Category Archives: Northern Europe

Oceania Marina Lacks Stockholm Terminal

Never a second chance to make a first impression.

Deplaning in Stockholm, we move through immigration and customs amazingly quickly. No serious concerns about terrorism here. At the luggage carousel, we meet an Oceania representative collecting luggage for passengers taking a bus tour of Stockholm before boarding the Marina. We tell him we’d just like to go to the passenger terminal and nap in a chair before the ship is ready for boarding, assuming the terminal has any seats. He assures the Marina’s terminal not only offers a comfortable seating area to wait but also a café. Sounds perfect. Little did we know that of all the cruise ships in port, Oceania Marina lacks a Stockholm terminal.

Our 28-mile taxi ride to the terminal may be lengthy we see mostly highways and only a small bit of Sweden. The small bit of Stockholm we view reminds Linda of Stieg Larsson’s famous Millennium series, a best-selling trilogy starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She imagines heroine Lisbeth Salander walking the streets we pass. Her vision of Lisbeth looks like Noomi Rapace, the Swedish actress who starred in the original movie.

Our taxi driver is an interesting man. From Iraq, he says he abandoned Baghdad in 2005 after his two supermarkets were set on fire a second time. He says he has no plans ever to return despite close family still living there. His regular family reunions occur in a European country, never in Iraq.

Arriving at the cruise port, we find the Marina is not at the Vartahamnen 523, the terminal address provided by Oceania. The port section, known as Vartahamnen South, has five quays  but all dedicated to ferry service, including Scandlines. Our driver takes us to the northern port section and soon locates a Holland America ship with a Celebrity vessel docked behind. The Marina is located opposite them, easily identified at a distance by its white smoke stack with a big “O.”

Oceania Marina’s absent Stockholm terminal-why? 

Instead of the promised passenger-friendly cruise terminal, we discover a curiously long column of Oceania passengers just outside the fence gate leading to the ship. When our taxi draws up, several passengers quickly approach our driver to secure a ride to the airport. It’s 8:45 a.m., which seems late for so many people still to be disembarking and without any organized transportation for departure or hotel stays. We grab our luggage, then pay the fare with a credit card. Our cab driver seems filled with new energy, surprised and pleased to pick up a new fare so quickly.

Still early, the temperature is chilly and the overcast sky has the look and feel of rain. We ask the way to the terminal. What terminal building?  There isn’t one for Marina passengers.  Apparently the only terminal is located at the pier opposite us where Celebrity and Holland America ships are berthed.  We’re advised to wait outside the fence gate where, thankfully, is a tiny gift shop with a large wooden deck containing only five plastic chairs, already occupied by other new arrivals waiting to board. We claim an edge of the deck to sit before that space is occupied. The hard deck feels identical to the SAS Premium Plus seats. Since it will be several hours before we can board the Marina, we pass the time people watching and talking to our new shipmates.

I estimate the waiting passenger taxi line at 40 to 50 people.  It doesn’t shorten for more than hour. Taxis, slow in coming, depart sporadically with handfuls of people.  As some leave, more disembark from the Marina to replenish the column. It’s almost 90 minutes for the last person to catch a ride. Never witnessed such an unusual and haphazard disembarkation procedure. Fortunate that for those departing and the swelling numbers waiting to board that the sky still only threatens rain.

Oceania-Stateroom-Bed-1.jpg
After a sleepless SAS flight, this bed is what we seek most.

Oceania cruise staff have no explanation for the lack of a cruise terminal or the lack of any facilities; nor do they seem to care. Their attitude and the situation don’t reflect well on Oceania’s claim to offer a “luxury experience.” Or match our previous Oceania experiences, either. Makes us wonder what to expect once on board. Will it be better or worse?  Can’t believe we’re questioning our wisdom about booking Oceania for this cruise.

