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man scratching headWe’ve all heard about the funny questions cruise passengers ask on big ships. “Do the crewmembers sleep onboard?” Or “What time’s the midnight buffet?” And so on. But what about the more rugged independent traveler types who favour small expedition ships? Let me tell you, the ask-before-you-think mentality is just the same. Here are some gems picked up on a recent expedition cruise.

6 Reasons You’ll Love an Expedition Cruise

12. Passenger to guide while embarking on hike from the beach: “Do I need to wear my life jacket for the walk?”

11. Passenger to naturalist guide on bird-watching hike: “I can’t believe you didn’t tell us to bring our binoculars.”

10. Passenger on crowded Zodiac on leaving the ship for a hike: “Should I extend my retractable walking poles now or shall I wait till we’re ashore?” Bear in mind that a) retractable walking poles have a spike on the end and b) Zodiacs are inflatable.

9. Man to officer as the small ship spins gently around its anchor chain in a secluded but windy bay: “Are you deliberately making it do this? Is it to make it shake off the barnacles or something?”

8. Man to marine biologist on snorkel expedition, having surfaced and waved his arm: “Hey! What’s this fish down here?” (Marine biologist, quietly, through gritted teeth, from some distance away: “There are hundreds of fish ‘down there.'”)

7. Passenger to crewmember as we head for an uninhabited island with a broad sweep of empty beach: “Will there be bathrooms when we get ashore?”

6. Passenger to crewmember on viewing a pod of hundreds of dolphins surrounding the ship: “Exactly how many are there?”

“You Want What?” Bizarre Hotel Requests from Guests

5. On leaving the ship for a donkey trek across a remote and uninhabited area: “Will I need ID for the donkey ride?”

4. Passenger to naturalist: “If we drive the ship (all 1,200 tons of it) at those three dozing sea lions floating in the water over there, will they wake up?”

3. On boarding a fishing boat to go whale watching: “How wet am I going to get?”

2. A puzzling one while on the whale watching boat: “Is the whale under the water?”

1. And perhaps my favourite, again, from passenger to hapless naturalist: “Is that the same whale we saw earlier?”

We all ask foolish questions from time to time — what are your funniest stories about silly travel questions? Submit them in the comments below.

— written by Sue Bryant

hurricaneSummer travelers set to visit the Bahamas or just about anywhere on the Eastern Seaboard from North Carolina to New England have been glued to the Weather Channel. Thank Hurricane Irene for that. The major storm has been pummeling the Caribbean with 120-mile-per-hour winds, upending travel plans for those heading to the Bahamas by ship or plane. If the forecast from the National Hurricane Center holds up, most of the 13 original colonies are in for some serious bluster.

When a storm blows in, especially a beast like Irene, what should a savvy traveler do? Keep your eye on airline change fees, cruise ship itinerary scrambling and, if you have one, your travel insurance policy.

Travel Insurance and Storms
If you don’t have a travel insurance policy by now, nothing you purchase at this point will save your trip from Irene. For the next time around, know this: Not all travel insurance policies are created equal, but a good one will cover travelers for trip delay, interruption and cancellation in the event of a major storm — minus any compensation you get from a cruise line or airline.

For a general insurance overview, check out our Guide to Travel Insurance.

Magnanimous Airlines?
Let’s not get carried away, but with Irene looming, a number of U.S. carriers have temporarily adjusted their flight change fee policies. “Typically, the airlines allow you to change your travel dates without the usual fees, with no change in fare, and usually without limitations on your original fare bucket [during a major hurricane],” says Ed Perkins, writer for our sister site Smarter Travel. For example, United passengers originally booked to fly to select destinations from August 21 – 26 must complete their revised travel within seven days, and may have to check on seat availability in their original fare bucket (economy, business, etc.). Continental is being a little more generous. Passengers scheduled to fly to certain destinations from August 21 – 26 must complete their revised travel by the end of ticket validity (up to one year). These temporary policies do vary somewhat significantly, so check your carrier’s Web site for more information.

Many East Coast airports will close this weekend in preparation for the storm, and more than 1,000 flights have been canceled; check with your airline.

