Disney Cruise Line Series – Smoking on-board the Fantasy

I’m not a cigarette smoker, but I do enjoy an occasional cigar, especially when on vacation.  When it comes to smoking, you can only do so in a limited number of places.  Every cruise ship is different, but the Disney Fantasy has some great places to get in a smoke while at sea.  Every cruise ship is different, but I think the Fantasy has some of the best places that actually allow smoking.  Back in the day, you could actually smoke on your stateroom’s verandah, but those days are long gone.  Instead, you are restricted to certain areas of the ship and some areas are only available at certain times of the day.  Don’t smoke on your verandah because if you are caught they will charge $250 to your stateroom account.

On the Fantasy, the preferred spot to smoke is on Deck 12 aft on the port side of the ship accessible through the Meridian Lounge.  Here, you can go outside and enjoy a smoke after dinner or any time of the day.  If you forgot to bring something to smoke, the bartenders at Meridian will be happy to help you.  They have a selection of both cigars and cigarettes which you can charge to your stateroom account.  Whether you brought your own smokes or bought something from the bar, they will be happy to help you with matches or a cut of your cigar.  UPDATE: 5/15/2016 – Disney no longer offers matches on the boat due to fire safety reasons.  Your best bet now is to pick up a lighter or matches after your flight.

Once you go outside to smoke, you’ll find plenty of tables and ash trays.  It can be a bit windy outside so I recommend standing towards the back wall for your best chances of lighting up.  Oftentimes, you can “bum a light” from a fellow traveler who brought a lighter.  I definitely recommend this as it can be windy at times which makes it difficult to light cigars.  If you do plan on smoking, I recommend bringing your own lighter because it’s much easier than trying to use matches on the back of the boat.  Just like any smoke hole, you’ll find that you quickly make friends and you’ll recognize the same people throughout your vacation.

If you are looking for other places to smoke, you can also do so on Deck 13 forward on the port side next to Currents bar.  During the day, this area can be quite windy and sunny, but that may just be what you are looking for.  You can also smoke outside on Deck 4 aft (port side) at night between the hours of 6:00 pm and 6:00 am.  Any other time and the deck is considered non-smoking.

Smoking on other ships

The smoking area differs on each Disney Cruise Line ship.  For example, on the Wonder they allowed it on Deck 10, star bird side at the front side of the ship at night.  Whatever ship you are on, be sure and check the Navigator to find out where smoking is allowed.

Cuban Cigars

Since you are making port in a number of Caribbean destinations, you are likely to encounter a number of cigar shops offering “Cuban Cigars”.  When you are a touristy area, you can assume that all of these are 100% fake.   If in doubt, do a search on “how to spot a fake Cuban cigar” before you go.  While they may be decent cigars, more than likely they aren’t from Cuba.  Whenever I am in port, I always tell them I am not looking for Cuban cigars and instead I am looking for Dominican or Honduran.  It immediately deflates the merchant and it makes them much harder to sell me on something that isn’t real.  I’ll still get a good cigar but I know they aren’t trying to sell me something any more that is obviously from somewhere else.

If you do manage to purchase Cuban cigars, keep in mind they aren’t allowed in the United States.  On my last cruise, I heard a Canadian couple arguing that it was OK to bring their Cuban cigars back (which I am sure were fake) because they weren’t “staying in the US, they were going back to Canada.”.  If you do somehow manage to acquire real Cuban cigars then you are in fact breaking the law when you return to port in the United States regardless of your citizenship or where your final return destination is.  If you do manage to get such good cigars, my recommendation is to enjoy them while you are on the ship.  As far as I know, there is nothing wrong with that.  This will prevent you from having to deal with any legal issues when talking to the United States customs officials.

Tip your bartenders

If you find yourself getting cigars or cigarettes from the bartenders at Meridian Lounge or anywhere else, be sure and tip them at some point throughout your journey.  I find that even when you aren’t buying anything from them, they are still eager to serve you out on the deck.  Show them your appreciation at some point on your vacation.

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Disney Cruise Line Series – Staying connected on-board

Disney Fantasy at Port

Disney Fantasy at Port

When I take a cruise, I try to be as disconnected with the rest of world as possible.  I put my phone in airplane mode and I stop syncing all of my work e-mail.  However, sometimes being completely disconnected is just not an option.  On my first cruise, I was actually looking for another job, so I had to check e-mail and make a few phone calls.  On-board the ship, you have the option of using your mobile phone or the ship’s WiFi.  However, both come with a cost, so follow the tips in this article to avoid expensive charges.

