Your Vacation Cruise
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If you are thinking about taking your first cruise, or you just want to be well prepared for you next one, here are some things to consider.

What Are You Looking for in a Cruise Vacation?
In a general sense there are two kinds of cruise passengers, those who regard the ship as a "destination resort" expecting to be pampered in luxury and don't much care where the ship goes; and those who want to see the world, and regard the ship as a means of relatively comfortable transportation. Most people fall somewhere between these two extremes.

Choosing Your Itinerary, Selecting a Cruise Line and a Specific Ship.
One of the ways to go about this is to wade through a pile of cruise brochures.  That's OK, but don't let yourself get carried away by poetic text and seductive pictures. The important thing is to be informed. Go online to the various cruise forums and bulletin boards and learn what other cruisers think about the itineraries, cruise lines and ships.

Book with a Travel Agent or Book Directly with the Cruise Line?
A really good travel agent can help you find the right cruise and they can advise you about all the details that might otherwise go unnoticed. Some major cruise lines no longer permit travel agents to make bookings at less than the advertised brochure rate or their then current special promotion rates. But, if there is a special promotion in effect, you can bet the agents know about it, where the general public might not be aware. Also, agents can give perks to their clients, like a bottle of wine, or $$ towards your shipboard account. This comes out of their standard 7-10 % commission.. On the other hand, If you book directly with the cruise line, it's fewer people involved in the transaction and therefore, there's a lesser chance of a major screwup.

Cabin Location
Check out the deck plans which are published on the cruise lines' websites.  Decide generally where you want to be. Forward or aft, port or starboard. You may want to be close to an elevator or you may want a mid-ship location for a smoother cruise. If you book late, you may not have much choice.

Air Transportation
If you include the round trip air in you cruise booking, you will probably pay more than if you booked it yourself separately. However, the cruise line assumes a certain responsibility, and if for any reason the flight is delayed or canceled and you miss the ship's departure, the cruise line will probably fly you to the next port of call to catch up with the ship. If it was you own airline booking, you're on your own. It's a good idea to arrive at your departure port a day early, especially in winter weather, just in case.

Travel Insurance
To buy it or not to buy it: It depends on how much you stand to lose. Consider lost luggage, airline cancellations and delays, accidental death, emergency medical (medical evacuation can cost many thousands) and trip cancellations. Both the travel agency and the cruise line will want to sell you travel insurance. We don't recommend that you shouldn't buy it from them, but It's a good idea to read the coverage first and then go online and compare cost and coverage with some of the reputable travel insurance companies.

If you are traveling to a country that requires you to have a passport, you must present your passport to your airline or cruise line before boarding your flight or ship. If you don't have one, get one.   How to Obtain a Passport.

The following summarizes information available on the Department of Homeland Security website.

U.S. citizens entering the United States at sea or land ports of entry are required to have documents that comply with the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), most commonly a U.S. passport, a passport card, a trusted traveler card such as NEXUS, SENTRI or FAST, or an enhanced driver's license. See the complete list of WHTI-compliant documents.

Ship Sponsored Shore Excursions
Cruise lines contract with local third party tour operators, then mark up the cost considerably.  If you feel uneasy about the port and the foreign surroundings, take the ship-sponsored tour. But, there's a downside.  You are likely to be put on a bus with fifty other passengers where everything is based on the lowest common denominator. That is, loading and unloading is painfully slow, the tour guide has to answer a lot of dumb questions, there is usually a mandatory stop at a some store that holds no interest for you and you get hustled through places where you would like to stay longer and see more. And unless you have a unobstructed window seat you're not going to see much.

The alternatives are to take a private tour with one the many vans and cabs that are waiting at the the dock or, book via internet ahead of time with a tour operators at your various ports of call.   The cost is usually half or less than the ship sponsored tour. They will take you where you want to go or they will suggest an interesting itinerary.

Dining Aboard
On the major cruise lines you will have at least four dining location options, the main dining room, an alternate upscale restaurant, a cafeteria and room service. There is usually an extra charge for the alternate restaurant. Traditionally, there are two sittings for dinner in the main dining room. You will be assigned one of the two sittings. The early sitting is about six PM and the late sitting, about eight PM. On days you are in port and you are going to be ashore it might be wise to request the late sitting to give yourself time to dress and prepare for dinner. Many cruise lines now have open sitting dining where you just show up or call ahead for reservations.  If you have special diet requirement, check to see if the cruise line can accommodate you. Most of them can, but they must know ahead of time.

Looking for a Cruise Bargain
You are more likely to find cruise bargains for off-season sailings. That is, between September and mid-December, the two or three weeks right after New Years and after spring break until mid June. If you sign up, several of the cruise lines will e-mail you their "last minute" promotions for cruises that are not fully booked.   These are usually cruises that are scheduled within three or four weeks. If you are free to travel on short notice, these can be great bargains.

What to Pack
Take clothing that's appropriate for your ports of call and for shipboard wear. If your cruise is to the North Atlantic or Alaska you will need a sweater and a windbreaker. For the Caribbean or Mexico it's shorts and light weight shirts. Check out your cruise destinations and ports of call for their average temps and the probability of rain for the season of your cruise.  There are usually two formal nights aboard on seven day cruises. For these occasions formal gowns and tuxedos are appropriate, but cocktail dresses and dark suits are equally acceptable.

U.S. currency is accepted most everywhere in the western hemisphere. Take small bills for tipping cab drivers, baggage handlers and tour guides. Cruise ships, generally speaking, are stingy with electrical receptacles in the cabins. An extension cord with several outlets will come in handy when you are trying to warm up your curling iron and recharge your camera batteries at the same time. A small roll of duct tape can come in handy for temporary luggage repairs.   Don't forget your prescription medication. It's also a good idea to take your doctor's written prescription with you in case of a loss.

Shipboard Tipping Policy
Many of the cruise lines have instituted a policy wherein $10 or $12 per day is added to each passenger's billing in lieu of individual voluntary gratuities.  On one hand, this helps those crew members whose work assignment puts them in a not so tip-lucrative position. On the other hand, with the $10 to $12 per day added policy, it's no longer a gratuity. It's the passengers helping the cruise line with its payroll.  Or put another way, it can be seen as a fare increase without the cruise line increasing their advertised prices.

Extra Costs
In addition to the "opt out" gratuities mentioned above there are other significant cost items that may not be included in the brochure prices, such as fuel surcharges and taxes & fees.  Read the fine print in the brochure.   In establishing a budget for your vacation cruise, don't forget to include gratuities, tours and excursions, spa and beauty shop, ship's laundry/dry cleaning, the mini-bar in your cabin, clothing and jewelry shops and your bar bill (bar drinks will run from $4 to $8 each).

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