Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Saving Money Ashore

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Saving Money Ashore: Last post, I discussed saving money on a cruise, and all the shiny objects on board to raise the cost of your vacation. Another big exp...

Saving Money Ashore

Last post, I discussed saving money on a cruise, and all the shiny objects on board to raise the cost of your vacation.

Another big expense is shore excursions. Some river cruises and smaller luxury ships include free destination tours, but on the majority of mainstream cruises, you'll have to spend money if you go ashore in port. Typically, the shore excursions available from the cruise lines are over-priced. The markup is another revenue stream for the company.

But the advantage is, you won't be left behind if the tour bus breaks down or gets stuck in traffic. We heard about a couple on the voyage before ours who missed the ship in Ushuaia, Argentina. They spent almost $1000 to get themselves to the next port, much more than the priciest shore excursion would have cost them.

A ship's tour can be the best option if your time in port is short and the site you want to visit is not easily accessible. For example, if multiple modes of transportation are required to reach it.

With a little research, you can find reputable tour companies that work with cruise passengers and perhaps join with others from your ship. Check out the message boards on Cruise Critic (https://boards.cruisecritic.com/) as someone might have already organized a tour that covers more attractions and charges less than a comparable ship's excursion. There is still some risk, but these companies stake their reputations on getting their cruise customers back to the ship on time.

It helps if your cruise line has an onboard port lecturer who gives you more information than what shore excursions are available for purchase and what shops are "recommended" in port. I also suggest talking to people who work on the ship, especially if the ship calls in that port regularly. (With a repositioning cruise, the destinations may be new to the crew as well.)

Wait staff and cabin stewards spend most of their contracts working, so they seldom have enough time to explore ashore, and when they do get off the ship, they head for free Wi-Fi and perhaps a nearby grocery store. But they talk to a lot of passengers on every voyage, so sometimes they can pass along tips they've heard from other customers. The entertainers are probably your best prospects, as their time ashore is mainly their own. Over the years, we've learned a lot of useful secrets from dance troupes. When we run into our ship's singers and dancers using the same local transportation options we've discovered, we know we've broken the code.

Even if you research the destination in advance, there are always variables such as, where will the ship be parked? Will the arrival be delayed—or perhaps even aborted due to unforeseen circumstances?

Sometimes the docking location is convenient—close to cheap, efficient local transportation or even better, within walking distance of major attractions, but sometimes you're out in the boondocks, miles from nowhere. Sometimes a free shuttle is provided by the port or the city. Maybe the cruise line will tell you about it in advance; maybe you'll find out about it by accident when you walk off the ship. Sometimes there's a fee for a shuttle ride to downtown or a shopping mall.

In many ports, taxis abound, ready to take cruise passengers to major attractions or on customized tours. Sometimes you'll find them right at the port gates, and sometimes you'll have to take a shuttle to a central location to hire a taxi. If you have several people in your party, you can cover the same stops as the ship's excursion, often for less money per person than the ship charges. (Entry fees to museums and parks would be additional.) Before you get in a cab, negotiate the price, and try not to have to pay until the end. Also, ensure the driver speaks your language and understands where you want to go, whether or not he is to wait if you're going to get out of the cab, and what time you need to be back to the ship.

On our last cruise, our first stop was Coquimbo, a port town in northern Chile. We were told there was absolutely nothing to see or do in Coquimbo; it was merely the gateway to La Serena, a resort town with an interesting historical section. All the shore excursions offered by the ship exceeded $100 per person, except for "La Serena On Your Own" costing around $70 per person, which was essentially a bus ride there and back. We opted not to purchase an excursion.

The evening we sailed away from Coquimbo, we talked to several passengers who had found a local bus that went from the Coquimbo cruise port to the historic center of La Serena for one dollar each way per person! While they were wandering around the town, they saw the ship's tour bus drop off passengers very near the stop for the local bus.

Although we suspected there might be a local bus connecting the two cities, we weren't able to find out this information beforehand from anyone we talked to. When our ship docked in Coquimbo, we spotted a huge cross atop a hill, reminiscent of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. My husband loves hiking—and dragging me along—to high viewpoints. He decided climbing to that cross was what we would do with our time in Coquimbo.

Our cabin steward had been to the cross before. He said visitors could go inside a church there, and that, while it's easier to take a taxi, it's also possible to walk. That was all my husband wanted to hear. The cabin steward suggested we walk several blocks down the wharf to the grocery store, then turn onto the main street that ascends the hill, approaching the monument from the back side—much less steep than climbing the steps up the hill facing the port.

