EVERYTHING A FIRST TIME CRUISER NEEDS TO KNOW…
Anticipating taking a cruise for the first time? Or have you booked your very first cruise? Here’s some information you need to know so that your cruise will go smoothly.
Booking flights (for those who haven't booked the cruise line's air/sea package and are making your own flight arrangements… If you haven't booked flights yet (or have the ability to make changes on those flights you have purchased , plan to arrive by noon -- at the latest -- on embarkation day. The day before is even better. The reason: You need to factor in possible flight delays and other transportation glitches that could keep you from getting to the pier on time.
Flight delays: If your flight is delayed, let airline personnel know immediately that you're a cruise passenger scheduled to set sail that day so that they can try to accommodate you on another flight, then be sure to contact your cruise line as soon as possible and let them know about the delay (cruise lines offer a toll-free emergency number to call on the day of travel; make sure you have it on hand). In some cases, though not many, when several passengers are delayed a ship's departure might be postponed. In other cases, you may have to arrange to fly to the next port and meet the ship, possibly at your expense.
Cruise documents: Be sure to read through the information before you leave, attach the luggage tags provided to all of your bags. Remember to bring your cruise documents, your proof of citizenship, and your boarding pass with you to the pier. Make sure you review the citizenship requirements for your cruise. By June 2009, passengers arriving in the U.S. by air, land or sea, will be required to have either a Passport or a Passport Card.
Getting to the pier: You can purchase roundtrip transfers that get you to and from the airport and pier (these are sometimes included if you've booked an air/sea package) from most cruise lines. Note: They usually need to be booked at least 14 days in advance. Be sure to read the instructions that accompany the transfers to determine if your bags are checked directly through to the ship, or if you need to claim them at baggage claim. If you decide to drive, or take some other mode of transportation to the pier, porters will be available to help you check your luggage.
Cruise Packing 101
What to put in your carry-on bag: Unlike a hotel where people check in on varying days and at varying times, folks check in to a cruise ship en masse. As such, a ship receives thousands of pieces of luggage in a matter of a few hours, which means your bags may not arrive in your stateroom until a few hours after you've boarded. Carry-ons are key. Pack everything needed to get you and your family through dinner time -- bathing suits, cameras, medications, sandals, sunscreen, a change of clothes and toiletries, and if you're traveling with small children, enough diapers and wipes to get you through a day.
Dress codes: Every cruise line has a specified dress code and it often changes daily (check your travel documents before you pack; each day's code is listed). Typically, there's formal, which means tuxedo or dark suit for men, and an evening gown or cocktail dress for women. Informal, jacket and slacks for men, and a dress or pant suit for women. There's resort casual (during the day swim suits with cover ups or, for the dining room, khakis for men and flowing pants outfits for women) and there's also casual. The latter means open necked sport shirts for men and capri pants and summer tops for women.
Some lines have just one blanket dress code. Representing two sides of the spectrum, Norwegian Cruise Line's is so casual (though you can certainly opt to dress up) that you can wear jeans to dinner. On the other hand, Sea Dream's resort casual requires a bit more fashionable approach.
If you're still not sure, check out the fashion IQ of some of the cruise lines below:
Azamara Cruises: resort casual by day, resort chic at night; there are no formal nights but passengers are free to don more formal attire if they wish.
Carnival Cruise Lines: very casual by day; almost anything goes by night.
Celebrity Cruises: resort casual by day, resort chic at night, more tuxes than suits on formal nights.
Costa Cruises: casual by day, not overly dressy at night.
Crystal Cruises: stylish resort wear by day, elegant by night, with lots of tuxedos on formal occasions.
Cunard Line: stylish resort-casual by day. Formal nights are extremely formal (and tend to occur more often than on other cruise lines' seven-night cruises). Pack the ballgown, pack the tuxedo.
Disney Cruise Line: casual by day and resort casual by night.
Fred Olsen: Casual dress prevails during the day, and is also generally the dinnertime dress code on the first and last evening of a cruise; passengers dress up a little bit more other evenings with men wearing a jacket tie and women in smart outfits. On nights designated as formal, men wear dinner jackets and most ladies cocktail dresses.
