21 February 2008

My surprise holiday cruise

This past long weekend my husband took me on a surprise holiday cruise to the Bahamas on Cunard's giant ocean liner "Queen Mary 2", sailing from New York. Although I only learned of the cruise a day before departure, the real surprise was still to come. We had one of the six Penthouse suites on the Queen's Grill deck, with a butler, and a lot of floor space, and a spa tub, and champagne and special treats.
Upon bording we were met by our butler Lily who escorted us to our cabin (9067), and settled us in for the four day voyage. Saturday was a sea-day with lots of relaxing and meeting people we knew from previous voyages. Sunday we spent on the beach and snorkeling the reef on Eluethera Island in the Bahamas. Hopefully the underwater camera worked and we have pictures of fish. The beach was part of the so-called private island set up by Princess cruises and infrequently used by Cunard. Sunday night we held a dinner party in our suite for the ship's doctor and his wife who we met on last year's world cruise.
Monday was another relaxing day at sea and superb dining in the Queen's Grill. They even made special scones for me at tea time. The show that night was the fantastic song and dance "Appassionata" which we had not seen for four year, and was very well received.
Tuesday morning we arrived, sadly, on time in New York. But as our flight was not until late in the afternoon, we went to Ellis Island to see the immigration centre and museum. Seeing the Statue of Liberty up close is far more impressive than expected. Of course the flight was delayed: New York is anything but user-friendly!
So I fully recommend getting your husband to buy you a surprise present holiday cruise in a penthouse on the QM2. Four days was not enough, but it will have to do.

11 February 2008

Tough days ahead as US tightens border against Europe

The Bush White House has told the European Union and its 27 member states each will have to agree to allowing armed paramilitary members on all trans-Atlantic US airline flights from Europe to the USA.
Each state will also have to provide Washington with a full range of personal information about air travelers, even if the aircraft is not actually landing in the USA, but only overflying any US territory. This new data will include facts about family member who are not traveling. EU states already provide Washington with 19 bits of personal data about each traveler under a previous agreement. This goes a lot further, and the Europeans are speaking out. The previous Passenger Name Record (pnr) deal allows all sorts of data to be transferred, and airlines were threatened with loss of landing rights if they did not comply.
By this upcoming summer the US Department of Homeland Security will set up an electronic E-visa system for all Europeans traveling to the USA. All EU citizens will have to apply for the electronic permit to enter prior to getting an air ticket. At the moment this process is expected to take severeal days, and the cost remains unknown. A roughly similar system in Australia takes a few minutes. Once this is implemented by Washington against Europeans, it is probably only a matter of time before it is applied to Canadians.
The price for European states to not agree: their citizens will lose their visa-free status and be forced to apply for US visas the long hard slow way. The carrot here is Washington offering a visa-free status to newer EU members whose citizens do not now enjoy visa-free treatment, such as Czech Republic and Greece. In the end it will slow air traffic and lessen the number of travelers from Europe to the USA. Any retaliation, such as requiring visas from US citizens, would cut off an important segment of tourist traffic. No one wins, and the added checks do nothing to protect legitimate travelers from any hypothetical terrorist threat.

05 February 2008

Cheap cruises across the Atlantic

Now is the time to book a cheap cruise away from the over-used Caribbean, and save a lot of money. This is the season when cruise lines prepare to move their ships back from the Caribbean to either the Mediterranean or through the Panama Canal to Vancouver. All winter tens of cruise ships ply the warm still Caribbean waters on dull and over-touristed itineraries. But come spring the ships must 'reposition' for their summer schedules. This is the best opportunity to get an interesting cruise, often to Europe, for as little as $65 per day in an inside cabin. There are repositionings in the sping and autumn, and they go all over the world, so ask you agent for repositionings: you can even get to Asia from Canada.
March and April are the busiest repositioning months, and a review of sale prices reveals two week cruises from the USA to Italy and the UK for as little as $65 per day. Even if you do not like Carnival Cruise Line, you can sail from Miami USA to Rome Italy for $50 per day on a fourteen day repositioning cruise on 26 April. Costa does it for even less per day for the same repsoitioning taking 16 days, and stopping at some interesting ports along the way. You can take the Celebrity Century from the USA to London and Amsterdam in fourteen days for $79 per day.
You cannot buy a fancy dinner for these prices. You can hardly get a hotel room for this money, and not at all in London or New York!
The only problem people encounter with repositioning cruises is the ship does not return to the port of departure. But it allows you to try unconventional itineraries with the same great service and entertainment as on common scheduled services. It also allows you to try more expensive cruise lines which usually deeply discount their repositionings. Oceania Cruise Line regularly repositions their ships to and from Miami, and twelve days on the Regatta costs a mere $88 per day. The beds are perfect and the cuisine far above mass-market cruises.
You could even sail from Florida to Vancouver through the Panama Canal for 19 days on the HAL Volendam for $100 per day. Sail right back to Canada! Can you beat that, or the price?

04 February 2008

Getting a Passport

Get a passport! Get it now! Get it well before you travel. Even if you are not planning a trip now, get a passport so you will be prepared to travel at a moment's notice.
Applying for a passport is easier than ever, and the wait time is tolerable. Use the internet to visit the passport office at http://www.passport.gc.ca where you can fill in on-line forms and locate the nearest office. This is a great time-saver no matter how you end up applying.
Right now the processing time is six weeks for applications sent by mail or courier or dropped at service centres; but only two weeks if you hand in the application at one of the 32 passport offices across Canada. Ontario has 13 such offices, and BC four.
The cost of a passport is $86 for basic service in person or by courier. If you want to speed the processing, you can pay an extra $30 for 2-9 day services. If you are desperate, and can prove an imminent flight out of Canada, you can get a passport in 24 hours by paying an extra $70.
If you have lots of time, but do not want to stand in line in a passport office, you can always visit one of the many federal government 'Service Canada Centres' or to a Canada Post office authorized to accept passports. There are many more of these offices in Canada, and the wait is usually shorter. Just look under Services Locations on the passport website.
To make it all work to your advantage, remember to have all of your forms and ID cards and birth certificate with you when you apply. These will all be reviewed at the counter. Failure to have even one required document will end the application right there.
In short, a Canadian passport is a valuable and useful document, and it costs only $86. You can get it in two weeks if you visit a passport office, or six weeks through a service centre. So act now, and avoid the rush coming in the summer.