How do you decide on a major trip? Do you call a travel agent or go at it on your own?


As a supposed travel expert, I was stumped when it came to planning my most recent trip. Talk France and I’m fine. But this was something else.

Ms. Get Up & Go was embarking on a new adventure. Had it simply involved only hotels, I might have bitten the bullet and done it myself. But, we were taking to the seas and cruises aren’t my thing – or so I didn’t think. Perhaps I’d grown up watching too many episodes of the television series, “The Love Boat.”

This trip entailed traveling with a very dear older friend who has some mobility issues. There was no way we were going to be climbing aboard camels or surveying the countryside in hot air balloons. Since adventure travel was out so, we decided to take a cruise, but were overwhelmed by the choices. I’d read about  The Royal Caribbean’s biggest new ship, The Allure of the Seas, that accommodates 5,400 passengers, and immediately nixed it. No matter what it offered, I’d spend the entire trip trying to find the cabin.

I surfed the cruise sites and to be honest, I became increasingly confused. It’s hard to read between the lines, the print and the copywriters’ accolades.  What is included in the fare was the least of my concerns because I expected to be nickeled and dimed in today’s travel environment. To complicate matters, I kept reading about all of the deep-discounted cruises and started wondering. How could you live for less on a ship than if you never left home?

The idea of fighting over where and where to eat dinner plus deck chairs isn’t my cup of tea. Before we decided on the cruise line, I already had the feeling, “Stop this boat, I want to get off.”

Having come to the conclusion that people shouldn’t take out their own appendix, it was time to consult someone who knew the ins and outs of cruise vacations and could negotiate the best price — plus get us to our destination and back — which might have been a challenge during this past December’s weather nightmares. Not to mention, we were flying during the time when North Korea was flexing its military muscles.

“Hello Susan,” at Imperial American Express Travel Services. We were quickly labeled her “PITAs” (pain in the derrière clients) because of the number of emails generated. Rather — I. We had to give her some criteria. Toby (my friend) and I were pretty flexible. We could go anywhere as long as it would be an experience. Our dates weren’t set in stone. Nor were the number of days we wanted to be aboard.

Ultimately, we opted  for South-East Asia since we both love that part of the world and had traveled there twice together. We wanted to return there before it becomes the world of Buddhist and Hindu temples and casinos.

But which ship? It couldn’t be too big because we didn’t want to have to board tenders to get into ports. We didn’t want to be on a cruise with lots of children, or one that required dressing in our finest for dinner each night. Two single women can present a challenge. On the plus side, splitting the cost of a cabin helps when you’re signing up and on for an expensive cruise.

A main selling point of cruises is you don’t have to get up and go each and every second. Nor do you have to pack and unpack each day. If you’re tired and need to relax, it may be precisely what the doctor ordered.

I was in Washington, DC, and Toby was in NY. Since we wanted to fly half way around the world together, we met at Kennedy and flew to Seoul on Asiana Airlines before heading to Hong Kong, where we boarded The Seabourn Pride. If you’re a cruise aficionado, this is among the  “best” of the small cruise ships. Crew members know your name the minute you board (O.K., they have cheat sheets with your photos – but still) and immediately make you feel as if you’re part of the Seabourn family.

How they’re able to turn around a ship in a matter of hours and start the performance again, where they make the newly boarded guests feel as if they’re “old friends,” will remain a mystery to me. To be truthful, names are my downfall even though I remember faces.

The ship holds just over 200 passengers and is small enough to anchor places larger vessels can’t. Sound good? It was.

In addition, everything, with the exception of land excursions, the spa, beauty appointments and some especially expensive wines, (including tips) is included in the price. As a result, there aren’t any nasty surprises and major credit card bills when disembarking.

Are there negatives? Hate to sound like a complainer, but the answer is yes. One is when a ship isn’t able to dock near a destination, which might be on your “to see” list. This was the case when we made our first stop in Vietnam. There was a land excursion to Hanoi but there was no way it was worth the effort to get there and back and see anything, since we were in port for only one day. We opted out of spending eight hours in a van to be able to see the city for only a few hours. Off I went to a nearby beach area where I located a cyber-cafe and some sea pearls.

Not only do I love Hanoi’s architecture but its history is so rich that if I hadn’t spent five days there last year, I would have been one unhappy camper if I’d only been there for a fast and easy tour.

After doing some research, I realized it would have been substantially less expensive if we’d booked a local tour company, and specifically designed trips that pleased us and hadn’t been subjected to waiting for others or had to endure “shopping opportunities.”  I’ve taken enough tours in developing countries that I’ve learned that when you stop at a workshop where the guide steers you, more than the vendor has his or her hand out. If I go with a native, I have the driver/guide negotiate with the proviso we split the savings.

Cruising on a first rate ship offers so many advantages and I spent a lot of time polling the other passengers about their criteria when booking cruises. I was amazed by the answers that varied from soup to nuts. Some people are company-loyal while others go according to the destination. Other people choose a ship because of the food, wine and selection of liquor and are cruising to cruise and the hell with the destination.

By the end of the two-week cruise, I felt as if I could write an article about the different cruise lines, what they offer and not, why someone prefers one over another and more. And I discovered an amazing new fact — some people never leave the ship.

As one passenger said, “You must be a journalist or doing a market study for a competitive cruise company.” I’ll admit to the former. Since my return, I’ve been looking at cruise brochures and have come to the conclusion some trips are for me while others definitely aren’t.

