Vegetarian passenger tosses meat at flight attendant

vegetarian passenger

One of the simple truths about air travel is that the food is usually somewhere between sub-par and awful. Sure, there are exceptions, but these are unlikely oases in a desert of damp sodium-rich indelicacies. Unless you are posted up in first class on Singapore Air eating pan-seared Chilean bass in bouillabaisse broth with capsicum confit and zucchini pasta or one of their many other haute options, you will likely be eating a mass-produced goo concocted by scientists rather than chefs.

It seems a brief food revolt began and subsequently ended on a Continental Airlines flight from the Dominican Republic yesterday. According to MSNBC, the flight was bound for Newark, and a vegetarian passenger was served a meat dish that offended her greatly. Instead of politely returning the meal, disgust consumed her. She tossed the meaty tray at a flight attendant in a display of disorderly resentment. Upon landing, the port authority greeted the plane, but the flight attendant declined to press charges.

flickr image via mr wabu

Cruise line scams: Shore Excursions

Cruise line shore excursions

Going ashore can be one of the best parts of a cruise and one of the reasons many travelers choose a cruise vacation in the first place. From the comfort of your floating hotel, you can see multiple destinations but only have to unpack once. Cruise lines offer a wide variety of excursions at each port of call and encourage passengers to join. Some are over-priced but carry an implied level of safety that might not be entirely accurate.

The potential scam-like claim here is “Oh, you don’t want to go out on your own on a shore excursion. If they’re late getting you back, the ship will leave without you”

Yes, they could do that. Will they? Probably not. How likely is that to happen? Not likely at all.

Often, the same companies and people that do shore excursions for the cruise lines also do them independently. Still, the cruise lines say they do investigate and follow up on excursion providers to see how they are doing, holding them to high standards.

Alternatives to ship-sponsored excursions. Shoretrips.com, is a third-party service that provides excursions world-wide. Owners Julie and Barry from Milwaukee, Wisconsin travel to each of the destinations and insure that their tours are safe and interesting. Often, Shoretrips.com excursions are less expensive and less crowded too. Booking more than 200,000 people a year, they have yet to leave someone behind.

Let’s talk price. A pretty easy-to-compare excursion in Cozumel, Mexico, Swimming with the Dolphins is $129 for adults or children on Carnival Cruise Lines. Shoretrips.com has that dolphin swim for $79 for adults and $77 for children. That’s about 40% less than the cruise line. Prices vary among lines too. Royal Caribbean has that dolphin swim for $99. Their price is better than Carnival but not as good as Shoretrips.com.

Another option is to go with someone recommended by a trusted friend or a travel blogger you’ve come to know. Reliable independent operators know what they are competing with on the cruise line excursion offerings and almost always offer a better value. That might come in the form of a lower price or a similar price with a better experience.

Get good information. A good source for reliable travel information about specific ports of call is AOL travel guides. Good discussion and very current, personal information can be found at CruiseCritic.com. Your good travel agent/expert should have recommendations also.

I’m really not trying to talk you out of the ship-sponsored shore excursions. They’re good. Nothing wrong with them. But there are alternatives that are just as safe (or not) as third-party vendors.

Cruise lines have their share of problems with excursions.Going with the cruise line does not guarantee your safety. In 2009 18 cruise passengers were robbed at gunpoint in the Bahamas on ship-sponsored shore excursions. The passengers, sailing on Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas and Disney Cruise Line’s Disney Wonder, were held up by masked men who demanded money, passports, cell phones, credit cards and personal items.

Just last November, masked gunmen held up guests on St Kitts on a Celebrity Cruises excursion.

Cruise lines were quick to suspend tours and worked hard to increase security and scrutiny of tour operators in those cases. But that was a couple of incidents in thousands of tours, hardly something to keep guests on the ship for safety concerns.

Cruise lines will commonly skip ports of call where there are known problems with crime like in Mexico with drug cartels. In that case, the cruise line does not charge you for the excursion you obviously can’t take. Ships any where close to Tunisia right now would have taken a close look at unrest in the area before even docking. If booking separately from the cruise line, make sure you understand the tour operator’s policy if the ship does not call at a port.

Let’s break it down. Look at it this way; cruise lines contract with local operators who run the excursions. The cruise lines have to add on something to make money. Duh. So basically, its the same people, running the same excursions, but you pay more if you get it through the ship. If that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy then buy through the ship. Most people do. If you want to save 20% to 50%, do some research first. There might be a better value out there.

Like the cruise line Booze and Beverage Packages, whether shore excursions are an evil scam plotted by the cruise lines or a reasonable value depends primarily on how you look at them.

Flickr photo by Ha-Wee

Breaking: Cruise Line crew accused of smuggling drugs

cruise line drugsIt looks like more than good times and frosty umbrella drinks were on board Royal Caribbean’s Enchantment of the Seas earlier this month as crew members were caught red-handed by US officials trying to smuggle heroin and cocaine into Baltimore.

The Baltimore Sun reports a criminal complaint filed by U.S. officials on Tuesday alleges three employees of the cruise line had bought the drugs in the Dominican Republic for resale in the U.S.

Apparently the three crew members had planned on selling those drugs at a local Wal-Mart near the cruise terminal but Customs officials were tipped off by a ship security officer for Royal Caribbean.

According to documents obtained by the Baltimore Sun, agents said they found 700 grams of heroin and 300 grams of cocaine hidden in the waistband and shoes of the crew member, The drugs had been picked up from a Jamaican man in the Dominican Republic, brought on to the ship, to be sold once they reached the United States.

