Monday, June 23, 2008

Med Cruise Expenses

As of today, we're also booked with Rome in Limo for transfer from the airport to the port. The driver will pick us up at the airport then stop by the Rome Hilton to pick up the other 2 couples that are sharing this ride with us. No deposit was required but it is guaranteed on my business Capital One Mastercard. Payment in Euros will be due when we arrive at the port. I'm waiting to hear back on whether or not these same couples will share a ride back to the airport with us.

I also received confirmation and an itinerary from Italy Limousine Luxury Car Service: "first to the pasta making factory that make the pasta the old way by hand /then Mozerella
( MARIO knows some really great local resturants where we go to eat they do not have internet sites as they work mainly with us locals but real italian cuisine like our gradmothers used to prepare and cook then onto Pompeii then onto Positano (if there is time ravello ) need se how mach time in pompii etc ". Well, typos aside, this excursion sounds like a lot of fun...

Here are the expenses thus far for our Med cruise:

Cost of cruise for 2 adults, Celebrity, Galaxy, concierge class, cabin 1102 booked in January 2008 (8 months prior to departure): $5146.74

Cost of air for 2 adults, United airlines, coach class, round trip OKC/Rome booked in January 2008: $2916.30

Rome to Civitavecchia transport, Rome in Limo, 6 adults sharing: $28.33 Euros per person = $87.87

Messina wine tour through Celebrity: $94 per person = $188.00

Athens private tour, Spiros taxi service, 8 adults sharing: $56.25 Euros per person = $174.44

Ephesus private tour, Ekol travel, 8 adults sharing: $65 per person = $130.00

Naples private tour, Italy Limousine Luxury Car Service, 6 adults sharing: 63.33 Euros per person = $196.33

Cruise gratuity: $11 per person, per day = $220.00

Private tour gratuities: $3 per person/half day or $5 per person/full day = $42.00

2 Mobal GSM phones: $373.00 (-$60 call credit) = $313.00

Total (not including meals, souvenirs, etc): $9414.68

I probably shouldn't count this as a Med cruise expense but I did just invest in a new ultra compact digital camera today to replace my Fuji Finepix A820 which has been driving me bananas for the last year or so. I just purchased a Panasonic Lumix TZ5 for $264.90 and free shipping. 9.1 megapixels with 10X optical zoom and a 3" LCD, intelligent auto mode, HD output, digital red eye correction, face detection, and optical image stabilization. Woo hoo! Can't wait to get my hands on this new camera and try it out on our Santa Fe backpacking trip!

A few more links that I've been reading planning for this trip:

6 most popular ways to call home while travelling

8 top tips for travel packing and luggage

79 travel tips

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Turkey, Wine, and Razors

Our tour to Ephesus is booked! I faxed the booking form to Turkey this morning (my first international fax that I've ever sent) and received an almost instantaneous confirmation from Ekol. I had called to check with my Capital One mastercard and confirmed that there would be no fees for the conversion of USD to Turkish Liras. I also received a confirmation from Ekol that our tour group members (tour groupies?) would be able to pay the balance of the tour cost in USD, Turkish Liras, or even by credit card at the beginning of the tour. The $130 USD deposit (25%) went on my Capital One mastercard.

I've been researching tonight for ways to bring wine home with us from the Mediterranean. This will be a given that we will be purchasing wine abroad. It would be wonderful to bring back a representative sample of wine from each country that we are visiting. One option is the Bottlewise wine bag but this option is pretty expensive. I also looked into an Ultimate Wine Cradle made by Naylor winery. Maybe we'll consider a combination of both strategies.

