Okay, you asked for it!
I wrote this for some friends who were going on their first cruise. Hope you find something useful in it.
Getting onto the ship is the least fun part of the trip. If you drive to the port, you unload your luggage, then park. There are porters at the pier to check your large bags. Usual tip is $1 a bag. You should take jewelry, cameras, medications and any breakables in a carryon bag that you keep with you. The actual check-in process sometimes is smooth and easy, but usually not. They check all tickets, proof of identification before allowing people to board. Some cruise lines now allow early check-in, where you can’t go to your cabin, but you can get onboard. Don’t know if Carnival has this yet.
It can take some time for them to deliver the luggage you checked. A lot of people get worried, but it simply takes a while to sort out bags for a couple thousand guests and take it to their cabins. And, it’s not like an airline, where your bags can end up going to China while you’re going to St. Louis.
During check-in, they will take an impression of your credit card, then issue you a cruise card. Your will use this to charge everything on board, including tours, gift shop purchases, beverages, and services. At the end of the cruise, they give you a statement of your charges for the week. If there are problems, you have time to straighten it out at the purser’s office (which is like the front office for a hotel). If not, the charges will be put on the credit card you gave them. If you do not want to use a credit card, you may alternatively give them a cash deposit.
As you board, the ship’s photographers will take the first of what will seem like thousands of photos of you. There is an area of the ship where they display these once developed and you can choose to buy all, some, or none of them. Say cheese!
Once on board, you will go to your cabin and see just how “compact” it is! Forget anything you have seen on “Love Boat” episodes or movies or hotel rooms. These are ship accommodations and are adequate, but not expansive. There will be some brochures in the cabin and info on how to contact purser, room service, doctor, etc. Plus a schedule of activities for that day. You will get one of these every evening for the next day. You will also find an envelope with your dining room table assignment on it. The first night, you present that when entering the dining room and they will escort you to your assigned table. Days when we are at sea, usually all 3 meals are at assigned tables, days in ports, it is open seating. But, we usually eat breakfast and lunch at the Lido buffet. The room service menu is also there. Room service is free, but is usually tipped modestly (a buck or 2). Every ship has a full time doctor, nurses and infirmary. Some now even have dentists. You do have to pay extra for medical stuff, except the freebies, such as aspirin and seasickness pills. Carnival usually gives out Dramamine, which knocks me out, so I take bonine (a.k.a. meclizine) with me.
Next up is the welcome aboard buffet. There is a permanent buffet area on the Lido deck, which serves 3 meals a day, in case you don’t want to go to the dining room, plus midnight buffets. Carnival also has a 24 hour pizza and Caesar salad station in the same area. Coffee and tea are generally available there 24 hrs, also, plus ice cream. We usually go to the gift shop as soon as we sail and buy insulated mugs. We can then carry around hot or cold beverages all week.
The least fun activity takes place the first day. Shortly after the ship sails, there is a lifeboat drill mandated by the Coast Guard. You have to go to your cabin, get your life jacket, put it on and got to your assigned life boat station. I guess it’s good to know in advance but I doubt it would be that organized in a real emergency. Modern day cruise ships are built like honeycombs. Every cabin, every corridor, every storage area is a separate watertight compartment. They learned a lot from the Titanic!
Sometime during the first day or evening, your cabin steward will come by to introduce himself. He and his assistant will make up your cabin twice a day. The good ones, and most are good, are like invisible elves. Turn your back and they clean up behind you. They will quickly learn your routine. They work long and hard hours, and if you want to sleep late or nap during the day, put the Do Not Disturb sign out and they will wait until you leave to clean. I usually will tell them if I’m going to be spending a lot of time resting, so they don’t use all of their free time waiting for me to go out. I do strongly recommend that you use the safety deposit box in the cabin. Theft is extremely rare, as it means instant dismissal of a suspect employee, but it can happen.
If you are prone to seasickness like I am, you can either take seasick pills in advance or wait until you feel like you need them. It usually starts with feeling dizzy, light headed or mildly queasy. Take a pill asap! What also helps is keeping your tummy full…very easy to do on a cruise. Also, modern ships have such sophisticated stabilizers that you rarely even feel any motion. Even though I do get seasick, I miss the ships where you knew you were on the ocean.
THINGS TO TAKE
Most ships only have one electrical outlet in the cabin, so I always take an extension cord. If we are in an inside cabin, I also take a small nightlight, as it can be pretty dark. Another useful item is large plastic baggies. I’ve often found myself packing to go home, with wet bathing suits or slippery shampoo bottles. Other items to consider: a cheap rain poncho and an underwater camera…good for beach days, even if you never get wet yourself. You won’t need a beach towel, as the ships provide these. The shops on board carry a limited number of toiletries and sundries, like film, but they are expensive, so try to take things with you. I always pack a small first aid kit, and cold med’s, just in case. For prescription med’s, they recommend bringing them in original containers, so your name and Rx # is on them. For me, that would require an extra suitcase, so I copy all my receipts with that info and pack the med’s more compactly.
