Cruise report: HAL Nieuw Statendam transatlantic with teens

The kids and I sailed with Holland America Line once before, when they were fairly young. Embarking on HAL’s Nieuw Statendam in August 2022 was my husband’s first cruise with this company. We spent 24 days together on this grand vessel, visiting four countries in addition to the United States, and briefly crossing into the Arctic Circle.Certificate signed by Captain Barhorst showing crossing Friday, 8/12/2022 at 20:25

The experience was good enough for us to purchase Future Cruise Credits (FCC)—a minor commitment to future travel with the same company—while still on board.

Link to explanation of FCC’s at The Points Guy site

Our transatlantic (TATL) cruise itinerary called for boarding the ship in Boston, calling in several Canadian ports, followed by stops in Greenland, Iceland, Greenland again, Canada again, France in the form of the island of St. Pierre, Canada third time, then Bar Harbor, Maine, and finally back to Boston.

The round trip itinerary—no flights required from our New England home—absolutely sold us on this particular itinerary. HAL transatlantic cruise itinerary round trip Boston

If we hadn’t had a credit to use from a scheduled 2020 trip cancelled due to the pandemic, it’s unlikely we would have gone anywhere during the rampant snarling of summer travel in 2022. If we’d had an international flight planned, I can guarantee we would have called off any trip as reports of hours’ long lines snaking outside of airports proliferated in the lead up to our departure.

While our cruise wasn’t perfect, the hassles were fairly minimal and we found the experience well worth the bumps in those road that we did encounter.Holland America line vessel, rear view

I plan to publish a series of posts covering ports we visited, but, today, I’ll begin with an overview of embarking on transatlantic travel on HAL as a family with teens. I hope this perspective is helpful to other potential family cruisers since Holland America has a reputation for catering to an elderly crowd.

My kids enjoyed the trip, but there were very few people their age on the ship. We socialized with each other and with adults with whom I’d become acquainted on Cruise Critic prior to the voyage.

In addition to a lack of youth-oriented trip reports, I also couldn’t find much information for travelers with special needs regarding Polar-adjacent travel in the North Atlantic. I live with a chronic condition that sometimes affects my mobility and energy levels. Here’s hoping I can offer relevant tips for future adventurers with similar limitations in this and future posts.

First impressions

As it happens, one of the first SNAFU’s of our trip occurred at its very beginning: embarkation from Boston’s Flynn (formerly Black Falcon) Cruise Port was a mess. More frequent cruisers than I commented later that they’d never endured such a poorly executed boarding elsewhere or in Boston.

Here’s the official Massport site for the cruise terminal.

It’s easy to mock social media and blame it for many of society’s ills, but the utility of crowdsourced information cannot be denied. If I weren’t an active member of Cruise Critic—and a participant in a Roll Call for our August voyage—my embarkation experience could have been even worse. Tips from passengers who arrived at the port earlier than we did saved us at least a couple of hours of unnecessary waiting on site since we could elect to leave our home later to drive to the terminal.

To begin with, HAL sent notification a day ahead of boarding offering a completely revised boarding plan with new times for each passenger, all of which superseded the information given on one’s boarding pass. By not updating boarding passes—offered in digital format for cruise passengers just like most of us use on flights!—Holland America missed an opportunity to reduce confusion instead of sowing it.

Screenshot of HAL's recommended cruise app, NavigatorHAL reaped what it sowed. Thousands of people waited outside for hours beyond the embarkation time on their documents.

Nowhere in their last minute, change-of-plans missive did HAL inform embarking passengers that their digital documents would fail to update to reflect the new instructions. It’s bad to have a communication system that can’t update digital docs in real time; it’s worse not to confess to this fact up front to help reduce confusion!

At least two ambulances were required to whisk away people who weren’t up to the physical demands of standing in line for so long. We were incredibly fortunate that a recent heat wave ended before this marathon queue, but even 80°F became uncomfortable to many, and, while much of the line was shaded by adjacent buildings, there was no other shelter. Almost no seating was available, either.

Purple aluminum HurryCane walking stick freestanding on a wood floorBecause my own mobility limitations wax and wane, I always register a request with common carriers at the time of booking for wheelchair assistance. I’m often well enough to decline the requested service upon arrival at a terminal, but it is harder to get help on demand when it is needed if I haven’t initiated the process in advance. At Boston’s cruise port, it was lucky I was having a pretty good day.

When we arrived at the port, I checked in with an employee and noted we’d requested wheelchair assistance. According to that agent, “So did 1/3 of the people here waiting to board!”

Massport was short by at least dozens of personnel to offer wheelchair assistance. I believe that the lack of “timely assistance” was in violation of U.S. law. It reflected poorly on the port and on the city of Boston.

While the kind Massport employee I’d encountered couldn’t do much for me or anyone else, this lady did find folding chairs for a few of us who were concerned about walking the length of the line that disappeared out of sight across at least two long city blocks. Later arrivals sat on the curb.

My husband and kids trekked to the back of the line, and I waited in tolerable conditions if not comfort with the “special assistance” crowd. It was from that vantage point near the entrance that I saw one woman collapse and get taken away by ambulance.

By the time I boarded, I had yet to see a single passenger escorted onto the ship via wheelchair pushed by port employees. That period of time extended for well over an hour. The fortunate disabled passengers were those traveling with their own mobility aids and friends or family members capable of providing assistance.