Around 11 a.m. a large truck arrives with baggage from the airport. We lug ours over to be added to the bunch. About 20 minutes later, wonderful news! A large canopy is erected at the ship’s gangplank and officials assemble under it so we can begin boarding. As expected, no staterooms ready yet but we learn a full lunch buffet lunch is waiting at the Terrace Café on deck 12. Linda and I agree the Marina’s interior is classy but décor is hardly foremost in our minds. Where are the restrooms?

Terrace Cafe best part of the day

At the Terrace Café, the buffet reassures us how good dining on Oceania can be. Although Linda limits herself to soup and a salad, I graze the hot courses. It will be the next day, when I’m more awake, that I discover I can have a fresh, personally prepared Caesar salad at the salad bar for lunch or dinner. Seated at our table, we have a birds-eye view of those still waiting to board. The weather has changed. Anyone standing outside the canopy waiting to begin the boarding process is standing in a light rain. Strangely, don’t see any umbrellas being passed out. That same thing could have happened to us while waiting on those gift shop stairs, with no shelter waiting anywhere.

Following lunch, we remain at our table to talk with another couple as everyone waits for an announcement that rooms are ready. The couple, from the northeast, was on our SAS flight, also in SAS Premium Plus. We compare note on our experiences. Departing their hometown, they also were sent to TSA’s fast track line, so flying premium class was worth more than we knew. And they didn’t sleep much on the flight, either, due to SAS’ hard seats.  At 1 o’clock, the first rooms are ready for occupancy. They start at the top category: the suites. At 1:30 our concierge category is announced. We’re told later the bulk of the rooms were ready just before 3 p.m.

Our room is just a few decks below the Terrace Café and convenient to elevators, as planned. Our stateroom is impressive. Nice and spacious. A laptop computer with unlimited internet sits at the desk for our use. A bottle of champagne chills in an ice bucket. Our bathroom is expansive, offering both a large tub and a sizeable shower stall. Unexpectedly, we find we have a mini-fridge stocked with an assortment of soft drinks (no charge). And two impressively large bottles of water that will be replaced every day. This is going to be very nice.

Our luggage soon arrives but we leave it unpacked. One more thing to test: the comfort of the bed, which must have been suitable since we fall instantly asleep, only to be jolted awake two hours later by a blaring announcement to prepare for the lifeboat drill. Abruptly, normal shipboard life begins .

Married Middle Name Cruise ID Nightmare

By Linda O’Keefe

Passing through immigration in Stockholm, I can finally relax.  I’ve arrived at our departure port so no more worry about being denied boarding by an airline. My concern? The full name on my passport is different from the full name on both my flight reservations and the Oceania cruise manifest.   This inconsistency is my middle name. It’s partly due to the conflicting ID requirements on the state and federal levels, a situation many married women may encounter when they travel internationally.

My Florida driver license has my maiden name for my middle name. That is due to the marriage license requirements in the county where we were married, which requires the woman must use her maiden name for her middle name.

A woman’s maiden name also is supposed to be on her US passport. But several years ago  when I applied for a passport name change my new passport  was stamped with my middle birth name although it was supposed to have my maiden name.

I’ve had to work around this ID contradiction ever since when it comes to overseas travel.  Men are lucky. They never deal with this problem since their names usually remain the same for life.

Obviously I should have booked the cruise under my “passport name” as I usually do, not my “Florida name.”  As for my flights overseas,  will I even be able to get my tickets?  TSA also will expect my airline tickets to match my passport ID.  Overlooking this mistake until the last-minute is inconceivable.  It puts me in a great panic of whether I will be denied boarding in Orlando or Newark traveling to Europe or on my flights returning from Europe.

Orlando International Airport-1Will I ever get out of here,  Orlando International Airport?

My first call is to our travel agent.  She says she can’t make ticket changes since Oceania issued them.  And Oceania probably can’t make a name change at this point but if  it could the new ticket likely would  come with severe penalties.  Worse, she indicates it’s unlikely I’ll be able to board any flights.  Her suggestion is that I call the different airlines to report my problem and check the TSA website. But there are no guarantees these steps will get me on an airplane.