It’s not the most unusual method of smuggling we’ve heard of with Gadling reporting back in November when a man caught with drugs tied to his genitals faces five years in jail, but it makes me wonder why bringing a bottle of wine in my luggage is such a big deal.

Flickr photo by mastersellerphotos

Forgot your passport? Here’s a way out!

En route to the Dominican Republic last week, I did something I’ve never done before: I forgot my passport. I was already out of Manhattan, deep into Queens, and turning back simply wasn’t an option. I panicked.

There was no reason for me to forget my passport, something I haven’t done in a dozen years of travel as a professional. As I do for every trip, I put my wallet, keys and passport on top of my laptop the night before … so I wouldn’t forget them. I noticed the pile of stuff not to forget the next morning and immediately recognized it as such.

Nonetheless, seated in the backseat of the town car, I realize I’d done what should have been impossible given my insane system. The driver turned his head shortly after I yelled, “Crap!” as one would expect him to do. I repeated the expletive a few times before telling him why. I must not be the first person to have made this mistake in his car, because the driver, from Tel Aviv Limo quickly came up with the perfect solution.He instructed me to call for a new car and explain the situation. They would send a vehicle to my apartment, where my friend would meet them with my passport. Then, the driver would head out to JFK airport, where I’d be waiting in the departure area with the fare for the trip and an incredibly generous tip (I wound up paying close to 100 percent for this service).

Even before I could raise the suggestion, the driver shot down the notion of turning around and going back to my apartment. It would take too much time, he noted, as we’d have to go out and back. With his proposal, a car already in Manhattan could just shoot straight out to JFK. As if I needed another reason, I saw the Queens traffic heading into the city and knew that turning around would mean fighting rush hour. If I made my flight, I’d do it as a bundle of nerves.

Less than an hour from the moment I hurled obscenities at myself, my bag and my passport, I had my documents in hand and was ready to check in. The driver was in touch with me before reaching my apartment (to make sure someone would be there), when he left (to let me know he was en route) and at the departures area (to tell me he had arrived).

The situation unfolded perfectly, but it isn’t universally applicable. I wouldn’t try this with a taxi, for example. I wouldn’t even have someone hail a cab and drop my stuff in the backseat to be delivered to me. The taxi option is just too fluid. To make it work, it helps to have just taken a town car to the airport, though I suspect you could have a car service deliver your passport even if you drove, took public transportation or hailed a cab.

Stupidity may be problematic, but it doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker. If you forget something important for your trip – so important that you’re willing to shell out some serious cash to fix the situation – you now have a solution at your fingertips. Of course the smarter move is to get it right the first time …

For the bees – Puntacana’s unexpected practice of beekeeping

Punta Cana Beekeeping
Last week, I visited Punta Cana, Dominican Republic and was delighted to discover they had a large Ecological Reserve, where they do research into ways the resort can be more environmentally friendly.

The Punta Cana Ecological Foundation has a number of unusual projects including recycling water, using worms to compost their trash and they’ve even enlisted the minds of students from Harvard to help them develop new ideas for greener properties. I toured their facility and was especially impressed (and terrified) when we arrived at the site above: the bees.

No, they didn’t just give the hives cute names; those hives house bees that were taken from the Punta Cana homes of Oscar de la Renta (I understand the bees invaded his wife’s bathroom) and Julio Iglesias (who allegedly discovered honey dripping from his ceiling). Rather than exterminate their unwanted pests, Punta Cana encourages its residents to let their hives be removed by the Ecological Foundation, who keeps them and will even gift donors with fresh honey from their very own hives.

As we wandered the area covered with plants intended just for the bees, I talked with Jake Kheel, the Environmental Director, about how the beekeeping works and why they do it. However, as I mentioned, I was terrified — so I emailed him these questions later when I got my breath back.

Gadling: So, tell us why you’ve created these homes for bees, rather than exterminating them.

%Gallery-91172%Jake Kheel: Bees are important pollinators in nature and if managed properly can be quite profitable by producing honey, pollen, royal jelly and other related products, as well as providing important pollination to local plants, vegetables, etc. We thought managing the bees to our mutual benefit made more sense than exterminating them.

G: How many do you have?

JK: We currently have 140 colonies in 5 different sites around our property. Since each colony can have around 20,000 – 40,000 worker bees alone, conservatively, we have around 2.8 million bees in our apiaries.

G: What are the colonies like? How do you keep the bees there?

JK: The bees will stay in the bee boxes as long as the queen bee is there, they can find enough food, and don’t have too many pests or predators. Our job is to make sure the bees have all their needs covered so they can do their work and produce the products we are interested in. Each colony has at least one box on the bottom level with an entrance and an exit and nine separators with wax sheets where they can make honey combs and deposit eggs and honey inside. The second and third and sometimes fourth level boxes are separated by a thin plastic sheet that the drones and queens can’t pass through. This is to make sure they don’t lay eggs in the honey we want to extract and only consume from the bottom box. We only harvest honey from the boxes that the queen and drone cannot access, to make sure they always have enough food.

G: And you sell the honey, right?

JK: We produced 370 gallons last year and sold all of it. We also have an agreement with another local producer of organic honey that supplements our production. We are currently selling the honey at the airport, at our hotels, at our shop, our Farmer’s Market on Saturdays and soon to a local tour operator.

G: Can we buy Oscar de la Renta honey?

JK: Technically, yes! We have several colonies that came from Oscar de la Renta’s and Julio Iglesias’ houses. When we extract the honey we plan to sell, all the honey is mixed together to make the process more efficient. So, technically speaking, almost all of our honey has some of Oscar’s and Julio’s honey in it!

My trip to Punta Cana was sponsored by PUNTACANA Resort & Club, but the opinions expressed in the article are 100% my own.