Holland America Line: always casual by day, evening dressiness depends more on itinerary than anything else -- in Europe (and on world cruises) passengers really do dress up.
MSC Cruises: casual by day, resort casual by night except on formal evenings.
Norwegian Cruise Line: Because of its "eat when (and where) you want" Freestyle Dining, you'd expect the tally of super-formal outfits to be slim to none. Actually, we were quite surprised that our recent cruise's one (optional) formal night was well-attended -- with more men in tuxedos than in suits!
Ocean Village: there really is no dresscode for this "dress down line"; except smart casual to eat in The Bistro.
Oceania Cruises: resort casual by day, resort chic at night.
P&O Cruises: Casual by day. There are three designations of dress codes for supper: formal, informal and smart casual.
Princess Cruises: casual by day, resort casual in the evening, about half and half tuxedos to suits on formal night.
Royal Caribbean International: casual by day with a mixed bag at night that leans more to suits than tuxedos.
Seabourn: casual chic by day, tres chic by night.
Silversea Cruises: resort chic by day and night.
Sports and baby equipment: If you are planning to snorkel or play golf or tennis, check out the ship's rental availability and rates to determine if it's worth bringing your own equipment along. In addition, some family-friendly ships now offer stroller and bouncer seat rentals; however, it's best to bring anything you absolutely need such as diapers, baby food (especially if your child has allergies) children's medications, etc.
B.Y.O.B.: Lines have a variety of policies regarding how much alcohol you can bring onboard with you (Carnival a few years back actually put a ban on bringing water onboard; it was such a ridiculous policy it was quickly abandoned). Some do allow you to bring a bottle or two of wine or Champagne, others do not. Before you bring any wine or liquor onboard, please check what the cruiseline policy is and whether you will be charged a corkage fee in the dining room.
NOTE: Please remember the drinking age aboard cruise ships is 21.
Laundry: Most cruise lines offer laundry and dry cleaning services available via laundry bags in your stateroom. Many cruise lines offer self-service laundry rooms as well with coin-operated washers and dryers (and vending machines that dispense small boxes of detergent). For safety reasons, many ships ask that passengers not iron in their staterooms, and provide irons and ironing boards in a self-service area.
Cabin F.Y.I.: The majority of staterooms include standard 110-volt AC electrical outlets and hair dryers (some also have Europe's 220 volt plugs). Check your ship's specifications to determine if you need an adaptor. In all grade cabins, most cruise lines include a mini-safe. As for televisions, while almost all cruise staterooms have them, the channel selection will vary and most, save for top suites, do not include a DVD player or VCR. Lastly, a good travel alarm is handy to pack as many cabins are not outfitted with alarm clocks (you can arrange wake-up calls, however). Also, many cruiselines do have a small refrigerator in the cabin. Check to see if your ship has a refrigerator should you need it to refrigerate medicine.
Tip: First-time cruisers - don’t forget to pack extra hangers, clothespins to keep curtains tightly shut on sunny mornings, a large insulated mug, a nightlight, an extension cord, a highlighter for highlighting the things you want to do on the ship's daily newsletter, and zip-loc bags for storing wet bathing suits and sunscreen. Also, make sure you bring along a first aid kit and some over the counter medicine for headaches, colds etc. Lastly, be sure to keep your passport and cruise documents with you at all times while traveling (and keep them in your safe while onboard). Also make sure you keep any valuables in the safe as well.
Making the Most of Embarkation Day…
Explore the ship and get organized: After you board, grab lunch in the buffet restaurant, and be sure to book spa services, specialty restaurant reservations and popular shore excursions as soon as possible. Many cruise lines now offer pre-booking options via your computer.
Muster/Safety drill: These typically take place just before the ship sets sail. Your attendance at the drill is mandatory and you should take it seriously. Be forewarned, crew members do come around to check that people are not still in the cabin. I know -- I tried to stay behind once when my toddler son needed a nap.
Visitors at the pier: While friends and family are welcome at most piers to see you off, for security reasons only cruise passengers are allowed to board the ships. This applies at ports of call as well.