Our new Razrs arrived today from Mobal. I haven't had a chance to play with them yet but these phones are an investment for our upcoming trip and all of the international trips that we plan on making in the future. I'd looked into AT&T international calling plans but have no interest in upgrading our service for a monthly fee. It would be nice to just have one phone number while we are abroad but AT&T's international calling plans are a bit convoluted.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Mediterranean planning - transfers and tours

Plans are moving right along. I remember thinking that our round trip transfers from the Rome airport to Civitavecchia port and back was pretty expensive through our TA: $340 USD for the both of us. I'm not sure if this is Celebrity transport or not. I've got an inquiry in to my TA about cancelling this transfer in favor of a shared transfer with 2 other couples on the morning that we arrive Rome. So here's the current update on our transfers and scheduled tours:

Rome - Thinking about booking with Rome in Limo which came highly recommended on the Cruise Critic message boards. For 6 passengers, we were quoted 170 Euros total (28.33 Euros per person). The driver will pick Seth and I up from the airport (we arrive at 8:50 am) then swing by and pick up Steve/Marci and Stan/Clare from the Rome Hilton right by the airport. I hope they'll share a ride back to the airport with us but our flight was changed to 10:40 am rather than 3:15 pm and their flight doesn't leave until 2 pm. I was hoping for a nice leisurely breakfast the morning we dock and then taking our time getting off the ship, but that's not to be.

Sicily - Seth and I booked Celebrity's Messina wine tour for $94 USD per person and paid with our Disney Visa. Wade and Charlie also booked this one.

Athens - Spiros taxi service. There are 8 of us booked so far (myself, Seth, Wade and Charlie, Steve and Marci, Stan and Clare). The cost is 450 Euros total (56.25 Euros per person). The booking did not require a deposit.

Mykonos - I've been reading a lot about this port and have seen suggestions ranging from renting a scooter or ATV, seeing the windmills, Petros the Pelican, Little Venice, and having an Uzo or Ouzo drink. From what I've read, there are plenty of rental places near the pier and advance reservations are probably unnecessary. Rentals run about 20-30 Euros and are described as very straight-forward/easy. A google search turned up OK Rent a Car & Moto. We'll be touring this island on our own.

Ephesus - We're in the process of booking with Ekol Travel but I'm sorting out the deposit, Turkish Lira stuff right now. The private, Ephesus/House of Virgin Mary/Temple of Artemis tour is described as: Met by your private guide at Kusadasi port with your name sign and start for Ephesus trip. Drive to the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Ephesus was undoubtedly one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world. Impressive structures we will see include the Library of Celsus, Temple of Hadrian, Theatre and Odeon. We also visit the House of the Virgin Mary where she is believed to have spent her last years. On August 18th, 1961, Pope John XXll proclaimed the House of Virgin Mary at Ephesus to be sacred. Drive back to Kusadasi. Some free time for shopping. The cost is $55 USD per person. We'll also be adding on the Terrace houses for an extra $10 USD per person. This tour requires either a full payment or 25% deposit with the deposit being exchanged into Turkish Liras. It's unclear to me right now if the balance due at the time of the tour will also be in Turkish Liras. I will probably book this one with my business Capital One mastercard as I've read that it doesn't charge a conversion or service fee.

Rhodes - I've read a little about this island but need to read more including the Rhodes (island) travel guide. We're planning to tour this island on our own.

Santorini - From what I've read, the choices are to take the tram, ride a donkey, or to hike up the mountain. We'll be touring on our own and probably taking the tram. I've read that there are concerns with the way that the donkeys are treated and hiking up the mountain is difficult between donkey-doo and dodging the donkeys on the path. A taxi to Fira or Oia should be less than $10 USD one way. It's recommended to check out the wineries (including the Boutari winery) and to not bother with Akrotini.

Naples- this one is booked with Italy Limousine Luxury Car Service - a food and wine tour including a visit to Pompeii and lunch in Positano. I've requested pasta making, mozzarella farm, and olive oil mill. They are currently putting together a proposed itinerary for us. There are 4 of us booked for this tour (myself, Seth, Wade, and Charlie, Linda and her husband). The cost is 380 Euros total (63.33 Euros per person).

