Cruises, Need to prepare, Speaking from Experience, Vacation

Cruising 101, Part 2

On deck, Leaving Skagway

Welcome back blog readers,

Here is a recap from yesterday’s blog post, Cruising 101.

  • You are considering a cruise for your next vacation
  • What you need to consider before booking your cruise: Passport is up to date, Vaccinations (travel vaccinations) are up to date, You know to carry cash to pay for tips.
  • You know to research the various cruise lines, theme cruises, excursion options, and destinations to ensure that you make the most of your cruising experience.
  • First time cruisers are advised to book a cabin/stateroom Mid-Ship to avoid motion sickness.
  • Once you’ve settled on the ship, you are encouraged to find videos on Youtube to ensure you see the stateroom and consider any feedback left from former passengers.


There is so much information that I want to (and will) share, so let’s get started.

Let’s start at the beginning…

Before you book your cruise:

  • Do you need to go through a travel agent? No. If you find the process overwhelming, you certainly can book through a travel agent. This is at your discretion.  If you have a family member that is a travel agent or works for a particular airline or hotel chain, look into getting a discount. Don’t forget to take advantage of AirMiles, Reward Points, AAA/CAA or other Customer Loyalty perks if you have them.
  • If you don’t live near a cruise port (specifically the cruise port your ship is leaving from) let’s assume that you will require transportation to/from the cruise port from the airport. Consider the added cost for airfare roundtrip.

Here’s what I do and highly recommend. Since most of our cruises have left from Fort Lauderdale, Florida we book a flight that arrives the DAY BEFORE for cruise ship leaves port. Why? We are traveling from Canada where there is often snow/ice and risk of delays. We have been booking through Air Canada vacations (to save on the bundle of flight/hotel) and we know that there are only 2 flights from Ottawa to Fort Lauderdale. It’s really for peace of mind, to ensure we arrive at the cruise port before the ship leaves because it will not wait for you, unless they know you have entered the terminal. Most times we arrive at our hotel around 8pm (the night before) and we book a shuttle from the hotel to the cruise port in the morning. First time cruisers, you really don’t have to arrive before noon at the cruise port (unless your ship leaves earlier). All of ours have never left before 4pm. Now don’t wait until 4pm to show up as once you arrive at the cruise port you still have to go through security, customs and wait in the long line to get your key card for your stateroom (also acts as your ID onboard).

I’ve jumped a little ahead, back to the bullet points.

  • You’ve booked your flight, you’ve google mapped the long list of hotels near the airport, so now you look for hotels that participate in your Rewards/Perks program and consider staying at one that offers FREE shuttle to the cruise port. Feel free to book an Uber, Taxi or make your own arrangements as long as you get to the cruise port on time.
  • Don’t forget to book a hotel and transportation once the cruise arrives back at the port. This may not apply to all first time cruisers, depending on where you are going after the ship arrives or how early your flight home leaves. Allow yourself to arrive 2 hours before your flight is scheduled to leave.
  • When booking your flight home, I highly recommend you book a later flight anytime after 1pm or even book the flight the day after if you can. The ship usually arrives back at the port as early as 6am. The ship needs to be cleared from the local authorities and the several hundred suitcases need to be unloaded and sorted in the terminal before any passenger is allowed to leave (unless you opt for walking all of your luggage off of the ship). If your budget permits, book a hotel for the day as it serves as a place to store your luggage and book a sight seeing tour, spend the day at the beach or just take the extra day to relax before your flight. From my experience, spending the whole day (10:15am to 9:45pm) at the airport SUCKS.
  • If you are unsure about booking a shuttle from the cruise port to your next destination (hotel/airport), not to worry, you don’t have to sort it out now. Most cruise lines (Not Norwegian) will offer to help arrange transportation if you decide to book an excursion as to avoid sitting at the airport all day. Expect to pay a fee per person.

Ok, now that we covered getting to/from the cruise port, let’s talk about what to expect once you finally get onboard the ship.

The most important tip, KEEP YOUR ROOM KEY CARD ON YOU. Once you arrive you may feel a little overwhelmed as the ships are huge and most people spend the first day exploring, getting to know the layout, that is after you locate the Lido Deck (where the buffet is). Don’t expect to be able to access your room right away. Remember that there are at least 2000 maybe 4000 passengers waiting to have their luggage sent to their stateroom. Of the four cruise lines, Holland America has been the best for getting passengers on/off and the stateroom was ready immediately. I suspect that is the case because their ships are smaller and they assign 2 room attendants where the other ships are larger and only have 1 attendant.

