Sunday, June 23, 2013

Tips for a Floating Vacation

Cruise ship docked in Cartagena, Colombia
Note:  While my first few posts have been trip reports or travel suggestions, I intend for this blog to be a "general interest" blog, where I'll post not only my own personal adventures, but also general travel-related discussions that you (hopefully) will find interesting.

We're embarking on another cruise shortly, so I thought I'd now would be as good a time as any to write a post providing tips if you're considering going on a cruise.  I will say, when my dad first suggested the idea of a family cruise back in 1997, I was skeptical.  Like most folks, I had the stereotype of a floating retirement community in my head.  Lo and behold, I tried it, and ended up really enjoying cruising, have done 3 more since then.

Note that when I talk about "cruising", I'm specifically talking about the big ocean going ships, such as Royal Caribbean or Carnival.  I've heard river cruises are lovely, and while I'm contemplating booking one in the near future, I haven't gone on one yet, and so can't comment on the experience. So here are my tips, in no particular order.

- Do not attempt to fly in to port on the same day the ship departs.  Besides meaning you'll likely have to be up at the butt crack of dawn to get to the airport to catch your flight, you're going to be feeling stressed out every step of the way, worrying whether you'll make it in time to catch your ship or not.  Get in a day or two before, and you'll be much more relaxed and ready for your cruise.  Most port cities are great vacation destinations on their own, so a day or two exploring is often worth it.  And most importantly, a flight delay of an hour or two or a delayed bag might be a nuisance if you've got a day or two to go before sailing.  It could be disastrous if you're cutting it close the day of, however.
- If you insist on not following rule #1 above, book your flights through the cruise line.  Most cruise lines offer "missed boarding protection" if you book flights through the cruise line, and your flights get delayed.  In other words, they will get you to your next port of call at their expense.  It still sucks to miss a day or two of the cruise, though, so I really do suggest just biting the bullet and getting in a day early. 
- Know the "style" of the cruise line before buying tickets.  Different cruise lines cater to different clientele.  For that matter, different destinations at different times of year tend to attract different types of cruisers.  For example, if you're looking for a quiet, relaxing cruise with an older crowd, you probably don't want to get on a Carnival "Fun Ship" on a 4-day cruise to Cancun during Spring Break.  If you're a single looking for fun, on the other hand, a 14-day cruise from L.A. to Ft. Lauderdale on Celebrity probably isn't going to be your cup of tea, either.  Research beforehand, and you'll enjoy your trip more.
- If you aren't comfortable doing things yourself, hire a travel agent.  You can book cruises online directly with the cruise lines these days.  However, if you aren't sure of what you're doing, or just need some human advice to make sure that the cruise you're interested in will be right for you, use a travel agent that specializes in cruises.  The other benefit of using a travel agent, even an online agency like, is that agents often have access to special discounts or promotions, such as on-board credits, that aren't available if you DIY.
- Remember that your fare is technically "all-inclusive", but the extras can add up.  I say this because you WILL be barraged with offers to sell you "extras" throughout your cruise, such as "specialty" dining for a cover charge, soda cards, wine cards, photos, shore excursions, etc.  Those things can start adding up fast, so plan ahead and budget for these before you get to the ship.  Although difficult, it is indeed possible to get on board and not spend another penny, if that's really what you want to do; just make sure you understand what is and isn't already included in your fare.
- Get a passport.  The obvious one is also the one that seems to get messed up all the time.  Technically, if you are on a "closed loop" cruise that begins and ends at a U.S. port, you don't need a passport if you are a U.S. citizen.  However, you really don't want to take that chance.  Customer service agents at the port might give you a hard time, and more importantly, if the ship stops at a port in Canada or Mexico, you can't get off without one.  I've also read countless stories about people with green cards, temporary U.S. visas, etc. that are denied boarding at the port because they need a passport and don't have one, because of a misunderstanding of how the rule works (remember, it only applies to U.S. citizens).  Bite the bullet and pay the $150 or whatever it costs to get a passport.  You're spending thousands of dollars on your cruise anyway; don't get cheap on something so simple!

Hopefully these tips help you enjoy your next (or first) cruise!

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