Cruise accidents in the news. Northeast Passage cruises.

By David Tykol
This item appears on page 2 of the November 2016 issue.

Dear Globetrotter:

Welcome to the 489th issue of your monthly foreign-travel magazine.

Nancy Gatland of Wilton, New York, wrote, “ITN comes to my home every month; I would be lost without it. Over the years, I have learned so much from the experiences of other travelers.”

It’s good to know that ITN is getting the job done. While we physically cannot print all there is to know about every travel destination or every aspect of travel, we certainly — in addition to providing hard news — showcase the adventures, advice and opinions of our subscribers, some of the most traveled people on the planet. And, over more than 40 years of publication, this magazine has covered a lot of ground.

Just back from someplace interesting or wonderful outside of the US? Send in a report. You’ll know what it is that someone following in your footsteps would appreciate hearing about. Steer someone to a nice experience or help them avoid a hassle. This is the place to do it.

At the end of August and beginning of September, the cruise industry had a couple of bad weeks.

• On Aug. 28 in Messina, Sicily, Italy, heavy winds and currents forced Carnival Cruise Lines’ Carnival Vista off course as it was leaving port. In order to get back on track, the ship increased the thrust of its propellers, causing an enormous wake that destroyed a nearby private marina, sinking some boats docked there. There were no injuries, but the estimated cost of damages was nearly $280,000.

Carnival Vista is the line’s newest ship and — at more than 1,000 feet in length and with the capacity to carry more than 5,000 passengers and crew — its largest.

• On Sept. 1, off the coast of Calabria, Italy, a fire in the engine room of SeaDream Yacht Club’s SeaDream I left the ship without propulsion. The fire occurred around 2 a.m. and, after about 12 hours adrift, all 160 passengers and six crew were evacuated from the ship by the Italian Coast Guard, with no injuries reported. 

SeaDream canceled the ship’s next two sailings to repair the damage from the fire, the cause of which was not revealed.

Coincidentally, two days before the fire, SeaDream I had been awarded the Vencedor Award for “World’s Best Small Cruise Ship” by the New Jersey travel agency Dream Luxury Cruises (unrelated to SeaDream).

• On the Main-Danube Canal in Germany, at about 1:30 on the morning of Sept. 11, two crew members of Viking River Cruises’ riverboat Viking Freya were killed when the wheelhouse was sheared off as the ship attempted to pass under a bridge, only to become lodged underneath it. No passengers were injured.

The Freya was equipped with a wheelhouse that could be retracted when passing under bridges. Viking is investigating why it had not been retracted at the time of the incident. 

Passengers aboard the Freya were given the option of continuing their tour with an altered itinerary or returning home. Anyone booked on an upcoming cruise aboard the Freya now will sail aboard the Viking Bestla on the same itinerary.

• Only two days later in Marseille, France, where Royal Caribbean International’s ocean cruise ship Harmony of the Seas was docked, one crew member was killed and four were injured during a safety drill when the lifeboat they were in broke away from its fetters and fell about 33 feet from the fifth deck. No passengers were involved in the incident.

It was determined that the accident was caused by human error.

Harmony of the Seas was in the midst of a Mediterranean itinerary at the time, having departed from Civitavecchia, near Rome, on Sept. 8. At over 1,100 feet long and able to carry more than 8,000 passengers and crew, Harmony of the Seas is the world’s largest cruise ship.

I reported the above accidents because it was a flurry of uncommon occurrences in cruising, which continues to be a safe — and fun — mode of travel.

In the August issue I reported on cruises through the Northwest Passage, which are becoming more “frequent” as climate temperatures rise near the pole. On Sept. 7, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ Hanseatic completed its second voyage completely through the Northeast Passage, the first having been completed in 2014. 

The first documented transit of the Northeast Passage was by Finno-Swedish explorer Adolf Erik Nord­enskiöld in 1878-79, but it would be a while before more traditional tourists would make the journey. 

Using icebreakers, the Soviet Union began exploring tourism in the passage in 1990, while Americans got their first chance in 1991 with Quark Expeditions (888/979-3190, www.quarkexpeditions.com/en) aboard Quark’s recently purchased icebreaker, Kapitan Khlebnikov.

Other adventure-travel companies, including Adventure Life (800/344-6118, www.adventure-life.com), offer Northeast Passage cruises too, though Hapag-Lloyd (phone +49 40 3070 3070, www.hl-cruises.com) is the only one offering the transit on a ship that is not a Russian icebreaker. 

