May 3 and 4, 2019… I got busy!

Sea Day May 3, 2019

So I got way behind on doing this cruise review. A short recap… My Mom came and visited and we spent a week in the Netherlands and also went to Chessington amusement park. Then my best friend came and we went to Paris and to Scotland. And then my husband came home after being away for 6 months! I’m really going to try to work on updating while I’m traveling though, but I admit, traveling with a 9 and 10 year old often leaves me exhausted in the evenings.

So the first sea day was really nice. We spent a lot of the day playing at the pool and the water splash area and slide. The weather was warming up and we just took the day easy. We got some gelato which was something we spent money on a couple times a day sometimes. We also got the kids some legos. My daughter (10) also enjoyed a lot of the kids club offerings.

Here’s the daily activities.

Lisbon, Portugal May 4, 2019

I pre-booked a great tour for Lisbon before we got onboard with We Hate Tourism. We booked the Pirates of the Cruise Ships tour. The kids were half price which was definitely an added bonus. Our tour guide was waiting for us and there were no other people with us which was also nice. I would definitely recommend the tour and my favorite stop was definitely Cascais and I wish we could have stayed longer. We were taken to an authentic place for lunch which we all enjoyed also making it a really good deal.

Here’s the daily. Most evenings on port days were spent just relaxing, going to the shows, kids went to the kids clubs (my daughter is SO obsessed) and just enjoying our time together.

Brest, France: May 2, 2019

Our second port day was Brest, France. I’m not sure what the big day trips are from here but I remember that I didn’t see anything that would be for the kids. Early on I’d heard that Oceanopolis was nice for kids. Another aquarium but my kids love aquariums so that was fine. I would say that if we ever stop here in the future I wouldn’t bother getting off.

The ship offered a shuttle bus that you could pay for that dropped off near the city center (1o euros adult, 9 euros child) and the cruise port offered similar for free. Neither really told you before hand where they dropped off. They do say you’re not allowed to walk in the port which was a bit annoying. We couldn’t get a taxi where the port shuttle dropped us so we ended up walking about 2 1/2 miles to Oceanopolis (we took a taxi back). My kids were huge troopers and the walk wasn’t that bad but it did take us right back past the cruise ship (we had to back track about a mile). There were also no taxis at the port which is was a bummer also. Supposedly there is a shuttle from the cruise port to Oceanopolis but after being cut about 10 times by pushy people I gave up on trying to figure it out.

Oceanopolis itself was cute. It wasn’t that expensive either at 36 euros for the three of us. They had all the normal stuff including penguins, nice play area, and a couple good gift shops and snack places. It wasn’t as nice as the aquarium in Genoa but we enjoyed it even after our hour long walk to get there. We asked the people at the ticket center to call us a taxi back and it came pretty quickly back to the ship.

Nemo fish at Brest Aquarium

The taxi had no trouble getting us back into the port. It was about 20 euros. We decided to grab a crepe while we waited to board. The queue wasn’t too bad.

Definitely have to get crepes in France!

Once back on the ship kids went off into the kids clubs which they love. My daughter definitely prefers it more. Part way through my son didn’t want to go for dinner and would only go if one specific kid he met was in there. But he still went there for at least a bit every day. My daughter was the kid that from the time we were on the boat in the afternoons she wanted to be at the kids club until they closed around 11pm. Did I mention how amazing the kids clubs are? They do face paint all the time and all the staff are just AMAZING!

Always taking selfies on my phone! But the face paint is always cute.

May 1, 2019 St. Peter Port, Guernsey

This was the rainiest day of the cruise but it wasn’t too bad honestly. I admit, I was born and raised in Florida so if it’s not a down pour I think it’s easily manageable. We decided to sleep in because we didn’t have an excursion or anything booked for the day. It was also the one and only tender port of the cruise. We got to the lounge to get our tender tickets around 9:30 and didn’t get off until around 11:30. Seemed a bit crazy and insane honestly. We had tender number 14 and they were on number 5 when we got to the Platinum Theater. Anyways, my kids were already in a bad mood by the time we finally got the tender over after waiting so long. After talking to others I think I just had REALLY bad timing as the tours all left around the same time I guess.

We just walked around locally in town. I stopped at M&S and a Boots to pick up some snacks for the ship (sodas and crisps mainly). We shopped for a little bit. Saw the Town Church which was very cute and then the dreary weather led us back onto the boat. I would have really liked to see some of the occupation stuff and I’d definitely plan a long weekend back and rent a vehicle to really get around easily.

