Mexico

TRAVEL GUIDE: CRUISING FOR NEWBIES

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For the past five years, we have taken group trips to celebrate my younger brother’s birthday. Last year, our trip was almost marred in tragedy, after a snow mobile accident resulted in him being life flighted to Denver with bleeding on the brain and his girlfriend at the time with a broken elbow and hip. We learned a lot that trip about taking unnecessary risks, but instead of ending the birthday trip annual vacations, we just took heed of the lessons learned last December for all future travels.

This year, the plan was to travel to Puerto Rico. But when Hurricane Irma followed by Hurricane Maria hit the island in September, leaving many areas devastated and without power, we knew that our travel plans would have to be changed. For a while we waited with hopefulness that the state of emergency declared would clear, that the government would rally for the speedy restoration of Puerto Rico like the Southern states had rallied for Houston, and that Puerto Rico would be back operational before our trip, however, three months later, Puerto Rico is still trying to recover from the devastation caused to an infrastructure that was already fragile before the wind and rain ravished the island.

So, what do you do in Houston when you need a quick and affordable trip to a tropical paradise?!? You call up your favorite travel agent and book a cruise from the Port of Galveston, which is only about 45 minute away. And being that my grandmother celebrated her 82nd birthday a few days after my brother, we knew that a cruise was the perfect way to include her on this vacation, as well.

It’s been almost 4 years or maybe even longer since my last cruise, so of course, I had to consult my traveler’s bible aka Pinterest for tips to make the most of this trip. However, while perusing Pinterest for shopping lists and travel tips, I noticed that comprehensive travel guides for cruises were in short supply.

And let me also be honest and say that I didn’t start preparing for my trip until the week of departure. Between celebrating my own birthday along with the Thanksgiving holiday, studying for my upcoming Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) Exam, and balancing end of the year work stressors, I was still running around the day of my trip trying to get last minute things done like a pedicure and restocking travel toiletries.

Our 4 day cruise to Cozumel ended up being the perfect reprieve from real life and just the right balance of fun, sleep, and sun sprinkled with a mild case of gluttony.

Here is my comprehensive guide to help those new to cruising get the most of out your trip:

BEFORE THE CRUISE:

As I previously stated, I had minimal time to prepare for this trip, and there are a handful of things that I’m glad I knew or wished I would have known before showing up at the port on departure day.

Contact your cruise line and inquire about special themed nights.

Unless you usually come on vacations already prepared with afro wigs and bell-bottoms for a night of partying in Boogie Wonderland or ugly Christmas sweaters for a festive fete, it might be a good idea to call your cruise line and inquire about any themed events.  While even short cruises usually have a Captain’s Ball, where you can party with the captain and crew in your black tie attire, there are usually a couple of additional themed nights to enjoy with your travel companion(s).

When applicable, pack for dual seasons.

So, I’m going to blame my lack of sleep for being genuinely perplexed when my brother asked me whether I was bringing a jacket and warm clothes aboard the ship.  As I looked down in my half-packed bag, at 1:30am the morning/night before my cruise, I realized that I had not taken into consideration that the weather would not be warm until we reached the Caribbean waters.  Luckily, that question was asked in enough time for me to throw a jacket in my bag, because the wind gusts on the upper decks of the ships on our first and last nights reminded me that it was Winter.

BYOB (Bring your own booze).

One of the most expensive items on your cruise are the overpriced drinks available at one of the many bars or dining rooms.  But don’t fret, most cruise lines allow guests to bring a limited supply of wine on board.  For Royal Caribbean, the limit is 2 (750ml) bottles per stateroom.

Tip:  Signature daily drinks usually come in fancy souvenir cups which raise the price.  You can ask for the same cocktail in a regular glass and save a few $$$.  I mean, how often will you use that fancy souvenir glass when you get back home anyway?!?

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Plan to arrive for check-in early or late(ish).

The check-in process for cruises can be extremely long, especially when the bulk of the two-thousand plus men, women, and children, are gathered by the masses to begin their tropical vacation.  The best times for the shortest lines are either first thing in the morning when boarding begins or in the last couple of hours before boarding ends. When you checkin for your cruise, pay attention to boarding times and plan accordingly.

