Most high income earners will take at least one cruise during their lifetime. If they are like me, they will take several. I have loved cruising since I took my first during residency when my wife and I journeyed down the Mexican Riviera, which was made famous by the television show The Love Boat. This summer I will embark on my 18th cruise.
The thing I love the most about cruising is the convenience. I check into my room on the ship and unpack. I can then explore multiple cities without the need to live out of a suitcase or unpack and repack at each stop. I also love the all you can eat buffet and dining rooms, having a free show every night, as well as the piano bar.
There are several guided tours at each stop that are easy to arrange and the guide always speaks English. Then there is the opportunity to relax, go to activities which happen whenever the boat is not in port, or hit the gym which is usually well equipped.
I have taken cruises on oceans, seas, lakes, gulfs, and rivers lasting from three days to 31 days. Cruised on super large ships, very small ships, paddle wheelers and even a five masted sailboat. Following are some of what I’ve learned from my cruise experiences which will make your experience even better.
1: If you are flying in, arrive at least a day in advance. Nothing can ruin the start of a cruise more than not having your luggage. Stay at a hotel in the starting city for a day or two before the cruise departs so both you and your luggage will board the ship together. If the airline loses your luggage, it is hard to deliver it to a moving target which I have seen take a week.
2: Make sure your passport is valid for at least six months past the end of the cruise. When your passport is getting close to the expiration date, plan on renewing it at a convenient time well in advance of your trip. You don’t know how long it will take to get it renewed and the cruise line won’t let you board if it is about to expire.
3: Check the COVID-19 restrictions for every country you will visit. Each country has different rules. Right now, most countries are back to normal, but not all.
4: Find out if you need a VISA. Not every country will allow US citizens to enter freely. Some require a visa. Often the visa is granted in port as you arrive, and the ship takes care of it. But some countries require you to send your passport to their Embassy ahead of time to get a VISA stamp placed in it for permission to enter the country. Do this well in advance; you can’t board the ship without both your passport and the required visa.
5: Choose your cabin yourself. Not all cabins are alike, even if they have the same floor plan. Some are right under the disco, others are near the elevators. The ones that are lower and in the center of the ship have less rocking. The better the cabin placement, the higher the price for that room.
6: Book the shore excursions early. The best excursions sell out early. So as soon as you are notified that the excursions are available for booking, log onto the cruising company’s website and select the ones you want. I recently forgot to do this and many of the excursions I wanted were sold out by the time I remembered.
7: Pack light. Most people can leave behind half of what they think they will need. Since there is not much drawer and hanging space, bring the minimum amount of clothes that will get you by. Plan your cruise wardrobe to consist of one or two colors, then you can take fewer articles of clothing and make lots of different outfits by mixing and matching. We usually take one full size suitcase and two carry-ons for the two of us. Make sure to put some of your clothes into each of the suitcases, then if one is lost you can get by on the clothes in the other suitcases while you wait for your luggage to catch up with you.
8: Keep Essentials with you on check-in. When you get onto the boat, it may be a while before you see your luggage or can even get into your room. Have one carry-on with you containing what you might need right away: meds, electronics, chargers, and swim wear.
9: Leave your phone in airplane mode while cruising. Your ship will go in and out of cell service and may connect your phone to some places that charge for the connection. Also, when your phone is searching for service, it uses up the battery.
10: The price of the cruise is never as advertised. There are lots of add-on fees. Some cruises have at least one excursion at each stop that is included in the price, but most ships have an additional charge for excursions. Make sure you can afford all the expenses before booking a cruise.
11: Return to the ship by the designated time. While the ship is in port, you are free to get off the ship to explore the city on your own. Make sure to reboard the ship on time. The captain might wait a little while for you, but will leave you behind if you don’t return shortly. They will wait, however, if one of their excursions doesn’t return to the ship on time.
12: Unless you drink a lot of alcohol, skip the drink package. These packages are overpriced, and it is difficult to drink enough to justify the price. Pay for your drinks as you go.
13: Many lectures are actually sales presentations. On my last cruise, I attended a lecture about the city we were about to visit. It turned out to be directions on finding all the Diamonds International stores in port.
14: Use the stairs and the gym. You will be eating a lot of calories and not moving as much as usual, so take the stairs and hit the gym. I tend to always walk down stairs to the floor I want and walk up if less than six flights.
15: The spa is very overpriced. I once had a free facial and loved the results. They then sent me to the front desk to buy the products they used so I could do the same regiment at home. The products cost over $500. I bought similar stuff at Walgreens for $60 when I got home. By the way, if they mention the word cleanse, steer clear, as there is nothing you need to cleanse that isn’t already cleansing itself.
16: Watch the shows. The entertainment is very good and is included in the price of your cruise ticket.
17: Take advantage of the opportunity to dance with your spouse. There will be several lounges with different types of music. Pick one you like and go dancing.
18: Visit extra in the start/stop cities. Since you are already in the embarkation and disembarkation cities to catch and leave the boat, take advantage of this opportunity to stay a few days before and after the cruise to explore.
19: Smaller ships might be better for you. Smaller cruise ships are easier to find your way around, the walking on the ship is less and they have smaller crowds and lines. If the area you want to cruise has both large and small ships, pick the smaller ship. Small is less than 1,000 passengers and the largest ships have over 7,000 passengers. Larger ships may have some special things on them your family might like such as water slides.
20: Bring extension cords with multiple ports and check if an adaptor is needed. Ships have very few outlets and they are not always located where you would like them. So, if you need to plug in multiple things, make sure you bring an extension cord that will accommodate your needs.
