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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Readers Cruise Tips

Readers Cruise Tips

The Atlanta Constitution asked readers online and we asked at Cruise Traveler Magazine for the best tips for first-time cruisers.

Here are some excerpts...

"I have been on about 12 cruises in the past 12 years and have always used an experienced cruise travel agent. I have never had any problems with any of my documents , air \ travel, etc. I highly recommend using a professional travel agent for your bookings. I would never consider it other wise.

"Before you leave home, make sure travel documents are in order. Check with air lines 24 hours prior to flying. Upon boarding ship, locate your state room, most ships have color-coded halls. Pink carpet denotes even number state rooms, blue color carpets will be odd numbers. With more than 50 cruises and mega ships, this is a time saver."

"I have been on 13 cruises. My suggestion is to plan on the second seating for your dinner time. This gives you more time on your daily tours, not to feel you have to rush to get ready. You can also take in a show or have a glass of wine prior to dinner if you feel the need to be kept busy. It is the most relaxing way to travel. My husband and I look forward to our next cruise together."

"If you are a member of the cruise lines repeat cruiser club (Royal Caribbean's is called Crown and Anchor Club), they give you coupon books to use on the cruise. If you don't use up all of them, leave the rest in the safe in the room for the next guest to use. If you are cruising on the same cruise line (or sister cruise line) more than once, join their repeat cruiser program. They have nice incentives and member-only events. (Plus, it's free!)
"If traveling with several family members or friends, take walkie talkies with you to contact each other while on the ship. Cell phones don't work while at sea. (Thank goodness!)

"Take Post-It notes with you to leave notes for your cabin steward.

"Since cruise ship employees have to eat what is left over from the dining room menu or buffet (unless they want to pay for something different), it is nice to sometimes ask if there is anything special they would like and then order room service and give it to them. (Usually they want burgers!)

"Take (or you can buy on the ship) a lanyard with a clear card holder on it to carry your SeaPass (RC name for your cruise charge card) card around your neck. It is much more accessible than having it in your wallet or having to hand-carry it.

"Rent a car (in advance if you can, but they are easy enough to find if you don't) at your ports of call. For about the price of one person going on one excursion, you can all ride around the island exploring and doing things at your pace. You may even learn to drive on left side of the road!

"Request a large table (eight or 10) people for your dining room preference. They try to match you with similar people so you will meet many new people that will become lifelong friends.

"Most important tip of all, when on the ship, forget all your worries back home and just relax and be pampered! Most of us don't have that option in our every day lives!"

"My tip has to do with cruising with kids. My two children have been on a number of cruises from the time that they were babies (at last count, my 8-year-old has been on 6 and my 5-year-old on 4). We have always picked a cruise line with a strong kids program (not too hard to find now but much tougher seven years ago), as well as in-cabin babysitting if possible. Only a couple of lines have that option: one that we have cruised on twice and can highly recommend is Royal Caribbean.

1. Kids camps - Check the minimum age and requirements for the camp before you reserve your cruise. We were surprised by one cruise line that told us that our daughter could attend and when we boarded, she was not able to. What are their infant requirements and hours of operation? Can you leave them in camp while in port? Are they open while at sea? Do you need to get them at lunchtime? Attend the welcome/orientation session for the camp. It's a great way to meet the staff, get the schedule, and ask all of your questions. If you have a good experience with any of the counselors, make sure that you fill out comment cards to give them the recognition that they deserve.

2. In-cabin babysitting - if you are able to do it on your cruise — it is wonderful! On the first day, fill out a request for the nights that you will need someone. They will typically have the same person do the babysitting for you all week. You pay that person directly and firm up your schedule with them. I bring walkie-talkies with me and give one to the babysitter and keep one while we are out.

3. Night time babysitting — Many offer this service. Unless you have much older children, it can be tough on younger children. Only you know how your child handles bedtime and sleep. We have found that changing our children's sleeping schedule drastically can, and has, ruined an otherwise pleasant trip. We have been fortunate to travel with family and friends and have worked out babysitting arrangements that way on lines not offering the in-cabin option. Remember, it is your vacation, too!

4. Dining- Select the early dining option since most children cannot wait until 8 or 9 p.m. to eat dinner. Plus, it gives you the ability to eat as a family and then go out as a couple afterwards if you wish."

"The first thing I would tell people is not to take too many clothes. Nobody will care if you wear the same thing twice and sometimes the space is very limited for hanging things.

