Monday, June 25, 2012

The Disembarkation Process: A Fresh Start At The End

    All cruise vacations, regardless of length or type, are filled with great memories.  From the very moment they board to the final night, cruise passengers begin having the time of their life.  There is one part of every cruise vacation which cruise passengers dislike.  It’s that part known as disembarkation.  Very much like embarkation, disembarkation is highly sophisticated.  In a previous article, “Common Sense: An Essential To Cruising”, the top five key hints of avoiding errors when cruising were discussed.  During disembarkation, honestly, cruise passengers commit a comedy of errors on a weekly basis.  It’s best to have an error-free disembarkation.  Anyone can agree to that! Here are the five key hints to making disembarkation a hassle-free and desirable experience.

The morning of disembarkation, the onboard expenses statement will be attached to every cruise passenger's stateroom door.  Cruise passengers are to look over it carefully and make sure that all of their charges are correct.  If there are any questions, they are to be taken up with the guest services desk before leaving the ship.  Cruise passengers who used a credit card for their on board charges will have their total balance automatically routed to their credit card.  Those cruise passengers who selected “cash” as their form of on board payment, must be sure that their on board charges are paid up prior to disembarkation.

A short while ago, a passenger had a cash account on board.  For whatever rhyme or reason, he was unhappy with his cruise.  He decided to leave the ship without paying his outstanding balance.  The ship’s security staff attempted to stop him, but he had already raced off the ship into the customs hall.  He was later stopped and sent back to the ship where he was then questioned by U.S. Customs and the guest service manager.  Ultimately, he had to pay his remaining balance regardless of reason. Those cruise passengers who have a cash account must double-check their stateroom bill for outstanding charges.  Cruise passengers who do have outstanding charges must pay their outstanding balance at the guest services desk before leaving the ship. 

This must-do cannot be any more important at the time of disembarkation.  The night before disembarking, all cruise passengers are to take a good look around their staterooms.  They are to check and double-check the drawers and closets for any items they may have left around during their cruise.  Personal belongings may include cell phones, iPods, articles of clothing, jewelry, and car keys. Cruise passengers should also look under the beds.  Things do get kicked underneath by accident.  Additionally, cruise passengers must check their bathrooms for items they may have not yet packed in their luggage.  Cruise lines are not responsible for property left behind. 

Cruise passengers must double-check the stateroom safe.  Cruise passengers often leave their passports or other travel documents in it.  They may have stored articles of jewelry or other valuables in it.  Recently, a passenger left his bottle of insulin in his stateroom refrigerator.  Cruise passengers rarely check their stateroom refrigerator, however, it’s vital that all passengers double-check.  Cruise passengers must check everywhere in the stateroom for all personal items before disembarkation.  Once the passengers' stateroom cards are swiped for the final time, they are not allowed back on board.  The process to retrieve items once off the ship can be long, tedious, and complicated.  Disembarkation can be extremely hectic.  While passengers coming off, the on board staff is already in the process of preparing the ship for the next sailing.  It is essential that cruise passengers add this must-do to their list of disembarkation chores.               

The night before disembarkation, cruise passengers must have their luggage packed and placed outside their stateroom door by midnight.  Note: TRAVEL DOCUMENTS MUST NOT BE PACKED IN LUGGAGE.  Cruise passengers will not be allowed through customs without them.  Also, passengers must fill out a customs declaration form (Shown in slide show).  It must be filled out even if no purchases were made.  Cruise passengers must make sure that all of their luggage has personal identification attached.  In addition, passengers must attach the colored/numbered tags provided to them.  The passengers' names, addresses, and phone numbers must be written on the colored/numbered tags.  The number on the tag is the number assigned to passengers for disembarking the ship.