Using your mobile phone at sea

Before you leave on your trip, make sure that you have International roaming service turned on your mobile phone plan.  You can usually do this online or you can give your operator a call and ask them to enable it.  Before your ship leaves, you absolutely want to turn off Data Roaming on your phone.   If you don’t and your phone starts using data while roaming, it could cost you dearly.  While at sea, the data roaming rate is $15 per MB (charges may vary with your carrier).  Leaving your phone on with data roaming for just a few minutes could cost you hundred of dollars.  Make sure data roaming is off.

Once you set off to sea, it won’t be long before cell phone service is available on the ship.  You just turn your phone on as usual and it will connect to a network called Cellular at Sea.  In general, your phone should work just about anywhere on the ship.  Coverage varies from time to time because the service is based on satellite availability.  I find it works most of the time but there have been a few times where I couldn’t get it to connect.  Voice calls are $6 per minute with my home carrier, T-Mobile.  With the calls I have placed, they have been crystal clear.  The person you are talking to would never know that you were sitting on a ship unless they happen to hear the waves.

Each text message, sent or received costs $0.50.  What I tend to do is leave my phone off in airplane mode and only turn it on once or twice a day (usually at night).  Any text messages that you may have received during the day will come in all at once (which means you pay for them).

Depending on your cruise itinerary, you may find yourself sailing close enough to islands to pick up cellular signals.  On the last night of my last cruise, I was able to pick up a signal from one of the islands of the Bahamas.  That particular carrier wasn’t included in my free international plan, but it’s per minute rate was only $3.49 instead of $6.

Using your mobile phone at port

If I can help it, I will try and wait and connect when I am at port.  While most ports are subject to International roaming, prices are considerably cheaper, especially if you use T-Mobile.  While other carriers gauge you for International roaming, T-Mobile includes free calls, texts, and data in many countries such as the Bahamas, Saint Maarten, and more.  T-Mobile’s international data is only transmitted at EDGE speeds so it is a little slow, but you can buy high speed buckets if needed.  Depending on the port you are in, the quality of service will vary though.

If your itinerary stops in San Juan, Puerto Rico doesn’t forget that this is a United States territory.  As a result, you can use your phone just like you were in the Untied States.  This may vary by carrier but I know it’s the case with at least AT&T and T-Mobile.

Using the ship’s WiFi

Disney Cruise Line features WiFi on its ships.  Previously, you used to pay per minute used.  This meant that if you forgot to turn it off by clicking the sign-out link, you could find a most-unfortunate ship folio.  Now, you pay per MB.  Prices are not great, but they are doable.  If you plan on using the WiFi a lot to post pictures of you having fun to facebook, you may want to get the largest plan at $89 per GB.  As a comparison, this is the starting size of many mobile plans now so if you are smart that data can go a long ways.  To connect to the ship’s WiFi, look for the network DCL-GUEST.  You will be taken to a page to sign-up for a package after that.

At the time of writing, Disney Cruise Line was offering a free 50 MB package to users claiming it on the day of departure.  All you have to do is sign-up for it by going to dclguest.com.  Note that address only works when onboard a Disney ship.  You don’t need a credit card just your stateroom information.  You have to sign up before midnight on your first day to get this offer.  Keep in mind, 50 MB is not a lot and you can burn that much data easily just by opening facebook.  My recommendation is after you sign up for the free data, you click the sign out button and go enjoy the rest of your cruise.

What can you do with this 50 MB of data?  I saved it for checking into our flights on the last day of the cruise.  Some airlines have automatic checkin with Disney, but a lot don’t like Southwest so this data comes in handy.

Getting the most of your WiFi data

The WiFi works fairly well and is fast enough.  It won’t be as fast at home, but it will be good enough for you to check your e-mail, post some pictures, or check facebook.  You don’t want to do anything like stream videos though as it won’t work well and it will consume data quickly.

