My husband and I just got back from a Carnival four-day Caribbean cruise, which was our first cruise and his 40th birthday gift. I booked the cruise six months before we left and did lots of research, but we still learned some things along the way. Here are some things you should know if you’re thinking of cruising:
1. Get travel insurance.
If you need to cancel your trip for a covered reason (including injury, sickness, or death for you, a travel companion, or an immediate family member), you’ll be protected against losing your entire investment. The travel protection plan also protects you against any emergencies while you are on your cruise.
Also, complete as much information online as you can before going, so you can zip right through the lines and security, and get a frosty drink in your hand sooner.
2. Book excursions early.
The best ones really do sell out quickly. We wanted to purchase the “Faster to the Fun” to get priority boarding, but we waited too long … and it was sold out. (Turns out, we got on the boat pretty quickly, so we didn’t need it.)
Plus, you can save time and not have to stand in line at the counter while on the boat. Carnival has lots of information (and reviews) online, so it’s easy to research before you go.
3. Know thy ship.
We used a free app called “Shipmate” to get an idea of the ship before we left. The app shows all cruise lines and all ships, plus pictures people posted and deck plans. So, we had a good idea where things were even before we boarded. We also got a small map while we boarded, and there are several maps near the elevators if we ever felt lost.
4. Keep checking prices.
You can book a cruise up to 18 months in advance; I booked our cruise six months in advance. The travel agent said I could keep checking prices and get a better deal if it ever lowered. I got so caught up in planning my husband’s surprise party and with life in general, I didn’t check until about a week before we left – and the rates had gone up. So I’ve made a mental note to check prices more regularly next time.
5. If you don’t live near a port, get there a day early.
Our ship left at 4 p.m., which meant we needed to board no later than 2. (You can actually start boarding four to five hours before the ship leaves.) We couldn’t find a direct flight to Miami to get us there on time, so we arrived a day early. It let us see some of the city and not race right to the port. Sure, we had to pay for an extra night in a hotel room, but it settled our nerves, especially on our first cruise.
Maybe we didn’t read everything correctly, but we thought we had to bring our passports “just in case we were left in Cozumel.” No. You need them as the first thing when you get on the ship. Or a birth certificate as proof of citizenship.
As far as tipping, we were charged $11.50/day, but it can be adjusted either way at guest services. Here is a general breakdown: wait staff: about $5.50 per day (head waiter $3, bus boy $2.50), cabin staff: about $3 per day and other: about $1 for alternative dining charge, restaurant manager, maitre d’ and chief housekeeper. With 2,700 cruisers and 1,100 staff, people work 12-16 hours per day and are on the ship for six months at a time to make it enjoyable. We left a note and cash each day for our housekeeping steward, Jonathan. (He introduced himself the first day and knew us by name throughout.) He cleaned in the morning and then did turndown service (towel animals plus chocolate) at night. In addition to the amounts listed above, a 15% gratuity was added to any bar purchases. Speaking of which…
Juice (provided at breakfast), lemonade, iced tea and water are available all throughout the cruise. Alcoholic drinks are about $7-10 each and pop is $2 a can. You can purchase an unlimited soda package for about $10 a day or booze package for $50/day. We didn’t purchase either, but opted to get just adult beverages once in awhile.
8. Pack light and roll aboard.
My husband and I each brought a backpack and a carry-on rolling suitcase for our trip, which included clothes for a night in Miami before the ship left. We each also brought a pair of tennis shoes and wore sandals, for a total of two pairs of shoes. Cruising is generally laid-back, so we packed for comfort.
Instead of having them bring our luggage to the room, which can take a few hours, we just rolled right to our room, unpacked and then had lunch. We also just rolled right off the ship, instead of waiting at a turnstyle (similar to an airport), for our luggage on the last day.
We also brought a string backpack to take off the ship to explore the ports. We included a small umbrella, some money, sunglasses, sunscreen, our passports, a camera and our “sign and sail” cards to get back on the boat. In addition, we packed a power strip, since we had limited outlets, a car freshener for the bathroom and a small bag to hang up in the bathroom for toiletries (we really didn’t need this. Our room had plenty of storage.)
9. Don’t rely on your phone for the time.
We bought a $20 waterproof watch at Target. That was the single thing that proved invaluable, since we went in the water a bit and had a few time changes. The cruise director kept reminding people not to use their phones as a gauge of when to get back on the boat. If so, they’d be late and miss their ride!
10. Attend the “muster” (aka safety) drill.
It’s very boring to stand in line and listen when it’s 90 degrees and humid outside. And you just want to leave the port. But this is a mandatory drill to comply with Coast Guard and international safety regulations before the ship can leave the port. Don’t hide in your room – they’ll find you and make you attend. Don’t take our word for it, but a room near ours.
Basic meals are included in the price of your cruise. These include all meals in the main dining room (breakfast, lunch, and dinner). Our ship also had a “lido” restaurant serving a buffet, a grill serving burgers and hot dogs, a deli, a stir-fry place, pizza and all-day room service. These meals are also included in your cruise price.
In the dining rooms, you can among five or so entrée choices. When booking your trip, you might be asked if you want early (6 p.m.), late (8 p.m.) or anytime dining (5:45-9:30). We chose the anytime dining, because we didn’t want to be stuck on a schedule or have to get back on the boat early from an excursion just to eat. Or, maybe we weren’t hungry when our dining time rolled around. It worked for us, and we avoided those crowds.
12. Do stuff. And then don’t.
This is probably my favorite part of cruising. We slept in late, caught some shows, ate, relaxed some more, watched a comedian, etc. There were some definite things we wanted to catch while on the ship (a show and a comedian being two), so we brought a highlighter to mark things we wanted to do. It’s as relaxing or exciting as you want your trip to be.
13. Leave your wedding ring on the ship.
If you book any excursions off the ship, leave your valuables in the room safe. Jonathan and I both wore our wedding rings off the ship and he lost his snorkeling. It put a damper on the day a bit, and we then ran into several people who had done the same thing.
14. Go to the gift shop on the last day for deals.
Got your eye on something in the onboard duty-free shop? Resist the impulse until the last day of the cruise. Many items go on sale. For example, a t-shirt was $10 instead of $17 on the last day. Or things were “buy one, get one 50% off.”
15. You eventually have to get off the ship. Bummer, I know.
On the final night of the cruise, you’ll have the option of placing your luggage outside of your room. If you don’t set your luggage out, you’ll take it off the ship yourself. If you do leave your luggage out, keep any necessities in a carry-on bag, as your luggage will not be accessible until after you depart the ship. If you want breakfast, you’ll need to get up earlier. (For example, we knew we were going to be called around 9, so we set an alarm for 7 a.m.) You’ll depart in groups, and your group information, along with any customs forms, will be left in your room the night before you disembark. You’ll pass through customs as you depart the ship.
Hopefully some of our notes helped as you think of cruising.
Fellow cruisers, what tips do you have?