Cruises: Diverted but Never Canceled
Mobility is the cruise lines’ secret weapon against hurricanes. Nassau, to which Irene seems drawn, cannot relocate. Cruise ships can, even if it means a Bermuda sailing becomes a voyage to New England, which happened in 2005. More than a dozen Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean ships have scrambled their originally scheduled itineraries. Bahamas-bound ships have temporarily redeployed to the Western Caribbean, trading Nassau for Cozumel and the like. Worst case scenario: If a punishing hurricane makes a debarkation port inaccessible, the line may have to lengthen the cruise by a day, which of course impacts the 3,000 passengers waiting to board for the next sailing. This, however, is rare.

For regular updates on Irene’s impact on cruising, visit our sister site Cruise Critic’s Hurricane Zone, which is updated regularly.

— written by Dan Askin

st kitts Every Tuesday, we’ll feature the best travel bargain we’ve seen all week right here, on our blog. Be the first to find out which deals make the cut by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our weekly deals newsletter.

The Deal: Sail to the Southern Caribbean for just $389 per person, and spend seven nights trying your luck in the onboard casino or indulging in 24-hour pizza as you cruise to tropical ports on Carnival Victory. We crunched a few numbers on our fancy calculator and deduced that the going nightly rate for this cruise is about $56 — an affordable fare that will keep your budget in good health. Want to stare at the sea while you get dressed for your big karaoke debut? Oceanview cabins start at $479 per person, and balcony cabins are priced from $639.

This cruise offers a port-intensive itinerary, sailing roundtrip from Puerto Rico to St. Thomas, Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and St. Maarten. There’s just one day at sea, which means you’ll have plenty of chances to hone your sand castle-building skills at a variety of Caribbean beaches.

The Catch: This deal is for a sailing in October — which just so happens to be hurricane season. While it’s statistically unlikely that your particular sailing will be affected by a hurricane, we recommend purchasing travel insurance just in case. The truth is: Getting used to the idea of a hurricane-season sailing is one of the best ways to snag bargain-basement cruise deals.

The Competition: We’ve spotted several fall (hurricane season ahoy!) Caribbean cruise deals floating around, none of them quite as cheap as the Carnival Victory deal. But some of the offers are still noteworthy. We found a seven-night November sailing on MSC Poesia that starts at $549, and a four-night Royal Caribbean Bahamas cruise in September or October from just $229.

Find these bargains and more money-saving offers in our Cruise Deals.

— written by Caroline Costello

 Ketchikan, Alaska Every Tuesday, we’ll feature the best travel bargain we’ve seen all week right here, on our blog. Be the first to find out which deals make the cut by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our weekly deals newsletter.

The Deal: Many travelers would argue that cruising is the best way to explore Alaska. Cruisers can tour scenic straits by ship, sail past rugged forests and gaze at glaciers from the comfort of their own private balconies. But there’s little debate on how expensive Alaska cruises can be, especially during summer months, which is why we’re excited about Oceania’s just-announced 2011 Alaska sale.

Oceania’s Regatta will start sailing Alaskan waters this May. To celebrate its new itineraries, the luxury cruise line is offering two-for-one fares, free airfare from select cities, $1,000 bonus savings per stateroom and an onboard credit of $1,000 per stateroom on all Alaska sailings. In addition, third and fourth passengers cruise free, and solo cruisers can take advantage of reduced single supplements on select sailings.

The Catch: Thousand-dollar savings seem titanic, but keep in mind that Oceania’s base fares aren’t cheap — after all, it’s a luxury cruise line. Alaska cruises start $3,299 per person based on double occupancy before any discounts are added.

The Competition: Regent Seven Seas Cruises is also running a promotion that features two-for-one cruise fares and bonus savings. The sale includes several Alaska sailings in addition to various discounted Europe, Panama Canal, Australia and Caribbean cruises.

Find these bargains and more money-saving offers in our Cruise Deals. For more information on traveling to Alaska, read Planning a Trip to Alaska.

