If ever there was something that would scare you about renting a car, it’s recurring stories about rental car companies billing people for repairs for damages they swear they didn’t do -- months after they turned the car in. How do you prove a negative, that that ding in the door didn’t exist when you turned the car in? And how do you protect yourself when no employee of the rental agency is available to do a walk-around inspection with you? The stories seem to be cropping up more frequently -- along with accusations that rental car companies have found a questionable new source of revenue. Read this story by Christopher Elliott, consumer advocate and author of the syndicated Travel Troubleshooter column, and like me, you’ll be shooting photos of every tiny ding and scratch on a rental car before you even open the door. Just make sure that the time stamp on your camera is correct.
In the last few years, I’ve been on 25 or 30 cruise ships, most of them new or newly renovated, sometimes overnight or longer, sometimes just for a few hours. Some features are universally eye-grabbing: dramatic atriums, pool decks, grandly decorated main dining rooms, romantic verandah staterooms. But without spending at least a couple nights on the ship, I can’t judge how well passenger traffic flows through the ship, how good the food and service in the dining room are, or how livable a pretty stateroom is.
So when I got a tour of the Costa Mediterranea this week, my first visit to a Costa ship, I knew I wouldn’t be there long enough to come away with a strong sense of what kind of experience it offered. And part of my interest was because the ship was in the same fleet as the Costa Concordia, the ship that sank off the coast of Italy last year and has yet to be towed away.
The two ships are not in the same class. The Mediterranea’s vital statistics: launched in 2003, tonnage 85,700, 2,112 guests. Concordia is about 30 percent larger, carries about 900 more guests and was launched in 2006.
The main reason I hadn’t been on a Costa ship was that there had not been a lot of opportunities. Costa home ports only one ship in Miami, and does so for only the winter and early spring for Caribbean sailings, before sending the ship back to Europe. After the sinking of the Concordia, Costa stayed pretty low-key in Miami.
Although Costa is owned by Carnival (since 2000), it’s an Italian line that caters to European guests. And that’s what struck me most during my short time on the ship: just how dominant the ship’s Italian heritage is. While many ships have sleek contemporary décor, the Mediterranea is ornate with lavishly detailed murals and wall coverings, colorful Murano glass fixtures, Renaissance-style statuary by the pools, and extra embellishment on just about everything.
Atrium bar on Costa Mediterranea
Dinner service was very traditional, with two seatings; each guest’s seating and table are the same for the entire cruise. In a day when many ships have half a dozen or more extra-fee restaurants, the Mediterranea has only one (upscale Italian fare), plus the lido deck buffet as alternatives to the main dining room.
Announcements on the loudspeaker were made first in Italian. There’s a toga party at the end of each cruise.
As I expected, I finished my tour without getting a sense of what spending a week on the Costa Mediterranea would be like. But I can tell you this: The ship has a gregarious personality.
A new musical show featuring the characters from the Madagascar movies will premiere at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay in May. The 20-minute show, Madagascar Live! Operation: Vacation will feature pop music performed by a live band. It will be staged in the Stanleyville Theater, which will be refurbished, enclosed and air-conditioned. The characters — Alex the Lion, Gloria the Hippo, King Julien, Mort and the Penguins — will also hold meet-and-greets in the park. The show opens May 18 at Busch Gardens.
One of Florida’s best road trip itineraries takes place during Spring Training. A few stadiums are still easy day trips from Miami/Fort Lauderdale, but it’s more fun to take in a few games over several days at different stadiums. You’ll have a chance to get closer to professional baseball’s stars, check out the rookies, and see how the veterans look in this month-long warm-up.
The Grapefruit League’s first game is Detroit at Atlanta on Friday, Feb. 22, but the season really kicks off the next day with eight games. Spring Training runs through March 30, but some of the last two days’ games are played closer to teams’ homes, outside Florida. You’ll find a master schedule here.
A Spring Training road trip can get you off the interstates and take you into some of Florida’s most interesting small towns, which you can explore when you’re not at a stadium. For this part, I like Florida Rambler’s Guide to Spring Training, which helps you design your own itinerary with information about campgrounds, beaches, bicycle trails and other things to do near each of the stadiums. See you at the ballpark!
