Some say the most important aspect of a cruise is your destination. Some say it's the itinerary. Others say it's the cruise line. And some say it's the ship. The truth is that all are important, but the relative importance of each one depends on your preferences. What are you looking for in a cruise? Exotic destinations? Gourmet dining? Elegant staterooms? Calm seas? Your travel agent can help you evaluate the great variety of options and select the cruise that meets your criteria.
BOOKING YOUR CRUISE
A good travel agent is the secret to a good cruise. Since nearly all cruises are sold through travel agents, the agent you choose to work with can be just as important as the ship you sail on. So how do you know if an agent or agency is right for you? Talk to friends, family, and colleagues who have used an agency to book a cruise. The most qualified agents are members of CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association) and the most reputable agencies are members of ASTA (American Society of Travel Agents).
The size of a travel agency tends to matter less than the experience of its staff. A good cruise agent will ask you many detailed questions about your past vacations, your lifestyle, and even your friends and your hobbies. Only by getting to know you can an agent successfully match you to a ship and a cruise. Think of the agent as your travel consultant. Ask the agent any questions you may have about cruising. Most travel agents who book cruises have cruised extensively, and they can help you to decide on a cruise line and a ship. If you have a problem with the cruise line before, during, or after your cruise, your travel agent can act as your representative.
WHAT TO PACK
Although you will naturally pack differently for the tropics than for Alaska, certain packing rules apply to all cruises. Always take along a sweater in case of cool evening ocean breezes or overactive air-conditioning. A rain slicker usually comes in handy, too, and make sure you take at least one pair of comfortable walking shoes for excursions ashore.
Shorts or slacks are convenient for shore excursions, but remember that in Asia and Latin America women are expected to dress modestly and men to wear slacks. If you are going to Asia and plan to visit any holy places, both men and women will need a pair of slip-off shoes and garments that cover their knees (although these are usually available for rent at the site for a nominal charge). For European ports of call, pack as you would for any American city: casual clothes by day, dressier fashions for going out at night. For visits to churches, cathedrals, and mosques, avoid shorts and other outfits that could be considered immodest: In Italy, women should cover their shoulders and arms (a shawl will do). In Turkey, women must have a head covering, a long-sleeve blouse, and long skirt or slacks
Most cruise lines have dress codes for dining that vary during the cruise. To prepare for formal evenings, men should pack a dark suit, a tuxedo, or a white dinner jacket. Tuxedo rentals are offered on many ships. Women should pack one long gown or cocktail dress for the two or three formal evenings on board. Most ships have semiformal evenings, when men should wear a jacket and tie and women a dress or skirt and blouse. Ships will often suggest attire for their particular theme nights, with information available before the cruise. A few lines have no dress codes or guidelines.
Take an extra pair of eyeglasses or contact lenses in your carry-on luggage. If you have a health problem that requires a prescription drug, pack enough to last the duration of the trip or have your doctor write a prescription using the drug's generic name, because brand names vary from country to country. Always carry prescription drugs in their original packaging to avoid problems with customs officials. Don't pack them in luggage that you plan to check in case your bags go astray.
If you purchase an air-sea package, a cruise linerepresentative will meet you when your plane lands at the port city and shuttle you directly to the ship in buses or minivans. Some cruise lines arrange to transport your luggage between airport and ship - sparing you the hassle of baggage claim at the start of your cruise or with baggage check-in at the end.
If you do not buy the air-sea package, you must make your own travel arrangements for getting to and from the ship. Plan to arrive at the cruise terminal early - you don't want any delays to cause you to miss your ship. Your travel agent can make these arrangements for you.
Once aboard, you may be asked to surrender your passport for group immigration clearance or to turn over your return plane ticket so the ship's staff may reconfirm your flight home. Otherwise, keep travel documents in a safe place, such as the safe in your cabin or at the purser's office.
Your shipboard bill is left in your room during the last day. If you have not already put it on your credit card, you must stand in line at the purser's office to pay the bill or to settle any questions. Tips to the cabin steward and dining staff are distributed on the last night.
The last night of your cruise is full of business. You will receive color-coded luggage tags in a debarkation packet, and you should attach one to each piece luggage. On most ships you must place all of your luggage, except for your hand luggage, outside your cabin door for pick up by midnight.
The next morning, in-room breakfast service is usually not available because stewards are too busy. Most passengers leave their cabins as soon as possible, gather their hand luggage, and claim a chair in one of the public lounges to await the ship's clearance through customs. Be patient - it takes a long time to unload and sort thousands of pieces of luggage. Passengers disembark by groups according to the color-coded tags placed on luggage the night before; those with the earliest flights get off first. If you have a tight connection, notify the purser before the last day, and he or she may be able to arrange faster pre-clearing and debarkation for you.
