Time to reset our vacation…

After an amazing time at the Kirkenes Snowhotel Saturday (which I’ll do a full write-up on later), we’ve come to what I was hoping would be the truly epic part of our journey, 6 days aboard Hurtigruten’s MS Nordnorge. Well, that hasn’t come to pass, and as a result of a few different things, we’re altering our schedule.

First, the issues: I mentioned in my first post that during our drive to the airport Thursday we got a call from a Hurtigruten agent telling us there had been a schedule change in the sailing due to a “mechanical” issue, and that we were losing a day off the journey, and all stops between Tromso and Bergen (which, incidentally, is most of the stops). They’d offered $100 OBC/pp and a hotel in Bergen for both nights we were there to try and make up for it, so we went in hoping for the best. My attitude was basically; things happen, mechanical issues arise, we’ll roll with it and have fun anyway. Unfortunately, that’s not how things have ended up, and we’re only 22 hours in.

After boarding yesterday, we were in our welcome briefing when we found out what the “mechanical” issue was. Turns out, the Norwegian Maritime Authority wasn’t completely happy with the refurbishment done back in November, and required an additional fire door installed on the car deck. Talking to someone else today, it sounds like Hurtigruten’s just been waiting on a shipyard slot to open up so they can get it done, and one suddenly opened up on the 30th, which is what prompted the last minute change in itinerary. Yea, that changes things. Nothing broke, nothing failed, the ship simply wasn’t up to code and Hurtigruten’s known that they’d have to make a change like this for some time, they just didn’t know when. Unfortunately, the people on board this week are the unlucky recipients of that. I’d say there was considerable anger in the briefing room yesterday when people learned the real reason, and rightfully so.

To make matters worse, it’s been incredibly windy since we left port, with gale force winds hitting last night. As a result, the ship has had to skip a couple of planned ports between Kirkenes and Tromso, including the one that would have allowed us to do the excursion we were really looking forward to, the midnight snowmobile trip in search of the northern lights. Now obviously the weather’s not anyone’s fault. That happens on cruises everywhere from time to time, but the rolling of this small ship is making it a pretty uncomfortable sailing, especially for Jen, so we’ve decided to move on and debark the ship tomorrow in Tromso so we can actually see some towns in coastal Norway. If we had to stay on the ship with zero stops to allow us to get on land for a bit to get away from the motion of the windy seas, it’d end up being a pretty miserable 5 days.

So what are the new plans?

  • Debark tonight in Tromso, and spend Tuesday and half of Wednesday sightseeing
  • Catch a plane to Trondheim Wednesday night, spend all day Thursday sightseeing
  • On Friday morning, catch a flight to Bergen to sightsee and get ready for our currently scheduled train back to Oslo

So there you have it, our Norwegian adventure takes a turn that will hopefully get us on the right track. Hurtigruten’s already offered everyone on board a refund of 4 days, but at this point we’re requesting the entire fare back. Losing most of what we flew all this way to see for a problem that shouldn’t have existed to begin with just doesn’t sit well with me.

From a travel agent point of view, we were both very much looking forward to not only using this trip as a vacation, but also as a way to learn firsthand about a new segment we were excited to sell. At this point, I’m not keen on the way this has been handled, including promises made about OBC that we have yet to see, and hotels we have no confirmation of. Talking to other passengers is yielding some similar stories, including no confirmation on promised flight changes as of yet. Not that it means much, but at this point the only thing left to salvage my opinion of the line is going to be how they end up handling this.

Bottom line: This is a mess of their own doing, and making it right goes a long way with your customers.

Sailing to Cuba – Q & A With Jen the Travel Agent!

With a number of cruise lines about to start Cuban sailings, I figured it’d be about time to do a little Q & A with my wife, Jen. Last June, she sailed the Fathom Adonia on a 7 day cruise that stopped in 3 Cuban ports, so I thought it’d be good to pry some of that knowledge and experience out of her before those other lines set sail!

I’ll also add a shameless plug here: If you’re interested in sailing to Cuba and are looking to work with a travel agent to do it right, contact us, we can help! Now, on to the Q & A!

Q: What were the people like, and were they welcoming of American visitors?

A: Most of the people we talked to were excited to see Americans and wanted to talk to us as much as we wanted to talk to them. 

Q: Which port in Cuba was your favorite, and why?

A: Havana.  The people were so nice, the architecture was beautiful and there was much to see and do.  Seeing the old cars driving around was so neat and everyone we encountered was happy to talk to us and answer questions. 

Q: How does Cuba compare to other Caribbean ports?

A: For Americans, there isn’t the opportunity for water sports or adventurous excursions like in other Caribbean ports.  All of the tours were focused around educating us about Cuban history, people, leadership, etc. 

Q: Any negative interactions with anyone while in port?

A: In Santiago de Cuba, there was a lot of aggressive panhandling that became a little overwhelming for some people.  That was the only port that we encountered that in though.

Q: Was any additional documentation required before sailing, things like a Cuban Visa?

A: Yes. Cuba does require a Visa for entry, and in my case Fathom took care of that, with the cost being covered in the cruise fare. Be sure you know how this works with your chosen cruise line, whether they obtain it for you, and if the $75 charge is built in to your fare, or if you have to pay extra. When you start considering a Cuban cruise, this should be on your list of things to ask the cruise line or your travel agent.

Q: In port, how (if at all) did debark and embark differ from other ports? Did they stamp your passport?

A: They only stamped our passports on the first day, but we had to show it and our Visa every time we got on or off the ship.  Each time we got off we had to go through security and have our bags x-rayed.

Q: Did you prepare for this trip by researching Cuba at all?

A: Definitely, if you don’t know what you are in for, you could end up being very disappointed.  Visiting Cuba is not like visiting anywhere else and while you are able to explore on your own now, there are regulations around this and you will want to be prepared for the record keeping you will need to do.  For Americans, it is not a place where you can go to just hang out on the beach and enjoy the sites. 

Q: What tips do you have for each port?

A: Havana is safe to walk around and explore on your own and I encourage you to talk to the locals, most will be thrilled to share.  Cienfuegos is a little more laid back while Santiago de Cuba is much busier and while I never felt unsafe, there was certainly much more panhandling than in either of the other ports.

Q: Did you have to exchange money prior to leaving, or did they take US dollars?

A: You cannot get Cuban currency in the US, so it must be converted when you get there.  There is a 10% fee to convert USD, so I actually got some Euros to exchange.  As it turns out, with the exchange rate, I ended up getting exactly what I would have if I had just exchanged USD.  There are 2 types of Cuban currency, the CUC and the CUP, which is the Cuban peso and only used by locals.  You want to make sure that you get all of your change in CUCs as CUPs are nearly worthless.  You can tip in USD, but the locals have to pay the penalty when converting as well, so better to just plan ahead and get plenty of CUCs.

Q: Any other general tips you’d like to share for those looking to sail to Cuba?

A: There are many more options for cruises going to Cuba now than when I went, so I would definitely do research to figure out which on fits best with what you are looking to accomplish.  And obviously, contact a Travel Advisor, there are still many nuances when traveling to Cuba that makes having a professional in your corner invaluable.

That’s all for now, enjoy a few shots from her trip!

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