Tip:  Your stateroom may not be ready until a couple of hours after departure.  Be sure and pack any outfits you would like to change into within your first hours of being onboard like swimwear and any other important items like prescriptions, etc.

Be weather conscious.

The Monday before my cruise departed that Thursday, I remember checking the weather and seeing that it would most likely rain on our day in Cozumel.  But somehow between Monday and my Thursday departure day, I forgot.  Needless to say, our travel group ended up braving torrential downpours (until we found some cheap ponchos) to make the most of our limited time docked in Cozumel.

DURING THE CRUISE

Plan your day at the beginning of the day.

Each day while on your cruise, your attentive cabin attendants will distribute a daily schedule.  Let me first say, there has to be a million things going on each day, whether it’s trivia, bingo, dance classes, liquor tasting, games, etc.  The easiest way to make the most of your time is to plan out your day at the beginning of your morning (or afternoon if you like to sleep like me).  Almost every activity on our cruise started on time, so don’t spread yourself so thin that you spend more time running all over the ship than actually enjoying your trip.

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Eat, eat, and eat some more.

For most people, the best part of cruise vacations is that the food is usually good and plentiful.  Whether its the main dining hall, the buffet, or one of the specialty dining restaurants on board, there is always a large variety of delicious food to eat.  There is something about vacations that make people a little more adventurous, and even though I’m one of the pickiest food consumers alive, the garlic butter escargot served in the main dining room became a family favorite.

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Tip: You can order multiples appetizers and entrees in the main dining room for FREE.  Don’t be afraid to try the many dishes, you paid for it.

Watch a show, laugh at some jokes, and don’t be afraid to show off your latest line dances on the main deck.

Whether he was impersonating the lead singer of the Village People, costume and all, teaching cruise goers the choreographed routine to Thriller for a finale performance, or leading the love train through the center of the ship, our cruise director, Steve, was charismatic, full of energy, and the perfect host of every social event on the Vision of the Seas.  It was obvious that every entertainment detail had been thought out in its entirety, from the hilarious comedy of John Knight to the broadway worthy performances filled with talented dancers and vocalists, the on-board entertainment is probably the next best perk to the food.

Allow your kids to live their best lives.

As a single woman without any kids, I’m always leery of vacations where the ratio to little people versus adult people is significantly inproportiante.  I can’t say it’s ideal to be sipping my cosmo by the pool while a toddler is splashing my novel.  Cruises, however, are perfect for family vacations, and there is a whole deck or area, on most ships, solely dedicated to your bundles of joy.  The Vision of the Seas had an arcade, nursery, and teen center to keep your little ones busy.

Stock up on your favorites liquors.

My favorite liquor, Sheridan, is not available in the States, so of course, I look forward to international duty-free shopping to stock my bar.  Whether it’s your favorite vodka, cognac, or speciality liquor, you can usually find just about everything on board your ship or at a docking port for a value price.  And most cruises offer liquor tasting in their duty free shops to help you find liquors that are worth being added to your repertoire.

Tip: Make sure you are familiar with customs taxes and limits to make sure you get all your booze back to your residence without hefty fees.

Don’t miss the boat.

This sounds like common sense, but most cruise personnel can tell you that it’s not uncommon for there to be at least a couple of stragglers that consume too much tequila and have to fly home at their own expense.  If you cruise ships says that you will be in Cozumel from 8am-5pm, that means you will be in Cozumel until 5:00pm.  On the way off boat, you card is scanned not to wait on you or call your cell phone in case you’re late, but so that cruise officials will know that Tonia and her little friends didn’t make it back from Margaritaville.  One of the easiest ways to make sure that you’re on time is to book a guided excursion, but since most of us had frequented Mexico enough to have done all the touristy stuff, we just all kept an eye on the time.  After about 6 rounds of tequila shots, I’m sure they were very blurry eyes, but hey, we made it.  I watched one man have to get carried back to the boat, by his parents of all people, but hey, he made it.

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Keep track of the expenses on your onboard account.

Between drink purchases by the pool and shopping in the duty free shops, it’s easy to run up a large tab that has to be paid before you depart back to your regular life.  Either keep track of your purchases through keeping your receipts, or you can check your balances at guest services each day.  I don’t think there’s a dishwashing option, so make sure that you only spend within your means.

