help! what should I know about going on a cruise?

cruise

Stop the presses: I’m going on vacation. Yes, a real vacation. It has been years since I’ve had a chance to get away but in a few weeks I’ll be setting sail on my very first cruise and I’m excited but also uneducated. When it comes to cruising I know two things: first, that there is never any good press about cruises (thanks, travel writing 101) and second, that there are some people, including a few going on this trip, who are cruising connoisseurs, have gone on many and know everything there is to know about them. I also know that when it comes to giving travel advice, no group beats our readers! So I’m throwing it out to you: What should I pack or not pack? Is there anything I should know about the food, the rooms, and the ship? There are so many theme nights and schedule options that I don’t even know how to begin preparing, so spill your secrets! What should I know about going on a cruise? — Sarah C.

Image courtesy of The National Maritime Museum.

From our partners
Katie D.

I’ve never been on a cruise and am curious about something too: what is the likelihood of food poisioning? I’ve heard a lot of cruise horror stories that make it seem fairly common. Can anyone confirm or deny?

CityMinx

the last cruise i went on, a Princess one, had a card you could buy for either unlimited soft drinks or, well, shall we say, hard drinks ;). unless you plan on having at least 4 a day of either, it was kinda a ripoff. This was a few years ago, so if they offer it, check the math first.
every time i took a tour bus around and island, it was coincidentally the day after the driver’s wife gave birth. This announcement led to lots of awwwws and extra tips. take things with a grain of salt, maybe on one of your unlimited margaritas? ;)
also, this is your vacation. if you want to stay on the ship and zonk out on a deck chair instead of going snorkeling or shopping or what have you, do so! also, have a great time!!!

NiseD

You didn’t say where you are going but if you are planning on doing some swimming, I would suggest bringing at least two suits. If you are going to swim a lot, bring three suits. That way you can swim in the morning, hang it to dry and also swim in the evening in a dry suit. If you have a balcony you might want to bring a few bulldog clamps to clip your suit to the chairs/table so they don’t fly away in the breeze. If no balcony, bring a Shamwow type of product to roll your suit in for a short time.

It’s blasphemy to say, but bring fewer shoes than you want to: Pool shoes, comfy walking/hiking shoes if you are day tripping and nice shoes if you are doing the dressy evening.

Finally, one of the best items to pack (IMHO) is a large sarong. It can be a towel, skirt, dress, blanket, turban, bag, poncho, wrap, sunshade and more at a moment’s notice. They are kinda awesome. :) Have fun!

Hand sanitizer. If you bring nothing else, hand sanitizer. All of those stories about the Nowalk virus, which is really the stomach flu, are a result of 4,000 people stuffed into a boat, touching everything, and maybe not washing so well. I’m not saying get OCD about it, but keeping your hands clean is key!

Also, you can bring your own alcohol on board with you and make your own mixed drinks. i used to work at Princess Cruises, and on of my co workers would bring a case of beer and several bottles of scotch with him on every cruise. What you CAN’T do is buy alcohol on shore and expect to drink it back at the ship–they will hold it for you in the customs area until the end of the cruise.

The food is non-stop–and free (except for beverages). The average person gains 7 pounds on a 7 day cruise. Scary!! Take the stairs everywhere. Cruise Ships can be 14 stories high, so if you take the stairs, you’ll end up with a pretty good workout every day. Plus you’ll be too winded to scarf a cookie at every stop on the ship. I found the quality of the food to be pretty good-except the potatoes at breakfast. They were horrifying, and I consider the potato one of the world’s perfect foods.

It’s good that you’re going with some seasoned cruisers–they’ll have some good advice as well. Pack lots of coordinating clothes–mix and match. There are laundromats on board, if you run out of options.

You may be tempted to go off on your own, rather than doing the official Shore excursions. My parents cruised with some friends that did this to save money. they almost missed the boat (it WILL leave without you) at several ports and spent most of there time trying to figure out how to get wherever they were going, and as a result, didn’t have much fun. The Shore Ex stuff might be kind of cheesy and kind of expensive–but hey–you’re on a cruise, not backpacking around Europe.