Check out the ship's daily newsletter: Want to know about the port you're about to visit, what the show times are, what lectures are being held the next day or even what the drink of the day is? It's all in the ship's newsletter which is typically slipped under your door each evening (for the next day's events).
Shore Excursions: The 411
Booking shore tours: An updated list of available shore excursions is typically available a few months before your departure. Be sure to visit your cruise line's Web site to see if reservations can be made in advance online or by phone. If so, you might want to book your top two to three shore tours in advance since many popular ones do sell out. Shore excursions can also be booked onboard through the ship's shore excursion desk and, in some cases, via the stateroom TV.
Cruise tours vs. going it on your own: The answer largely depends on the port city, and the preference of each passenger. If you want someone else to take care of transportation, meals in many cases, and making sure you're back on the ship in time, go with one of the cruise line's organized tours. Others find they can save money by making plans directly with independent operators or prefer exploring on their own. Just be sure that if you decide to go it alone, you know when you have to arrive back on board. The cruise ship waits for no one.
Communication -- Onboard and Off
Phone service: Many cabins contain phones for ship-to-shore calls; however, the per-minute charges are quite costly with rates from $6 per minute on up. Most cell phones do have service in ports and within a couple miles of shore where you'll be billed by your carrier at roaming rates that should be much cheaper than using the in-cabin phones.
Cell phones: Many cruise lines have made their ships cell phone friendly; while phones typically work best within sight of land, some -- Crystal, for instance -- can even help you connect while miles out at sea. Research your carrier's policies, accessibility and roaming fees -- before you depart.
In an emergency: Be sure to leave friends and family the name of your ship, your itinerary and the ship's phone number if you have it (if it isn't in your cruise documents, check the line's Web site or call the reservation line for the number).
Online services: Ships now have Internet cafes enabling passengers to use computer terminals to browse the Web and send and receive e-mails. Fees are roughly 75 cents per minute (on lines such as Carnival and NCL), but can be greatly reduced if the ship offers a package. For example, NCL offers a 250 minute plan for $100. In addition, laptop rentals are available and those bringing laptops aboard can often purchase a wireless access package.
Keeping tabs onboard: If traveling with kids or a group of pals, many passengers highly recommend bringing a supply of walkie talkies for each family member -- it's a great way, particularly on the bigger ships, to know that Junior's playing basketball, Dad's in the casino and Mom's in the spa….and on some cruise lines, if you have young children, they have pagers so that they can contact you if necessary.
Cashless system: Though cruises may be billed as "all inclusive," in reality, they are “mostly inclusive.” By the time you embark on your cruise, most of your cruise has been paid for. However, there are several things not covered in your cruise fare. A few examples? Wine, beer and cocktails (unless you're sailing on a luxury line); shore excursions; gift shop purchases; and spa services. In order to make payments easy, you'll receive a swipe card upon check-in (which usually doubles as your room key) for charging various items and services to an account that can be settled with at the end of your trip with a credit card or cash.
Cash and currency: Many cruise lines will cash traveler's checks at their purser's desks. Note that U.S. dollars are accepted throughout much of the Caribbean and in some other regions. In Europe and Asia the ship's front office may provide currency exchange services or bring the service onboard once the ship is in port. Or, check the port facility at ports of call; some have ATM machines that will work with foreign debit cards (if they don't, a nearby town or village surely will). It is best to carry a small amount of local currency when in foreign ports for taxis and for purchases at small shops and street vendors. However, keep in mind that major credit cards are accepted in numerous places worldwide. Also, before you travel abroad, check with your bank to make sure your PIN code will work abroad.
Onboard doctors: Medical services typically consist of a physician and nurse to take care of temporary illnesses and accidents for a fee. In most cases, those with health insurance will need to pay up before disembarking -- and submit their claim once they return home. Many commonly used medications are kept onboard and can be prescribed by the ship's doctor.
