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Cruise Columnist
Top Ten Ship Tips

by Douglas Terhune

I feel honored to have had the ability to cruise 25 times. I started during my Junior year of college and have never stopped. My true love of the ocean is temporarily satiated when I ride majestically 15 stories above her. Hi, my name is Doug and I am a cruiseaholic.

Each person who sails on a cruise ship has their own purpose for going and every passenger takes home something different. If you accept that life is one big quest for truth and knowledge - then I have a little insight here for you regarding cruises. On the celebration of my 25th cruise, I share with you a small compilation of my truth and knowledge about cruises.

Ship Tip #10: Research Your Ship

All ships cannot be everything to all people. Ships are built nowadays to be as accommodating to all passengers as possible - but someone on a caviar budget may not be happy on a hamburger cruise ship. And when I talk about researching a ship - I don't mean just the physical aspects - broaden your stroke to include researching the nationalities of the crew, selection of food, demographics of passengers, ports of call and so on.

Too often I hear people complain that they had an unpleasant time on a ship because there were not enough single people, or too many kids, or too many old people, or not good ports of call, etc. To these people I say 'you probably did not research your ship'. One can go on the greatest ship in the world, but if you don't like the mix of passengers, you may not have an enjoyable cruise.

Ships are becoming more of a commodity - so it is the reputation of the line that really counts nowadays. For example, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Lines, Princess and Celebrity all attract about the same crowd. The median age on those lines runs from probably 49 - 57, compared to Carnival's 46. This is not a plug for Carnival - it just shows that each line has their demographics. Cunard's median age is probably in the low 60s.

As for itineraries - it is important to know up front what type of itinerary suits you the best. If you are hyperactive and or think the ship might be confining, choose an itinerary that has a port of call per day. If your main goal is to relax on vacation - choose an itinerary that has one port every other day. And if you want to shop at nice stores vs. Straw Markets, don't go to Jamaica!

Finding this info might be hard - but Websites like this one and some of the books on cruising are great starts. Sorry, but sometimes your travel agents are biased towards one line and will try to push anyone they can onto a ship that may not be right for them (the more cabin a TA fills, the better their discounts). Try your best to speak with former passengers to get the best input - just don't rely upon brochures, TV ads and enticing deals.

Ship Tip #9: Shop around for good deals

Ahhhh, good deals. Are there really any out there? You betcha there are, however, they may not be easy to find. First recommendation is when you ask for a quote, ask for it to be broken down by cruise and air. The lines today are charging about $400/airline ticket, and in most cases, if you plan ahead, you can beat this by 50%. Just call a travel agent or go to sites like Expedia.com or Travelocity.com and check out their air rates.

As for finding a deal on a ship, first, find your ship and approximate dates. If you have never planned a cruise before and need lots of TLC, stop by a local travel agency and bend someone's ear for a while. If you are experienced in planning a cruise, then your best bet is dealing with a specialist - someone like Sharon of Jackson Klarin Travel. Generally a cruise specialist will be able to assist you in finding the best rate for the dates you provide.

The local TA may receive a good discount on the line you are inquiring about - but often the cruise specialist's might be better due to quantity discounts. As a rule, Travel Agents receive about 10% of your booking charge and sometimes they are willing to discount that to get your business. Some local and cruise specialist also run groups - so be sure to ask about any pending group trips.

The last alternative is calling the cruise line direct (or nowadays going to their online web sites) - I utilize them to get the basic information only (i.e., price, sailing dates, itineraries, etc.). When it comes to booking, I almost always contact my cruise specialist and let them handle it for me. I mean more to a cruise specialist than I'll ever mean to a nameless 1 800 number!

Ship Tip #8: Get the Dining Assignment You Wish

Early or late? To me, it makes a big difference which dinnertime I dine at. My favorite time of day on a ship is from 5:30pm till 8pm. Main seating (6pm) diners are all eating and most late diners are primping - so the whole top deck is virtually deserted - which makes it a perfect time for sitting in a hot tub or chair and watching the sun set.