U.S. CUSTOMS AND DUTY
Before your ship docks, each individual or family must complete a customs declaration, regardless of whether anything was purchased abroad. You will need to itemize your purchases in writing on the back of the declaration form if they exceed the allowable duty-free exemption plus $1,000. (The first $1,000 beyond the duty-free exemption is taxed at a flat rate of 2%). Be prepared to pay whatever duties are owed directly to the customs inspector, with cash or check.
AS SOON AS YOU BOARD
Inspect your cabin. Before taking in the finer points of your cabin, ensure that your bags have arrived. Do not hesitate to call the purser if they haven't, especially if sailing time is drawing near.
Next, see that everything is in order. If there are two twin beds instead of the double bed you wanted, or other serious problems, ask to be moved before the ship departs. Unless the ship is full, you can usually persuade the chief housekeeper or hotel manager to allow you to change cabins. It is customary to tip the stewards who assist you in moving to another cabin.
Since your cabin is your home away from home for the voyage, everything should be to your satisfaction. Is the cabin clean and orderly? Do the toilet, shower, faucets, and air-conditioning work? Check the telephone and television. Again, major problems should be addressed immediately. Minor concerns, such as not enough bath towels or pillows, can wait until the frenzy of embarkation has subsided.
Your dining-time and seating-assignment card may be in your cabin; now is the time to check it and immediately request any changes. The maître d' is usually available in one of the public rooms specifically for this purpose.
Virtually all cruise ships operate as cashless societies. Passengers charge onboard purchases and settle their accounts at the end of the cruise with a credit card, traveler's checks, or cash. You can sign for wine at dinner, drinks at the bar, shore excursions, gifts in the shop -- virtually any expense you may incur aboard ship. On some lines, an imprint from a major credit card is necessary to open an account. Otherwise, a cash deposit may be required and a positive balance maintained to keep the shipboard account open. Either way, you will want to open a line of credit soon after settling into your cabin if an account was not opened for you at embarkation. This can be arranged easily by visiting the purser's office, located in the central atrium or main lobby.
For better or worse, tipping is an integral part of the cruise experience. Most companies pay their cruise staff nominal wages and expect tips to make up the difference. Most cruise lines have recommended tipping guidelines, and on many ships "voluntary" tipping for beverage service has been replaced with a mandatory 15% service charge, which is added to every bar bill. On the other hand, the most expensive luxury lines include tipping in the cruise fare and may prohibit crew members from accepting any additional gratuities. On most small adventure ships, a collection box is placed in the dining room or lounge on the last full day of the cruise, and passengers are encouraged to contribute anonymously.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Is cruising a good vacation value?
Cruises are an excellent vacation value! Considering that the price of the cruise includes your accommodations, all of your meals, and nightly entertainment aboard ship, it is the best vacation value. And before you depart, you already know what your vacation is going to cost. Your only extra expenses will be drinks, optional shore excursions, and personal services such as massage or hairstyling.
Cruises are also affordable. There are cruise vacations to suit every budget. Excluding transportation to and from the cruise, you can spend as little as $100 per day per person for a great cruise. Of course, for the most elegant suite aboard ship you would pay more than $1,000 per day.
How long are cruises?
A cruise can be as short as a one night cruise to nowhere or as long as two or three months. Typically, travelers select three, four, or seven night cruises, but cruises can be as long as you like.
Where can I go?
Cruise ships visit every major country, including more than 1,800 ports throughout the world. In fact, the only restraint is that the destination must be accessible by water.
Aren't all cruise ships pretty much the same?
It might seem, at first, that they are all the same, but there are important differences. To start with, there are different types of vessels. They range from small intimate yachts to huge floating palaces. You can sail through the Caribbean or journey the rivers of the world by paddlewheel boats or barge. Some vessels create an atmosphere of understated elegance; others reflect the glitz of a Vegas night. The atmosphere can be casual or formal; it can be contemporary or classic.
Equally important to the specifications and design of the ship is the style of service that is rendered by the crew. Some cruise ships are known for their excitement and shipboard activities. Other ships are known for the high level of personal service that each passenger receives. If the style of service is outstanding, it can make your cruise.
Are there different types of cruises?
There are cruises designed to suit virtually every interest and personal preference. Some passengers are interested in exploring new parts of the world, and there are cruises to take them there. Other passengers are more interested in shipboard activities and facilities, and there are cruises for them. For some travelers, the perfect vacation includes the non-stop fun in the sun of a tropical cruise to the Caribbean, where you can sample a variety of island cultures and cuisines while working on a terrific tan.
There are special interest cruises that combine shipboard programs with unique destinations to accent a particular historical or cultural interest. These destination-focused cruises specialize in premium, culturally-rich ports of call with itineraries that might include the antiquities of classical Greece, the Polynesian paradise of Hawaii, or the fabled splendor of Norwegian fjords.
For the more adventurous souls, there are cruises on the Amazon or to the frontiers of Antarctica. For a closer-to-home experience there are coastal cruises to New England and Canada, particularly popular for the fall foliage.
What's an air/sea cruise?
