Category: Cruise (Page 2 of 7)

Useful tips and tricks when travelling on a cruise ship, including what to see and do.

Twas the night before Heathrow

Because we will not be returning by the way we departed, this trip is a little different to normal. We’re flying out to New York from Heathrow to pick up our ship, Sky Princess, then sailing back to Southampton via the Eastern Seaboard. This means that we can’t park at the airport like we would normally.

Instead, we catch the National Express coach from Marks Tey (via Stansted). The journey is relatively straightforward, but there are a few things to note:

  • Tickets are cheap. Like really cheap. Much cheaper than parking at Heathrow for a week.
  • The coach stop at Marks Tey is not marked as such. Check for the location on the National Express website first which has a handy, precise map display for every stop on their network.
  • The coach has free WiFi on board. It is rubbish.
  • Journey time is slightly longer than driving yourself, but the coach stops right at the terminals in Heathrow. For us, we thought that was a decent trade-off.
  • You can earn all-important Avios points by booking through the BA Executive shopping site.

When travelling from Heathrow on an early flight, we typically stay at a local hotel the night before. This makes choosing a hotel somewhat tricky because you have to park somewhere overnight, and then find a way to get to the terminal in the morning. We avoid taxis because they are ridiculously expensive for a 5 minute ride to the airport. 

So far we have found four ways to reach Heathrow, each with their own complications.

  1. Choose a hotel on Bath Road
    This involves catching the “Heathrow Hoppa” bus from the terminal to the hotel. Reverse the process next day. Problem? The Hoppa may not start early enough in the morning to get you to the airport on time.
  2. Book parking with Purple Parking
    The long stay Purple Parking carpark is within easy walking distance of some of the Bath Road hotels, most notably the Premier Inn. Park up the night before and walk to your hotel. In the morning, walk back to the carpark and catch the free shuttle bus to your terminal. Problem? It can take quite a while to get to and from the terminals.
  3. Book official parking
    Similar to above, park the previous day and catch the included shuttle bus to your terminal. Problem? Your choice of hotels is limited to those within easy walking distance of the actual terminals. This includes Yotel and Hilton Garden Inn (Terminal 2 and 3), Sofitel (Terminal 5) and Holiday Inn Express (Terminal 4) – all of which tend to be quite expensive because of their location. The runway view from the Hilton Garden Inn bar is amazing though, so, if you can afford it…
  4. Stay at the Thistle Hotel
    Heathrow has an unusual driverless transport system that runs to one of their ‘business class’ carparks. The Thistle Hotel Terminal 5 is located behind said carpark and they have an agreement with Heathrow to allow their guests to use the pods to get there. Problem? You need a code to get through the gate between car park and hotel – which will cost you £6 per person each way.

We decided to try option 4 this time for three reasons. First, the pods look like fun. Second, we were able to pick up a room at the Thistle for just £54 on booking.com, allowing you to earn Avios on the stay using BA Executive Club. Third, this seems to be a really hassle-free ending to our journey.


Top tip: You can ride the pods at Heathrow for free – just press the button to return to the terminal when you reach the end of the line.


Here a map showing your hotel options near Heathrow Terminal 5. Most will require a taxi or Resort Hoppa transfer to reach:


Once at Heathrow, we make our way to Level 2 and the Pod Parking station. These self-driving pods are quite good fun and take just five minutes to reach the car park. The gate into the Thistle Hotel is easy to find and we are buzzed through by reception. It’s a bit of a walk with our suitcases to the front desk, but once there we are checked in in a matter of minutes. As an added bonus we are not charged for the inbound journey on the Pod.


Top tip: The Pods are not an option for guests at other nearby hotels like the Premier Inn. This is an exclusive agreement with Heathrow so Thistle staff will not sell gate access to non-guests.


We’re assigned room 173 on the first floor which is a bit of a pain when travelling with three suitcases. It’s quite a walk from reception and involves a few flights of stairs (there is no lift in that part of the building). However, the room does have a runway view which is brilliant. We’ve stayed in a ground floor room at the back of the Thistle before and it was very tired. This room is a bit knocked about, but the bathroom is nicer this time.

Later we head into the restaurant to watch the planes, consume some beers and have some dinner. Beers are ~£7 a pint. Expect to spend approx £15 on a main course. Lin says her steak and ale pie is good and I enjoy my bangers and mash which makes the bill a little more palatable.

Afterwards we head across the road to McDonalds for dessert. It’s busy but very, very efficient. It’s also much cheaper (and just as enjoyable) as dessert at the hotel restaurant.

Would we recommend the Thistle Hotel Heathrow? If you’re just looking for a cheap place to crash before an early morning flight, this is a really good choice.

So that’s pretty much it. Next stop, New York.


Please note that although we may earn a referral fee or bonus points on some of these services, we never recommend anything we wouldn’t use ourselves.

