1 Must Have Cruise Accessory You’ll Absolutely Love

Posted onLeave a commentCategoriesCRUISE TIPS, Packing, Travel Hacks

If you are looking for one must have cruise accessory that you’ll absolutely love, pack a power strip. Seriously. Based on value for the money and value for the luggage space used, this one will almost certainly top the list every time. Find out why you absolutely should toss one into your suitcase. And, learn about a few factors to consider when deciding which one to pack or buy.

Cruising With Electronics

There are several items that you can pack that will greatly enhance your overall cruise experience and help maximize the space in your cruise ship room. But in terms of sheer value and all around usefulness, an outlet expander or power strip tops the list. Note that I am using the term “power strip” broadly to mean a must have cruise accessory that expands the power outlet options in your cruise cabin. This could be an actual power strip, or a travel outlet expander. Or, it could be a traditional extension cord (small) or a multi port usb charger.

No matter what’s the size of your travel party, if you have more than two things with plugs, you will very likely be short on outlets in your cabin. Many cruise cabins will have only one set of power outlets beyond what might be found in the bathroom. Think about how many personal items you typically cart around that require power. Then multiply that by the number of people who will be sharing your cabin.

Must Have Cruise Accessory: Photo of stack of personal electronics

By way of example, here is a list of items that we took on a recent cruise that required access to power at some point during the trip:
  • Individual smartphones for adults. Even if we don’t do much actual calling, smartphones have several other features that make them handy on a cruise. We now rely on smartphones to act as our basic camera. Plus now, so many cruise ships have great free apps that you can use to keep up with what’s going on aboard the ship, and for making reservations for dinners, shows, etc. And, you can also find free texting apps that make it possible for family members to stay in touch.
  • A traditional camera for the kid who doesn’t have a cell phone but likes to take pictures.
  • Multiple tablets.
  • A portable DVD player.
  • Electric hair tools like curling/flat iron (not a blow dryer – which the cruise line already provides)
  • Laptop computer
  • Kindle e-reader
  • Multiple portable power banks (so key items can stay charged during long sojourns away from the ship).

If you are traveling alone and/or planning to have a totally unplugged vacation, then limited access to power sources won’t bother you. But, that’s probably not the situation for most travelers.


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A Typical Cruise Cabin

Our most recent cruise underscores why some version of a power strip is a must have cruise accessory. We sailed on a Royal Caribbean ship that had been beautifully refurbished very recently. But, nevertheless access to power sources remained extremely limited. Each cabin  had only one electric outlet outside of the bathroom. Even if most families won’t necessarily be hauling around the amount of electronics we had, even a small fraction of that list would have quickly exhausted the supply of available outlets.

In addition to the limited availability of power outlets, the placement of that one lone outlet itself presented challenge. It was placed  on a wall underneath a wall mounted telephone and a few inches above a narrow counter that served as both a desk and a vanity. (See photos.) 

Why was this location particularly challenging? For one thing, any items that needed to be charged using that outlet would take up valuable counter space. And, the outlet wasn’t near a bed or any other comfortable lounging location. So, you essentially would have to sit at the small desk if you wanted to use a device and charge it at the same time. 

For this particular cruise, we had two connecting rooms. So we used an outlet expander or power strip for each room, and we had two different styles. Both of these did a great job and offered full value. But both also had pros and cons depending on your particular travel needs.

The Cordless Power Strip

Must Have Cruise Accessory | Photo of power strip in use in cruise cabinCordless power strips can be extremely compact making them easy to pack almost anywhere. In this case, a cordless power strip conserved counter space. But, the space saved by plugging directly into the wall was quickly filled by having to have all of the electronic items actually on the (narrow) counter.

Although it isn’t obvious from the photo, this particular strip also had two USB ports.

The particular brand of power strip pictured in the photo features surge protection. Many cruise lines have express policies banning the use of surge protectors because they have a risk of interfering with the ship’s electrical system. (I did not actually sleep in the cabin where this particular power strip was used so I didn’t focus on that issue at the time.) But, you can also find cordless power strips that do not have surge protection.




