Sunday, December 19, 2010

Allure of the Seas

I admit that I am a cruise addict! I love just about every aspect of cruising. I've been on countless cruises and still can't get enough. On November 29, 2010 I embarked on a 2 night pre-inaugural sailing of the Allure of the Seas. Travel Agents from across the globe were invited for this sailing to learn about Royal Caribbean's newest ship and spread the word!! I was in Ft. Lauderdale attending a NACTA (National Association of Career Travel Agents) convention and the Allure of the Seas sailing was the final two days. The ship catches your eye the moment you see her in port. Sailing out of Port Everglades, the Allure of the Seas can carry 5400 guests, has 16 decks and is 1187 feet in length.
The embarkation process was pretty easy. There are plenty of check-in desks to help ease the process. When I stepped onboard the ship I was on deck 5 in the Royal Promenade. I was impressed from the start. The Royal Promenade was beautiful and huge.

I then ventured to find my stateroom on deck 6, cabin 286.
It is a category D8 Ocean view stateroom with balcony. You can check out video of my cabin on the Travel Videos section of my blog.
Since our sailing was a "journey to no-where", my friend Linda and I had plenty of time to explore.
One of the first things we noticed was new to the Oasis class ship was the giant video screens just off of the elevators. They are touch screens that can help you locate anything on the ship as well as find out how busy the dining venues are at that exact time. It will even give you a map of how to get to your stateroom if you are lost.
There are 7 different neighborhoods on the Allure of the Seas. My favorite has to be the Boardwalk. This was on deck 6, just steps away from my cabin. I loved the feel of the Boardwalk.
It included a hot dog stand, carousel, Rita's Cantina (Mexican food), Johnny Rockets, several shops and the Aqua Theatre. Linda and I grabbed a hot dog for lunch instead of trying to fight the crowds up in the Windjammer Cafe. Rita's Cantina was already busy and had a long line, so we decided we would try it the next day.
Linda and I spent hours walking around the ship and all of the different neighborhoods.
Central Park is beautiful and breathtaking. The Rising Tide bar is located here as well as several of the other specialty restaurants such as Chop's Grille and Giovanni's Table. However, the Park Cafe does offer free food, such as sandwiches and salads.
We then started touring the different suites that were available to viewing. We started with the Royal Loft Suite. This two deck high stateroom has panoramic views, a grand piano, wet bar, 843 square foot balcony and is the largest suite onboard.
It can sleep six.
The suite itself is 1524 square feet. The balcony offers a great panoramic view of the ocean and sports deck. But it does not come cheap. It will cost more than $20,000 to book this cabin for a week. If you are looking for a much less expensive option there is every category from inside cabin to full suites. New to the Oasis class ships is the Boardwalk view balcony cabins. They do cost more than a regular balcony cabin that overlooks the ocean, but they offer a beautiful view of the greenery. They can sleep up to 4 people.
After touring the different cabins we decided to see more of the ship. We ran into one of the two arcades, visited several of the lounges and then changed for dinner. We ate in the main dining room.
The three story dining room is so elegant and our wait staff was absolutely fabulous!! I had the roast duck, which I have had before on other Royal Caribbean ships, but this was the best I have been served yet!! The skin was very crispy and the sauce was plentiful and complimented the duck and potatoes.

After dinner we took in two shows, first we watched a 30 minute performance in the Aqua Theatre. This combined high dives, swimmers on ropes, and a spectacular water show. We then went to the main theatre to watch "Blue Planet". This is a Cirque du Soleil type show. It was incredible to say the least. This was my favorite show onboard. The props and sets were breathtaking. I highly recommend this show above all others! You won't be disappointed.
There are so many activities on the Allure of the Seas that you won't be bored. I have to admit my favorite was the Zip-line. I was terrified to try it, but had an absolute blast. I was first in line for the day and after getting all of my safety equipment on and checked, was standing on the edge of deck 16-literally! I stood on the edge and pushed myself forward. It was only a 5-6 second ride down to deck 15, but I couldn't wait to get back in line again. For those willing to try, you zip-line over the Boardwalk neighborhood. So keep your eyes open, the view is great!