21: You don’t need to pay for a balcony. Initially I always booked a room with a balcony. But after several cruises I realized I was rarely on the balcony. There is so much to do in the rest of the ship that the room is mostly used for changing clothes and sleeping. I recently booked a cruise for four people in two rooms. We chose rooms with a window and saved over $4,000 by not having a balcony. During the last cruise I took with a balcony, I only spent two hours the entire week on the balcony reading a book. I could have done that anywhere on the ship.
22: Watch what you eat. Unlimited free food is not good for your health or your waist line. Just because you can have two of every desert, doesn’t mean you should. Gaining weight is not a requirement when taking a cruise.
23: Avoid the casino. The casinos on cruise ships are not nearly as nice as those on land, and will likely add significantly to the cost of the cruise. I love to play Texas Hold’em, but I have only found one ship that had a good hold’em game.
24: Board the ship near the end of your boarding time slot. Most passengers show up early to get on the ship to enjoy the facilities longer. So the early boarding times are very crowded with long lines. Wait until later in the day to board and you will spend a lot less time standing in line and your room will probably be ready when you arrive.
25: Cruise off season. Off season means smaller crowds both on and off the boat. Also the price is lower. If you want to cruise in the summer, look at the prices for all the weeks and you will find that some weeks have a huge discount.
26: Avoid the special restaurants that charge for meals. You have already paid for all the food you can eat on the cruise in either the buffet or the main dining room, and it is great. The special restaurants that require reservations and extra payments mean you are paying for your meal twice.
27: Don’t use the airport shuttle. The airport shuttle charges a fee per person and is usually a full size bus that waits until it is full before it departs. The taxi/uber/lyft option is faster, drops you off right where you want to go, and if there are two or more in your party the total cost will usually be less than the shuttle. One exception is if the cruise ship is a very long way from the airport.
28: Don’t buy the Wi-Fi package. You are on vacation so take a vacation from your phone as well. If you absolutely can’t be out of contact for your whole trip, Wi-Fi can be purchased on the ship, but it is very expensive and it’s not very good. Instead of purchasing the Wi-Fi package on the ship, when you are docked at each city there will be multiple places you can get Wi-Fi for free such as bars and restaurants. Traveling without Wi-Fi will be especially good for your kids. They too will have to put down their phones during the cruise.
29: If the ship offers a lecture about the next port, go to it. Learning about the places you will visit is fascinating. I often read books before the cruise about where I will visit. The book The Path Between the Seas made the Panama Canal crossing so much more meaningful.
30: Take a picture of everyone’s passport information page. Losing your passport on a trip can be a challenge. If each member in your party has everyone’s passport information, then even if your phone is stolen, you have a backup. You can also email the pictures to yourself for additional back up.
31: Take medicine for motion sickness even if you never get sick. A cruise is an expensive vacation, so you don’t want to waste even one day being seasick. You can buy a week of Dramamine for less than $10. That is super cheap insurance. Start taking it the day before you get on the boat.
32: Disembark at your leisure. Everyone wants to be the first off the boat at the end of the cruise, making the line long and crowded. Sit tight, have breakfast, enjoy the morning and leave near the end of your time slot. Not only will the time spent standing in line be reduced, but it will be much easier to find your luggage once the bulk of the passengers have already retrieved theirs.
33: Dressing up on formal nights is optional. Most cruises have one or two formal nights. If you don’t like to dress up, don’t. Eat at the buffet for dinner that night and wear whatever you want. If you do like to dress up, be sure to bring something fancy to wear. This is a good time to take some formal pictures, but know they will be expensive. Dress nice, but a tux and sequined gown is not required.
34: Let the ship’s crew handle your luggage getting on and off the ship. The hallways on the ship are very narrow making it difficult to navigate extra baggage and the elevators are busy carrying passengers. Whereas the crew have their own large elevators for the purpose of transporting luggage to the rooms. Letting the ship’s personnel handle the luggage, while you carry only the essentials with you, will make getting on and off the ship so much nicer for everyone.
35: Set your clock to ship time. The ship will often cross time zones during your journey and the ship time will not always be local time. The ship time will change at 2:00 am, not as it crosses a time zone. So in order to not miss out on an event, excursion or your ship’s departure from a city, make sure your clock is always set to ship time.
36: Book your return flight several hours after disembarkation. Some people are in a big hurry to get home. They book their return flight with little wiggle room, running the risk of missing their flight if the ship is late docking, disembarkation goes slow, it takes a long time to get through customs, traffic to the airport is bad, TSA screening has long lines or any other unforeseen delay. Do yourself a favor and make returning home as peaceful as possible. Get home relaxed.
37: Bring extra hangers. I have found that ships and hotels rarely have enough hangers in the closet so I always bring a few extra.
38: Read the next day’s itinerary every night. There are many things happening each day that you don’t want to miss. Each evening the ship schedule for the following day will be left in your state room. Take time each night to review the next day’s activities and circle the items you want to do so you don’t miss out.
39: The main dining room also serves breakfast and lunch. Most people eat in the main dining room for dinner, but the other meals are available also. It takes a little longer to be served than to go through the buffet, but it’s a lot less crowded and the atmosphere and food are better.
40: Be sure you are vaccinated before leaving on your cruise. Check vaccination requirements for each cruise. Sometimes you will stop in a country with a special vaccine requirement. I had to get a yellow fever vaccine for one of our cruises, which is hard to get in the United States, so had to make an appointment in advance in a nearby city to get it.
There are certainly many more travel tips on cruising, but by following these you will be on your way to a very enjoyable cruise. If you see me on the ship, please say hello. I’d love to meet you.