Pre-cruise checklist - Part 1

| Monday, 20 Sept. 2010

Part 1 in a guide to all the odds and ends of planning for your seagoing vacation.

So you booked a cruise. Can't wait to go? Great! You're likely have a wonderful time, given the cruise industry's high satisfaction rating among passengers.

But are you really ready? Too often people wait until just before departure to do things that should have been done weeks earlier. Then in the rush to get it all done, they sometimes leave tickets, medicines or other essentials behind.

After interviewing numerous travelers and travel agents, we've put together a checklist of "must do" advance tasks. These will help to assure your cruise planning and preparation goes as smoothly as possible. In Part 1, we'll discuss the early chores - things you ought to do from the time of booking to two to four weeks before departure.

To be done as Far Out as Possible If you don't have a passport, if your existing passport expires soon, or if you don't have enough pages left in your passport, you'll need a new one. New passport regulations for American citizens traveling abroad will be fully enacted in June, 2009. The good news is that the state department has staffed up so passports are currently being processed and delivered in as little as a week. Don't expect this to last too long, however, as the final deadline gets closer the passport office will get busier.

You can pay for expedited service to be sure you get your passport on time. Currently you can get a passport in as little as 24 hours, but in the future even VIP handling may take far longer than usual.

Until June, 2009, if you don't have a passport, you can use a state issued ID plus an original birth certificate or certificated copy with a raised seal issued by an official government agency. For information, visit http://travel.state.gov/passport/passport_1738.html.

Check with your travel agent or cruise line about whether any visas are required for your cruise itinerary. Start this process very early on as well.

Six Weeks to Three Months Out Shore Excursions: When you receive your cruise documents (your papers for boarding the ship), you usually will receive a shore excursion booklet describing the line's tour options in exotic ports of call. Don't set it aside: Read the booklet, make a decision, and book – usually online -- as soon as possible if you plan to take any of the line's shore trips. The majority of cruise line shore trips are now booked in advance, and there are two good reasons.

First, booking in advance means your shore tickets will be waiting in your stateroom upon arrival. Or they might be delivered while you're at dinner that first night. So you'll avoid standing in a long line at the ship's shore excursion desk after you board.

Second, by pre-reserving shore trips, you'll have a good shot at getting the ones you want. This is particularly important for such popular activities as swimming with the dolphins in the Caribbean or going dog-sledding via a helicopter transfer in Alaska. These excursions have limited spots available.

While the cruise lines say they save some spots for onboard bookers, travel agents will tell you it's risky to wait. Your chances improve with early pre-booking.

Spa and Salon Appointments: If you have the chance to book these in advance, and know what you want, then pre-reserve. Otherwise, you'll have to run to the ship's spa desk right after you board, and even then you might find yourself in a line.

Try to pre-book your spa appointments on sea days, so you have time free in ports of call. Appointment slots fill up quickly. If you wait to book onboard, your only options may be port days or times during the dinner hour.

Embarkation Gifts: If you're celebrating a special occasion on the cruise, like an anniversary or birthday, your cruise document package will often include information on how to book gifts or special packages. If not, check the line's Web site.

It's a nice celebratory touch to pre-book champagne and hors d'ouevres for your stateroom on the day of embarkation. Or, you might pre-purchase "cruise line bucks" for your spouse or friend; that's basically a credit for onboard purchases such as spa treatments, photos or shopping. Most lines require that guests make arrangements for these "gifts" several weeks in advance.

Airline Tickets: Travel agents often re-check their clients' air tickets (if purchased at the agency) to assure the tickets are correct. But if you bought your ticket directly through the cruise line or redeemed frequent traveler miles for a free ticket, you need to do this yourself.

Is the flight schedule correct? Is your name correct? The airline might refuse to board you if the ticket name doesn't match what's on your ID. Are you ticketed to fly on the right dates and at the right times?

It's not uncommon for tickets to be incorrect or for people to have mistakenly booked their flights on the wrong date or in the evening instead of morning. While you may incur a charge to correct the tickets, it's better to find out now rather than at the airport on your day of departure.

