Western Caribbean: Before and after the cruise

Following tradition, we booked a cruise vacation with just our family to end  parental leave. This time, to the Western Caribbean. Personally, I much prefer the European cities (or seeing fjords!) but I figured the amount of walking and sightseeing would bore the little ones, so we decided on a Caribbean cruise, hoping that we would hit the start of dry season instead of encountering the end of hurricane / wet season.  And since we’ve been to the Eastern Caribbean, j.w was okay to go on a Western Caribbean itinerary again (he’s been with his family). As it turned out, I ended up planning most of our vacation, including flights, car rentals, shore itineraries and accommodations, which was stressful and disappointing at times, but at least one of us knew what to expect. I didn’t think I w as a beach person, and if you had asked me to choose between relaxing at a beach and walking around a historic or coastal city, I would have definitely chosen the latter (I still might). In my mind,  if you’ve seen one beach, you’ve seen them all. But just like how Italy converted me into a coffee drinker, it seems that this trip may have changed my perspective of island / tropical beaches. I still don’t like spending time in the water, but I would be happy sitting on a lounge chair under some palm trees soaking in the sunlight and ocean breeze. While I would have preferred to be able to read a book or magazine, entertaining a curious baby with sand was an okay alternative. I’m still not a museum person though – I will go but won’t spend hours reading every panel[1]children and science museums tend to be an exception as they are more interactive, so maybe … Continue reading In the end, I’m glad we went with the beach climate – Bean loved the water and the beach, the island beaches were calm, in contrast with the crashing waves in Southern Florida so she got over her timidness quite quickly!

Flights

When I booked our flights, I didn’t realize that we were flying on American Thanksgiving[2]in my excitement, I had failed to realize that the Thanksgiving Christmas parade was taking place … Continue reading, and had I waited to buy our tickets, we probably would’ve saved even more as a result of holiday seat sales. But, our cruise agent had given me a Canadian quote of $300 one-way from Toronto, so when it was $150 one-way from Buffalo, I jumped on it. Other than no waiting at customs, I am thrilled to discover that there is now a Trader Joe’s en route from the Buffalo area. Driving back was no-fun though as the one-year old cried non-stop from there to the QEW, when he finally fell asleep and consequently lost his voice for a couple of days (resulting in whimper cries and hoarseness).

Notes regarding flight carriers:

  • jetBlue logoJetBlue reminds of WestJet, but with free wi-fi on board and really good snacks (blue potato terra chips); $20US for the first piece of check-in luggage but no weight limit for carry-on items!
  • Southwest logoSouthwest is great when you have family, as you board after the A group, before the B group – we would’ve been B15 even though I checked in right at the 24 hour mark, so you get to choose your own seats first and each seat is entitled to two complimentary check-in luggage (leaving us with a ton of free hands because we didn’t have to take as many carry-on luggage!); they have free TV that you can stream on your mobile device but no free wifi. Their snacks are also pretty decent (belvita breakfast crackers), but if you have a peanut allergy, you probably shouldn’t fly with them as they distribute peanuts.

Miami and its surrounding area

We’ve discovered that living in beach-friendly Florida isn’t cheap – accommodations, eating out and groceries are expensive! I intentionally chose accommodations near the beach so we could walk there (no need to pay for beach parking), and but even fresh fruit and vegetables and seafood wasn’t cheap; cheaper than dining out, but I was surprised how much cheaper we get our groceries at home. It is also the last time I order something without inquiring how much it is: a slice of key-lime pie at Big Pink was a whopping $10USD ($13 CAD); thankfully, it was delicious and not neon green[3]I had wanted to try key-lime pie, since that’s one of Miami’s fame, in addition to … Continue reading. I surprised myself that without any spices available for us to use, we were still able to make a pretty flavourful cream-sauce pasta with supermarket new england clam chowder, some brussels sprouts, accompanied with stone crab. US should really have Spanish as the official bilingual language; it was everywhere! In hindsight, I’m glad we didn’t end up staying in Little Havana (that was briefly considered when I was looking for places on airbnb) because the party went to the streets in the middle of the night when news broke that Castro had died.