Back to the city

Initially we had planned to do some dark tourism on Roosevelt Island, but in the end we decide it’s too much hassle to catch two NYC ferries upriver.

Instead we decide to go full tourist and head towards Times Square. Seeing the enormous queue for the NYC ferry, we opt to walk to the nearest subway station (Smith-9 Streets). 


Top tip: You can save a few seconds by buying tickets through the NYC Ferry app. This will allow you to sidestep the ultra-long queue at the ticket vending machine.
Given that there are many hundreds of cruise passengers waiting for each ferry and that this particular route only runs every 40 minutes, you may need to consider the long walk to the subway.
Downloads: iOS / Android


It’s a good 20-25 minute walk through some areas that Linda thinks are a little ‘sketchy’. But hey, that’s Red Hook for you. And it’s still faster than waiting for an NYC ferry that we might not even get on.

Thankfully, it’s straight through on the ‘F’ train to 42 Street-Bryant Pk. Once there we take the obligatory tourist pics in Times Square, then head towards the Garment District because Lin wants to buy some zips. We trawl through a few shops without success before giving up. 

Heading back to the subway we stop at Yard House to sample some of their 260 beers on tap. It’s not cheap, but at least we get to try as many as we like before committing to a full glass. The classic rock soundtrack is pretty cool too.

Afterwards we decide to go straight back to the ship. Even though we don’t sail until 7pm, we don’t want to get caught up in a mega-queue for the NYC ferry again. We arrive 30 minutes before the next ferry and are both extremely relieved to find the queue is quite manageable at Pier 11. But it starts to grow. And grow. And grow.

As we queue, the ferry employees announce that President Joe Biden will be in town tonight – and that the ferry will close from 5pm for a few hours to accommodate him. That could cause some problems for cruisers returning after dinner! We’re entertained by a constant procession of helicopters landing at the pier side heliport – and the presidential air convoy as it passes overhead.

Back on board we watch as Manhattan slips away in the darkness. It looks spectacular from the water. 

Tomorrow we arrive in Newport, Rhode Island.

Our first Rhodeo – Rhode Island

The first stop on our journey back to the UK is Newport in Rhode Island.

Newport is ok, pretty much exactly what you imagine a town in New England to look like. The journey into port by tender is pretty good (I always enjoy the tender for some reason).

We do a bit of geocaching (#GC8FWQP, #GC88TKT) and take in some of the sights listed on Atlas Obscura. Newport seems to be a town that doesn’t like to wake up very early, so we have to wander around for some time before the bars open.

Apparently aliens built this tower.

Our dark tourism tendencies draw us to the Rhode Island Jailhouse Inn in search of an atmospheric beer. Too late we discover the Inn is actually a guesthouse. So instead we stop in at the Brick Alley Pub. The beer is ok, the decor suitably cliché and touristy.

A quick nose around the shops, a new Christmas tree decoration bought and then it’s back to the Sky Princess.

More than a feeling

Another day, another port, another ridiculous accent. Today we’re in Boston, the city where the British Empire began to crumble.

There’s a massive crush leaving the ship – the city has laid on several shuttle buses to take the assembled masses into the city centre. Even cooler, the shuttles are actually the big yellow school buses so ubiquitous on US TV. Obviously, this entails much moaning from entitled cruisers – which is weird, because the buses are free.

We’re dropped off near the city aquarium and immediately head off looking for some dark tourist sights. Our wander takes us along some of the ‘world famous’ Freedom Trail, and we do encounter a few sites that were pivotal in the American Revolution. Obviously, we’re not taught about this episode in British schools, so the significance is somewhat wasted on us.

We managed to grab a few geocaches on the walk, eventually arriving at Copp’s Hill Burying Ground. There’s some impressively old gravestones to check out and the visit is enlivened by a re-enactment troupe doing their schtick.

Dark tourist tendencies sated, we head back in town in the hope of finding somewhere selling a Boston Cream Pie. We fail. Instead we stop for a beer in the sunshine at The Landing overlooking Central Wharf. Being in Boston, it has to be one of the Samuel Adams variants for me.

Definitely not Yorkshire

Today we’re in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which is nice. claiming to be ‘The World’s Friendliest Cruise Port’, we’re even greeted by a bagpiper down on the dock.

In the cruise terminal, a local guide directs us towards a bus that will take us out to a true dark tourism site – the Fairlawn Cemetery. This is the final resting place for the majority of victims recovered from Titanic. The range of ages and occupations is extremely interesting – as is the fact that some of the people still have not been identified.

Afterwards we take a walk to a local shopping mall. On the way we pass a much less well-known dark tourism site, the West End Cemetery. This unassuming black-fenced lot is the final resting place of 125 victims of the Halifax Explosion – an event that levelled most of the city in 1917. I doubt that any of the cruise excursions go past this relatively anonymous corner of the city.