Every cruise ship will go through a Muster Drill before the ship leaves port. You will be notified (the TV in your stateroom will already be on to guide you) as to what time it will start. Your key card will indicate where you are to meet the emergency crew (sometimes it’s out on deck, sometimes it’s a dining room or lounge). Please make sure your kids are with you, everyone HAS to be present, your key card may be scanned or your room number may be called as proof that you attended. Once this drill is complete, the ship will leave the port. Even past guests have to attend, it is mandatory, no exceptions.

Here are a few nautical terms that will help you navigate your way around the ship.

  • Forward, should be self-explanatory, Forward is referring to the Front of the ship
  • Mid-Ship, the Middle of the ship
  • Aft, the Back of the ship
  • Port (side), LEFT assuming that you are facing foward. I use word association to help me remember, PORT and LEFT have the same amount of letters. PORT and LEFT also have an EVEN amount of letters and the Staterooms that end in an EVEN number tend to be on the PORT side.
  • Starboard (side), RIGHT. Odd amount of letters in both words, Staterooms that end in an ODD number will be on the Starboard side.
  • Lido, not so much a nautical term as it tends to refer to the name of the deck that the buffet is located.
  • Gangway, The narrow walkway that allows passengers to walk on/off the ship while it’s docked at a pier. An announcement will be made as to where the Gangway(s) are located and signage will be posted to remind you what the All Aboard Time is.
  • Tender, A small ferry style boat that may be used to transport several passengers to/from the ship to the port. Often used when the ship is too large to tie up to the dock/pier. These tenders make several trips and they usually make their last trip 30-45 minutes before all passengers are to scheduled to be back onboard.

What does the All-Inclusive cover? Once you’ve book the cruise, your credit card is on file and attached to your stateroom in the event that you tack on any additional charges. The All-Inclusive covers:

  • All meals at the buffet, as many meals as you want including coffee, tea, milk, water and the juice, lemonade, iced tea from the drink dispensers.
  • All meals at the Dining Room (listed on your key card). Again you can order as many appetizers, dinners, desserts in one sitting as you’d like.
  • Entertainment/Shows/Demonstrations- for the most part they are FREE. Norwegian likes to charge for some of the entertainment. Norwegian and Royal Caribbean ask that you reserve seats, which I didn’t like. By the end of the first day everything was booked, so we missed out (or at least made to feel that we missed out as many guests booked but never attended). Holland America and Carnival were inclusive and had ample seating, ironic how the smaller ships can accomodate larger crowds and the larger ships don’t have ample seating. In any case, check your daily Itinerary that gets delivered to your stateroom as it should be mentioned there, otherwise contact Guest Services to be sure.
  • Room Service on Holland America and maybe Carnival were FREE, the other lines asked for a minimum order or want to charge a small fee for delivery or stopped delivery after a certain time. A menu will be in your stateroom, read the fine print.

That’s about it, your basic breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and most of the entertainment are inclusive.

Alcoholic drinks and Soda are EXTRA unless you purchase a Drink Package. The ships vary in price and some offer tiered packages, so it’s at your discretion to choose which is best for you.

Happy Hours: Holland America seems to be the only line that offers a Happy Hour. One of their ships offered a Buy one Get (the same drink) FREE. Worth mentioning as my husband and I wanted two different drinks thinking we’d buy one and get the other free, we ended up getting 4 drinks. A happy little mistake 🙂 The other 2 ships offered a buy one get one 50% off. There are 2 bars that participate in Happy Hour, the one at the Crows Nest is the one you should seek out.

As far as drink pricing (if you don’t buy the drink package), Holland America has the best pricing with a range of $5, $6 ,$7, $8 for mixed drinks and their drink of the day was discounted as well. The other cruise lines don’t offer a Happy Hour, just a drink of the day that costs $7 or $8 dollars. The most expensive drinks were on the Norwegian Epic that started around $8 and went up to $14

Gambling onboard, naturally will cost extra and all money spent goes right onto your onboard account. This includes the Casino, Bingo games, Deal or No Deal, Slot Tournaments, Poker Tournaments, BlackJack Tournaments (anything that offers a chance to win Cash probably has a fee attached). The casino is only open on Sea days and once the ship reaches international waters on Port days. The same thing is true for the onboard shops. No cash needed, just charge it to your room with your key card.

Casino Tip: Assuming that you have a credit card attached to your onboard account (most common, but not everyone does, they pay cash at the end). It’s very easy to swipe your key card at the slot machines or tables to charge $10 here, $20 there, another $10 here. Yes there are ATM’s, which charges a fee to process and your bank might charge for not using one of their machines, and don’t forget about the currancy exchange rate. You can get cash from the teller in the casino, for a fee. You can also get cash from Guest Services, for a fee. So where’s the tip? The tip is to swipe your key card at any slot machine, follow the prompts to Charge to your room give it a few seconds to process the transaction, once you see the CREDITS appear you press CASHOUT and take the voucher to a machine to cash in or to the teller to avoid extra fees (except Norwegian that charges 3%) the other cruise lines don’t charge if you use their slot machines to bypass the handling fee/exchange rate. Why is this helpful? Most ports will take cash, many vendors don’t accept credit card or debit so it’s a great way to ensure that you have cash to do your shopping just in case you need it. Also it’s nice to tip your tour guides on your excursions.