Also, check whether you have seat assignments. If not, try to book those directly with the airline. If they say they cannot assign a seat in advance, that means they're tight on space. Some seats are held for assignment on the flight departure day. If you cannot get a seat assignment in advance, check in early at the airport to assure you get a seat and are not bumped.

Credit Card Planning: If your cruise documents have arrived, you're probably feeling great about having paid for the cruise in full. But start evaluating the credit you'll need on your trip. You'll need one credit card with a sufficient credit line, because the cruise line will ask for a credit card upon embarkation to cover the cost of your on-board expenses. At check-in, they'll run off a "credit card authorization" for a certain amount of money. Depending on the line's policy, length of cruise and type of journey (luxury, premium or contemporary), the line might get authorization for $50 to $200 in daily charges.

Why? Sometimes the cost of on-board incidentals might rival the price of the cruise itself. It's possible to run up over a thousand dollars in onboard charges for shore trips, alcoholic beverages, special onboard programs, casino play, spa treatments and onboard shopping.

That doesn't mean you'll be billed on your credit card for more than you actually spend. If you spent only $80 for the week, that's what you'll pay when you get off the ship. But that preliminary credit authorization will apply to your card until it expires. For example, if you have a $2,500 credit card limit, the card already had a $1,500 balance prior to your cruise, and the line runs off $800 in "authorized" charges as a security deposit, you might be left with little usable credit on that card, at least temporarily.

If you rent a car or stay a few days in a hotel pre-cruise, those suppliers might also run off a credit card hold that could extend through the first day of your cruise. Translation? You might not have enough for the incidentals "hold" charge at check-in.

So never go on a cruise with only $100 or $200 credit on a credit card. I've seen people incredulous at the purser's desk when their card is declined, saying, "but it had at least $200 on it." In reality, that isn't enough.

Also, the "hold charges" placed on your credit card onboard might interfere with your ability to use that card for purchases ashore. Savvy cruisers take along two credit cards – one for incidentals onboard, another for purchases ashore.

Arrange for a House Sitter: If you want someone to house-sit for you while you're away, schedule it now. People's schedules fill up quickly, so start early.

Arrange for Child Care: If you're not taking your children along on your cruise, arrange for child care. Would a relative let your kids to stay at their house while you're at sea? Would a grandparent consider staying at your home and handling cooking and supervisory tasks for your kids? Or will your children have to fly elsewhere to stay with a relative? All these issues should be dealt with well in advance.

Two to Four Weeks Out Pre-Packing: Find a good spot in your home to open up the suitcase(s) you plan to take on the trip. Aim for one medium-size suitcase and one roomy carry-on bag. Travel agents say most cruisers tend to over-pack, and usually regret it later.

Put everything you might possibly want to take along in piles next to the luggage. Over the next few weeks, evaluate what you have and start to take away this or that. Don't procrastinate and pack the night before your cruise, as you'll probably throw everything in "just in case."

Susan Helfrich, director of Cruise Events in Richboro, Pa., notes that cruise cabins are usually smaller than most hotel rooms. "Some people pack a month's worth of clothes for a one-week vacation and thus the closets feel tight," Helfrich says. She says cruisers should read the dress code information the cruise line sends. The days of dressing up in formal attire every night are over. Usually no more than two nights on a one-week cruise are classified as formal. Resort casual has become much more the norm these days.

Even on formal nights, some cruisers leave their gowns and tuxedos at home and simply order room service or head for the buffet restaurant. If you like to dress up, by all means take a gown or tuxedo, but don't take two or three different ones.

Agents including Helfrich say savvy cruisers select five or six interchangeable outfits to wear throughout the week. Aim for two or three color groups and mix-and-match clothing. Black is always a good neutral color to team with other colors. Which jacket might go with two or three different outfits? What top might go with both slacks and a long skirt? Think layers. Something you might wear in the morning could be taken off to create a cocktail look in the evening. The black heels you wear with a formal gown can be worn other nights with less dressy attire.