Have a great time–and if you have any sea days (days spent at sea with no port call) use that time to relax and recharge–most ships have spas!

penguinlady

First off, check out Cruise Critic for a lot more information about your specific cruise line. http://www.cruisecritic.com/

Secondly, be warned that they will nickel and dime you for everything. You will be charged for a gratuity for every service automatically (recently, I heard that one line charged gratuity when you bought something out of their shops!). Most cruises only offer some things as “included” – like coffee and iced tea – and every other drink will cost you, including orange juice and diet coke. The main buffet will be included, but if you go to any of the other restaurant, it will cost. The main buffet will be okay, but it will get old on you quickly.

Also, get travel insurance, especially if you are going to the Caribbean. My sister was going to cruise in Jamaica a few years ago and a hurricane hit. Without her insurance, she would have been out the whole cost.

I think penguinlady gives a lot of good advice, but it kind of has a negative spin to it, so I wonder if she had a bad time on a cruise. I think a lot of advice also depends on what cruise line you’re going on and where you’re going – can you share that? Example: the Royal Caribbean cruise to New England and Canada my husband and I went on last summer was vastly different from our Royal Caribbean Mediterranean honeymoon cruise which was vastly different from the cheapy Carnival cruise we went on in 2008.

Some general tips:
– pack half the amount you think you need. The laundry service is excellent on the ship, and reasonable too.
– dress for the season – the ship will be pretty casual, but it can be chilly out on the water this time of year. If you decide to dress up for formal night (I always do because I think it’s fun to wear black tie every once in a while), you can wear the same outfit multiple nights.
– dining is done different on every cruise line. Most cruise lines still do traditional assigned seating dining (my husband and I actually like this, as it gives us a chance to meet people), but some have open seating (most notably Norwegian).
– there will be a big emphasis on washing your hands and using hand sanitizer
– not sure where your cabin is, but I hope you at least got one with a window – once you go balcony, though, you’ll never go back. The best place to be to avoid getting seasick is on a lower deck in the middle of the ship.
– regarding seasickness: I can’t read on the subway or on a plane because I get nauseous. But I’ve never gotten sick on even the rockiest day at sea. The sensation is just different.

This is getting a little long, so feel free email me if you have any more questions! My husband and I are in our late 20’s and have been on three cruises. We love it for something different!

Also, alcohol policies are different on every ship – make sure and check yours to see if you and bring your own beer and wine (I know on Carnival you can bring one bottle of wine per person, but on Royal Caribbean you can’t bring any liquor).

DJ

Don’t meander off on your own in port. Spend the extra for the cruise planned shore excursions. They know what they are doing, you will see some lovely things, and I’m not sure about all cruise lines, but at least some will hold the boat’s departure if a cruise line arranged shore excursion is late.

But if you trot off to explore all on your own and are late getting back, you will find the boat gone.

Dianna

There were a few things I learned from the last cruise I went on. You didn’t say where you were going, but we went to Mexico for a week. If you are leaving the states and plan on keeping in contact with anyone check with your cell carrier about adding an international call plan for a few months. Those roaming charges will add up. Also, me and my friend took out i-pods so we could relax on the deck and listen to music. They had computers and internet access, but no way to charge them. After a few days, those batteries were dead. If you get seasick, they should have dramamine available and after you get back on land, it may take a while for your body to adjust. I would occasionally get a little dizzy and feel like i’d been swimming in the ocean all day. Other than that, have a great time.

I heard that if you take Dramamine two days before you go on a cruise it will actually work better

I love cruising! We’re taking a cruise through the Greek islands for our honeymoon and we’ve also been to Mexico, Alaska, and the Caribbean. I would have to say that cruising differs between destination AND cruise line. So, just because you don’t enjoy one cruise doesn’t mean you won’t like future cruises (unless you don’t like being on the boat or sleeping in a cabin, or something else inherently cruise-ship-y).

Most ships have hand sanitizers on board – at the dining rooms, at the buffets, in common areas. I’m pretty good about washing my hands and I’ve never gotten sick on board.

Definitely pack less than you think you’ll want. Some nice outfits for dining, but you’ll only need a couple casual outfits. Unless you get dirty, you can re-wear things.

If you can eat in the main dining room, I think you’ll have better food. If there’s an upgraded restaurant on ship, you’ll have even better food! The buffet isn’t bad (sometimes it’s the same food in the dining room, just served buffet style) but I wouldn’t say it’s great, either. It IS handy if you take a long nap and wake up after the dining room has closed. Also, be aware that you can order room service (usually for no extra fee) but it may take a long time for it to get to you. I prefer ordering room service dessert or late-night cookies before we plan on heading back to the room, so it’s there when we’re ready for it.