Trains at Aventura Mallj.w humoured me and we went Black Friday shopping, just not at 6am. We weren’t specifically looking for anything, so we didn’t need to fight with the crowd. Actually, finding parking was a breeze at 10AM, compared to when we left early afternoon – cars followed you when you exited the mall doors. Turns out that if you go shopping (at Aventura Mall, not sure if elsewhere) before noon on Black Friday, some stores have exclusive discounts, like an extra 20% off at the Disney Store. We ended up buying 6 pairs of toddler socks for $7 at Sears (for the toddler, baby, and myself to use since there was a free soft play area that the kids wanted to play in and the candy store sold one pair of sock for $3 behind the counter), and a $50 shopping spree at the GAP because j.w somehow managed to win a gift card at the Samsung booth after taking a 360 photo – just because he had a Samsung phone, hurray! That mall also had a really great train set going and an indoor koi pool pond so that non-shoppers had other options too.

Unexpected surprises

In addition to the $50 surprise from Samsung, we definitely encountered our share of mishaps / unexpected costs on our vacation – to the point where I thought that maybe it was a sign that we shouldn’t have gone:

  • Bean fell down the stairs and bruised and cut her lip and nose a couple of days before – thankfully nothing was broken
  • j.w lost his wallet (third time within a few weeks) a few days before we left; this time it contained his newly received IDs, our US credit card and $400 USD. We still don’t know where it went. Thankfully, he had a temporary paper driver’s license that was still valid and a couple of Canadian credit cards  – though the rental agencies didn’t even check for the expiry date on his old one
  • in my rush to get ready for bible study the morning we were to leave, I had used my wallet to pay for our check-in luggage and forgotten to take it with me. So, no IDs, no health cards, and no credit cards. Thankfully, the second bath of USD was in a separate envelope in my purse and not in my wallet! Guess I wasn’t going to drive.
  • When we checked out of our hotel in Buffalo, they told me that the credit card on file was declined! I had prepaid on the Expedia family and friends site, but the hotel had to charge me again. Turns out, Expedia uses their company credit card to handle bookings, so I had to take the time to call and complain while on vacation – and Expedia made the hotel refund the charges, despite it being cheaper than Expedia’s rates (I suspect it was the 7-day vs. 30-day sleep and fly package). The hotel (Days Hotel) told me later, that they would match any other deal so I just need to call them and ask next time. Also, do not use a + in your email address on Expedia’s friends and family site to book your reservation (eg. youremailaddress+travel@gmail.com) because while it will create an itinerary, you will never get a confirmation email and customer support will have no idea why their emails aren’t getting through to you. I suspect that the “+” is a “bad” character and does crazy things to their script / code.
  • At our first car rental (also booked through Expedia, but with our cruise agent from Expedia CruiseShip Centers), we were surprised to see a $32USD extra charge on top of the prepaid amount. Had I known, I wouldn’t have rented from them. She told us that regardless of who you book with, charges will be added. Yes and no – we booked our second rental with autoslash.com and the fees were included in the breakdown of expected costs, so there were no unpleasant surprises (just pleasant ones – like them automatically rebooking the same reservation at a lower price, or Alamo giving us a free upgrade to a SUV which was much roomier than a standard-sized car and then calling us after our rental to ask how our experience with them was – talk about good customer service!). *Update: Wow, Expedia – I’m impressed. Our cruise agent followed up after hearing about our issue and comp’ed the extra charges. I didn’t expect the latter, but I’m thankful that our cruise agent took the time to hear what happened and how it could’ve gone better. I hope that future customers will be aware of these extra charges, and ideally will find out what they are specific to that location prior to their trip.
  • Way too many places are closed for American Thanksgiving – finding a place to eat dinner that night was an interesting challenge
  • When we got back to Buffalo, after waiting for a while in the hotel shuttle area instead of the off-site parking shuttle area for our ride back to the hotel parking lot, we discovered to our dismay that our car battery had died and needed a jump-start, so our hunger needed to wait. Thankfully, I had snacks for the toddler and she held up! We ended up eating a light lunch followed by a light dinner (back-to-back) but on the way back, our littlest one cried all the way from Trader Joe’s to the QEW before finally falling asleep. As a result, he lost his voice and his cries the following days sounded like a weak whimper with hoarse chattering.

Overall, though, it was a good time away as a family, without needing to worry about cleaning the house, making food (except when we wanted to), doing laundry, or running errands. According to Fitbit, our vacation was indeed a time of rest; the average sleep went up just shy of 7 hours for the week, from about 6 hours or less before and after.

Since this entry started getting really long, even for me to read, I’ve decided to break it up into a few parts. The next two posts will cover the rest of the cruise and port experiences.

1 Comment

  1. L L (@virtualawrence)

    December 13, 2016 at 3:22 AM

    Email me about the unexpected rental car charges. I’ll have them look into that.

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