After about an hour waiting alone, my family made it to the front of the line where I was sitting. Since no wheelchair assistance passengers were being taken aboard the ship as far as I could see, I rejoined them. My kids took my carry on bag, and I walked myself carefully through the disorganized thicket inside the terminal building with an occasional hand from one of my able-bodied relatives.Embarkation crowdThe gangway with which we boarded Nieuw Statendam was set at a particularly steep angle, too. A fellow passenger said they’d heard that the usual “jet bridge” style boarding ramp for Boston was broken and awaiting repairs, but I have no confirmation for that rumor. I was glad I’d brought my cane to help negotiate boarding, though, fortunately, I didn’t need it much once we were at sea.

Again, according to people who have cruised Boston more than I have, there is a port building here with some features of a modern travel terminal. We were not in that space! Instead, the Nieuw Statendam passengers were being processed in an open, warehouse-like space that might’ve felt familiar to our forebears’ experience at Ellis Island.

The flooring was uneven asphalt, there was no climate control, and there was no reasonable signage to help anyone self-select the correct lines. With various levels of “self check in” one might have performed prior to arriving at the port, there were at least three different types of confirmations that might be required to complete check in on site.

Through dumb luck, we were in the correct line for those who had performed the maximum online steps ahead of time, and we spent only ten to 20 minutes finishing up the check in process before preceding to the gangway that led onto the ship. The new facial recognition software did speed up check in, and, interestingly, could identify ³⁄4 of us with our N95 masks still in place.

One member of the family had to remove a protective mask to be correctly ID’d by the computer.

Some of the confusing requirements befuddling our embarkation day may be laid at the feet of COVID-19. There are national directives demanding certain steps or paperwork, it’s true. Failing to post signage to correctly direct thousands of boarding passengers into the correct lines based upon the status of government and health requirements, however, was entirely the fault of the Flynn Cruise Terminal and its staff.

The communication from HAL that changed boarding times at the last minute stated that a mandatory Coast Guard drill was the cause of the adjustment. That is probably true, but the Coast Guard didn’t prevent HAL from updating information on our virtual boarding passes or within the cruise line’s own app which they tout as an innovation in cruising convenience.

Neither was the Coast Guard responsible for inadequate staffing on the part of Massport, the government agency that runs land-side port operations.

Once we made it on board, the giddy relief of dropping our bags in our beautiful staterooms quickly eased the frustrations of the long morning day. Running the gauntlet of Boston’s cruise terminal was sufficiently exhausting that all of us—even the teens!—spent some part of our first afternoon aboard napping instead of exploring or reveling.

We were told in advance that we would board at 11:40; the port actually seemed to begin embarkation proceedings closer to 14:00 from our vantage amongst the crowds. My first photos from our cabin were taken at 15:45. We were scheduled to sail at 16:00. Nieuw Statendam actually cast off from its Boston mooring at 19:31.

port employees releasing ropes holding Nieuw Statendam to dockI think I’m being generous when I say we experienced a delay of at least three hours. For those who view lunch on the ship as the start of their vacation, our embarkation must have been particularly painful. It was certainly debilitating to those of us with health issues, and proved tiring even to young travelers.

Aside from mentioning that disembarkation three weeks later was similarly hideous—with poor communication again being the element for which HAL itself should be held fully accountable—I won’t go into detail for the latter fiasco. Suffice to say that I will still sail in or out of Boston because “not flying” remains on my list of “good to have” vacation characteristics, but I will always travel through this port carrying as little as possible to preserve my energy, and I will assume zero mobility assistance will be offered regardless of what’s legally mandated or promised.

I cannot, in good conscience, recommend embarking on a cruise out of Boston’s port for anyone with severe mobility restrictions at this time unless that person can afford to travel with sufficient personal assistance to cover all boarding needs. I hope the situation will improve if staffing levels recover, but I wouldn’t bet a friend or loved one’s comfort on it personally.

Also, on the subject of advance communication, I think it is worth pointing out that Holland America Line mandated the wearing of masks indoors, when not eating or drinking, for all passengers as well as crew for the duration of our sailing. This was not announced in advance of embarkation, though it could have been. The captain announced the policy on board the ship, and reminders were broadcast by him and other officers once or twice a day over the public address system.Disposable surgical mask

Most destinations, and all excursions, appeared to have dropped all COVID prevention rules or requirements, though the majority of our fellow travelers opted to wear masks on the one tour bus we joined.

Our group enjoyed a much greater degree of relaxation and feelings of safety due to the enhanced precautions, but some cruisers felt deceived and complained bitterly about the unexpected need to mask. At least one Cruise Critic member in my Roll Call group bragged about “always carrying a drink” in order to intentionally and spitefully subvert the protocols as much as possible.

Most Nieuw Statendam passengers appeared to make a sincere effort to adhere to the mask rules, in our personal experience on the ship. We elected to exceed HAL’s requirements, and we all avoided catching COVID-19, testing negative on our own home tests multiple times during and after the journey. There were reports of viral spread on the ship, however, and visibility of guests in isolation increased over time.

We believe that it was possible for cruise passengers to make personal choices to increase the odds of avoiding getting sick, but that the mask mandate made it many times easier for cautious travelers to do than it would have been otherwise. For example, I would have felt far less comfortable without the face covering requirement when I squeezed onto any of the crowded ship’s tenders required to visit the smaller ports on which we called.

Our family felt fortunate that HAL mandated masks; other passengers felt cheated out of the freedom they thought they’d been promised on the same voyage. Continue reading

When life gives you foghorns, count your blessings?

There are realities in every life utterly beyond anyone’s control. Consider the foghorn.

Under certain weather conditions, a ship has an obligation to blast its foghorn at regular intervals. It does so to keep the seas safe for other vessels.

When one sits on a deck in the vicinity of said sonic safety device, the resulting report can be… distracting… to say the least.