There’s usually a drink of the day, which isn’t cheap, but still cheaper than random cocktails. We tend to splurge on booze a couple times during a cruise plus a bottle of wine for dinner. They’ll recork an unfinished bottle for you and it usually lasts us a couple of dinners. You can also try packing bottles in your luggage for enjoying on your own.

Cruise excursions are expensive, but knowing that the boat won’t leave without us should something happen on a cruise-organized excursion is well worth it to me.

Don’t feel guilty if all you do is eat, nap, and lounge. It’s a vacation! And, it’s often the only time we get to just sit still and be lazy, so we enjoy it. We don’t plan for it, but we also don’t feel bad if it happens.

Sometimes, if you book a spa treatment on the first day, it’s heavily discounted. Same goes for booking on-ship activities when you’re in port. Most people leave the ship to enjoy the port, so they offer great deals to people who stay.

The Wikipedia article on seasickness is fascinating! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seasickness

Jenni

My husband and I went on a cruise for our honeymoon 2 years ago and here were the best tips people gave us or that we learned (and keep in mind I’m a major Type A paranoid traveler, hehe):

1. Bathrooms on cruises are TINY. Go to Target or Walmart and buy a cheap over-the-door pocket shoe hanger thingy. You can hang it on the back of the bathroom door and put all your shampoo, toothpaste, sunscreen, make-up, etc. in the pockets. You’ll be able to reach it from the shower (so you don’t have to put stuff on the shower floor), and you won’t have to crowd the tiny shelf over the sink. This was the BEST IDEA EVER!!!

2. If you get motion sick AT ALL, get a prescription for behind-the-ear motion sickness patches, bring Dramamine, and get some homeopathic motion sickness oil (from any drugstore). Then you can choose what level of medicine you need. HOWEVER, while the behind-the-ear patches work really well, they also have side effects, ALL of which I got: BAD dry mouth, headaches and, when we returned and I removed them, continued motion sickness and dizziness for almost two weeks, while on solid ground! Crazy! Oh, and if you know you will definitely get motion sick, put the patch on 12-24 hours before you get on the boat. Otherwise it will take a while for the patch to kick in.

3. If you have a room on the balcony with a door that swings out, bring a bungee cord and you can prop the door open with it and get the nice sea breeze and the sound of the water. We loved this!!!!!

4. Also bring a bunch of sandwich or zip-loc baggies. You can use these for tons of uses, but what we did was to order room service sandwiches and put them in the zip-loc bags to take with us when we went on outings where we weren’t sure if we could find food or where we didn’t want to spend money on food or where we just wanted snacks later on. And by the way, on our cruise, room service was free, but we still had to tip the person who delivered it, which brings me to the next tip….

5. Bring lots of one dollar bills for tips and plan ahead of time all the activities you’re going to do so you can get cash in those amounts ahead of time to avoid major ATM fees on the ship. Then paperclip the cash together with a sticky note saying what it’s for. That way you don’t spend all your cash and run out right before it’s time to go zip-lining and the company doesn’t take credit cards (or does, but it costs a lot to pay that way). So if you plan to go ziplining and it costs $75, put 3 20-dollar-bills, 1 10-dollar-bill, and 1 5-dollar bill in a paperclip with a sticky note saying “ziplining.” This also allows you to carry around only the cash you need, while leaving the rest in the safe in your boat cabin.

6. Make sure you photocopy ALL your documents — passport, other ID, credit cards, confirmation e-mails of any activities you pre-paid for and/or flight and hotel info, medical cards, etc. — and leave one set of photocopies with an emergency contact back home, put one set in your suitcase, and carry one set with you. That way, you’re COMPLETELY covered in case something goes wrong. And while you’re at it, make sure if you left someone to pet-sit that they know who to call in case of an emergency (vet, etc.). :)

7. Okay, this one is kinda embarrassing, but just in case you get what I call “traveler’s stomach,” especially if you’re sensitive to the kinds of fried foods that are abundant on cruise ships, bring a nice variety of stomach medications: heartburn meds, diarrhea meds, pepto bismol, and laxitives (gentle ones! chewable seem most gentle).

8. We brought our iPod with a docking station speaker and downloaded a white-noise track (running water) on iTunes so that we could play it at night while we were sleeping and wouldn’t hear all the noise from people walking up and down the hallway, opening and shutting doors, etc.

Well, that’s all I can think of for now… I hope it helps! :)

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