I think we'll try and buy Euros from our bank prior to our trip. It looks like for our transfers and tours that I'll need at least 450 Euros. After checking with the Bank of Oklahoma's website, it looks like they will do foreign currency exchanges for free at current exchange rates! They will also buy paper foreign currency at current exchange rates with no fees. This is great news and takes a great weight off my mind! Now, to figure out when to buy Euros. Google to the rescue again....this Euro Currency Exchange Forecast suggests that August will be a good time to buy Euros at about $1.47. Today's currency exchange is at about $1.55.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

More Mediterranean plans and links

Finally getting around to finalizing some of our private tours in the Mediterranean. I've been in contact with another couple (Wade and Charlie) on the Cruise Critic Message Board Roll Call who will be joining us on all of our private tours. On previous cruises, we've always gone with the cruiseline's shore excursions so arranging these private tours has been an experience but I've learned a lot. I'm not so much interested in saving money as I am about having a flexible and personalized tour with a small group. We've been on plenty of other tours where we found ourselves waiting around for stragglers or people with no concept of time. I just hope these tour companies turn out to be great experiences.

Rome (22 AUG and 1 Sep): I've pretty much decided that we'll have to come back another time to properly tour Rome. Between concerns with jet lag when we arrive and being too "rushed" (not to mention the cost! 330-350 Euros for 4 hours not including guide services and admission fees), I've given up trying to do a quick tour of Rome this time around.

Sicily (23 Aug, 1200-1800): I did get back the quote from Cellar Tours for a half-day winery tour with private vehicle and guide: a whopping 500 Euros PER PERSON! Yowch! I re-read the Celebrity shore excursions for Sicily and am seriously considering booking the Messina wine tour through the ship for $94 USD per person. "Departing by coach, you will travel south along the highway en route to Mount Etna joining the scenic road which winds around the slopes of the mountain passing the town of Giarre and the village of Santa Venerina. Driving across Santa Venerina, you will see the damages from the earthquake, which hit the area in 2002. Reaching the estate of the Barons di Villagrande, the Baroness will guide you on a tour of the cellar and the winery. You will enjoy views over the fertile valley and fields covered with vines which produce the certified Etna wine, which is made special by the lava. Once the winery visit is completed, proceed to the old stable where you will enjoy a Sicilian brunch with local products and to taste the different qualities of wine produced on the estate. After lunch you can buy the wines at the winery shop before returning to the ship." We only have 6 hours in this port.

Athens/Piraeus (25 Aug, 0700-1900): We're already booked with Spiros Taxi Service for a full-day tour, 8 people, 450 Euros total ($86 USD pp)

Mykonos (26 Aug, 0700-1700): I've just started to scratch the surface of this port. The general recommendation is to tour the Greek islands on our own. On this island we might consider renting scooters, seeing the windmills, having an Uzo (drink), and trying to catch Petros the pelican.

Ephesus/Kusadasi (27 Aug, 0700-1900): I have a request in to book with ATB Holidays. I've asked them to include the Terrace Houses which will be an additional $10 USD per person. So far, we have 4 passengers at 80 Euros per person ($123 USD pp) If we add 2 more people, the price drops to 70 Euros pp ($107 USD pp). I had also contacted Levent Solmaz - another tour operator highly recommended on the Cruise Critic message boards and received a reply that he had already been booked by a group of 8 from the Brilliance of the Seas. He did offer to take us as he could take up to 12 people in his group. I thought that was maybe just a bit too crowded and kind of defeated the purpose of a private tour.

Rhodes (28 Aug, 0900-1800): still working on this port.

Santorini (29 Aug, 0700-1800): also still working on researching this port.

Naples/Capri (31 Aug, 0700-1800): I have a request in to book with Italy Limousine Luxury Car Service. I've asked Josephine to add on Pompeii and also requested lunch in Ravello or Positano rather than Sorrento. We're particularly interested in pasta, mozzarella, limoncello, olives, and wine. There are 4 of us booked for this UNIQUE tour so far at 380 Euros total ($147 USD pp). The tour can accomodate 2 more people to bring this tour down to about $98 USD pp.