"If you are a big Coke drinker, many cruise lines have a bracelet you can purchase, which is cheaper than buying drinks individually. Unless you are on a very fancy cruise, drinks are not free — coffee and tea are, but that's it. Those fun sail away drinks might look good but they are usually more expensive than other drinks. You don't want to have a huge bill at the end of your cruise full of drink charges. Unless you are in a foreign country, shore excursions are cheaper booked from independent companies.

"It is usually a good idea to take your own hair drier. I have found that many of the ones on cruises get too hot, plus the location of some of them makes it hard for two people to get ready at the same time.

"It's a good idea to have a small flashlight and a night light is also good to have.

"Cruise lines seem to have gone to liquid soap in the shower so I always take a small bar of soap with me.

"The thing I always take on a cruise is a highlighter pen. When the brochure for the days' activities is put in your cabin, it is the perfect way to highlight what you want to do so you don't miss something fun.

"If you are prone to motion sickness, there is a sort of bracelet device sold in travel catalogs that has an acupressure ball that goes on the inside of your wrist. It fits with Velcro and is more comfortable than the ones the gift stores on the cruise sell. I wear mine under my watch and nobody can see that I have it on.

"Resist the urge to purchase all the photos that will be taken. At the end of the cruise, there will be a sale on them so you can get them cheaper. If your cruise has a night when they take black and white photos, take advantage of that because not all cruise lines offer that option."

More Cruise Tips

1. Do your research! The most experienced travel agent can't match the resources that are available on the Web. Editors example:

2. Make sure the personality of the cruise line fits yours. Some lines are known for wet T-shirt contests, while others are very refined — some would say boring.

3. Older ships can be disappointing. Ships built prior to the mid-1990s are not as stable on the ocean and do not offer as many amenities as more recent launches.

4. On most lines, do not treat tipping as an option. Cruise staff make as little as $25 per week and rely on tips as income.

5. Know where you are going. Get to know in advance the culture, politics, and sites at the ports you will be visiting. Try to get away from the port itself and interact with the locals. Be respectful. Your few hours on their island can make a big difference economically — and don't expect Caribbean islands to be like Disney World.

6. Most often, cruise air is more expensive than booking it yourself. Same for land transfers — just take a cab. Waiting on the cruise line's bus to fill at the airport can waste precious hours of vacation.

7. Boarding usually begins hours before the time stated in your cruise documents (four hours earlier on my most recent cruise.)

8. If traveling with a small group to Alaska, get cabins on opposite sides of the ship so you won't miss anything on days when the ship is cruising through nature.

9. Springing for a balcony gives you your own piece of paradise when the decks get crowded.

10. Speaking of crowded, a ship's space ratio (gross tonnage divided by occupancy) will give you a good indication of how comfortable you may be on your ship.

11. Obey the dress code!

12. Arrive at your port the day before in case anything goes wrong with your flight.

13. Don't take a cruise during Spring Break, the holidays, or summer vacation if you don't like kids.

14. Three and four-day cruises usually use older ships more likely to be in disrepair.

15. In a post 9/11 world, customs and immigration procedures are unpredictable. Don't book your return air before noon on debarkation day."

" veteran of over 15 cruises from the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean the most important part of planning a cruise is a knowledgeable travel agent, preferably one that specializes in cruises."

"I love cruising and have taken numerous cruises. I want to share a tip with your readers. As you are aware, when booking a cruise you request at that time your preference for dining room reservations — either the main seating or the late seating. If traveling with others, you also have your travel agent cross-reference all of your cabins so you'll be sitting at the same table. Every cruise line will state that "no requests are guaranteed" and that your table assignment will be confirmed at embarkation. The worst way to start your cruise vacation is to find out at embarkation that the cruise line wasn't able to honor your dining preference — for example, you wanted the main seating and you've been assigned the late seating or you wanted the late seating and have assigned to the main seating. Also, if you are just traveling as a couple and want a table for two, you won't know whether you have a table for two until you arrive at dinner that first evening. The worst scenario possible is you think you have a table for two and then find out at dinner that you've been put at a table with four other couples.

"To avoid these problems, I make sure at embarkation that my dining preference, as well as all others in my group show what we requested. As you are aware, your boarding cards issued by the cruise line at embarkation, such as Carnival's Sail and Sign cards, show your dining room assignment — early or late — and table assignment. I verify that all members of my group have the same dining room and table assignment. If not, as soon as I board the ship, I go immediately to the dining room and meet with the Maitre d' to ask him to make the needed changes. I've found that the Maitre d' will always try to accommodate your wishes if at all possible. The key here is that changes are made on a first-come, first-serve basis, so the earlier you see the Maitre d' the better your chances are to get the needed changes made.

