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Preparing for Your Cruise

(or How Not to Go Crazy!)

by Douglas Terhune

Since I am a frequent cruiser, you might think because I know what to expect from a cruise that I wouldn't get nervous or over-zealous in the waning weeks before departure. However, most of us do get anxious -- not just because we're ready for and deserving of another vacation, but because of the unknown factors we're about to come face to face with.

The following suggestions, ideas, thoughts, insights, etc., are intended to help those of us who fretfully count down the days to embarkation. My ship leaves in exactly 26 days and 7 minutes, and if the cruise line called and said to be there in 7 minutes, I'd find a way.

So what can be done to ease the agony of waiting? First of all, this article will assume that you have made your selection of the ship and the sailing date. If you're new to cruising, then I'd recommend working with a Travel Agent (TA) who specializes in cruises. All TAs can book you a cruise, but finding someone with an objective opinion is vital if you are to find the right combination of ship size, itinerary and cruise line for you. The majority of broad range TAs are often knowledgeable of only a few cruise lines -- which is normal, but unfortunately limits their knowledge base.

OK, we're ready to go forward and collect info! (And discover some productive ways to wait.)

RESEARCH

My first suggestion is to investigate your ports of call. So often when you get on a ship, you can be so overwhelmed with all there is to do that you may miss some of the talks on your ports of call or make a rash decision on an excursion because you hear that they are selling out. Here are my tips on investigating your Ports of Call:

  • Stop by a local travel agency and look at one of their current Hotel Index books. They're about 12" thick and weigh at least 15 pounds. Look up your islands and make photocopies of the island maps. These maps will indicate where all the major hotels are and give you a good feel for the island.
  • Ask your TA for general travel info for the islands you will be visiting. Find out if they have golf courses, horseback riding, good snorkeling and shopping before your ship pulls up to the dock.
  • If you like history, then pop into your local library and read up on the islands' history. You're bound to find that the islands will have some interesting background and find out if there are any must-see historical sights.
  • Some of these islands have their own tourism boards which can be reached through toll-free numbers. Ask your TA or call 800-555-1212 and ask the operator.
  • Get on Compuserve, The Net, or whatever electronic media package you have, and go to the travel forums, Conde Nast on line, libraries, etc. There's a lot of good information posted by travelers who have visited your islands, and by residents of those islands as well.

Once you've gathered all this wonderful info, read it! Having a sense of familiarity of your islands will not only make you rest easier, but you'll soon find yourself answering questions at dinner for your fellow travelers. And speaking of fellow travelers, once you board your ship, you'll be able to quiz your fellow passengers and staff as to their favorite things to do at specific ports of call.

 

STUDY THE SHIP

Now that you're an expert on your ports of call, try to better familiarize yourself with your ship. On a 3- or 4-day cruise, almost every first-time cruiser admits that no sooner did they get the hang of the layout, then it was time to pack up and go home. There's no need to put yourself through endless meandering and frustration looking for the Chocoholic buffet or Health Spa if you allow some time before boarding to understand the ship's layout.

  • Study the deck plan. Don't just look at it, study it!! Find your cabin and highlight it. Find the closest elevators and stairways. Where do they lead?
  • Which public rooms & facilities do you plan to use frequently? Map those out and determine if they are towards the bow (front) or stern (rear) of the ship.
  • Where's your Dining Room? You'll probably dine twice a day there, so get familiar with it's whereabouts and entrances.

PACK PROPERLY

Baggage Generally, I pack the morning I leave, be it a 3-day seminar in Detroit or a 6-day meeting in France. But for a cruise, I start planning several weeks in advance. Why? Because on a ship you really need to pack items that you normally don't pack. Cruises are special because of all the diverse things you do. At 5pm, you can be relaxing in a hot tub with a paperback in your hand, and in two hours be dressed in your fanciest gown/tux drinking champagne. It takes a lot of good planning to be well prepared for all the many facets of a cruise.

Here are a few tips on what to do so that you can pull off fashion miracles:

Start a Packing List - As soon as you book your cruise you can begin this list. Since there's so much to do and bring, I break it down as follows:

  1. Casual Sunny Attire
  2. Casual Dining Attire
  3. Formal Wear
  4. Theme Nights
  5. Shoes
  6. Bathing Gear
  7. Sunning Products
  8. Toiletries/Makeup
  9. Accessories
  10. Miscellaneous

1. Casual Sunny Attire - Many of your days, if not all, will be spent in nice warm weather if you choose a Caribbean Cruise. Therefore, your most-used articles of clothing will be casual wear for your ports of call and while on the ship.