— written by Caroline Costello

Brilliance of the Seas In the early a.m. hours Sunday — Alexandria, Egypt time — 2,060 Royal Caribbean passengers awoke to the shatter of glasses falling off shelves and the sensation that their beds had turned into soapbox derby cars racing back and forth across the cabin. The spirits of ancient Egypt had summoned a Mediterranean squall producing 70-knot winds and 30-foot waves, and with Brilliance of the Seas’ stabilizers disengaged as it approached the port of Alexandria, the ship lost control and listed violently several times.

“The closet door in our balcony cabin ripped from its hinges and flew across the room,” posted Lifelong Cruiser on our sister site Cruise Critic. “My wife narrowly missed being hit by the airborne closet door, which weighs 50+ pounds.”

There were only 30 injuries, the most serious of which were two fractures, according to a statement from Royal Caribbean. Damage to the ship included broken furniture, a gym left in shambles (the “ellipticals looked like monkey bars,” said a Cruise Critic reader) and a smashed piano. The ship’s seaworthiness was unaffected, and the cruise surges on — albeit with a slightly shaken passenger base.

In exchange for experiencing what can only be described as a moment of existential terror, Royal Caribbean initially offered $200 in onboard credit to each passenger ($400 for those in suites). Some passengers argued that $200 wasn’t nearly enough, and a Cruise Critic reader reported seeing at least one complaint letter circulating on the ship. Then, just as the compensation debate was heating up, Royal Caribbean upped the ante from $200 to a full refund for the 12-night Eastern Mediterranean cruise. A similar cruise in late October 2011 costs more than $1,600 per person for the cheapest cabin.

Why the sudden sea change?

“Once the team was in the office, and able to assess the situation, we decided that a full refund was warranted,” said Royal Caribbean spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez.

Some onboard offered a slightly different perspective. “The captain admitted in his first address within 30 minutes of the incident that a ‘mistake’ had been made by slowing down in harbor traffic, causing the stabilizers to disengage,” posted Lifelong Cruiser on Cruise Critic. “[He] described the incident as a ‘mistake’ more than once.”

I put the question to Martinez: Did the line switch gears and offer the full refund because the captain admitted that a mistake had been made?

“Not at all!” she said.

A mistake indeed. But does a free cruise really make up for minutes of sheer terror at sea? Tell us what you think!

— written by Dan Askin

spa roomVisit Lake Atitlan in Guatemala (and you should, come to think of it), and you may find yourself in the tiny village of San Marcos. With only a few hundred residents, cheap food and labyrinthine pathways contoured by stone walls, fences and trees, it’s one of the more unexpected New Age communities you’re likely to encounter — and with an international population at that.

It’s here I realized a few years ago that one of the best ways to get the rub on a place is to, well, get a rubdown in the place. You can choose from any number of massage therapists, but I picked one on the outskirts, where the heavily traveled path wasn’t so well worn. I wrote my name next to a time on a piece of paper tacked to a post, then showed up at my self-determined appointment, wondering what I’d gotten myself into. Not to worry: With thunder rumbling in the distance, the masseuse showed up precisely on time at the front door, led me to a lovely little room overlooking a garden and chatted about life in Guatemala in broken English as she provided the best $20 massage money can buy.

I’d go back in a heartbeat, if I could find the place again.

Since then, I’ve eagerly jumped at any chance to spa out, though nothing has topped my Atitlan experience. There’ve been massages at Utah’s Sundance resort, as well as in Vegas, London and North Carolina’s Outer Banks. I had a claustrophobic aromatherapy session in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia (think fragrant steam pumped into a phonebooth). I took the waters on a soaking tour of Saratoga Springs’ mineral baths in Upstate New York.

And now, a pedicure — in the middle of the ocean. During a recent spin on Royal Caribbean’s new Allure of the Seas, a loquacious charmer named Kim gave my weary toes some much-needed attention while she shared stories about her family back in Jamaica and recounted tales of working on a cruise ship. Bottom line: She misses her homeland, loves her floating workplace. While my toenails are still shiny from Kim’s efforts, the effects of the hot-rock leg massage and the cooling gels that followed it have, sadly, long disappeared.