When their luggage color and/or number is called, cruise passengers will proceed to the gangway.  Once inside the customs hall, they are to proceed to the area where their luggage is located.  Cruise passengers must double-check and triple-check that they have all of their luggage before clearing customs.  A short time ago, a couple was exiting the customs hall.  The couple asked where their luggage was.  They had their carry-on luggage, but never stopped to look for their bags.  On another day, two cruise passengers went through customs with the wrong luggage. They accidentally took each other’s luggage.  These two passengers nearly went on their merry ways with the wrong baggage in hand.  Note: CRUISE PASSENGERS MUST CHECK THEIR TAGS AND COUNT THEIR BAGS! 

The evening before disembarkation, cruise passengers must review their transfer paperwork, if applicable.  They should know ahead of time when their flights or trains are departing.  Cruise passengers shout not wait until last minute.  If flying home, passengers should know when and where their flight is departing from.  For example, those who are sailing from San Francisco should know if they are flying out of Oakland or San Francisco International Airport.  In the New York area, there are three airports.  Cruise passengers must know ahead of time which one of the three they are flying from.  It makes it a whole lot easier for the shore staff to assist them.

Not long ago, a ship was repositioning from San Juan, Puerto Rico.  One passenger was coming off via wheelchair.  She had no idea what airline she was flying on or what airport she was flying from.  She never reviewed her transfer information prior to sailing.  Without knowing where she was flying from, the shore staff had no idea which motor coach to direct her to.  If it weren't for checking the manifest, figuring out where she was headed would've been a challenge.  If cruise passengers didn’t purchase transfers, they should seek out mass transit connections to the train station or airport.  If taxis are their choice of transportation, they're are dozens of them waiting outside the customs hall exit.  To find out more, readers can see the article, “Cruise Transfers: Time vs. Cost”.  

Some cruise passengers carry a ton of luggage when they travel.  Some travel light with one suitcase and a carry-on.  Some cruise passengers travel with a whole matched collection.  This part is number one on the list for a chief reason.  Cruise passengers still misconstrue the meaning of the express walk-off program.  Express walk-off, now "self-assist", doesn’t mean that cruise passengers can leave the ship and claim their luggage faster. The self-assist program is for cruise passengers who can carry ALL of their luggage without any assistance from the on board or shore staff.  Cruise passengers who sign up for the self-assist program are the very first to leave the ship.  Note: THOSE PASSENGERS WHO SIGN UP FOR THE SELF-ASSIST PROGRAM MUST NOT PLACE THEIR LUGGAGE OUTSIDE THEIR STATEROOM DOOR.  There have been mornings where passengers disembarked from the ship too early, assuming that their luggage was ready to be picked up.  They had to wait until all of the luggage was set up and inspected by the U.S. Customs K-9s.  Cruise passengers who have all of their luggage, along with your passports and declaration forms, are clear to go on their merry ways.     

Disembarkation is the most sophisticated and hectic part of any cruise vacation.  There are a lot of must-do’s to be taken care of and many don’ts to be kept in mind.  Disembarkation is not difficult as long as cruise passengers use their common sense.  Cruise passengers must remember to pay their on board expenses if they set up a cash account.  Before leaving the vessel, passengers must check around their staterooms for personal belongings.  Passengers should properly pack and tag their luggage. Further, they should always review their transfer arrangements.  Last but not least, cruise passengers must think carefully if they wish to sign up for the self-assist program.  If cruise passengers can can handle all of their luggage, they are good to go.  Disembarking from a cruise should never be hard.  It begins the countdown to an upcoming cruise.  Every ending brings about a good beginning.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Picture, Picture, On The Wall: What's My Favorite Station Of Them All?