"Similarly, if you are expecting a table for two, visit the dining room as soon as you board the ship and find your table (each table is numbered). If it isn't a table for two, speak with the Maitre d' to get it changed. You spend a lot of time at dinner and you want it to meet your expectations. By following my tips, you won't be surprised.

"For the first-time cruiser, it is essential in my mind to pick a ship/line with which they will be comfortable. It is no good going on a ship which likes tuxedos and ball gowns in the evening if they want casual dressing. Do they like kids around? If not go on a line which does not cater so much for kids and go during school time. Do they like peace and quiet, to read? If so, do not choose a "party" ship.

"One that has worked well for us with the cruise lines is to study the ship's diagram in the brochure, and book space in a category that has fewer cabins than others on a guarantee basis. The upside to this little trick is that with fewer cabins in the "cat" booked, our chances of being upgraded to a nicer cabin/higher deck are better. With an actual cabin number assignment, the chance of an upgrade lessens (unless one is a repeat customer, but that's another story). The downside, of course, is that with a full ship, the guaranteed category could result in a cabin assignment in that category, so one must be prepared to be satisfied with it.

"Since you will want to sample all the delicious foods, at all hours, including the midnight buffet, I'd suggest wearing all your "snug" fitting clothes at the beginning of the cruise, and wearing your bigger "or" elastic waist clothes towards the end of the cruise. You'll feel so much better!"

"Do a little homework on your ports of call so you'll have alternatives to the (often expensive) excursions offered by the cruise line. On our Wind Surf cruise in October, the ship docked in Amalfi in the morning, sailed to Sorrento in the afternoon and then departed Sorrento at midnight. I was determined to visit Positano but the ship did not offer an organized excursion.

"So we took the public ferry from Amalfi to Positano (a blast!), watched the sunset while sipping wine on the terrace at the renowned Il San Pietro di Positano and had a car service take us to meet the ship in port in Sorrento. Our traveling companions took a vote at dinner that night and rated the adventure "one of life's top five days!"

"Don't restrict yourself to looking at the mega-ton ocean liners for your next cruise vacation. A river cruise on one of the scenic rivers of Europe is a great vacation — room, meals and transportation are provided and you stop each day to explore small river towns and major European cities.

"Day one - Start with the top deck and work your way down and around the ship in order to familiarize yourself with your new home. Keep your deck "cheat sheet" in your pocket.

"Every evening - Read the ship's daily activities report sent out every evening for the next day. You will not want to miss out on items of interest to you. If you can't read it in the evening, take it to breakfast with you and read every line item. There is nothing worse than to have missed the "belly flop contest" if you are a potential winner, or to miss water volleyball with the crew.

"Attire - Dress your best for the evening meal as dining is a pleasure while cruising the seas. You will be delighted at the additional attention you receive from the ships videographer.
"We have been cruising for the past six years. We have been fortunate to go to many exciting places and fulfill life-long dreams of seeing things like the pyramids, the sphinx, the canals of Venice, and Rome. We have always had a great time and experienced a cruise that we have enjoyed over and over in our memories..

"One thing a lot of people overlook is the big show of the evening, which is always listed on the daily activity sheet. I carry this sheet with me wherever we go so that we will know what's happening next and won't miss anything. We especially enjoy the days at sea and we don't participate in strenuous activities like pool games, but we do like to watch. We do things like the trivia game, other games, tea time, go to the movie theater, go to the shops, go to the photo gallery and go to the casino. We are always doing something. My husband has said that he thought a cruise was supposed to be relaxing, and it can be but then you won't have as much fun. Every time we take time to relax, he wants to know what is next on the program for the day.

"On our cruise in November we were traveling with a group of 10 family members including us. Since we are the seasoned cruisers, I planned the whole trip to celebrate my parent's 60th wedding anniversary. I kept the daily activity sheet with me every day and let everyone know what was going on. They referred to me as their "cruise director." One day most of them decided they wanted to be "on their own." But, they didn't enjoy it as much. None of them took time to read the daily activity sheet. Soon they were finding me and asking what's on the program next.

"On this same cruise, we were acquaintances with three other couples who were not part of our group. They just wondered around the ship and didn't participate in any activities. When we got back home, they all said they didn't enjoy the cruise and didn't know if they would ever want to go again especially on that cruise line. I think the six of them didn't enjoy it because they didn't participate in anything. The 10 from our group thought it was a great trip, a great ship and lots of fun. We can't wait to go back.

Reminder: you get out of a the cruise what you put into it,
just like everything else in life.

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