It startles me enough to make me jump the first several times at least that I hear a foghorn during any given hour. It is sufficiently loud that my instinct is to clap my hands over my ears like a toddler would. I tend to let out a nervous giggle with every sonorous report. Conversation must stop.

While on vacation, at sea, in the North Atlantic Ocean, we’ve encountered more than our fair share of fantastic conditions, but there have been plenty of overcast hours. As it happens, our favorite place to spend the non-wind-whipped ones has been a Retreat Cabana we reserved for our voyage. These amenities are situated on deck 12 of 14 of our temporary home-away-from-home.

From the sound of it, these otherwise luxurious rentals sit directly under the ship’s foghorn. Without a doubt, the source is nearer deck 12, forward, than our staterooms on deck 4, aft.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the frequency of the foghorn blasts was dictated by a ship’s speed or other specific conditions, but I know almost nothing about maritime rules. What I can say is that the foghorn sounds at an interval just long enough that one forgets it is coming, right up until it trumpets its way back into your ears and central nervous system.

My husband, it’s fair to say, is not a fan of the foghorn. He spends more time outdoors than I do, and he frequents the Cabana more often than I do. Thus far, he’s tried noise concealing headphones and foam earplugs to dull the noise and continue on with his work, but the distraction continues.

I’m absolutely sympathetic to the necessity and value of the foghorn, and all the other safety innovations that make a modern cruise safer than the maiden voyage of the Titanic. I hope this post comes across as something absolutely distinct from a compliant! That said, my heart kept stopping and my ears kept ringing on our foggy Cabana mornings, and I wasn’t sure that was optimal, either.

On about the third day that the foghorn menaced my peace of mind, I had an epiphany. It’s stentorian reverberations, after all, meant we continued on our way, all systems go, all of the important stuff quite right with our isolated little floating world.

I decided, with every foghorn blast, to adjust my reaction into counting my blessings.

Loud noises shut my eyes and often prompt me to clasp my hands at my heart. Why not follow that lead and take a moment in gratitude for the gift of safety, the ability to hear a warning offered with beneficent intentions, and the joy of my functional if reactive body?

I can’t say that the foghorn is my favorite aspect of traveling by sea, even so, but our relationship has improved.

I love the waves. I find the atmosphere and pace of cruising conducive to contemplation. I marvel every day aboard a ship at the luxury of having the time and funds to see the world this way.

And, now?

I hear the blast of a foghorn, and I’m reminded to count my blessings. They’re as myriad as the waves in the sea.

And, if occasionally obscured by the mist, my other faculties remain to offer clarity.

What’s a clarion blast if not a call to action?

What better action to take than finding the good in an inconvenience?

I still prefer a clear blue sky, but I’ll hearken to the value of the foghorn.

Travel laundry solutions, from bar to bottle

Every traveler should be prepared to do at least a little laundry before s/he reaches the end of the road.

Whether you’re a parent traveling with kids, a business traveler with a financial motive to look sharp, or an autoimmune sufferer like me whose arthritis causes you to unexpectedly fling things you’re attempting to hold in your weakened hands, a few minutes of immediate care can save a garment from destruction or at least degradation.

I have a few go to solutions for washing clothing away from my laundry room. It’s rare for me to leave home for even a single night without packing something I could use to attack a stain or wash out a pair of favorite socks to re-wear because they are the only ones that don’t seem unbearable in the moment.

Re-usable containers make every product travel sized

First, for anyone who keeps a cabinet full of reusable containers for lunches and leftovers, I respectfully submit that you can make your own travel size out of any preferred product. I think this is easily forgotten in our era of single serve options and packaging excess. Years ago, I bought single use packets of Woolite for travel because it simply never occurred to me to do anything different.

Obviously, one ought not put toxic chemicals into the same container used for food or drink. Either keep a dedicated set of bottles for cleaning supplies only, or, ideally, use non-toxic products to wash your clothes.

Those of us who deal with extreme sensitivities to fragrance or irritating contact dermatitis learn quickly that it can be uncomfortable or even dangerous to rely on products available in laundromats, at vacation rentals, or in friends’ homes.xyz toiletry kit Nalgene Pelican 1020 - 6

Nalgene bottles are dishwasher safe and can transport virtually any liquid used in the home. They’re pretty common in labs, too. I like to buy mine at REI because I’m a co-op member, but that sporting good store’s selection has narrowed of late probably due to pandemic supply chain issues.

The Container Store is another fine option for buying travel size bottles, especially if you live near one of these expensive but high service shops. I love that TCS has always offered curbside pickup service. For individual Nalgene bottles, their prices are competitive, but your eyes will water the first time you shop for closet organization accessories here.

Ranging from 1/2 oz up to 32 oz, Nalgene bottles run between $1.39 and $3.99 at The Container Store, the same as or similar to prices in sporting goods stores. I very much prefer the wide mouth version—shown below in its smallest size full of my SensiClean detergent—because they are easier to clean, but the narrow neck bottles are a usually few cents cheaper.

10¢ per bottle for the bigger opening is well worth it to me to make scrubbing out stubborn residue easier, but I also like to vary bottle styles to make it more obvious which is which when I’m packing a dozen products for my entire family. The multi-colored lids in Nalgene travel kits also make quick identification easier; Amazon seems to sell a kit of just colorful lids, though I don’t own that precise set.4 mL bottle as small as a pinkie, 8 mL is thumb sized around, and 1 oz Nalgene bottle with detergent, all held in one open hand

Here’s a perfect example of the more usual pricing level at The Container Store: a 2 oz travel size bottle of The Laundress Signature Detergent retails for $7.99.

