Riding The Great Smokey Mountain Railroad

It is no secret that Maltese Cross Travel is specializing in cruises. While we focus on cruises to the Caribbean, Alaska, and European River Cruises we explore other interests as well. All inclusive in the Caribbean, Hawaii, and all of the wonderful things that we can see and do here in the beauty of America.

Last spring Sonja and I visited the Grand Canyon and used (and recommend) the Grand Canyon Railway as a way to begin your amazing visit to this incredible wonder of the world. (We have some specific recommendations for you when you are ready to begin planning your trip to the 8th Wonder of the World – and that includes the Grand Canyon Railway! Call us and let us help you plan that trip.)

But this time we are going to talk about something on the more when you get a chance variety. Since our anniversary is in the middle of October since Sonja retired from teaching we’ve been trying to get away to North Carolina and/or New England to enjoy some fall colors as we celebrate our anniversary and enjoy the beauty and relaxation of the mountains.

This year on our trip north we took a beautiful drive from Franklin up to Bryson City to take a ride on the Great Smokey Mountains Railway. The rail line runs along the old line that helped bring development and prosperity to the region for workers and farmer of the area in the 1800’s. They generally use diesel/electric locomotives, but they also have a steam engine that they use for special occasions such as the Polar Express. Their cars are a variety of vintage passenger and caboose cars from the last few years of major rail service in the United States. They’ve been restored and they are comfortable and well maintained. There are also a couple of open air cars interspersed in the train. There is also a café & small gift shop area in a car towards the rear of the train. Just walking around on the train was a lot of fun and very interesting with the different classes and types of cars. And, by the way, getting your sea legs on a cruise ship is a lot easier than getting your train car legs!

While the historic rail line makes two different excursion runs, we chose the trip to the Nantahala Gorge. Because of the weather forecasts we chose this trip and this is the only run they make on Fridays. You have a choice of a 9:00am or a 2:00pm trip to Nantahala Gorge. You get a great view of Lake Fontana and some beautiful views along the route. There are little towns, scenic fields and vistas of the mountains both near and far, and it is all at a pace that you can actually enjoy it all!

We had the Crown tickets – first class tickets with assigned seating at a table. When we picked up our tickets on the day of our trip we were given two cups that actually have a cap that keeps the drinks inside!! The cup gave us the opportunity to enjoy either some coffee or a soft drink from the Depot Café. (A word of warning – be careful about the “soft” pretzel; it wasn’t soft OR fresh!) Because we were going to be served lunch onboard we were given a choice of about five different things for lunch. We chose a Mediterranean Salad with Chicken for my wife, and I had the pulled pork. My pulled pork came with a side of cole slaw and some mashed potatoes, along with a roll. Quite frankly we were quite surprised by quality and quanitity of the food. But what was even more surprising was how hard the staff on the train worked to satisfy the guests. Our attendant was “Ronnie” and she had only been working in this position for a week. And then there was “Vinnie” – his job was to serve 60+ guests their meals in three different cars. And he hustled more than anyone I could imagine!

If you are vacationing in the western North Carolina area Bryson City is easy to get to from just about everywhere. We highly recommend that you include some time for a trip on the Great Smokey Mountain Railway. And, no, we can’t help you book this one, and no, we don’t get a commission for you taking the trip – we just like it and want you to enjoy it, too!


Travels – through life and memories

While I generally blog here about travels I am going to digress just a bit today. It will still be about travels, but of a different kind.

Over the last 37 years we’ve amassed a lot of stuff. Kid stuff, business stuff, pictures and stuff (and when you’ve got a professional photographer as a father there are LOTS of pictures), military stuff, Air Force stuff, kid’s toy stuff, sewing stuff, family heirloom stuff… well, you get the picture. We have LOTS of stuff. And we live in the same house we bought when we had no children in 1977, and so we have had a storage room at Hide-Away Storage for a long time because there are some things we just can’t part with!