Also, while the other lines generally have sailed from east to west (from the Chukotka Peninsula to Tromsø, Norway), the Hapag-Lloyd cruise went from west to east (from Tromsø to Nome, Alaska). 

Unlike Northwest Passage cruises, which zag through Canadian archipelagos and offer stops at inhabited areas along the way, the Northeast route follows a straight line along virtually all of Russia’s northern coast (and a bit of Norway’s), an area almost entirely uninhabited, with vast ocean distances between stops. 

For example, on Quark’s itinerary, three days are spent at sea heading from Rangel Island, in the Bering Strait, to the New Siberian Islands, the next place where passengers can leave the ship.

Further, only once during the entire cruise is there even a tentatively scheduled visit with native peoples — on a stop at the islands of Severnaya Zemlya — one hinging on good weather conditions.

The cruise’s appeal, then, has to do with the unique geographical sites, experiencing nature and saying that you got to travel on waters most people never get the chance to sail.

In my September column, I reported results from the latest Currency Exchange Study by the credit- and financial-advice company Wallethub. They determined that when you want to purchase something while traveling in another country, the option that will save you the most money is making the purchase with a credit card that charges no FTF (foreign transaction fee). 

The second-best option, usually, is making a direct purchase with a debit or credit card that DOES charge an FTF or spending cash retrieved from an ATM by using a debit card that charges an FTF.

The next-best option is to get foreign currency by exchanging US dollars in person in a US bank in advance of your trip. 

And the least-favorable option is to get foreign currency through a kiosk/outlet run by a currency-exchange company such as Travelex, located in airports and cities in the US and many other countries. (Don’t mistake a Travelex ATM for a bank’s ATM!)

Well, Jane B. Holt of Hinesburg, Vermont, read those results and wrote, “What about a debit card that charges no FTF and no ATM fee? That’s the way it works for my husband and me with our Schwab Bank Visa®Platinum debit card linked to our Schwab One® brokerage account and Schwab Bank High Yield Investor Checking® account.

“I was particularly surprised by the missing information, as it was pointed out that WalletHub’s study specifically mentioned Charles Schwab as one of the banks that does ‘not charge ATM fees’.” 

As I explained to Jane, WalletHub’s study simply did not include or mention debit cards that did not charge FTFs.

When I last reported the company’s study results (in my February 2014 column, with the study done by CardHub.com, whose parent company now is WalletHub.com), the researchers did not even include ATM withdrawals among the options studied, so they’re making progress, as ATMs are widely used by travelers.

But Jane’s letter points out the fact that there are debit cards that do not charge FTFs.

Also, from all the figures included in the study I reported, it is apparent that a debit card that charges no FTF and no fees will employ the same (very advantageous) exchange rate as a credit card that charges no FTF, which was the most frugal option.

Jane sent a follow-up email saying, “When we returned from our March-April 2016 trip to Japan, I checked the exchange rates we received for using a credit card that charges no fees on purchases (our Chase United Explorer Visa card) and the rates we received when making ATM withdrawals using our no-fees Schwab debit card described earlier.

“I just wanted to be sure that, with no fees being added, they didn’t simply up the ante on the exchange rate. I was pleased to see, and it was confirmed by the bank, that they did not use a higher exchange rate.”

Readers, if you have a debit card that charges no FTF or no FTF and no fees for an ATM withdrawal or a purchase transaction, please let us know the card’s exact name (the full title printed on it) and the bank or credit union through which it was issued. We would like to make other travelers aware of its availability.

Likewise, if you have a credit card that charges no FTF or no FTF and no fees on purchases, please provide the same type of information about the type of card it is and where you got it. Every bit of savings helps.

 Email editor@intltravelnews.com or write to No-fee Debit/Credit Cards, c/o ITN, 2116 28th St., Sacramento, CA 95818. (Please include the address at which you receive ITN.)

Nancy Tan of Fresno, California, wrote, “I read the subscriber’s letter titled ‘AAnytime Awards Costlier than MileSAAver’ (May ’16, pg. 23), regarding the difficulty of booking seats on American Airlines (AA) flights, even far in advance, using frequent-flyer miles. 

