We hope this article will answer many of your questions about cruising and cruises in general. You can buy guide books to cruising, and they are very informative, but the information in this file should help you out on some of the specific questions.
BOOKING YOUR CRUISE
Have you already booked a cruise? If so, congratulations! If not, why not? If you have not already booked your cruise, do so as soon as possible. Cabins may be limited in both number and type. Also, if any upgrading takes place, it is done on a first-come first-served basis. Besides, anticipation is one excellent part of the cruise experience. Don't be disappointed; book early. You must pay (usually by a charge on your credit card, but cash will work) a deposit within a week of booking. The balance is due (or can be billed to your credit card) about 60 days before sailing date.
When you actually book your cruise, you will need to give your travel agent some information in addition to your billing data. You will discuss your cabin class preference. If you want the cruise line to arrange air transportation, your agent will need some specific information as to where you will fly from, etc. He or she will need to know if you prefer an early or late dinner sitting, and if you have any special food requirements, such as vegetarian or kosher food. You should also mention if you have any health problems, so the cruise line will be notified if necessary.Be sure you get a brochure from your travel agent for the cruise of your choice. Study it well. Spend a lot of time dreaming about how great this cruise will be!
Cruise insurance is available for around $100 per adult. This insurance must be purchased by the time the final payment is due. Consult the cruise brochure to see what is covered. In general, cancellation is covered, as are medical costs, evacuation costs, baggage insurance, etc. This is a good idea, but it is not required.
Americans do not need a passport to visit most Caribbean nations or Canada. You will be required to prove you are an American citizen when you return to the U.S. after the cruise. Such proof could be a passport, or a driver's license with an original birth certificate (one with a raised seal). A passport is a very convenient thing to have. Most post offices can tell you where you can get the paperwork and what is required, and many of them can actually do the transaction (the passport itself is mailed to you from the U.S. State Department).
Just between you and me, the odds that you will even have to talk to a customs inspector are pretty slim. We've been on five cruises and never have yet. But don't risk it! Be sure you have the ID you need to get back in the country. Don't buy forbidden items, like black coral or turtle-shell items. Don't smuggle. Enough said? [And don't do "a favor" for someone who wants you to carry something into this country for you ... please! -- Ed.]
Seasickness is rare on modern cruise ships, unless you encounter a terrible storm. If you encounter a situation you think may disturb you, take a seasickness antidote before you feel ill. We use Marizine, which does not cause the drowsiness Dramamine does. Ginger capsules (available at a health food store) are also effective for many people. Patches that you apply to your skin and that work for an extended period of time have been popular, but are not currently available. Wristbands with little acupressure buttons work quite well according to those who have tried them. They are available aboard the ship, if you don't find them somewhere else.
Motion sickness is not limited to the ship. Many shore tours travel in small vans, often on bumpy and twisty roads. If you have ever had trouble with car sickness, take an antidote before you leave the ship. Better safe than sorry!
When you receive your document packet (from your travel agent), you will find a number of items included in the pouch. First, of course, will be your cruise tickets. DON'T LOSE ANYTHING IN THIS POUCH, AND MOST OF ALL, DON'T LOSE YOUR CRUISE TICKETS! Next you will find airline tickets if you booked your air travel through the cruise line. After that you will find a brochure about your cruise insurance, if you bought that. You will find a brochure describing various shore excursions available at the ports. There will be a handful of luggage tags. Here's what you do:
Examine all your tickets, etc., and dream about how great this cruise will be. Check to be sure everything is correct, and if you find any errors or you have any questions, call the travel agent. If a cabin is not assigned on the ticket, don't get worried. Cabins often are not assigned until about a week before the cruise. See the section on UPGRADING.
Look through the shore excursion brochure. Dream about how great this cruise will be. Mark tours you might be interested in. Keep in mind that some are very limited in size and may fill very quickly. Obviously, you don't have to do any shore excursions, and you certainly don't have to buy what the ship offers. However, if you go on an excursion you arrange yourself, remember the ship's sailing time. IT WILL NOT WAIT FOR YOU if you are not on an excursion arranged by the ship!
Keep the tickets, etc., in the pouch and keep the whole thing in a safe place. Also put your passports or certified birth certificates in the pouch.
Some cruise lines engage in a practice called "upgrading." This may or may not happen to you on this cruise. Here's how it works:
A ship has only a certain number of cabins of each classification. If you look at the cruise brochure, you will see there are a limited number of lowest-level cabins. However, many people are willing to pay the minimum fare for the cruise, take a basic cabin, and figure they aren't there to spend time in their cabin, anyway. The cruise line carefully watches how sales of a given cruise are going, and if not many people are booking the higher rate cabins, they may sell many more basic cabins than they have.
