Lessons learned from our first cruise;
1. PLANNING: This is the best website for general cruise information. a. Get an idea of cruise itineraries and ships here, narrow your choices, then go to a travel agent to book your cruise. Too many risks with on-line booking for inexperienced cruisers. Agents get better rates and can help you pick a good ship and itinerary based on answers to a few questions they will ask you. Find an agent experienced in booking cruises or has cruised extensively themselves and rely on their expertise and experience. I used AAA and was very satisfied. b. We chose a Celebrity Cruise on our agent's advise(married couple in our mid fifties cruising alone; i.e., no kids with us and travel budget of $3000 inclusive). It turned out to be a terrific experience. c. Ten day itineraries are a good value and convenient for conserving vacation days (5 work days between two weekends plus a Fri/Mon.on each end). If you are flexible and open minded about cabins, $100 per day per person including airfare from Atlanta is possible. We booked "run of the ship" in December for an April cruise - this option becomes available when the company sees that bookings are slow. We got a very low rate and an inside cabin. d. There are varied opinions on cabins; our goal was a low price. We changed clothes, slept and showered in ours and never regretted not having a window, sitting area, veranda, etc - to us, it wasn't worth the extra cost (a lot). Cabin was adequate with plenty of storage space (We had 4 large bags and a smaller carry-on) - the bags fit under the bed which is designed for such purposes. e. Generally, it's cheaper to book your air separately. AAA (agent)cost was less than on-line costs by $10; saved about $70 per ticket by not booking air with Celebrity.
f. We went a day early and thought this was less stressful - Ft. Lauderdale is a nice city with lots to see and do. It is possible to fly into Ft. Lauderdale same day and make the ship departure time - but it is likely to be much more stressful. We booked a hotel through celebrity to have the benefit of having our bags picked up from our room and taken to the ship. Sheraton a little pricey at $136 but the hassle of not dealing with bags at the terminal is nice. Your bags are transported from the hotel and show up outside your cabin between 2 and 4 PM so, carry a small bag aboard with something to change into when you get on the ship. g. If you have kids traveling with you, I would recommend this ship. There is a terrific children's program that keeps them occupied and gives you time to relax. Don't know details but, I was very impressed with how well behaved the children were and the degree of supervision in children's programs by ships staff. 2. PLAN AHEAD FOR SEA SICKNESS: We had one day and night of 14 to 18 foot swells and the forward and aft sections of the ship moved alot! Come prepared with Over the Counter(OTC)sea sick pills or better yet a scopolamine patch (RX). I used an Australian product given to me by a friend called Kwell. It is actually a low dose of Hyoscamine - a prescription anticholinergic in this country marketed as Levsin for irritable bowel. I am prone to motion sickness - the Kwell worked without drowsiness. OTC Dramamine - an antihistamine - will make you drowsy but, it works. OTC Bonine works too with less drowsiness but does have some sedating properties. I have never used scopolomine patch but, I saw a lot of them behind the ears of smiling passengers - no drowsiness with this med. 3. SHIP SELECTION - MERCURY is great ship - read the ship reviews of others. Most noteworthy was the level of service, food quality, cleanliness of spaces, variety of places to hang out while on board. A good, midsized ship, it still feels like a ship to me rather than a huge floating, 5 star, resort hotel (which is exactly what it is). I like nautical and I liked this ship. 2500 passengers on this size ship provided for places to hide out that were quiet and no long lines for food. Mega ships have 4000+ passengers on only 20% more space - you do the math. I went in with my eyes open about the reported downsides of Mercury - mediocre entertainment, excellent if not haute cuisine and, an annoying vibration aft when propellers are reversed while entering port. We enjoyed the shows we saw; the food, considering the number of guests that are served, is remarkably good with some unique dishes (the soups/desserts) - the midnight buffets are stupendous although we just looked as we were never hungry enough to eat after late dinner. The ship vibrates aft - we rise early and didn't spend much time in our cabin so I didn't care. If you're a late sleeper you might want to get a midship cabin but not up to high (motion). 