Champagne Bucket trips, trip planning

In case you needed a reminder… Scandinavia is EXPENSIVE.

The featured photo was taken on a day cruise we took in Oslo, Norway, back in 2009.

It’s not so often that I travel blog during the work week. We have the pandemic to thank for that, as it made taking normal trips a lot more difficult for the past couple of years. In 2023, things are pretty much back in full swing. I expect Europe will be, once again, teeming with people this summer. In fact, I expect there will be more people than ever.

A week ago, we did a champagne bucket draw, and Finland won. That meant planning a trip that included a stop in Finland. I marvel at the changes our plans have undergone within about ten days. We went from planning a Helsinki based trip that would include land based stops in the Baltic countries, to pulling the trigger on a luxury cruise, with a week in Norway beforehand.

When you see the words “luxury cruise” in my blog post, of course it goes without saying that this trip is going to be pricey. We are going to sail on Regent Seven Seas‚Äô newest completed ship, Splendor, in June. An even newer ship, Grandeur, will be sailing this year, but I don’t think she’s had her maiden voyage yet. So, as of this writing, Splendor, which was built in 2020, is Regent’s newest. This will also be the newest ship we’ve ever sailed on, as we usually opt for either SeaDream or Hebridean Island Cruises, both of which offer luxury on much smaller and older vessels.

One of many Regent Splendor cruise ship tour videos on YouTube.

I chose this particular cruise on Regent mostly because of the itinerary, which includes a stop in Helsinki, as well as most of the Baltic locations we wanted to visit, along with a couple of other stops. It’s not our first Baltic cruise, though.

Our very first cruise was on Royal Caribbean’s Vision of the Seas, back in 2009, and that was also a Baltic cruise. It was only four nights, and included stops in Tallin, Estonia and Copenhagen, Denmark, with embarkation in Oslo, Norway, and debarkation in Stockholm, Sweden. On that trip, we spent a couple of nights in Oslo, which we both really enjoyed. The cruise was loaded with Norwegians, and we found that we really enjoyed their joie de vivre. ūüėČ Later, we encountered a friendly bunch of them on our second SeaDream cruise and vowed we’d visit Norway again. So that’s why we’re doing a week in Norway, too… and staying longer, so we can see more of Norway than just the city of Oslo. Below are a few photos from our cruise from Norway to Sweden in 2009… As you can see, I need to take more photos of beautiful Norway, at the very least! That was before I had an iPhone.

When I saw Regent’s June 23 Stockholm to Copenhagen cruise, I knew it was a no brainer to book it, because I was finding it very difficult to plan a land based trip including Finland and the Baltics… And yes, before anyone comes at me, I know there’s a large body of water we’d have to cross to get to the Baltics. I was planning a few days in Finland, then a ferry ride to Tallin, where I naively thought we could arrange train travel or maybe rent a car or something… At this writing, a train route is being constructed to make that vision come to fruition in the future. As of now, though, it’s just not convenient. ūüėČ I also realized Bill wouldn’t want to be driving so much, and I wouldn’t want to be flying so much.

The cruise solution was simply more practical, and it was available during the time we wanted to travel. And– we had the money to pay for it, thanks to a big tax refund. Even better was the fact that the sailing I found was on sale… which was a damned good thing. In fact, I should have waited another week, because the price went down again, and it was quite a significant drop! Some people would probably tell me to cancel and rebook, but I’ve already had lots of words with my bank. Oh well… you win some, you lose some.

Anyway… last night, we were trying to decide how long we wanted to stay in the places we’re visiting before the cruise, and how we wanted to travel to them. It didn’t take us long to decide to visit Bergen, which is a very beautiful city on Norway’s west coast that offers enchanting scenery, fresh seafood, and lots to do. However, from Oslo, it takes seven hours to drive there or take the train. We could also fly; that takes just an hour. But if we fly, we’ll miss the incredibly beautiful scenery on the way, and have to deal with everything that flying entails nowadays.

I thought maybe we’d drive and stop somewhere on the way, maybe do some exploration. Unfortunately, renting a car in Norway, especially for a one way trip with drop off in another city, is VERY expensive. Gas and food are also very expensive in Norway, plus there are tolls on the road we’d be using.