When it comes time to assign any unassigned cabins (about 15-30 days before the cruise), they reassign people who booked those lower cabins to higher cabins on a first-come, first-served basis. This actually starts at the top of the ship. If someone booked a mini-suite, but a full suite is available, they may be bumped up. This is a very complicated process, as you might imagine. Previous passengers get special consideration. On our last cruise on the Star Princess, we were upgraded from "M" to "EE". This is not guaranteed, and if you are a member of a group the cruise line is reluctant to upgrade some members of the group, and not all. Just don't be surprised if you thought you would be down in the bilges, and find out you have a nice outside cabin.
WHAT TO PACK
There are at least two schools of thought on how to pack for a cruise. One school says pack light: don't be overwhelmed with too many clothes. Another says take everything you want to and then some ... why spend vacation time in the laundry room? It's your choice. If you're flying to the port, check with the airline about luggage limits. [For domestic flights, the no-charge limit per passenger is three items, which means you can check all three; check two and carry on one; or check one and carry on two. Of course, more can be checked for a per piece charge. -- Ed.]
Except for dinner in the dining room, a cruise is a very informal operation. Shorts can be worn everywhere. On most ships, that includes the dining room for meals other than dinner. T-shirts or aloha shirts work great. If you don't have any shorts, be sure to buy them before winter sets in. They are impossible to find in Minnesota in December.
Most of the items you need are listed in the cruise brochure or in a brochure in the ticket pouch. I will mention a few items here that you might not think of otherwise:
TRAVEL TO YOUR DEPARTURE PORT
If your flight to the departure port was arranged by the cruise line, the only hard part should be getting to the plane in the first place. After that, the cruise line will do a great job of taking care of you. About 7 days before you depart, you should call the airline and confirm your reservations and seat assignments. This is very important. If you don't do this, you could end up in a standby status if the plane is very full. This happened to us once, and we learned our lesson!
It is not necessary to have the cruise line arrange your flight. However, if they do not, you will be responsible for getting yourself to the pier. Even that can usually be avoided by purchasing the transfer from the airport to the ship from the cruise line.
Get to the airport with plenty of time to spare; no less than an hour! This will allow time for any problems that may arise, like bad weather somewhere causing delays in the system, etc. [In fact, it is a good idea to call the airline again 24 hours before your flight to reconfirm.--Ed.] Check in all the bags you want the cruise line to pick up and deliver to your cabin, being sure that you have the cruise line tag on each bag, in addition to the airline tag. You should also have a slip of paper inside the bag identifying the owner in case all the tags come off.
If you have to change planes somewhere, you may or may not be met by a cruise representative if there is any chance of problems. Some airports are nearly impossible to navigate quickly. If you are making a plane change, don't just rush off looking for a directory. Take a quick look around for someone who might be looking for you!
When you arrive at the destination airport, you will definitely be met by a cruise line representative either at the gate or down in the baggage claim area. They will make sure you have everything you need to carry aboard. They will also check to be sure you put your tags on your checked baggage. If you didn't, you will have to go and retrieve the bags and put the tags on them. Your fellow passengers will sit in the bus and talk about you while you delay them this way. You will then board the bus which will proceed to the ship.
It is possible to drive to the port and park your car while you cruise. If you are interested in doing that, talk to your travel agent. If he cannot find out the particulars, call the cruise line. We have driven to and parked at the ports in New Orleans and Port Everglades (Ft. Lauderdale). When you find the correct pier for the your cruise ship, turn in and go to the passenger and baggage drop area. Pull up next to one of the porters and his baggage cage, give him your TAGGED baggage, tip him, and go and park the car. It will cost about $7 per day. After you park, take your hand-carried luggage and proceed to CHECK IN.
Whether you arrive by car, bus, van, or taxi, you will be deposited outside a building next to the ship. Look up at the ship, and dream of how great this cruise will be. Proceed into the building.
You will first need to go through a security check, metal detectors and all. Then proceed to the line for check in. There will be a number of agents, much like airline ticket agents, who will check over your ticket, check the rosters, be sure you have valid ID to prove your citizenship, and send you to the ship! If you or someone in your party has trouble walking, ask for a wheelchair. A cruise employee will wheel them right to their cabin!
Follow everybody else to the exit of the check-in area, where you will find...the gangplank!
