Cruise Life Magazine Vol. 1 No. 5

In This Issue:

Stateroom Upgrades

The Panama Canal

Cruise Port Planning

Staterooms – What Are Upgrades?

If do more than a few cruises, chances are you will be offered an upgrade. Generally upgrades fall into a few categories:

  • Upgrades at discounted rates
  • A promotional offer
  • Complimentary upgrade
  • Last minute upgrade offer at time of sailing

Usually the first reaction when offered an upgrade is elation over your luck, but don’t jump at that offer right away. There are a few things to consider and be sure and ask some questions.

If you’re being offered a stateroom upgrade ask if the usual category perks are still included. They can include complimentary spa use, a special restaurant, preferred seating at shows, preferred boarding to tenders. Often the upgraded doesn’t include those perks and you need to consider if the change in stateroom location is worth a little extra room?

Additionally, often the cabin upgrade is in a less desirable location. Could it be noisy being near to a area that operates late into the night? Is it still on one of your preferred decks? Be sure and check a ship map to see if it is next to a void where there could be machinery or elevator noise?

There is also an upgrade offer called “run of the ship”. What that means is you will be guaranteed a specific stateroom upgrade but you’ll learn about the location when you board the ship. That means the stateroom could be on a lower deck, a high deck, all the way forward or include an obstructed view. While you can save money in booking by accepting “run of the ship” staterooms, that is a decision you consider in relationship to your budget and if the savings is worth the possible inconvience. In the case of the upgrade there usually isn’t a reduction in fare.

If you’re looking for an upgrade there is really no way to understand how to go about getting one. Your chances do improve as your cruising status improves with a favorite cruise line and that is a function of the number of cruises you’ve taken. Also remember the cruise ship knows a lot about the desirability of specific staterooms onboard and they always expect to get some advantage out of the offer. Sometimes it’s increasing your loyalty to the cruise line and that’s the real win-win!

If you’re picky about cabin location, understand you usually cannot choose the location of your upgrade stateroom or suite and if you’re excited about the upgrade for the increased perks, you need to know that most cruise lines don’t offer those perks with free or discounted upgrades from standard class cabins. Make sure what that offer includes.

Just like all transactions, in upgrading the caution “buyer be ware” is good advice.

A Cruise Through The Panama Canal

Above: A Holland America ship enters a lock on the left while a dry cargo ship gets ready to enter the lock on the right and a tanker exits the locks heading west.

Going up a lock to Gatún Lake

The best way to experience the canal is on a cruise ship. Generally these cruises start from major cruise ports of Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco. They usually include a number of itinerary stops that can include Grand Cayman, Cartagena, Columbia, Colon in Panama, ports in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras and Mexico but the star of the trip is the Canal.

In 1880 the French tackled what was to be one of the biggest engineering projects ever. The intent was to dig a canal from the Caribbean across Panama to the Pacific Ocean. They were defeated by some mountains but mostly by a mosquito and the single celled organism that causes malaria.

In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt of the United States took on the responsibility of getting done a long-term United States goal, completing the trans-isthmian canal. In order to get the U.S. authority a number of treaties were attempted and finally the U.S. backed a revolutionary movement that gained Panama independence from Columbia and granted the U.S. ownership of the property.

Gatún Lake

The new canal projects success was partly the result of healthcare advances made during the construction, led by William Gorgas, an expert in controlling tropical diseases including yellow fever and malaria. Gorgas was one of the first to recognize the role of mosquitoes in the spread of these diseases, and by focusing on controlling the mosquitoes greatly improved worker safety and health.

The American engineers abandoned the French plan of a sea level cut and went to a design using locks to lift ships up to the level of Gatún Lake and back down again. One of the biggest projects was the Culebra Cut through the roughest terrain on the route and remains one of the largest earth –moving projects ever tackled.

Transiting the locks

Later in the construction it was decided there would not be enough water reserves to operate the locks. Several dams were built with one being a dam at Pedro Miguel which encloses the south end of the Culebra Cut (actually an arm of Gatún Lake). The Gatun Dam is the main dam blocking the original course of the Chagres River, and resulted in creating Gatún Lake. Additionally two dams were built at Miraflores that enlarged Miraflores Lake.

Mules prepare to receive a tanker
A new electric Mule

We have taken a couple of cruises that transit the canal and are always enthralled by the trip thru the locks and lakes of this remarkable place. Ships are pushed and pulled by tugs and canal rail engines called “mules” into locks with only inches of clearance. Water roars out of exhaust ports and massive ships rise and drop effortlessly within the locks.