On cruises to Alaska, due primarily to the median age of the passengers, Main dining is the overwhelming favorite - whereas in the Caribbean, Late is the most sought after time slot. The rule of thumb says the earlier you book - the better chance you have of getting your desired time slot, but, if you do not get your slot, there are a couple of options:

Option 1 - Write (fax) a nice letter to the line and tell them how important it is to you to dine at your desired time. Copy your travel agent and give them a way to contact you directly. Most lines will accommodate if you are nice about it.

Option 2 - When you get on board, throw yourself on the mercy of the Maitre 'd who will do what he can, but you must keep in mind he is trying to accommodate the wishes of every passenger (and the average ship today has 2,200 passengers).

Ship Tip #7: Arrive a Day Early at Your Port of Embarkation

One of the more important tips I can pass along is this one. We take so much time planning a cruise that just about everyone I know, including myself, gets butterflies a few weeks out from sailing. I alleviate them by flying/driving to my port of Embarkation the day before. This way I am all settled and have a day to relax after my packing fury and hurried flights. Of course I also get to enjoy the city I am departing from as well - which is often a nice city (ie Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Vancouver, San Juan and Los Angeles).

But the stress issue is the main reason I go a day early. Bad weather can happen anytime, anywhere, any day in the good old U S of A, and I have witnessed people missing their ships because of snow in Cincinnati, Fog in Atlanta, Tornadoes in Iowa and Hurricanes in North Carolina. Schedule in that day to your itinerary and you will be so happy you did. Plus, this will allow you to be at your ship right at noon for boarding - which gives you that much more time to get a jump on your vacation.

Ship Tip #6: Study Your Ship's Deck Plan

This may sound kind of silly, but today's ships are huge and the last thing you really want to do is to be walking around looking for the pool on a nice day or trying to find your dining room when you are already 15 minutes late. Mark your cabin with a highlighter and then figure out what is above you, below you, around you and far away from you.

What you really want to key in on are the public areas you plan to visit the most. For example, you may need to know where the pools, casual dining grill, Pursers Office, theater, piano bar, dining hall, casino and Spa are.

Ship Tip #5: Research Your Excursions Before Boarding

Most lines today either send you a brochure outlining the excursions offered or at least put them on their web pages. On some itineraries, excursions can sell out very quickly - take for example in Alaska the Helicopter Tours of the Glaciers($$$) . And on itineraries where much of your time is at sea, it is most certain everyone will get off the ship in the few ports of call - which puts lots of pressure on the lines to provide the adequate number excursions.

Excursions can sometimes make or break a cruise. Some of my best times on a cruise have been while sailing to a deserted island to snorkel or sipping rum punch on a Pirate ship. So don't walk on your ship not knowing anything about the excursions - unless of course you plan to never leave the ship.

Ship Tip #4: Carry Your Luggage On and Off The Ship

Why? Because most luggage arrives at your cabin 4 hours after you arrive, that's why!! I like getting on a ship early, unpacking, and then exploring the ship. I don't want to hang around my cabin and call the Pursers Desk and ask where my luggage is. If I want to go to the pool, I want to go - and therefore need my bathing suit and then my toilet kit to clean up with afterwards and probably a new set of clothes as well. These are all inside my suitcase - which is heaven only knows where for 4 hours.

I just finished my 25th cruise and sailed out of the Port of Canaveral in Florida. The Operations Manager refused my friends and I the ability to run our bags through his xray machines - claiming their size might ruin it. Therefore, we found a porter and requested priority check-in. We gave the man $10 and he said he'd take the bags directly on board the ship. Well, it was still an hour before we saw them, but, it beat 4 hours.