(In case you’re wondering — and you are — I am not the only man to ever receive a pedicure at sea. Kim told me that about 20 percent of her clients are men. And when I asked her what sorts of pedial horrors she sees on a typical day, she just sort of shuddered and said, “I don’t want to think about it.”)

What’s next on my spa bucket list? I don’t know. I do know that you live and learn when you sit and soak, so I’m up for anything. Well, except for this:

To be honest, I’d rather talk to a human and learn something than have doctor fish nibbling dead skin off my big toe. But if you want to know more about this treatment, check out Seven Extreme Spa Treatments from Around the World.

— written by John Deiner

mariner of the seas royal caribbean sports deck cruise shipOne North Carolina couple is going to impressive lengths to try and sell their home: they’re offering buyers a free Mediterranean cruise.

Maj. William and Mrs. Sabrina Marlowe’s four-bedroom house in Jacksonville, NC, has been on the market for four months, reports ENC Today, and it’s gotten no offers — yet. But these motivated sellers, who have to move quickly to accommodate a military transfer, hope a vacation will help sweeten the deal. In addition to contributing $2,000 toward closing costs, the Marlowes will treat buyers to a seven-night Mediterranean cruise, including airfare.

I contacted Amanda Parmer, the Marlowes’ real estate agent, to get the scoop on what exactly this cruise would entail. She told me that buyers can choose from three 2011 Western Mediterranean sailings aboard Royal Caribbean’s Mariner of the Seas, with port calls in Rome, Genoa, Monte Carlo, Corsica, Barcelona and Palma de Mallorca.

“We chose the cruise over other incentives as it seemed more attractive to buyers in the price range of our home,” the Marlowes told Jacksonville’s Daily News. “We thought we could get the most exciting vacation with a cruise, all inclusive, for our dollar. This is something most everyone would love to go on, but not pay for, especially after just purchasing a home.”

The Marlowes make a good point. I bought a home myself not too long ago, and after all the stress of house hunting, mortgage signing and writing out some very hefty checks, I certainly would have appreciated an all-expenses-paid trip!

You can check out the listing for the house here.

Not in the market for a new home? You can still treat yourself to a discounted trip with our cruise deals.

–written by Sarah Schlichter

carnival splendor An engine-room fire that broke out onboard Carnival Splendor yesterday left the ship — and more than 3,000 passengers — stranded in the ocean, reports our sister site CruiseCritic.com. No passengers or crew were injured, but the ship’s engine is out of commission.

Carnival Splendor is currently adrift off the coast of Baja California, waiting for commercial tug boats to guide it back to shore. For those onboard, who had initially signed up for a seven-day Mexican Riviera cruise, this has undoubtedly been the vacation from hell. The fire broke out on day one of the cruise, and it appears that passengers went without flushable toilets and running water for a period of time. To make matters worse, the ship’s air-conditioning is no longer working.

Carnival Splendor’s passengers, of course, are due some compensation. Carnival will be shelling out full refunds, reimbursement for transportation costs and an additional free future cruise. Still, something tells me Splendor’s passengers are not presently excited about going on another cruise as they drift in the Pacific Ocean on a ship without air conditioning.

For more information on this story, including timely updates, check out Carnival Splendor Q&A: What You Need to Know About the Cruise Ship Fire on CruiseCritic.com.

–written by Caroline Costello

sos sand beach helpEarlier this week, the world’s longest round-the-world cruise — a 335-night epic on Cruise West’s Spirit of Oceanus — was unceremoniously cut short in St. John’s, Newfoundland, about six months before its scheduled end in February 2011. Cruise Critic reports that Cruise West (best known for its small-ship Alaska voyages) has canceled the rest of the world cruise, will sell the ship and will “work towards a restructuring of the company and its operations” in response to recent financial woes.

World cruises are typically sold in segments, so it’s likely that many passengers were already planning to disembark in St. John’s. But any cruisers who were planning to stay aboard the ship for the next segment, as well as the hundreds of other passengers who were booked on future segments of the cruise, are now left scrambling for options (and refunds).

If the “stranded traveler” story sounds familiar, it should; just a few weeks ago, Mexicana Airlines suspended its operations, leaving passengers high and dry in Mexico and many destinations beyond. And Kiss Flights, a British airline, disrupted the plans of some 70,000 passengers when it folded last month.

