Here are some tips on how to have the ultimate experience on your cruise.
Planning is the key element. You will be spending the bulk of your time on the cruise ship, and it will set the tone for your vacation. Begin by finding a ship and itinerary suited to your personality and interests and pairing that with ports of call that appeal to you. Choosing the wrong cruise ship will diminish your experience.
Choosing your Cruise Ship
Each cruise ship caters to a certain crowd and offers its own unique appeal. Choosing a cruise ship that meets your expectations and fits within your budget tops the list. Find out what type of passengers it attracts. This will give you a clue about the atmosphere on board. Does it appeal to families with kids, seniors, twenty-something singles (party scene), couples looking for a romantic getaway (few kids), travelers with disabilities, solo travelers, fitness enthusiasts, or those splurging on the extravagant?
Do you prefer a mega-ship that is similar to a floating Vegas (around 6,000 passengers and 2,100 crew members), or a smaller, more relaxed ship with under 300 passengers?
Determine what type of activities would add to the excitement. Do you want a newer ship with the latest in onboard technology and entertainment or an older ship? There are advantages and disadvantages to both.
When determining your budget, plan on extras that are not included in your cruise package — gratuities, alcohol, soft drinks, spa treatments, specialty restaurants, and more.
If choosing a cruise ship seems overwhelming, reach out to a travel agent that specializes in cruises. Be specific about your cruise preferences and the size of the ship you feel most comfortable with. Travel agents may be able to get you a better deal on a cruise through discount programs. If you need help finding a travel agent, check out the American Society of Travel Advisors or Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).
Research what cruise ships will be the most accommodating if you have mobility issues (or food allergies).
If you require a wheelchair, plan on renting one in advance and have it delivered to the cruise ship. Don’t plan on the cruise ship providing one. For special needs equipment rentals, check out Special Needs at Sea or Scootaround.
Special Needs at Sea has reviewed many of the cruise ships for accessibility. These findings are on their site. This will help you choose a cruise ship that is best suited to your particular needs. Review the accessibility of the ports of call. If a tender boat is required, you may not be able to get off the ship. Choose ports that are accessible and allow you the opportunity to enjoy them.
Theme cruises cater to specific interests. Some of the themes offered include music, TV and film, sports, dancing, wellness and fitness, faith-based, history and world affairs, science and nature, food, wine and beer, hobbies and crafts, art, lifestyles, and more.
Theme cruises provide unique opportunities. You can hobnob with celebrities, attend lectures or concerts, take a culinary class with a world-class chef, dress up as a character in a movie, play golf on board and in the ports of call, and the list goes on.
Cruise ships offer an array of entertainment and activities that are geared toward the interests of the passengers they wish to attract. The entertainment on a cruise for singles will differ from what is offered to families. Find out what the nightly shows are and games that are available, Imax movie options, and more. For those looking for adventure, check out the cruise ships that offer a go-kart track, zip-lining, rock climbing, surfing, and “indoor” skydiving.
Be sure to book a reservation in advance for the shows you plan to see. If you are cruising on a mega-ship, the optimal time for booking is before the cruise begins. Popular shows can book up quickly.
Most shows are included in the cruise package.
Choosing the Ports of Call
Research ports of call in advance and read reviews. Determine what attractions you would like to see and read guidebooks to get the facts. Some activities in the port may be overrated and not worth your time or money.
You have the option of touring the port on your own, booking an excursion through the cruise line, or booking your own shore excursion.
If you decide to set up your own shore excursion, keep in mind that if the tour runs late and you miss embarkation, the ship will leave without you. It will, however, wait for passengers on a tour that was booked through the cruise line.
To get the most out of your visit to the port of calls, it’s best to book excursions in advance. However, if you prefer to wing it, there will be plenty of vendors on shore waiting to entice you with what they have to offer.
If you enjoy shopping at each of the ports, feel free to haggle with the vendors on pricing. In Europe and in the Caribbean, they expect tourists to offer them less.
To avoid food poisoning, do not drink the local water or have ice cubes in your drinks. Your system is not accustomed to the water. Avoid juices or sodas from fountains that are made with the local water or foods washed in it (like a lettuce salad). For a list of foods to avoid, check out the recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some passengers prefer to remain on the ship and enjoy the activities that are normally crowded.
Changes in the Itinerary
The cruise line can change the itinerary at any time and for any reason. It can skip a port of call or change the arrival and departure time. If you book your own shore excursion, you run the risk of forfeiting any payments made, depending on the tour company’s cancellation policy. If the shore excursion is booked through the cruise line, passengers will be reimbursed for cancellations (in most instances).
Before disembarking at a port of call, confirm the ship’s departure schedule. Arrival and departure times can change daily. Cruisers have been left behind when they followed the original itinerary and did not check to see if there were any changes.
Ship time and local (or island) time may not always be the same. This varies by cruise line. Some ships do not change their time when going through different time zones and may remain on the time zone in their home port.
Be sure to adhere to the ship time departure schedule. Set your phone so that it doesn’t automatically change to local time when visiting a port of call. You don’t want to be late for embarkation.
