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Whether you are seasoned sailor or a first-time cruiser, Sherry Laskin, the Cruise Maven, tells why going on a cruise is still a good idea and value for your next vacation – and shows us how to do it in Travel Belle style.
Lately, the news has been flooded with stories and incidents that makes the cruise lines appear negligent and the cruise experience seem risky or even simply boring for a landlubber. Here are some ideas that should convince you that cruising is still the best vacation (in my opinion!) and great vacation value.
Let’s start by imagining that you’ve paid for your cruise in full, bought a new swim suit and a set of luggage, arranged for a pet sitter/plant person and stopped the mail and newspaper delivery. Now what? To make the transition from landlubber to seasoned sailor a cinch, here are my suggestions to help ensure a smooth sailing.
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Pack light. Then pack again.
Even after a zillion cruises, I still return home with unworn clothes. If you have to fly to the port, even more reason to leave half of what you think you’ll need at home. Color-coordinate so that you can easily mix and match and turn a daytime outfit into evening wear.
Sounds simple, right? I’ve developed a plan that I like to call my “Noah’s Ark cruise packing tips.” I bring two of everything.
What to pack for a 7-night Caribbean cruise:
Two black dress pants with two dressy tops,
Two dresses, one cocktail-type dress, one sundress
Two pairs of shorts,
Two short-sleeve t-shirts, two sleeveless t-shirts,
Two bathing suits,
Two pairs of running socks,
Two casual pants, two skirts (that go with the t-shirts/tops) and so on.
Did I say I pack two of everything? Well, there is one exception: shoes. It’s impossible to only bring two pairs of shoes. So, it’s one pair each of black high-ish heels, sneakers, sandals, some kind of dressy nice-looking flat shoes and maybe one extra casual shoe with a heel. Four or five pairs of shoes are sufficient. Black or neutral colors only.
Whether your one-week cruise has two formal nights or none, the above recipe really works well. Throw in a couple of scarves, costume jewelry and you’re good to go. What about for a man? Follow the above guidelines, perhaps omitting the high heels.
You can always wash a few pieces of clothing in the sink but never ever leave wet clothes on the balcony to dry. Many ships (from mass market to ultra-luxe) have self-service laundromats or you can send out your dirty clothes to be washed/folded (less expensive than dry cleaning.)
Cruise lines now reward frequent passengers with complimentary clothes washing mid-way through the cruise. That is one of my favorite perks.
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Arrive early – or even the night before
Nothing increases frustration and frazzles nerves more than imagining the ship sailing without you. Why put yourself through that aggravation when it is easy to avoid. (That said, there have been a handful of times many years ago, when I was the absolute last to board and the gangway clanked closed behind me.)
Fast-forward to today. Homeland Security demands checking in at the ship no less than 90 minutes prior to the published sailing time. That said, the cruise line may deny boarding to late arrivals and with no refund. Why risk it?
Whenever possible, fly or drive in to your port the day prior to your cruise. You can sleep later, enjoy a nice breakfast at your hotel, then grab your luggage and a shuttle or taxi and head to the port.
Many hotels now offer free or greatly reduced parking rates for up to three weeks if you simply spend only one night at their hotel. Check out www.parksleepfly.com and click “cruiseport.”
Hand-carry your documents, medicines and even a change of clothes
If you accidentally pack your passport in your checked luggage, it can really ruin a good day or even contribute to missing the ship.
Even though you arrive at the port at 11am and check your luggage, there’s a good possibility that you won’t see your belongings in your stateroom until 5pm.
So if you need medication at lunchtime, be sure to carry it aboard with you. Same goes for a change of clothes. If you flew to your ship in the morning, leaving winter’s wrath behind you, carry along a lightweight change of clothes with you.
That way, should you not see your luggage until 5pm, at least you will be able to change clothes and enjoy the first day of your cruise without looking like Nanook of the North meets the Love Boat.
Tip the shoreside porters
Despite the fact that there are signs posted all around the baggage handling areas that say tipping isn’t necessary because the baggage handlers are on a salary, don’t follow that advice.
These people really do work hard to unload your car and transport vehicles. They spend hours, usually in the hot sun, lifting tons of overweight luggage, filling cargo bins and moving them to the ship.
A good rule of thumb is $2 per bag. Or if you are traveling solo and have only one bag, $5-$7 will help insure that your solo bag makes it to your room. On time. For that particular sailing. There are stories I could tell about passengers who don’t tip the baggage handlers…but I’ll leave it to your imagination.
Attend the muster drill
No more hiding in the bathroom, in the closet or under the bed. Muster drill is essential, required and can truly save your life.
After the Costa Concordia disaster, every cruise line has tightened their muster drill regulations. Attendance is taken at each muster station and if you are not there, you will be required to attend a private muster drill at a time determined by the Captain.
Check out your dining room seating arrangements
Why? Probably one of the most uncomfortable situations on a cruise, when you and your cabin mate have requested either main (6pm-ish) or second (8:15pm-ish) dining time and are seated in the dining room at a table for four.
So many variables can be put into play; just imagine being at dinner for seven nights in a row with two strangers with whom you have absolutely nothing in common. Sometimes they don’t talk, they’re grumpy, a totally different demographic from you and your partner, and on and on.
So you’re probably thinking that you could go to the maître‘d immediately after dinner and request a table change. And you certainly could do so.
But imagine that you are waiting for an elevator, the doors open and who should be standing there? None other than the abandoned table couple. On a ship with 4,000 passengers it may seem highly unlikely that you’d ever run into them again. Trust me. You will.
Facilitate that event never happening and simply wander into the dining room before dinner and find your table. That way, if it’s a table for four, you can politely ask the maître‘d to change your table on that same night. You may have to wait a bit while some juggling is done, but it can and will be done.
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Grab the fold-out deck plan map and get acquainted with your ship
When muster is over, be sure to go on the deck for the sail-away festivities. Then when you’ve finished your foo-foo drink, with the fold-out deck plans in hand, make your way to the highest deck on the ship.
From there, after a peek at what there is to do, meander your way down deck by deck walking from bow to aft until you complete your tour. This should really only take maybe 30 minutes and it’s a great way to get a quick overview of where things are and what there is to do.
You probably won’t remember half of it, but at least it will look semi-familiar when you go back there later on the cruise.
And most importantly:
Take a mental snapshot of your deck plan and exit route
There’s at least a 99.9% chance you’ll never need it use it, but just like you should always do at a hotel, note where the emergency exits are…in this case, the closest stairwell.
Also, I always travel with a mini-flashlight, which sits on my nightstand along with quick-to-jump-into clothes folded nearby. I do this at hotels, too. Maybe it was my Girl Scout training to always be prepared.
A first cruise can be incredibly exciting and a bit overwhelming. With these tips, your first or even fiftieth cruise can be one of the best vacation experiences you’ll ever remember.