Often passengers do not live near the port of departure for the cruise. Cruise lines offer an air/sea cruise package price that includes the cost of the air to and from the ship as well as baggage handling and ground transfers between the ship and the airport. These convenient options are available from most major North American cities, and they can be very economical.
Do I need a passport or a visa?
This depends on the type of cruise and your destination. You will need proof of citizenship and photo identification. A passport certainly qualifies, but a birth certificate with a raised seal (not a photo copy) and a state drivers license also is acceptable for many destinations. Some ports have additional requirements such as a passport and visas. Your travel agent can provide more specific information for the cruise you book.
Are there different classes of service?
The price of a cabin is primarily based on its size and location, and it has no effect on your service. Each person enjoys the same courteous service, menus, activities, and entertainment as everyone else on board.
What about shore excursions?
Ships usually arrive in port early in the morning, and you are free to go ashore until evening. The variety and availability of shore excursions depend on the ports that your cruise ship visits. You can explore on your own or take a guided tour sponsored by the cruise line. Unless you are familiar with the port of call, you should stick with the ship's shore excursions.
Search ancient ruins or hunt for shopping bargains. Ride a raft through white-water rapids, or ride a horse across miles of hills and beaches. Climb a waterfall or pyramid. Play golf, or learn how to windsurf. Sun and swim at some of the world's best beaches. Catch a marlin. Sail, snorkel, or scuba dive. Take a cable car to the top of a mountain, or explore the deepest dark catacombs. In short, cruising is the perfect way to experience a variety of new adventures.
What should I pack?
Pack like you would for any resort. Cruise vacations are casual by day, whether you're on the ship or ashore. In the evening, dress varies from casual to formal. The proper attire is dictated by the occasion. On some cruises, formal dinners and parties are part of the fun. At the Captain's Gala, for example, you'll probably want to wear something more formal, such as a dark suit or tuxedo for gentlemen and a cocktail dress or formal gown for the ladies. Other cruises opt for a more relaxed and casual approach to dress throughout the cruise.
On a one week cruise, there are usually one or two formal nights. The rest of the time is very casual. Even on the casual nights, men should wear collared shirts to dinner and ladies should wear skirts or slacks.
Don't buy formal wear just for the trip; even on the most formal ships, a dark suit and cocktail dress are fine for the dressiest occasions. If you would feel more comfortable in a tux, consider the tuxedo rental services that many ships offer.
Can I use my hair dryer or shaver?
Most ships have 110-volt outlets in the staterooms; some ships even provide hair-dryers in your cabin.
Will singles enjoy a cruise?
Cruising is ideal for people traveling alone, because it's so easy to meet other people. In fact, most ships have parties for singles so you can meet others right away. Many ships even offer social hosts who can be dance partners, dinner companions, or a fourth at cards.
Most ships also have single cabins as well as single rates for double staterooms. If you ask them, many cruise lines will even find you a roommate to share a cabin so you can obtain the per person/double occupancy rate, saving you even more on a great vacation.
Is cruising right for honeymooners?
Cruising offers an atmosphere that's just right for romance: cozy dinners for two, strolling on deck at sunset, and dancing the night away under the stars. Most lines provide special services like champagne and breakfast in bed. Some ships can perform the wedding ceremony or a renewal of your marriage vows.
Do cruise lines welcome families with kids?
Most cruise lines provide supervised activities for youngsters, especially during school holidays. If your children enjoy swimming, sports, games, movies, and the adventure of new places, they'll love a family cruise. You'll find that most children adapt to shipboard life with ease, and you won't have to wonder what they're up to every minute. The youth counselors will help keep them busy and entertained. Ships even offer different types of age-appropriate activities, suitable for toddlers to teens. Best of all, children often travel at a reduced rate.
Do cruise lines accept group bookings?
Cruise lines welcome groups, often providing special incentives, depending on the size of the group. Group incentives can include discounts, cabin upgrades, and shipboard credits. Almost any group of travelers qualifies for group incentives. Examples include family or school reunions, church groups, business groups, sports groups, or even just a large group of friends. To receive the best possible incentive package for your group, start your group planning with your travel agent as early as possible.
Can I meet people like me?
A cruise ship is a great place to meet people. The atmosphere is friendly and relaxed, and there are countless opportunities to strike up a conversation. All kinds of people take cruises. They are all ages, from all walks of life, singles, couples, and families. Your travel agent can help you select a compatible cruise.
What about tipping?
Tipping is a matter of individual preference. A general rule of thumb is to plan for about $3.00 per person per day for your cabin steward and likewise for your dining room waiter, and about half that amount for your busboy. (A few cruise lines include tipping in the price and will so inform you.) Other shipboard personnel can be tipped for special services at your discretion.
It sounds too good to be true! Is it?
Every crew and staff member on board is dedicated to making your cruise the best vacation of your life. All you have to do is relax and enjoy your vacation.
© 2002 Cruise Lines International Association