Wednesday, June 23, 2010

To Track Traveling Teens, Just Follow the Money

Associated Press

You could wait a long time for a teenager who's traveling to call home or even text. But there's another way to see what your kid is up to: Follow the money.

Before sending teens off on a trip, make sure you have online access to any bank and credit card accounts they'll be using. You'll want to monitor their transactions anyway, to see that they're staying on budget, and to make sure their accounts haven't been hijacked by thieves. But there's another reason to monitor how the kids are spending their money: It will give you some clues as to their whereabouts and activities.

Last summer, I sent my 16-year-old son and two other teenagers - without an adult - to six countries in Europe. They stayed in hostels, traveled by train, and none of them had cell phones. But by monitoring their ATM and credit card activity online, I could get a sense of their whereabouts.

Did they make the overnight train from Barcelona to Paris? A record of a cash withdrawal from the Banque Nationale de Paris at a branch near the Eiffel Tower told me everything I needed to know.

When their itinerary called for them to be in Germany, I saw a withdrawal from a Deutsche Bank ATM near the Berlin Zoo. On the day they were to travel by ferry to Denmark, there was a credit card charge in kroner.

If I had to do it again, I would make sure, when sending a teenager abroad, that he or she did have a phone. But following the money gave me some peace of mind. Here are some other tips and advice for parents sending kids overseas, both from my own experience and from some experts.

MONEY: Book and prepay lodging, trains and planes in advance to cut down on the need for cash and credit.

But kids will need some local currency in their pockets when they arrive, as well as a way to get more cash and charge expenses later on.

Shop around for the best deals on foreign currency at home. My local savings bank offered the best conversion rate and no fee on the transaction. I sent each teen with cash to cover food and local transportation for three days. After that, they used ATM cards to get local currency wherever they were. Withdrawals should be made every few days instead of daily to cut down on transaction fees.

Many parents buy prepaid, preloaded cards from credit card companies and other outlets that limit how much money teens have access to at any one time. Parents can reload the cards electronically from home.

That way, teens "only have the money they need for the next day or two at most," said Mike Bowers, senior director of health and safety for People to People Ambassador youth programs and a member of the Student Youth & Travel Association (SYTA). "And I have the added comfort of knowing where they're spending it, because I can see online where the expenditures are being made."

Another option: You can get a credit card on your account, with your teen's name on it. Just remember, you are responsible for all charges. Can you trust your teenager to refrain from a shopping spree?

Remember to advise banks and credit card companies well in advance about cards that will be used overseas. If cards are not authorized for use in a given country at a given time, transactions may be blocked. Some countries now require PIN numbers with credit card transactions, and it can take a few weeks for credit card companies to process those PIN requests.

COMMUNICATION: Your domestic cell phone carrier may offer a good short-term international plan or an international SIM card for your phone.

Another option is to buy a cheap international phone. STA Travel sells international phones for $39, with $20 worth of call time.

But these days, "most kids don't actually talk on their phones," observed Patrick Connor, a vice president of SYTA and president of Director's Choice Tour & Travel, which coordinates performance tours for student musical groups. Instead, many teens prefer to text and post updates on Facebook, Foursquare or Twitter.

That's a great way for parents to see what they're up to - as long as you don't mind not hearing their voices. Just make sure you inquire about international data rates for cell phones to cover texting and Internet service overseas.

"If someone doesn't get an international data or texting plan, they can end up with a multi-hundred dollar bill," Connor said.

PERSONAL SAFETY: Bowers tells students on People to People tours to "dress down and blend in. Leave your bling at home."

Connor tells his travelers to "make sure your purse and backpack are zipped; don't keep things in your back pocket or an open pocket."

DOCUMENTS: Make copies of passports, credit cards and the like so that if they are lost or stolen, account and serial numbers can easily be located and the loss can be reported.

Make a master list of itineraries, including flights, trains and lodging, for both parents and travelers. Specify the names of train stations and airports, since some cities have more than one.

STA Travel sells an International Student ID card for $22 that not only offers discounts to 40,000 museums, stores and other sites around the world, but also provides access to a password-protected website where you can upload copies of important travel documents in case you need to refer to them during your trip.

INSURANCE: Mandatory summer school, sports injuries, family emergencies - there are so many things that can disrupt a teenager's life. For $130 a person, I bought cancel-for-any-reason trip insurance from TravelGuard and kept my sanity. James Bell, commercial vice president for STA Travel, says STA sells insurance that covers everything from medical expenses to a lost iPod. Insurance rates start as low as $6 a day.

LODGING: Tour groups will arrange for lodging, but for students traveling on their own, hostels are a good option in many countries.