This is turning into a horror story. I call TSA, encountering a recorded message with more options than toothpaste brands at a grocery store. Eventually I speak with a real person, a woman who asks my name. Then I hear only computer keys clicking. Her next question: “Where are your flights going to?” I reply “Orlando to  La Guardia (incorrect) to Stockholm.” Silence again on the line.  Then, “Mrs. O’Keefe, you are flying United to Newark (she caught my error) and then SAS to Stockholm on August 20 and returning British Airways from Amsterdam to Gatwick and BA Gatwick to Orlando on September 4th.” Now it is my turn to be silent. She knows all this better than I do because of just my name? Glad to know the government can be on top of something as small as this so quickly.

The TSA call is the smartest thing I could have done. The TSA representative is extremely helpful and informative, assuring me this was not a big deal and that it happens all the time. Her advice is to carry my Florida driver license, my social security card and a copy of my Florida marriage license with my passport to show as much ID as possible.

Checking in at Orlando International, a woman at the United counter immediately questions  the middle name differences.  I’m ready, full of explanations and a fistful of documents. The problem quickly disappears when a supervisor is called:  a female supervisor. What luck. She has the same middle name problem and is questioned about it sometimes at OIA—where she works.  We’re part of the same sorority!

I receive boarding passes for both Orlando to Newark and for Newark to Stockholm.  The tickets are stamped with the notation my documents are checked.  Ironically, and happily, my home airport is the only place on our entire trip  where the middle name problem comes up.  I know that now but not on that travel day. I will not stop worrying about be turned back until I board the Oceania Marina.

Once on board, I’m given my official ship ID card–which carries no middle name.  That’s more than convenient. It means I will have no problem in St. Petersburg where I must show my passport and ship ID card each time I leave and return to the ship.

In the 13 or 14 years Tim and I have traveled together internationally, this never was a problem and it came up only now because 4 years ago we were married. Thus, it’s all  his fault!

Tim:  Linda and I both wrote this post together and I am responsible for much of it. I also wrote the last sentence. I am the guilty party who made the reservations using her driver license.  But she should have noticed my mistake  at the time.

Tim & Linda:  A learning experience for us and this silly mistake  won’t be repeated.  All international bookings will carry Linda’s passport name even though it’s technically incorrect, carrying her middle birth name.  Thanks, State Department! 

Oceania Marina Baltic Cruise An Easy Choice

Song and Dance Ensemble of the Russian Army, St. PetersburgSong and Dance Ensemble of the Russian Army, St. Petersburg

It’s been too long since Linda and I cruised (or blogged) so last January we began looking at cruise itineraries. The Oceania Marina 12-day summer Northern Europe Viking Trails itinerary appeals immediately to us but especially to me since it includes three full days in St. Petersburg, Russia. Having visited St. Petersburg twice decades ago, I’m interested to see how much it’s changed since the end of the Soviet era. For whatever reason, Russia is a long-time fascination. My first visit there was is in the 1970’s Soviet era with four more trips over the years.

In addition to St. Petersburg, other interesting Marina stops include out-of-the-way ports in Estonia, Lithuania and Poland along with Helsinki, Copenhagen, a German port convenient to Berlin and ending with an overnight in Amsterdam. Oceania is one of our favorite cruise lines but the price quoted in January seems a bit too high.

Linda and I always are interested in anything new Oceania offers. We have a long history with them, going back to its previous incarnation when it was known as Renaissance Cruises. The first cruise Linda and I ever made together was on one of their 684-passenger “R Ships.” That was in the spring of 2001, just months before Renaissance went under due to the 9/11 Twin Towers attack, when all their ships were stationed in Europe. It was a sad ending to a wonderful cruise line but what happened in the class action suit against Renaissance made us laugh. Would like to meet that judge.

We scan the promotional materials Oceania sends at regular intervals, as new features are added to the Vikings Trails end of season cruise. Now included are free shore excursions for all three days in St. Petersburg ($1,000 value), prepaid gratuities, free unlimited internet in our stateroom and a $300 on-board ship credit to use for whatever we want.