Helfrich says if you haven't worn something in years, you likely won't wear it onboard. Try on any clothes you plan to take, as styles, weight and preferences change. Yesterday's treasures may look awful today. Also, have your kids try on their clothes. It's amazing how fast they grow out of clothing.

One secret Helfrich shares is putting clothes on hangers as they go into the suitcase. "Hangers allow you to take clothes directly from your suitcase and hang them in the closet within minutes," she stresses.

Packing efficiently can improve the quality of your cruise. Remember, if overstuffed checked bags are hand-searched by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at the airport, items may fall out, get lost or not fit back in the bag, causing a luggage delay. By packing efficiently, you also won't waste time in your stateroom unpacking unnecessary items and cramming them into closets.

You'll also have room in your suitcase to bring souvenirs home without having to pay fees for excess baggage at the airport. Helfrich has seen her clients opening bags on the airport floor and hastily transferring clothes between them to avoid a $50 excess baggage fee. "This is not a comfortable way to begin or end a trip," she emphasizes.

If you're on a luxury cruise, inquire about fee-based luggage services that many lines offer. A company will pick bags up at your home and the next time you see your luggage, it will be in your cruise cabin.

Medicines and Toiletries: Many people take prescription medications. If you do, don't wait until it's time to depart to discover you need refills. Take care of this at least two weeks out. If you need a new prescription, there's time to handle the situation with your doctor.

And take along plenty of medicine. A good rule of thumb is one week's extra supply, just in case there's a flight delay, winter storm or some reason why you can't get home on time.

If you get seasick or carsick easily, talk to your physician about remedies or use of "the patch." Also, you might want to buy sea bands -- small, elasticized bands that cover both wrists and have proven helpful in preventing nausea. You'll find these in most drugstores.

Many cruisers want to pack toiletries or over-the-counter medications as well. If you plan to carry on these items, TSA says all liquids, gels and aerosols must be placed in a single, quart-size, zip-top, clear plastic bag. Gallon-size bags or bags that are not zip-top (such as fold-over sandwich bags) are not allowed. Each traveler can use only one, quart-size, zip-top, clear plastic bag, and each container must be three ounces or less. Visit www.tsa.gov for more information.

So put non-essential stuff in checked luggage, using zip bags to avoid any problems if a bottle accidentally breaks. Yes, you could just buy toiletries and over-the-counter medicines (like Pepto Bismol or cold medication) on the ship or in ports of call, but prices can be higher. Also, it might not be that convenient to spend vacation time searching for what you need.

Medical Records: If you have significant medical problems, take along a copy of your records and tests. These could be extremely helpful if you need a doctor onboard. Last summer, my 81-year-old mother and I headed for Alaska on a cruise. We carried all her medical paperwork including copies of EKG and blood tests. Sure enough, she got an unknown infection in the middle of the cruise. The Princess Cruises doctor was able to treat her more effectively after seeing the paperwork.

Do this at least two weeks prior to cruising, three if you can. It may take a week or so for your doctor or other medical groups to provide this information to you.

Pets: At least two to three weeks before departure, arrange for pet care, whether in your home or by boarding your animals. Put any instructions in writing and include pet care insurance documents and vaccination certificates for the caregiver.

Contact your veterinarian and make sure he or she understands that you have designated a particular person to act on your behalf while you're gone. If necessary, draw up a power of attorney so that person can legally make decisions about the pet on your behalf.

Arrange for Airport Transfers: On a long cruise, you may want to book an airport shuttle transfer (leave plenty of time if you are booked with others – it could take an extra 60-90 minutes if the shuttle stops to pick up multiple people) or a limo ride.

If you're booking a car pick-up with a local limo company, do so at least two weeks in advance. Book even further out if your required transport falls during a major event period like prom season, Mardi Gras or Super Bowl.

Next in Part 2: Short-term preparations.

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