So, you want to go on a cruise? Where to begin? There are so many choices, so many cruise lines, so many destinations. The cruise industry has exploded over the past 20 years. Cruising is growing in popularity because it is a safe and affordable way to enjoy a vacation. Of course, the main reason cruising is so popular is because it is fun! However, before you rush out and put down a deposit on that great Internet special for a 7-night cruise, here are a few things you need to know.
Tip One: Book your cruise through a cruise professional/travel agent
This one piece of advice can help a new cruiser avoid a lot of mistakes. First, it does not cost anything to use a travel agent to book your cruise. Travel agents are paid a commission by the cruise line. And, if you think that booking your cruise directly with the cruise line will save you money (because they won't have to pay the commission) you would be wrong. The commission saved by the cruise line will drop to their bottom line, not yours.
A travel agent will have first-hand knowledge of the various cruise lines, ships and destinations available. They can help you to select the right cruise to fit your lifestyle and vacation interests. Travel agents also are aware of special deals and discounts that are often not available to the general public.
Tip Two: Get a passport
Most cruises will visit ports that are outside of the USA. You will be required to show a valid passport before you are allowed to board the ship. Read the article on passports for more information. Also, don't be alarmed when the cruise line asks to hold your passport during the cruise. This is normal. Ships often arrive in port early in the morning, before the guests wake up. Customs and Immigration officials board the ship and go over all of the passports. Once the ship has been "cleared" by Customs, guests can go ashore. Your passport will be returned to you on the day you disembark the cruise.
More information on passport requirements
Tip Three: Make a photocopy of your passport
Since the ship may hold your original passport, we recommend that you carry a photocopy of your passport photo page when we leave the ship in a foreign port. Just in case of an emergency, which is extremely rare, a photocopy will help in identification purposes with a US Embassy in a foreign country.
Also, we have scanned our passports and emailed them to our Hotmail accounts so that, from anywhere in the world, we can access and print our passport photo pages. Important! You should have a very secure password on your Hotmail account before you store personal information like passports or credit card numbers.
Tip Four: Don't overpack
Most people pack far too many clothes when they go on a cruise. Remember that a cruise ship cabin is relatively small and there is not a lot of closet and/or storage space. Also, there is limited space, usually underneath the bed, where your empty luggage will have to be stowed during the cruise. Most ships have laundry facilities on board, either self-serve or for a fee by the ship's laundry personnel.
Read the article on Packing Tips.
Tip Five: Buy 3rd Party Trip Insurance
We never go on a cruise without a travel insurance policy. We always buy 3rd party travel insurance. We have been doing so for years. You should be aware that if you require medical treatment on board a cruise ship, you will be charged a fee by the ship's doctor. Medical treatment is not covered in the cost of your cruise. Also, most healthcare insurance plans do not provide coverage when you are traveling outside the USA. Check with your health insurance company to make sure. In any case, the cost of medical evacuation when in a foreign country can be outrageously expensive. I have been on cruises where passengers had to be air lifted off of the ship (via helicopter) to shore for treatment. Helicopter evacuation can cost $25,000 or more!
Example: I got very sick on one cruise in the Middle East. I had to go to the ship's doctor and get an IV and a shot. The cost was $750! Our insurance paid the entire claim, no questions asked! It was well worth the $200 I paid for the policy.
Avoid the cruise line insurance plans - Often they only protect you if your cruise is cancelled. They may not provide coverage for medical emergencies, lost luggage, missed airline connections, medical evacuation, etc.
Tip Six: Let your CC company know you are traveling
Make sure to contact your credit card company to let them know you will be traveling outside of the USA. Many CC companies allow you to do this from their website. Otherwise, they may deny charges when they see them coming from a foreign country.
Tip Seven: Carry Cash
Even though you will likely have your credit card with you, it is a good idea to carry some US dollars with you when you get off the ship. Small purchases, like souvenirs, are best made with cash. Make sure you have plenty of small bills ($1 and $5), otherwise, you might end up with an excessive amount of foreign currency. In some countries, they will accept US dollars for purchases, but give back change in the local currency. Always ask first. For any purchases over $20, use your credit card. When traveling in Europe, you can obtain Euros at the ATM.
Tip Eight: Never Use Foreign Currency Exchange Services
Use Foreign Currency Exchange services as a last resort, or in an emergency. You will get a much better exchange rate by using your credit/debit card at an ATM. Plus, most credit card banks do not charge a commission. You will find ATMs in cities that are visited by tourists. Look for a bank and there will generally be an ATM there.
Tip Nine: Expect to pay for extras
Your cruise is most likely not "all inclusive", so, be prepared to pay extra for alcoholic beverages, soft drinks and bottled water. Drink prices are usually about what you would pay at a bar on land. And, don't forget about gratuities! Many cruise lines today will automatically place a service charge on your stateroom account. This can range from $12 to $16 per day/per guest and covers all gratuities for wait staff, room steward/ess, etc. Drink purchases will usually have a 15% gratuity added on for bar staff. Most cruise lines will allow you to modify the daily service charge to your account by visiting the Reception desk. You will also have to pay extra for shore excursions, and some ships have alternate dining venues (restaurants) that impose a service charge. Of course, dining in the ship's main dining room is always complimentary and included in your cruise fare. Check with your travel agent for a complete breakdown of what is, and is not, included in your cruise fare.
Tip Ten: Beware of misleading cruise prices
Often the 'advertised' price for a cruise is not what you will end up paying. Many cruise lines will advertise the lowest cost cabin on the ship, located on the lowest deck and perhaps at the very back (aft) or front (bow) of the ship. An advertised price may also be for a specific sailing date that may not coordinate with your vacation plans. Advertised prices do not include the cost of shore excursions, drink, spa treatments, gratuities, etc. Some cruise lines may offer all-inclusive packages as a bonus for booking early or prepaying for services.
Tip Eleven: Cruise Itineraries can change
Cruise lines reserve the right to alter their planned itinerary. Weather conditions can cause a cruise line to skip a port if the Captain is concerned about safety. In some cases, this may result in an addition day 'at sea', or a visit to an alternate port. If you have pre-booked your shore excursions the cruise line will refund the fee if a port is missed. However, if you book an excursion independently, you will need to contact the provider yourself to arrange a refund.
More Helpful Resources
Here are some other articles on CruiseReport.com that you might find helpful.
Family cruising (with kids)