The Most Common Cruise Mistakes - Part One

| June 11, 2008

There are two reasons why people make simple mistakes that can ruin their vacations: The questions we never think to ask; and the things we know we should do, but neglect due to over-confidence.

Before You Go

There are two reasons why people make simple mistakes that can ruin their vacations: The questions we never think to ask; and the things we know we should do, but neglect due to over-confidence. Either way, a mistake is a mistake. This article offers a practical checklist covering the things that most often cause a good vacation to go bad. We'll start with the things that should be done well in advance of your departure.

1. Know your passport and visa requirements.

Some of the saddest stories I have heard are about people who aren't allowed to board a cruise ship, or enter a country, because they do not have the proper passport, visa or other credentials.

Making sure you have the proper documents is your responsibility, not the cruise line's. So investigate your personal requirements regarding citizenship, visas, and your passport before you leave. A good travel agent can be very helpful in this area, but only if you are very clear about your situation when discussing it with the agent.

When you board a cruise ship, you will have to show that you have proper documentation to visit the countries on the itinerary. You may be asked for your credentials by the cruise line, or by a government customs agent from the destination country. If you don't have the proper papers, you might not be allowed to board the ship, whether you planned to go ashore in that country or not.

Sometimes even the best preparation isn't enough. I received a letter from a woman scheduled on a cruise to Bermuda who arrived at the port of New York with a Macao passport. Having done her homework, she knew she was allowed to enter Bermuda. But when the port official checked her passport, he saw that it said People's Republic of China, so she was denied boarding. The official did not know that Macao is "special administrative region" of China, like Hong Kong, and its residents are allowed in Bermuda.

Sadly, this woman lost her cruise, her cruise fare, and had to pay extra to stay in New York while she tried unsuccessfully to sort things out. She did eventually reach a settlement the cruise line, even though the person at fault was a Bermuda customs official.

The saddest part? She had downloaded from the Internet all the documentation she needed to prove that she was correct, but she left it at home because she never expected to encounter a customs official who didn't know the rules.

Another common problem is that individuals may be denied entrance to a foreign land if their passport is due to expire within six months - even if the cruise is only seven days long. I have also heard stories of U.S. citizens arriving in Brazil and having to fly back to the United States because they did not have a Brazilian visa.

I have also seen instances of passengers who are U.S. citizens through marriage, but didn't update their foreign passports to U.S. passports because the foreign ones were still valid. I was traveling with a woman carrying a Jamaican passport who was denied entrance to Greece at the Athens airport because Jamaicans needed a visa -- although her husband was allowed in.

Ultimately, on the day of boarding, a cruise line does not have the time or ability (it is usually a Saturday or Sunday, when offices are closed) to sort out documentation problems. If you do not have the proper credentials you will not be allowed to board, and you will not get a refund. If you know you have special or unusual circumstances, bring copies of official Department of State policies for the country you are entering. Not every official will know every rule.

2. Check all documents well before you leave.

Always check all your travel documents when they arrive, and then recheck them three or four days before your scheduled departure. On several occasion, I found mistakes in my travel documents that needed correcting. By verifying all information at least three days in advance, you leave time to deal with most possible errors.

3. Check your cruise itinerary carefully

On a cruise I'm taking this summer, it looks like the ship arrives in Venice a day early so you can see the city and disembark the next day. But the actual arrival time the night before is 10 p.m. You can't see much of Venice after midnight, and if I hadn't booked a hotel, we would be flying out the next morning and missing one of the wonders of the modern world.

Always check your itinerary to make sure you will have enough time to see what you want to see. Cruise itinerary listings can be tricky, especially start and end dates. Some cruise lines count the day your flight arrives in Europe as Day One, but in reality you will arrive at the airport, transfer to the ship, unpack, and then sail away. If you want to see the embarkation city -- and most cruises start in places where you will want to spend some time -- arrive a few days early and book a hotel. It's always a good idea anyway, to make sure you catch your ship, because airline service these days is statistically at all-time low for customer satisfaction.

4. Don't think you have to buy a lot of "cruise appropriate" clothes.

This is mostly for first time cruisers, though my dear wife seems to look at every upcoming cruise as a reason to shop. Because cruise lines publish and refer to dress codes all the time, newcomers often think there is some kind of unofficial uniform to wear on a ship.

The real dress code on a cruise ship probably exists in your closet already, so you shouldn't have to buy anything. I am happy to see the trend toward more casual cruising, mainly because formal dress requirements put a lot of people off from cruising. (After working on a ship for a year and wearing a suit seven days a week, I swore that if I ever cruised as a passenger I would never wear a suit. Of course, I didn't keep that oath.)

Daytime wear is what you'd see during a pool party at a rich uncle's house. For men, cotton (not denim) shorts and a polo shirt are perfect. Button-down patterned shirts are also great; so are tropical (Hawaiian-style) shirts for tropical destinations, or any other pattern you like.

If you can't tell what color your sneakers were when you bought them, buy a new pair. Sandals are also acceptable for daytime wear -- but not on shore tours, where you need to protect your feet. For women, shorts and slacks for daytime wear are most practical, because decks can get windy. The air-conditioned interiors of cruise ships can also get chilly, so bring a sweater.

For men, formal night dining means you will want a jacket of some kind and preferably a tie, along with dark dress shoes. Shorts, sneakers, baseball hats and denim are never appropriate in the dining room. Finally, please do not buy nautical-themed clothes such as striped sweaters with epaulets or captain's style hats! You will look like a tenderfoot and probably feel like one, too.

5. Leave shipboard contact information at home for your family & friends.

I get email every week from people who need to get in touch with a loved one on a ship, either for good or bad news. It almost every case, they don't even know which cruise line to contact. Unfortunately, I cannot help these people.

When your cruise documents arrive, look for a punch-out card to give your friends or relatives, telling them everything they need to know about contacting you on your cruise. Make several copies of this information and send it to friends and family by e-mail, or by mail if necessary. The idea is to give it to them in a form that they can easily find if they need it. Tell them to stick on their refrigerator with a magnet until you get back.

Go to Common Cruise Mistakes - Part Two

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