Cruising across Lake Gatún is like a journey thru a primitive and beautiful rain forest with numerous islets. Dozens of ships glide along near us as they line up to re-enter the locks. Transiting the Culebra Cut with its walls towering above leaves us overwhelmed by the shear tonnage of dirt that had to be excavated and hauled away.

Many cruises stop at Cristobal Pier near Colon where locals offer crafts and wares for sale with usually Kuna Indians from the San Blas Islands among the merchants. Many of the cruise ships require a quick paint touch-up at the exit dock to cover up numerous rubs and scrapes from the passage through the locks

Up until recently the canal could only accommodate ships designated Panamax. Those original locks are 1,050 ft (320.04 m) in length, 110 ft (33.53 m) in width, and 41.2 ft (12.56 m) in depth. These limits have influenced the ship building industry to build Panamax vessels for the past hundred plus years

On September 7, 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed the Panama Canal Treaty and Neutrality Treaty promising to give control of the canal to the Panamanians in the year 2000. After Panama took control the Panama Canal Company started an expansion project. The expansion project started construction in 2007 and opened for commercial operation on 26 June 2016. The new locks allow transit of larger Post-Panamax and New Panamax ships, which have a greater cargo capacity than the original locks could accommodate. New Panamax ships will have a dimension of  1,200 ft (366 m) in length, 160.7 ft (49 m) in width and 49.9 ft (15.2 m) in depth. Unfortunately many of the cruise industries new mega-ships still cannot cruise the canal mainly because they are too tall to cruise under the bridge at the Pacific end of the canal.

All-in-all this is a fascinating journey and one of the three or four  best itineraries we’ve taken. The ports-of-call are an opportunity to visit a number of Central American countries and see some of this interesting region.

This is a very popular cruise itinerary, transiting the Panama Canal. Canal cruises generally cover three options. First is west to east normally starting in a California port like San Diego or LA and ending in a Florida cruise port like Miami or Ft. Lauderdale. Next there is the reverse, east to west finally some Caribbean cruises that include a trip part way through the canal returning to the Caribbean.

Planning For Cruise Ports of Call

Part of making plans for a cruise is learning about the cruise’s destination ports. You can get a lot more from your cruise experience if you spend a little time exploring what to expect and things to see and do in each port of call.

Your cruise ship will provide you with a good amount of information about what to expect in each port of call that will usually be available the day before the port call. Providing lectures about the port is common and virtually all cruise ships have a “shopping advisor” that will give a lecture too. The “shopping advisor” also has an onboard desk ready to pass out shopping maps, discount coupons for specific stores or recommendations on the ports special opportunities. You can also expect your ship tp provide a map that points out attractions and sites in the port and as you disembark there are often local tourist information booths and representatives ready with maps and advice.

In addition the cruise will offer a number of shore excursions in each port. Often when cruising in the Caribbean these include beach trips, snorkeling tours as well as visiting local sights. In the Mediterranean and Northern Europe you can book tours that include historical sights, natural wonders and visits to nearby cities. These are opportunities to see and explore once in a lifetime experiences and are highly recommended.

Still, before you cruise a little research can go a long way toward getting the most out of that day in port and can also save you some significant money. A few examples can help make this point;

Cozumel In The Caribbean – If you’re looking for a day at the beach one of the most popular is Chankanaab. The cruise ships will offer tours that include Chankanaab Beach Park with snorkeling but if you are looking to save money just take a taxi (about US$10 each way) to Chankanaab Beach Park and pay the park admission (about US$15 each). You’ll save a lot of money and can come and go anytime.

Mendenhall Glacier

Mendenhall Glacier Alaska – A popular ship’s tour destination in Juneau but all you need is a bus ticket from Juneau with a stop near the cruise piers. The glacier is a National Park with a good visitor center and great hiking trails and it really is only a half hour public bus ride from town. A saving of as much as $50 per person over ship excursions.

Rome In A Day – If you are visiting Rome on a cruise you’ll be docked in Civitavecchia and almost all cruise tours use tour buses to get into the city with St. Peters being the primary Rome drop-off point. An average excursion into Rome for sightseeing on your own cost above $75 per person. That’s a minimum ride of an hour and a quarter. Our recommendation is to take a taxi or the shuttle bus from the port to the Civitavecchia train station and catch a train. Trains run every 20 to 40 minutes, cost only 9€, and the express trains take just 50 mins.

The internet is full of sites providing information for tourists on almost every destination you can think. It isn’t difficult to plan on using public transportation in many ports and maps are easy to locate. We would also recommend visiting our index to Ports Of Call to find out about ports on your next cruise itinerary.

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