When Oceania offers the option to upgrade round trip air to premium economy for just $198 round trip from Orlando, we’re ready to book. Oceania always includes round trip air in its cruise prices and we’d be crazy not to use it. We’d save $850 if we opted out of Oceania’s air package but the best online economy flight rates for our itinerary would cost two to three times the $850 discount. Premium economy is considerably more.

We decide to treat ourselves to an early wedding anniversary and go concierge class, which allows us first choice of the St. Petersburg tours and early reservations in the Marina’s five specialty restaurants. Unlike most cruise lines, Oceania does not demand an extra charge for its specialty restaurants; only advance reservations required. The Marina is one of Oceania’s new large, almost twice the size of the original “R-Ships” and carrying 1,250 passengers. It will be interesting to see how much of an improvement this new class size is over the smaller vessels.

Klaipeda, Lithuania, located on the mouth of the Dane SeaKlaipedia, Lithuania, located on the Dane River

Oceania books our flights, not our travel agent, and the itinerary is a surprisingly good one. We fly from Orlando to Newark with a layover of under three hours before taking Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) to Stockholm, our departure port. The return flight from Amsterdam takes us to London Gatwick and another short layover with a direct flight back to Orlando. The schedule is fine though we wish we could avoid the United Airlines flight to Newark since it wants $100 for a second bag. Especially since our other carriers, SAS and British Airways, both allow two free bags. We’re extending our trip for several days in Amsterdam after the cruise, so packing at least one extra bag for the two of us is kind of necessary.

When we check in at Orlando International we encounter the usual summer crowds that often increase TSA screening lines to 30 minutes. Unexpectedly, our tickets send us to the TSA fast-track lines, which proceed quickly. This is one of the benefits of premium economy class.

Arriving at Newark, we look forward to boarding the SAS overnight flight to Stockholm. Our only previous premium economy experience was on Air New Zealand from Los Angeles to Auckland and that truly was something special. Premium economy had its own cabin, comfortable space age style seats and meal service better than the business class of some other carriers. Descriptions of SAS Premium Plus appear equally appealing.

The SAS flight begins impressively. During takeoff, SAS allows us to watch the takeoff from different views on our personal TV screens. I watch the takeoff starting from the cockpit view, switch to a rear angle as we lift off the runway and then look straight down at the area we fly over. Very nice touch. The selection of recent American movies is good, too.

Windmill in the NetherlandsWindmill in Holland

But about an hour after takeoff, the SAS Premium Plus experience is not so pleasant. The seat bottom lacks any kind of padding, assuming it ever had any. It’s extremely uncomfortable. Linda says she feels like she’s sitting on a concrete slab. In addition, I find it impossible to maneuver my legs around the large left leg on the seat in front of me. That support blocks almost half of the normally available legroom, leaving no way to stretch my legs, much less place my laptop there without seriously intruding on Linda’s leg space. I’m convinced the design engineers never tested this arrangement in real life conditions.

The evening meal choices are chicken with plain white rice or salmon with plain white rice. They’re just as bland as they sound. The run-of-the-mill airline salad, rice entrée and dessert come clustered together on the usual typical economy tray. This is nothing like SAS’ classy website description: “For dinner, there is a starter, main course (choose between two alternatives) & a good dessert with coffee or tea.” The accompany photos are equally misleading

For the first time ever on a flight, I’m unable to sleep. Normally I can fall asleep on a bus, train and every airline until now. A mild sleeping pill doesn’t block the pain of my lead-lined seat. I read my Kindle until breakfast. Would have liked to have read SAS in-flight magazine but my overhead reading light is out. Stewardess said she would report it. Linda squirms in her seat much of the time. She also is awake most of the night.

Landing in Stockholm, and shuffling like zombies from The Walking Dead, we gladly leave SAS Premium Plus behind. We’re more than ready for our next stop. The Oceania Marina and its usual flavorful welcome aboard lunch buffet.