2. DEPARTURE: We took a cab from the Ft. Lauderdale Sheraton to the port, leaving at 10AM and well before the three Celebrity chartered buses that arrived to take other cruisers who stayed at the Sheraton. We arrived at the terminal at the same time that Mercury passengers from the previous cruise were disembarking but, it was very orderly and not too crowded as arrivals go to a different area. Officials let us into the boarding area at the Terminal about 1010. There were maybe 50 other people early like us. a. You get a card with a number on it and you are called to board by that number - the earlier you arrive, the lower the number, the sooner you board. Celebrity representatives had time to help the small number of early guests easily and I felt we got very personal service in completing embarkation documents. b. At about 1030 members of the Captains Club were invited to board - about three people went onboard and then our number - zero - was called. From the upper terminal area you proceed down a set of stairs to company agents who take your embarkation documents and tickets. You'll present a credit card and be given a cruise card. If you are organized this process taskes about 5 minutes then you board; checking in and boarding was very simple, well directed and took little time c. Ships company takes a picture of you boarding the ship that you can purchase later - something they do throughout the cruise at very reasonable prices. d. Keep in mind that you cannot go to your cabin if you get aboard early (they're not ready till about 1200) but, you can tour the ship without any crowds at all and there is a nice array of brunch type foods in the buffet area. This is the time to book your shore tours and tour the spa. I thought this method of boarding was a good idea - low stress, we booked our shore tours without any hassles or lines (which were long at the tour desk by 1PM) and, got a nice look at almost all of the ship - first impressions were - wow! 4. ITINERARIES/SHORE EXCURSIONS: The 10 day western Caribbean itinerary - Key West, Cozumel, Puerto Limon Costa Rica, Colon Panama, Cartagena Columbia and Grand Caymen Island was very enjoyable. We could take this cruise again (and might do so)and still not do everything that is offered. This is a highly varied and very entertaining itinerary. a.I had a good idea of what we wanted to do for shore tours from the brochures and the web. We booked our selected tours as soon as we got on board and enjoyed them all. You don't have to book before the cruise but do book early the first day aboard. What you do with your time on and off the ship is a personal thing. It is nice to just stay aboard one or two days and relax which we did in Panama. Take time to become informed about what's available from the Celebrity Brochures you will get with your tickets; read email discussions about excursions on this site. b.I cannot recommend booking tours that are not through the ship. You might save a few dollars but their are too many risks - unless you are an experienced traveler. If you don't get back on time its your problem - the ship will leave without you; the ship waits if your on a Clebrity sponsored tour and your late - it happened several times. Tour guide quality is not likely to match what competed for and won endorsement by Celebrity/Royal Caribbean. Our guides were very well educated and informed on the salient points for their respective tours - that was a high point of the tours. What could have been boring was made colorful and interesting by local knowledge. The shore tours were also very well organized and executed on a strict schedule. 5. CRUISING ONBOARD - you'll figure it out - have fun, enjoy. There's a daily paper announcing everything that goes on. You get it late afternoon before the next day. It includes detailed information on ports of call. There is also a TV show piped throughout the ship that gives lots of information about everything you could possibly want to know. We exercised daily sometimes twice a day. Neither of us gained much weight and we ate what we wanted in moderation. I read a lot of web stuff before our cruise where passengers complained about ship service or staff. On Mercury, we found absolutely nothing to complain about. The staff was friendly, knowledgeable in their areas and provided European style, 5 star service that most Americans are unaccustomed to. There will always be complainers - I'll guarantee you that you'll never have it so good! Take time to relax and be pampered and forget about whining about small things that displease you. However, is something is amiss, tell a staff memeber in a supervisory position - I am aware of two such complaints, handled appropriately by guests that were resolved immediatley by ships company. There is a strong committment to service by Celebrity - if you have a legitimate problem, they'll make it right or they'll compenstate you in some manner. There is an X on every Celebrity ship's logo. "Exceeding expectations" is the company motto - in my opinion they did so in every case. Dressing up for dinner is great fun but, if its not for you, there are lots of options. Celebrity has done a good job at listening to what customers want and delivering. We love to dance and could have done plenty of it if we weren't so exhausted (and full!) after dinner. One word on dinner seating - we got lucky and had terrific table partners (2 other couples at a table for 6) according to our partners who were long time cruisers with 20 between them, this can either make or break your overall cruise experience. It is total luck but, there are lots of opportunities to get stuck with unpleasant people/unruly children. All things considered, I would not sit alone nor at a table for four. Six is about right and it is less likely that you will get two couples that are awful. We communicate regularly with one couple we met at our table and we are both going on the same ship next year. Celebrity is noted for its ship's spa - it was gorgeous but treatments were expensive. If you decide to board early, take a guided tour from a staff member - you might decide to splurge. 