Aside from my objection to even the fairly light floral scent of this particular product, why would anyone choose to pay more for a flimsy disposable bottle than a sturdy one made by Nalgene? If you like The Laundress detergent, refill your own Nalgene from a full size container at home! You’ll carry exactly as much cleaning fluid as you’ll need, spend less, and have a lower probability of awful luggage spills due to a crushed bottle or a flip-top malfunction.2 oz Signature Detergent trial size laundry soap in Ziploc in a woman's handWhy do I have a travel size bottle of The Laundress Signature Detergent, then, if I don’t care for it and it is so expensive? I received a mini set of their products as a gift-with-purchase, probably of closet organizers…

While a basic plastic sandwich bag—Ziploc or store brand—can be used to carry small quantities of detergent, I would advise anyone going that route to double bag it for obvious reasons. Disposable baggies aren’t really sturdy enough for this use, and detergent is gritty and abrasive. A disposable bag’s thin, flexible nature does make it superior to a reusable silicone* bag as an extra layer of security on top of a Nalgene bottle, though, in my opinion, when adding a bottle to a larger kit.

I also pack dish soap in a 1/2 oz. Nalgene Leakproof Dropper Bottle when I travel because, at a minimum, I always pack my own spork, coffee to-go cup, and a reusable water bottle. I like to keep them clean, and I often drop things. My mom told me once that using hand soap on dishes can make you sick, which I’m guessing is an urban legend or refers to antibacterial products that are no longer common, but I just plain prefer to wash stuff I’m about to stick in my mouth with my own brand of unscented dish washing liquid.

Dish soap can also work on stains; try it on greasy spills, ideally rubbed in with an old toothbrush. The amount of rinsing required can be frustrating while still wearing a soiled garment, however.

FYI: I sometimes apply a piece of tape to keep the Leakproof Dropper truly leak proof. I trust this style of lid less than I do a standard screw-top. I always carry Dropper top bottles inside a waterproof outer bag.

It is often possible to get a fair price on small Nalgene containers from Amazon, but costs vary from awesome to offensive; the good deals are almost always sets of a dozen or more and found in the Lab & Scientific Products category. The internet superstore has been my best source for my favorite travel toiletry choice: tiny 4 mL (1/8 ounce) and 8 mL (1/4 oz) bottles for short trips, carrying a few pills at a time, and for beauty products applied by the smidgen or drop.Cardboard box holding an assortment of small bottles from 1/8 oz to 4 oz in size

My collection of small travel containers includes brands other than Nalgene, but I don’t have perfect faith in all of them to resist leaks or breakage with reasonable care in handling.

How much laundry soap should you pack in your own container?

How much laundry soap should you pack for travel? That depends so much on the length of the trip, whether you will have access to machines, or whether you only intend to sink wash the occasional bit of lingerie.

As of July 2022, my two favorite laundry detergents to use at home are SensiClean liquid and Charlie’s Soap powder but only with the added Booster or a scoop of Borax in our hard water. Country Save detergent is another good brand for our sensitive skinned household, but it is less readily available locally.Small bottle filled with laundry detergent

For an upcoming multi-week trip, I’ll carry a small 1 oz bottle of SensiClean liquid detergent for occasional hand washing of delicate items.

My all-time-favorite cruise purchase is an unlimited wash-dry-and-fold package, but there are expensive delicates I won’t send to an industrial laundry unless I’m too sick to take care of them myself. For those, and in case my child’s eczema flares due to the ship’s laundry regimen, I’ll have a manual option to detox the layers he wears next to his sensitive skin.

If I were heading to a vacation rental with its own laundry machines, I would pack a roughly 1 cup/250 mL size plastic storage container of Charlie’s Soap for a stay of up to one month. A full load takes less than 1 Tbsp or ≅15 g of this highly concentrated detergent.

An added benefit is that, by storing concentrated, High Efficiency HE detergents in smaller containers after buying them in bulk, my family wastes less of them at home, too. The mere appearance of an industrial size jug seems to prompt people to take larger portions of everything.

For home use, I store a combination of Charlie’s Soap and Charlie’s Laundry Booster pre-mixed in a Lock & Lock HPL807 container that holds 1/2 a quart or 2 cups of powdered detergent. This will last two weeks for a family washing one load of laundry per day.

Fels-Naphtha laundry bar

If you don’t already have laundry detergent at home and you want to purchase one easy-to-travel-with product, consider a Fels-Naptha Laundry Bar & Stain Remover stick. It’s like bar soap, but for your clothes.

Though it’s often tucked away on the top or bottom shelf, I routinely find Fels-Naptha at local grocery and general merchandise stores in the laundry aisle. Amazon sells it, but mostly at a grossly inflated price or in large quantities since it is such a low cost item. At Walmart, it is listed for $1.20 as of July 2022 which is about what I’ve paid at a neighborhood shop.

The Fels-Naptha bar dates back to the 1890’s, though modern versions no longer contain toxic naphtha, a flammable carcinogen that was especially popular in cleaning products during the Great Depression.

Essentially a giant bar of soap/detergent in a paper wrapper, Fels-Naphtha can be carried on a trip by plane without the special handling required for liquids.Purex Fels-Naptha laundry bar in pristine new package

One of my kids has always claimed that Fels-Naptha looks delicious. It would be best to keep it—and all other cleaning products—well away from children too young or too silly to heed safety warnings.

Scanned directly from the package, below are the directions for use and ingredients printed on the wrapper for my perhaps ten year old bar of Fels-Naptha. One bar will last a very long time when used as a stain/spot pre-treatment!

