Sunday, July 30, 2017

Escaping Insanity: A Cruising Trip Report. Arrival Day!

Catching up?  The Pre-trip starts HERE.

This is one of my first attempts at editing a video EVER, so please remember that when watching this.  Hopefully they'll improve as the report goes on.  Enjoy the pre-trip and arrival video!

Our first flight wasn’t until 2:00 out of Champaign.  I’ve always been more of the antsy “LET’S GET THERE NOW!!!!” type of person; however, I couldn’t beat the ticket prices of the itinerary, even if it did mean a three-hour layover at O’Hare.  We worked on cleaning up the house a bit so that the guy feeding the cat wouldn’t feel like taking the cat to his house for fear of her safety.  I mowed the front half of the yard and then got cleaned up.  I then OCD’ed for about an hour, quintuple-checking to make sure we had everything.  Finally, around 11:00, we told the cat goodbye; she could tell we were leaving for more than just work and promptly bit me.

I wish I were joking about that…the cat truly hates me.

Who is the one that bottle-fed her at 2 weeks?  Who came home at lunch between classes to make sure she was okay?  Who takes care of her litter box?  Gets her food?  Plays “fetch” with her at 11 pm?  Yeah…and I’m the one she attacks.

Anyway, the rest of the Mushfam hugged the cat, while I mentally flipped her off as I walk out the door.

52 miles later (41 of which was one-lane road construction), and we pulled into Willard Airport just south of Champaign.  We parked the van, took a picture of the sign telling us the section, and figured out the logistics on how four people were going to carry five pieces of checked luggage and five carry-ons.  We made it to the entrance fairly well (it’s the economist in me…we were efficient!) and checked the bags at the counter.  My car keys went into a carry-on, not to be seen for 8 days; this is a huge mental thing for me, as it symbolizes that I’m FINALLY ON VACATION!!!!!  Next up was securit…….hmmm….security was closed as there were no flights departing for a little while.  Ooooookkkaaaayyyy…we sat down and watched a bit of television until the gates were opened.  Aaron somehow got TSA pre-check assigned to him a couple of years ago, so he got the special treatment – he laughed at us as he flew through while we disrobed.

After security, we grabbed a snack at the bagel place.  I grabbed a fruit/yogurt thing and promptly spilled around 25% of my yogurt getting the granola cup out.

We didn’t want to say too much on Facebook that we were going to be gone for over a week, but I was able to convince wifey that a few Instagram posts were okay (@MushrushTravel…shameless plug).  We got the requisite selfie:

Having worked ground operations at the regional airport in Bloomington, I always like to take the time to watch how different crews work arrivals and departures.  I saw our equipment arrive and taxi to the ramp area…..and then I watched it hold to wait for the ground crew to make its way to the gate to bring it in.  United had only been flying into CMI for a week or so, so I’m willing to bet the cockpit didn’t know which line to follow to come in.  After about three minutes, I was about to head up to the counter to let them know that the plane was waiting for them; as I was starting to walk around to get a better view, the plane started moving and finally was “in”.  15 minutes later, we were lining up to get onboard.  I was finally going to get to test out my GoPro that the Mushfam got me for Christmas, so I pulled rank (yeah, right...they just didn't want to hear me whine) and chose one of the window seats to test it out.

It was an uneventful flight to Chicago, as we did the standard 28C approach.  We arrived at Gate B1, and the screens showed B4 as our departure gate in around 3 hours.  We walked around for a while and grabbed a bite to eat at Chili’s.  After that, my brain decided to shut down, because I looked for the gate for Miami and noticed that it had changed to B14.  The rest of the Mushfam seemed confused, and they eventually got me to realize that we were arriving into FLL.

Getting old sucks!

We headed back towards that gate, stopping for a quick pic by the dinosaur in the terminal:

FYI - the dinosaur is behind me...not next to me.  Have I mentioned how much I love my wife?

We chilled at B4 for a while, until we heard that there was a gate change to B2.  There were multiple aircraft in pre-board near that gate, so we waited for a bit before moving to B2.  As soon as we sat down, we had another gate change back to B4.  Then we heard B5 on the P.A. system.  I asked the gate agent, who was trying to close out the departing flight from B5, which gate FLL was leaving, and he said B5.  We grabbed a seat…just as the gate agent from B4 grabbed the gate B5 microphone and announced that they think FLL will be departing out of B4.

I think she saw me laughing.

