Cruise Holidays - Attheta Travel

I am proud to be certified by CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association) as an Elite Cruise Counselor. The Cruise Counselor Certification Program is CLIA's most comprehensive training which requires agents to successfully complete a number of compulsory training courses and exams, attend cruise conferences, and conduct ship inspections. Anita Thompson, Attheta Travel, dba Cruise Holidays.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Currency Conversion

What is the best way to convert cash when you travel?  Ask a dozen people that question and you can expect almost as many answers.  Since we were recently asked this question, I thought it was time for us to offer our thoughts on the subject.  Caveat: currency conversion in Cuba is different – and it may be changing.  Get an update on Cuba before you go…

You need to answer one question before you make cash conversion plans. Do you want “easy” or do you want to lower your conversion cost?  If you live on the “easy” side of the question, then we have a quick answer: before you leave on your trip, call your bank.  Many banks will offer currency exchange, for a fee.  Reach out to your bank and ask if they can exchange dollars for whatever currency you need.  Once you have arrived at your destination, visit a local ATM if you need more cash.
Cash from an ATM in Budapest

Last year, we converted $400 to Euro with Chase bank and the fee was reasonable – we wanted easy: we wanted convenience and most of the countries we visited accepted the Euro.  However, we still needed to have local currency in two countries on our trip.  We had Euros, but needed local currency in Croatia and Gibraltar.  In these countries, we withdrew cash from an ATM.  More about ATMs later in this article.

One exchange point we avoid: currency conversion booths at the airport. Doesn’t matter if it’s the last airport in the US or at your destination, avoid exchanging money at a booth.  The exchange rate is usually worse than from banks and ATMs; they charge a substantial fee -- cost more and you get less.  However, it’s always best to have some local money in your pocket when you arrive (catch 22). You may need to pay for a taxi or a snack before you get to your hotel.  Many hotels can exchange currency at the front desk. The exchange rate at a hotel can vary by hotel and country.  It works if you need to convert a few dollars, but not a place to make a major cash exchange.
We try to avoid changing dollars in a local bank.  Many local banks will need to verify your identity (request your passport) and require you to sign their exchange documents.  Same rule of thumb for money changers in a storefront in the city.  In some countries, there is an active black market for dollars, but this is illegal and carries one big risk, can you tell the difference between a counterfeit bill and a real one?
Cash from an ATM in Indonesia

If you travel with a Debit Card, you can get local currency from most ATMs. Here, you will get a good exchange rate, but may be charged fees by the ATM provider and/or your bank.  Before you travel, it’s a good idea to check if you bank has foreign partners on their network. If so, you can get cash from a “networked” ATM with no (or low) fees and get the bank’s exchange rate.  This is the best exchange rate you will find on your trip.  However, do you really want to be looking for an ATM at six in the morning after an international flight?

Credit cards?  The next article will be about using credit cards when you travel. 

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Thursday, March 16, 2017

Cruise Report February 2016: Azamara Quest in the Sea of Cortez - Conclusion

Part 2

If you missed part 1, go to this link for the first half of our report:

After two days at sea, we arrived at our first port, Mazatlán.  This was not a new port for us to explore: we have visited this city before.  A great place to spend spring break, but not a destination for older travelers.   We didn’t want to shop or see the folkloric shows so we went to the beach -- we booked a tour with Azamara.  The tour took us to a clean hotel on the beach that served a nice buffet.  We enjoyed our time sitting on the beach, in the shade, reading, and watching the world go by.  I walked out into the water, but it was too cool to swim.  After a few hours, we took an “open roof” taxi back to the ship.  It was a relaxing day and that’s what vacations are for.

Beach in Mazalan
Taxi back to the Celebrity Quest
The next day, our ship docked outside of La Paz.  We were too far from the city center to walk into town.  We took an Azamara tour to Todos Santos, the home of the Hotel California in the Eagles’ song.  When we drove thru Las Paz, I was impressed with the city and the beach.  Looks like a great place to spend the winter.  Next time in Baja California, I plan to explore La Paz. 