Somewhere near the gangplank, you will come to a spot where you will be photographed beginning your vacation. These photos will be available for purchase later. At the head of the gangplank (which can look suspiciously like a jetway), just inside the ship, you will be met by a room steward or other ship's employee who will take a look at your ticket and guide you to your cabin. When you get there, he/she will point out some of the features of the room. He will make sure you understand how to use the electronic keys, safe, lights, etc. Then he will leave you to dance around your cabin in glee, or collapse on the bed, or rush to use the potty, or whatever.
ONE CRUISE SHIP -- THE STAR PRINCESS (Your ship may vary)
When it was built in 1989, the Star Princess was about the seventh largest cruise ship in the world. It is rated at 63,564 gross tons. This is not the weight of the ship, but rather a nautical measure of the total space inside the ship. The cruise line owns two ships rated at 70,000 gross tons, two (the second of which will be delivered in the spring of 1997) at 77,000 gross tons, and one (to be delivered in 1998) at 105,000 gross tons.
The ship is 806 feet long, 106 feet wide, and extends 25 feet down into the water. It has 735 passenger cabins and public spaces, and a total of 13 decks (but there is not deck #13, so you will find a deck #14 on the elevator buttons). It has (in no particular order) one main dining room, a buffet dining room, 4 lounges, a large showroom, a movie theatre, two self-service laundries, 3 swimming pools, 4 Jacuzzis, a swim-up bar, a casino, a disco, a youth center, a 3-story atrium lobby, a shopping arcade, a fully equipped medical center, and a fitness spa/gym.
The Star Princess has a passenger capacity of 1,470 people, and carries a crew of 600. Other ships the size of the Star Princess carry as many as 2400 passengers, so you can see the ship is not as crowded as many are. The MS (motor ship) Star Princess is driven by two huge propellers, powered by electric motors. The electricity for these motors is produced by huge diesel engines turning giant generators. This is essentially the same power system as a diesel/electric locomotive. You cannot hear the diesel engines, but in some areas of the ship, you may be able to feel some vibration from them. One of the advantages of this type of power system is the ability to remove and replace parts easily. You can't do that with a steam boiler! The maximum speed of the ship is about 23 knots, or a little over 26 mph. It can cruise at that speed continuously, if it needs to.
To smooth out the ride, the Star Princess has stabilizer wings underwater that use a gyroscopic sensor to counteract most rolling motion. On our last cruise aboard her, we encountered 10 to 15 foot swells for most of one day, and heard of no one getting seasick.
The Star Princess rarely requires the assistance of tugboats while maneuvering, because it is equipped with bow and stern thrusters. These are small "hydrojet" underwater nozzles that can push the ship sideways away from a dock.
You should familiarize yourself with the correct terms indicating directions on the ship:
After you get settled into your cabin, you may want to go up to the Lido Deck aft (it seems like all the ships have a Lido Deck, but check your directory if you are unsure of the location of anything), to the buffet cafe for a bite to eat. Don't eat too much if you are scheduled for the first sitting at dinner, because it's not all that long before dinner!
Sometime within 24 hours of sailing, there will be a safety drill. This is required by federal law. Take your life vest and proceed to your muster station, where you will be shown how to wear it properly and be told what to do in the event of an emergency. Remember, no cruise line has had a fatality in the last 10 years, so a cruise is very safe, but you don't want to break that string!
When it is time for departure, find yourself a strategically located position on one of the outside deck rails to watch the whole procedure. The ship will slowly (after all, 127,000,000 pounds doesn't do anything in a hurry) maneuver away from the dock and out the channel to the open sea. Somewhere there will be a band playing and a "sail-away" party going on. Join the fun, or just lean on the rail and watch the land (and other ships) disappear, or whatever.
From here on out, your time is your own. Enjoy! Imagine what a great time you are going to have on this cruise!
There is a dress code for dinner. The code for each evening is published in the daily news sheet. The first night's code is casual, which means anything except shorts. The dining room is the quality of a very nice restaurant, so you might feel "underdressed" in a T-shirt and blue jeans, but you will not be turned away.
On a typical seven night cruise, there will be two "formal" nights. "Formal" means a dark suit or tuxedo for the men, and an evening dress, cocktail dress, or dressy pantsuit for the women. The first one is the second night out, which is the Captain's Welcome Aboard reception and dinner. This will include free drinks, hors d'oeuvres, and a welcome speech from the captain. There will be one other formal night. You will not be refused dinner if you don't dress to the code, but you will feel a little odd. If this is a major problem with you, you might want to order dinner of some sort in your room. But it would be a pity to miss the fun! The percentage of men in tuxes will vary from ship to ship; some ships have a more "formal" air about them. If you aren't the formal type, or can't stand a tie, be sure to check on the atmosphere of any ship you are considering sailing on.