After my zip-lining adventure, Linda and I went to Rita's Cantina. We arrived 5 minutes after they opened and the line was already out the door towards the carousel. We got our pager and waited about an hour.. and I'm so glad we did!! I had some incredible Mexican cuisine. Linda and I shared the Party Nachos!! I had the Mango margarita and then Enchiladas for my entree. Wow, I'm still craving their food. The wait was worth it!! There is a service fee of $7.95, but you get a three coarse meal. Margaritas are extra. It's only open from 11-1pm each day, so make sure to get there early!

I wish I had more time to really share my experience onboard the Allure of the Seas, but I would literally be writing for days!
I enjoyed every second and did not want to get off the ship. It offers something for everyone. There are more than 20 dining options, lots of activities for kids and kids at heart. Amazing shows such as Blue Planet, Chicago, Ice Skating and a Dream Works character parade. I know that you will be as wowed as I was onboard the Allure of the Seas. She is an amazing ship and delivers a great vacation. If you would like more information on the Allure of the Seas, or would like to book your next vacation on her, please contact me at 800-249-7151 or email me at

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Weary of online booking?

This week, USA Today published an article titled "Weary of online booking, clients return to travel agents." The article reported that only 46% of travelers who use the web to book travel enjoy the experience. Why is this the case? Because there is simply too much data out there and we're drowning in information.
There are millions of websites offering information but no one to talk to for help. Travel consultant Suzanne Burr gave a great quote in the USA Today article, "When it comes to really spending money and wanting an advocate, people are turning back to agents because people care. A computer doesn't."
Everyday more people are turning to travel consultants for their expertise and guidance.

The promise of the internet was that everyone could be their own travel agent. But the downside of this reality is that you're left on your own and planning a vacation becomes a stressful hassle. And should any problems arise, you have no one to help fight for you and help you recover any of your lost expenses.

There's an alternative to using Google as your travel adviser. You can turn to an experienced travel consultant who has planned hundreds of trips, booked thousands of hotel rooms and visited the exotic destinations you want to explore. So next time you are planning a vacation, turned to an experienced travel consultant. Whether it's Beck Tours & Travel, or any other agency, we are all here to make your vacation planning a stress free experience.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

New Mexican Law on Accepting U.S. Dollars

The Mexican Government passed a new law which went into effect in Mexico on September 14, 2010. With this new law, you can only purchase items up to $100 in U.S. Dollars. After that you must use Pesos or a credit card.

Other payment methods such as credit cards of all types and all issuing banks, Travelers Checks, Mexican pesos and non-American foreign currencies (such as Euros or Canadian Dollars) are not affected in any way by this new law.

The most noticeable differences will be:
Hotels and Exchange Booths, and Local Banks will only be able to change a maximum of $1,500 USD CASH per person per month into Mexican Pesos. Previously there was no limit.
Businesses (including restaurants, shops, and Destination Management Companys) will only be able to accept a maximum of $100 USD CASH per transaction - but the number of transactions per customer is not restricted. Certain businesses may not be able to, or may choose not to accept American Dollars for any purchase at all (this may include shops, etc), however still accepting Mexican Pesos.
If a customer wants to purchase an excursion (for example) that costs $150 US dollars per person, customers will only be able to pay $100 of this amount in USD CASH and the remainder will need to be in another form of payment (credit card, Mexican pesos, etc).

Airlines are advising they will only accept Mexican Pesos and credit cards for any fees (including baggage fees).

Vacationers should never carry large amounts of American dollars with them to Mexico, but instead they should consider either using a Credit Card, taking or locally withdrawing Mexican Pesos, or use Travelers Check's (of any currency).

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Sneak peak of Allure of the Seas

I will be sailing on the Allure of the Seas for a special 2 night pre inaugural sailing in late November. Here's a sneak peak of the construction progress.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Disney Wonder Tour

This week I got a chance to tour the Disney Wonder cruise ship. The Wonder calls Port Canaveral home, at least for the next few months, then it will move to Los Angeles. The new Disney Dream will replace the Wonder in January. I have sailed on most cruise lines except Disney, so I was excited to get a chance to tour the Wonder. When you come onboard the crew announces your family and everyone clasp!! A cute way to start your vacation. You first enter the atrium, which I found to be smaller than most ships I have seen. But the classic touches of Disney characters is a beautiful sight. Since the crew was cleaning the ship for the next voyage I was not allowed to take many pictures, but I can tell you I was very impressed with the ship and staff.
I was given the tour along with two other travel agents and two members of the Disney sales staff. My biggest surprise was the size of the staterooms, even the inside staterooms.

