Wednesday, 30 November 2011

On Cruising

For anyone considering a cruise for the first time, I would offer a few pieces of advice:

1.   Go for it.  Go for the whole deal - formal dress as appropriate, and enjoy the full range of entertainment and activities.  Enjoy the food, but don't overdo it.  Enjoy the ports of call but do your research before you book any excursions, you might do better going independently. 

2.   Don’t expect the ticket price to be all you pay.

First of all there will be gratuities.  The domestic staff, you will be told (that’s waiters, cleaners, bar staff and others), rely on gratuities to bring their pay up to a reasonable level. The least we have been asked for is £2.00 per day.  For two of us on a 10-day cruise that’s only £40 which was not going to break the bank – and it was entirely voluntary.  Guests were given envelopes to hand to the cabin steward or waiter.  With another line the figure was £10 each per day and this was automatically added to your cabin bill and felt very far from voluntary.  Most cruise lines operate in this way, and the extra expense can come as an unwelcome surprise to some first-time cruisers.  I wish they would just add it all into the ticket price so you can see up-front what the cost of the cruise is.  But they don’t.  You need to find out what is expected before you book.

Second of all, as a captive audience you have no option but to pay on-board prices for extras.  Meals are included of course, and with the better lines you can get a snack or a cup of tea or coffee at any time.  Drinks at the bar are not free and it is easy to run-up a significant bill (ships are cash-free these days – everything goes on your cabin card.)  One cruise line we tried had a low ticket price and moderate gratuities, but charged top prices for everything on-board.  Not only this, there was significant periods of the day and night when snacks and tea and coffee were only available to purchase, and at €2.50 every time you want a coffee it soon adds up.  A bottle of wine with your meal started at €40.  In retrospect the business model of this cruise line becomes very clear.
What I’m saying is: ask what level of gratuities is expected and get a list of typical on-board prices before you book.  What looks like a cheap deal might not be.

Third of all: excursions.  There is little point in calling in at interesting places if you don’t see the sights, but booking excursions can run away with a lot of money and it can be infuriating to find that you have paid through the nose to be taken to and dumped in a remote tourist shop where you are expected to spend even more, whilst fellow passengers have made their own ways and had a much better deal.  In most cruise ports local operators will provide excursions.  What you need to find out about – and get in writing – is how far it will be from the ship to where you want to be and what the arrangements are for getting there.  Sometimes it is a coach ride and the fare can be pricy if it is provided by the cruise line.  There will nearly always be local taxis waiting for the liner to arrive.  You need to get as much information as you can and plan accordingly.  Do bear in mind, though, that those on booked excursions are often given priority when disembarking.  The wait can be agonising for others.

You will notice that I haven’t mentioned any names yet.  All I will say is that we found Fred.Olsen and Cunard very satisfactory.  Significantly not named are the ones who dealt least well with our special needs – mobility and special diets – as well as leaving the impression that they were trying to rip us off.

'Short Stories to Read on the Bus' (See below) is now available in print on

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Short Stories to Read on the Bus

My collection of short stories is now on Kindle.  Print version now also available on

It's a mixed bag with something for every mood, I hope.  The idea is to present a set of entertaining tales suitable for reading on a short bus journey - that is around 1500 words each, though some are a little longer.  Twenty-two stories for eighty-six pence can't be bad value.

Download a free sample or buy it here:

A detective in Manhattan thinks he’s losing his grip; another in ancient Britain definitely isn’t. 
A boy falls for the wrong girl and it’s all going horribly wrong, a girl runs from a failed relationship into more trouble than she ever bargained for, and a secretary with a crush on the boss thinks her moment has come.
A know-it-all drinks too much, a busybody gets an invitation to the ball, and a band of Irishmen buy a racehorse.  With hilarious results.
Tension and romance,  humour and mystery, and the quirkiness of human nature.  Add a few exotic locations, drop in the odd fairy, a handful of ghosts and a flying saucer and you have a set of stories with something for every mood
A ten-minute bus ride gives enough time to find a seat, exchange the odd pleasantry and read a thousand or two words.  This set of tales is chosen with that in mind. Some are a little longer, some a little shorter, but all can be enjoyed on that short bus journey into town.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Fair Fare