The main thing is I learned was a lot about myself and that there are some topics that one should not to be discussed. In addition, by no means, does everyone like France. Let’s not go there. It’s not good for my blood pressure.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

  • Ssheldo

    Your comment “The Royal Caribbean’s biggest new ship, The Allure of the Seas, that accommodates 5,400 passengers, and immediately nixed it. No matter what it offered, I’d spend the entire trip trying to find the cabin.” might give some the wrong impression. We recently traveled on the Oasis of the Seas, and I. too, thought the same. Even though our cabin was ‘way mid ship we found the ship extremely easy to navigate, with touchscreen maps and other guides throughout the ship. We were told the ship was full, yet we hardly ever even had a wait for an elevator. As to the point of this article, we generally plan our own, although we do enjoy escorted tours and try to find them with a local when we can.

  • MeanMeosh

    How do I decide on a big trip? Depends on where I’m going, really. I NEVER tour in a foreign country, especially developing countries where English isn’t the first language, without the services of a good local travel agent and/or using a guided tour company like Brendan. I usually decide on the major cities/points of interest I want to see and the length of time/amount of money I want to spend first, then have a TA put an itinerary together for me and make all of the car hire/hotel arrangements. I lived in India for awhile and would go touring all over the country, and believe me, the no hassle factor of not having to worry about trying to communicate with a taxi driver or getting cheated by a tour guide was well worth the little bit extra you would pay. You also have the issue of reliable information not being readily available in some parts of the world, so it really helps knowing a local agency that can get you good information on where to stay, especially.

    If it’s a domestic trip, though, I handle all the planning myself. Reliable information is readily available, and as a travel junkie, I find figuring out where exactly to go and what to do when I get there to be half the fun.

  • Bill Hollingsworth

    I might have said, the ship is great but you do not really see Vietnam. It as if one travels Paris, has all of ones meals in the hotel, and takes a tour in bus…and thinks that this is Paris. We got some snow since we last spoke.

  • Karen Fawcett

    Bill – we did see other parts of Vietnam and it was great. However, I’ve done the research and concluded we could have hired a private driver and tour guide and covered more territory. Some people on the ship did when the stops were longer and were glad they did.

    Please remember this was my personal frustration. As for someone who goes to Paris, stays in the hotel and eat all meals there (well – there could be some exceptions such as the Meurice) he/she should be ashamed! ;-) Bus tours are great and I frequently take one to get my overall bearings. After that, I get up and go. Best, K

  • MeanMeosh

    Bill – I was going to say, as Karen did, that a bus tour of a new city actually isn’t a bad way to do a scouting mission first. I’ve done this on occasion, then I pick a couple of spots that I want to explore in-depth later. Especially in foreign cities, bus tours can be dirt cheap, and you often find stuff tucked away in between the big attractions that you wouldn’t otherwise know to look for.

  • DaveS

    When do you fix a plumbing problem yourself and when do you call a professional? It’s the same principle, really. It depends on how much you know about plumbing and the options for dealing with the problem; what kinds of problems you know how to recognize and fix; your confidence that you can trouble-shoot along the way; and, of course, the relative costs. I know very little about plumbing, so anything that goes beyond the most minor problem means getting help. On the other hand, I’ve arranged travel for myself and sometimes others in dozens of countries, and have a pretty good level of confidence that I know how to do it. I travel independently and will consider buying a one-day tour locally if it would be difficult otherwise to get around to things I want to see, but rarely use a travel agent anymore. Some people, on the other hand, should be using one like I do plumbers – for anything beyond the basics.

  • Donna Hull

    Karen, I’m glad that you gave cruising a chance. You were smart to use a knowledgeable travel agent to book your cruise. I would never spend that kind of money without consulting an expert. Furthermore, a travel agent who specializes in the cruise brand that you select will offer inside knowledge plus a perk or too.

    As for that 8-hour excursion from the port to Hanoi. I did that when I cruised from Hong Kong to Singapore with Regent Seven Seas. Although it wasn’t an in-depth visit, it did give me the opportunity to see a little of Hanoi, which was better than seeing none of Hanoi. My biggest complaint was not what we saw, but the complainers on our bus. I generally steer clear of these types of excursions, unless I’m visiting a place like Hanoi, where I might or might not have the chance to return.

    I cruised with Seabourn this fall for the first time. Excellent cruise line.

  • Graham

    At anyone time I have a few ideas for vacations. At the moment the more practical ones include Chile, Southern Spain, Northern Japan, the EAA annual fly in at Oshkosh WI and Southern India; others include the Silk Road and Karakoram Highway.

    How will I organise them? Well, Spain is in my European back yard and even though I don’t speak Spanish I’ve been there before and I feel confident I can put it together myself. The same applies to Oshkosh – I’ve been to the US enough that I don’t need help. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t consider help for the US. Last year (2010) we went to Alaska and that involved buying my own air tickets, buying a Gray Line ALaska tour direct with them and a RCCL cruise with an agency in the UK on the basis that I knew nothing about cruising. Various other hotels/motels/car hire and train tickets in Washington state, Vancouver Island, the Seward Peninsular I put together myself.

    Chile, I know a good agency and I’ll use them. Japan, I know a good agency but when I was there before I found it surprisingly easy to get around and I might do my own thing. India, not sure. Many years ago I just went and found my way as I went and my son has recently done the same thing but I’m older and want a few more luxuries and certainties (but this is India after all).

    So, like others it depends…..

  • Lakeland Hotels

    I love planning trips myself. The internet certainly makes it a lot easier. Sometimes I think planning the trip is as fun as the trip itself!!

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