They were bigger than I was expecting. The smallest cabin, the Standard Inside Stateroom is 184 square feet. It does not have the split bathroom, but still has enough room for a couch and desk. The Deluxe Ocean view stateroom is 214 feet and the Deluxe Ocean view stateroom with Verandah is 268 square feet.

We were allowed to view the Walt Disney suite, but could not take pictures since it was still being cleaned. This was the gem on the Wonder. It is 1,0239 square feet including the verandah and sleeps 7. There are 2 bedrooms (one with queen-size bed; one with 2 twin beds and 2 pull-down upper berths), 2.5 bathrooms including whirlpool tubs, living room, media library with wall pull-down bed, dining salon, pantry, wet bar and walk-in closets.

I got a chance to check out the two pools and quickly realized which one would be my kids' favorite. The Mickey Mouse shaped pool also has a water slide for the young and young at heart!! The other pool has the large movie screen so pool goers can take in their favorite Disney movies or shows. But if you are cruising without kids or would like some time to yourself while your kids are in the kids' club, there is an adult-only pool as well.

I thought one of the cutest areas of the ship was the Oceaneer's club. Disney's Oceaneer Club is the ideal place for children 3 to 12 years of age to dress up as their favorite princess or hero, play games, use the computer lab and enjoy a wide variety of supervised activities throughout the day. I know that my youngest would never want to leave this area!!
The Disney Wonder will be offering 3 & 4 night sailings to the Bahamas until the Disney Dream takes its place in January 2011. The Disney Magic is similar to the Wonder and offers 7 night sailings to the Caribbean while in Port Canaveral. For more information on a Disney cruise, please email me at

Monday, August 16, 2010

Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Today I endured 95 degree heat, high humidity and long lines to tour the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. And it was worth it all!!! Located at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida, the new attraction is a hit!! The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened two months ago. We arrived at the theme park about 10:30am and made it as far as the Jurassic Park area when we had to stop and wait in line. We were given tickets to enter the Wizarding World area. I took my two eldest children with me today and we were told the wait was about 90 minutes. Fortunately we only waited about 35 minutes to get into the main entrance of the magical attraction.
We immediately decided to pass on any of the rides. The ride wait times ranged between 30 to 75 minutes. Since it was so hot and humid we opted to walk around the attraction and take in the atmosphere and check out the shops. The snow covered buildings made me long for cooler weather! We walked to the back of the attraction to find Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It was an impressive structure. It houses the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride and a small gift shop. There is also a wand stand nearby. Each wand is $30.84 with tax. You can choose your wand. My kids' both chose Harry Potter's.

I had been excited to try butter beer and am still craving more. For $10.50 you can buy the butter beer in a souvenir cup. I also purchased the pumpkin juice as well. The pumpkin juice was very refreshing, but the butter beer was amazing. I tried the cold version. They sell cold and frozen. I talked to a few people who loved the frozen as well. I have to say I would pay money to return to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter just for the butter beer.
The theme of the day was long lines. There was even a line to get into the Three Broomsticks restaurant for some fish and chips or shepherd's pie.