I asked about buses going there, but everyone we talked to said, "No, you must take a taxi. It's too hard to walk, and there's no bus." However, as we trudged up the incline of the main street toward the monument, I saw several local buses pass us by and stop at various points ahead of us.

Troopers that we are, we finally made it to the top and were facing Cruz Del Tercer Milenio (Cross of the Third Millennium). It cost three dollars each to get inside the gates, but the price of admission was well worth it. Besides many detailed outdoor sculptures, there's a chapel and a museum with artifacts from various popes, particularly John Paul II, and the illustrated story of how the entire structure was built in less than a year to usher in the 21st century. Elevators took us to two different observation platforms, where we had magnificent views of the port city below, our ship, and the surrounding countryside.

The walk down the hill was easier and we took a slightly different route, meandering through neighborhoods, enjoying the beautiful day and local color, proud of ourselves for finding an inexpensive and satisfying way to spend our time ashore.

That night we dined with an Australian couple, older than we are, who had taken the one-dollar bus ride into La Serena that morning, had a look around, then came back to Coquimbo and hiked up to the Cross of the Third Millennium—the steep way.

What tips do you have for saving money ashore? I'd love to hear your comments.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Saving Money When Cruising

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Saving Money When Cruising: We just returned from a 16-day cruise, and I'm always amazed at how many fellow passengers face bills from their onboard accounts that ...

Saving Money When Cruising

We just returned from a 16-day cruise, and I'm always amazed at how many fellow passengers face bills from their onboard accounts that exceed the amount paid for their cruise fare. A cruise can be a bargain vacation, but beware, the low fare is a loss leader.

These days, unless you take a high-end cruise that includes the tips, you'll owe a big bill for the automatic gratuities. For example, the service charge on our last cruise was $13.50 per person a day. We used to present an envelope filled with cash to our cabin steward and servers on the last night of the cruise—and that option still exists on many cruise lines—but now with "anytime dining," i.e., "freestyle" or "open seating" it's fairer to go ahead and allow the pooled gratuities. (Hopefully, the money makes it to the people who served you; you'll hear conflicting stories from staff about how equitably the tips are allocated.)

When we first started cruising, many amenities were complimentary: assorted flavors of premium ice cream at a stand by the pool, soft drinks at the buffet, cappuccino after dinner, room service. The gym used to be free; now there are many classes or exercise machines you have to pay to use and secluded relaxation areas only accessible for an extra fee. Just like at home, you have to decide if the pampering is worth the cost.

More and more items offered on cruise ships incur a charge: bottled water, soft drinks, specialty coffees, specialty ice cream, specialty restaurants. If you indulge, it adds up. We avoid the bottled water expense by bringing water bottles from the airplane and refilling them so we can take water with us when we go ashore. We chill it in the cabin's refrigerator and request a daily bucket of ice to chill our glasses of tap water when we drink in the room. I can do without soft drinks, but my husband likes an occasional cola. We'll buy soda in a grocery store in port and bring it on board (spending around one dollar as opposed to five).

Not being gamblers, we're not tempted by the casino or the growing bingo jackpot. But plenty of passengers are. It can be good fun in moderation. Someone has to win that jackpot. I haven't heard about many people winning big in the casino, though. And those who do usually go back and "reinvest" their winnings. If you play in the casino, set aside an amount you're willing to lose each day (an "entertainment budget") and then stop when it's gone.

As soon as the ship leaves port, the shops in the atrium open up, always advertising some sort of "sale." The T-shirts you didn't get around to buying in the last port. Alcohol and perfume because it's "duty-free." And of course, jewelry. Spend your sea day shopping when you get tired of lying out by the pool. My solution: resist. There's nothing in those shops I need. Keep walking. Go find a nice corner to curl up with a good book.

And then there's the spa/beauty salon. As soon as you board, spa employees coax you to take a complimentary tour, bribe you with free demos and giveaways. You can even have your teeth whitened or get acupuncture. At the end of your free tour, the sweet sales person with the charming accent tries to make you feel guilty if you don't book an appointment. On a previous cruise, one of our tablemates bought $800 worth of stones—he wasn't sure what they did—because he didn't want to hurt the salesgirl's feelings. He suffered from buyer's remorse almost the same day.

I once won a $100 gift certificate to the spa. I was excited until I looked at the price list. My gift certificate wasn't valid for anything I might want, like a haircut, manicure, or massage. The cheapest treatment it could be used for cost $229. I offered my coupon to my table mates and trivia partners, but I couldn't even give it away!