Directions for Fels-Naptha

Stain Pre-treater:
  1. Wet stain, then rub with bar
  2. Wait 1 minute and wash as normal
Laundry Booster:
  1. Grate 1/16th into washer with detergent
  2. Wash as normal
Ingredients for (Modern) Fels-Naptha:

SOAP (SODIUM ALLOWATE* SODIUM COCOATE® (OR) SODIUM PALMATE KERNELATE: AND SODIUM PALMATE). WATER, TALC, DIPENTENE, COCONUT ACID*. PALM ACID*, TALLOW ACID* PEG- METHYL ETHER, GLYCERIN, SODIUM CHLORIDE, PENTASODIUM PENTETATE AND/OR TEIRASODIUM  TIDRONATE, TITANIUM DIOXIDE, TRICLOCARBAN, FRAGRANCE, ACID ORANGE 24. ACID YELLOW 73 *CONTAINS ONE OR MORE OF THESE INGREDIENTS

Like most detergents, you should avoid getting Fels-Naptha directly in your eyes or otherwise prolonging skin contact.

The Fels-Naptha bar was one of the first laundry products I taught my kids to use by themselves. Because you just wet the fabric with the stain then rub the wet spot with the bar, my kids were expected to rub some onto any grass stains on their knees when they came home from school. By the upper elementary grades, they did this unsupervised.

Because of endemic Lyme disease in our area and our primary school’s emphasis on time spent outdoors, my kids did a tick check and changed clothes immediately after getting home from grade school. There were a lot of grass stained knees during those years.Fels-Naptha wrapper and detergent in a Ziploc baggie with laundry stains scrawled on in

My Fels-Naptha bar has one end of the wrapper torn off and lives in a tattered Ziploc sandwich bag under the bathroom sink. Though I’m exquisitely sensitive to fragrance and one of my kids has severe eczema, I’ve never observed an adverse reaction triggered by Fels-Naptha as a spot treatment, not even when the eczema-prone kid spot-treats his own clothes.

I did teach my kids to hold the bar through the plastic baggie, though, and to wash their hands after handling it or any other cleaning products.Fels Naptha bar with a chunk cut off on a red cutting board with serrated knife in picture, scattered crumbs around the stub

For an upcoming trip, I finally tried something I’ve been meaning to do for a while: I cut off about an inch of Fels-Naptha from my big bar with a kitchen knife so I could pack the smaller sliver. It wasn’t the tidiest operation ever, but my arthritic hands managed the job, and now I have a perfect stain stick to pack for travel.

I saved the Fels-Naptha shards created by hacking away with a serrated knife. As indicated in the directions above, grated Fels-Naptha works as a laundry booster/additive. I dropped those bits of detergent in my front loader and used a bit less soap than normal in my next load of towels.

I can’t say for certain whether Fels-Naptha works better or worse than my mother’s old standby of Spray & Wash or the Shout Stain Removing Gel I use myself when pre-treating laundry right before putting it in the washer. The truth is, I wasn’t going to chase my kids every day after school looking for dirty spots, and the Fels-Naptha was the only product I felt comfortable letting them use on their own.

It was less that I feared a Spray & Wash injury, and more because I could imagine a mess if that liquid spilled, or if over-spray damaged a delicate item sitting nearby. My Shout Gel doesn’t have bleach in it, but it does warn about the potential to discolor khakis or brights, so passing it to the wee punks seemed like a bad idea.Baggie wrapped around Fels Naptha stump in wrapper in

Most families could make use of a Fels-Naptha bar for stains, and I find it much longer lasting and less likely to make a mess than other spot cleaning solutions. The Tide Pen form factor is great, but I’ve found those dry out or get lost before I use them up, and they cost more per pen than an entire bar of Fels-Naptha.

With the bar carved down to a small piece, I’ve got a travel sized stain stick that won’t leak, won’t irritate my family’s skin, and fits in the palm of my hand.

Reisetube detergent may be familiar to European shoppers

On a laundry forum once—and, yes, now we all know I’m the kind of slob who has the gall to visit laundry forums!—I read about a product one lady picked up every time she want to Europe: detergent in a Reisetube.Screen Shot German word Reisetube

The next time I passed through Germany, I bought some for myself. The brand I found was Burti Waschmittel Reisetube. This particular product is vegan.

My reisetube was inexpensive in a supermarket, but it isn’t obviously available in the USA so far as I can tell; Amazon.de has it. On Amazon.com, I found a similar product, Rei in der Tube which is also a German import. At $9 for only 30 mL, however, it strikes me as too expensive, and disposable tubes are inherently hard to refill, thus generating a lot of garbage if used often

It must be said that, aside from the environmental impact, this may be a perfect form factor for travel detergent. Gel seems more soluble in hard water than powder. Unlike liquid in a jug or bottle, gel also seems less likely to leak or drip out of its tube in transit.

My Burti Waschmittel Reisetube has a very slight scent, but it doesn’t bother me after my garments dry. I have not used this on my eczema prone child’s clothing enough to have an opinion as to whether it irritates his skin. I’ve found that most German detergents I try work very well, but have more fragrance added than I’m happy with.

What most people call perfume, I describe as “stink.”

As with a Fels-Naptha bar, a reisetube might be the best single purchase for a traveler who doesn’t stock a home laundry room with products to refill personal containers.

Final verdict on best travel laundry form factor for most

The best option for most travelers is packing one’s own usual preferred detergent in reusable containers. Unless you live in an area with exceptionally hard or soft water, actually necessitating a change when visiting places with different conditions, you’ve likely gone through the trial and error to find the best cleaning products for your own use.

You know what you like; you’ll probably prefer the same product on vacation or away from home on business.

