It may not have been as historically significant as Neil Armstrong transmitting the message “One small step for man,” but last Friday, when I texted my husband “Just landed” from the runway at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam for free, it felt like the dawn of a new era.
Since then I’ve been channeling my inner Millennial, texting and uploading photos to Facebook several times a day. That’s just how you roll when you’ve got unlimited global text messaging in more than 100 countries, plus unlimited (albeit slowed-down) Internet as part of your standard cell phone plan.
The plan I’m referring to is T-Mobile’s Simple Choice option, which debuted last November. It comes with free mobile data, free text messaging and low-cost voice calls in about 115 countries. Knowing I was going to be traveling to Europe soon, I switched from my previous T-Mobile plan to this one about a month ago. The Simple Choice Plan starts at $50 a month.
While I’ve always taken advantage of free Wi-Fi hotspots while traveling, I was thrilled at the idea of being able to stay connected all the time at no extra cost. I’ve never been the kind of person who thrives on being disconnected!
In terms of text messaging, the deal is just as advertised. I’ve been texting my husband, parents, friends and coworkers, holding multi-text conversations and sending photos since the moment I landed. The Internet, on the other hand, has been spottier. In general the Internet is available at 3G speeds, which isn’t bad, but when you’re used to 4G LTE, it sometimes feels like it’s crawling. And I’ve found myself in more than one blind spot.
Nevertheless, I’ve managed to upload photos to Facebook multiple times, check railway schedules when I needed to and keep up to date with Yahoo! News. For those who insist on higher speeds, T-Mobile does offer for-fee upgrade packages.
The Simple Choice Plan also provides low-cost calling options. Here in the Netherlands, for instance, it will cost me 20 cents a minute to call home, which isn’t half bad. But even better, by hooking up to any Wi-Fi I can find (free, of course!) and then turning on my Wi-Fi calling option, I can call home without spending a dime.
I’ve traveled all over the world throughout my adult life, and I’ve always hated the feeling of separation from the people I love. For the first time, I’ve been reaching out while traveling as casually as I do when I’m at home. If it was a small world before, free texting and Internet and low-cost voice calling have shrunk it even further. If that’s not one giant leap for mankind, I don’t know what is.
Westchestermom had hoped that her cruise on Windstar’s vessel Wind Surf would convert her husband to small ship sailing. With an itinerary that included stops at some of the Caribbean’s best beaches, including Jost van Dyke and the Baths in the British Virgin Islands, her trip succeeded.
The ship’s intimate vibe began with an embarkation in St. Maarten that seemed more personal than previous cruises. Westchestermom and her husband enjoyed the ability to socialize with fellow passengers, all of whom seemed friendly and open (as well as young; she reported meeting several singles who were in their 20s).
As a veteran ocean cruiser, I am quite familiar with the ins and outs of some of the biggest ships on the seas. But while I’m not quite a river cruise “virgin” – I had previously taken an overnight on Viking River Cruises a few years ago – my recent overnight on AMAWaterways’ new ship, AmaPrima, opened my eyes to some of the quirks that come with river cruising.
At the risk of seeming naive, here are some of my observations:
1. Lots more could be done with the top deck.
I don’t understand why more amenities aren’t placed on the top deck of riverboats. AmaPrima boasts a very hip swim-up bar right behind the bridge. But why stop there? Apart from the aforementioned pool and a large chess set, the deck simply contains just rows and rows and rows of deck chairs. I asked co-owner Rudi Schreiner why, and he said European weather was just too unpredictable. (I don’t know about that. Now UK weather, that’s unpredictable…) My suggestions include a permanent BBQ area, an outside, partially covered restaurant, another bar, a bigger pool, mini-golf… The list is endless.
Cruise Critic staffers set sail every week, traveling the globe to bring you the latest cruise ship trends, port sneak peeks and onboard observations. Here’s where we are this week.
(Got questions about any of the ships we’re boarding? Ask us in the comments!)
Ship: Two new ships – Emerald Sky and Emerald Star, part of Emerald Waterways (which will be called Evergreen in Australia/New Zealand), are part of the first brand-new river line to be created in six years. The line, and the pair of ships, debut on Wednesday, April 9. Emerald Waterways (Evergreen) is part of the mighty Oz-based Scenic Tours conglomerate, which already operates a more luxe, more inclusive, river cruise line.
Where: In Amsterdam, the heart of Europe’s Rhine River/Danube River circuit.
Who: Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief, and Jeannine Williamson, Cruise Critic contributor.
Why There? This new river line seems to be a cross between Viking River (with its contemporary and sleek appeal) and no other line out on the rivers. Both ships are newbuilds, and feature an outdoor pool that’s covered by a dance floor at night. There’s a movie cinema, several bars, a massage therapist and beauty salon. Cabins offer all the usual amenities you’d expect – hotel beds, flat screen televisions, infotainment centers on the television and free WiFi (though how well it works is subject to consideration).
