Tripologist: agents help first-timers become ship shape

Around August we're considering a 10-12-day cruise, Venice to Istanbul [pictured], with stops along the Croatian coast — there seems to be a few options at that time. We have never been on a cruise before and with a couple of cruise ship disasters in the press recently I would welcome any advice about what to look for in a cruise. Also, is it better to book it through a travel agent?

- F. Verge, Glebe.

Cruising along the eastern Mediterranean, with its scenic and cultural treasures, is an excellent way to go. Despite the enormous publicity that the sinking of the Costa Concordia attracted, the event underlines the safety record of modern cruise vessels.

In terms of passenger miles travelled, cruise ships are safer than planes and much safer than driving around the streets of Sydney.

While there are plenty of cruise deals available on the internet, first-time cruisers should book through a travel agent and preferably a cruise specialist. Cruise Express ( managing director Meg Hill says: "There's an ocean of choice out there from destinations to cruise lines to ships - big and small, from comfortable to ultra luxurious - and then what cabin to choose?"

A cruise specialist can match your needs with the right cruise and handle the paperwork, book flights, hotel accommodation, land arrangements and insurance. They also have access to the best deals.

Cruise Critic ( is the TripAdvisor of the cruise world, with lots of critical feedback from fare-paying passengers.

Where to head for a roam away from Rome

My partner and I will be in Rome mid-May for a brief conference. We have an extra week to explore another region of Italy. What coastal areas would you recommend visiting, preferably a train or bus trip away? We're after a go-slow holiday that includes time for wandering about, nature, swimming and soaking up village life. We're divided between Cinque Terre and the Amalfi coast regions. Self-contained accommodation options would be appreciated.

- F. Fitzpatrick, Putney.


For me, the balance tips narrowly in favour of the Amalfi coast, pictured. It's likely to be warmer in May and you might actually feel like taking a dip on the beach at Positano but also, it has a broader repertoire than the Cinque Terre.

You've got some of the planet's most glorious coastal scenery, beaches, walking trails, museums, galleries and a distinctive regional cuisine. If you feel like exploring - Capri and Naples are equally deserving - hop on the Metro del Mare ferry ( For accommodation, check Agriturismo ( or Italy Accom (

Cruising for foreign currency

On May 31, I am going on a holiday to Japan for seven days, China five days, South Korea two days and Russia one day on a cruise ship. What foreign currency is best for my travel, or would a debit card suffice? Are visas needed for these countries and if so, how long do they take?

- P. Tippett, North Bondi.

A debit card offers the greatest convenience and you should have no problem finding ATMs to withdraw local currency in the countries you're planning to visit.

Check with your provider to make sure that your debit card is activated for use offshore.

You also need back-up in case your debit card fails to access your funds for any reason. I'd recommend a second debit card and a small supply of cash, perhaps $200 in US dollars, and keep this in a separate place from your main debit card.

If you have an Australian passport, you do not need a visa for Japan or South Korea but you do for China. You can download an application online from the Chinese Visa Application Service Centre ( or apply at the centre, at Level 5, 299 Elizabeth Street, city.

You will also need a visa for Russia. If you are on a cruise, this will usually be handled by the ship's purser but check to make sure. If not, you can apply to the consulate-general of the Russian Federation at 7-9 Fullerton Street, Woollahra. You can download an application form at

Visas usually take two to three working days.

Keep your phone bills friendly

We are five families travelling to England, France, Italy and Istanbul in July and we want to have phones so we can contact each other and also phone Australia. What's the most practical and least expensive way we can use our phones overseas?

- D. Sawyer, Taren Point.

If you have smartphones or tablets, the cheapest and best way to stay in touch with the rest of the world is via Skype ( Skype is free to download and as long as you have a wi-fi connection, you can talk to anyone with Skype on their computer or smartphone free of charge. If you sign up for Skype Credit, you can call mobiles or landlines anywhere in the world for just a few cents a minute.

You may also have to do that while you're out of reach of wi-fi. In that case, there are several prepaid sim cards that allow you to make calls from just about anywhere at a discount rate, such as GO-SIM (, One SimCard ( and TravelSim (

You should also insulate your phones from global roaming, which can result in charges that send you broke. A reader, Don Alderman, writes with the following advice: "You must turn off all data on the phone yourself, as well as getting your provider to lock off the two levels of data access (not just the initial level). You must put the demand in writing and clearly state that the provider will be held liable for all costs from overseas carriers."


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If you have travel questions, we’d love to hear from you. Write to and include the name of your suburb or town in your letter. Personal correspondence cannot be entered into. Only questions appearing in print will be answered. One published letter each week will win a Lonely Planet guidebook.