Tip: Some cruise lines charge a daily fee to your onboard account.  Our fee was $13.50 per day, making my tab already over $50, before I even started adding cocktails and Cokes. Yes, even soft drinks cost on your cruise.

AFTER THE CRUISE

Complete the survey.

At the end of your cruise, you will be emailed a survey on various aspects of your cruise, including but not limited to cleanliness and service.  If you had great cabin attendants or servers at dinner, the survey is your time to acknowledge their hard work and dedication to making your cruise memorable.

Have you been on a cruise?  What tips would you give to newbies, and what are some of your favorite ports?  We look forward to reading your advice and suggestions in the comments below.

P.S.  If you would like assistance booking your next trip, click here.

TRAVEL GUIDE: RIVIERA MAYA, MEXICO

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Stay.

30th birthdays are always a celebration, and this past weekend, I was able to embark on a trip to Riviera Maya, Mexico with a group of girlfriends to celebrate one of my college roommates 30th birthday.  Being that we live all over the US, it’s always a rare treat to be in the same city for multiple days.  And while I have been to Cozumel on a Carnival cruise, this was my first inland trip to Mexico.

Sidenote: Since this trip, I’ve added Cabo to my list, and it has become my favorite city to visit in Mexico. You can read about my trip to Cabo by clicking here or book your room at Secrets Los Cabos by clicking here.

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After reading reviews and perusing through several destinations and resorts in Mexico, we opted for the fairly new and renovated El Dorado Seaside Suites, an adult only, all-inclusive resort near Tulum.  From the private infinity pools, modern decor, expansive bathrooms in each suite to the swing bar and fancy restaurants, and 24 hours room service with bomb ass quesadillas, this resort was one of the better all-inclusives of which I have stayed.  In every building, guests were greeted with champagne, and the resort itself was just the right size for walking, if you didn’t want to wait on the shuttle.  The beach near our resort was still under construction, as much of this resort was built on coral reef (great for snorkeling, not so fun for distance swimming), however, the finished beach had a great bar and impeccable service that kept beach patrons with a fresh drink in their hands, even though I was drinking Mexican Cokes like water.  We were also connected to a nude beach, but due to time constraints, we didn’t make it over to that side.  Not saying I’m a nudist, but I am saying I might have went and took a little peeky peek.  And I can’t help but to mention the way that we walked into almost every club on the resort and took over the DJ booth and the dance floor.

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Note: Riviera Maya has become one of my favorite quick and cheap getaway destinations, and while El Dorado Seaside Suites was a great resort, I have fallen in love with the Secrets and Breathless chain of hotels. From the service to the amenities, you can’t go wrong with any AM Resort, and you can check prices and book your room directly from my website by clicking here.

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Play.

Similar to my planning for any trip, I set up a board on Pinterest and mapped out the must-see/must-do things in and near Riviera Maya.  Usually, I create a list and if it is too lengthy, I consult the locals on arrival to help narrow it down.  The list for this trip was fairly short though, as there were only 2 main attractions that kept popping up, Chichen Itza and Xcaret.  So, I shot my suggestions over to our group message, we voted, and the majority of the group decided to also purchase tickets to these attractions.  

Xcaret.

Xcaret.

Note: There are two other excursions that I highly recommend, especially if you are an adrenaline junkie, like myself. You can zip line, ride ATVS, and swim in a cenote at Extreme Adventure Eco Park or up the anti at Xplor with swimming in underground caves and driving amphibious vehicles through the jungle terrain.

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Since our arrival to the resort was marred with the news of the death of music icon, Prince, we spent most of it at the bar or in our private infinity pools swimming under the influence.  There’s nothing like being the bearer of bad news to the other vacationers that had been disconnected from the media, while coercing them into purple shots.  I mean, it was an all inclusive, drink to you can’t drink anymore.  And I must be honest and admit, I didn’t get to fully enjoy the grand splendor of our resort or our suite until the next day due to my level of alcohol consumption that first night. #RIPPrince