Seasickness: Some cruise lines will provide complimentary motion sickness medicine (Bonine or something similar) to guests through their infirmary, Pursers desk or room service. Cruisers have also had success with patches, which are placed behind the ear and dispense medicine through the skin, and Sea Bands, which are acupressure wristbands that press on a particular point inside the wrist associated with nausea.
Pregnancy: Restrictions vary by cruise line. For example, NCL does not allow passengers to sail if they will be past their 24th week when the cruise ends; on Princess, it's 28 weeks. A letter from your doctor is sometimes required specifying your due date.
Tip : "Bring all the medicines you might want if you get sick, plus a thermometer and basic first-aid materials. A visit to the nurse or doctor is very expensive."
Seating assignments: If you are sailing on a ship with assigned seating times, you'll receive confirmation of your assignment as early as before you sail to as late as when you arrive in your stateroom. If there are any problems, see the maitre d' after boarding to request a change.
Alternate options: Even if you have assigned seating, you don't have to eat in the dining room every night. There are usually several other places to dine from pizza parlors to the ship's buffet and specialty restaurants. And, of course, there's always room service.
Specialty restaurants: Most cruiselines now offer smaller specialty restaurants onboard. These restaurants are optional. Reservations must be made and there is an additional charge for dining.
Open Dining/Freestyle Dining/Personal Choice: Some lines, like NCL, Princess and Oceania, offer open seating dining in their main restaurants as well as at alternative ones. You can dine where you want and when you want. It is recommended, however, in order to avoid waiting in line, that you make a reservation ahead of time. Many cruiselines have a concierge service you can call to make reservations.
Special dietary needs: Many special dietary requests can be accommodated; be sure to discuss them with your cruise line four to six weeks prior to your departure. Note: Low-salt or low-cholesterol food requests can typically be accommodated right onboard.
Religious Services and Special Occasions
Religious services: Most cruise lines have clergy onboard for Christmas, Easter, Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; others have members of the clergy onboard during other times of the year as well. Some even offer weekly services.
Special occasions: Celebrating a birthday, honeymoon or anniversary? Offerings range from rooms decorated with streamers, to specialty cakes, canapes, and renewal of vows packages. Check with your cruise line for pricing information and for booking deadlines, they vary from three to six weeks prior to departure.
Of Special Note for Parents
Cabin service: If you have a child that takes a nap each afternoon be sure to speak with your room steward on the first day to make arrangements to have the cabin cleaned either before or after that time frame. In addition, consider bringing a white-noise or sound machine -- it makes napping a lot easier when folks get boisterous in the hall.
Baby-sitting availability: While several cruise lines offer in-cabin baby-sitting, many do not. Be sure to check your cruise line's policies along with the group baby-sitting options that might be available in the children's center.
Disembarkation…Nobody likes to go home, however here are some things you should know before you disembark.
Tipping: Gratuity policies vary widely. For example, Carnival adds the suggested gratuities (roughly $10 per person, per day) are added to your onboard account on embarkation day. After that, you have the ability to increase or decrease the amount based on individual service by visiting the information desk. Other lines provide envelopes toward the end of the cruise for you to put cash in and distribute to the appropriate waiters and room stewards. And, on many of the luxury lines, gratuities are already included in your cruise fare. Bottom line: Be sure to check your line's policy so that you are aware of what is being charged -- and what is expected.
Settling your account: On the last evening you'll receive an itemized bill of your charges in your cabin. Be sure to look it over and contact the cruise line's purser or hotel desk to dispute any charges. If all looks good, just keep the bill as your receipt; the balance will be charged to the credit card you provided. Some lines will also allow you to settle your account in cash. If you choose to pay in cash, you may have to post a specific amount of cash on embarkation with the Purser’s office. Please check the requirements for your specific cruiseline if you do not have a credit card or wish to pay your account by cash.
Packing to disembark: Many cruise lines require you to pack your bags the night before you disembark and place them outside of your stateroom to be collected. This procedure expedites the disembarkation process. Utilize your carry-on again for toiletries and any remaining items.
Disembarkation day…check throughout your cabin and especially the safe to make sure that you have taken everything. Though there is a lost and found, it is difficult once you have returned home and discovered something missing to recover it. Check the cabin thoroughly.