This brings me to my next point, Gratuities. You will notice when you check your onboard account that each day you will be charged a Service Fee/Gratuity Fee that averages $14.50 per day per person. What are these fees for? Basically the accumulated fees will be divided among the buffet crew that clears the tables, the room attendants, the crew members that put together the daily activities and provide the daily printout that gets delivered to your stateroom. Can I get this fee removed? YES! Go to Guest services and let them know that you want to remove the gratuity fees as you indend to tip in cash.

You will see automatic gratuities being charged for all drinks at the bars (unless you have a drink package). Extra Gratuities added for specialty coffee drinks and specialty dining and in some cases extra fees for Room Service. Let’s not forget about any services that you might get at the Spa like a massage, facial, getting your hair/nails done, acupuncture and even filler injections. This may not be a complete list, just what I can recall at the moment.

Dining: The buffet and Dining Room are not your only options (just the free options). Most cruise ships will offer options like Teppanyaki, Sushi, Italian, Brazilian, Steakhouse, French, Asian Noodle Bar if you’re looking to experience more of a fine dining experience. Don’t assume that you can just walk in when you’re ready to eat, in most cases you have to reserve a day/time in advance. If you’ve decided on a ship, then I encourage you to check out Youtube videos of the specialty dining to see if it’s something that interests you, especially if you are considering buying a Specialty Dining package.

When it comes to fine dining, it’s safe to assume that there is a dress code. Most ships do have a Gala night in all dining areas except the buffet. Typically this is the same night that you will see several crew members in the public areas available to take professional pictures. Taking the picture is FREE, buying a copy, not so much. The exception was Norwegian, they didn’t have a Gala night. They offered professional picture taking on several days of that cruise.

Shore Excursions: On days that you will be in Port, there are many activities for you to consider while you are off the ship. Snorkeling (bring your own gear if you have it), Kayaking, Scuba, various tours, Swimming with dolphins, hiking, tubing through a lazy river, Exploring caves, Ziplining, Parasailing, Train rides, honestly just too many activities to mention. You’ll be well informed as to what is available at the various ports. Equipment rentals are available, don’t worry. All excursions come with a fee, per person in most cases. Some activites require you to be fit and in shape, others not so much. Just something to keep in mind before booking a beautiful nature hike with strollers and grandma in tow 😛

Port Days: What to expect on port days… Expect the buffet to be chaos between 7am-9:30am. Those passengers that have booked an excursion want (need) to get off the ship to meet their tour guide. Do you have to get off the ship? NOPE. In fact some of the best days are port days where you stay on while half of the passengers get off. More chairs at the pool are available, the best time to book a spa treatment in on port days. There are still activities onboard, so there things to pass the time.

If you are getting off, BRING YOUR KEY CARD AND PASSPORT or ID. Make sure you know when the ship is leaving and please for the love of god, make sure you are back 30 minutes before that time. If the ship states that the ALL ABOARD time is 4:30pm, that doesn’t mean dilly dally, take your sweet ass time and show up at 4:45pm, 4:50pm, 5pm. The ports run on a schedule and other ships may be waiting or are enroute to use the dock/pier. If your ship is late leaving the captain gets fined big bucks and the ship will leave you behind (hence taking your passport as you will have to make arrangements to get home from there). Please schedule your excursions and allow yourself time to get back. If you are on an excursion that is running late, the captain knows and may make the exception to wait as he/she knows it is not your fault. Chances are it’s not just you the ship is waiting on, it’s a group of you.

This has happened on one of the cruises I was on, a group was out on an excursion in St.Marteen, all aboard was 4pm. The tour was running late the shuttle broke down on the way back. The captain received word and we watched several taxis leave the tourist area to retreive the guests. The captain wasn’t pleased as he had to stay an hour longer than he was scheduled, which means he had to make up time to the next port. It was this same cruise that some guests that got off were also late getting back on and were almost left behind. The ship does not sound the horn when it’s time to get back, so bring your watch, bring your phone, make sure you know what time it is.

Ship Time: It is very likely that while you are on a cruise, you may enter into a different time zone. Be mindful of the time the SHIP is on as this may impact your excursions and the time you need to get back. The SHIP time may vary from where you are and what the local time is. Typically an announcement will be made and you’ll be notified the evening before the time change happens so you can set your watches, phones and alarms accordingly.

Speaking of time, it’s time to end this post and continue tomorrow….

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