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On Luggage and Cruise Lines

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September 25, 2013 – Comments (0)

Board: Macro Economics

Author: OrmontUS

ON LUGGAGE

Some people use their luggage occasionally and the main distance it travels is from their home to their car and then to a hotel room – reversing the processes at the end of a trip – and almost any luggage piece would be good as another. In our case, because of the amount of traveling we do and the varied way our luggage gets manhandled, we need to pay more attention to this item as a tool, rather than a fashion accessory.

A good craftsman can create a work of art with mediocre tools, but good tools make his life easier. A novice, wouldn’t know the difference and will make his life miserable never realizing that there is a difference between similar appearing tools. The same is true with luggage pieces. When engineers design a battle tank they must make compromises between competing (and sometimes mutually exclusive) features such as range, speed, thickness of armor, gun size, ammo storage, price etc. Similarly with luggage design, factors such as light weight, capacity, durability, ease of use, ease of maintenance/repair, price (big factor here), etc. compete.

Some people choose their luggage pieces to match. We choose luggage pieces in the same fashion that we pick pots and cooking knives: first picking them based on suitability of use and quality, then on price, then on warranty. Whatever manufacturer, style or color passes through that filter is what gets bought. In fact, we specifically chose different colors on the same model/size suite case to make it easier to recognize which bag was which.
I break luggage pieces into two sizes:

The largest size most carriers will allow to be taken into the cabin (many US carriers allow 22”, but some like Spirit and many European carriers allow only 21” and a few are limiting the size to 20”). This is important as it is our preference to travel without checked luggage, allowing a quick get away at airports and much lower possibility of us going in one direction and our luggage in another.

The largest size that can be reasonably filled and still stay below the currently popular 50 pound limit (which, in our case is about a 29” luggage piece) for checked luggage.

First of all, our job has become more complicated as brand name is not as important as it used to be. In the past, one could buy a Hartman, Tumi, Travelpro or similar bag, and in return for high price get a rugged, well designed bag with a lifetime guaranty. While these companies still make some good bags, many of theirs (most?) are now cheap (not price, but quality-wise) “knock-offs” of their former glory to sell at a premium in the consumer market.

So what do I look for in a luggage piece? Let’s start with the “carry-on” type. Obviously it has to be the size that’s appropriate for the particular carrier (or else it becomes checked luggage). It has to be durable because sometimes despite strategy it does, in fact, become checked. There is a current trend towards making carry-ons into spinners by putting castors on all four corners. This unacceptably reduces the interior available space so the type with a pair of roller blade wheels should be sought. Both the wheels and the handles should be attached with screws so that they can be easily replaced I broken without discarding the entire bag and the wheels should be standard sized so that they can be obtained anywhere where roller blades are sold. The zippers should be robust and the area where electronics would be stored reasonably protected. The bag should have an easy to use large external pocket (Tumi and Kirkland/Costco have these in the front and Travelpro has one in the rear). The bag should have a “suiter” section which should be designed to minimize wrinkling of clothes. Travelpro uses a cylinder of foam rubber to wrap pants over and I have built this modification into all our bags. While far from the cheapest bags on the market, two of the best values in this category are the Costco supplied “Kirkland Signature” and the specific line of Travelpro sold to airline personnel (which have very limited distribution and is not available through retail establishments). The Costco bags run about a hundred bucks and the Travelpro models I referred to less than $150. The Costco bags have the additional benefit of their lifetime satisfaction guaranty – something no longer found on even high end bags. If possible, get bags in a color other than black. While black may be beautiful (and “snot green” unattractive), your bag will stand out from a crowd of everybody else’s black bag. I told my wife we should “decorate” our bags with cyan and magenta spray paint splotches, but was outvoted (takes only one vote to outvote me).

The criteria of the larger “check-in” luggage is a bit different. These should be hard sided (not fabric), yet light weight (I look for about 4.5-5 kg per bag), plastic with a minimum of flexibility when pressing the middle of the two sides towards each other. The bags should have clamps at both ends as well as in the middle of the long edge rather than zippers for closing. They should also use a castor on each corner of the end to make them into “spinners”. While I have a concern about the vulnerability of the wheels, the convenience of this design trumps that concern (at least until I have my first wheel broken off). Internally, one side of the bag should have a full side cloth zip-up compartment and built-in elastic straps on the other side. This design allows the usual 50 pounds of clothes to easily fit without much wasted space, is solid enough to protect fragile items inside, and while we always put a safety (webbed nylon) strap around each bag anyway, not prone to zipper failure wrecking the bag. The two halves have a gasketed seal to make the bag water resistant. As we sometimes ship our luggage by freight carriers (DHL, FedEx, UPS, Parcel Post, etc.), they have to be designed to take abuse in excess of what they would get by simply being loaded into an airplane. The best value on these bags unfortunately is not yet available in the US and is sold by Samsonite throughout Europe (different prices in different countries but in the $150, 150 Euro, 150 GBPound range, but you would get much of the VAT back if you take them out of Europe – use Google Translate to see hard-sided models which match the description on sites like www.samsonite.it, www.samsonite.uk, www.samsonite.fr – Italy was cheapest when I got mine). Delsey sells a Chinese knock-off of this bag in the States at about the same price which I guess is usable, but not nearly as well built. There is also a German manufacturer (Rowena?) who makes similar bags but at 4-5 times the price. It is important NOT to get the traditional US designed Samsonite hard side bags generally sold in their stores in the US as they are simply too heavy (we gave ours away when we replaced them with the lighter European models).

