Greetings from Aruba!

Yes, this week I’m in the Caribbean enjoying 80 plus degrees, and heading for a partial Panama Canal crossing on the Norwegian Pearl. Typically, a full crossing is a cruise from LA to Florida, or the other way around. However, many cruise lines, including Norwegian, now do these partial crossings that start and end in Miami. They’re rather expensive, as they’re 11 day cruises, but well worth it for anyone who has always wanted to see the Panama Canal.

The Pearl is a mid-size ship with 1,200 cabins and 2,400 passengers. That’s what you want, instead of the massive 4,000 passenger ships that are becoming the norm with most cruise lines. On the other extreme, my best friend will only go on a cruise with lines such as Viking that have only a few hundred passengers – but there’s a big price to pay for that.

I do have to confess that it’s my sixth time on the Pear, as it’s still one of my favorite ships. But if you’ve never cruised before, you really want to get the expertise of a cruise specialist with a local travel agent. Different cruise lines, just like different ships, have a very different personality – and for extended cruises, that matters a lot. Many Norwegian cruises have an average passenger age in the 40s. This one, for example, is likely in the 60s due to the length, and non-spring break time of the trip.

The Pearl has also just undergone a two-week dry dock renovation. About half the upgrades were age related, and something you wouldn’t notice. (Could you tell that the original railings are teak, and the replaced ones are spruce?) The other half are quite nice and noticeable. All cabins had a make-over, the most common traffic areas have new carpets, and some of the (pay) specialty restaurants were given a make-over as well.

A couple of heads-up as you might as well learn the painful lessons of someone else (that would be me), instead of on your own:

Within two hours of being on board, it turns out six of my well planned out dinner reservations made two months ago had been wiped out, and were gone. One other had been moved by three days, and only one of eight was still showing. As some of the popular specialty restaurants fill up early, that would have destroyed my vacation in the first few hours. The only reason I was able to get most of them restored, with the help of an incredible hostess who spent an hour helping me, is that I had printed the confirmations and brought them with me. If not, it would have been my word against the ship’s computer, and there’s no chance I would have had them re-booked. Print and take everything! The ship’s hotel director chose not to respond to multiple requests for an explanation or what passengers should do – as I wasn’t the only one. Trust me, I’ve heard the horror stories from almost all cruise lines. And, as I always tell you: If it’s not in writing – it didn’t happen! That will always be true: Case in point that 8,300 of my casino reward point (which is a lot) also disappeared. But with no written proof, I’m out of luck so to speak.

The second heads up is even more valuable: We talk about it at least twice a year: Loyalty is dead. From credit card programs to Starbucks, airline frequent flyer programs to cruise lines. Norwegian Cruises has a pretty high loyalty level called “platinum” that applies at roughly a dozen cruises. This cruise, my traveling companion had also reached that level. But what you don’t know in advance is that none of the worthwhile “rewards” are passed on to the second person. Yes, I get a free load of laundry – he doesn’t. Yes, I get a complimentary dinner – he doesn’t. The value of reaching that loyalty level for the second traveler is $1.25. It’s their own bottle of water in the cabin for the week.

If you have a regular travel buddy, or travel with your partner, make sure you stay a free agent in not always booking with the same cruise line. They get the revenue, but you don’t get the rewards.

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