As you are using your data, Connect@Sea will send you e-mails periodically telling you how much data you have used.  Of course, receiving that e-mail consumes some of your data. :)  If you are going to purchase data, I recommend using a tablet or a phone because they tend to use less data in the background.  You can use a laptop, but you will want to check a few extra settings before proceeding.  With whatever device you use, you will want to turn off e-mail synchronization except for the accounts you care about before you connect.  You also want to make sure automatic software and OS updates are turned off.  Finally, most phones now will automatically upload pictures that you took to OneDrive, Google Drive, or iCloud whenever connected to WiFi.  You want to turn this feature off so that all of your data isn’t consumed in the background.

If you do want to use a Windows laptop to connect to the WiFi, you want to be sure and mark the DCL-GUEST network as a metered network.  This will disable all of the background services that sync data.  Refer to this FAQ on metered networks for more information on configuration.

Whenever you finish using the WiFi, be sure and go back to dclguest.com and click the Sign out button.  I also recommend putting your device back in Airplane Mode or disconnecting the WiFi if you aren’t sure you have signed out.  That way you aren’t consuming data when you aren’t even using your device.

Disney Cruise Line App

The Disney Cruise Line Navigator app, available on Google Play and the App Store, also makes use of the DCL-GUEST WiFi network.  It’s free to use though and does not use any data.  This app is handy because it has all of the information in the Navigator (the daily activities guide) as well as other information about what is going on at the ship.  You can even see what is for dinner throughout the week.  Be sure and download this app before you leave port!

Staying connected while at sea can be costly, but if you are smart you can minimize your costs.  Use your connectivity at your own risk though.  If you have any doubts to how much money you are spending checking with guest services or your mobile carrier.  You’re supposed to be on vacation though anyways, so try to relax and stay disconnected as long as you can. :)

Bacardi tour in San Juan, Puerto Rico – used to be a great value, now a rip-off

I used to speak rather highly of the Bacardi tour at the factory in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  They have a nice campus and a cool outdoor bar.

Casa Bacardi tasting bar.

Casa Bacardi tasting bar.

Here you could do a tour for free and they even gave you four free (miniature) drinks.  The tour took you to a building where you learned a little bit about the world’s #1 premium spirit.  At the bar, you had an opportunity to try out a lot of their flavored rums as well as some of the aged ones and it didn’t cost you a thing.  The kids even liked it as they would let them combine various tropical juices to make a virgin cocktail.  It was a lot of fun.

Times are changing at Casa Bacardi though.  I arrived at Bacardi to go on a tour only to be confused.  I found a line that led me to a cash register.  The cashier informed me that I could do the regular tour for $12 per person or the upgraded tour for $35 per person.  The $12 tour was the exact same one that they used to do for free.  No longer did you get your four free drinks, but you got a single drink that came in an acrylic souvenir cup.  You also didn’t have the choice of all the different kinds of rum.  You simply got a choice of a Cuba Libre (Rum and Coke), Rum Punch, or Mojito.  The upgraded tour was that tour plus a rum tasting or mixology class.  It turns out that four months ago, they redid everything and started charging.

Begrudgingly, I paid the $35 per person and boy that was a mistake.  The first part of the tour was the same.  However, they had to cut the last part out to rush us over to the “upgraded tour”.  As they took us over to the “upgraded tour”, we left the polished touristy area and ended up sitting in an old hallway for a few minutes.  The tour guide walked us over to the main Bacardi building.

Bacardi distillery building.

Bacardi distillery building.

Admittedly, they never really allowed the public into this building before, so that was kind of neat.  However, once inside all we did was walk to the top to an outdoor balcony.  From there we could take some aerial shots, but that really was about all we got as far as a tour went.

The view from the balcony at Bacardi.

The view from the balcony at Bacardi.

The tour was over and now it was time for our rum tasting.  The tour guide walked us into an old dirty conference room that looks like it had been there since the sixties.  At each place setting, there were four small glasses of rum to try.  Samples included Bacardi, Bacardi Oakheart, Bacardi 8, and Bacardi Reserve.  I had always wanted to try the Bacardi Reserve as it costs at least $70 a bottle.  Although it was pretty smooth, the tasting confirmed, I would never want to pay that much for a sipping rum.

All-in-all, I found the entire experience disappointing.  I know the company needs to cover it costs, but this is ridiculous.  I never understood why the tour was free to being with.  However, I feel like now Bacardi is trying to recoup its costs for all of the past visitors.  $35 per person is just way too much for a mediocre experience.  If you have money to burn try it, but don’t get your hopes up and definitely don’t bother with the “upgraded tour”.