Probably the biggest expense for most travelers (and revenue generator for the cruise line) is alcohol. The markup is so high on board that many passengers try to smuggle their own stash. But the cruise lines are fighting back, confiscating onshore alcohol purchases and keeping the liquor in storage until the last night of the cruise. If they catch you at embarkation, you might not get it back at all.

Our cruise line allowed us each to bring on board one bottle of wine or champagne. However, if you want it served to you in the dining room (and most wine drinkers like wine with their meals), they assess a corkage fee. Some wine connoisseurs feel that, even with the corkage fee, they can still enjoy a better bottle of wine for less than if they bought from the ship's wine list. So far, we haven't been chastised or charged for bringing a glass of wine (poured elsewhere) into the dining room.

Some passengers opt for beverage packages, but the last one I saw was $60 per day per person. And it doesn't even entitle you to premium drinks or bottles of wine in the dining room—you can only order the house wine by the glass. On a cruise last year, one of our tablemates bought a beverage package. Whenever we saw him, he was red-faced, bent over one of the ship's bars, determined to drink his money's worth. He probably doesn't remember where the cruise went.

Because it's so hard to get a free or reasonably priced alcoholic beverage on board, some passengers are sucked into attending the art auctions, with the promise of free champagne. It seems that almost every ship I've sailed on in the past decade holds art auctions on sea days, so the cruise lines must be making money from them.

I have yet to receive a bill for an onboard account that exceeded my cruise fare. But I'm glad there are others who do; the extra revenue the cruise lines are making from onboard sales keeps the fares low!

What tips do you have for saving money on a cruise? I'd love to hear your comments.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Countdown to Financial Fitness: It's ON SALE!

Countdown to Financial Fitness: It's ON SALE!: Marked down 40%! ON SALE! TODAY ONLY! Prices slashed in half! Save 60%! Is it something you need? Something you want and were planning ...

It's ON SALE!

Marked down 40%! ON SALE! TODAY ONLY! Prices slashed in half! Save 60%!

Is it something you need? Something you want and were planning to buy anyway? If not, save 100% and don't buy it! Use the money you would have spent for something you do need or want, whether or not it's "on sale."

How many times have you bought an item just because it was on sale? And then found you have no use for it? My mother used to buy shoes in the wrong size and clothes that didn't match anything in her wardrobe, just because they were too inexpensive to pass up. Money down the drain.

Some items are perpetually marked down. Some stores always have a CLEARANCE. Eye-catching end-of-aisle displays beckon you to BUY NOW! Get it at a steal! But sometimes the item is being sold at its regular price; it's just being marketed more prominently. Maybe the store got an extra-large shipment of that product this week and has to find a way to move it out.

Some companies have created a reputation for bargain prices. I have friends who only fly Southwest Airlines because "it's the cheapest." But not always. Sometimes they could have bought a ticket on a major carrier for the same price, with a better schedule and more amenities. But they didn't shop around. They just assumed whatever fare Southwest offered was the best they could do.

What about a "dollar store"? Everything is only a dollar! And you can get some great deals. But I've found canned goods there for a dollar that I could buy in a regular grocery store for 79 cents. Just because it's sold in the "dollar store" doesn't make it automatically a bargain.

My husband and I usually visit an outlet mall during the holiday season, aiming to fill holes in our wardrobe and whittle down our gift list at the same time. But I've noticed outlet malls don't always offer the lowest prices.

Warehouse stores such as Costco, Sam's, BJ's, etc., boast lower prices on many items—both big-ticket purchases and everyday necessities. But don't assume because a product is sold in a warehouse—or outlet mall, or other "discount" store—that it's the best deal. Sometimes an item can be purchased at your local grocery or department store for less, especially on sale and/or with a coupon. It's important to compare prices. Also, warehouse stores charge annual membership fees, so if you join, make sure you'll shop there enough to offset the cost. Before joining, visit with a member or ask a store employee if you can come in and have a look around, to determine whether a membership will benefit you.

Plan your purchases. Do some research about what things should cost. That way, when you see something you want "on sale" you'll know if it's truly a good buy.

What tips do you have for bargain shopping? I'd love to hear your comments.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Reducing Paper Waste

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Reducing Paper Waste: Last week we planted trees to celebrate Georgia's Arbor Day. The goal of planting these flowering species was to attract pollinators, w...