We flew from Manchester UK to JFK with American Airlines.  My daughter and I sat together.  That meant two special meals: I am diabetic and she is stridently vegetarian.
My meal arrived as soon as they started serving.  Only when the cabin attendant arrived to offer the choice of chilli or chicken did we realise there was a problem.  Yes: several vegetarian meals had been ordered but there were none left.  The stewardess was apologetic, but  the vegetarian meals had all been given out.
To be fair, she did rush off and arrive back within minutes with items cannibalised from several other meals.  A better than half-decent meat-free repast was provided after all, so full marks to her for that.
AJ said it happened all the time.  At University, whenever a special celebratory meal was organised in Halls of Residence, the vegetarians would order their meals in advance.  Then when the time came, some of the meat eaters decided the 'veggie option' looked the most appetising and helped themselves.  That left the vegetarians without options.
She thought that had probably just happened again. 
It seems very odd to me that diabetic meals are delivered directly to named passengers, whilst vegetarians seem to be served according to some other system.
It is a big deal for vegetarians.  If they order the meal, they should get it.  Guaranteed!

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Somewhere to Lay My Head

A hotel doesn't need to do much just to be OK.  If it is clean and warm and has a comfy bed and decent ablutions, most guests will be content.  The food doesn't even have to be brilliant; in many places it's room-only anyway.   Location might be a consideration, though I'm guessing that most people check this out when choosing where to stay.  That and the price.  Get those things right and your guests should go away happy.

Most places go beyond the basics these days, so expect to find free toiletries and a tv set.  Perhaps there will be other personal appliances like hair dryers and irons too and, of course, the makings of a hot drink.  These should make guests even happier.
So here's my problem.
If you're going to go to the trouble and expense of putting multi-channel tv into your hotel rooms, why wouldn't you go to the trouble of making sure all the channels are properly tuned-in?  How often have I had conversations with fellow guests who I have been watching channels I can't get, and vice versa?  Too often!  And it shouldn't be too difficult to check the batteries in the remote control handset still have life in them.
When I arrive at your hotel I want  enjoy a coffee whist I unpack.  Then perhaps I will  go out on the town, getting back as late as I like, and have another coffee or two watching tv before turning-in, get a good night's sleep.  In the morning you can make an early pre-breakfast coffee and you're ready to face the day.  Right?
You get two tea bags and four tubes of coffee per guest and, here's the killer, two cartons of milk.  I have hardly ever had a room where I didn't wish there was twice as much.  The milk is generally long-life and comes in little packs that keep it fresh for weeks, so why wouldn't they leave plenty?  The desk staff are always happy to supply more on request, but I'd rather not have to put them to the trouble.
I guess it's little niggles like these that irritate everybody but are so trivial  that nobody bothers to grumble.
All I'm saying is: if you're going to do it, do it right.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Making a Start

You might have come across my reviews on TripAdvisor for example.  I always try to do a straight job, and treat both the prospective customer and the proprietor with respect and fairness.  In truth, I am easily pleased.  It takes something really off the mark to provoke me  to serious criticism, and I suspect that most folk are of the same disposition.
Having said that, I now risk contradicting myself by listing the ways in which I am often displeased.  The thing is, we are a family with some special requirements.  I am a diet-controlled diabetic, my wife is somewhat disabled, my daughter is a strict vegetarian, and my son is a health-conscious healthcare professional who will not countenance second-rate food, and at six-feet-four has legroom issues.  You can tell we can present a challenge to those who run airlines, restaurants and hotels.  The challenge is not always well-received.
It can make for interesting conversations, especially when we all travel together.
Airports have those electric buggies for disabled passengers, don't they?  You try booking one, with the airport, with the airline, or with your travel agent.  The only time we got one was when we didn't book and Qantas came up with one without asking.  Full marks to them.
Some restaurants are very helpful when it comes to special needs.  Others not.  Typical questions and answers:
'Is xxx easily accessible for disabled guests?' -  'Oh, it's only three flights up/ a five-minute walk (translates to ten minutes and twenty for a handicapped person.)/ round the corner.  Only!  How often we hear that word.
'Have you anything for vegetarians?' -  'I can do you an omelette.'
'I can't eat  fries/potatoes; can I have salad/vegetables instead?' -  'I can do you a side-order.  It'll be ---- extra.'
Things like this get my attention and get me cross.
I get especially cross with the way people are treated at airports, and I hate Heathrow with double passion: triple if we happen to be flying with BA.
On the bright side, we often get excellent service,  and I am always glad to comment on that, too.