Other links that I've been using:

Rick Steves' Italy Audio Tours

Credit/debit/ATM cards in Europe and exchange rate information

Mobal GSM World Phones

Cruise Critic Door Sign

Frommer's Intro to Santorini

Royal Caribbean Brilliance of the Seas Roll Call

Seat Guru

Other useful pieces of information:

Capital One credit cards do not charge transaction fees and conversion fees
There are room service cards in the cabin's desk drawer
Gratuity is recommended to be: $11 per person/day
Tour gratuity is recommended to be: $3 pp for a half day tour, and $5 pp for a full day tour.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Planning for the Mediterranean

I've finally started getting serious about planning for our Mediterranean cruise coming up in August. For private tours in the different ports, this is what I've researched so far:

ROME: Rome cabs contact: Stefano Costantini
Tour duration: 4 hours, 2 people
Tour description: pick up/transfer to/from airport and pier;
"The standard tour I provide in Rome is designed to cover the city major sites . Additional off the beaten path tours can be arranged upon request of the client.
The drive will continue along Ostiense Road and arrive at the Pyramid built for Caius Cestio .At this stage of the tour we will be inside the ancient Roman Wall built by
Emperor Aureliano. We will then arrive at the Circus Maximus, the large ancient stadium for chariot races. Behind the stadium you will see the Palatine Hill where the villas and the domus of the emperors were built. At this point you will be able to see the Arch of Constantine and the Coloseum. We will stop here, and you will be able to visit the Colosseum and the Roman Forum on your own if you wish. In order to avoid lengthy, and time consuming queues, I will obtain the entry tickets in advance as a complimentary service for my clients. The fees for the entry tickets will be added to the final bill (the Colosseum charges 11 Euros per ticket). Following the Colosseum, we will stop at the Piazza Venezia where you will see the Vittorio Emanuele Monument, dedicated to the first king of Italy. Our next destination will be the Pantheon, once the temple of all Roman gods, then a church and burial place for kings and artists (Raphael). Near by are the piazzas and fountains that are famous in Rome. Trevi fountain will follow. Here you can toss a coin in the fountain to ensure a return visit to Italy. Finally, you can rest and have a seat on the Spanish Steps.
Please note that the order in which we will visit the sites may vary pending traffic conditions or other third party act. The tour can be altered to personalize your desires. Additional costs for entry tickets are not included in the tour fee, and the costs for entry tickets purchased in advance will be added to the final bill. The fees for the tours
include tolls and parking, and are required in Euro funds."
Tour cost: 330 Euros, not booked yet
Tour notes: Not sure if we'll do this one. Awfully expensive but what a shame to be in Rome and not get to SEE it! We're not arriving early to Rome or staying late. Our flight leaves at 3:15 pm the day we dock. Seth wants me to check into changing this to the day we arrive in Rome and touring before the ship leaves - we won't be quite as rushed for time (flight arrives Rome at 8:50 am and we depart on the cruise at 6 pm).

SICILY/MESSINA: Cellar Tours Contact: Genevieve McCarthy
Tour duration/details: Still waiting for quote and itinerary

Private Shore Trips Contact: Ken Diaz
Tour duration: 4 hours, 4-6 people
Tour description: "For Food and Wine tours in August, our Messina office recommends a transfer to a wonderful restaurant / winery estate. It is located in a very scenic area over a small hill and is surrounded by vineyards. They specialize in traditional Sicilian foods and wine. Your visit to the Wine Estate will include a tour of the cellar with tasting of local products (wine, oil and cold cuts). The cost is 10 Euro per person. If you would like to eat at the restaurant, the medium price is 25 Euro each plus wine. Your tour will include minivan vehicle and English speaking driver (not a guide) who will take you to the location of the restaurant. Messina port - Santa Venerina: 45-60 minutes (traffic pending) Wine and food tasting at winery estate: 2 hour 30 min Santa Venerina – Messina port: 45-60 minutes (traffic pending)"
Tour cost: 445 Euro, not booked yet
Tour notes: This one also seems expensive for only 4 hours. Should we stick with a food/wine tour or see more sights? Also waiting for the quote from Cellar Tours.