Town Church, Guernsey
St Peter Port, Guernsey
B and K… pretty much explains how the day went

Once back on the ship I got a scone from the Phoenician Plaza (which would be my favorite place during the cruise), kids wanted to go to the kids club for a bit and then we went to dinner. I didn’t do too much for evening entertainment. I caught up on reading and just enjoyed a lot of quiet time. Funny that late that night these showed up after dinner which wasn’t very helpful! I forgot that priority tender was a perk of my loyalty membership with MSC… probably could have skipped that 2 hour wait getting off. Oops.

Priority Tender Ticket that came after we’d already left the port.

Southampton is so convenient!

Southampton Monday April 29, 2019

So I paid about $100 USD extra to cruise out of Southampton and not out of Hamburg. It was 100% worth it. I decided to drive in a day early because I always worry about what if there’s road delays, the train had us switching THREE times which seemed like a pain with kids alone, and it’s also just nice to be able to relax. I booked the Holiday Inn Southampton for £179 which included the hotel for a night, parking for the night and 15 nights of the cruise, taxi to and from the pier (which you could probably walk to if at the city terminal), and breakfast.

Pool next door
View from our room
View of the MSC Preziosa morning of the cruise from where I parked my vehicle in the parking lot.

Southampton Tuesday April 30, 2019

We waited until noon which was the check out time to leave since we’d heard they hadn’t been letting people board until 2pm. We walked over to Ikea and had lunch and grabbed a few things to leave in the car until we got back. Embarkation was a bit slow but only due to limited security queues. We were still on by 3pm though.

Safety drill was simple. Kids got signed up for the kids club and got their bands easily. Lots of people trying to talk us into beverage packages. I opted for no package this cruise as the price has gone up a LOT since our last MSC cruise. I also don’t drink that much alone and the kids maybe got 3 drinks a day so just wasn’t worth it. We were originally slotted for late dining but I was able to switch that to early without any hassle even though there was a sign saying that they couldn’t.

We were booked on the 9th floor in a quad inside Bella room. Pretty much the cheapest room on the ship! It was fine though and no complaints there.

Somehow didn’t get a photo until the kids had already put their stuff everywhere.
Kids Club program for first part of our cruise.

Is 15 nights too many?

So here’s the cruise we just did as a reminder. MSC Preziosa, 15 nights out of Southampton April 30, 2019.

So I got off the cruise last week and have slowly been getting back into regular life things. I had planned on blogging along the way on some of my down town (because let’s face it, I had a lot) but I got shut out of my iPhone on the first day and couldn’t fully get back on until we got back! More on that later.

So a few quick notes about the cruise and then I decided I’m going to detail what I did for those who may be stopping at the same ports.

  1. I’m not sure if 15 nights is too long or if 5 sea days is just too many for me, but I definitely started feeling more lonely and kind of bored this cruise. It’s definitely my last cruise I do alone with the kids for a while, I’ll definitely be using that 4th space next time with either my husband or someone else.
  2. I did not enjoy the Preziosa quite as much as I did the Magnifica for some reason.
  3. The kids club is why I will be continuing to use MSC primarily at least until my kids turn 12 and age into the next age group. They are seriously so amazing. Two of the women were on the 12 nights we did on the Magnifica back in November and they remembered both kids and just really go above and beyond.
  4. The food was okay. I started getting really down about the main dining room food part way through and I realized it was more because my table mates were super whiney about it than that it was really bad.
  5. I won’t cruise another ship that embarks in Germany ever again. Well… maybe if the itinerary is right.
  6. I thought my kids favorite ports would be the beach days in Spain but both kids favorites were Le Havre, Hamburg and Rotterdam.
  7. I love the combination of doing a few really planned days but doing our own thing on the others.

Packing Cubes- The Travel Item I Never Knew I was Missing

I’m currently in the middle of the chaos that packing myself and two kids on a 16 night trip with varying weather brings. We leave Monday for a night in Southampton and then to join our cruise on Tuesday for 15 night. (Have I mentioned the best part of cruising is going new places and only unpacking once?)

My best friend Nicole introduced me to packing cubes but it took me moving to England to actually buy myself some. I then bought more once we got here and still need another 3-5 to meet all our long trip needs.

Why packing cubes? For me it definitely saves on packing space. I have enough clothes for 16 nights for both kids including swimwear and pants for when we hit Northern Germany in one suit case! But really the best thing is unpacking when we arrive on our cruise and just plopping the cubes into drawers and everything is unpacked in minutes.

Packing cubes are also awesome when trying to maximize space, like every time we fly a budget airline in Europe such as RyanAir and Easy Jet. I can easily pack at least a weeks worth on my own clothes in my 40L Osprey bag (I’ll review this bag later on).

So if you’re trying to fit more and stay more organized definitely get some. My favorite set I have are these TravelWise ones from Amazon TravelWise Packing Cubes . I also got a cheap set from Target in a pinch when I was in the states. I’m hoping to try out some compression ones and Amazon ones next!

Have you found the travel cube love?