Here are some rules of thumb for Casual Sunny Attire:

  • You'll need at least one "outfit" per day.
  • Outfits however, should be mix/match to reduce the number of individual items.
  • It will be hot, so make these outfits cool. Avoid long sleeves, necks, and wool.
  • Light colored or bright clothes are the way to go.

2. Casual Dining Attire - I refer to this as "School Clothes" for those of us who grew up in an era when dressing up for school was fun.

  • Except for formal and theme nights at dinner, you'll probably need 3 - 4 of these outfits.
  • For men, slacks with a short or long sleeve casual dress shirt (w/o tie). Sport coats are optional.
  • For ladies, anything from slacks and a blouse to a sundress to a skirt or jumpsuit is acceptable.

3. Formal Wear - Check with your ship before leaving to find out how many formal nights there are. The rule of thumb is one night for 3- & 4-night cruises and two for 7-day cruises. Since most of us normally shun black tie affairs on land, formal nights on a ship will make you wonder why we think that way. With your new tan and the fresh sea air, you're gonna feel like a million bucks.

Do not, for any reason, ever feel you'll be overdressed, because that's impossible on Formal Night! Invest in a new gown or tux because this will be the night that convinces you to sail the high seas again next year. If finances are tight, perhaps one nice outfit that can have interchangeable accessories is the solution. (You won't even recognize your man in a black tux with a different tie, shirt and vest.) And, if you can't swing the new garments, bring along your Sunday best and you're still gonna feel like a million.

4. Theme Nights - Some cruise lines have "Country and Western Night", "Sock Hop Night," or even "Toga Night." My experience is that less than 50% of the people dress the parts for these nights. I'm certainly not discouraging it, but how big is your suitcase? Sometimes just a piece of rope for a belt or a pair of saddle shoes is all you need to pack. And some lines provide help in this area by loaning out hats or even sheets for togas.

5. Shoes - This is a big concern in terms of how many steamer trunks you're planning to bring. Be smart about shoes. For guys, a dress pair, casual pair, sneakers and possibly flip-flops is all you need. For women . . . well this is crunch time. Try to bring shoes that can be worn with more than one outfit.

6. Bathing Gear - Minimum of two suits, unless you like putting on wet suits and being seen in the same suit all week long. Figure that you'll probably spend 2 hours/day in a suit, and on days at sea, possibly up to 8 hours. But the most important bathing gear is not your suit, it's . . .

Sunglasses

  • suntan lotion
  • cover-ups
  • hats and sunglasses

I tan fairly well, but I inevitably wear a very light long sleeve cotton shirt after the first day or two of tanning so as to not burn myself. The sun is INTENSE and with the cool breeze you feel from moving at 20 knots, the sun is deceiving. Get some sun and then cover up: otherwise you'll be in your cabin picking off your peeling skin on formal night.

7. Sunning Products - You may think you tan well, but after two hours in the Caribbean sun with zero protection, you will burn unless you are already tan or use tanning products. Get a slow tan and you'll have it for weeks, if not months. Fast tans will disappear in two weeks. Sunblock? God created this product for cruises. Start with a minimum rating of 30 and work down to a 10 by week's end. Forget the oil unless you want lobster for dinner. And as for hats, get something with a large brim to cover your face. For you men out there with receding hairlines, hats are a necessity of life on a ship!

8. Toiletries/Makeup - Ships do provide your basic hotel supplies such as soap and shampoo, so if you're OK with these, then you can save some room in that suitcase. The bathrooms can be small, so if you are afraid you'll be cramped with a hair dryer, curling iron, curlers, diffuser, makeup, shaver, cologne, perfume, etc., you're absolutely correct!

9. Accessories - Belts, socks, nylons, cuff links, ties, scarves, jewelry, watches, etc., take up valuable space - but are generally essential. Plan on leaving room for these.

9. Miscellaneous Camera

  • One of the most utilized things you can bring is a fanny pouch. Here you can comfortably carry around your camera, paperback, room key, ship charge card, suntan lotion, sunglasses, etc.

  • Depending upon your electrical devices, you may wish to carry a 6' extension cord.

  • It's also good to carry a thin, collapsible carrying bag on your days in port. You can bring your suits and towels, and stuff in items you purchase along the way.

  • One of my favorite things to bring is a blender - yes, a blender.

One of the catch-22s is that you can purchase liquor on board for extremely good prices, but unless you drink it straight, you have to wait 'til you're home before you can indulge in it. And while drinks are plentiful on a ship, just buy a few rounds and before you know it, you'll ring up a sizable bar bill. My trick is to bring an Igloo cooler and ask the room steward to keep it full of ice. My secret ingredient is Crystal Light. They have so many flavors now that when mixed with rum or vodka, you ll have a smashingly delightful drink for pennies on the dollar of what you'll spend up on deck. Cruise lines don't like for you to carry drinks out of your room, so just don't be too blatant about it. I buy a hurricane drink within my first 5 minutes aboard (keep the glass) and if I'm going to go topside with a drink, I pour it in their glass (or a large plastic workout bottle w/straw). The cooler is left behind for the room steward at the end of the cruise - it was definitely worth the $15 investment!