ATHENS/PIRAEUS: Spiros Taxi Service contact: Spiros
Tour duration: full day, 6 people
Tour description: "The Athens & Sounion tour is a full day tour. This tour includes: the Acropolis, the Kalimarmaro stadium (which is our national stadium), the changing the of the guards, shopping at the Plaka area, the Greek & Roman agora, the stills of Olympian Zeus. Then we drive along the coastline of Athens down to the temple of Poseidon at cape Sounion (here we will have lunch by the seaside). For the Athens & Sounion tour there are 2 options: 1) You can choose to do just Athens and take the time you want to see everything there. 2) You can choose Athens + Sounion but please note that the ride down to Sounion takes some time (about 1 hour + 15 min). The choice is yours."
Tour cost: 450 Euros, already booked
Tour notes: Wade and Charlie (swh&cv) booked this for 8 of us in a van and have confirmation.

MYKONOS: nothing booked, haven't looked yet

EPHESUS/KUSADASI: ATB Holidays Contact: not contacted yet
Tour duration: full day, 1-4 or 5-10 people
Tour description: Full Day, Ephesus and the House of Virgin Mary. Meeting your bus and tour guide in the peer at Kusadasi port to take a full day tour of Ephesus and Virgin Mary's House. First, visit the the Temple of Artemis Ion. Then prceed with ancient city of Ephesus where you will explore some of the best preserved theatres, fountains and buildings in the world. A definite must while in Turkey. Not to be forgotten is the House of the Virgin Mary on the top of the Mountain, a pilgrimage site for many people of all denominations. After visits, we will be transfered to your cruise ship.
Special instructions: Tour includes transportation by comfortable, non smoking, air conditioned vehicle, exclusive services of a qualified English-speaking guide, admission fees to the visited sites and museums, and parking fees.
Restrictions: Ephesus gets very crowded and extremely hot in the summer months, so take plenty of water, sunscreen, and head covers. It is not allowed to take photos inside of the Virgin Mary House.
What's included: Admission fees to the museums as mentioned in the itinerary. All sightseeing tours as described in the itinerary. Local taxes and service fees. Lunch. Pick up from ship and drop off services. Private and exclusive services of ATB Holidays; transportation and guidance. Transportation by air-conditioned, nonsmoking vehicles.
Tour cost: 1-4 people, 80 Euros per person; 5-10 people, 70 Euros per person.
Tour notes: Wade and Charlie are interested in this one too.

RHODES: nothing booked, haven't looked yet

SANTORINI: nothing booked, haven't looked yet

NAPLES/CAPRI: Italy Limousine Luxury Car Service Contact: Josephine
Tour duration: full day, up to 6 people
Tour description: "Enogastronomic Wine Tour. the cost is for car and driver english speaking. naples port we do pasta making/mozerella making wine would be out of season. naples you should visit this typr of area then stop at a local resturant to sample real cooked from from the old tradition (this cost is not included but no more than 20,00 to 25 euros)" She also wrote back (can't find the email) that they would recommend touring an olive oil facility too - they have a driver that is very knowledgeable about olives.
Tour cost: 400 Euros
Tour notes: Sounds like a lot of fun if we can find more people to join this tour to help bring the cost down. Wade and Charlie are interested.

More helpful links that I found:

Europe Port Reviews

Italy Sightseeing Guides

Cruise Ship Calendar

Monday, June 02, 2008

Travel Plans

2008 seems to be our year for extensive travel. It's almost the middle of the year but we still have the bulk of our trips planned in the next 4 months. So far this year, Seth and his dad went to Santa Fe for a week in February to attend another blacksmithing course. Fortunately, they made it back in time to attend the Winter Charity Ball.

In March, I took a trip with "The Girls". 7 of us went to Las Vegas to play in the
World Bunco championships at Caesar's Palace. We had an awesome time. I must have taken about 300 pictures. Soon after returning from Las Vegas, we took the kids on a last-minute trip to Anaheim and San Diego visiting Disneyland for a few days then renting a car and driving down to San Diego for the rest of the week. It was Spring Break and neither of my partners were taking the week off so we seized the opportunity and had a blast. Another 200 pictures - got to love the digital age.

