.  Now, 30 seconds of winter to get you thinking about booking your own winter holiday!