Another bus back from the mall and we stop at the Garrison Brewery on the dock. This is a great excuse to try out one of their beer flights – and sample five beers at once. It certainly makes up for not trying any local brews yesterday.

Sinjins

We arrive in St John’s as the sun rises. Spectacular.

This is what having a balcony cabin stateroom is all about

Saint John followed by St. John’s – almost like the Canadians ran out of names for their cities. On the plus side, the ship docks right in the centre of town, so there’s no messing around when we decide to go ashore.

This time we decide to catch a bus to the outskirts of town. Why? So we can pick up some more soap at the ‘local’ Bath & Bodyworks store which is located in the Avalon Mall. The bus journey allows us to see some of the city – which looks remarkably like any other in North America.

We also stop at a Tim Horton’s to try the local fare. There is so much sugar I fear we will both have hypoglycaemic shock. I won’t be rushing to repeat the experience either. Later we learn that the Tim Horton’s restaurant closest to the dock ran out of coffee and could not meet demand from thirsty cruisers – so our trip out of town paid off.

Back into town and we stop into Broderick’s Pub – thankfully they have a beer from a brewery in town. Which is a good way to end the landside portion of the cruise.

Down South again

Departure port: Southampton
Destinations: Hamburg, Zeebrugge, Rotterdam, Le Havre
Cruise Line: MSC Cruises

This time we’re doing something different and trying MSC Cruises. The surprisingly low fares, coupled with the fact that they are the only operator still running cruises out of the UK at this time of year makes MSC the obvious choice for a short break.

MSC ships leave Southampton later in the evening, so there’s no need to stay in town the night before. Instead we take a leisurely daytime drive down without any major headaches.

Once in town we had planned to stop for lunch in the Westquay Shopping Centre. As we head up from the carpark, I remember there’s an escape room across the road, so we forget about lunch and head over to Locked in a Room instead. The venue is deserted and we are able to walk straight in. We choose Parallax which turns out to be the hardest room of the two on offer but we do manage to escape with six minutes to spare. The theming is great and the games masters really get into character – we have a great time (much better than a KFC).


Top tip: Look under everything.


Afterwards we stop for a Krispy Kreme donut and drive to the port (after much hassle trying to pay for parking). MSC sail from the Horizon Terminal which would be an easy walk from the city centre.

Our first sighting of the MSC Virtuosa moored in Southampton
First ‘glimpse’ of the MSC Virtuosa

Parking is right outside the terminal which is great. The journey through the terminal is smooth and hassle-free – none of the grief we have come to expect when sailing Princess Cruises. No queueing, no shoving, no complaining – incredible.

Once onboard, the sheer size of the ship becomes apparent. With a max passenger capacity of 6334 (+ crew), this place is enormous. There’s plenty of glitz and shiny stuff, much to Linda’s excitement.


Top tip: MSC offer a status match program, so if you’ve achieved status on another line, use the form here to apply for the MSC equivalent. Our Platinum Captain’s Circle status on Princess equates to ‘Gold’ level on MSC.


The cabin stateroom itself is nice, although the MSC experience lacks much of the polish we have come to associate with Princess Cruises. This is particularly true when it comes to tannoy announcements which are given in five or six languages, dragging on for several minutes at a time.

That said, we’re looking forward to our latest adventure…


Please note that although we may earn a referral fee or bonus points on some of these services, we never recommend anything we wouldn’t use ourselves.

MSC at Sea

Today is a day at sea, so it’s a good opportunity to mention some of our (random) observations. It’s a bit like an MSC vs Princess smackdown.

The passengers
MSC cruisers are much younger and a hell of a lot friendlier than the passengers on Princess. There’s a good mix of nationalities and everyone is (in the main) polite, uncomplaining and accommodating. Refreshing.

The facilities
The MSC Virtuosa has something for everyone. From kids clubs to bars, a waterpark to sports park, dance classes to casino to aerial assault course. You won’t get bored on this ship anytime soon.

The staff
As I mentioned previously, the service on MSC Cruises is slightly less polished than Princess Cruises, but that’s not a negative thing. Each night, around 9pm, the waiting staff launch into a weird, unannounced song and dance routine in the main dining room. It’s hilarious – and definitely something you won’t see on Sky Princess.

The buffet
The buffet operates according to some strange opening hours. It is not unusual to grab a plate and find that a counter has closed while your back is turned and all the food has vanished. Pizza, salads and burgers seem to be available almost around the clock, in between scheduled meals.

The bars
Virtually everything is included in the drinks package. You can even drink Lanson Black Label in the champagne bar on the drinks package. The adults-only bar on the top deck is really nice.