While Sonja & I have traveled extensively across America, the Caribbean, Asia, and I’ve enjoyed Europe and Alaska that isn’t what brought me to today’s thoughts. You see, it is really about boxes of memories.

37 years ago today Sonja was living in Iowa at her parent’s home in Chariton. She, just months out of college as a graduate of Olivet Nazarene College in Bourbonnais, IL, was making the final plans and arrangements for our wedding on October 16th. I was living in what would become OUR apartment in Swartz Creek, MI while traveling around Michigan, Indiana, and Kentucky as the Regional Sales Manager for Dallas & Mavis Forwarding Company. Traveling…

After our wedding we headed out for our honeymoon to Lake Otsego and Gaylord, Michigan via Danville and Bourbonnais, IL and then Appleton, WI and the Upper Peninsula. Traveling…

Remember that storage space I talked about? Well, today we moved our stuff from a big one to one a little less big. After my lovely bride sorted through a lot of our stuff we loaded a couple of loads into the SUV and took it to the church for a youth sponsored yard sale. And, so, with less stuff to store we could move into a smaller space. And, while helping Sonja make the move today, I got to look at some of those things we’ve held onto for the sake of memories.

And some of the memories were pretty emotional. As I was sorting through some framed photos one of those I found was the frame of Allen’s USAF Basic Training photo with a signature frame around it. On that white frame are comments and best wishes and promises of prayer and fond memories. As I stood there looking at that picture and reading those well wishes I thought back to my time in the Air Force 30 years earlier of his, of the trips I took, and of my son’s travel to Iraq and Germany and Scotland. Of his excellence as an air traffic controller in the Air Force, and his travels from here, to Texas, to Louisiana, to Idaho, to Iraq, back to Florida, to Oklahoma, and now to California. And how much we miss him here, but how proud we are of his development at Oakland Center with the FAA. Travels…

Looking through a box marked “Ed” I find a lot of my material from my 6 years in the Air Force. Among that material was an envelope with post cards from my trip to Greece in 1972. What an incredible trip that was to Greece and Spain as we worked with our NATO allies. Travels…

Sonja has her Great-Grandmother Stanger’s White Sewing machine made c1919. Allyssa brought this back from Iowa several years ago when she was a senior at Olivet and she had my little pick-up truck at school. After going to Grandma Hixson’s she brought her mother her hope chest and this sewing machine. So, the 3rd generation lady has this sewing machine now after it traveled from Iowa to Illinois and down to us in Florida.  While Allyssa was in college at Olivet she was, indeed, far away.  But she came back for spring break every year, for Christmas, she traveled to Grandma Hixson’s for Thanksgiving, and I would help her move up and back at the beginning and end of each school year.  And each of those trips has special memories for Dad and his Princess.  Travels…

You see, while we love to travel, and we love to help people travel. sometimes the best travels are those that are memories. Memories of things we’ve done, memories of the successes and travels of our children, and memories of the places we been and the things we’ve done – even when that was a long time ago.

Sometimes it is good to just sort through some of our stuff and reflect on the places we’ve been and how those things became so important to us. And, then, when you do travel the next time (and we sure hope you’ll have Maltese Cross Travel help you make your reservations) and your bring back a few things from wherever it is your travel, rest in knowing that at some point in the future you’ll look at those and it will elicit a memory and bring a small… or even a tear.

Passport – Do I Really Need One?

One of the questions I am most frequently asked is whether or not I need a passport.  And, almost without fail I answer yes.  And here’s why.

First, let’s understand what a passport really is, and then maybe we’ll better understand the value of this little blue book.  A passport is a document, issued by a national government, which certifies the identity and nationality of its holder for the purpose of international travel.  All standardized passports contains all of the elements of identity that include information about the holder including name, date of birth, gender and place of birth.  Now, while the passport was originally designed for international travel today I often use my passport when traveling throughout the US because it makes travel through airports and the TIA that much easier.

While there are a lot of benefits of having your passport, especially in international travel, you need to know a couple of things.  And, these are why we so often recommend that you take a passport with you on a cruise, even though it isn’t required, and I’ll address that more in a minute.