Again, having worked operations at a small airport and seeing some behind-the-scenes operations at an airline hub for a large international airport, I understand how the logistics can go out the window at times.  No harm was done, and we made our way BACK to B4.  At least it wasn’t B2-B24-B6-B18-B4!  I considered it nothing more than assistance in getting my steps in for the day, and my Garmin VivoActive HR chirped happily as I blew past my goal number of steps.

Having flown into and out of O'Hare so many times, I knew that, with the wind and runway configuration being used, we’d be departing on runway 22L.  This meant that the best view out the window would be the port side…wait…not on the ship yet…the left side.  I let Aaron have the window seat, with the condition that he man the GoPro on departure.  I handed it to him, and he threatened to break it; apparently, he thought filming stuff was dumb.


I drew the short straw and had the screaming kid behind me who was kicking the seat in front of him for the entire flight.  I also drew the seat that had the malfunctioning channel/volume console for the video screen; however, this ended up being a non-issue, because they lost their feed about 15 minutes into the flight.  Actually, it wasn’t that bad at all.  The flight was fairly uneventful: very little turbulence, other than a bit of moderate chop during our decent.  Sheri had her Sea Bands on and was engrossed in Downton Abbey.  The boys alternated between watching out the window, playing on their phones, playing on their older Nintendo DS consoles, and napping.  I kept myself entertained with the current edition of United’s Hemispheres in-flight magazine as well as tracking the flight on the United phone app.

As I mentioned in the last paragraph, the descent was just a bit bumpy as the arrival route (JINGL4, for you aviation freaks) had us going through a line of cells as we turned over Ft. Myers.  We walked away from the landing, which, when I was in flight training, meant it was a good one!  A nice, short taxi later, and we were in the terminal.  Having flown into FLL just a few months prior, I guided us to baggage claim, where I planned on filming the rest of the Mushfam getting the crap scared out of them when the baggage belt started moving; for those who haven’t flown into Ft. Lauderdale, they use cruise ship horns to announce a belt starting up.  Of course, they all went to the bathroom and missed the horn.


Saturday, July 29, 2017

Escaping Insanity: A Cruising Trip Report. Pre-Trip and Introduction, Part II

Part I can be viewed HERE.

In March, we decided to finally tell the boys.  We have surprised them in the past with trips, but the logistics for doing such a surprise have gotten harder as they have gotten older.  Besides, any time we sound like we’re not telling them the whole story, they think we’re heading on a plane for a trip.  We came down from our room on a Sunday evening, dressed in beach attire, wearing brand-new Crocs, wearing sunglasses and carrying towels over our arms.  We thought they would first think we had finally lost it before getting extremely excited and running around the neighborhood and screaming about how much they loved their parents.

They took a moment away from their phones, looked at us coming down the stairs, and nonchalantly asked, “When and where?”


We watched some videos on YouTube about the ship, and I started pointing out some of the features of the ship and the cruise, from the ropes course to the water slides; from the restaurants to the itineraries; and from the excursions to the restaurants.

No, that wasn’t a mistake – they’re boys that attempt to clean the fridge out every day, so I emphasized the dining!

Next up was getting down to Miami.  Being a good travel agent, I recommended to my clients/family that we head down the day before.  We had vouchers from United when we helped them with an equipment change (we accepted a different itinerary the day before our flight), so I started pricing out the options.

Have I mentioned that I’m a researcher?

I checked all airlines from Chicago, Bloomington, Champaign, Peoria, Indianapolis, and St. Louis arriving to Miami or Fort Lauderdale.  We settled on Champaign to Ft. Lauderdale and then grabbing an Uber to Miami.

Lodging was the next item on the checklist.  Initially, I had booked the Holiday Inn on Biscayne Bay; however, I had clients that stayed there and gave me some feedback on that location, so I looked for another one.  It only took a few minutes to find what I was looking for:

The Intercontinental Miami.

We had points to use, so I got a City View room booked and canceled the Holiday Inn.  I found out about a lot of what the Intercontinental was like, and I kept pretty much all of it to myself without telling the rest of the Mushfam anything about it.  I wanted them to be a little surprised.

About 2 weeks before final payment, I printed off the menus for all the dining on-board, and I FINALLY got three excited family members working together.  Based on our tastes, I knew that Moderno and Teppanyaki were going to be definite specialty dining reservations.  For our anniversary night, we were flipping between le Bistro, La Cucina, and Cagney’s.  We made the mistake of relying solely on reviews, which skewed our views of the options, though.  We opted for La Cucina for our anniversary dinner.