Yet booking a hostel online, site unseen, can be confusing, even when using sites with customer reviews. For example, I wanted my son and his friends to stay in hostels that were not only safe and clean, but that were also centrally located. And in some cities, I wanted to make sure they were located away from red-light districts.

In this case, a travel agent's advice was invaluable. STA Travel has contracts with hostels around the world that it inspects a half-dozen times a year, and the STA agent I used was knowledgeable enough to book hostels that were fun for young travelers, while offering environments that met mom's standards.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Shipboard Dance Class Keeps Cruisers in Step

Miami Herald

Whirling, I was actually whirling across the dance floor in a Spanish bolero, with handsome Arturo Garcia Melo from Mexico.

I imagined myself on Dancing with the Stars. Bruno (Tonioli) would be excited. Len (Goodman) would say we ``sizzle.'' Carrie Ann (Inaba) would call me graceful. We would get respectable scores on the judge's paddles, and the audience voting at home would love us.

Back to reality: This was not competitive dancing. Melo was among instructors teaching passengers to dance on the 2,550-passenger MSC Poesia, on a Latin dance-theme cruise departing from Fort Lauderdale to the Eastern Caribbean. He had just picked me, a true novice, to help demonstrate a move.

But I was very much part of a craze hitting the high seas, the opportunity to learn to dance on a cruise ship.

A ship is a nice, non-judgmental place for such experimentation. For one, the other passengers are strangers, so no worries about embarrassing yourself. Plus, shipboard classes are suitable for everyone from beginners to those who know the steps. You are not expected to be a pro.

Italian line MSC Cruises is among several lines -- Crystal Cruises, Cunard and Holland America Line are others --jumping on the dance bandwagon, offering dance classes as part of their activities rosters at a time when TV shows like Dancing with the Stars have made knowing at least a few ballroom steps a very in thing.

The lines also offer occasional dance-themed sailings with additional tutorage, like the cruise I was on. Tour operators specializing in dance (including salsa and tango) book space on ships as well, bringing instructors onboard for those who cruise as part of their groups.

Nino Torre, a hustle and salsa dance pro and DJ from Richmond, Virginia, for instance, helps organize an annual Hustle & Salsa Dance Cruise. Now in its 11th year, the group attracts about 275 participants per cruise, most from the East Coast, a third from Florida.

Instructors are dance champions, most still competing, who do workshops in both hustle and salsa as well as in tango and cha cha and other steps, Torre said. ``We survey guests before the cruise and offer classes in what they request,'' he added. Participants range in age from their late 20s to early 60s with a desire to learn a few steps and show them off on the ship's dance floor.

On the Poesia cruise, our special instructors were a competitive ballroom pair, from Cleveland, Ohio, onboard to teach several classes specifically in Latin dances. Instruction included a half-hour class after dinner each evening so those who wanted could stay on the dance floor afterward.

Melo, a former pro dancer in Mexico, and other members of the entertainment team also offered instruction once or twice a day, as they do on every cruise.

At the pool, there were casual classes in dances like bachata (a four-step dance with origins in the Dominican Republic), come-in-your-bikini affairs that attracted a decent crowd.

But the ``serious'' learning on Poesia took place indoors on the dance floor of the Zebra Lounge, all done up in black and white stripes and a sexy space to learn dances like rumba and salsa and tango. Classes here attracted about 60 regulars, which meant a crowded dance floor, sometimes dancers spilling onto the carpet. There were couples and single women and occasionally a lone man too, the group varying in age from 30s on up.

 No need to sign up in advance. If you wanted to dance, you just showed up.

In one class, ballroom pro Minas Katsantouris demonstrated a sexy salsa move, the kind that's supposed to show meaning in every wiggle -- and in his tight jeans and a fitted black T-shirt, his wiggles did just that.

``The dance floor is our place, where guys can feel strong,'' Minas proclaimed, as the men in the lounge practiced their steps on one side of the dance floor, women on the other.

I did my best with a butt-out, wiggle-down with your hips move, with Minas instructing us women to ``Make the guy go, `Oh my god, that's exciting, what's happening.' '' Except my partner was my reluctant 78-year-old mom.

With regulars in the classes it was easy to make friends. In my case, they included Canadians Carol and Owen Rhodenizer, both age 69, and dance enthusiasts, who have done 39 cruises and take lessons at home several times a week.

During a salsa class taught by Katsantouris' professional partner, Rachel Neilson, Carol was such a pal she lent me Owen.

We were doing great for a few dances, Owen a strong leader. But when Neilson showed us a move involving the woman stretching her leg under and through the man's spread legs, I decided it was time to give Carol her husband back.