Seth attended another acupuncture course - this time in Calgary, Canada. I went along simply because I'd never been to Calgary before. It was a quick 5 day trip in May. Calgary reminded me a lot of OKC. We drove to Banff and visited Lake Louise and, of course, ate at some very nice restaurants in Calgary. I hope that future acupuncture courses are in the larger Canadian cities. Calgary isn't the type of city that I'd go out of my way to visit again. I would love to visit Quebec someday. This time, just a
handful of pictures mostly from our day in Banff.

On the agenda for the rest of the year:

5 - 6 June: Amina's highly anticipated 11th birthday party. It's not really a trip - "the girls" are coming over around 1:30 on Thursday and we'll drive to Oklahoma City to go to Incredible Pizza Company for games and dinner. After dinner, we'll drive home, swim at night, then the girls will spend the night. Amina was promised a Birthday Cookie from the Great American Cookie Co for breakfast. Dee, Jason, Mom, and the twins are driving up from Dallas on Friday. As an added surprise, I just ordered a cake today in the shape of a large pink cell phone. I figured since Amina won't be getting a real cell phone this year for her birthday (despite some MAJOR hint dropping), she'd still get a cell phone.....cake. LOL. Yes, I'm an evil mommy. Bwah-ha-ha-ha....

28 -29 June: overnight stay at the Great Wolf Lodge in Grapevine for Rhys' birthday. I convinced him to spend his birthday at GWL instead of planning another pool party (Pokemon themed no less). When I sat down to research party supplies, favors, and other Pokemon themed things, my head was spinning. Dee, Jason, and my mom will come up from Dallas and meet us there. The twins will be in Las Vegas visiting their other grandma. We plan on leaving Saturday morning, arriving early afternoon, spending the afternoon playing MagicQuest, having dinner, spending the night (we booked the Wolf Den Suite complete with the cave themed club house with bunk bed and tv for the kids), then hitting the indoor waterpark on Sunday morning at 9 am. We'll probably drive back home again late Sunday afternoon.

2 -7 July: Backpacking trip in Santa Fe. Seth really really wanted to do this trip with the kids this year. His plan is for us to drive to Amarillo on Wednesday evening, spend the night, then drive to Albuquerque on Thursday to pick up supplies at REI and spend the night. We hike into the Santa Fe mountains on Friday, spend 2 nights and hike back down on Sunday, drive to Amarillo to spend the night, then return home on Monday.

21 August - 1 September: 10-night Eastern Mediterranean cruise on the Celebrity Galaxy to celebrate Seth's 40th birthday and my 39th birthday. Our itinerary includes Rome, Sicily, Athens, Mykonos, Ephesus, Rhodes, Santorini, and Naples. This will be our 3rd Celebrity cruise and our first time cruising Concierge Class.

10 -17 October: Adventure by Disney's Spirit of America tour. We've been really wanting to do an ABD but my first inquiry ended with a shocker when I got the sticker price for a trip to China for the 4 of us. It was enough to buy a new car! I abandoned that idea right away hoping that prices will drop after the Olympics in Beijing this summer. We settled on the Spirit of America tour and it sounded so interesting that Ron and Deb decided to go with us. The kids will miss a few days of school but the trip promises to be an awesome American History learning experience for them. Surely, there will be some opportunity for "extra credit" somehow. This 8-day tour includes Philadelphia, Washington DC, and Williamsburg. The best part: Disney makes all of the travel arrangements for us.

23-27 October: Seth and I are now signed up for the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror 13K at Disneyworld. This is a night race which will be a new experience for us. This race takes place during the 13th Annual EPCOT Food and Wine festival which we attended last year for the Race for the Taste 10K. The festival was absolutely wonderful and we vowed then and there to make this an annual trip if possible. The 13k is just an excuse to go to the festival!