“As ultimately was explained by the AA representative, AAdvantage program members can redeem miles in two ways. With the MileSAAver program, seats have limited availability and might instead be on an alliance airline. With the AAnytime program, seats are more readily available on the flights that are wanted, but they require many more miles to purchase.

“My recent experience with AA has ranged from having mileage tickets being unavailable for a destination (such as Australia/New Zealand for next spring) to having only the far more expensive AAnytime award tickets being available for convoluted routings that require a ridiculous number of points (such as for a flight to Taiwan this December). 

“I would be very interested in reading comparisons of airlines’ mileage programs from travelers who are members of more than one airline’s loyalty program.”

If you are or recently have been a member of more than one airline’s or airline alliance’s frequent-flyer program, let us know which program you prefer. And for what reasons. What are some specific differences between the programs? What benefits outweigh what liabilities? When you have a choice of airlines on a particular route, do you make your decision based on the mileage program and, if so, for what reason(s)?

Write to Mileage Program Comparisons, c/o ITN at the addresses shown above (and include your mailing address). Responses will be printed in ITN.

CORRECTIONS to note —

• Susan Algul of Sierra Vista, Arizona, saw the Travel Brief “New Banknotes” (Oct. ’16, pg. 4) and wrote, “According to the Bank of England website (www.bankof
england.co.uk/banknotes/polymer
), the date given for when the old, paper 5-pound notes will no longer be accepted by merchants is incorrect. The correct date is May 5, 2017, rather than May 17 as printed in ITN.”

Susan is right. And (as we reported), fortunately, holders of the paper notes will always be able to exchange them for the new polymer notes at any Bank of England location (these are found in England and Wales).

New £10 notes come out next summer, still with no specific date set yet. 

Further, England’s new, polymer pound notes will be released in England and Wales, while the Bank of Scotland will be printing its own £5 and £10 polymer notes. Scotland’s £5 notes were scheduled to be issued on Sept. 27 this year, with the old paper notes to be decommissioned sometime in early 2017. Their new £10 notes will be issued in the latter half of 2017. 

Currently, there are no plans for any of these new notes to be produced in Northern Ireland.

If that isn’t confusing enough, the Channel Islands, Isle of Man and Gibraltar all use their own pound notes.

Don’t let any of that fluster you, though, because, despite being issued by different banks, all pound notes produced in any of the UK dominions are legal tender in any of the others, so you can use an English £5 note in Scotland and vice versa. 

However, Susan also wrote the following, news that had escaped our attention: “A new £1 coin will be released by England sometime in March 2017, and the old £1 coins will be good for only about six months after the release.”

She’s right again! According to the website of England’s Royal Mint (www.royalmint.com/newonepound coin), “Following the six-month co-circulation period, legal tender status of the existing £1 [coin] will be withdrawn.”

• Edna R.S. Alvarez of Los Angeles, California, wrote, “Having had an amazingly wonderful visit to Sicily this July, I thoroughly enjoyed the subscriber’s letter ‘Special Sights in Sicily’ (Oct. ’16, pg. 12). I noticed the author wrote that they took a ‘scenic train ride around the coast to Catania on Sicily’s west side.’ However, Catania is on Sicily’s east coast.

“I would add that there is also a direct bus from Palermo to Catania and it has a good senior fare.”

Carolyn Taylor of Memphis, Tennessee, wrote, “I recently gave a series of travel workshops for a Friendship Force group in Memphis and several for meetings of the International Society for Key Women Educators — Delta Kappa Gamma. I always tell people about ITN and give them my pre-read copies. I love ITN!”

Carolyn sent us the names and addresses of 30 people who each wanted to receive a free sample copy of the magazine. And she can assure all that we never pass along those addresses to any other firm.

Doris Miner of Verdugo City, California, emailed, “We love ITN, and when we go on a trip, we take a few copies with us and hand them out.”

Both Carolyn and Doris gave away their past issues. While I’m still processing the unimaginable thought that some people actually would part with their copies of the magazine, I am heartened by the sacrifices they are making to introduce other people to ITN

We do have both business-size cards and postcard-size cards for you to pass out that explain how someone can be sent a free sample copy (and we’ll send a bunch to you, upon your request, to take on your trips and hand to travelers you meet), but I can’t deny that showing someone an actual copy of ITN so they can see how much information there is in a single issue will make the greatest impact.

Our thanks to all of you who are spreading the word about ITN!