It was a ninety-minute drive to Todos Santos from La Paz thru a desert landscape – very much like southern Arizona.  Todos Santos is an artist colony on the Pacific side of Baja California.  We enjoyed our tour of the town, but the major point of interest was the Hotel California.  We had a pleasant lunch in the hotel restaurant and wandered thru the gift shop.  Of course, the women bought t-shirts. After looking at a map, I found that Todos Santos is halfway between La Paz and Cabo San Lucas.  Todos Santos is a difficult village to reach, I guess that is why there are lots of artists and expats living there.
Hotel California

Jeri & Anita in Hotel California

Our next port of call was Topolobampo, our gateway to the train to Copper Canyon.  Originally, we were going to take the long tour to Copper Canyon, but changed our minds.  About a month before our cruise, the US State Department issued a travel warning for the Copper Canyon area and that was a deal breaker.   We decided to take the Azamara shuttle into a nearby town, Los Mochis.  We walked around the area and thru a shopping mall – not much to see: not a tourist area. We went back to the ship and enjoyed a port day without any crowds.

The next day, we talked to several people who took the 14-hour tour to Copper Canyon and everyone seemed to enjoy the trip. The canyon is larger than the Grand Canyon.  I guess we missed out on a nice train ride and the view of Copper Canyon -- the site stays on our bucket list, but moved farther down the list. 

Our next stop was Guaymas in Sonora.  While living in New Mexico, I heard lots of comments about this Mexican fishing village – many friends came south of the border to fish in these waters.  We didn’t fish, but we went to a pearl farm, and I have the photos to prove it.  We managed to keep our wives out of the pearl farm gift shop and kept lots of money in our wallets.  We toured the city with a guide, but the guide was careful not to let us leave the group.  After seeing a few old buildings and plazas, we wanted to return to the ship, but the guide told us we couldn’t leave the group even when we could see the ship one mile away.  Safety concerns?

Pearl Farm Demonstration

Pearl Farm

Azamara Quest at Dock in Guymans
Next morning, we were docked at Loreto, back on the Baja California side of the sea, midway up the peninsula.  Loreto is a small seaside village that caters to many US and Canadian expats, or snowbirds.  We didn’t take a tour, just walked thru the town, had a beer, and shopped.  Yes, Anita found a magnet.  Loreto looks like a great place to spend the winter.  We enjoyed our time in Loreto.
We were scheduled to stay over-night in Loreto, but due to expected bad weather, the Captain changed our cruise schedule.  Our original plan was to leave the next day for Cabo and spend that evening in the bay at Cabo San Lucas.  On Friday, we were to go to an “Amazing Evening” event outside of town in the desert.  With the new schedule, the ship left Loreto in the evening (Wednesday) and we arrived in Cabo a day early (on Thursday) for the rescheduled evening event (a day earlier than originally planned).   We arrived in Cabo without any issues, but since we were tendered, we stayed on the ship until our Thursday evening event.

Tree Lined Shopping Street in Loreto

Anita, Jeri, & Geri

Sunset in the Sea of Cortez

Azamara took most of the passengers – all that wanted to go – to a celebration of the dead.  The evening show was held in a canyon, a thirty-minute bus ride from the harbor.  The show was very well done and we enjoyed the performance by local musicians and dancers.   We enjoyed good weather and returned to the ship about 10PM.

Celebration of the Dead 

The next morning, still in the harbor at Cabo, the rain came.  We had a tour planned, but decided to skip the tour – no fun in the rain.  However, we did take the tender into Cabo and have lunch at a small cantina near the harbor.  We didn’t stay in town very long, went back to the ship and waited for the ship to pull anchor and begin the two-day cruise back to San Diego.  We did see several whales and lots of dolphins during our time in the Sea of Cortez.  Most of our sightings were between Loreto and Cabo.
Last Tender out of Cabo

While returning to San Diego, the first day at sea was rough.  Many passengers suffered with sea-sickness.  I was wearing my prescription patch for nausea and wearing sea bands: I didn’t have any problems.   In addition, I continued to take Ginger tablets along with the other motion-sickness preventatives.  The second day at sea was not nearly as rough, but we still had high seas and a lot of motion.  Not the quiet days at sea that I had hoped for when we left San Diego.