Getting stranded far from home is a worst-case scenario for travelers. So how can you protect yourself against the bankruptcy of an airline, tour operator, hotel or cruise line? A few suggestions:

-Always pay for your travel purchases with a credit card so that it’s easier to dispute charges and get refunds if necessary.

-Buy travel insurance — and do so through an independent source, not through your travel provider. This way you’re protected if that provider goes belly up. Be sure your policy includes protection in the case of travel supplier default.

-If you reserve your trip through a travel agency or booking site, program its number into your cell phone so you can call for help at the first sign of trouble.

-Look for alternatives. Other travel suppliers often step into the void when a company ceases operations. For example, both AeroMexico and American Airlines added additional flights and offered personal assistance to aid accommodate passengers who’d been stranded by Mexicana.

What suggestions would you add? Have you ever been stranded by a travel company?

–written by Sarah Schlichter

hurricane caribbean Hurricane Earl is currently barreling toward the East Coast — just in time to derail the Labor Day weekend plans of travelers heading to the region. For those of you wondering whether the storm will affect your upcoming vacation, we’ve answered five key questions about Earl.

1. What is Hurricane Earl?
Hurricane Earl is a powerful storm that caused damage on several islands as it tore through the Eastern Caribbean earlier this week. It’s now moving toward the East Coast of the U.S. Evacuations have been ordered for North Carolina’s Ocracoke Island, and more evacuations along the East Coast could follow within the next few days. The coasts of North Carolina and Virginia are on high alert.

2. Will Hurricane Earl affect my Labor Day travel plans?
The National Hurricane Center reports that the outer bands of Earl could reach the North Carolina coast by Friday morning before the storm heads to the New England coast as early as Saturday morning. Although Earl is expected to stay offshore, it still might cause a ruckus for vacationers along the Atlantic. According to the New York Times, “Forecasters said that even if it fails to hit the Atlantic coast directly, the storm could still cause trouble up and down the Eastern Seaboard, generating large waves and hazardous riptides that prompt beach closures and force vacationers to stay away from the ocean during the final week of summer vacation.” Expect lots of rain, strong winds, rough waves and dangerous riptides on East Coast beaches this weekend.

3. Will Hurricane Earl affect my upcoming cruise?
Our sister site, Cruise Critic, has reported numerous cruise itinerary changes for ships sailing in the Caribbean and along the East Coast. Cruise lines that have announced altered itineraries include Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean and NCL. Get the full list of affected cruises in Cruise Critic’s Hurricane Zone.

4. Will Hurricane Earl cause flight delays?
Although it’s still too early to predict exactly how bad the weather will get on the Eastern Seaboard in the next few days, it is possible that Earl may cause some flight delays in the region, including at airports around New York City and in New England.

5. What should I do to prepare?
If you are traveling to coastal areas between North Carolina and Maine, it’s important to keep an eye on the weather. Many local tourism Web sites, like visitnc.com, post weather advisories for travelers coming to the area when there’s something significant like a hurricane happening — so you’ll want to periodically check the site for your destination to see if an advisory is posted. You can also monitor the progress of Earl and check storm warnings on the National Hurricane Center Web site.

Flying this weekend? Get tips for dealing with delayed flights in Airport Delays: Six Ways to Cope. Airline Web sites and call centers are not always the best sources of information for travelers looking to see if their flights are delayed (the airlines are slow to release this information). Instead, try FlightStats.com, which has an excellent Flight Tracker tool.

If you’ve already purchased travel insurance, read the fine print to see whether you will be covered if your flight is delayed or you have other issues getting to your destination. However, if you haven’t purchased travel insurance already, don’t bother doing so at the last minute. You won’t be covered now that the storm has formed. Read more about travel insurance here.

If you decide to change your plans to avoid traveling this weekend, check with your airline to see whether you may do so without penalty. For instance, both AirTran and Continental are currently waiving change fees for travelers flying to, from or through airports that may be affected by Earl.

Are you concerned that Earl will affect your Labor Day travel plans? Tell us about it!