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Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Back from a cruise and some tips I've learned over the years

As some of you may have noticed, I was MIA for the past week because I just got back from a cruise yesterday. While I probably could have written a few posts from the ship, I did not have easy access to the internet and that also would probably defeat the purpose of going on vacation. It seems like I did miss quite a bit of news in the past week with reports of Alaska Air planning to acquire Virgin America and Anbang ending its run to try to acquire Starwood Hotels and Resorts but I have mostly caught up with the travel news.

Norwegian Dawn
I took a cruise on the Norwegian Dawn leaving out of New Orleans going to Cozumel, Roatan, Belize City, and Costa Maya before returning to New Orleans which was the first time I took this cruise and overall had a good impression.

This was my 5th cruise over the past few years and I think I've learned something new on each one so wanted to share some of tips. I've mostly cruised with Norwegian so some of this may be specific to their cruise line but should apply to others as well.

1. Come prepared

While this is rather vague and can be interpreted in many ways it generally means make sure you read all the paperwork and come with printed copies. Depending on where you are going you may or may not need a passport (always a good idea to take regardless) and may also need some additional vaccinations. You don't want to show up at the port only to find out that you forgot to pack your passport with you and not be allowed to board. Going along with this concept also make sure you have all your documents printed and on hand before you reach the pier to make the process go much smoother. One time I had forgotten to print the documents beforehand and they were still able to look up all my information but it slowed the whole process down and made it more complicated.

2. Apply and then re-apply

There is nothing worse than a bad sunburn, especially on day 1 of your cruise. Some people may think they are invincible from the sun because they've never been burned before in their life (myself included at one time) but you may be going to a location where the sun's rays are stronger and you will also likely be spending more time outside as well with exposed skin. You do not want to spend the rest of your cruise screaming every time you try to take a shower or barely being able to lie in bed because of the pain because of a careless mistake. While I had thought I learned my lesson from prior trips, I had forgotten to use any sunblock on my head or wear a hat and my scalp got severely burned the first day despite having a full head of hair and I know I'll be peeling for weeks.

3. Pack for emergencies

Again, this is rather vague and can be interpreted in many ways but this is specifically referring to "female emergencies" when Aunt Flo decides to come into town. Thankfully this does not apply to me and never will but I had a cousin that accompanied me this past week who started her period as soon as we departed and had forgotten to pack any tampons. She tried everywhere on the ship to obtain some but they apparently didn't sell them in the gift shops and also didn't stock them in the medical bay so was almost completely out of luck but luckily we had a friend traveling with us who packed some spares.

4. Pack lightly

If you are one of those who tends to pack their entire closet when going anywhere then try to avoid that urge. It may feel like you need to pack a lot if you are going on a 5+ day cruise because of all the different themed parties and formal nights but after you arrive you'll find that you really only utilize 3 outfits and don't touch half of what you originally packed. As long as you bring a swimsuit, flip flops, a few t-shirts and shorts (depending on your destinations) then you should be fine. My husband and I can usually fit everything we need for a 7 day cruise in one suitcase under 50 lbs with lots of room to spare for souvenirs and even then we are probably still overpacking. The one mistake I did make before is forgetting to pack at least one pair of pants or jeans to get into certain dining venues but even if you do forget you can still always access the buffet.

5. Do your research ahead of time

If you've never cruised before you may assume that every port of call is going to have lots to do and access as soon as you get off the ship but this is usually not the case and if you don't book a shore excursion ahead of time then your options may be limited. Generally speaking from my experiences mostly in the Bahamas and Caribbean are that the area right off the docks are a tourist trap with just lots of expensive shops and not much else to do unless you rent or a car or take a taxi. Sometimes its not even worth getting off the ship if you don't have an excursion planned and was my experience this past week in Belize City which required a 15 minute tender ride just to reach the port. Also, if you do plan to take advantage of a shore excursion make sure you do plenty of research ahead of time and read the reviews carefully because I've talked to many people who were very disappointed with their choices afterwards. I generally tend to utilize a third-party when booking my excursions such as since they are generally cheaper and offer the same quality or better than you can get from the ship.