Read all of Doug's Blender Recipes in: The Cruiser's Best Friend: The Blender

And Then . . .

When you land at the airport, you will usually be met by a cruise line representative, get your luggage at the baggage claim area, and then take your bags to the curb where they will be placed on one of the cruise ship buses. These bags will then be transported to the pier and off the bus into large metal containers. The containers are brought aboard and emptied into huge piles. Then they are sorted and brought to your room (sometimes with intermediate piling locations). Moral of the story: pack your suitcase well!! Bring nothing that can be broken.

If you arrive at your point of embarkation) around noon and put your bags on the cruise bus, it may be some hours before you are reunited with them. Therefore, you may wish to bring along in your carry-on bag a change of clothes for dinner (first night is casual), bathing suit if you want to catch some rays, minimal toiletries, etc. . (And, when traveling, always keep any medications you may need in your carry-on bag.) The ships try to deliver your bags ASAP, however, you must realize that between the hours of 8am and 4pm on the day of embarkation, the ship is moving up to 5,000 bags (ship with 2,000 passengers and 2.5 bags each) off the ship and 5,000 back on the ship. It's a huge task.

For those of you who book last minute or book a guaranteed upgrade cabin (which means you are assigned a cabin either the day of the cruise, or about 7 days out), then you should be aware that you may have to carry your bags on board. When you get to the dock (before you check in), the porters will want you to bring the bags to them, but pay them no attention - they're only trying to do their job. However, my warning to you is that carrying them on board and to your cabin can be a long walk - so you better think twice about those extra shoes and clothes.

(A note here about irons is appropriate because your clothes are bound to get somewhat wrinkled from either the humidity or the suitcase. Some ships have ironing rooms on board. While not that common, you may want to investigate this because irons are certainly added weight to an already- expanding luggage collection. I have seen small "travel irons.")

And last, as you start packing all these items, check them off. This same list can be used upon departing the ship and will act as a good reminder for you to check under the bed before you leave.

EXERCISE

Let's face it - you aren't taking a cruise to lose weight are you? I'm not implying the reverse either, but can we talk? It's time to throw your daily routine of a bagel for breakfast out the window. You will have at your disposal lots of food. And not just lots of it, but good food as well. It's safe to say everyone packs on a few pounds, and if this scares you, then start exercising now. A cruise does not have to be a totally gluttonous experience, but you deserve to indulge yourself one week per year. The other benefit to an exercise program is that it will prepare you for all the walking around the ship and in your ports of call. Most people don't realize how much exercise they get walking around a ship but, after you see the long lines of people waiting for the elevators, you'll quickly decide to walk those three or four flights of stairs.

And exercising on the ship is actually made fun - if you can believe that! Typically there are a variety of stretching and aerobic classes on one of the decks in the early morning hours. Watching the sun rise with the fresh morning sea air is intoxicating, and you'll be burning a few C's to make room for the day's gastronomic feasts!!

LEARN NEW SPORTS

What, learn something new? Are you kidding? No I'm not, and don't think for a moment that young and old alike won't receive equal amounts of pleasure from snorkeling, scuba diving, golf, windsurfing, etc. Many of these sports can be learned in your area. And what a better way to get you through the winter blues than to go to the "Y" once a week and learn to scuba dive. And, snorkeling in the coral reefs of the Caribbean could possibly be the most exciting experience of your life, and it's positively easy (there are often short classes right on board).

To some people, gambling could also be considered a sport, so since you will have slots, Blackjack, Roulette, Caribbean Poker and Craps on board - you might as well learn about gaming rules before donating your spare cash to the Casino. Books and videos are just a few ways to learn about gambling.

BIRDS, FLOWERS, ETC.

Many of you are avid gardeners or birdwatchers, and if you think we have pretty flowers and birds in the States, wait till you see what your ports of call have in store!!! Books on these topics plus many others are available - you might just have to do some searching at the library or book store.

Well, that's it for my tips on staying sane in the months and weeks before a cruise. Keep busy, broaden your horizons, pack well and before you know it, you'll be enjoying life to it's fullest - aboard a luxurious cruise ship.

Line

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, visit our SeaLetter COLUMNISTS Index.

Doug is always interested in your comments and suggestions and may be reached at: Doug@sealetter.com.


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