 

Power Strip With Cord

While a basic outlet expander can be quite functional, it was helpful to us to have one that also included a cord that moved away from the wall. 

The corded option that we used is pictured below. This particular power strip is my all-time favorite one for cruising. I’ve used it on the past 10 cruises or so. And, as you can see, it’s a real workhorse. It can charge six devices at once.

And, for this last cruise, the fact that it had a cord provided many extra benefits given our especially small quarters. Because it was not attached directly to the wall, it could be moved to free up valuable counter space for other uses. We could store it in a drawer and still keep charging (leaving the drawer slightly open for ventilation).  Or, we could also place the unit on the floor when we needed additional counter space. And, it could be stretched out completely if someone wanted to read and bed and still keep charging.

My particular model is a little on the larger side (with 6 usb ports and 2 a/c ports), and I believe it has been discontinued. But, there are several comparable and affordable versions available that are just as functional and can serve the same purpose.


Thus, while a basic outlet expander could be quite functional, it was helpful to have one that also included a meaningful cord. 

Different Cruise Line Policies

I recently ran across a blog post that was promoting a specific brand of power strip and suggesting that it was really the only type of power strip permitted on cruises. But such blanket assertions are a little misplaced.  Let me start by saying that I have no allegiance to any specific type or brand of power strip. Just get something that gets the job done (but, if you do make a purchase using in of the links on this page, that purchase might generate a commision at no cost to you. For full information, see disclosures)).

There is no blanket policy on power strips that’s applicable to all cruise lines. Here’s the basics of what you need to know.

Some cruise lines have no obvious policies limiting power strips.

Notably, several cruise lines don’t have any express policy one way or the other on power strips. Despite listing out other prohibited items, their customer information pages appear to be completely silent on the issues of power strips and outlet expanders. So, for example, Norwegian Cruise Line has posted an extremely detailed list of items that are prohibited on NCL’s ships. It even goes so far as to specifically identify Samsung Note 7 as a prohibited item. But, the list contains no mention of power strips or extension cords (with or without surge protection).

Likewise, Celebrity Cruises specifically encourages guests who are getting ready to cruise to “gather those electronic devices and chargers”  and cautions that “you’re going to need to keep your devices charged, so make sure to pack your chargers.” But, its website makes provides no instructions or precautions about how folks should plan to actually use those chargers. (Notably, the very next paragraph on the same page entitled “What Not To Bring” doesn’t say anything about power strips or extension cords.)

Some cruise lines expressly bar surge protectors.

Carnival’s policies permit “power strips, multi plug box outlets/adaptors and extension cords”  as long as they don’t have surge protection. And, Princess Cruises has a list of prohibited items that basically adopts the same policy. Its sister cruise line Holland America states a similar policy in its FAQ Booklet (Page 7 under “packing advice”).

Some cruise lines also bar extension cords.

Disney’s list of prohibited items includes “extension cords or surge protectors.” That said, some folks in various cruise fora have reported that they have encountered no problems using USB style hubs instead.

Finally, there’s Royal Caribbean. Its list of items prohibited on board includes “electrical extension cords” without specific reference to surge protectors. That said, I’ve never personally had a problem with bringing my power strip shown above (multi-port USB charger with 2 a/c outlets) even though it obviously has a cord attached. I’ve taken it on at least 6 Royal Caribbean cruises and openly used it without incident.




Key Features To Look For In This Must Have Cruise Accessory

  • No surge protection – Even though not all cruise lines have an obvious express written ban, the majority of cruise ships don’t allow surge protection features. So, a power strip or outlet expander that doesn’t have such a feature can be more widely used on multiple cruise ships.
  • Both traditional A/C ports and USB ports. Many, if not most, of your electronic devices today can be charged using a USB port instead of a pronged plug. Because USB plugs need considerably less space, you’re able to charge more items using one outlet.
  • Compact size. So you can minimize the amount of counter space needed for charges. And, a compact size power strip will be also easier to pack.