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For relaxation purposes, we decided to plan our excursions in the middle of our trip, leaving room for 2 resort days.  In hindsight though, I wish that we would have stayed an extra day or 2.  I feel like I didn’t get to enjoy enough of the resort, sober at least.  On our first excursion day, we embarked on a journey to Mexico’s premiere adventure park, Xcaret.  Now, let me be honest, in the same way that I kept referring Chi-ch-en Itza as Chicken Itza, in my mind, Xcaret was a water park.  Yeah, I mean water park like Splashtown or WaterWorld (if you’re from Houston and old enough to remember).  Yet, on arrival and entrance I quickly found out the meaning of “adventure-park.”  Xcaret offered everything from snorkeling, to swimming with dolphins and sharks, underwater fish watching, jaguar and puma exhibitions, cenote tours, a recreated Mayan city and Mexican cemetery, along with a host of other “adventurous” activities.  The way our sleep was set up, we didn’t get there until the afternoon, but it was easy to see how a whole day could be spent at Xcaret.  One of the highlights of the park is their award winning night show, Mexico Espectacular, which details Mexico’s history from Mayan times to today.  One of the most powerful parts of the show was seeing Mayan warriors being converted to Christianity.  While we were too tired  to enjoy the show in all of its glory, we realized the next day on our tour of Chichen Itza how many of the shows historical references we were able to connect to our tour.

Being that I graduated with a Bachelors in History and its on my bucket list to see the 7 Wonders of the World, Chichen Itza was a must see, even though there was much group debate about going to Tulum instead. However, after reading the reviews and debating life experiences, we chose Chichen.  I was leery of the trip, due to reviews from my brother about the long drive, however, we all packed good books and a couple of snacks and set out on our 12-hour excursion.  I’m convinced that I have a case of car narcolypse, so true to my fashion, I slept most of the way to Chichen Itza.

I’ve always had a sick fascination with gory historic events and unexplained phenomenons, and the visit to Chichen Itza combined components of both.  As the brutal sun took its time trying to convince us to strip out of our clothes and try our luck in the Sacred Cenote, we embarked on a tour of one of the most popular Mayan cities of all times.  From viewing Chichen Itza, and learning that it was actually a temple and calendar used to keep track of the days and seasons, viewing the sacrificial statues, the Wall of Skulls, their sports colosseum where participants fought to their deaths, literally and figuratively, to the Sacred Cenote, an underground river where humans dead and alive were sacrificed to the Mayan water God, Chaac, I can see why Chichen Itza it designated as a world heritage site. For 3000 years, a civilization thrived, only to be reduced to myth and speculation. Included in the tour to Chichen Itza, we also had the oppurtunity to wander through Valladolid to view the colonial landmarks and to have lunch and swim in one of the most famous cenotes, Ik Kil.

Ik Kil.

Ik Kil.

Chichen Itza.

Chichen Itza.

For those travelers that prefer a low key trip with shopping, purchasing souvenirs, and enjoying food outside of the resort, I definitely recommend heading to 5th Avenue in Playa del Carmen. Whether you’re in the market for some authentic Mexican vanilla to up the anti with your baked goods, perusing the racks at Zara and other high end shops, or bar hopping to find your favorite haunt, 5th Avenue is the place to be.

As the members of our college crew enter their 30s, I realize that it won’t be too long before our girls’ trips become family trips.  I’m cherishing each and every one of these moments, even though the family additions will be welcomed additions.

Valladolid.

Valladolid.

 Restaurant Highlight- Yo Amo Tacos

Let me first say, I might be the only Texan alive that doesn’t really like Mexican food, unless Taco Bell counts.  But I have started to dabble in rice and beans and love tacos.  Yo Amo Tacos, located on 5th Avenue, offered a large selection of tacos and authentic Mexican cuisine, and not one of our crew of 6 had any complaints.  Between the lively patrons and savory tacos, Yo Amo is a must visit the next time you’re near Playa Del Carmen.

P.S. If you would like help planning your next vacation, click here.