The ships will be Quantum of the Seas, which is scheduled to debut in fall 2014, and Anthem of the Seas, expected to launch in spring 2015.
Royal Caribbean had already said that the ships would be 158,000-ton, 4,100-passenger vessels — smaller than their Oasis-class ships — but has not said what their features will be. Will they have Flowrider surfing pools? Staterooms that overlook a park in the center of the ship? A parade of DreamWorks characters? We don’t know. While Princess and Norwegian Cruise Line have been unveiling the innovative features of their ships under construction, Royal Caribbean has been silent.
In fact, Royal Caribbean says on its Project Sunshine blog that “a handful of spaces on the new Sunshine-class ships will remain ‘white spaces’ until the last moment so that Royal Caribbean can respond to the latest trends.” The ship has been in the planning and design phase for three years.
Royal Caribbean intends for the name Quantum of the Seas to signify cutting-edge design.
“The new ship will be such a leap forward in terms of vessel design and guest experiences that we thought the name Quantum of the Seas was perfectly appropriate,” said Adam Goldstein, president and CEO.
We’ll just have to take his word for it for now.
The first piece of steel was cut for the ship Tuesday at the Meyer Werft shipyard in Papenburg, Germany. Royal Caribbean has not announced either ship's home port or itineraries.
The part of me that likes things orderly — a very small part, as people who have seen my desk know — wanted to line up the bags neatly, top up, but there was no time for that. It had to be enough that none of the bags fell off the moving belt. Grab, shove. Grab, shove. The bags kept coming and I kept sliding them into a crooked line on the conveyor belt.
The professional baggage handler grinned as he hit the button that moved forward the floor of the luggage compartment, bringing another row of bags within easy reach. He was a muscular guy who clearly worked out, and he had for an assistant a past-middle-age woman whose idea of a workout is walking downstairs to the cafeteria for coffee.
He was doing all the heavy lifting, pulling bags off the top of the stack and bringing them down to the floor. I had to twist my upper torso to move each piece of luggage, but the end of the conveyor belt was level with the floor, and I slid rather than lifted most of the bags. Usually the baggage handler unloads the cargo bay by himself. Having someone arrange the bags on the conveyor belt probably moved things along faster than usual, but it was apparent that baggage handler was not to be my employment Plan B.
I was just playing anyway. United Airlines was giving select members of its top-tier frequent flier group a behind-the-scenes tour of its operation at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport operation, and I had been invited to tag along.
This was not an ordinary tour; this was hands-on, and most of us were like kids who get to climb on a fire engine during a firehouse tour.
There were about 30 of us, and most of us got to do as many of the following as we wanted: Make boarding announcements, scan tickets at the gate, drive the jetway (the passenger bridge), drive the luggage trolleys, scan baggage, track down lost luggage, drive the luggage ramp up to planes and raise and lower it, wing-walk a plane in (those are the guys who walk next to the tip of the wings, orange stick held high), set the chocks in front of a jet’s wheels so it doesn’t roll forward, push back a jet from the gate.
In addition, we got tutorials on how the baggage system and maintenance crews work. We got to heft a black box, see the three-level tangle of luggage conveyor belts, track down the owner of a piece of luggage left on the carousel, hear about the necessity of balancing the weight of luggage in the cargo bins.
Once, our little sub-group of five got to sit in the cockpit of a jet not quite ready to board and talk to the co-pilot.
The employees were all friendly. That’s no surprise: This group was the airline’s best customers, who have voted with their wallets that this airline’s staff is the best.
What was particularly interesting was that even though in the public’s eyes, the merger of United and Continental was completed on March 3, behind the scenes, much of the operation is still run like two airlines. As a plane is prepared for takeoff, the merged airline has two incompatible systems to track as baggage is loaded and balanced, food and drink are brought on board, a place is refueled. It will be at least a year before all the flights are on one system, employees told us. In the maintenance storeroom where bins of parts are labeled and ready for use, it’s United parts on United planes, Continental parts on Continental planes. At least the same crews work on both. Someday, it truly will be one airline.
And in the meantime, about 30 people understand a little better all the work that goes into making a flight ready for travel.