19 days until my next cruise!

We got an awesome deal on the MSC Preziosa and only have 19 days left until we get onboard. I’m so excited and just got my tickets delivered to my email yesterday. This is a budget cruise, no super expensive excursions, hoping for some lazy beach days, and no drink packages this go around.

Here’s our awesome itinerary over 15 nights (including an overnight in Rotterdam)!

Here’s a quick overview of my plans. In case you didn’t know, I’m incapable of at least making basic plans.

1. Southampton, England- Park, Sleep, Cruise deal at Holiday Inn next to to the port night prior. Maybe we will hit up IKEA and I saw there’s a Build a Bear for B.

2. St. Peter Port, Guernsey- £1 bus maybe or just wander the town.

3. Brest, France- Oceanopolis. This aquarium gets great reviews and I’m sure the kids will have a lot of fun.

4. Lisbon, Portugal- I booked a tour specifically for cruise ship passengers through We Hate Tourism. The tour is called ‘Pirates of the Cruise Ships’.

5. Cadiz, Spain- Hoping for warm weather and some beach time!

6. Malaga, Spain- Crossing fingers for two days in a row of warm weather and some beach time.

7. La Coruna, Spain- I booked a tour with Cruising Excursions to Santiago de Compostela, a famous church nearby. I honestly couldn’t find anything else I liked and have read lots of stories of MSC canceling their own excursions and didn’t want to take the risk. I am slightly worried because it says 6 hours and that would place us getting  back right when the ship leaves. We’re the only ship in port so I’m sure they’ll adapt it though.

8. Rotterdam, Netherlands- I precooked tickets online to Keukenhof to see the famous tulips. Hopefully it won’t be too late. I’m planning to take the train to the airport and then use the shuttle and ticket combo I booked directly through Keukenhof.

9. Hamburg, Germany- This is the one port that I don’t really have a solid idea of what I want to do. I saw that there’s an s-bahn station near the dock which I will probably take into the center. I’m also considering doing one of the free walking tours with Sandemans. I really like wandering port towns so will probably do a lot of that.

10. Le Havre, France- This port is one that is often used to get into Paris, but since we have a week planned this summer and the kids have gone already for a day recently I’m not up for the long journey in. Also decided not to do Mont Saint-Michel because it would just be too long a day for the kids. Would rather just plan a week in Normandy. So I booked a bus tour to Honfleur with Bee Le Havre. They have great reviews on Trip Advisor and are about 1/3 of the price of everything else I found including private taxi to Honfleur.

I know that’s a lot but it sums up our trip. The kids are really looking forward to just hanging on the ship and at the pool. This ship again has an indoor pool for cooler days but also lots of outdoor water play areas including a huge water slide. Luckily our port days aren’t too packed for the most part so will have time while in port also to explore some of these areas!

Should I take a land vacation or a cruise?

Rome land trip March 2019
MSC Magnifica Med Cruise November 2018

I see this debate come up quite often on different travel groups online and often with friends. When does it make sense to cruise and when does it make sense to just take a land vacation?

For those who don’t know before moving to England last summer we lived in Alaska for six years. Alaska is amazing and a huge flux of tourists come in the summer months including by plane but also from cruise ships. My husband and I actually took an Alaskan cruise from mainland Alaska where we lived down through the islands and to Vancouver, it was an amazing trip, but I would still pick a land vacation to Alaska over a cruise if you had to choose between the two. You can do all the major shore excursion type things such as flight seeing, whale watch tours, zip lining, sled dogs in addition to being able to visit places cruise ships just can’t go to like Denali. Some people though just want something more relaxing so only three days of short seeing is okay with them and then three sea days just to relax. It’s definitely nice to just be able to chill and not have to plan a lot of things on your own. For Alaska almost every cruise line offers a land and sea option which gives you a few days mainland first, definitely a good option but expensive.

I found ourselves facing a lot of the same decisions once moving to England. There’s tons of affordable cruising options here and cruising here in Europe and the Mediterranean is often more affordable in my opinion, especially when taking into account the cost of food and hotel room along with the exchange rate (US dollars to the pound and to the euro). Financially I’ve come out ahead on each of the cruises we’ve planned when looking at cost of getting around, hotels and food. That’s not taking into account the childcare and the entertainment. My cruise coming up out of Southampton works out to $155/night which includes the nightly service charge. That will get us to 9 different ports of call also (France, Spain, England, Germany and the Netherlands).

So when does a land vacation make more sense? In the Mediterranean a lot of people are trying to see major places in Europe which just doesn’t make a lot of sense sometimes. The port of Civitavecchia which is used to get into Rome is about an hour by train away. Le Havre that is used to the Normandy beaches and Paris often almost 3 hours away. Even if you’re in port 12-14 hours a lot of your day is taken up getting on and off the ship and transporting to and from town. Not to mention a lot of cities like Rome and Paris have so much to see and do you will only get the tiniest taste possible. It’s fun to really explore places sometimes.