Ship’s Daily Newsletter
Read the ship’s daily newsletter (most are delivered to your room) to find out what events (and their location) are taking place the following day. It will also list any changes in the schedule. It includes entertainment, food venues, the local weather, what you need to know before disembarking and more.
Choosing a Cabin
There are cabins to fit most budgets. Cabin location is important. If you are prone to seasickness, choose one in the middle of the ship on the lower deck where there will be less rocking. Most ships have stabilizers to combat seasickness. Drink lots of water and try ginger gum, sea bands, or motion sickness non-drowsy meds.
Inner rooms are the least expensive, but they have no view.
Avoid rooms that are under the dance floor or close to the elevator. You’ll be battling the noise when trying to sleep.
If you plan on hanging out at the pool throughout the cruise, pick a cabin close to the lido deck to reduce your time going back and forth to your room.
Consider getting a room where you’ll have your own private balcony. It will cost you more, but you’ll enjoy having some privacy with a spectacular view. Just make sure it is not listed with an obstructed view (like a lifeboat hanging outside your balcony).
Cell Phone/Internet Service While Cruising
Using your cell phone while on a cruise can result in some hefty roaming charges. Put your phone in airplane mode to reduce unnecessary charges and don’t use the ship’s network to download your messages.
Some cruise lines charge by the minute, while others offer package deals on a daily basis or for the entire voyage. Cellular rates at sea vary by the cellular company. The roaming charges are usually based on international rates. Wi-fi on some ships may be spotty and streaming may be limited.
Most ships have 24-hour internet cafes. To protect your financial information, do not access your bank account or credit cards on Wi-fi connections.
Most cruise lines offer free apps that allow you to communicate passenger-to-passenger. The apps also include a list of daily activities and allow you to track your account balance. You can oftentimes book reservations or activities on the app as well.
Dining On Board
The main dining room and the buffet are free on virtually every ship. You’ll have to pay to dine at the restaurants. Most of these are individually owned, and the food is usually excellent. Be sure to make reservations in advance.
Alcohol and soft drinks are usually not included in the cruise package, so plan on budgeting for these added expenses. You have the option of purchasing a package deal that will include drinks. When buying alcoholic beverages, the tip is automatically added to your bar tab.
Find out what the cruise ship’s allowance is for bringing your own alcohol on board. Some charge an uncorking fee if you drink it in the dining room, while others limit what guests are allowed to bring on the ship.
To minimize your chances of norovirus, wash your hands often with soap and water—especially before eating—and use cleansing wipes to wipe down surfaces like tables, etc.
Hurricane season is officially from June 1 to November 30. Peak seasons vary by location. For more information on cruising during hurricane season, check out Traveling to the Caribbean during Hurricane Season.
Booking Your Flights
Plan on flying in a day or two in advance of your cruise departure date. A flight delay or cancellation could cause you to be late for boarding the cruise ship. You would then be forced to either book another flight to meet the ship at the next port of call or miss out on your cruise entirely. Flying on the same day of the cruise comes with too many risks.
When booking your return flight, provide ample time from when the ship docks to your flight departure time. The cruise ship may be delayed in returning to the home port and this could cause you to miss your flight.
You can either choose to book your own flights or have the cruise line book an air/sea package. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Find out what option is best for you.
Plan on traveling with a passport, even if it’s not required. Closed-loop cruises (cruises that depart and return to the same port) do not require a passport. However, if you are late in boarding your cruise ship and have to fly to the next port, you will be forced to forego your entire cruise if you did not bring your passport.
A passport is also required if you experience an emergency and have to be flown back home or to another hospital. If you have the unfortunate experience of getting stranded at a port of call, you will need a passport to fly to the next port to meet up with the cruise ship. This has happened to cruisers more times than you might think.
Purchase Travel Insurance
Travel insurance can safeguard you against financial losses. It’s important to find a policy that suits your needs and provides adequate coverage. Many credit cards offer travel insurance. Review the coverage limitations.
It’s also a good idea to check into travel medical insurance and emergency evacuation coverage in case of a medical emergency. An evacuation can cost upwards of $50,000 from a cruise ship if outside United State’s waters.
Find out exactly what is covered on the policy and the acceptable reasons for cancellation. Even the “cancel for any reason” policies have stipulations. Having the wrong insurance policy could leave you with no coverage at all. They are not all equal, so it pays to shop around.
For a comparison of travel insurance companies check out Squaremouth or InsureMyTrip.
Packing for Your Cruise
Pack a carry-on bag for everything you’ll need the first day of your cruise. Include items like sunscreen, change of clothing, swimsuit, motion medicine, etc. The ship’s staff have to deliver thousands of bags, and you may not receive yours for several hours or more.
A few items you might not think about packing include:
- Lightweight rain gear
- One-dollar bills for tipping (when buying alcohol, the tip is already included in the bill)
- An extension cord or a power strip (for charging more than one phone)
- Ziplock bags to keep your phone, money, etc. dry
- Disinfectant wipes
- Paper or marker board to leave messages with each other or the cabin steward
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