6. EXTRAS: How much you spend beyond the cruise cost and air transportation itself is going to be widely variable. You use a card aboard - no cash except in the casino. All beverages cost money - there is a fountain with free water, fruit punch and iced tea in the pool areas - otherwise you pay. Mixed drinks 4.50 - fancy drinks more, canned sodas $1.25, table wines all competitively priced and reasonable - you can run up a large bill quickly. We considered bringing a few canned sodas in our luggage but decided the risk of ruptured soda cans from over pressuirization at altitude was too high - it can be done with proper planning. b. Ship gift shops are numerous with good prices - if you want T-shirts, jackets, etc. with cruise logos, wait till mid cruise - they go on sale. There was some very nice jewelry with competitive prices. Save your receipts and keep track of what you're spending. c. We were not terribly impressed with shopping in the ports - thought most of the stuff was pretty expensive. Trinkets and T-shirts galore. I recommend using a credit card for all your purchases ashore - most shops take them and you will get a competitive exchange rate. If you pay in US dollars - something all the shops will gladly take, you give up about 10% to 15%. There is an ATM near the landing in Grand Cayman and you can get Cayman dollars with your credit card at below bank rates (minus the small fee you will pay your credit card company). Grand Cayman dollars are worth more than US dollars ($1.25 to 1.00) so, this is the only place I would recommend paying in local currency. Use credit cards for large purchases. There are bargains to be had but not in any of the stores that are tied in with Celebrity/Royal Caribbean. Emeralds in Columbia and Diamonds in the Caymans were about as expensive as I've seen them in discount jewelers in the US. You do save tax so, if your buying an expensive stone it will save you some money. I am told you gain shopping experience with more cruising - we are neophytes here. We are also not big shoppers and are light drinkers and still managed to spend about $1100 on extras. Be realistic about the added cost of extras and plan for it. DEBARKATION: Very orderly. Just be patient - this is another good time to go to a quiet spot on the ship and relax till your color is called. You do have to vacate your cabins so they can be cleaned for the next cruise. It makes no sense to go stand around in the common areas with the crowds. You leave by colored luggage tags. Bags are placed outside of the cabin the night before and end up in orderly rows in the baggage claim area - we had no problem finding ours. You will be reminded several times to pack a carry off bag - we had a small one with rollers for both of us that we brought on and off the ship. You'll have to hump your own bags from the baggage area to curbside. Porters are available but, there weren't enough of them. All our large baggage had rollers - 4 pieces. If you're purchasing bags for a cruise think about this. You can buy airport transfers from celebrity but you still have to get your own bags to the bus - didn't see much advantage in this so, took a cab. The Ft. Lauderdale airport is small and not designed to handle the large number of passengers who debark from ships in port and head to the airport. You'll debark no later than 11 AM and the ship will assign your color/debarkation priority by your airline departure time. I wouldn't plan a departure before 1PM unless you enjoy stress. We had a late (8PM) departure to get cheap tickets and checked in at about 11AM - this departure time was too late. Doing something in Ft. Lauderdale before a late evening departure is "iffy." Traffic around the airport was terrible and I don't think I would want to sit in a cab four times (twice getting to/from the airport). Having a late, same day flight from Ft. Lauderdale is the one thing I will try to avoid next time. OVERALL: First time we have vacationed without kids - it was the best trip and value vacation we have experienced in 40 years of traveling. The idea of packing and unpacking once for a ten day trip is very appealing to us and the on board service was terrific. We booked a cruise for next March on the last day of the cruise - you save about 30% and get a $200 cabin credit. It's a good deal. Still, the cruise industry is very competitive right now so, for the next 6 to 12 months or so, if your cruising for the first time in this timeframe, I'd probably wait and look for lower pricing for your next cruise rather than booking on the ship but, be sure to check it out. If it looks like a deal, jump on it. In our case, we wanted a specific ship's area on Summit's ten day cruise to the Southern Caribbean so, made the reservation early and still took an inside, inexpensive cabin. Cruise only was about $2300 just a tad more than we paid for Mercury. I'd rate the overall experience a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10. We cried when we left! Hope this helps new cruisers - I could have used something like this for our first time out. If you're debating a cruise vacation stop thinking and act. You'll love it and prices are very cheap right now. Jeff and Ann B