The chalet
For a short period each afternoon, a German Christmas Market-style chalet opens on the open deck. Well worth visiting if you like mulled wine, spiked hot chocolate or candy floss.

When it comes to MSC vs Princess, the American cruise line wins for candy floss
Adult-sized portions – Linda confirms it was good

The decor
Think Las Vegas.

Kids
Admittedly, we have travelled in term time, but there are kids on board. And because the kids club is on the top deck, you almost never see them. Those we did encounter were well-behaved, which is nice.

Lifts
To summon a lift, one must first press the number of their floor. A digital display then tells you which of the six lifts to get into. There are no buttons inside the lift, so no one can change their mind mid-journey. As a result, the whole experience is smoother, faster and more pleasant.

Beer
The MSC Virtuosa has a great choice of beers. The ‘pub’ down in the main plaza has plenty on tap – and they live stream Premiership football matches too. The only downside is that snagging a seat on match day isn’t easy.

Food
Generally excellent. Perhaps the only criticism would be that dishes sometimes arrive a little cold in the main dining room.

And…?
Would we travel MSC Cruises again? Yes, absolutely. It’s a different vibe to Princess, but we like it.


Please note that although we may earn a referral fee or bonus points on some of these services, we never recommend anything we wouldn’t use ourselves.

Hamburglar

After a few days at sea we land in Hamburg, Germany. It’s Sunday, so most of the city is likely to be closed. Worse still, the local ferries that would take us straight into the city centre aren’t running.

It’s a two mile walk into town through the deserted docklands area, and the sights are few and far between. We pass the time doing a few geocaches of varying degrees of difficulty.


Top tip: There is a ferry which runs from a nearby dock straight into the St Pauli district of Hamburg – but it only runs Mon-Sat. If you visit on a Sunday, you’ll have to walk, use a taxi from the cruise terminal or pay (€15 each) for the shuttle bus overseen by MSC Cruises.


Eventually we arrive at the Old Elbe Tunnel, an old under-river passage that you may have seen Jon Voight running through in The Odessa File. Cars drive into large lifts and are hoisted to a subterranean roadway before being hoisted back up on the other side. Very cool – we enjoy our walk through this particular piece of history.

At the other side of the tunnel we arrive in the St Pauli district of Hamburg. It’s at least another mile to walk into the city centre but the local Hard Rock Café is right by the entrance of the tunnel. In the same way that I like to visit Apple Stores across the world, Linda loves Hard Rock Cafés, so we stop in for a beer and to purchase a local pin badge for her collection.

Afterwards we head back to the ship in some very (very!) fine snow. It’s a shame the ferries aren’t running – or any other public transport for that matter.

We’ll be back in Germany in June – but next time it will be way down south, in Munich.


Please note that we use sponsored links on this blog. Although we may earn a referral fee or bonus points on some of these products and services, we never recommend anything we wouldn’t use ourselves.

All Brussels, No Sprouts

The Virtuosa docks in Zeebrugge before dawn, offering an impressive moonlit journey into port. Having visited Bruges before, we have this time opted for an excursion into Brussels.

After meeting in the ship’s theatre, we’re loaded onto a coach for the drive into the Belgian capital. Our tour guide provides plenty of Belgian historical commentary, from the medieval beginnings of Bruges to the post-war resurgence of Brussels.


Top tip: It is possible to make your own way to Brussels by train from Zeebrugge. It’s about an hour each way and not particularly expensive – but it’s a lot easier (and more informative) to book an excursion on the ship.

Bonus tip: There is a free shuttle bus that runs from dockside to the dock gates – but that’s as far as it goes. Apparently there are a few public transport options within walking distance from the drop-off point.


The coach takes us past the King Baudoin Stadium (formerly known as Heysel) and on to the Atomium. Built to resemble a super-magnified iron crystal, it’s impressive to note this space age structure was erected in 1958. Sadly we don’t have enough time to go inside.

Afterwards, the coach takes us through much of the European Union heartland. Incredibly, the EU currently occupies 66 buildings – with many more under construction. If you ever wondered where the EU budget goes…

We are then dropped at the Boulevard de Berlaimont near Saint Michael’s Cathedral for a short foot tour with our guide. After showing us a few sights, he leaves us at the Grand Place for two hours to spend however we want. Linda and I head straight for the legendary Mannekin Pis – which is surprisingly tiny (and underwhelming!).

We then head back to the Grand Place and another Hard Rock Café. As well as a local brew, we both enjoy a Belgian Waffle (and buy the obligatory pin badge). We even manage to squeeze in a quick (very simple) geocache before meeting up with our group for the return journey to the Virtuosa.


Top tip: Along with all the usual memorabilia, there are some very cool drawings and portraits by various artists on the top floor of the Hard Rock Café, including Keith Moon of The Who. It is well worth a walk up all those extra stairs.


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