These days, most people have either been on a cruise or know someone who has, and with so many options it’s easy to understand why. Cruises are just as diverse as the travelers that take them, traveling all over the world and ranging in everything from luxury Alaskan cruises, to Caribbean adventures for the party crowd. Cruising appeals to many people for multiple reasons, but one of the most common reasons it’s so popular is because taking a cruise can be an inexpensive way to experience and see a lot, for a little. There’s nothing like crossing off multiple bucket list items in one trip!
Cruising can be slightly more in-depth than the ads on TV make it out to be, so whether you’re a first-timer or trying to plan better for your next cruise, here are a few things you NEED to know before you book.
Cruises are NOT “all-inclusive.”
This is HANDS-DOWN the biggest misconception when it comes to cruising. While a few things like basic food options are generally included when you book a cabin, there are far more common things such as bottled water that are not, and knowing what IS and what IS’NT included, will save your trip from any sour surprises.
There’s nothing like a large gratuity bill at the end of your trip to make you wish you had a few less Pina Coladas by the pool. The most obvious portion of gratuities are charged each day for your room cleaning and turn-down, which vary in amount depending on the cruise line. In general these charges tend to be $12-$15 per day, which can really add up depending on the length of your trip. The most expensive of the gratuities are the ones that come with each drink or soda you order. Most cruise lines operate under a “cashless” system where any charges and all gratuities are added to your running room total and charged to the card on file when you return to your departure port. It’s a good practice to keep tabs on drinks, casino charges, etc, each day so you are less surprised with your charges at the end of the cruise.
With your cabin booking, comes basic dining options within certain restaurants and cafes designated by the cruise line. This usually includes a main dining hall, a poolside grill, and a couple of restaurants. This DOES NOT include specialty restaurants and certain dishes. (usually lobster, steak, etc.)
Your included drink options are even more limited than food, with only water, tea, coffee, and juice being a part of the plan. Yep, sodas are not included so if your addicted to caffeine, I would recommend purchasing an unlimited drink package. The options for this vary between soda-only drink packages, and unlimited drink packages that include soda and alcoholic beverages up to a certain value. The value of having one of these drink packages is a widely debated topic online, but I can tell you from experience, if you plan to drink a lot of alcohol while on the ship, it is definitely worth it.
One thing a lot of people don’t budget for is their time on shore. Once you leave the ship, all expenses are 100% on you, and depending on where you are, things like lunch and taxi rides can be costly. My rule-of-thumb is to have $75-$100 per port set aside, with a majority of that being cash. This covers food, transportation, activities, and souvenirs.
Excursions are totally WORTH IT.
Your time spent in each port will seem to fly by, so it’s always best to have a plan for each day ahead of time. Where most people envision walking off of the ship and straight onto a gorgeous beach, this is usually not the case. Typically, even scenic spots right within walking distance can be overly crowded and twice as expensive as locations closer inland. Keep in mind however, transportation ranges from cheap to expensive for taxis, buses, and shuttles, depending on how far you’re traveling. With all of these things in mind, planning excursions can be the best way to maximize your time in port, and avoid wasting any precious time. As a plus, many of them provide transportation and a meal, alleviating the need to plan for these things yourself. Excursions are offered for all sorts of experiences from hiking up Mount Vesuvius, to lounging on private beaches, so whether your looking for a relaxing, historical, or educational experience, there is an excursion out there for you.
*Helpful Hint* – Excursions can be quite expensive when booked through the cruise line, but there are lots of local companies that offer excursions for a fraction of the price and can be booked online. Just make sure the company guarantees return to the ship, so you don’t end up left behind.
You will definitely regret not booking a room with a balcony.
Although balcony rooms are more expensive than inside cabins, people always regret not taking advantage of this upgrade. These cabins are not only bigger than your standard matchbox, they also significantly help with sea sickness. Another reason I like these rooms is for the natural light that comes in from outside. Inside cabins are kind of like Vegas, where you never know what time of the day it is. Balconies are also great for scoping out the weather before leaving the ship. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to go back to my room to change clothes when I realized it was colder, hotter, or rainier than I expected. You can find great deals for upgraded rooms throughout the year, but if you don’t want to pay too much more and sea sickness is a concern, you can always meet in the middle and book a cabin with a port hole window. (offered on select cruise lines)
Your phone won’t work on the cruise, so plan accordingly with your travel mates.
We take for granted how easily we are able to get a hold of people on a day-to-day basis, but in the middle of the ocean, cellular service is a no-go. This may not be an issue when traveling with a partner or roommate, but many people cruise with family and friends that may have rooms at all different corners of the ship, making communication slightly more pertinent. I suggest choosing a central location that you all meet at each time. This will make it easier for everyone to remember where you’re meeting, and make navigating to and from cabins a little easier. A lot of people also hang dry-erase boards on their cabin doors to leave notes for one another when someone can’t be reached on the room phone.
All cruise lines are different, so do your research.
If you are reading this article, you are already on the right track to being informed enough to plan your ideal vacation, so good job! Cruise lines vary tremendously in the way they do certain things so knowing the differences may be helpful in tailoring your experience. Many have assigned dinner times and tables, meaning you will have a time slot allotted to you for the whole trip, that includes sitting at the same table with the same people. The first time I took a cruise, I was surprised to find out my husband and I were assigned to a table with a family of four that we had never met. I was a little annoyed at first, (I was looking forward to romantic dinners…) but by the end of the trip, the six of us had become friends for life.
Cruise lines are as diverse as the people who take them, giving you the ability to completely customize your cruising experience. So whether you want to party like a rockstar on Carnival, or spend some magical quality time with your kids on a Disney cruise, know before you go and plan accordingly.