I plan to return in mid October to see if the lines have died down, but I highly doubt it.
For a quick tour of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, check out my video on the right hand side of this page.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Freedom of the Seas

I spent this July 4th holiday onboard the beautiful, Freedom of the Seas! The Royal Caribbean ship sails out of Port Canaveral, Florida. Since I live in Orlando, it was a short drive to the Port. We actually arrived later than we normally would for embarkation, about 1pm. The terminal was packed. It took about 30 minutes from the time we got through security until we were onboard the ship. Embarkation itself, was smooth and we had no complaints.
Since we arrived after 1pm our stateroom was ready when we boarded. We stayed in an E2 balcony cabin on deck 6. Cabin 6626 to be exact.
We had lunch in the Windjammer Cafe. The food was very good. We pre-registered my son for the Adventure Ocean club. This was our biggest complaint of the cruise, through no fault of the staff. We have sailed on Princess with my 4 year old many times and he was used to the large kids' club onboard those ships. Princess' newest fleet offers a mini-rock wall in the kids' club, a climbing gym, about 6 computers, play areas, large flat screen tv and an oustide big wheel track. My son walked into the Freedom of the Seas club and was not happy to see only a boat with a slide, a lego table and small tv with a couch. The staff was wonderful, but Spencer didn't enjoy the kid's club very much.
We chose late traditional dining and were seated in the Leonardo Dining Room on deck 3. I was happy with the food, desserts and after dinner drinks that were offered nightly.
Our waiter Raj was fantastic and a true professional.
We sailed to Coco Cay, St. Thomas and St. Maarten. Coco Cay was the only washout. We did some quick shopping on St. Thomas and spent the day on the beach on St. Maarten.

For those looking for a cheap day on the beach, take the ferry over to the shopping area ($6 round trip) and walk to the white umbrellas to the right. The Holland House offers 2 chairs, umbrella and 5 iced cold drinks for only $15. We also rented a jet ski for $55. St. Maarten is my favorite island. The waters are so clear and I love the landscape.

Back on the ship, we passed on the shows, but did try the Flow Rider and rock wall. Make sure to wear shorts over your bathing suits ladies, the current is VERY strong. The sports deck has plenty of activities including mini-golf, basketball and ping pong.
Overall, this was a wonderful cruise. However, be warned that Royal Caribbean no longer offers chocolates on your bed at night (much to the disappointment of my 4 year old) and ice is only offered in the afternoon, unless you ask for more. I would definately sail this ship again!
For videos of my trip, go to my YouTube page,

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Sundial Beach Resort

I spent most of my childhood summers on Sanibel Island, Florida. My parents were school teachers in Indiana and had summers off, so we would always drive down to Sanibel for a couple of weeks each year. I still have a fondness for Sanibel and wanted to share that with my children. Last month my husband and I packed up the car, kids and drove the three and a half hours down to Sanibel. We spent a week at the Sundial Beach Resort. When I booked the resort I asked for a first floor room near the main building. When I checked in there were no first floor rooms still available. At first I was not happy, but this turned out to be a blessing. When I saw our second floor condo I was very happy. We had an amazing ocean front condo. Had I been on the first floor all of the bushes would have blocked most of the ocean view. We chose the 2 bedroom condo. The master bedroom had a king sized bed and the second bedroom had two twin beds. There was also two family living areas which offered two pull out couches. The rooms were clean and there was daily maid service. We ate in the hotel's restaurant the first night and had a wonderful meal. I had the tuna steak and it was perfect. The kids' meals were all to their liking (chicken fingers & hot dogs). There are many wonderful restaurants on Sanibel Island, but we were too tired from packing, unpacking and driving to venture out for the night. The Sundial Beach Resort has 5 pools. We were in building K which is next to the main pool. The pool was huge and had a slide for the kids or kids at heart. We spent more time in the pool than on the beach. The resort does offer beach chairs and umbrellas. The beach is small, but nice. Plenty of great shells to collect. You can also rent bicycles by the day or week. We rented bikes for the entire week and rode most every night down to the Dairy Queen for dessert. Overall, I was very pleased with the resort. It was very family friendly. There was an arcade, a kids' club and daily planned activities. I look forward to our next family vacation to Sanibel and the Sundial Beach Resort.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Passport fees to go up on July 13th

Now is the time to get a passport if you do not have one. New higher fees will take effect on July 13th.

Here is a link with more information.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Best Travel Tip

I offer a priceless travel tip for anyone traveling to Rome. If you are planning to visit the Colosseum and the Forum, visit the Forum first and buy the combo ticket. Have your cab drop you off outside the Forum ticket office. Just walk down a flight of stairs, past the gift shop and you will see the ticket office. You should encounter a small line, if any, and can avoid having to wait in the very, very long lines at the Colosseum. We spent about 2 hours walking around the Forum before walking across the street to the Colosseum. We passed about a hundred people standing in line for tickets and proceeded straight to the entrance. It was a great feeling!!