The route from Oslo to Bergen is also rather devoid of places to stay. There are a lot of apartments to rent, and a few hotels that are either in the middle of nowhere or have dodgy reviews. I wouldn’t mind renting an apartment, but I’d hate to do that for just an overnight. Most of the ones I found were pretty bare bones, too. I did manage to find several hotels that allowed me to book now and pay later, and can be canceled up to the day of arrival. Clarion Hotels for the win! They even have a hotel out in the middle of nowhere that I considered booking, but then I thought again.

Finally, I think we decided we’d just take the train… which means we now have to decide if we want to leave at 8:23AM or 12:05PM. The later trip is notably less expensive, but slower. I suspect we’ll go for the morning time, so we can get to Bergen in the afternoon. If we wanted to spend another night in Oslo, we could get a really (relatively) cheap train fare… but then we’d be paying for another night in Oslo, which is legitimately a nice city, but one we’ve already seen. It’s not a super pretty town, either, although I do remember enjoying the day cruise we took on the Oslo Fjord in 2009.

So, once I found a hotel that offers parking, in case we drive after all, I went to book plane tickets. A flight from Bergen to Stockholm takes one hour and twenty minutes. I found seats on SAS– Scandinavian Airlines (although when I hear SAS, it reminds me of a cursed statistics program I had to use in grad school). I tried to book with my PenFed card, but for some reason, PenFed refuses to send texts with codes to overseas phone numbers, nor will they send the confirmation codes to emails. So that means I can’t authorize charges through their stupid two factor authentication program.

I went to USAA, which did successfully send me a text. But, even though I entered all of my information, gave them a fingerprint, and tried to authorize the charge, they still declined it and blocked my card. At 10PM, I was calling USAA– for the second time in a week– to ask them to unblock my card and authorize payment, so we can get from Bergen to Stockholm. The lady I spoke to last night was very nice and professional, unlike the other person I talked to a few days ago, who was quite rude to me.

We finally got the plane tickets sorted, and now we just have to confirm where we’ll be sleeping for our night in Stockholm. I had wanted to stay longer in Stockholm, since we never really got to see the city when we were there in 2009, but that would have meant arranging for another night there. Our night in Stockholm is already included in our cruise fare, so adding another would mean going to another hotel or paying more to Regent. I think we’d prefer another night in Bergen, anyway.

All that’s left to do now is buy train tickets, or arrange for a car to get us from Oslo to Bergen. I’ve even mostly paid off the credit card companies. I paid off the deposit and Lufthansa tickets last week, which I booked through PenFed. Then, this morning, I accidentally paid USAA for the rest of the cruise fare. I had only meant to send them $1000 today, but ended up requesting to pay the whole bill. Luckily, there was enough money to pay for it. Thanks again to Bill’s decision to pay taxes all year and get a refund, we had the cash available. Edited to add: I just got us our train tickets… good thing, too, because the seats were already sold out, and I had to get us a compartment for six people instead. That was another $500. At least it’s changeable and refundable.

Living in Germany sure has been good for us…

But dammit… the fares went down 2,000 euros this week!!!!

Oh well. We’re sure to have a great time. I look forward to blogging about it, and experiencing new places on a different cruise line. I’ll be surprised if I’ll want to give up small ship cruising for Regent permanently, but we’ll see. I suspect that if I ever spot a hot deal like the one they’re offering right now for our cruise, I’ll want to jump on it. Especially if we have the money!

If you’re curious about what we’re in for on our journey from Oslo to Bergen, have a look at a couple of videos… I think it will be unforgettable.

Let’s hope for sunny weather!
Looks good!

And yes, I know we don’t have to spend this much money to have a good time… but I have definitely done my fair share of cheap traveling. It’s nice to have an upgraded experience, and I’m grateful we have the opportunity. We never thought the day would come.


I won’t be mega cruising anytime soon…

Bill and I will be taking our first cruise in almost three years in March 2016.  The ship we will be on, Hebridean Princess, is tiny.  It’s a former car ferry that mostly does itineraries in Scotland.  Only 49 people cruise at a time.  There is no pool or spa.  And there is definitely no Flow Rider or rock climbing wall.  There are also no rugrats, since kids under age 9 are not allowed.