A few nights might be "semi-formal." This means a suit or at least a sport coat (and preferably a tie) for the men and a nice dress for the women. Again, you will not be thrown out for being underdressed, but you might feel a little awkward.
Eating is one of the great joys of cruising, and dinner is the epitome of that enjoyment. I'll use the Star Princess as an example of what to expect, but your experience will be similar. Different ships have different specialties, and they all vary in their formality and procedures to a small extent.
The first night of the cruise, take your dinner table assignment card to the correct dining room (some ships have more than one) at your assigned sitting time (6:00 to 6:30 or so for first sitting; around 8:30 for second sitting). As you enter the dining room, you will hand the card to a waiter, who will lead you to your table. You may sit in any seat at that table, and the mere fact you sit in one seat tonight does not mean you must sit in that seat every night; just sit at that table.
Hopefully, you will have been assigned to the type of seating arrangement you requested at booking. Be warned, however, that seating is limited, and if you requested a table for two or four, you may be disappointed. It would not be polite to fuss at the first night's dinner, but you may see the Maitre d' later to request a change. If he can, he will accommodate you. Keep in mind one of the joys of cruising is meeting new and different people, so a large table is often much more fun than a small one! We still keep in touch with people we have shared a table with on virtually every cruise we have taken. If however, you find you are assigned to the "table from *@#*", see the Maitre d' at the first opportunity (usually the first morning of the cruise, but certainly during that first day) and request a change.
After you are seated, your waiter will introduce himself and his busboy. The odds are good he will not be American. The Cruise Director of the Star Princess sometimes refers to the dining room staff as "The Roman Army," and he isn't far from wrong. On our last cruise, our waiter was Filipino, his busboy was Italian, the Wine Steward was Filipino, and his helper was English.
Everyone at your table will be given menus from which to choose your dinner. Each evening there will be a choice of several cold appetizers (such as caviar or shrimp cocktail or a myriad of others), soups (some hot, like baked French onion soup, and some cold, like vichyssoise), salads, a pasta specialty, and four or five entrees. These will usually be a fish entree, a beef dish, a pork dish, a lamb dish, or a seafood specialty. If you don't see anything you like, you can always get a top sirloin steak, a chicken dish, or a vegetarian entree. After you finish all this, you will have a choice of several desserts, except the night of the Baked Alaska parade. Even then, you could get other desserts, if you really wanted or needed them.
You may order as much and as many of whatever you want. Cruise ships keep dinner portions a little on the small side to minimize wastage. Don't be afraid to try anything! Even the escargots, if you want to! If you don't like something, tell the waiter. If it is just a problem with an over- or under-cooked steak, he will solve the problem. If the food is not what you expected, he will get you something else. If you find something you especially like, he will bring you more if you ask for it. Love lobster tail? My wife's dad had 2 1/2 of them last time!
The Wine Steward, who wears a little tasting cup as a necklace, is responsible for getting you wine and bar drinks. Ours, Freddie, was a real character! You don't need to tip him; 15% will be added to your bar tab automatically. Keep in mind that soft drinks, like Coke, are considered bar drinks and cost $1.25. If your cabin has a refrigerator, you may want to bring a case of your favorite soft drink aboard. (But don't bring it to the dining room!) Milk, coffee, tea, fruit juices, etc., are free. Coffee and iced tea are available all the time in the Lido buffet. You can also order it in your room.
The average first-time cruiser gains 8 pounds during his cruise. Here's why:
There will be a show every night in the showroom. Some of these are musical revues, featuring a troupe of dancers and singers, and the ship's orchestra (a stage band). At least one night will be a comedian, one night might be a juggler, another might be an impersonator, or some such thing. Get to the showroom early if you expect to find a good seat! Actually, there are usually two shows; one for each dinner sitting.
For the half hour before the show, the orchestra will play dance music and there will be dancing on the dance floor there. It's a good band, and if you like dancing, you will have a good opportunity to do it! One night will probably feature big band music.
A DAY ABOARD
The life aboard a cruise ship is as busy as you choose to make it. The key word is choice. You can do as little or as much as you choose. To run down a quick list of all the activities available on a day on your cruise would take several pages here.
By the way, each evening the ship's newsletter will be delivered to your room while you eat dinner (when the room steward turns down your covers and puts the chocolates on your pillows). Read it carefully. It often will mention activities you will not know about otherwise.
