I took my first cruise with my family when I was in high school. We were aboard the now-defunct Big Red Boat. We chose the particularly delightful El Niño season to sail the ocean blue, so suffice to say we never saw the sun. And while larger—much larger—cruise ships continued on their merry way out to sea, the Big Red Boat proved how very small it actually was by staying in port for nearly the whole trip.
So when I was given the opportunity to take another cruise this year—more than ten years later—I was a little hesitant. But I’m happy to report that I recently returned from the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association 2010 conference at sea, which was held on Holland America’s ms Eurodam cruise ship, and I actually had a lot of fun. I picked up some tidbits about the travel writing industry, tasted more than my share of wine and met some fascinating people aboard the ship.
I also got to spend some time with my sister, who I don’t see nearly often enough, and we had the chance to tour Old San Juan in Puerto Rico, check out the hurricane damage from 2008 on Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos Islands, kayak in the lagoon on Little San Salvador in the Bahamas and hike in the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park on St. John.
I also learned a lot about what it means to vacation aboard a boat that is actually big enough to move away from shore. So from a *ahem* first-time cruiser, here are seven tips if you, too, are planning on taking a cruise.
1. Find out what is covered when you pay your cruise fee. Though cruises are “all-inclusive,” meaning your accommodations, dining and basic on-boat activities are included in the cost, expect to pay for soda, alcoholic beverages, spa services, shore excursions, casino gambling and cooking classes. Our cruise was “cashless,” and we just handed over an innocent little plastic card anytime we wanted to purchase something (and a 15% gratuity was automatically added). It’s easy to run up a tab in the piano bar if you aren’t counting out the change.
2. Research demographics. Decide what kind of crowd you want to hang with before you book your cruise. Some cruise ships cater to families while others have an older demographic. During Spring Break season, it is possible to find ships offering specials for college students. If you have expectations about who will be joining you aboard the ship, advance research is a must.
3. Sign up for shore excursions early. If you want to take advantage of the planned shore excursions—such as snorkeling, bike tours or parasailing—when your cruise ship docks in a port, decide what you want to do as soon as possible. On Holland America—and I would assume many other cruise ships—we could sign up for shore excursions in advance online. By the time we got on the boat and had decided we wanted to go kayaking in the Bahamas (just an hour or two after setting sail), there were only two time slots still available.
4. Inquire early if you want your passport stamped. Having never been to Turks and Caicos, my sister and I both wanted our passports stamped. But passports are not the ticket to travel on a cruise ship anymore. Though you need them to get on the boat, you don’t need them to go to shore, which means no stamp. Ask at the information desk how you can get yours stamped BEFORE you arrive in port. Because local officials have to come aboard to clear the ship, chances are they can be stamped then, but this usually happens in the middle of the night. We received mixed responses about how far in advance your passport needs to be turned in to be stamped, but the key here is to ask early and long before you reach the port of your desired stamp destination.
5. Work twice as hard in the gym. Expect to get a healthy core workout in the fitness center because you’ll have to hold yourself on the equipment. The sway of the boat makes it difficult to run on a treadmill or use the elliptical machine. Don’t get too sidetracked watching TV or listening to music because you just might step off the equipment. That’s not to say you shouldn’t workout …
6. Avoid overindulgence. I know, I know, I know. You’re on vacation. Here’s a fact you probably didn’t want to know: The average person gains 7 to 14 pounds on a cruise. That’s no surprise considered the rich food and enormous spread of desserts. But you don’t want to feel bloated on the beach or angry at yourself when you return home. It’s definitely okay to treat yourself to a little more than you would at home, but don’t forget to throw in a tossed salad and some fresh fruit every now and again.
7. Don’t overpack. The staterooms on cruise ships aren’t roomy by any definition of the word. We had an inside stateroom with a double bed, which included two small closets, three shelves and no extra room for frivolous stuff. Because cruises have “smart casual” and “formal” nights, you’ll need to plan clothing and shoe choices carefully. I would suggest planning all of your outfits around a few pairs of shoes.
My cruising experience was paid for by the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association as part of the 2010 conference at sea scholarship, but all opinions are my own.