A passport does not of itself entitle the passport holder entry into another country, nor to consular protection while abroad nor any other privileges.  It does, however, normally entitle the passport holder to return to the country that issued the passport.  Rights to consular protection arise from international treaties, while the bearer’s right to return to the passport’s country of issue depends on the laws of the issuing country.

As a general rule, here are some passport requirements when traveling:

  • You aren’t required to travel with a passport if you will department from a US port and will return to the same US port
  • A valid passport is a requirement for air travel to / from Canada, Mexico the Caribbean and Bermuda
  • For international travel, a valid passport is required and visas are required where they apply.  This includes Europe, Asia, Central and South America.  For additional passport information, visit www.travel.state.gov.

Over the last several years the rules for passport usage has really changed.  The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), fully implemented in June, 2009 requires all travelers to and from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda to present a valid passport or other approved document that establishes the bearer’s identity and citizenship in order to enter or reenter the United States.   Effective June 1, 2009 only a valid passport (unless otherwise noted in the link below) or other WHTI compliant document will be accepted for entry or re-entry into the United States.

For a list of all approved documents visit: http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis_pa_tw_2223.html

But here’s the good news for our cruise passengers who travel from US ports.  US citizens on closed-loop cruises (cruises that begin and end at the same port in the US) will be able to enter or depart the country with proof of citizenship, such as a government-issued birth certificate and laminated government issued picture ID, denoting photo, name and date of birth.  A US citizen under the age of 16 will be able to present either an original, notarized or certified copy of his or her birth certificate, a Consular Report of Birth Abroad issues by DOS, or Certificate of Naturalization issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Now, while that is good news, please take note: Baptismal papers and hospital certificates of birth are not acceptable. Voter registration cards or Social Security cards are not considered proof of citizenship.

If you are not a US citizen, you will need a valid passport and, in some cases, a visa.  If you live in the U.S., you will also need the original copy of your Alien Registration Card (ARC or “Green Card”) and any other documentation the countries on your itinerary require due to your alien status.  The time to get this together is not the week before your cruise.  Please plan ahead because the restrictions at the port are very strict.  They can’t bend the rules on these!!

All of the cruise lines strongly recommend that all guests travel with a valid passport during their cruise.  This greatly assists guests who may need to fly out of the United States to meet their ship at the next available port should they miss their scheduled embarkation in a U.S. port; guests entering the U.S. at the end of their cruise; and guests needing to fly to the U.S. before their cruise ends, because of medical, family, personal or business emergencies, missing a ship’s departure from a port of call, involuntary disembarkation from a ship due to misconduct, or other reasons.

Guests who need to fly to the United States before their cruise ends will likely experience significant delays and complications related to booking airline tickets and entering the United States if they do not have a valid U.S. passport with them.

If you are planning a cruise in Europe or the Mediterranean then a passport is a necessity – but that’s a different story!

There’s a quick overview on passports for your cruise travel – Maltese Cross Travel strongly recommends you travel with your passport.  You may never need it to re-enter the country, but if you do you will never regret it!

If you want more information about cruise travel, whether in the Caribbean or European River Cruising, please complete the firm below, or visit http://www.MalteseCrossTravel.com  

Why Call A Travel Advisor?

First you will note that I called myself a “travel advisor” and not a travel agent.  As we look through this week’s blog will answer that, and give you some more information, too.  And, because we focus on cruise travel (Caribbean, ocean, and river cruising) that’s what we will concentrate on here, too.

We have often been asked why someone interested in going on a cruise or other vacation would need to contact a travel agent.  Actually, with all of the options available to travelers today.  There are on line mass marketers where you can choose from hundreds of cruises and other vacation options.  And then there are the individual business’s web sites.  These sites offer the basic information that a traveler needs to know about an itinerary, date, and price.  But, what do you know about whether this is the vacation that best fits you and your family and your vacation desires?

