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First-Time Cruisers Guide: How To Plan Your First Cruise Vacation
What To Expect On Your First Cruise
Though I'm a seasoned traveler, who's been to many countries including Australia, New Zealand, China and Egypt, I'd yet to take a cruise vacation until this year when I went on my first cruise. However, when my close friend invited my husband and me to join him and his 91-year-old grandfather for a short trip in February, a cruise seemed like the ideal way to go. There would be plenty of activities for us "younger folk" and it would be an easy enough trip for his grandfather to enjoy.
Still, as we planned our first cruise (a four-day Carnival Caribbean cruise to Key West and Cozumel), I was filled with many questions: should we book it ourselves online or speak with a cruise agent or travel agent? What exactly was included in the cost? What kind of travel documents were needed? And, most important to me, would this be a boring vacation that gave me "cabin fever?" Preparing for our Carnival cruise was making me nervous!
Happily, all of our planning went well and we ended up having a great time on our first cruise! However, the experience taught me many things about cruises that I hadn't known before. Here are a few of my practical tips for first-time cruisers.
Choosing The Right Cruise - Disney Cruise Vacations To Princess Cruise
1. These days, you can find cruises to almost anywhere in the world that fit into a variety of budgets. But you should still do some research to find out which cruise (and cruise line) is right for you. We chose a Carnival cruise because we wanted to take a short and fun, but inexpensive cruise that wasn't a long flight from home and was family-friendly. However, if you're traveling with small children, you might want to go with Disney cruise vacations. If you're looking for luxury, you might want to try one a Royal Caribbean cruise or go on a Princess cruise. Another consideration is whether you want some adult-areas since many cruises are filled with families and children. Carnival only had one small deck that was adults only, but there are other lines that have entire floors that are no-kid zones. For instance, on Disney cruis vacations, they make sure that adults have space, which probably comes as a surprise to many! All of these details need to be taken into consideration when planning your vacation. Check out each line's Web site to get an idea of what their ships are like. You may also want to read passenger reviews on travel sites such as www.tripadvisor.com. And, of course, word of mouth is always a great way to get a recommendation. If your friends LOVED their Princess cruise vacation, perhaps you'll want to follow in their footsteps!
2. Book well in advance ... but not TOO early. If you want to get the best deals on cruises, generally the best time to book is about 3-6 months in advance. If you book too early, there might not be enough information yet available on the cruise. When I first began doing research, for example, they didn't have a complete list of the shore excursions available, but as time went on, more things were added. I do know some people who've had success in getting really cheap prices by booking last minute because the cruise wants to fill the cabins, but if you do it that way, you're taking a big gamble. It can be worth it, though, if you get a terrific last-minute deal.
3. Before signing on the dotted line, speak with an agent. I usually plan our trips just by going online and booking everything myself, but since I was so unfamiliar with the cruising process, I opted to speak with a representative from Carnival. I'm glad I did because she answered all of my questions and helped me choose a better cabin. No, she didn't talk me into getting a higher-priced one, but she did suggest that I get a cabin in a different part of the wing so that we wouldn't be directly over the ship's engine. Speaking with someone who's knowledgable about the ship can help you get a better idea of what's in store because the Web sites usually answer only so many questions.
4. This is extremely important, but make sure that you have all of the necessary travel documents and that you have enough time to get them! Even if you're traveling to Mexico for a day as we did, you will need a passport. And though you can get a passport at the last minute, it's a big pain, so I recommend giving yourself at least three months to get one. This way, if any information is wrong, you have time to fix it. My friend's grandfather didn't have a passport and had to go find his birth certificate in order to get one. Happily, he got everything done in time! That said, even if you already have a passport, check it to make sure that it hasn't expired. You might also consider getting an enhanced driver's license instead of a passport, but I think it's best to have a passport, anyway. This way, you can use it for additional traveling over the next few years.
5. I always recommend getting trip insurance because you just never know what might come up in your life. We were traveling from New York to Florida in February and there were blizzards the weekends before and after our trip (and thankfully not when we had to fly!). It doesn't cost that much extra and it's worth it to have that safety net.
Introduction To Cruising
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Preparing For Your Cruise Vacation
6. If you need to fly to your destination, I recommend doing so at least a day in advance. This way, if there is a flight delay, you'll be less likely to be affected by it. Plus, it'll give you some time to check out the port. Since we were leaving from Miami on a Monday, we flew into the city on Sunday afternoon. We then spent the whole evening relaxing and checking out South Beach, which was wonderful. Some cruise lines have deals with hotels, so it's worth seeing if you can get a bargain through your line.