6. Arrive early

I find that it is always better to arrive a day early and stay at a hotel near your port so that you don't end up missing your flight and/or connection which could jeopardize missing your entire cruise. While generally you should still be ok if you have a direct flight early in the morning the day of your cruise you never know what is going to happen. This happened to me last year on a cruise in Hawaii when I had missed my connecting flight in Atlanta due to an extremely short layover which almost caused me to miss my entire cruise which would have cost me over $5,000 because I did not purchase any trip protection. Delta offered to rebook me on a later flight for free since it was their fault but the next available flight was for the following day which would have gotten me to Hawaii just in time for me to see my ship sail away. And this wasn't just Delta specific, there were NO flights to Hawaii until the next day on any airline out of Atlanta. Luckily I had a family member who was a travel agent and was able to work her magic to get us routed to San Francisco and then to Hawaii later that day but there were several others on our same flight who were not so lucky and ended up missing the cruise even though they were supposed to arrive a day early initially.

7. To drink or not to drink

Not everyone likes to drink alcoholic beverages but even if you just plan to drink Coke products you might consider purchasing a beverage package ahead of time. Most cruise lines offer two options: one for non-alcoholic beverages and one for alcohol which is of course going to be more expensive so it may or may not make sense to purchase these depending on how much you plan to drink. This past cruise was the first time I utilized the alcoholic drink package due to a promotion that was taking place and it literally saved me hundreds of dollars. It also included Coke products as well which was nice and I had purchased just the non-alcoholic beverage package in the past. One thing you need to know is that if you do plan to purchase a drink package they will require everyone in your cabin to also purchase the same package which will double your costs. They also have a picture of you when they scan your card for ordering drinks so passing around your card won't work and will likely get your card confiscated. Even if you don't plan on purchasing a package you have plenty of other options. The buffets will always have juice, milk, coffee, etc available and you can find plenty of ways to obtain free alcohol on ships through exclusive party invitations, art auctions, contest winners, and certain excursions such as snorkeling.

8. Explore the ship

While you may think that if you've seen one ship you've seen them all this is not the case. Every ship has their unique features and I always like to explore every inch of the ship to find hidden gems such as a nice bar that no one knows exists or a jacuzzi that never gets used. You'll find that certain areas tend to always be overcrowded and I generally try to avoid these areas but you can usually find a comfortable place to relax if you search hard enough.

9. Better late than never

Sometimes it pays to make plans late and you can find some really awesome deals if you book at the last minute. This is especially true for cruising and you can book the exact same cruise I took last week in a balcony room for only $399 per person or $319 for an oceanview room from 4/10-4/17. This is an amazing deal and we were actually going to take advantage of it and rebook the exact same cruise a week after we just disembarked but due to work scheduling issues we couldn't. You can also find deals like this 14-day transatlantic repositioning cruise from Tampa for only $399 for an inside room or $449 for an oceanview room from 4/17-5/1.

10. Can you hear me now

You will likely not have cell service during most of your cruise (unless you buy a specific phone package that can be rather expensive) and even when you do you will likely be roaming and incurring ridiculous charges so communicating with other family members can be a challenge. This may be good or bad depending on how you look at it but for the most part you will probably want to be able to reach your loved ones. And setting a place and time to meet never seems to work if you've ever tried this approach. It never occurred to me until this past cruise to go old school and bring walkie talkies to keep in contact which only requires a few double A batteries. And the high quality ones can reach for several miles so even if you decide to split up and go ashore while others stay on the ship you should still be able to reach each other.

Bottom Line

I'm sure I'm missing many other tips from mistakes I've personally made but you'll just have to learn from your own. And I realize cruising may not be for everyone since some suffer from severe motion sickness but overall I enjoy them because they offer an inexpensive way to experience a lot of different places. I'll try to include more tips as they come to be but for now its time to start planning my next vacation.

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