Katsantouris and Neilson admitted in an interview that they were teaching us steps on our weeklong cruise in a different way than they would on land. ``I am trying to give a basic foundation. It's more quickly than we'd do in regular circumstances, but these are steps that really do exist,'' Neilson said.

And we did learn. Of the steps I picked up, my favorite was the cha cha, which I practiced with mom and other female partners and did eventually get to try with a male passenger as well. I got to the point where I was really feeling the beat, as the instructor suggested, and my feet were actually responding.

I know there was no judge's panel, or viewers watching me at home. But I still think I made it to the next round.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Barenaked Ladies to Host Another Norwegian Cruise Line Voyage

USA Today

It's official: Barenaked Ladies will be back on the high seas in 2011 hosting a music-themed voyage on Norwegian Cruise Line.

Themed-cruise organizer Sixthman says the Canadian alternative rock band will headline a new "Ships and Dip" cruise scheduled for Feb. 6-11, 2011 in the Western Caribbean.

The five-night voyage on the Norwegian Dawn will kick off in Miami and include stops in Costa Maya, Mexico and Belize City, Belize. It goes on sale to the public on June 30, with rates starting at $799 per person, based on double occupancy.

This is the fourth time Barenaked Ladies has hosted a Sixthman music cruise. As in the past, the Norwegian Cruise Lines voyage will include a headline concert by the band as well as performances by a number of other groups that will be announced in the coming months.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Competition Heats up for Port

Florida Today

Carnival Cruise Lines' plan to homeport its 2,056-passenger Fantasy at Port Charleston in South Carolina starting this year is causing a few ripples of concern 400 miles to the south in Port Canaveral.

The move is another indication that Port Canaveral, considered the world's second-busiest cruise port, must be prepared for growing pockets of competition in areas where it has traditionally drawn passengers.

Port Charleston, for example, is a six-hour drive from Port Canaveral and there's the distinct possibility that its Carnival service could siphon passengers who might otherwise come here. The Fantasy is expected to attract passengers from the Atlanta area, both Carolinas, Tennessee -- and possibly even North Florida.

"Unfortunately, that's some of our prime markets," said J. Stanley Payne, chief executive officer of Port Canaveral.

And Payne said the competition could grow as more ships are deployed along the East Coast. "I don't think it's going to stop at Charleston."

Fantasy's presence in South Carolina likely will lead to Port Canaveral beefing up its outreach and marketing efforts there touting its cruise offerings, which include seven-day and three- to four-day Eastern and Western Caribbean cruises offered by Carnival, Disney Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International and Norwegian Cruise Lines.

Carnival, Disney and Royal Caribbean have invested millions of dollars at Port Canaveral.

Payne didn't specify what additional efforts might be used to market cruises departing from Port Canaveral, saying only that "we're going to get a little more aggressive about the advantages of this port."

Port Canaveral's Central Florida location allows it to attract customers who live within a day's drive of the Space Coast -- more than 30 million people live within an 8-hour drive -- or fly into Orlando International Airport, the 11th largest airport in the United States. According the latest figures, Port Canaveral attracts about 2 million cruise passengers annually.

Even with expected price increases this year, cruises continue to be considered vacation bargains, and that popularity has the attention of many communities eager to sign deals with one of the major players.

Officials in Savannah, Ga., have commissioned a study about the possibility of offering cruises. The Jacksonville Port Authority is considering a new cruise terminal to get more business. Carnival's Fascination sails for five-day cruises out of the Jacksonville port, called Jaxport, but because of the port's design it's difficult now for larger cruise ships to negotiate its waters.

"Definitely home-port cruising is a hot industry trend again," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of the website "What's happening is that smaller markets are getting very aggressive about competing with the big guys, meaning Miami, Fort Lauderdale cruises and Port Canaveral. Charleston is just the newest entrant on the scene and Carnival is just seeing if it's going to work."

One way to tell if a market is good is if the cruise company sends in a bigger ship with more amenities, Brown said. That has happened several times with cruise lines serving Port Canaveral.

Robert Giangrisostomi, the Canaveral Port Authority's deputy executive director/business development, said the port continues to work with travel agents to promote Port Canaveral and its cruise offerings. Cruise ships are running 112 percent to 115 percent passenger capacity, Giangrisostomi said, and the port has to continue to ensure future numbers remain that healthy

The port also is lobbying the cruise lines to offer excursions to Bermuda and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

"The key is to keep these (current) cruise ships filled," Giangrisostomi said. "Everybody needs to sell Port Canaveral."