7. On the day of the cruise, get to the ship as early as possible -- or even EARLIER. We were told that we could board our ship between 12:30-2:30 p.m., however, we arrived at the Port Of Miami around noon ... and they were already letting people on. When we got on board, we already found plenty of people eating and swimming, meaning that they'd gotten there even earlier than we had! That said, see if the line will give you the REAL time that they first start letting people on board.
8. That said, print out all of the necessary forms before you get on board and have your passport ready for inspection. The line to get on the ship moved very quickly and efficiently, but it'll save you another step if you have everything you need at hand.
9. Travel as light as possible and see if you can bring your own bags onto the ship. My husband and I only travel with carry-on luggage (yes, even to New Zealand) and has mastered the art of bringing only what we need. This way, we can avoid having to check in bags in airports and possibly getting our luggage lost. We also chose to bring our bags onto the ship because if you check in bags, it can take several hours until they're delivered to your cabin. Of course, the ships are careful about keeping track of luggage, but as an airports, things sometimes happen. On our ship, the luggage of an elderly man was lost -- and it had his medication in it! I'm not sure if his stuff was ever found, but here's another tip -- if you have to check your bags, make sure that anything of great importance (such as your passport or meds) is on you at all times.
10. Pack for a variety of climates. I generally pack a couple pairs of jeans, some T-shirts, a skirt and some sweaters. And in the case of the cruise, I added a fancy dress and some sandals, and a bathing suit. I'm not kidding about keeping it basic! But I've found that wearing layers is the best way to go because you never know when you'll have surprise weather. Before leaving, I frequently checked in on www.weather.com to see what the temperatures would be like in the Caribbean and it stated that it would be around 75-80 degrees F. However, by the time we got there, the Caribbean was hit by a bit of a cold spell and it dipped down into the 50s and 60s. I was very glad that I had my denim jacket with me.
All About Cruises
On Board The Ship
11. One question I had about taking a cruise, which I'm sure many people do, is exactly what is included. All of your meals, plus water, coffee and tea are generally included, On Carnival, lemonade was also free and orange and apple juice were free with breakfast. However, soft drinks and alcohol were not free. These days, most cruise lines are cashless; you give them your credit card information and then they give you a "cruise card," which keeps track of your tab. You can often get different plans on this card, such as a soft drink plan -- which can be useful if you have kids with you.
12. Speaking drinks, the alcoholic beverages can get expensive! On Carnival, the pretty pink drinks with umbrellas in them were about $7 each -- which can quickly add up, especially if you're not really keeping track with your card. However, there are ways to save. Some lines charge less if you save your souvenir glass and reuse it. On Carnival, you could save about $3 if you got the drink in a regular glass instead of the special souvenir one.
13. Before choosing a seating time, find out what all of your options are. On most ships, you don't even have to go to the main dining room every night; you can get the buffet or a slice of pizza instead, or order room service. This was the case with Carnival. You might also not have to choose a specific seating. We decided to get "free" seating, meaning that we could come to the dining room anytime between 5 p,m. and 9 p.m. This was great because on the days when we felt like staying at port later or dining earlier, we weren't bound to a specific time. We also weren't at a table with the same people each evening. This can be a downside for those who love to make new friends, but we enjoyed having new neighbors every evening. We ate in the same restaurant each night, but some lines have a rotating system where each night, you eat in a different place. Some also have upscale restaurants where you have to pay extra for the meal. Make sure you know what the system is like before you attend dinner.
14. Make sure to bring one nice outfit because pretty much every ship has an "elegant night." I wore a cocktail dress, but found that many people dressed a lot more casually than I did. Again, try to find out exactly HOW dressed up you're expected to be.
15. My final tip is to not take excursions through the ship unless it's something you really, really want to do and there's no other way to experience it. But I found that the ship's excursions were quite expensive and you could have a similar experience for much less just doing it on your own. At Key West, we walked around by ourselves and visited the Hemingway house for only a few bucks. Meantime, the ship offered a trolley tour for about $50. Same thing at Cozumel. Instead of taking a $100 trip to see Mayan ruins, we hired a driver for $15 each. He took us to the San Gervasio ruins and waited for us for two hours, and then took us to get a beer -- a real bargain!
Cruising can be a lot of fun and I enjoyed my first experience. Just make sure that you do as much research as possible beforehand so that you can have the best trip possible.