You might call this "common sense cruising;" but as one wag has suggested, common sense is often neither sensible nor common.
If you were going hunting, you'd probably bring a license, a gun, a compass, maybe even a GPS, and about three tons of other stuff; you'd scout your hunting area in advance, probably read up on whitetail deer habits, and prepare everything for THE BIG DAY.
If you're taking your first cruise, you might be seduced by cruising's reputation as the easiest vacation on earth (it is), throw a few things in a bag and show up on the pier with a big grin and no idea what is about to take place. Don't do that. There are at least six things every successful cruiser does consistently (all right, there are hundreds, but I had to draw the line somewhere). You're about to find out what they are.
#1: Do Your Homework
Pester your travel agent with information about yourself so he or she helps you choose the cruise that's right for you.
Make sure you research the line your travel agent suggests. There are literally hundreds of free ways to do this on the Internet. Starting off at The SeaLetter home page is one of the best. Here you will find reviews of ships and particular cruises, cruise specials, information about the cruise industry, and a way to correspond with other cruisers.
There are also great books on the subject. Here are a few:
If you fail to do your homework, you may end up like the lady in the floppy hat I encountered while on a Country and Western theme cruise. She wanted to know why the heck there was nothing but steel guitar music aboard, and how come everyone was wearing cowboy boots. She had never heard the expression "Yee-Hah." She thought Shenandoah was some kind of river. She had a miserable time on her cruise.
#2: Budget Properly
This is the hardest one for me. Just ask my wife. Bring enough money to have a reasonable amount of fun, and don't nickel and dime yourself all day long. Yes, a cruise vacation is darn near all-inclusive, but you should still bring eight to ten dollars per person per day for tips, and plan on another secret sum per day for shore excursion fun, hats, T-shirts, souvenirs, food, and incidentals. That secret sum for my wife and I is about $100 per day -- or $200 if she gets hold of the credit cards. And don't forget you still have to pay that Super Charge account before you debark. While you can get away with paying almost nothing beyond your cruise fare and tips, don't you want to get just slightly crazy and have some fun while on one of the most exotic vacations out there?
#3: Plan Ahead
Among other things, my day job includes strategic planning for an expanding college, so I have a healthy respect for planning. The days are gone when cruise lines "dump" cruise vacations three days before the ship sails, drastically discounting. Every line now has an attractive advance purchase program, and has by and large learned how to market each cruise so the ship sails full (some ships are even sailing at 110% of rated capacity by using triples and quads). So don't wait until the last week before your annual vacation to start shopping. You will probably lose badly, as many lines actually raise prices as the sailing date approaches and cabins fill.
Also, consider leaving a day in advance if your cruise involves a plane trip. This will not only allow you to get rested before embarking, but relieve the anxiety many travelers feel as they rush to make tight connections, deal with bad weather, or worry about an airline strike. This is particularly true if you are cruising around a major holiday. My fellow columnist, Doug Terhune, has an entire column on this topic. If you search on his name with the SeaLetter search engine, you'll find it.
#4: Bring Your Sense of Humor
Okay, you're paying a lot of money for the vacation, and you want things to be perfect. Guess what: they probably aren't going to be. Something is bound to happen that will totally cheese off that non-endangered animal: genus Cruisus, species Sourpussus (also known by its common name, the Cruiserpuss). But if you just bring along your sense of humor, take things in stride, and make a small effort to have fun at every moment, you can probably leave both your anti-depressants and your high blood pressure medication at home. (Just kidding: always follow your doctor's orders when it comes to medication, and totally ignore travel writers.)
One other thing: how do you recognize the Cruiserpuss? It likes to send food back to the kitchen, belittling the waiter (who just brings the stuff, after all, and doesn't have anything to do with cooking) as it does so. It lays very close to the pool and gives you dirty looks if water splashes on it. It points out rust spots on paint to people who are just trying to pass by:
"look at this right here you ever seen anything like it I paid good money for this here cruise and I expect decent paint by gord think I'll go see the Captain about this if there even is one which I doubt."
It wails about getting ripped off in miserable little shops in St. Thomas. It decides to skip the lifeboat drill and holds everyone else in its group up as the deck officer searches around for it. It thinks the ocean kind of stinks, and ships are too crowded with people, and the Caribbean is too darn hot by half, and Alaska is way too big. Don't be a Cruiserpuss.
#5: Remember Romance
If you have a special someone, and you think cruising might be romantic as the dickens, you're absolutely right. But don't just let it happen, nudge it along a bit. Take him or her out on deck the first night, when everyone else is at dinner or the show, and play a waltz on that little cassette player you brought along just for the vacation. Of course, don't forget to dance.
Don't forget that room service will happily bring you chilled bottles of champagne at virtually any hour of the day and night. Also don't forget to bring lots of one dollar bills (two is the usual tip). I once gave a room service waiter the smallest bill I had -- a $20 -- and got almost instantaneous room service whenever I called after that. One of the more expensive breakfasts I've ever had aboard ship.
Remember that even though you're on a ship with one or two or three thousand people, none of them probably know you, so it's OK to focus on your significant other and get to know each other again. And if you miss dinner because you somehow forgot what time it was, that's OK too. The midnight buffet is just around the corner.
#6: Bring Back Some Memories
Yes, I felt really ridiculous posing for a formal photograph in my new tuxedo on that first cruise; but, hey, I look a little like Roger Moore of OO7 fame if you look just right and kind of squint your eyes and close one or two of them. So now it's one of our favorite pictures.
I once took a cruise by myself. It was fun, and restful, but I noticed that when I got back, none of my pictures had any people in them. People everywhere will take your camera and push the button for you (well, they do charge you a few francs outside the Louvre, but that's another story). Bring back lots of photographs with you and your significant other, and take a look frequently when the wind is howling outside and it's twenty below. This will virtually guarantee your next cruise will happen within a year.
Brent Betit is a freelance writer who lives in Vermont with his wife and two young children.
Brent has written many SeaLetter columns on such subjects as sea-going language, cruising with kids and cruise etiquette. To find all of Brent's SeaLetter columns and cruise reviews, use the SeaLetter Search Engine entering "Brent Betit" as your search phrase.
Brent is always interested in your comments and suggestions and may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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