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So you’ve booked your first cruise — now what? Our experts offer a few “do's and don’ts” to help you get the most from your trip.
1. Prebook activities before you leave home. If you’re determined to enjoy a particular shore excursion, spa service, class or specialty restaurant, book them in advance. “Reservations onboard book quickly — especially during high-traffic times like spring and summer breaks and the holiday season,” says Colleen McDaniel, senior executive editor of CruiseCritic.com. An added benefit: You can budget more accurately if you book early, as opposed to making spur-of-the-moment purchases onboard. Note that excursions can be expensive, says Deb Pfeifer, author of Cruising With Confidence: How to Be a First Time Cruiser Without Looking Like One, so make sure to check the price before reserving. “You can spend $29 for a tour of the city or $599 for a bear-watching trip,” she says.
2. Plan to arrive at your departure city a day or more before the cruise. Your ship may leave in late afternoon, but a delayed flight or heavy traffic is not a fun way to start your vacation. If you are late, the ship will leave without you.
3. Pack a carry-on bag. Typically, you’ll board the ship well before your luggage reaches your cabin, so pack any necessities — medication, important documents, phone chargers — in a carry-on bag. If you’ve got room, include items like bathing suits and sunscreen so you can immediately jump in the pool or soak in the sun without having to wait for your other bags.
4. Switch your cellphone to airplane mode. International roaming rates can cost hundreds of dollars, even if you don’t make a call, so switch to airplane mode or contact your cell carrier about travel-worthy phone plans. “Many a passenger has come home to an outrageous cellphone bill because they didn't understand how it worked on a cruise ship,” Pfeifer says.
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5. Don’t assume the cruise is all-inclusive. Cruise fares typically cover the cabin, meals, onboard activities and entertainment. Expect to pay extra for drink packages, gratuities, internet, shore excursions, taxes and port charges. “All combined, that could add up to hundreds of dollars more than your base fare,” McDaniel says. “For cruisers who aren’t familiar with added fees, there’s often a bit of sticker shock when it’s time to settle the bill.” Her advice: Contact the cruise line before you set sail to better understand what’s included in your fare — and what’s not.
6. Pace yourself. Each day you’ll receive a copy of the ship’s newsletter with scheduled activities and events. The options can be overwhelming — movies, dance classes, arts and crafts, seminars, comedians, bands, shows — not to mention time for meals, swimming and sunbathing. Wondering how to fit it all in? You won’t, so mark your top choices. You don’t want to end your cruise feeling like you need a vacation.
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7. Understand automatic gratuities. In the past, passengers placed cash tips in envelopes and delivered them to staff at the end of the trip. Today, most cruise lines use an automatic gratuity system. Gratuities are pooled and distributed among the housekeeping and dining crew, as well as to staff providing behind-the-scenes support. Bar and spa staff members rarely share in the automatic gratuities, so tips are added when you’re served. Whether you’re ordering a martini or enjoying a massage, expect an automatic 15 to 18 percent gratuity.
8. Watch the clock. Some ports are in different time zones than the ship’s clock, so make sure the times match. Passengers are usually required to be back on board 30 minutes before the ship’s departure. And the ship won’t wait if you’re late!
9. Don’t take food off the ship. If you’re planning a picnic lunch and using the ship’s food while you’re in port, forget it. Fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and cheeses, nuts and seeds, and even baked goods aren’t allowed off the ship, Pfeifer says. “Certain ports have dogs checking every single backpack, bag and purse, just to be sure,” she says. Stick with prepackaged and sealed snacks, such as granola bars.
10. Relax and enjoy. Pfeifer’s motto? “A bad day on a cruise ship is better than a good day at work!”