We love the Azamara Quest.  Our favorite venue is the sunset bar at the rear of the ship.  Almost every night, we ate dinner at the outdoor lounge at the sunset bar. The buffet was just inside the door and we made friends with the bartender at the back of the ship.  We hope to see him on our next cruise on the Azamara Quest.  One complaint: the internet on the ship is not what I expected.  I was told Azamara had upgraded their internet service, but it’s still slow compared to Royal Caribbean or Celebrity ships.  Fortunately, we purchased an unlimited internet package and we could take the time to download/upload our email messages.  It was slow…  Good news: we were able to use WiFi calling with our mobile vendor while in port and at sea.  The WiFi calling allowed us to call, and receive calls, without any international roaming charges.  Still, the WiFi was slow… Enough said.

On the last day, we arrived in San Diego about 6AM. After thirteen nights aboard the ship, we were ready to go home.  After our boarding experience, I had some concerns with debarkation, but those concerns were unfounded.  We got off, cleared customs, and found a taxi to take us to the airport within thirty minutes.

My thoughts of this cruise itinerary?  I am glad we did the Sea of Cortez, but I will not recommend it for most of our clients -- it is not a traditional cruise.  However, we wanted the port experiences in the Sea of Cortez so we could advise our clients about the ports and the sea.  If you go to the Sea of Cortez, cruise on a small ship.  The ports and the towns along the Sea of Cortez can’t handle a large ship. 

Azamara is our favorite cruise line.  We have sailed on Azamara eight times and are scheduled to sail on Azamara twice before the end of the year.  We love Azamara!  Our next Azamara cruise is to Cuba.

If you have any questions about the Sea of Cortez or Azamara Club Cruises, contact Anita, your Cruise Holidays agent.

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Monday, March 6, 2017

Cruise Report February 2016: Azamara Quest in the Sea of Cortez

Part 1

The night before our cruise, we flew into San Diego. We found good weather, what a great way to begin our winter vacation, thirteen nights on the Azamara Quest, round-trip San Diego.  We picked this cruise for the remote ports of call: Guaymas, Loreto, and La Paz.

We hadn’t been to this airport (SAN) in a few years and were surprised by the recent airport improvements.  The airport offers a positive first impression of the city.  No issue with our arrival or picking up our luggage at baggage claim.  Since we were staying in a downtown hotel near the airport, we caught a taxi to the Hampton Inn on Pacific Hwy.  We were surprised by the amount of traffic between the airport and the hotel, but it was still an interesting ride near the waterfront: I suspect our taxi driver took us via the “tourist shortcut.” 

The hotel is a block off the waterfront. The Hampton Inn more than met our expectations for a cruise hotel.  The hotel offers free transfer service to/from the airport and free transfers to the cruise pier.  Our only issue with the hotel was the train noise from the tracks behind the hotel and the building construction next door.  Still, we continue to recommend this hotel for overnight stays prior to a cruise.  There is a more upscale hotel next to the cruise terminal, but the Hampton is affordable and has free internet and free breakfast.   

San Diego harbor from the deck of the Azamara Quest

The next morning, our ship was visible from the hotel lobby.  Close enough to walk, but not carry bags.  We took the hotel shuttle the short distance to the pier.

The Azamara check in process at the terminal left a lot to be desired.  One a scale on one to ten, I would give them a four – not a good experience.  San Diego is not a major embarkation point for cruises and they don’t have the experience of a busy cruise terminal.  Still, it was a disappointment.  
We stood in line with a disabled woman who needed a wheelchair and assistance to check in for the cruise.  Twice we asked the temporary employees to help this woman and twice we were told there was no wheelchair assistance available.  After Anita’s third request, the cruise terminal staff found a wheelchair for the woman and helped her with her check in for the cruise.

I would like to read her blog article and critique of the Azamara check in process.  We didn’t know the woman or her husband, all we wanted was for the agents at the pier to help this disabled passenger. 

Jeri & Anita, enjoying a sea day

We love the Azamara ships and the Azamara experience!  Only two ships in the fleet and they are starting to age, but both were reconditioned last year.  The Quest has great service and good food and interesting ambiance.  This was our eighth cruise on Azamara and we are looking forward to the next one. Azamara is amazing!

During the first two days of the cruise, we were sailing south along the coast of Baja California.  We didn’t see any whales or dolphins on this leg of our journey, just a few shore birds following the ship.  Two great days to rest, relax, enjoy our ship, and read…  On both days, you could find me in the Mosaic Café, enjoying a cappuccino. We didn’t see any children on the cruise: most of the 700 passengers were near, or past, retirement age. 

Sunset over the Pacific

Our first stop, Mazatlán!