Closing Thoughts

A power strip can make your cruise experience significantly more comfortable. Be sure to add one to your packing list!

For more tips on preparing for your cruise and what to pack, download our free prep and pack checklist.  Get your free copy now!


 

 

 


 

How To Enjoy Your Half-Day In Colorful Key West Port

Posted onLeave a commentCategoriesPORTS & EXCURSIONS

Does your family cruise stop at the Key West port? Get some quick tips on how to make the most of your day and enjoy this colorful island.


Key West Port | Panoramic photo of downtown streets

We stopped at the Key West port as part of a recent back-to-back Havana cruise on Majesty of the Seas. At the time that we booked our cruise, I had no knowledge about Key West. I knew it was in Florida, That’s it. And, because the Key West port is a Florida port, I assumed that this would be a stop dominated by a beach excursion. But turns out that visiting the beach was not really the top family option!

Key West has many claims to fame. It’s the southernmost point geographically of the United States. And, it’s only 90 miles away from Cuba. Which  is less than the 160+ mile distance between Key West and Miami. And, several famous writers and poets have called Key West home including Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Robert Frost, and Shel Silverstein. (If you have kids who are Judy Blume fans, let them know that she lives on the island as well!)

Key West has also served as a vacation destination for several U.S. Presidents: Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. Truman’s Little White House is now a popular museum and tourist attraction.

Finally, the Key West port is also known for its amazing sunsets. Unfortunately, that’s one treat we weren’t able to experience due to our ship’s late afternoon departure.

Key West Beaches

Coastline of Fort Zachary State Park in Key West Port

Based on our pre-trip research, the best beach option appeared to be the beach at Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park.  Unlike several of the other beaches in the area, the beach at Fort Zachary remains in its natural state without the benefit of sand shipped in from the Caribbean. It’s a coral beach that’s rocky in texture, so some type of water shoes or flip flops are strongly recommended. The beach snorkeling there receives rave reviews. And, visitors also have the opportunity to tour the historic Civil War fort for which the park is named.

Ultimately, after weighing our options, we decided to explore the island and save our beach adventures for our stop at the Cozumel port.

 


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Touring The Key West Port

Key West Port | photo of direction signs on Mallory SquareOne of the best ways to enjoy your time in the Key West port is simply walking around. You can have a great time strolling around and popping in and out of shops and cafes. Notwithstanding the absence of a beach focus, the ambiance is very much laid back fun in the sun. The laid back nature of the island permeates the atmosphere like a special kind of humidity. You can almost touch it.

Some of the more popular excursions for the Key West port include two variations of a hop on/hop off bus tour. They were both roughly the same price and kids are free. But, there’s a big distinction between the routes. The Conch Train version stays in the downtown area while the Old Town Trolley version includes ½ dozen or so more stops around the island.

Figuring to get more bang for our buck, we signed up for the longer one as to see more of what there was to see. But, truthfully, much of the extra stops were just hotels or shopping centers.  It was nice to see the overall island, but there wasn’t any real hopping on or off at those extra stops. So, if you have time concerns, you won’t be missing much with the shorter versions. Also, since the Conch Train is an actual train on wheels, your kids may get an extra kick out of that.

Beware Wasting Time Getting Into Town

Our cruise ship docked at the Old Mole Pier, which is owned by the navy. The naval installation has restricted access.  So no pictures were allowed while you are on the pier. And, passengers must pass through a security checkpoint and show photo identification when returning to the pier.

It turned out to be quite the production getting from the ship to our excursion.

For the Key West port call, we decided to book our cruise excursions through the cruise line. The Old Town Trolley excursion included transportation from the ship to town where the hop on/off part started. At first, this sounds like a big benefit. Turns out, not so much. It literally took us two hours from the time we were told to meet in the ship auditorium until we actually started the tour.  Followed by another very long wait standing in the hot sun waiting for the shuttle. (We were never provided an explanation for the extremely long wait times.)