There is no way that a web site can understand all of the features of a ship and what it can offer you and your family.  What activities do that have for your children, is there a solarium or quiet place for relaxing in a hot tub or pool – only for adults, what dining arrangements does the ship offer – anytime, set time, or My Time – and what are the staterooms like and why might you want to choose a different category, are the excursions, food, wine, beer, and other amenities included or extra?  A web site can’t do that, but I can!

Earlier this year I got a call from the sister of a former colleague called me and said she was planning a trip to Europe.  She had been working on it for weeks and just couldn’t figure out what hotels to stay in, how to arrange for flights and a car, and what was required of her for this travel.  And, while this is certainly not our specialty, we were able to arrange for her hotels, flights, rental car, and travel advice for her entire trip of three weeks in the UK.

Just last week I received a call referred to me from a networking member.  This wheelchair handicapped lady was travelling to three different cities in three different countries.  She had made her flight reservations, but needed advice on hotels and travel arrangements on the rail system in Europe.  I was able to make her aware of some of the limitations for handicap accessibility in Europe, especially in the three cities she is visiting.

And, speaking of handicap travel, one of the advantages of using a trusted travel advisor that has received special training in helping those who need special assistance and equipment while on a cruise is that they can make that happen for you.  Cruise lines don’t provide electric carts, walkers, oxygen and other specialize equipment for their passengers.  But they do prefer that that type of equipment comes from a supplier that knows exactly what the cruise line will allow and accept for their handicap passengers.

There are a lot of reasons to use a trusted travel advisor, but let me specify several for you here, courtesy of the consortia to which we belong, Vacation.com, the largest travel consortia that works to get you the best trips, prices, and amenities.

As I noted earlier, one of the best part of using a trusted travel advisor is that we talk with you so that we can know what you want on your cruise or other trip.   Because we talk with you we understand where you want to go, how to get you there and the experiences you want to have, and I specifically ask those questions if you haven’t already told me.  We can’t make a good recommendation for you until we know whether you are looking for a sunny beach escape or an old-world European adventure.  And, because we deal with so many different types of cruise lines, ships, itineraries, and all inclusive resorts we recognize that no two travelers and no two trips are exactly alike.  One of the things you will appreciate it that we take the time to understand your unique travel needs, interests and desires and translate them into your own personalized travel experience.  We want to show you how you can “travel better” with us.

Another advantage is that we will use our experience and travel industry relationships to offer you exclusive vacation packages, amenities and travel specials that you won’t find anywhere, except through us, to help you get the most value for your travel budget. In a few days I will blog about our new Distinctive Vacations – incredible cruises with incredible amenities added at no extra charge!

And, while I have alluded to this in previous comments, the average traveler doesn’t understand that travel is complex.  There are hundreds of details that go into every trip.  We can guide you throughout the entire travel process, from what to pack before you leave to the best transfer to get you home safely and on time.  I’ve often said that there is a huge learning curve in the travel business.  Even though we have traveled and sailed a lot that is only a part of it.  We use our education and experience to provide you with insider tips and advice on everything from tours and timing, to how to find a secret snorkeling cove or out-of-the way cafe.  We’ll even make your restaurant reservations, so all you have to do is relax and enjoy your getaway.

We don’t just want you to book your vacation on an incredible cruise to the Eastern Caribbean or a European River Cruise or Hawaii with us – your interests are our priority.  Unlike any resort or airline, we can tell you the best route or price from competing travel companies, and all of the best options for YOU.   We are here for you to make sure your valuable vacation time is not wasted on logistics!

Travel is our passion and our work.  It’s what we do every day.  We have been to many of the destinations, resorts, off-the beaten path excursions and planned trips to the destinations you want to experience.  Our first-hand travel experience, education, and ongoing training make us travel experts who can make sure your trip turns out just the way you imagine, every time.

We are proud that we are certified specialists and have completed extensive training on destinations, and cruise lines, hotels, resorts, tour operators and more.  Over the years, and throughout our training, we have personally traveled to and around the destinations, sailed or inspected the ships and stayed in the hotels and resorts.  We also have specialists in niche travels areas, such as destination weddings and honeymoons, group vacations, special needs for the handicapped — and even business travel.