Final payment day arrived, though we had paid a few days before.  Still, it was time for the reservations.  Though we didn’t really need them (Freestyle…remember?), having them meant that we likely would not have to endure much of a wait at all.  At the same time, we applied for passports for the boys, and we were surprised to get them just over two weeks later.  Sheri was in full-on planning mode, from the packing perspective.  One of her conditions was that we do “The Baths” on our Tortola day.  This lead to the age-old dilemma of choosing whether to book it through the cruise line or to do it on our own.  I was definitely concerned about the choppiness of the water for the ferry ride from Roadtown over to Spanish Town at Virgin Gorda.  I started researching and pricing out charters to get us over to the Baths quicker and, hopefully, earlier than the cruise line, and I found that the prices were very competitive.  The only issue was that, based on the companies I looked at, we likely wouldn’t arrive to the Baths until 9:30-9:45, which would kind of defeat the purpose.  Bummer…I was hoping to snorkel around Norman Island after the Baths, too #firstworldproblems.  We ultimately decided to go though NCL for the Baths excursion, mainly for the guaranteed return.

For our St. Thomas day, we initially planned on hitting Magens Bay and doing the standard tour of the island.  Karen Guglielmo, who is one of my best friends from elementary school, knew the area very well as her mother was raised in Frenchtown, so I hit her with a ton of questions.  She asked about the possibility of St. John and Trunk Bay.  I had researched that idea but nixed it because it would involve another ferry ride on the cruise.  She also talked about shopping in St. Thomas and included some information on the famous Crucian Hook bracelets that the U.S. Virgin Islands are known for.  That sent me down a path in scheming up a plan for our anniversary.  She also gave me some ideas on drinks…in her words: “Drinks to sip: Bahama Mamas….Hurricanes…Rum…Rum…Rum…”.  Of course, she went maternal on me, too: “Don’t get sunburned…drink bottled water…use only taxis with medallions…two pairs of sunglasses…”.  I’ve always loved that girl!

Over dinner, I talked to Sheri a bit about the amazing info that Karen passed onto me and quickly read what Karen sent to me regarding St. John (“If you want to throw all your eggs in a great basket, I would recommend taking the red hook ferry to St. John for the day.  If shopping doesn’t interest you but history hiking snorkeling beautiful scenery and less crowds does, St. John is the way to go.”).  I did it quickly before moving on to Magens Bay, Paradise Point, Mountaintop, and more.

Of course, she stopped me and sent me back to talking about St. John.  I told her about how it would be a LOT quieter than Magens Bay and that it was consistently ranked as one of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean.  I then mentioned that it would involve a taxi ride to Red Hook, a ferry ride to Cruz Bay, and another taxi ride to Trunk Bay.

Her response: “Karen’s the expert…let’s go with her idea!”


Sooooooooo…..hat in hand, I went back to Karen for her take on St. John.

For Nassau, Sheri and I both agreed that we would likely stay on the ship, as there were three other ships in port that day.

When we got to about three weeks out, our house seemed to become delivery central as Sheri, quickly becoming an expert on packing, had ordered a number of items, ranging from packing cubes to rash guards to towel clips to water shoes to lanyards…she was on a mission, and I’m thinking of asking her to post an entry on the trip report on packing tips for a cruise.

About 400 videos on YouTube and a nearly infinite number of visits to the Norwegian Cruise Line page on CruiseCritic later, I felt like I was ready to be, as my family was now calling me, “Tour Guide Barbie.”  I sat the boys down with deck plans and showed them the general idea of where things were.  I immediately knew that they would be okay walking around the ship on their own without getting (too) lost.