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

TRAVEL GUIDE: LOS CABOS, MEXICO

With a sea once dubbed the Aquarium of the World, by famed explorer Jacques Cousteau, Cabo has remained a vibrant city filled with a plethora of activities to cater to travelers.  This tropical oasis, popular among spring breakers and A-list travelers alike, hosts a variety of activites from water-sports to partying on Skid Row that rivals Bourbon Street in New Orleans.  While most travelers know to visit El Arco (The Arch), Lover’s and Divorce Beach, and to party at Cabo Wabo, below are 4 must-do things to add to your itinerary on your next trip to Cabo San Lucas:

Stay in a 5 Star Hotel

As a popular tourist location once frequented in high numbers by celebrity travelers,  Cabo San Lucas offers a vast array of trendy resorts.  Anytime that I visit locations that offer all-inclusive living, I aim for resorts with the best amenities and dining options.  One of the resorts that I recommend in Cabo is the Grand Fiesta Americana Los Cabos.  Ranked one of the Top 50 best golf resorts in the world, this resort also has one of the only seven wine spas in the world, SOMMA. Grand Fiesta has one of the few swimmable beaches in the area on the resort, as Cabo beaches are known for strong currents and rip tides rendering most of their beaches dangerous to swimmers.  From the beautiful views to the attentive staff and lively entertainment, this will be a resort that I frequent on my trips back to Cabo.

Another luxury hotel that I recommend in Los Cabos is the Secrets Puerto Los Cabos, which you can book directly by clicking here.

Tip: If you’re partying by the pool in Cabo, order a round of mini-beer shots.

Rent a Yacht

For almost the same price as a day excursion on a party boat, Cabo vacationers can rent a private yacht with open bar to sail the Sea of Cortez and view not only the marina, but also the infamous El Arco and Lover’s and Divorce Beach. From a seasick traveler in our party to one that indulged to much in the open bar, our captain and first mate, Javier and Marco, were there to cater to all of our needs.  There are not to many places where you can rent a private yacht at an affordable rate, so this is definitely something to take advantage of on your trip to Cabo.

Tip: In order to get assistance planning your day on a yacht, simply click here.

Go Whale Watching

From December to April, Cabo San Lucas is know for the vast amount of humpback whales that come back to the Sea of Cortez and Pacific Ocean to mate before starting their migration to cooler waters.  Whale watching has been on my bucket list for a few years, so I was stoked to learn that my trip to Cabo coincided with whale watching season.  In researching the various companies that offered whale watching tours in the area, I decided on Whale Watch Cabo for various reasons.  Founded by Janneke, Miguel Angel, and Peter, to fulfill a lifelong dream of providing a safe, educational, and responsible way to encounter whales, Whale Watch Cabo is still the only dedicated whale watch company in Cabo San Lucas.  Voted #1 on Trip  Advisor for their small group tours since 2010, these eco-friendly tours are led by a knowledgable guide, such as my guide, Paola, who was an oceonagrapher, and guarantee a whale sighting or your next tour is free.  Our tour began with a short tour of the Sea of Cortez to get some touristy shots of El Arco, Scooby Doo Rock, Neptune’s Finger, etc, before we shot across the water for some all eyes on deck whale watching.  Not only did we get to see a handful of whales taking a final breath before their deep plunges, towards the very end of our tour, we had the pleasure of witnessing a mother and her calf breach repeatedly, leaving us with memories that will last a lifetime.  Whale Watch Cabo offers a variety of different tours, including their highly recommended Zodiac Tour, that can cover more distance in a shorter span of time.

And if you’re in the mood for a tour that includes breakfast while whale watching, click here.

Tip: Unless you absolutely love photography, one of the perks of booking a tour with Whale Watch Cabo, is that your guide also doubles as a photographer and will inbox pictures from your tour via DropBox, free of charge.

Dine with a View

Cabo is one of those picturesque places fit for a romance novel, contributing to an influx in restaurants with unparalleled views.  Even if you’re staying at an all-inclusive resort, I always recommend dining off the resort at least one night of your stay, especially if you’re celebrating a special occasion.  While I recommend at least trying a sunset dinner cruise on one your nights in Cabo, below are some of the top options for restaurants with a view:

Tip: Always consult a local when looking to find the best, authentic cuisine while on vacation.

P.S. If you would like help planning your next vacation, click here.

Are you visiting Cancun/Riviera Maya or Cozumel in the near future? Make sure you check out my travel guides to maximize those trips, as well.

Disclaimer: While some of the companies in this post paid for my use of their services, all of the opinions expressed in this post are my own. I would never endorse a company that I would not recommend or use again. Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.