    There is no day like National Train Day.  It was Saturday, May 12th.  I had the day off from work, and I was in no better mood for a train ride.  National Train Day is the most fascinating day of the year.  In 2008, my brother and I took the train from Newark, NJ to Baltimore.  We visited the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum.  I had a grand old time.  This year, I couldn’t help but travel to my favorite railroad destination, the city home to my favorite train terminal, Washington DC.  Railroad historians call Chicago the United States’s railroad capital.  Allow me to differ with them.  There’s only one city with the utmost “monumental” flavor, and a city that I consider the passenger train capital of the nation.  As a long time Amtrak traveler, I rightfully call Washington DC’s Union Station the king of the hill.  
    I have been traveling to Washington DC by train since I was five years old.  I remember the station being completely encased in scaffolding.  In the 1980s, Union Station was undergoing a massive restoration.  It was being restored to its former glory.  My family and I had to walk through a maze of pedestrian corridors from the platform area to the station entrance and vice versa.  In the fall of 1987, we drove down with friends from home.  What a big mistake!  The traffic was horrendous.  It took all day to get there.  Never would I drive to Washington again.  The train turned out to be the best way to travel to Washington.  Memorial Day weekend of 1988, we visited Washington by train.  The station was not reopened yet.  It was a fun weekend.  I was celebrating my eleventh birthday.  We took the Metroliner.  Remember the Metroliner?  The Metroliner was the precursor to the Acela.  The ride was wonderful. 

    The following year, my family and I to returned to Washington.  Union Station was fully restored and reopened.  Again, we took the Metroliner.  For my very first time, I walked into the station’s grandeur.  I could not get over how glorious the station looked.  It looked so sparkling new, that I could see my reflection in the floor tiles.  The one part of the station’s boarding area that caught my attention was “The Great Train Store”.  The moment we entered the station, I nearly got lost in the store.  It wasn’t a big place.  I just happened to get obsessed by everything inside.  All of a sudden, I had my eyes fixed on an HO Scale Amtrak E-60 electric engine in the display case.  My brother and I were building my brand new train table at home.  I was staring at the engine for a long while.  Well, guess what!  Before boarding our train home, my parents bought it for my twelfth birthday.  I was happier than a kid in a candy store.  It sure was a memorable trip home.

    This year, National Train Day couldn’t have meant more to me.  I visited Washington once again.  My brother and I took a Northeast Regional train.  We arrived late morning.  Besides sight seeing, I had an important task on my to-do list.  My bedroom had recently been repainted.  It was repainted a Languid Blue, closely similar to Amtrak’s blue.  To dress up one of my walls, I wanted to put together a framed collage of Union Station.  From a variety of angles, my brother and I began taking pictures of the station.  We couldn’t take pictures of the main grandeur, due to the heavy duty scaffolding. The station’s ornate ninety-six foot high ceiling was being repaired from the August 2011 earthquake. 

    Railroad photography is one of my favorite hobbies.  I couldn’t have been more excited about the idea of having a framed collage of Union Station in my room.  We took pictures of five major points of interest; the station’s front facade, the arched portico, the station’s platform area, the former waiting area (once known as the world’s largest room), and finally a shot of the tracks from atop the station’s parking garage.  It will be a framed and matted collage which will be well-liked by all.  That same day, we went on the DC Ducks Tour.  The tour conveniently began and ended at where else but Union Station.  It was an exciting tour.  I would most likely do that tour again.  Later on, we took the subway to attend mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.  It was our first time there since 1988.  That whole entire day, Union Station was our home base.  From the DC Ducks Tour, to my photography project, to attending mass, Union Station was the place to be.  A beautiful Saturday in May spent at the most beautiful train terminal in the world.

    Great memories last forever.  They are forged from the innocence of childhood to unforgettable experiences in present day.  I have visited many famous train stations around the United States.  I have been to San Diego’s Union Station, Denver’s Union Station, New York City’s Penn Station, Boston South Station, Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, and Baltimore’s Penn Station.  Washington DC’s Union Station beats them all.  Washington DC’s Union Station has played a substantial part in my life as a railroader.  Every railroader has his or her favorite railroad terminal.  For every railroader’s favorite station, for whatever the rhyme or reason, a special bond is formed.  From arriving at Washington DC’s Union Station for the very first time, to my memories of its restoration, to finally seeing it in all its glory, to an Amtrak job interview, and in the many railroad memories to follow, it holds a true place in my heart.  Like all the other buildings around Washington, Union Station plays a "monumental" role in my railroading life.  Truthfully, it presents itself as a symbol showing how great it feels to be a railroader and an American.