People with a cupboard full of Tupperware or other lidded containers may well already have exactly the right size on hand to fill with detergent for longer trips. Those who travel often should probably invest in a few small Nalgene bottles or tubs to dedicate to liquid or powder detergent.

Another important piece of advice: an unlabeled container leads to waste, in my experience. No matter how convinced I am that I’ll recall what’s inside each bottle, I end up forgetting, sometimes discarding a product because I’m no longer certain what it is or how old it is. Even Scotch tape works; for best results, label everything immediately after filling!

Travelers who don’t do their own laundry at home would do best to purchase either a Fels-Naptha bar or a reisetube to carry on trips, depending upon whether s/he often encounters liquid restrictions at TSA checkpoints. The former is slightly better for spot treatment; the latter is easier to use in a hotel room sink for hand washing delicates.

*I like Stasher brand bags, especially the Stand Up- Mini and -Mid for travel, but they’re too thick to individually wrap separate bottles as I prefer for certain particularly messy liquids. I do wash and re-use disposable Ziploc bags for travel, however, and I would absolutely use a Stand Up Mini to store detergent by my washing machine at home for long term use.

SensiClean is also sold under the name SportWash. The maker is Atsko. I have purchased these products direct as well as from Amazon and sporting goods stores.

SportWash is available in more sizes than SensiClean, but both are “residue free” detergents. That benefits people with sensitive skin, but also hunters who have learned that common household products leave them with a distinctly unnatural chemical odor that chases their prey away.

I label mine with my beloved Brother P-touch PT-1400, but tape and a Sharpie work almost as well if you aren’t being graded on neatness. Standard TZ Tape labels compatible with P-touch printers last through at least a few dishwashing cycles in my experience; Extra Strength Adhesive Tape TZ Tapes persevere even longer. 

If buying a label maker for the first time, I suggest selecting a model that can use tapes at least 1 inch wide. I picked up a different Brother model at Costco as a gift for my mother years ago, and both of us experienced a lot of annoyance that hers could only use the narrower 1/2 inch TZ Tapes.Brother PT-1400 label maker with Extra Strength adhesive TZ-tape package

Dip a COVID-cautious toe in cruise waters

We maintain a COVID-cautious* household as the third pandemic summer waxes. Where one member of our family is at high risk, we all choose to modify our daily behaviors to continue to protect him.

This is a cost of multi-generational living, though I find the personal and familial benefits of sharing our home with an elder abundant and easily justified. Since we can afford all the masks and testing we need, expending this trivial effort is well worth it. That’s the calculus in our home.Disposable surgical mask

Given our status, then, as “more careful than most,” it may surprise some that we plan to embark on a cruise with our teens in a little more than a month. Cruising, after all, gave the world its first widely reported COVID-19 super-spreader event.

Read a CDC research paper on the epidemiology of the Diamond Princess outbreak in February 2020 here.Cruise line booking page headlined 37 days before you leave with photos of Icelandic ports

There’s no doubt that the closed environment of a cruise ship offers a unique opportunity for certain germs to infect a captive audience of susceptible passengers. Many minds will leap immediately to norovirus. In truth, however, norovirus is common everywhere, but an outbreak is much more noticeable when a group of thousands travels en masse for seven or more days and management is required to track cases on board.

Similarly, though COVID-19 is definitively joining current passengers on cruise ships—in spite of requirements for vaccination and pre-embarkation testing—there is little evidence that the virus passes between personal staterooms via HVAC or other means. Actual contact tracing of ship-acquired infections, as on land, suggests spread directly from infected person to uninfected person.2012 Carnival cruise Saint John NB Canada - 3

The greater risk on a cruise comes from queuing to board or partake in activities, eating or drinking in common facilities, or from socializing with other guests. More bodies in close proximity invites more infections. It’s math, not a magical zone of infection brought on by taking a ship out to sea.

Why, then, if we remain vigilant and siloed on land, is my family setting sail?

Like many, the pandemic disrupted our travel plans in 2020. For us, the result was a Future Cruise Credit (a.k.a., an F.C.C.). Cruise Critic defines Future Cruise Credits here.

We could have requested a cash refund when COVID-19 kept us from our 2020 voyage between Copenhagen and Boston. Instead, we opted to gamble on the future solvency of Holland America Line (HAL) and took the F.C.C. instead. Part of my personal rationale was the simple desire to see HAL survive the economic hit of the sudden shutdown.

The major down side to any credit like this is the set of contingencies for spending it. Unless we wanted to argue over the details of the F.C.C. we’d accepted, we had to book a cruise before the end of 2022.Pile of money

Here’s the key to why my family is cruising this summer: we’re not all going. While our 2020 trip would have included a grandparent, our 2022 party consists only of parents and children. All of us are vaccinated, boosted, and at statistically low risk of COVID-19 complications if infected. Our high risk loved ones are not inclined to sail at this time.