Anyhow, in a world where I have seen people take their clothes in everything from a shopping sack to a $10K Louis Vuitton luggage piece, I thought the above compromise philosophy made sense.

ON CRUISE LINES

I’m going to simplify the comparison of cruise lines by concentrating on those which do what they (or I) call “grand voyages” (no capital letters as the term is also used as a marketing toy). I’m defining these as either single segment or extended multi-segment cruises of a month or more (some as long as a year) with a minimum of replication of ports. World cruises are a subset of these, but there are many other variations. There are a number of luxury, luxury-lite (has many of the same attributes as luxury cruises, but missing some of the all-inclusive aspects), “enhanced standard” and “standard” ships and itineraries out there. I’m going to further simplify the discussion by ignoring the specialty and explorer type small ships (or any small ship with less than a few hundred passengers) as they tend to be specialize and/or extraordinarily expensive.

We have taken cruises on many of the ships mentioned, but we’re fairly agnostic when choosing a cruise line – being more itinerary driven within a class of ship. There are, however, many regular cruisers who favor a specific line or ship (for example, there is one “young” lady on our ship who has clocked over 6,000 sea days on the line – most of them on this ship. I expect that the cost has been the same or less than an equivalent stay in an old folk’s home and has been far more entertaining). I’m guessing that there are only 10-15 thousand “regulars” who take these cruises world-wide across all lines and we keep bumping into people we know from previous cruises (probably at least 10% of this ship, for example are people we’ve met somewhere before along the way.

When I mention prices of ship cabins, in order to compare apples to apples, they refer to mid-ship veranda cabins (not suites, “inside” or “outside”). It is also important to remember that there are many categories and there are more different prices on any given cruise than on an airline and different cruises, ships, lines, discounts, seasons, itineraries and so on will affect the price, so the ones here are somewhat arbitrary.

The luxury ships fly the colors of cruise lines such as Crystal, Seaborn, Silver Seas and Regent Seven Seas. They provide no compromise service, food and itineraries on generally small ships. On occasion, their entertainment is not lavish, but they provide numerous diversions. They frequently include alcoholic beverages and even excursions in their price (which can be budgeted at between $500-$1000 per person per day).

The luxury-lite lines include a mixed bag of large ships, such as Cunard’s and small ships such as those of Oceania (and the similar Azumara Club, but they don’t generally do long cruises). Cunard provides lavish entertainment, while the smaller ships of Oceania limit this feature. Oceana is now including air, luggage, internet, laundry and visa’s on their World Cruise. Cunard is fairly formal, but Oceana is completely informal. Drinks and excursions are extra, but these are itinerary driven. The costs run about $350 per person, per day for a veranda cabin.

The “enhanced standard” (my term) are specific cruises on specific ships where “extras” such as more food variety, pillow gifts on formal nights, free shuttle buses, free shipment of luggage, included gratuities and such are included. On Holland America, the MS Amsterdam and the MS Prinsendam are frequently chosen for this sort of cruise. (A different interpretation of Cunard ships might also put them in this group instead of the “luxury-lite” group). The fares here run in the $250 ballpark per person, per day.

There are a few ships/lines that run long “standard” cruises. These are frequently found on the Holland America Line’s MS Rotterdam and a couple of the Princess line’s ships (the Ocean Princess and another ship). There are also some P&O ships doing this sort of thing. They don’t have the extra perks of the above examples, but cost in the $150-200 per person per day range.

Long story made short, you can get pretty granular on the cost and experience you get by carefully selecting the proper itinerary, ship, cabin and so on. Of course there is a lot more to this and the “working the system” aspects of maximizing discounts, maximizing on-board credit and so on could fill a book, but I just thought the above comparison might be interesting.

At Sea today:

Plenty of whales playing around the ship with high bursts of water vapor blasting into the air all day. While we’re coming in the center of the pack on Trivial Pursuits, I came in third in a bridge tournament (which after not playing much for a number of decades, made me feel pretty good). The food has been excellent, as has the service. The piano bar player (a guy named Stryker who we have sailed with before) is exceptional, but the stage shows have not started to crank yet (if they ever do). There are dance instructors, bridge instructors, watercolor teachers, cooking courses, computer courses (sponsored by Microsoft, so Windows only – but they do cover digital photography), guest speakers and so on – all of whom run free programs throughout every sea day to supplement the plethora of games going on.

Los Angeles, California 9/23 Mon 8:00am to 5pm
We’ve docked at San Pedro, near Long Beach. It’s a bit of a hassle to go into Los Angeles itself, so we’ve decided to go to the Long Beach Aquarium and to drop in on the Hotel created out of the original SS Queen Mary, just to see what a “real” ship looked like. We’re also going to stock up on wine for drinking in the stateroom (as Holland America Line will shortly limit wine brought aboard by passengers to two bottles per cruise. I have explained to them that the nickel and diming which is going on – such as all of a sudden charging for espresso and cappuccino at dinner threatens to alienate those with options such as myself who has decided to shift a 2015 world cruise to another line because of it – is damaging their marketing, but they seem to think the policy makes sense).

Jeff 

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