This is Part One of a multiple-post series. I will link the following parts here as they are available.
We are not cruise experts by any means (hopefully someday!) but I thought I would share some tips and advice that we have learned from our cruise experiences. It can be an overwhelming process if this is your first time cruising, however, it is will well worth it! If you have any questions or advice, please leave them in the comments below.
Disclaimer: This is based on our personal experience on the particular crises that we have traveled on. This information can vary between cruise lines and/or cruise destinations. I suggest checking with your specific cruise line regarding any questions or concerns you may have.
To Book With A Travel Agent or Not?
We normally booked all of our vacations independently, until our first cruise. As it was our first time doing a cruise, we didn’t want to risk making any newbie mistakes so we used a travel agent. Since then, we have booked all our cruises with a travel agent. Why, you ask? Because a travel agent can often get you a better rate through a group booking or at the very least, perks in the form of on board credit or other bonuses like free upgrades. If you are interested in booking with a travel agent, I can send you the information for mine! (No, I don’t get anything from the referral!)
Choosing The Right Cruise
With so many cruise options, it can be hard to narrow down a specific ship to travel on! Obviously, if you have limited dates to work with, you will have to find a cruise that sails within those specific dates. Personally, we stick to Caribbean cruises, which typically offer 7-8 day Western, 7-8 day Eastern or 7-10 day Southern cruises. There are also cruises to Bermuda, Florida, Cuba, Hawaii, the Panama Canal and more!
Next up, you have to decide where you are cruising from. We leave from Florida as those flights are typically the cheapest for us. Florida has four cruise ports in the following cities: Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, and Tampa. Most hotels offer cruise port shuttles for a small price, or you can get a cab, Uber, or Lyft to the port. If you live in the area or have a rental vehicle, you can also park at the ports. However, it is not cheap – usually upwards of $20 USD/day.
There are multiple cruise lines and everyone has their own personal favourites. Royal Caribbean is known for huge, fun megaships and Carnival is known to have the party atmosphere, while Norwegian is a family-friendly combination of the two. MSC is a European-styled line, while Celebrity has a reputation for being a classy good time, and Princess caters to the older folks. Of course, you will find people of all ages, sizes, shapes and colors on each cruise ship! We have traveled on Royal Caribbean and Norwegian and enjoyed both, though Royal Caribbean is our favourite. We also have friends who have traveled on Carnival and Celebrity and have thoroughly enjoyed those as well.
Eastern or Western? Southern?
The Eastern itinerary tends to include places such as St. Thomas, St. Martaan, San Juan, Nassau, and Tortola, while the Western often frequents Cozumel, Costa Maya, Belize, Roatan, Falmouth, Grand Cayman and Ocho Rios. The Southern itinerary is often reserved for longer cruises but includes Curacao, Aruba, Turks and Caicos, and San Juan, amongst others. The Eastern and Southern itineraries tend to be a little pricier than the Western itineraries, and seem to be more well-liked. That being said, I highly recommend trying them all! We were booked for an Eastern itinerary which got switched to a Western after Hurricane Irma. We were initially a bit disappointed as we had already done a Western itinerary, however, this one contained three new ports and we had a great time!
As per your contract with the cruise line, they can alter your itinerary for any reason. As it is part of the contract, you may not receive any compensation for the change so please be aware of this. Likewise, ports can be cancelled due to poor weather condition, especially if it is a port where you have to tender (take a smaller boat ashore).
Once you finally book your cruise (yay!), it’s time to start planning! Here are a few tips and tricks to help you. I will also be posting a separate cruise packing list in the near future, which I will link here as well.
Before You Cruise
- Make two copies of your passport and travel documents: one to take with you and one to leave at home with family or friends. Losing your passport in a foreign country would be very dangerous and stressful.
- Pre-print your luggage tags and attach them to your suitcases. You can buy luggage tag holders specifically for cruise tags on Amazon (standard size and narrow size). You can find the printable for your tags in your e-documents.
- Bring small cash for tips. While gratuities are charged daily on cruise ships, we like to tip extra when the service is excellent. A couple dollars here and there to bar staff and servers can go a long way. We tend to leave $3-4 dollars each day for the room steward and an extra $20 at the end of the week if we feel it is merited.
- Call your bank and/or credit card company to let them know you will be travelling, otherwise they may freeze your account when they notice spending in a foreign country.
- Don’t forget your regular medications but pack any extras that you may need as well. While the ship does sell some medication, it will be very expensive to buy. We always pack some pain medications, anti-inflammatories, anti-nauseant, anti-diarrheal, stool softeners, antacids, allergy relief, anti-itch cream, antibtioic cream, and hydrocortisone cream.
- It would also be wise to pack a small first aid kit for minor injuries. For example, something as small a cut on a rock could be managed with a first aid kit, therefore preventing a trip to the medical aid office.
- Pack lots of sunblock and after-sun care! Again, this is very expensive to buy on board and you will need it. Even if it is cloudy, you can burn easily on the ocean.
- On many of the larger ships, you have the option of booking dining times, evening shows, and more through the online cruise planner. It is suggested that you avail of this as seating may be limited once you are on board, or you may not get your dining time of choice. It varies from cruise line to cruise line, but you will likely be able to start booking around 90 days prior to your trip.
- It is often cheaper to purchase drink packages, dining packages, and shore excursions online before you sail. Sign up for e-mail notifications so you don’t miss out on any discounts!
- Book your arrival flight the day before the ship sails! This is especially important if you are traveling in the winter or even during hurricane season. Again, the ship will not wait for you if your flight is delayed or cancelled. It is better to leave early and stay in a hotel near the port the night before.
- You can easily book your departure flight the same day as the ship returns to port as you are often disembarked by 9-10am. However, be sure to leave enough time to get back to the airport and check in, especially for an international flight.
- Pack a small carry-on bag for the cruise if you wish to take advantage of the pools or hot tubs before you set sail. You will drop your checked luggage off at the terminal and it may not be delivered to your room until supper time. If you think you will need anything before that time (bathing suits, medications, camera), be sure to pack it in a purse or carry on bag. I don’t recommend taking a carry on suitcase as you will have to drag it all over the ship with you until your room is ready, which may not be until 3-4pm.
- Join a Facebook group for your ship and if possible, your specific sailing date! This will provide you with the opportunity to see pictures, reviews, and interact with fellow cruisers. Ships often have meet & greet sessions for Facebook group or Cruise Critic participants. These meet-ups are free to attend and may include free snacks, drinks, or even the opportunity to meet the captain or crew members.
Check back for part two soon!
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