For those of us embarking on a pandemic-era Holland America Line cruise, we are opting in based upon a few important understandings:

  • We realize that we will be taking a greater risk of catching COVID-19 than we do at home, but we have decided that this risk is worth the benefit of a relaxing vacation together with the reward of a chance to visit foreign destinations long on our wish list(s).
  • We prefer the risk of being cruise ship passengers over that of unmasked air travel for the summer of 2022, especially given recent frequent flight cancellations and spectacular, hours’ long delays reported at major airports worldwide. We don’t have to fly to get to our embarkation/debarkation port, and we won’t have to leave** our cabin once aboard a ship unless we want to.
  • We booked two staterooms for our party of four, and one of them is a suite° with an extra large balcony. This is more space than we have ever paid for in the past, but we believe we might prefer to remain mostly cloistered while at sea, depending upon COVID case rates when and where we sail. We decided we wouldn’t travel without private access to fresh air, i.e., a balcony.
  • We reserved an additional, extra-fee private outdoor space for this sailing—on HAL’s fleet, these are dubbed Cabanas, placed in a restricted access area called the Retreat, and, again, booking one is a first for us—so we will have a dedicated area beyond our cabins to spend time if case rates exceed our comfort thresholds.
  • We’re prepared to skip going ashore at early stops in easily reached ports close to home in order to increase the odds*** we stay healthy for visits to rare, “bucket list” destinations further afield.
  • We’re each packing extra amusements that will allow any one of us to spend days on end alone in a room, and I’ve beefed up the travel medicine kit.
  • And, perhaps most important of all, we are setting sail having decided in advance that even isolating in our staterooms—aside from accessing our cabana via the stairs, no elevators—would be “enough” vacation to make the entire trip worthwhile. Dining on room service and entertaining ourselves on a balcony at sea will be sufficient, if not ideal. If we also get to enjoy the rest of the ship’s public amenities, all the better.

Until our embarkation, we won’t really know which activities will or won’t meet our risk tolerance and feel worthwhile. This is a higher than usual level of uncertainty for me to embrace. I acknowledge I can be prone to anxiety; I’m better known for demanding control than going with the flow.2012 Carnival cruise Saint John NB Canada - 1

Living through a pandemic serves to remind me, though, that life is short, and opportunities not taken can be lost forever. We have educated ourselves about the current situation with the virus, and we’ve prepared as best we can for such unpleasant scenarios as believing the risk of infection too high to risk socializing aboard ship or catching COVID at sea.

My kids are growing up fast. One will be moving away from home for the first time in just a couple of months. I want to take us all on one more vacation before it becomes necessary to negotiate with yet another adult life and all its mature entanglements to get away together.Woman hugs child

COVID-19 stole from everyone: lives, time, opportunities… I can’t know for certain that our cruise will be smooth sailing, but, if my analysis is correct, it should be worth the risk.

* Since there is no universal definition for “being careful” with regards to COVID, I’ll post mine. Our household choices in June 2022 continue to include:

  • limiting time inside any building beyond our home with the exception of one child who goes to school/camp in person,
  • wearing masks indoors anywhere but at home,
  • requesting that all visitors or tradespeople entering our home wear a mask,
  • wearing masks outdoors where social distancing isn’t possible,
  • antigen testing the kid who attends school/camp every weekend before he spends one unmasked afternoon per week with his grandfather (otherwise, that kid masks around Grandpa),
  • antigen testing our occasional visitors before eating or drinking with them,
  • only eating or drinking with visitors to our home outdoors or at a distance of ~10+ feet indoors.

We use—and offer those entering our home—several styles of N95, KN94, and surgical masks to ensure all this masking is as efficacious as possible. Even within the family, our faces don’t fit the same masks well.

See the CDC epidemiology paper referenced in paragraph three. The following quote comes from the Discussion section of that report, and it matches what I’ve read elsewhere over the past two years following pandemic news coverage:

“Spatial clustering was not identified on a specific deck or zone, and transmission does not seem to have spread to neighboring cabins, implying that droplet or contact transmission to nearby cabins was not the major mode of infection. Risk of infection did increase with cabin occupancy, but a relatively small proportion of cases in the same cabin had >4 days between their onsets, implying a common source of infection. Beyond that, however, the major transmission routes might include a common source outside the cabin and aerosolized fomite or contact transmission across different deck levels.”

I feel it is only fair to disclose that we had only paid a deposit for a fraction of the total cost, not the full fare for our cancelled 2020 vacation. Wagering many thousands of dollars would have felt foolish to me in support of a corporation, but a few hundred was an amount I could afford to lose with equanimity.

In particular, I found the crew aboard my past HAL sailing to be simultaneously professional and amiable. Keeping this subsidiary of Carnival Corporation in the black seemed likely to keep more of these excellent employees on the payroll during a bleak time.

**Apart from the mandatory muster—or lifeboat—drill. Cruise ships rightly enforce the requirement that every person aboard learns what to do in the unlikely event of an emergency at sea. Due to COVID, these are now conducted with less crowding and standing around in large groups than they used to entail.

°This will be our first experience of the Holland America Line suite category NS, or a Neptune Suite. The corner aft NS we chose is known for its exceptionally large balcony that wraps around the side and back of the ship, offering seating with more likelihood of shade-, sun-, or wind- protection than a standard balcony would.

***Testing positive for COVID-19 aboard a ship means a passenger will be quarantined according to that ship’s specific procedures. On HAL, last I heard, quarantined passengers are required to move to a balcony stateroom in a reserved section of rooms set aside and dedicated to housing those with COVID. On other lines, passengers quarantine in the stateroom they originally booked. In most cases reported by Cruise Critic board members, partners are given the option to stay together or lodge apart assuming only one tests positive.

We aren’t sure what will happen if both parents test positive but the young adults don’t, but we’re ready to live with the consequences either way.

These policies could change at any time, however, and I have read anecdotal evidence of ships adjusting rules on the fly by necessity when more passengers require quarantine than there were dedicated cabins for the sick.

Brand matters when arthritic hands administer COVID tests

Until this weekend, I had only personally administered two brands of COVID-19 home tests on myself or my children. All of my earlier home testing experience was with:

I wrote a detailed review of the Cue Health product a few months ago for those who can afford a more accurate, but much more expensive home test.iPhone running Cue App next to Reader device with COVID-19 test plugged in

Both the Abbott and Cue coronavirus tests were easy for me to use, had straightforward directions, and required only moderate hand strength and dexterity. I highly recommend either of these brands to those with less-than-average manual abilities.