We Can’t Wait: Buried in all the gloss about these new ships is the fact that Emerald/Evergreen has a mantra of value-for-money cruising. We look forward to finding out what that means, beyond the line’s reasonably priced fares. Twiggy, the model-actress, will be godmumming both vessels; that’s a pretty nice pedigree for a new cruise line (her last stint christening a ship was for Seabourn).
Who: Dori Saltzman, News Editor
Why There? MS Inspire is Tauck’s first river boat in the Inspiration class, which is notable for having only 130 passengers on a longship set-up. Considered part of the luxury end of river cruising, Tauck’s Inspire also has 22 300-square-foot suites, with upscale features such as 400-thread-count sheets and Molton Brown bath products. For 2014, Inspire will sail a variety of Rhine and Moselle river itineraries.
We Can’t Wait: This will be the first sailing of Tauck’s newest boat, which features a handful of unique lower deck “loft” cabins with larger windows — that actually open! (besides fresh air, these windows will allow lower deck passengers much more natural light than you’d normally get in this cabin class).
Every Thursday at 3 p.m. (Eastern), Cruise Critic Live! takes a look at all the things to love about cruising, from favorite destinations to amazing dining experiences to the latest and greatest new ships on the oceans and rivers. We also welcome outside experts including cruise line CEOs and newsmakers.
Next week, we’ll talk about saving money on your cruise, always a critical topic with our members. Wondering where to splurge and where to save? Unsure of how to best spend your onboard credit? The veteran penny-pinchers on our staff will be available to answer your questions, so make sure to bookmark the page.
Can’t make the chat on Thursday, April 10 at 3 p.m.? Please feel free to submit questions ahead of time, and we’ll make sure to get your answers. The chat will be archived, and available, after it winds up.
*Follow along on Twitter at #CruiseCriticLive.
*Read the transcript from this past Thursday’s chat about the Caribbean.
You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers. Every other Friday we will bring you a piece of reader feedback and our response. Have a question about cruising? Notice an error on our site? Want to just drop a comment for our consideration? Submit your own feedback by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org, and maybe we’ll select your submission for our next Feedback Blog.
This Week’s Feedback: This week we’re addressing all of the emails we receive about itineraries, ports and general cruise planning. While we pride ourselves on being the leading website for cruise planning, some queries on specific sailings are so detailed, we need to look them up ourselves to make sure they’re even possible!
For example, “I want a cruise that departs from New Orleans sailing to Cozumel, and then a separate sailing from Cozumel to Miami.” With all the places that cruise ships go, we could dream up endless itineraries. Unfortunately, many of them aren’t actually available. How do we know this? The Find a Cruise tool.
Our Response: You know the ports, the month, even your cruising style, but you’re undecided on what line might be able to accommodate you. Time to turn to one of the handiest tools on our site, Find a Cruise. which allows you to enter in all of this information to find your perfect cruise vacation. Drop-down options include Destination, Cruise Line, To and From Dates, Cruise Length, Departure Port, Popular Ports, Ship and Cruise Style.
So whether you’re planning a very specific trip, or just in the daydreaming phase, give Find a Cruise a whirl — you may find voyages you never even knew existed!
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American Queen Steamboat Company’s newest ship, American Empress, made a soft debut this week, sailing an itinerary from Spokane, Washington, to Portland, Oregon, ahead of the ship’s christening Saturday.
AQSC, which launched fleetmate American Queen in 2012 on the Mississippi River, bought Empress of the North in spring 2013 and has meticulously refurbished the paddlewheel vessel. Both boats are designed to evoke a feeling of old-time cruising; it’s impossible not to think of Mark Twain while sitting in a lounge watching the scenery lazily pass by.
Officially open to all passengers starting next week, American Empress sails itineraries on the Snake and Columbia rivers in the Pacific Northwest. The boat is ideal for travelers who love history or simply want to experience America in a completely different way.
Here are five reasons you should give American Empress a try.
The food. Local is the name of the game on American Empress, and dishes generally are sourced from the Pacific Northwest, completely fresh and absolutely delicious. While breakfast and lunch are lighter, the meals still include nods to the region — a salmon and egg hash for breakfast, for example. Each night for dinner, passengers can select from a fish, red meat, white meat or vegetarian option for entrees. Portions are perfectly sized: not too big but still hearty enough to satisfy.
Food can be paired with local craft beers (there are plenty from Oregon and Washington from which to choose) or regional wine from Walla Walla and Willamette Valley. Looking for something different? Try a regional spirit, such as a refreshing marionberry-infused vodka from Oregon-based Wild Roots. Wines and beers are included at dinner, though you’ll pay extra for spirits.
Everyone is looking for the deal of the century. So how do you choose the one that’s right for you? Check the Lido Deck each week to get the scoop on our favorite deals — then grab the phone and pack your bags.
THE DEAL: MSC Cruises is offering a seven-night Caribbean cruise onboard MSC Divina, sailing roundtrip from Miami on September 6, 2014. Prices start from $299 per person for an inside cabin.« go back — keep looking »