Later this summer the Colosseum will open the lower section to tourists. This section that once housed the animals and gladiators should open in late July.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Chef's Table onboard Caribbean Princess

We all have our reasons we love to cruise. For me, besides the exciting ports of call, it's being wined and dined and letting someone else do the cooking and cleaning for a week or more. I spent a week on the Caribbean Princess sailing to New England and Canada back in September. I have sailed Princess Cruise Lines several times, but passed on an opportunity I will never turn down again, The Chef's Table.

For the cost of $75 per person diners are treated to an unforgettable and delicious experience. The meal is specially prepared by the head chef himself. I had been reluctant in the past to pay that fee, but after this experience will gladly pay it again and again.

Our evening began with an invitation to meet Maitre D' Giuseppe Franchina outside the International Cafe on deck 5. We were then given lab coats and escorted through the dining room into the Galley. Giuseppe introduced us to Executive Chef Antonio Cereda. This is where the fun began. A select staff began pouring us champagne and bringing out appetizers one after another. Each appetizer was specially prepared only for us by Chef Cereda. They included caviar, salmon tartar and king crab margaritas to name a few. We spent about 45 minutes in the galley before being escorted to a special section of the dining room set up just for the Chef's Table group.

A word of advice, you are going to be served many delicious delicacies, so you may not want to eat much before you go, if anything at all. The food kept coming and each course was better than the last. Once seated at our table we were given our first course, baked parmesan dumplings. Next came my favorite course, raspberry ginger sherbet topped with Grey Goose Vodka. This helped cleanse the palate and prepare us for the incredible main course.

Chef Cereda then brought out a "trio of beef, veal and pork on a medieval spike". He flamed the meat for show and added taste. If that wasn't enough, Head Waiter Tomasz then placed a lobster tail on each of our plates. Did I mention that during this entire meal the wine was flowing? We were offered white, red and a dessert wine. By dessert we were all feeling the effects of the alcohol and had a great deal of fun with our last course. We were presented with an elegant dome which turned out to be made of spun sugar. Chef Cereda lifted the dome to reveal "iced amaretto strawberry parfait with fresh berries". The bowl securing this delicious dessert was also made of sugar. After devouring the parfait we all started to break apart and eat the sugar bowl.

Once the meal was complete a ship's photographer took a group picture and individual photos. He returned about 20 minutes later with our complimentary pictures and Chef Cereda and Maitre D' Franchina presented the ladies with roses and each couple signed cookbooks.

If you decide to take part in the Chef's Table sign up the second you arrive onboard your Princess ship. Only 12 people are selected per night and in our case they only offered the Chef's Table two nights. If you love being wined and dined don't pass up this truly incredible experience.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Two Blocks to Italian Treasures

When in Rome.....”. Well, you know the rest. The person that coined that phrase knew what they were talking about. This past summer I took a week long trip to Rome & Venice with my husband, Gregg. It was our present to ourselves before he returned to duty in Iraq. We traveled to Rome four years ago with our children. But this time we traveled solo and decided to put a new spin on our journey. We would challenge ourselves to stay 2 blocks away from the touristy food joints and experience Rome that way the Romans have been for centuries.

To test our theory we first ate at Piazza Navonna to get a reference on food quality and price. We sat at one one of those umbrella laden spots that charges 20 Euro for an appetizer of mozzarella and tomatoes. That wasn’t too bad, but the Pizza Margarita was unedible in our opinion and way over priced, 15 Euro each. Our pizza’s were thicker than the true Italian style pizza and the sauce didn’t have any flavor. After paying about 80 Euro for lunch we quickly dashed back to the hotel for some Pepto Bismol.