It turns out that a shuttle ride from the Old Mole Pier to town takes about 5 to 10 minutes. And, the shuttle rides into town are free. The Old Town Trolley and Conch Train vehicles are used as part of the shuttle service.

Both the Conch Train tours and the Old Trolley tours can be booked online easily, so we might have been better off doing this particular adventure as an independent excursion. We could have skipped the long wait in the auditorium and hopped on a free shuttle into town.

The Old Town Trolley

Once we got into town, the tour itself was great. The trolley passes by many of the main tourist attractions, so if you plan your time right, you can fit in several activities along with the trolley tour itself. Some of the key highlights:

  • The tour starts and ends in Mallory Square. In that same area you can also visit the Key West Aquarium, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and Truman’s Little White House.
  • The third stop is near Sloppy Joe’s Bar, a famous Ernest Hemingway watering hole.
  • The next stop (#4) takes you to the popular Duval Street (see below).
  • Stop No. 5 takes you to the Bahama Village where you can stop and visit the Ernest Hemingway House.
  • Stop No. 11 takes you to the Southernmost point.

We had a very low key and relaxing day on the trolley. Everyone could enjoy open air access in the trolley, and the drivers had interesting observations to make along the way. We hopped off for walking around, seeing key sites, lunch and souvenir shopping. 



Roosters in Key West Port

One distinctive feature found in the Key West Port are wild roaming roosters. There are also wild hens with baby chicks, but the colorful roosters are quite striking and hard to miss. Key West locals refer to these proud fowl as gypsy chickens.

Our trolley tour guide provided a brief explanation about the birds. The short version is that settlers brought chickens to raise as sustenance. And, when some folks migrated to the area from Cuba they also brought roosters for cockfighting. At some point, backyard chickens became obsolete, and cockfighting was outlawed. Owners essentially released both sets of birds to fend for themselves, and they have thrived quite well.

Duval Street

The famous Duval Street is essentially the area’s main strip filled with bars, shops, restaurants and many visitors. For those who like to shop, the shoppers in our travel party found some awesome deals at the Coach factory story. It is situated right down town on Duval Street. No need to leave the beaten path to find it. And, there were countless places to pick up traditional souvenirs as well.

Key West has lots of bars. As the tour drivers like to say, it has more bars than beaches. We were there during the middle of the day with kids, so that wasn’t really part of our itinerary. But it is possible to hit some of the more famous spots as part of the bus tour.

The Southernmost Point

The island of Key West is literally the southernmost point of the United States. And, there’s a special marker commemorating it (a very large cement buoy).  This is also one of the places you can hop off the trolley and explore. Lots of people like to stop there and take a picture. There was quite a crowd and a line of people waiting to do so. The wait to take an actual up close and personal picture with the marker is about 1-1 ½ hours. So, if you want to do that, you may want to go there first, and then continue with the rest of your day.

Getting Back To The Ship

Something else to be mindful of is the issue of crowds getting back to the ship. The trolleys used for the Trolley Tour are also used to shuttle people back to the Mole pier.  Late in the day, as more people were trying to head back to ship, there was a very large crowd waiting at the final trolley stop in Mallory Square. Not everyone could fit and most folks had to wait for next buses. By the time our bus pulled up, there were seats for 5 people. But there were about 45-50 people actually waiting.

Popular Activities For Key West Port That We Ended Up Not Doing:

Based on advance research, two kid-friendly attractions stood out: The Key West Aquarium and the Shipwreck Treasure Museum. Because of time constraints and the logistical delays referenced above, we weren’t able to fit either of those in. So we’ll have to save them for a future trip. But here are a couple first hand accounts which show why you should consider including these on your agenda.

Closing Thoughts:

We found the Key West port to be a delightful island to spend a relaxing sun-filled day. Although a handful of beach options exist, you will likely find more engaging entertainment roaming through town.

