A Brief History of Cruising

In the beginning, ships set out on perilous journeys in search of new lands to conquer. This was usually at the behest of a greedy King or Queen and far from luxurious. Often sailing for months, the most a crew member could hope for was to survive the journey and arrive alive at their intended destination.  An equally successful return to home port was a bonus. Pleasing his or her Majesty with whatever riches or new land discoveries and acquisitions they procured along the way usually guaranteed a better life.  Trade was also a primary motivation as precious metals, spices, textiles and other goods were brought back to homelands with hopes of currying favor. The failures outweighed the success and many a stolen treasure is still to be found at the bottom of very deep oceans.  Eventually ships morphed into fishing and whaling vessels procuring food and coveted whale bone. However, it would be centuries before average people would board a boat by choice. Fast forward to the very late 1800’s when Albert Ballin believed that the well-heeled would enjoy boarding a ship for fun and relaxation. According to www.cruisehistory.com   Mr. Ballin is considered to be the “inventor and father of the pleasure cruise”. He straddled two worlds as a Jew in Germany and a successful ship designer that brought riches to the German government before ultimately being branded as a traitor and taking his own life. However his successes are his legacy. Cruise lines such as Holland America owe a nod of respect towards his vision of the Prinzessin Viktoria Luise. The ship was designed to recreate the experience found in luxurious European hotels while providing passage simultaneously. These were the golden days of travel where men and women filled trunks with frocks and waist coats. Each day aboard the ocean liner saw several changes of outfits based upon the day’s itinerary and social functions. Passage was booked by “class” which also determined the prominence of where your cabin would be located, the level of service you received and in which restaurant you would dine. As a nod to this former elegance in cruising, today’s Cunard Cruise Line still observes the tradition of cabin position determining your dining experience. Image result for prinzessin victoria luise cruise ship

The potential of bringing cruising to the masses was eventually recognized and Carnival Cruise Line was the first company to bring fun to the seas. Their colorful casual laid back style appealed to the suit wearing, schedule keeping, nine to fivers who wanted to do anything on their vacation, except dress for dinner. Their food was adequate but plentiful and the juxtaposition of a superior wine list to moderate food was due to the fact that the former CEO of the company was a bonafide oenophile. Not wanting to be left in the wake of a competing cruise company Norwegian Cruise Line took it a step further by morphing into “Freestyle” cruising where jeans could now be worn in the dining room and reservations or timed seatings were a thing of the past. True, Norwegian had a rough start and a lot of negative experiences with the new program but its current success can be measured by the number of copycats. However, what Norwegian didn’t get right, other cruise lines did by learning from Norwegian’s mistakes. Norwegian’s lack of initial success was mostly due to assuming that the passengers wouldn’t notice that the same restaurant that was serving breakfast by day was being presented as an Italian Restaurant by night. The passengers weren’t fooled by the thinly veiled quick change and the complaints came rolling in like waves on the ocean. Competing cruise lines took note and refined the experience in a way that allowed both freestyle and traditional dining on the same ship by utilizing multi-tiered dining venues. Today’s cruise lines come in all shapes and sizes. Smaller ships plying smaller bodies of American waters such as the St. Lawrence or Mississippi Rivers have revived a feeling of Americana. Surely, you will be just as surprised as I to learn that there are over 250,000 rivers in the United States. Exploration of European waterways with their locks and castles and easy access to magnificent European cities has almost quintupled. The popularity of river cruising is such that it is one of the fastest growing markets in the travel industry. Large cruise lines are entering the river cruise market while ironically, Viking River Cruises, one of the most familiar river cruise companies is literally testing the ocean waters by debuting a larger ship.  Ships built 20 years ago that were considered large carrying a mere 2000 passengers now seem dwarfed by today’s mega liners carrying 5000 passengers. These vessels now offer dozens of entertainment venues and unique experiences that include an ice bar complete with faux fur coats for you to don during your chilly visit. Celebrity chefs such as Guy Fieri have food outlets on board with special menus for cruise passengers. Microbreweries and entertainment by Blueman Group can also be found at sea.Image result for blue man group Your children can meet Sponge Bob Square Pants while sailing and even Mickey Mouse himself has dipped his oversized feet into the water with great success. Yet, there is still a market for Mid size liners or as we in the travel industry call them “classic ships”. These smaller vessels might have fewer activity options but offer an attractive starting price and are also less likely to overwhelm first time cruisers. The fastest growing sector in the cruise industry today is river cruising both exotic and domestic. Smaller ships host fewer passengers than large cruise ships and offer choices that range from relaxed atmosphere to upscale ambiance. Combining incredible views of European cities and curated menus that reflect the locale gives an intimate experience that can’t be found aboard large ships.  Imagine visiting exotic Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, aboard a 30 passenger boat. You immerse yourself into an exotic land and return to the familiar comfort of a ship designed with Western passengers in mind. As the competition has increased and cruise lines began to fail, consolidation was inevitable. Long time cruisers will remember the popular Home Lines Cruises which was absorbed by Celebrity Cruises, which, by the way, is owned by Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines who also own Azamara Cruise Lines. Is your head spinning? You will likely be surprised to learn that Carnival Cruise Lines, one of the biggest players in the casual cruising markets owns Holland America, Cunard Lines, Princess Cruises and the luxury Seabourn line. According to Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association, 2015 saw a record breaking 3 million cruise passengers visiting 1000 ports of call and the debut of 22 new ships. These are impressive numbers but more notable to me is that not one of these ships nor those in the past single ship has ever borne the name Albert Ballin.Image result for norwegian cruise line