With about one week left, I was going through the final checklist of things:

  • Cruise Tags – printed out and in their plastic holders (I purchased these to give to my clients and had to make sure they worked…they did!)
  • Cash to bring…around $400, for gratuities, taxis/ferries/etc.
  • Cat – arranged to be fed so she wouldn’t gnaw my arm off as soon as we got home
  • Documentation (in order of when they'll be used…yes, I’m THAT anal retentive):
    • Flight information
    • Hotel information
    • Cruise documentation
    • Cruise amenities/dining/entertainment reservations
    • Travel Insurance documentation/information
    • Old Freestyle Dailies
    • Lyrics to “Washy Washy” (just seeing if you're paying attention)
    • List of drinks to try while onboard AND
    • Shuttle service reservations from Port Miami to Fort Lauderdale (QLS Transportation)
  • Mail – post office informed
  • Credit Card companies – let them know we’d be on the cruise
  • Mobile Phone service – set up to use may plan/data while in the British Virgin Islands and Nassau
  • Downloads of several episodes from Season 1 of Downton Abbey for Sheri on my iPad to help her endure the flight to Miami (she’s going to be hurting when I get her to Europe or Hawaii)
  • Weighed all the luggage

I think we were ready!  Sheri had the luggage squared away perfectly, and we were ready to go!!

Please Click HERE for our arrival day!

Friday, July 28, 2017

Escaping Insanity: A Cruising Trip Report. Pre-Trip and Introduction

This trip was most definitely an odd one in the making.  Before I get too far ahead of myself, though, allow me to introduce you to the cast of this journey.

First off, there’s me.  I’m Chris…known to many as “Mush”, thanks to my last name (“Mushrush”).  It has been my nickname since grade school.  It was my father’s nickname, as it was for his father and most likely his father’s father.  I’m 44, and, thanks to being A.D.D. and cursed with one of those “you can sleep when you’re dead” mentalities, I wear a number of hats.  I’m a full-time non-tenure-track Instructional Assistant Professor of Economics; at the same time, I’m also a full-time Travel Planner (for full disclosure) that specializes in family travel – Disney and Universal vacations, primarily; however, I’m expanding out into the Cruise Industry and am gaining experience so I can provide the best service I can for cruise customers.

Then there is SWMBO…”She Who Must Be Obeyed”…she responds to “Sheri” or “wifey” every so often.  She’s younger than me…I’ll just leave it at that, since I value the air that I breathe.  She’s an accounting supervisor at a major insurance company, an awesome wife, and a terrific Mother to the next two entries.

Did I say that correctly, Sheri?

Next up is Son #1: Aaron.  He’s 14, though he looks more like he’s 17-18.  6’0” and 215 lbs.  Yeah, he likes football and can’t wait to start high school this fall.  He’s in the typical teenager phase, which makes for some “interesting” discussions.

Finally, we have Son #2: Eric.  12 years old, but already 5’6”.  He’s the comic relief in the family – to a fault, at times.  This tends to bring out the monster in Son #1, as you see in most families with siblings.

With the introductions out of the way, let’s get to how we decided on a cruise.  Sheri and I did our first cruise a couple of years ago on the Disney Dream (post link), and we found out quickly that, though I joke about her getting motion sickness on it’s a small world, she definitely gets green on the high seas.  Couple that with an accidental removal of a Scopolamine patch two days early (advice: keep the patch ON for 3 days…even if you are back on land!), and she vowed never to go on another cruise.  The boys, however, were reminding us every time I got a new cruise booking that they have been on one fewer cruise than we have and wanted to take one.

After December, the stress levels were nearing an all-time high for both Sheri and me, thanks to work.  I actually had a minor scare where my blood pressure went haywire just before the holiday season.  Luckily, most everything seemed to point to a couple of issues that are both treatable – completely depleted ferritin levels (most likely from donating nearly 10 gallons of blood over the past 20 years), and the dreaded sleep apnea (which I have probably been dealing with since I was a teen…even when I was in excellent shape and not the donut shape that I am currently in).  Ending the blood donations, eating a half-side of beef every week, and downing iron supplements with an orange tree’s worth of juice has my ferritin levels on the rise.  Two dreadful sleep studies and a CPAP machine later, and the apnea issue is being taken care of.  Couple that with (what I hope to be temporary) high blood pressure medicine, and I’m happy to say that everything is going well, though I still know I look like an idiot with the CPAP mask on.

Regardless, I realized that, for all of us, we needed to do a family vacation that got us completely away from work.  Sheri and I also were to be celebrating our 20th anniversary in mid-June.  Being complete Disney freaks, we automatically considered a trip to Disney World, but it would be in the middle of the summer when the central Florida temperatures rivaled the surface of the sun.  I then brought up a cruise, and Sheri quickly vetoed it (she was green just thinking about riding Pirates of the Caribbean).  We then considered a trip to Napa Valley, which is where Sheri and I have done the past couple of adults-only trips.  I again made a subtle nudge at a cruise, when her defenses were down a little (that, or I liquored her up and then brought up the topic).