The last night of the cruise all passengers are to have their suitcases outside their doors by midnight. Well, being that it took 2 months to pack them, it will take at least an hour or two to repack them. So instead of ruining my last night worrying about packing, I don't. I wake up the last morning and start packing. When I finish, I go and eat and come back to the cabin and wait for the ship to be cleared and then proceed to the gangway for debarkation. I refuse to wait in the crowded lounges and hallways and if I have to sit somewhere, I sit in my cabin. I simply tell my Room Steward my plans and he can begin cleaning up around me - but never does because he has 20 other rooms to worry about.

When I walk off my ship - I walk straight to a cab or whatever transportation I have arranged, and am off the grounds faster than 90% of the passengers. I did not have to look through a sea of baggage to find my bag nor waste any of my seven nights aboard the ship packing.

Ship Tip #3: Bring More Money and Less Clothes

I swear I have never worn all my clothes that I have brought on any cruise. Being that I spend most of my day @ the pool or beach, all I really need are some flip flops, couple of bathing suits, T-shirts, hat, dinner wear and some Sun Tan lotion. However, I always seem to replenish a portion of my wardrobe every cruise and feel compelled to bring some of my new duds along.

Being that all ships (that I know of) use on board credit cards, you may not need all that much cash, but there are a few tricks concerning money I can pass along. First, when you get to your cabin, get an envelope and put your estimated gratuities in it immediately. Forget that the cash is there and be sure to put in lots of small bills so that you may put the correct change into each envelope on the last day.

Some lines insist upon having a copy of a real credit card in order to get a ship board credit card - but, if you'd like to put money down against your balance, you are certainly welcome to do so. Blackjack is my weakness in the casino and when/if I win, I go directly to the Pursers Desk now and pay off my charges. What everyone wants to be careful of is having a credit card bill bigger than your cost of the cruise!! (been there done that thank you very much!)

Ship Tip #2: Cut Off All Forms of Communication

This is a pet peeve of mine. For 51 weeks/year, I am available by phone, fax, phonemail, email, snail mail, knock of the door or telegram. When I board a ship, I cut off all ties to the uncivilized world. I don't call anyone nor do I want to be called. I don't watch the television in the room and don't scour the ship in search of the latest cruise ship newspapers. I want my silence and if New Jersey falls into the ocean while I am at sea, why worry about it, because there is nothing I can do, is there?

Ship Tip #1: Sleep When You Get Home

One night on this recent cruise it was all I could do to get off the bed after dinner and go and mingle. We had had a long day of snorkeling and walking around the new Atlantis resort on Paradise Island. But I had to live by one of my mottoes of sleeping when I get home.

Ships have so many interesting options in terms of entertainment that I don't know how anyone could be bored. And if the choices aren't enough, just try talking with your fellow passengers once in a while and perhaps make a new friend! Or, head to the dining room for that late night midnight buffet (as if any of us really need it!) or take a stroll on the top deck and look at the stars.

At 43 I still stay up most nights till 2 or 3 am, a VERY far cry from what time I go to bed here in Wilmington, NC. I like the casino late at night or maybe even the piano bar or disco - but one thing for sure is that I have 51 weeks to rest up for my next cruise.

Quite often people ask me if after 23 years of cruising I tire from it. Sometimes the answer is yes, I do. But then I start to think of all the advantages of cruising vs. staying at a resort, and the ships always come out on top. Traveling like I do for my job puts me in hotel rooms 20-30 nights/year, so the mystique of a hotel or resort is just not there for me anymore. A cruise is still the best way to go for this landlubber.


Doug TerhuneDoug Terhune is quite the experienced "solo cruiser" and is a regular columnist and reviewer for the SeaLetter. His "Ship Tips" columns are very popular with our readers.

Doug's special interest is interviewing various officers on his cruises, including interviews with the Tropicale's head chef, the Inspiration's Chief Engineer, and the Grandeur of the Sea's Captain. To find all of Doug's SeaLetter columns and cruise reviews, use the SeaLetter Search Engine entering "Douglas Terhune" as your search phrase.

Doug can be reached at: Doug@sealetter.com.

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