 

 

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Flying the Unfriendly Skies

Image result for commotion inside planeFirst, there was Washington’s Watergate. Then football had Deflategate, New Jersey had Bridgegate and most recently, the travel industry has been embroiled in Leggingsgate. Not the entire industry, just one particular airline. Unless you are media adverse I’m sure you know which airline has had their luggage handed to them and sent packing. Two separate incidents have shown that the skies are a lot less friendlier than the airline in question would have us believe.  The first incident involved a family of 3, a father and his two daughters. They checked in for their flight but were denied boarding because the two young girls were wearing leggings, a comfortable hybrid of pants and tights. Somehow the media became or was made aware and reported the incident. This thrust the airline squarely in the public eye and not for a good reason. By public eye I mean trending on twitter, becoming a top news radio story, on the front page of major news outlets and the main joke of every late night television host. What should have been a minor incident was now dubbed “Leggings-gate”. The internet went crazy with well-known starlets wearing leggings to their local airport in support of the young girls. I can understand how ridiculous the situation must appear to the public. Why would and how could the airline ban leggings?  What the news outlets failed to reveal and starlets were blissfully unaware of is that the father of these two girls is an employee of the airline. As an employee, one of the perques he enjoys is reduced rate travel and the privilege of being allowed to share that discount with immediate family members. With that privilege comes rules. When travelling on reduced rate industry fares you are essentially considered representatives of the airline. As such, you are required to dress appropriately. The airlines very clearly spell out what is acceptable attire when travelling on a reduced rate pass. Leggings are not on that list. The father was either ignorant of the longstanding policy or willfully chose to ignore it.  It was definitely within the jurisdiction of the airline to deny boarding to the employee and his two daughters.  Is the rule outdated? Perhaps, perhaps not. I can’t fault any airline for wanting their employees to appear professional and abide by a dress code. It’s a small request to honor in return for the airline’s significant generosity towards the employee’s family. Before Leggingsgate had time to fade from our collective memory, a second incident placed the airline in the public eye again. This time the criticism was fueled by intense disbelief. The airline became the subject of public scorn, ridicule and likely a multiple million dollar lawsuit.  On April 9 the same airline had a flight scheduled to depart from Chicago O’Hare and went into an “oversold” situation. In layman’s terms, they sold more seats than were available on the plane. In this case the airline needed to transport 4 of their own employees to Kentucky to work on a flight departing from Louisville. Their request for volunteers to sacrifice their seats in return for future flight credit received no takers. That doesn’t often happen. When it does the next option usually results in the airline amping up the monetary reward for voluntarily deplaning.  In this case, the airline made the decision to randomly choose 4 passengers to deplane. Three got off the plane without incident and one, a Doctor, refused to go. The flight crew contacted the authorities who boarded the plane to escort the passenger off the aircraft. Unfortunately, the passenger resisted and was seriously injured during his removal. Here’s where it gets murky. It’s still unclear why the passenger was injured. The airline claims the passenger was injured when he failed to comply with the Officers who then dragged the passenger from his seat and up the aisle. Fellow passengers claim that the airline employees used unnecessary force and are responsible for the injuries. Videos recorded by fellow travelers bear witness to the physical removal of the passenger and the obvious injuries sustained by the Doctor. Social media took over and held a trial by tweets. The airline was again found “Guilty” of poor customer service! The memes were creative and relentless. Eventually, the airline CEO needed to make a public statement. His first step was to put a well-heeled foot into his own mouth by blaming the victim. The public response was swift, vicious and often bitterly funny. The media covered every bit and it turned into a very public cry for justice for the injured Doctor.  Yielding to public pressure, the CEO’s second attempt at addressing the public came from a place of accepting responsibility. He tried to assure us that the airline could and will do better going forward. This is the message that we wanted to hear.  It would be challenging for the airline to continue to vilify the Doctor after news outlets reported that he suffered a concussion, a broken nose and lost two teeth. It was recently announced that the airline reached an undisclosed settlement with the Doctor. The airline has also committed to making the follow passenger-friendly changes:

  • “limit the use of law enforcement to safety and security issues only
  • not require customers seated on the plane to give up their seats involuntarily unless safety or security is at risk
  • ensure crews are booked on to flights at least 60 minutes prior to departure
  • reduce the amount of overbooking
  • eliminate the red tape on permanently lost bags by adopting a ‘no questions asked’ policy on lost luggage.
  • the airline will pay up to $10,000 to passengers who voluntarily give up their seats on overbooked flights.”

 

Professionally, I take umbrage with any overbooking. The majority of airline tickets are nonrefundable. Therefore, the majority of ticket holders arrive at the airport expecting to board the aircraft. Most notably, business travelers are the passengers most likely to book last-minute or change or cancel their reservations last-minute. They pay dearly for that privilege at rates that are likely 10 times what you would pay for your air reservations. If they cancel, it results in an empty, nonrevenue generating seat, which the airline compensates for and anticipates. Thus, the unreasonably high airfare rates for those business travelers. The airlines might be better served, and the travelling public as well, by issuing “stand by” tickets more frequently. It’s my belief that they are an under-utilized option of filling seats that might otherwise go empty.Image result for airport ticket counter

 

If this recent debacle has you reconsidering flying on your next vacation, I would say that there’s likely never been a better time to fly. The airlines need to regain the trust of the travelling public. Customer service may never be more attentive than it will be under the watchful eye of an eager media looking for an additional story. I can’t guarantee the rates will drop but I bet, if you ask, you just might get an extra bag of pretzels on your next flight.