After reading through this it almost sounds like we’re bragging… and we are.  Because we offer all of the things that an on line site doesn’t, and yet you get the great prices, too.  We look forward to knowing that the next time you need to plan your vacation travel you’ll call us, your trusted travel advisor.  Or at least call a travel agent.

Need To Raise Some Funds? Try A Group Fundraising Cruise!!



If you’ve ever cruised you know how much fun and what a great value a cruise vacation can be for you and your family.  And if you’ve been with a group on a cruise you know how much fun it is to travel with family, friends, colleagues, and old college or high school friends.  But did you know that, if you belong to or work with a charitable organization, you can do all of this and raise money for your group?  Oh, yes you can, and let me share how that can be done.

Because we believe so strongly in the value of Royal Caribbean and what they offer for their passengers let me site some of the benefits of a charity cruise on Royal Caribbean.  Other cruise lines also do charitable benefit cruises, but let me concentrate on Royal Caribbean this week.

There are a lot of benefits to hosting a charitable fund raising cruise.  You get a lot out of it and here’s just some of the things you can anticipate: 

  • Fundraising events like this generate attention for your group
  • You will increase your media exposure
  • Your group will generate donation dollars and offer attendees a really great time
  • And you do this without having to lift a finger!

Too often we think of a fundraising event as selling cookies, coupon books, or an event in a stuffy and overdressed gala in a ballroom with people wondering when it will be over.  When you hold a fund raising event on a cruise the question is “Does it have to end?”  Your charitable organization can raise money for your group and make a lasting impression about your group.  You will also build a personal relationship with donors – and you will do it while you are relaxing poolside in your shorts or dressed in cool Caribbean clothing!

Royal Caribbean calls their fund raising programs “Cruises for Charity(tm)” and offer a fabulous vacation that gives your group a fundraising vacation that is packed with fun, photos, and special options.  As Royal Caribbean notes, “Whatever your purpose, whichever your cause… We have a fundraising cruise for you!”

The Cruises for Charity(tm) cruises are specially designated cruise sail dates that run from 2 to 10 nights.  But, best of all, they are flexible, affordable, and are designed with with donations in mind!  Royal Caribbean’s program will donate from $25 to $100 per stateroom to your organization depending on the cruise that is chosen.

In addition to this your organization can earn one free stateroom for every 16 full rate staterooms booked by your non-profit organization through their program.  This benefit has some incredible possibilities for you.  For example:

  • Raffle them off for additional fundraising dollars
  • If you are going to have a special or featured speaker you can provide their cruise in lieu of a cash compensation
  • Give them to your other “MVP” – Most Valued Person in recognition of their hard work
  • Or, you can receive the value of the stateroom’s dollar value in a donation to your organization

While this may sound complicated it really isn’t.  That’s because Maltese Cross Travel will work with you and Royal Caribbean to help plan, sell, and organize your fundraising cruise. Because of the power of our organizations working together we will customize the cruise to add value specifically tailored to your group.  Plus, Royal Caribbean will hold space on your target cruise date for 30 days so that you can measure interest before you ever spend one dime!  We’ll assist with promoting your event through varied marketing materials, promotional collateral, flyers, postcards, brochures, HTML email artwork, and much more!  Royal Caribbean says that these cruises sell themselves, and your organization will reap the benefits through applicable program donation dollars.

Now, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the benefits to a charitable organization – and that’s the main reason we do this program.  But, there has to be something in it for your benefactors who will go on a cruise, too.  I mean, you want them to enjoy it so much that you can do this over and over again!!  And, with Royal Caribbean, their ships are designed for WOW!!  And, believe me, they are and that’s why I continue to sail them and recommend them to my clients.  So, just what can your guests expect to find to do and enjoy on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship?  Well there’s rock climbing walls, ice skating (yes, there are ice rinks on their ships!), miniature golf, and their exclusive FlowRider(c) surf simulator.  Hey, even if you don’t give it a try yourself it is great fun just watching!!  But that’s not all – there’s much more!  You can customize your fund raising cruise with other great options and amenities like these:

  • Specialty Group Dining
  • Thank You Cocktail Party
  • State of the art Conferencing & audio visual equipment
  • Convenient meeting spaces
  • Nighttime activities
  • Group contests
  • Networking opportunities
  • And SO MUCH MORE!!!