Back in October my family joined my cousins family on a trip to Croatia. We rented a big van, stayed at some amazing AirBnB’s for pretty cheap. We got to see so much more than we ever could have done from a day or two on a cruise ship to Dubrovnik, Split or Zadar. You get to explore places in the evenings which is when most cruise ships leave. The same is true for Rome. I find Rome is the most magical at night. I became really emotional walking back from having dinner at Piazza Navona towards St. Peter’s and then to our AirBnB near the Vatican. These are experiences I would not have had from a cruise ship.

Like all things when planning a vacation it just comes down to what you’re looking for. When I am traveling with my kids alone I prefer cruising. I like having the down time I get when they go to the kids clubs and I like waking up and being able to take them to a new place every day and the variety. When I really want to explore an area I’d rather take a land vacation. I’m really looking forward to planning longer trips to Ireland and Scotland so we can go into the country side. I also really want to go to Sweden soon. Those three places are high on my land vacation bucket list while we’re living in Europe. But I’m super excited to not cook over Thanksgiving and cruise the Greek isles in November also. It’s all about balance. Just like I’d never only go to Disney World every year I’d never just cruise and never just take land vacations.

How do I choose which cruise to go on?

I use three main things to choose what cruise line to go on.

  • Itinerary and dates that itinerary
  • Cruiseline preference
  • Price (including perks and promotions)

Itinerary and dates: This is pretty self explanatory. One of the biggest hurdles is figuring out where you want to go and when. Once you have an idea of where you want to go and when the options dwindle making it a lot easier to choose an actual cruise. For example, there’s a lot less Caribbean cruises in the Fall during hurricane season. We’re going in October and I had limited options between Royal Caribbean and Carnival. For European cruises a lot of the major US lines only operate seasonally and often they have limited itinerary options. This is what made me try MSC back in November 2018, but we ended up loving it!

Cruise line preference: We all have preferences. Over the course of about 20 cruises I’ve found my own. I do like Carnival. It’s a solid offering with a lot of Caribbean options which was great when I lived in Florida. It’s also great for kids with kids clubs starting at aged 2 instead of 3 like most and also changing diapers (a huge bonus for those cruising with 2 year olds or late to potty train kids like I did).

I love Celebrity when we go adults only. They’re so relaxing and a bit more upscale. I also feel like their food is better. It’s a slightly older crowd and more laid back.

The third cruise line I lean towards in MSC. I just started cruising them because they were the only option that was affordable and going when I wanted, but we had an amazing time and my daughter cried our last night when we had to leave and get off. They have some amazingly affordable longer European itineraries (often under $2000 for 4 people). They also charge half the gratuity/service charge rate per a kid and kids sale free when booking a US rate. Something to note is that MSC does loyalty matching. I matched Gold with my Carnival Platinum status giving me extra perks on my first cruise with MSC.

Price: Price is obviously a huge thing for most people. We travel a LOT so I admit that we don’t usually splurge and do $10,000 cruises. I’d rather have extra money on the ship to do fun things or to explore off the ship more than spend a lot more for the same itinerary on a fancier line. I am hoping to splurge to do Disney next year, but my kids are HAPPY on Carnival and MSC so I feel like that will probably be a one time thing (but AMAZING I’m sure).

When you’re pricing out cruise lines make sure to compare apples to apples. Some lines may be more expensive but often include a complimentary drink package or other perks (can cost up to $100/day/pp on some lines). If you plan to drink a lot it’s something to consider. I first tried Celebrity when they priced out cheaper than Carnival because I was getting $300 of on board credit and also free beverages which was worth about $1000. MSC will watch kids under 3 for free so you can have dinner in the evenings, other lines charge a fee for that same service. If it’s something you may use a lot it’s something to think about. Kids sale free promotions are big too, even at discounted 3rd and 4th passenger fares those amounts add up quickly.

Just another day at Legoland Windsor

So my 8 year old son is obsessed with Legoland. He would even rather go to Legoland than go to Disney which is just insane to me. When we first moved to England in July 2018 we quickly purchased Merlin Premium passes which is good for Legoland and a handful of other attractions around England. With the pass you can get a hotel discount, food discount, merchandise discount and free parking. We often stay nearby in Slough but also use the discount to stay at the Legoland hotel occasionally also.

Today, we are staying at the Copthorne Slough-Windsor about 10 minutes away. Bonus is they have an indoor pool and hot tub, quieter than the Legoland hotel and a Chinese restaurant my husband likes.

Today for the first time since we started going the Star Wars mini figure area was open and it was AWESOME.