Most ships operate on cashless cruising. The first chance you get, take your credit card to the Purser's Desk and have them imprint it. You will not need cash on the ship. When you purchase something, or order a drink, or otherwise incur a charge, you will sign a charge slip and the charge will go to your account. The next to the last day of the cruise, you will receive a preliminary account summary of the charges to your account. If you have a problem, see the Purser. If there are no problems, you don't need to do anything. You will receive a final statement before you leave the ship.
A number of shore excursions are available for advance booking aboard the ship. Some sell out quickly due to limited space, so if you have your heart set on one particular one, book it as soon as you can once you board the ship. There will be a shore excursion form in your cabin when you board. Fill it out completely (remember you name, cabin number, and signature) and turn it in at the excursion office. They have a drop box there. Shore excursions are not run by the ship. They are not responsible for problems you may have. However, if some excursion consistently has a problem, it will probably be dropped.
At each port, there is usually a general tour of the port area, showing historical points, etc. Usually there are shopping tours, sometimes just transportation to the shopping area. Rental cars (and motorcycles) are available in most ports, but keep in mind you must drive on the left side of the road in some Caribbean ports. Accidents are common!
There are golfing excursions available in most ports. Snorkeling tours are also very popular. Some fill very quickly due to limited space on boats. Scuba diving is available, and scuba instruction is available aboard the ship.
(Alaska cruises are very different in that the locale, and not the warm weather or shopping, is the draw. Plan on spending more on shore excursions on those cruises.)
The Caribbean is famous for shopping! If you are a savvy shopper, you can save hundreds of dollars on jewelry, electronics, cameras, etc. Study the U.S. prices before you go. You can bring back up to $1200 per person duty-free from the U.S. Virgin Islands. Be sure you understand the Customs rules before you buy!
Tipping has become traditional on cruises. Only a very few cruise lines actively discourage tipping. Tipping is not required: it is a reward for good service. If you don't get good service, don't tip! The tipping comes at the end of the cruise.
If tip envelopes are not delivered to your room by Friday evening, you may get them from the Purser's desk. You will probably get one each for the cabin steward, waiter, and waiter's helper. Traditional tips are $3 per day per person for the cabin steward and waiter, and $1.50 per day per person for the waiter's helper. If the table captain or Maitre d' has done anything special for you, a small tip is in order. The Wine Steward for your dinner table receives a 15% tip automatically, but you can tip him if he has done an especially good job. Tips should be in cash, although other arrangements can be made. DO NOT TIP ANY OFFICER OF THE SHIP (the ones with white uniforms and shoulder boards with gold stripes).
Keep in mind these people work almost entirely for tips. Their pay is very low, and tips make up the majority of their pay. If they don't do a good job, no tip is deserved, but if they make you happy, tip them well. The next passenger will benefit from your generosity! In five cruises, we have had one poor waiter and one poor cabin steward, so it can happen.
Leave the cabin steward's tip in the cabin the last night of the cruise when you go to dinner. At dinner, give your tips to your waiter, his helper, and anyone else you want to tip.
Debarkation procedures vary from ship to ship, so the following is only an example. However, the broad outlines should apply to any ship:
On the last full day of the cruise, you will need to (sadly) pack up to go home. On Friday night, you will be given some luggage tags. The color indicates when you will debark. This is determined by how need to get to the airport, etc. If you drove in, you will be among the last to get off. However, everyone will be off by 10 a.m. You put the tags on your bags and hang onto the stub; you may need to show it as you debark. This is to ensure you have actually tagged your bags, and that you are getting off at the right time. It doesn't have anything to do with claiming your bags.
As you go down the gangplank, some customs officers will be waiting to collect your customs declarations. Just hand it to them and go on. If they want to talk to you, they will tell you!
Your bags will be in the check-in area, grouped according to tag color. Pick up the bags, go out the exit, and follow the direction you have been given if you are heading to an airport. If you drove in, you can carry all your stuff (Whew!) to the parking garage, or one person can go and pick up the car, exit the garage, and come back to the check-in building to pick up the rest of your party and their luggage.
As you drive away, look back and think of what a wonderful time you have had...and what a great time you will have on your next cruise!!!
CRUISER ALUMNI CLUBS
Once you have cruised with a cruise line, you will be a member of their alumni club, whatever it may be called. You will get regular mailings on what the cruise line is doing, savings coupons for future cruises, and notices of special prices for members on selected cruises. Any future cruise you take with that cruise line will include a free reception and other benefits. For example, members are usually upgraded first.
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