This is but a quick overview of how a charitable organization can raise funds and give their donors an amazing vacation on top of it all!  While most of these cruises sail in the Caribbean in the winter time, and even though Maltese Cross Travel is located in Florida, your organization and your benefactors don’t have to be from here.  The majority of passengers on cruise ships around the world don’t live in Florida!  But, they are ALL having a GREAT time!!  

If you belong to a charitable organization that wants to explore these opportunities here is all you need to do.

  1. Contact Maltese Cross Travel and we’ll help you find which sailings qualify for Royal Caribbean’s Cruises for Charity(tm) program
  2. Select a destination, length, and cruise date for the list we provide for you
  3. Work with Maltese Cross Travel and Royal Caribbean to develop a plan to promote your fundraising cruise utilizing our complimentary library of marketing material which include post cards, flyers, brochures, posters, HTML email artwork, and more!
  4. Plan how you want to use the money raised through this wonderful promotion!

You can get started by contact us now: Ed@MalteseCrossTravel.com or 941-538-6496 and we’ll begin the planning process to help you build your donations in the months to come.

Do You Want Advice or Just A Price?

I recently helped a client who wanted to go to Europe.  OK, Maltese Cross Travel SPECIALIZES in cruises but to help this client out we took care of her needs and she enjoyed three GREAT weeks in Europe.  The point is she started her planning for Europe by shopping on line for her trip.  Air fare, rental car, hotels… she knew WHERE she wanted to go, but putting it all together was the hard part.  She had prices, but what she didn’t have was advice on hotels, rental cars and all of the other things that go along with planning three weeks in the United Kingdom.  When it was all said and done she had a wonderful time, in great old world hotels that met all of her requirements, and for less money than she would have paid if she had done it all herself.

Two weeks ago a client called and said he had a dilemma and was tired of dealing with it.  Almost apologetically he gave me the details.  His daughters now live in Texas.  His ex is going to bring them to him for a visit.  But, she is going to fly from Texas to Florida with them and then return to Texas the next day.  He will then fly with them back to Texas, spend a few days there and then return to Florida.  This required three different sets of airline reservations, along with a rental car & hotel in Texas.   But, in just a few minutes we were able to find flights that met their needs, book seats, and get everyone back and forth so that he had time with his children.

And, because we specialize in cruises, I got a call from a client on the east coast who had “been shopping” around and checking prices for a cruise for her and her husband.  But, after we talked about What they wanted to do, Where they wanted to go, When they wanted to do it, and what their Budget was we were able to give her some information that changed their whole planning process.  They will be enjoying a cruise on a different ship from a different cruise line and they’ll be getting all of their vacation dreams met because they got advice from a trusted travel advisor and not just a price from a web site.

The point is that if you are shopping for a pair of shoes you probably want to try them on to make sure they fit.  When you are planning a vacation, whether it is you and your children, a romantic get away, a family reunion group cruise, a college alumni group gathering…  you want someone who has the ability to help you mete your needs but talking with you and gathering the information necessary so your trip is all it should be.  There are just too many factors to be considered for a web site to help you get the most for your money.  It is one of the reasons that I don’t call myself a “travel agent” – I’m not selling you a cruise.  I want to be your “Trusted Travel Advisor” who helps you plan a trip that meets all of your dreams, satisfies your desires, and gives you the most of everything for your travel dollar.  And, in almost every case, I do this at no additional charge to you.

We look forward to helping you plan your next vacation – and we’ll help you get the most and the best.  It’s what we do!!  MCT_trans With malteselogo 2 x 49

Ed & Sonja Cleveland