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May 18, 2013 at 11:55 AM

Alaska cruise FAQs: Internet, seasickness, tipping and smoking

How do wheelchair-bound passengers fare on a cruise? A fellow diner at my table gave the ship a positive review overall. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

How do wheelchair users fare on a cruise? A fellow diner at my table gave the ship a positive review overall. (photo by Brian J. Cantwell/The Seattle Times)

Here’s a roundup of cruise FAQs, with my answers alongside some of the standard info from Princess:

Q: How does Internet work onboard?

A: Pretty badly, in my experience. Princess clearly cautions that the ship’s satellite internet is slower than what you’re accustomed to in the city, with pauses akin to the delays you get in satellite phone conversations. My experience was much worse than that. Links could take five or 10 minutes at times – meaning five minutes per click before a Website opened or a link worked. Many times the log-on was unsuccessful. Disconnections were frequent. At sea, some problems are sure forgivable, but for such service passengers were paying through the nose. Princess’s standard price to use the ship’s computers in the Internet café or for wi-fi elsewhere is 79 cents per minute, with package deals that bring that down (or free allotments if you’re a frequent passenger). At the standard rate, when that clock is ticking while you wait 10 minutes for a click to work it’s like watching gasoline spill on the ground from a fuel hose while your credit card is paying the bill.

The ship’s Internet manager apologized that this was the ship’s first Alaska trip this season and they hadn’t worked out bugs until the final days of the voyage. (Friday, the Internet link was relatively quick; on Wednesday, in Glacier Bay, it didn’t work at all. But, to be fair, we were in the shadow of a 15,000-foot mountain.) He refunded half my Internet bill because of the poor service and credited me with extra time. If you were on the cruise and had a similar experience, be sure to take it up with Princess.

Q: What about phone coverage?

A: Princess says you can use your cell phone onboard, linked through the ship’s cell network and charged through your regular service provider, though this will usually involve international roaming charges; check your provider so you know what service and costs to expect. Princess has a brochure with full info. My Sprint phone never connected with a signal while onboard the ship. Also ask your provider about availability and cost of cell-phone service in Alaska ports. My phone had regular service in Juneau, but digital roaming in Skagway and Ketchikan.

You can use ship-to-shore service from your room phone, but if you are sensitive about costs, be sparing and quick.

Q: How well-suited is the cruise to people with disabilities?

A: A fellow passenger at my dining table used a wheelchair, and he gave Star Princess a good rating. However, stateroom hallways are narrow and when housekeeping carts are out – much of the day — navigation was a challenge, said Dave Wulf, a retired architect from Alberta. Going ashore in Alaska towns with uneven wooden sidewalks could also be daunting. While many shore excursions were not geared toward disabled passengers, excursion planners offered special arrangements with advance notice.

The crowd on this ship included many people in wheelchairs and on mobility scooters. Crowded elevators – a frequent thing on a full ship – created another challenge for them. And last-minute deals weren’t an option: The limited number of cabins with doors wide enough for wheelchairs — Star Princess has 23 cabins designed for the disabled — necessitated booking a year in advance, said Dave’s wife, Donne Wulf, who said this trip was on her “bucket list,” a term you hear a lot on shipboard.

Q: What about tipping on the ship?

A: Princess automatically levies a daily gratuity charge of $11.50 per person for passengers (including children) in standard cabins, and $12 if you’re in a suite, included in your bill at trip’s end. They say it’s easier for passengers that way. The money goes into a pool for all restaurant servers, cabin stewards and the many other service personnel on board. A 15 percent tip is also automatically added to every bar charge, including specialty coffee drinks. Not all passengers are clearly aware of the daily levy, or the bar charge, so they double tip.

Princess doesn’t spread this around much, but you can opt out of the daily gratuity charge at any time. Go to the Passenger Services desk and ask for the form. But be aware that because the ship is of foreign registry, cruise operators aren’t bound by American labor laws or minimum wage rules, so your tip is likely a considerable part of the income earned by the ship’s service crew, many of whom are from places such as the Philippines and former Soviet bloc nations.

Q: Is seasickness a problem?

A: It can be, depending on the ocean swell and how susceptible you are to motion sickness. With Seattle cruise departures to Alaska, the route takes you on the outer side of Vancouver Island, with serious ocean swell common. Some passengers wore patches that constantly deliver medication to help control seasickness. On our northbound voyage, the ship had a distinct roll, and I felt achy and tired all day. I didn’t see anybody upchucking, but I heard it got to some passengers. If it’s a likely misery for you, consider taking a ship out of Vancouver, B.C., which will mostly stay in calmer inland waterways.

Q: Is there smoking on the ship?

A: Princess’s literature speaks of how it has sharply restricted smoking in response to statistics showing that most passengers are nonsmokers. Smoking is now prohibited in all staterooms — and their balconies, nonsmokers will crow — and most interior spaces except for a few small bars and, of course, the casino. (Smoking and gambling seem to go together.) There are designated smoking areas around the ship.

The reality seems a little better for smokers than for nonsmokers. Designated smoking areas are easily found, but elsewhere on ship you’ll be hard pressed to find a single no-smoking sign, so expect to find random smokers just about anywhere out on deck. On Star Princess, a smoking area by the outdoor pool is just upwind of the enclosed (non-smoking) pool area, with a large automatic door the only separation. So a flume of smoke funnels inside every time the door opens — or gets stuck open. Likewise, the casino’s always-open doors allow smoke into the nearby theater and other public areas. For smokers, I give the ship a “B” in terms of how happy you’ll be. For non-smokers, a C+.

Comments | More in Brian hates cruising, Cruises, Trip reports | Topics: Alaska cruise, cruises, Internet on cruises


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