My Dog Died Today

My dog died today. His name was Rex. He was a German Shepherd-ish large dog of undetermined age and undetermined origin. Rex was rescued from a Philadelphia shelter where he was scheduled to be euthanized due to illness and lack of interest in him as a potential pet. A fellow animal rescuer, with a heart larger than most, decided he needed a second chance in life. She apparently saw something no one else could see and “pulled” him. Through a series of transports, a doggie underground, if you will, “Rex” as he was now known, arrived in Dutchess County. He was much sicker than anyone anticipated and was hospitalized for weeks. A lot of faith, time and money was invested in a dog that was seemingly ungrateful for the attention. In time he healed and the “true dog” began to reveal himself. He took what he wanted but what he didn’t take were orders. There was no telling this dog what he could or could not do. I struggled to find his inner “good dog”. I served as a temporary foster home for Rex as he continued to heal. When Rex improved enough to be ready for adoption we considered ourselves lucky to find a Shepherd experienced family looking for a companion for their German Shepherd. That placement lasted less than two weeks after Rex made himself at home on the couch. He refused to yield when told to get “down” and when the homeowners had the audacity to assume that they were in charge and reached for his collar, Rex growled. One day later Rex was back with me.  I was again enlisted to temporarily house this large creature with the even larger attitude. In animal-rescue we often say that the first step through the door is the first step to a new home. In other words, once you live with an animal for a while it’s assumed that you’ll have a hard time giving them up. This was definitely a dog that I did not want to make part of my family. Long story made short, Rex, by default, became part of my family. If, by now, you’re wondering what this has to do with travel, any person or family residing with a dog or other pets will eventually be faced with the dilemma of who will care for Fido, or in my case, Rex, while you’re travelling. It had been many years since Rex had come to live with me. He had aged considerably and was now having trouble walking. His eyesight was spot on but his hearing was diminished and neurological issues began to slowly steal his independent mobility. Yet, he still accompanied me to work every day, taking his place behind my desk and snoring loudly as I worked. I was preparing for a trip to Europe and knew that I could not safely and securely leave him at home. I reviewed all the traditional options:

  • Pet Sitter – There are a number of animal friendly people who have chosen to earn a living by caring for other people’s pets.  They will make daily scheduled visits to your home to feed, water and walk whatever needs feeding, watering or walking. They bring in the mail and make the house look less empty. The benefit is mostly for the animals who are able to stay in the safety and comfort of their own home. Some Pet Sitters will even take up temporary residence in your home, caring for your animals, plants, and making the house safe and secure with their ongoing presence and can help with late night nature calls for an elderly pet.
  • Kennels – Think of it as doggy sleepaway camp. The best Kennels offer a choice of dinner menus, group or solo activities based upon your dog’s personal preferences and visual or audio entertainment. Some canine camps offer doggy “cams” where you can sneak a peek at Fido to see if he’s snoozing, fetching or playing Red Rover. They are usually priced higher than boarding at the Vet but your dog usually comes home having made paw pals who promise to keep in touch and see each other during your next vacation.
  • Veterinarian – This is a great option for dogs that might require daily medical attention, have a chronic illness or are in a need of an annual tune-up. Drop Fido off and pick up a week later with his teeth cleaned, shots up to date and a clean bill of health. This is the ultimate in multi-tasking!     

Ultimately, I decided that the best choice for Rex would be to house him at a Vet facility. It seemed the safest option offering professionals who could tend to his special needs due to his advanced age. I cried when I left him at the Vet’s wondering if he too was sniffling over the separation. Later in the week, my friend, the fellow animal rescuer, checked to see how he was doing. She conveyed positive news to me, which was welcome relief. The day after I returned home I arrived at opening time for the kennel. I couldn’t wait to see my “puppy”. As he rounded the corner, it was like seeing him with fresh eyes. He seemed older then when I left him, a bit thinner perhaps and a lot more tired. Perhaps through the eyes of love I wasn’t able to acknowledge the reality of a fading companion. I was away for 10 days and it seemed he had aged 10 years. The ensuing days further proved that we were approaching the final mile.  Did he decline while I was away? Possibly. Or was it because I was seeing him with fresh eyes that now allowed me to see his deterioration? It became clear that I had to make a decision, an irreversible decision. Exactly one week after I returned home I made the difficult choice to say “goodbye” to Rex. Part of me wishes I had made the decision sooner, the other part is grateful for the extra time we had together. You might wonder if I have regrets.  I always do – but I know in my heart that I gave Rex a good life and the best care that I was capable of. I am not sure that my staying home would have changed the outcome. What I am completely sure of is that I will miss him for a long time to come.