What there is on Hebridean Princess is true all inclusive luxury and excellent service.  The food is excellent.  The excursions are leisurely and interesting and included in the fare.  You get bagpiped onboard.  And you are just very well looked after by a very professional staff.

This morning, I read a review of Royal Caribbean’s mega cruise ship Anthem of the Seas.  The author of the review noted that the mega ship was “a little too mega at times”.  I think I would agree.  What Candyce H. Stapen describes is a floating shopping mall/amusement park/hotel with a bewildering array of things to do, restaurants to dine at, places to shop, and lots and lots of lines.  No thank you.

I’m sure a lot of people love the huge ships.  That’s why Royal Caribbean keeps building them.  Bill and I once cruised on Royal Caribbean’s Vision of the Seas, which is among its smallest ships.  We had a nice time and really enjoyed the itinerary.  The nicest thing about it was that the ship, while large and impressive, wasn’t that large.  And we didn’t feel like we needed to stay onboard and miss the ports just so we could try the bumper cars and waterslides (not that Bill would have wanted to, anyway).

I think if I were on a huge ship with over 4,000 passengers, I’d feel like I’d need to explore the whole damn thing.  That’s not why I cruise.  I cruise because I like to see new places.  A ship of that size would overwhelm me.  Besides that, I’d be constantly fretting about signing chits and the big bill at the end… and how much to tip.  Of course, Royal Caribbean actually shows a video about how to tip on their TV station.

Hebridean Princess does not allow tipping.  It’s not once of those lines that includes it but then says you can donate to the crew fund.  They flat out say that tipping is potentially awkward and embarrassing and they don’t want you to do it.  I have nothing against tipping as long as I know what I’m supposed to do, though given my ‘druthers, I’d rather the cruise line just pay their people appropriately so I don’t have to worry about it.

The only thing I don’t like about the smaller vessels is that I have a tendency to get seasick.  I did not have a problem on Vision of the Seas because it had stabilizers, but I have been on SeaDream I three times and Hebridean twice (a back to back cruise).  And yes, there was puking… though on Princess, I think it was more because we got bad news from home about one of our dogs and I was very upset.

Fortunately, we have a lot of choices when it comes to cruising and you can find something for everyone with budgets that run the gamut.  I’m hoping that now that Bill has stable employment, we can try another cruise line sometime soon.  But I can promise you, we won’t be on one of those miniature floating cities…


A whole lotta puking going on…

I just read about another cruise ship with passengers who have fallen ill thanks to the norovirus. ¬†About 100 passengers and crew members on Royal Caribbean’s Grandeur of the Seas have been puking and pooping with wild abandon thanks to the bug, which apparently also afflicted passengers on the cruise that left the previous week. ¬†This is the second ship I’ve read about this week that is full of shitting.

Apparently, Princess Cruise Lines’ Crown Princess¬†has also been sailing with sick people. ¬†That ship left Los Angeles last weekend and soon there were 94 passengers and 23 crew members who were hit with the norovirus. ¬†Norovirus causes vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, and dehydration.

Bill and I prefer small ships when we cruise, even though I usually get seasick. ¬†Fortunately, neither of us has ever gotten a true sickness from being on a cruise ship. ¬†I did have a nasty cold the last time I was on SeaDream, though. ¬†I see from a Forbes news article, there have been eight outbreaks of the virus this year. ¬†I don’t have any cruises planned in the near future, but I might hesitate to book one right now. ¬†I definitely would be liberal about using the hand sanitizers most cruise ships offer and washing my hands. ¬†It’s no good being sick while on vacation!

Interestingly enough, eleven people decided to disembark Crown Princess in San Diego. ¬†Because they got off the ship at a different port than where the ship originated and they didn’t stop at a foreign country beforehand, each passenger was fined $300. ¬†Apparently, Princess Cruises is going to pay those fines, rather than the passengers. ¬†I think that’s only right.

Best thing to do while on a cruise ship is avoid buffets and practice good hygiene!  I feel sorry for the people who got sick.  I bet a lot of them will want to avoid cruise ships now.