Re. activities in ports: you can sign up for tours through the ship or go off on your own. We only do things by ourselves if we are very familiar with the ports. If a ship’s tour gets hung up and returns late, the ship will wait for them. Not so if you’re doing your own thing. Be aware that the ports are mostly in third world countries. Their customs and laws are very different from ours, so a little extra common sense and courtesy are good to take along. On the plus side, most ports are heavily dependent on tourists’ dollars, so many of the people speak adequate English and are anxious to please. But, pickpockets and other less desirable types are there. Men should carry their wallets in a front pocket, not a back one. I use a waist bag with a light, long sleeved shirt tied around my waist over the bag to make it more difficult for someone to unbuckle it. We only take our id’s, one credit card, emergency travelers’ checks and some cash with us into ports. We leave a different credit card, the rest of our cash and travelers’ checks, and copies of id’s in our cabin’s safety deposit box. But, after all that, I’ve been on 30+ cruises and never had a single problem. You will also be in port with a large number of fellow passengers, plus often those from other ships. Stay in areas where there are a lot of Americans around and you should be fine. Oh, if a local in one of the ports offers to take a photo of the two of you, plan on never seeing your camera again!
For the ships tours, sign up for the ones you want right away. Some will sell out. Tickets will be delivered to your cabin and the ticket will tell you where and when to meet. Getting everyone off the ship in an organized way requires some planning, but they do it well. If the ticket says to meet on the pier, there will be a crew member with a sign for the tour. Other times, you will meet in one of the common rooms on board ship and be directed from there. There will also be a talk on board during the first day at sea and they will tell you about the ports, the tours and the “recommended” stores. The cruise lines make deals with different shops. They promote them and if you have a problem with an item you bought in a port, the cruise line will let you return it to them. However, these tend to be the most expensive shops, so unless I’m buying something expensive, which isn’t likely for me, I don’t really think it’s worth it.
Tipping is usually done the last night of the cruise. Carnival and some others have started automatically putting the tips on your cruise card. But, you have the right to change the amounts, or even delete them altogether. But, tips are the primary source of income for most of the service staff. We just like to decide for ourselves who and how much to tip.
On the last night of the cruise, you will be asked to place all of your luggage outside your cabin before going to bed. This gives them time to take all the luggage to a central area, so it can be unloaded quickly once the ship docks. Also, once it is unloaded, the drug dogs are walked through the area to find anyone stupid enough to try and smuggle drugs in. But, you will need a small bag for the items you need the last night and morning. Plus, you should plan on carrying any breakables off the ship yourself. I have a collapsible bag that has wheels and a handle that I bought on a Carnival cruise. End up using it every trip!
We do not buy the travel insurance promoted by the travel agencies. Way too expensive and the coverage is not very reliable. You’re only covered for trip cancellation if you or family member is critically ill. Most cruise lines will allow you to reschedule your trip if that happens and, for me, if something happens that keeps me from going, the cruise will be the least of my concerns. We do buy a zero trip value insurance from a company called CSA.____________________ That provides for emergency evacuation if needed and/or medical care in a port. Many US health insurance plans have no coverage outside the US. More important is that if someone is so sick or injured on the cruise, it can cost tens of thousands of dollars for emergency helicopter evacuation to a US medical facility. This insurance covers that.
My favorite thing is to go up on deck as soon as I wake up, grab some coffee, find a quiet spot and watch the ocean roll by. Shannon prefers to have coffee and light breakfast delivered to the cabin. They have cards in your cabin where you specify what you want and when. They pick them up at night and presto, wake up call is room service
We also really enjoy the evening entertainment. They put on a different show every night and sometimes its great, sometimes so-so, but fun anyway.
The dining room is open for limited hours for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Alternatively, you can eat at the Lido buffet. Dress code for the dining room prohibits swimming suits and shorts, although they usually don’t enforce shorts rule at lunch. The Lido buffet is completely casual. Jump out of the pool, grab some lunch, jump back in. You can also get room service anytime. There will be a late night buffet of some sort every night. One night will be the Gala Buffet, where they pull out all the stops. Worth going to look, even if you don’t eat. True artistry, ice carvings, fruits and veggies made into floral bouquets, etc., etc.
As a general rule, we do not eat in ports. Hygiene and refridgeration are inconsistent. The more upscale the restaurant, the safer it is. Especially if you see the place is packed with US folks. But, while we’ll buy a bottle of soda, we usually eat a large breakfast, then wait until we get back on board for lunch. Worst case is we have to “settle” for pizza and Caesar salad. I do carry a protein bar with me in case we get stuck. Have to keep my blood sugar levels even. Almost needed it last year. I got locked in the ladies room at a rum factory that was on my tour. Luckily, someone walked by and heard me shouting!
Toothbrush + Paste
Nail polish + remover
Toenail clippers/nail file
Eyeglass cleaner + cloth
Long sleeve shirt for sunburn
Gown + robe
Laundry bag/wet bag
Protein bars for ports
Loose pants and shoes
Plastic cable ties for debarkation
Batteries for phone, camera, clock
Phone #’s + addresses
Copy credit cards, id’s