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15 Things Families Should Know For An Amazing Havana Cruise

Posted onLeave a commentCategoriesCaribbean, CRUISE PLANNING, Itineraries, PORTS & EXCURSIONS

Over the past few years, the opportunities for regular Americans to travel to Cuba have greatly expanded. And, one of the easiest ways to visit is by sailing a cruise that stops at the Havana cruise port. Booking a cruise can certainly simplify your travel planning, but read on a for few tips to make sure that your family gets the most out of this experience.


We recently sailed on a family cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas.  The absolute highlights of the trip were our visits to the Havana cruise port! For years, I wanted to visit Cuba, but I was never  eligible to go. So once it became possible for Americans to sail on cruises that stopped in Cuba, that shot to the top of my wish list. And this year, we were finally able to pull it off.

Visiting The Havana Cruise Port

Let me preface this by saying, we had a fabulous time. Everyone in our travel party ultimately enjoyed the cruise (even the family members who were forced to arrive without any luggage due to flight mishaps). And we would all do it again.

Here are 15 things that families planning a cruise to Havana should know – some good, some fair, and some watch outs. 

1. Consider Booking Back-To-Back Cruises With Stops At The Havana Cruise Port.

At the time that we looked at booking a cruise to Cuba, the only ones we saw had relatively short itineraries of 4 or 5 days. But we usually plan our summer vacation around a 7 day cruise, so we really wanted something longer.  What we ended up doing was putting together a back-to-back itinerary. We booked a 4 night and a 5 night cruise on the same ship. We kept the same staterooms, so we still had the benefit of only unpacking once. Both legs of the cruise sailed roundtrip out of Tampa. So, for the combined 9 day itinerary, we had two different stops in Havana, plus stop in the ports of Key West and Cozumel. Also, one of the Havana stops was an overnight stop which added additional variety to the itinerary.

The original prices when we booked were very affordable compared to other Caribbean itineraries. And, we saved money booking ocean view rooms. Plus, on two occasions after we booked, our cruise specialist was able to help us take advantage of subsequent price reductions. So, overall, it was a great deal!

2. The Actual Visa Requirements and Travel Restrictions Can Be Confusing.

Americans need two important documents when sailing to Cuba. First, there’s the actual visa needed to enter the country. You can purchase those on board from the cruise line.  It was $75 per person and charged to our shipboard accounts.

In addition to a visa, Americans (or those subject to U.S jurisdiction),  must also comply with government regulations that restrict travel to Cuba. You cannot travel as a general tourist. (So, no bopping off to the beach.) Rather, you must fall within one of 12 recognized categories. If you are traveling by cruise ship, you will complete a certification at embarkation that identifies which bucket your trip falls into.

Also, we opted to purchase travel insurance, so we also had to complete a different version of a certification before we ever left home. Our travel insurance carrier required that we fax in copies a few months before we sailed. Interestingly, the version provided by the travel insurance company had much more descriptive detail as to the categories of authorized travel.

The Key Categories 

Cruise ship passengers will most likely fall under one of two categories. Either the “people to people” category or the “support the Cuban people” category.  The “people to people” category essentially requires that you participate in a tour sponsored by an authorized entity. Some of the confusion about this category likely stems from the fact that the requirements changed relatively recently, in 2017. So some of the information floating around online is no longer valid. In particular, any references you see to an ability to “self certify” under the “people to people” category is out of date.

If you book an excursion with the cruise line, you will be in full compliance with the “people to people” category.

But, you can still be in compliance even if you make excursion arrangements outside of your cruise line. The most likely applicable category would be the “support of the Cuban people” category. (This is a relevant excerpt from the certificate provided by our travel insurance company.)

Support for the Cuban people (31 C.F.R. § 515.574). […] I certify that my schedule of activities does not include free time or recreation in excess of that consistent with a full-time schedule. I also certify that the activities are of recognized human rights organization; independent organizations designed to promote a rapid, peaceful transition to democracy; or individuals and non-governmental organizations that promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba.

You can find more information about what “support for the Cuban people” means here at §515.574.  But be aware that pure leisure activities — such as a day at the beach — do not qualify.

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