I say this as a person living with a diagnosis of mild, seronegative rheumatoid arthritis whose small joints do not always cooperate with my intent. Those with profound disabilities may require assistance for even these tests, and near-normal eyesight is necessary for every COVID-19 test I’ve tried.

That said, if you can still brush your own teeth effectively, you can probably manage either Abbott or Cue home COVID-19 tests.Open COVID-19 test box with post it note reminder to test twice, 72 hours apart

In our busy household of five, we keep all of our coronavirus test kits on a dedicated table at the side of the living room, stacked up in order of expiration date.

Having flown cross country in March to visit my father, I consumed several tests in quick succession upon my return, and we quickly worked through our locally purchased Abbott test kits to the more recent Roche branded ones we received free from the United States government.COVIDtests.gov offers free at home COVID-19 tests to Americans

Every home in the U.S. is eligible to order 2 sets of 4 free at-⁠home tests. Click here to order yours if you haven’t already.

We test my younger child—the one who attends high school in person—every weekend before he goes downstairs to visit his paternal grandfather. Дедушка lives downstairs in our home, but he has his own dedicated space, kitchen, and a separate entrance. Still, age and health status leaves Deda especially vulnerable to a severe case of COVID-19.

We feel grateful to have the means to protect him from an infection we might unwittingly visit upon him by going about our own public lives.

On Saturday, we used one Roche COVID-19 At-Home test kit from a box of four. Fortunately, it was conducted by my hale and hearty teen, administering his own test. I did not anticipate how difficult this test would have been for me, had I been taking one myself, and I was happy to be merely an observer and reader of directions.Roche COVID-19 test instructions, box, cartridge

Steps five and six of the Roche process would have stymied me, but my healthy child had no real issue with them or with the test in general. There’s a lot of firm pinching involved in those steps, which would be beyond my arthritic fingers.

Our older home educated teen took a test later the same day, and I asked if he wouldn’t mind trying the fourth brand in our personal arsenal: the ACON Labs FlowFlex test even though this meant using test out of expiry order.

I was curious if it would present similar issues. It did.

FlowFlex was the brand sent out by our health insurance via its preferred mail order pharmacy, Express-Scripts.8 FlowFlex COVID-19 antigen tests

We are entitled to eight “freei.e., included with our employer-provided health insurance COVID-19 tests every month for each covered member of our plan. I ordered those for the two household members going to work/school as soon as the benefit was published on the website, and they were delivered about four weeks later. In the meantime, I’d ordered a batch of tests each for the other covered members of our household.

If I order directly from the preferred prescription provider, I don’t have to wait for reimbursement. Paying nothing out of pocket seemed like the best option. Now I know better.

For our household, in the future, if I’m the one who requires testing, I should go to a local pharmacy and purchase Abbott’s BinaxNOW tests instead of accepting the option available via mail-order without any out-of pocket expense. This will be a smarter choice given my manual limitations.COVID test tube in stand awaiting insertion of swab and drop-dispensing cap

I believe it is highly probable that Abbott’s BinaxNOW, Roche’s COVID-19 At-Home test kit, and ACON’s FlowFlex have similar probabilities of correctly detecting the novel coronavirus responsible for the chaos and societal disruption of 2020-2022. That said, I doubt the ability of the latter to work for me, with my limited hand strength.

Both the Roche and the ACON FlowFlex test require a user to firmly pinch the included vial between one’s fingers for an extended period of time to get an accurate result. I doubt I could do this reliably, repeatedly, for accurate test results.Fingers squeezing plastic test tube for COVID test

I did experiment with my teen’s FlowFlex vial post-test to determine that I’m capable of dispensing the mixed drops with that product without too much discomfort, but dispensing four drops into the test cartridge is less effortful for some of us with weak phalanges than holding tight to the tube while spinning the test swab therein.Hands squeezing to dispense drop of liquid for COVID test onto cartridgeI felt compelled to compose and post this particular piece as quickly as possible to share my experience with the world. Had I only tried that first test brand, that I happened upon at my local pharmacy last fall, I would have no idea how tricky other versions of COVID-19 tests might be for those of us with more limited mobility.

It is worth reporting that, if I did not have such limitations to my dexterity, I would prefer the more compact packaging offered by Roche and ACON Labs over Abbott’s fairly bulky box, especially for travel. The Roche multi-pack uses far less packaging for four tests than two boxes containing two each of the BinaxNOW. Roche/FlowFlex’s volume will be decidedly less if packed in a suitcase.

Aside from the need to firmly grasp a plastic tube for steps five and six (Roche)/step 2 (ACON’s FlowFlex), I would not have such a distinct preference for Abbott’s BinaxNOW over the competitors. That being said, my limitations have settled in as a near constant over the past decade, and I no longer expect my own normal to return to a more median average.

From my perspective, if you require an at-home COVID-19 diagnostic test, and you have limitations to your manual dexterity, you should try to get an Abbott BinaxNOW antigen test or a molecular one from Cue Health.

If your hands are crippled by arthritis, and you must use Roche or ACON Lab’s tests, ask a fully able bodied friend for assistance, if possible.


Disclosure: The author of this post owns 51.044 shares of ABBOTT LABORATORIES (ABT) stock at the time of writing. Abbott Labs makes the BinaxNOW test kit product.

I find written directions easy to follow and actually enjoy the step-by-step process of assembling LEGO toys and IKEA furniture kits, so my experience may not reflect that of average people.