Using T-Mobile’s in-flight texting feature with Gogo Inflight WiFi

I rarely fly on an airline that uses Gogo InFlight Wifi.  However, recently I had no choice to fly on one of those airlines so I sprung for the Internet.  First of all, Gogo Inflight is ridiculously over-priced.  At more than $22 for a day pass, I about had a heart attack on the plane.  This is nearly three times more than what Southwest charges.

That aside, @JohnLegere and his crew at @TMobile have managed to ink out a deal giving their customers free in-flight text messaging.  There are a few caveats though.  First, you need a phone that supports WiFi calling.  The newest ones from T-Mobile do.  However, the phone I unlocked and brought over from AT&T does not.  Second, you have to have configured WiFi calling when you are on the ground and have made a phone call over WiFi calling at least once.  You also need to have an E911 address on file (which you should have) with T-Mobile.

Once you are in-flight, you are ready to go.  Take your plane out of Airplane Mode once you have reached 10,000 feet.  This part threw me off because I just turned my WiFi off.  You actually want to fully turn your phone on.  Then connect to to the gogoinflight wireless network and choose T-Mobile Texting.  Once you connect, you should be good to go.  If it is taking a second, launch the WiFi calling app on your phone and it should connect.  This experience will vary of course depending on the type of phone you have.

Once connected, you can send and receive text messages, picture messages, and even listen to your Visual Voicemail.  The only thing you can’t do is make a phone call.  Since Visual Voicemail works on it, you know that they could technically support phone calls over the WiFi network.  However, I don’t blame them for blocking that.  The last thing you want is someone taking business calls in the seat next to you.

If you are on T-Mobile, try it out on your next flight with Gogo.

Do NOT purchase reserved seats on Lufthansa

A few months ago, my wife and I flew to Barcelona on Lufthansa to speak at TechEd Europe.  Having never flown them before, I chose them for a number of reasons including itinerary, inclusion of cocktails, and they weren’t American Airlines.  I have to say my in-flight experience was pretty nice.

However, one thing I didn’t like is how we were suckered into purchasing a reserved seat.  After you book your reservation, you have the option to book a seat.  This will cost you between $15 and $35 per flight segment per person.  That meant for the wife and I, we spent $200 for the entire trip.  This allowed us to pick seats in advance.  Otherwise, you don’t get to pick them until you check in 24 hours in advance.  For our long haul flight, I picked us some decent seats near the middle of the plane.  I regularly checked the site to see if any new seats had opened up.  A few days before our trip, some new seats open up, 18A and 18B I believe.  I selected them and thought all was great.

However, the day before the trip, I was sad to see that I had now been assigned seats 44A and 44B at the very back of the plane.  That didn’t make me happy.  I called customer service and they could tell that we had the better seats but had no reason as to why we didn’t have them any more.  We decided to inquire when we got to the airport and the agent asked a manager and they pointed us back to their policy that basically states, you don’t actually reserve a seat.  You just reserve the type of seat and you have no guarantee that you will get to keep the one you selected.  When you go look for the fine print on the web site, you will see the following:

“Please note that a confirmed seat reservation does not give you any legal right to a specific seat, only to a seat in your chosen category, e.g. window or aisle.”

Although the web site has this information, the way they present it is very shady and misleading.  In essence what happened to us is that someone with higher status checked in and we got bumped.  I may or may not fly Lufthansa again, but I assure you if I do, I will never pay for a seat reservation.

The new year is the best time to get the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Visa Card

If you have been thinking about getting a Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Visa Card, now is the time to do it.  That’s because the clock has just reset on all of your qualifying points.  This card is the fastest way you can get earn a Companion Pass.  You’ll get 50,000 points after the first three months if you spend $2,000 dollars on the card.  That’s enough for two flights just about anywhere on Southwest.  With proper planning, you can get even more flifghts.l  Besides all of those flights you get, those points count towards your Companion Pass tier qualifier.  With 50k points, that puts you almost halfway towards the 110k that you need.

If you have been thinking about the Southwest Visa Card, take a look at it again.  The annual fee of $95 is waived for the first year too.  Plus there aren’t any fees when you make foreign transactions.