After recovering from that gastronomic experience we decided to begin our 2 block test. For dinner we walked two blocks from our hotel and came across a little Osteria on a small cobble stone road. We were greeted with “Buona Sera” and I tested my Italian and asked for a table for two. We were offered a cozy little table where one seat was still in the restaurant and the other was outside. I opted for the outside seat so I could check out the locals and look at the stars. It didn’t take long to see that our 2 block test was working. Once the menu arrived I found the mozzarella and tomato appetizer to be priced only 7 Euro. The quality was also much better. For dinner I had the sea bass with potatoes. It came with the potatoes thinly sliced over the fish and cooked to perfection. That dish only cost 18 Euro. Worth every penny according to my taste buds. Dinner that night, including an appetizer, two meals, two desserts and a bottle of Prosecco for 24 Euro, came to just less than what I had paid for lunch at Piazza Navonna. And I didn’t need any Pepto Bismol this time around.

It was on our third day in Rome that we came across my favorite Italian Treasure. “Aspettando il Pane”. Now, everyone that visits Rome will probably have their favorite restaurant, but to me this one out shined all of the rest we had visited. Gregg and I were still in full 2 block theory mode when we stumbled upon this new restaurant. Literally translated, “Aspettando il Pane” means “Waiting for the bread”. I found this funny since there was no waiting for anything at this gem of a restaurant. Service and food quality were incredible. We were greeted upon entry by the owner Samantha. We decided to eat outside. There were about half a dozen tables outside for anyone wishing to let the breeze keep them cool. Samantha returned a minute later with two complimentary plates of bruschetta. Now I have to admit that I have never liked tomatoes, only in sauce and soup form. But the bruschetta looked so appetizing, I figured it’s time to give my husband the shock of his life and try a tomato. I took one bite and was hooked. The bruschetta was covered in olive oil and basil, my two favorite things. I couldn’t believe I had been missing out all of my life on this delicious Italian appetizer. My husband was blown away that I cleaned my plate.
For my first course I ordered the crostini with mozzarella and prosciutto crudo. I rarely eat a dish that makes me moan with delight, but I think I embarrassed Gregg on this one. The Crostini was perfectly crispy with the melted mozzarella and prosciutto on top. When Gregg saw the twinkle in my eye, he knew we’d found our favorite restaurant in Rome, and the second course hadn’t even been served up yet.

For the second course, Gregg ordered the gnocchi with tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella while I ordered the traditional fare of spaghetti carbonara. My carbonara was the best carbonara I have had in Italy, and I have had a lot along our past journeys to the Amalfi Coast and Rome. The sauce was perfectly seasoned with pepper and thick enough to lap up with my bread. Gregg’s gnocchi had fresh chunks of mozzarella sitting on top. Just enough so that he could have small bites with just about every spoon full. We praised Samantha for the unforgettable meal and told her we would be back for dinner. Our entire lunch bill, including two appetizers, two meals, two cokes and a bottle of water came to 53 Euro. Money well spent I told Gregg. At Piazza Navonna the same meal would have probably cost us 100 + Euro.

We returned to “Aspettando il Pane” for dinner that night. Again, Samantha offered us the complimentary bruschetta and I quickly ordered another appetizer of crostini with prosciutto crudo. I had been dreaming about it all afternoon and couldn’t wait for another plate.

For dinner, I tried the scallopine with gorgonzola while Gregg opted for the scallopine a la limone. Each of our dishes came with three thinly sliced pieces of veal and a small salad. Mine was swimming in a creamy gorgonzola sauce while Gregg’s had a beautiful slice of lemon on top. Make sure you have some bread if you order the scallopine with gorgonzola sauce. Both dishes were cooked to perfection. The veal was thinly sliced, yet very juicy and perfectly seasoned. For dessert Samantha recommended a refreshing lemon drink to cleanse our palate. We both ordered a glass and Gregg finished his in record time. The lemon drink was a thicker, more cream based drink. It was the perfect ending to our meal. And again our dinner bill was less than what we had paid for lunch at Piaaza Navonna our first day.

If any story has to have a morale, I guess my story’s morale is to enjoy the tourist sites in Rome, but not the tourist eateries. They can be steep on your wallet and tough on your digestive system. Gregg and I spent a week in Italy and tested our 2 block theory every day and every evening. We encountered some of the most wonderful restaurants and were treated like family by restaurant owners, like Samantha.

So remember, as they say... “When in Rome”.