Initially, we were planning on waiting until July, because I have been a coach for our boys’ baseball teams for 8 years.  This became a non-issue when Eric and all of his friends, at the recommendation of the middle school baseball coaches, decided to skip playing on the same team and opt instead for playing in a league on separate teams in Bloomington (a larger city about 10 miles away).  This actually released me from the coaching duties for the first time in a long while (right…you know I still helped out by keeping the books for the team!).  It also opened up more of the summer for a trip, including our anniversary week.

You know exactly what I did then.  I started pushing the cruise idea a little more and focusing on early- to mid-June as the time frame.  I’ll readily admit that I was working Celebrity Cruise Line hard early on, since I was looking for just Sheri and me.  She (rightfully) nixed that one, claiming that the boys had to go on our next cruise.

Wait…she said “next cruise”, didn't she?

That meant that she was starting to waver a little bit on the “no more cruises” mandate.

Okay – I went into full-on travel planner mode (what better way to keep your skills honed than with your own family?!).  I started working on finding the best fit for Sheri and the boys, keeping my “wants” in the background a bit.  Family cruise – let’s check Disney/Royal Caribbean/Norwegian/Carnival.

Already been on Disney, and I wanted to gain experience on a different line.

Down to three…Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian.  I started looking at itinerary/ship combinations, and Carnival dropped out, leaving the remaining two cruise lines.  I wanted a lot of entertainment on the ship, so I had it narrowed down to a Freedom-, Oasis-, or Quantum-class ship for Royal Caribbean or a Breakaway-class ship for NCL.  Norwegian Getaway was going to be doing itineraries in the Baltic Sea during the time frame we were looking for, so I defaulted to the Royal Caribbean ships.  I just couldn’t find a price/ship/itinerary combination that worked well, so I decided to look at Norwegian Escape.

Hmmmmmmmmm………interesting…..eastern itinerary with St. Thomas and Tortola for the primary stops…THREE sea days (which could be a double-edged sword; since our last cruise didn’t have any sea days, we didn’t know if we would like them or not)…and…what’s this?...the “Free at Sea” promotion……………

I texted Sheri at work and threw the idea out there, making sure to highlight the beverage package along with the dining package.  She didn’t reject it, which was progress.  Now to set the hook.

I compared the cost of some of our past trips (both adult-only and family) to the cost of a 7-night cruise (which made her cringe).  Being an economist, I went to a “per-person per-night” comparison and showed her that the cruise had the lowest price per capita per night than anything we had done in the past.

The accountant (who hated economics in college) in her kicked in… “JUST GIVE ME THE PRICE!!!”  The economist in me returned the volley with marginal costs, opportunity costs, graphs, etc.

At that point, she nearly divorced me.

After talking her off the ledge and showing her how we could pay for the majority of it, she agreed to consider it.

Good thing, because I had already put a hold on the June 17th sailing the day before.

When I told her that, she started phoning her attorney, but she put the phone down when I told her the deposit was fully refundable for now, but we needed to get the deposit in.  I found an excellent stateroom – one of the rare angled balconies!  It was 12272 – located on the port side in the aft, near the stairwell.

The combination of having a Ph.D. and working at a University, coupled with my position as a travel planner, had me going into full-blown researcher mode as soon as the deposit was made.  I tried to explain to her the concept of “Freestyle” cruising, which Norwegian is known for.  I also explained to her that we’d want to make reservations for the specialty dining and perhaps some entertainment.  She looked at me as though I had a third eye forming in the middle of my forehead (“You want to make reservations on a ‘freestyle’ cruise???”), but, after my fifth “Just trust me on this one”, she decided to do just that.  As the travel agent on record, I also added the soda packages for the boys along with the 3-meal specialty dining package to match what we got.  I also snuck in an anniversary cake request at dinner on our anniversary, and I set up a request for distilled water for the CPAP machine I was bringing onboard.

It was around this time that I joined the Roll Call for this specific cruise, and, at that point, it was around 30-strong (13 families).  This was about the size of the Roll Call group for our last cruise on the Disney Dream.  It seemed to be a little quiet; however, being more of a lurker on the CruiseCritic boards, I still took the time to learn about the slot pull, the gift exchange, and, being a travel planner wanting to see as much as possible, the cabin crawl.  Since we had an angled balcony, I had a feeling that people would want to see our stateroom, so I immediately signed us up for that.