By Suzanne Carmel
Whether excited for your first cruise, anxious about leaving land behind, or truly dreading being shipside, gaining your sea legs can be made more pleasant by following some simple tips that will make your sailing run smoothly.
Before You Sail
1. Do your homework – Before embarking on your vacation, take the time to ask yourself what sort of cruise best suits you (and whomever is traveling with you). Are you more interested in experiencing time on the ship or in ports? Looking for a ship with all the best amenities and trappings, or a pared-down vessel that will get you where you want to go? Are you okay with a city afloat or do you want a more intimate experience on a smaller ship? Lastly, what part of the world do you want to tour and when is the best time to go there? (Consider weather, peak tourist season, and other factors that may impact what you want to see and experience).
2. Plan smart – Though it’s possible to book some cruises (especially when not during peak travel times) very close to a sailing date, many travelers book their vacations months, or even a year in advance. Travel insurance, through a company like Allianz, gives you the security to know you can get a refund (rather than the cruise credit a line might provide). Coverage can include benefits for trip cancellation due to illness or death, trip interruption protection, emergency medical transportation and coverage, dental coverage, lost/stolen/delayed baggage coverage, missed flight connection coverage, and rental car damage protection. There are a multitude of different, valid reasons for coverage and though those with pre-existing conditions are advised to purchase coverage within 14 days of putting down a first deposit for a cruise, if that isn’t a concern you can purchase insurance up to a day before departure.
3. Consider add-on days – Pre- and post-cruise tours give you a chance to explore the area from which the cruise embarks or disembarks. Adding on days also makes it less hectic on departure and return dates. It’s advisable to fly in a day early and stay at a hotel near the cruise ship terminal whenever possible. Many cruise lines have hotels they work with at each of their ports and you can book rooms through the cruise line directly, if preferred. These hotels are typically close to the cruise ship terminal, often with shuttles taking passengers to and from the ship.
4. Map out your space – A little legwork prior to sailing can go a long way towards making your cruise run smoothly. Start by selecting a cabin that best suits your needs when you make your reservation. If you’re concerned about getting sea sick (there can be some motion even on the largest of vessels), book a cabin in the middle of the ship, not too high up. If it’s views you’re after, consider springing for a cabin with a balcony and an unobstructed view. Traveling with children? Make certain your cabin configuration will allow you the most space for your crew. Lastly, if noise from public spaces such as restaurants, bars or near elevators will bother you, book a cabin on a deck that is sandwiched between other passenger-filled decks and be mindful of the location.
5. Book ahead - Once you’ve reserved your cruise, you can book shore excursions, spa treatments, reserve tickets for shows, make reservations at specialty restaurants, and the like. Although you can do all of these things onboard, save yourself the aggravation of scrambling to do so upon embarkation. You can often adjust times or cancel if you change your mind. If you have any questions about these options, or even about the cabin you select, call the cruise line customer service number and have someone knowledgeable guide you through the process.
6. Prudent packing – Unless you’re in a suite, space is at a premium onboard and there won’t be much storage in your cabin. Make a packing list and incorporate guidelines for the dressier nights on board (many ships will have at least one formal night and one or two semi-formal nights per week at sea). Though these days many passengers don’t observe the dress code, it can be festive and fun to attire accordingly and even take keepsake, professional photos made available those nights to bring home. Pack plenty of sunscreen, extra bathing suits, a hat and sunglasses for warm weather cruises, bring layers and outerwear for cold weather itineraries, and include comfortable shoes for both. Some shore excursions require specific attire, such as water or hiking shoes. Make certain you have all prescriptions and even a stock of OTC medication as well as an adequate supply of sundries. Getting these things onboard or in ports can prove pricey and your favorite brands may not be available. Above all, pack a change of clothing, toiletries and even a swimsuit in a carryon bag you’ll bring with you when you board. You may not see your larger, checked bags until well into the first night, at times after the dinner hour, as the crew hustles to get all suitcases to the appropriate cabins.
7. Safety first – Every cruise includes a mandatory lifeboat drill where passengers grab lifejackets from their rooms and then gather at pre-assigned muster stations for instructions on what to do in an emergency. Not only should you pay careful attention to this drill, but go over these instructions several times with young children and have a plan for what to do should someone get lost or locked out of a cabin. Children should be well attended at all times and adults should be mindful to stay away from railings and off of balconies after excessive drinking. Keep balcony doors locked when not in use. When in ports, make sure you’re back on the ship well before it’s time to sail and that you have the name of your ship, its phone number and the ship’s dock printed on a piece of paper you carry with you for ease of getting back there if you go off exploring on your own.
8. Shop smart – It’s fun to bring mementos of your travels home for yourself, friends and family, but make sure whatever you buy adheres to customs regulations or you’ll be forced to leave it behind. Any alcohol purchased will be held for you until the end of the cruise. Souvenirs bought onboard can be pricey, as can items sold in shops in close proximity to the dock, meant for passengers making impulse or last-minute buys before reboarding or for those who opt stay close to the ship.
9. Be mindful of onboard add-ons – On most lines, basic cruise fare includes meals in the main dining rooms, entertainment and use of most public space. It often does not include alcoholic drinks, soft drinks, shore excursions, spa treatments, meals in specialty restaurants, photos or Internet service. Packages for some of these items are available for purchase prior to sailing and onboard. Keep careful track of what you’re spending. Since a credit card is kept on file for all passengers and most everything is charged to your cabin it’s easy to wind up with sticker shock when settling your final bill.
10. Ready to repeat – Hopefully you’ll enjoy your cruise so much that by the last day you’ll be thinking about when you can next repeat the experience. You can book a subsequent cruise while onboard, often at a discounted rate and there are benefits to sailing repeatedly on the same cruise line, including discounts and freebies that vary by line. The more you cruise with a specific line, the better the perks.