This article is a travel topic
Cruise ships are a means of travel with some substantial benefits, but a few drawbacks too. Some people love them, and some people hate them, but they're worthy of consideration, especially if you find other modes of travel too difficult or inconvenient. They make it easy to visit several places in a single trip without the need to repack your belongings and sit in a car/train/bus/plane to travel to each one; your hotel room comes along with you, and even provides the transportation. You may go to bed in Cabo San Lucas and wake up in Puerto Vallarta, which is a great convenience and experience, but can also make it easy to lose a sense of where you are.
Additionally, seeing several islands or cities in a region can help you decide if and where you'd want to visit later for a longer time. Typical itineraries also limit the time you can spend in each place, usually just a short day of activities or sightseeing. They may also include one or more days at sea: paradise if you enjoy a relaxing day by the pool, but frustrating if you prefer more active and open exploration. Nonetheless, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks for enough people to support a growing industry.
Today you can visit every continent on earth, including Antarctica, by cruise ship. The most exotic itineraries, such as the Galapagos Islands, are best visited by small expedition vessels. While these cruises are expensive, you'll be traveling with expert guides.
As you may note already, this article focuses on ocean cruising and ships. A parallel article (to be developed) would focus on river boat and barge canal cruising. River boats and barges offer more in-depth, close-up looks at many countries in their interiors. For travel on smaller vessels, see Cruising on small craft.
Carnival Corporation is the giant in the ocean cruise industry. It owns Carnival Cruise Lines, Princess Cruises, Holland America, Cunard Line, Costa Cruises and Seabourn Cruises. The other major cruise lines are Royal Caribbean International, which owns Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Cruises, Oceania Cruises and P&O, which caters to the British market, and Norwegian Cruise Lines, which caters primarily to passengers on the United States' east coast with year round sailings from New York City and Miami.
The golden age of transoceanic passenger travel is long gone, and the only surviving ships from that era are all either converted to cruising, preserved as museums and/or hotels, or are laid-up, but that doesn't mean that traveling across the sea by ship is gone too. In truth, modern-day passenger ships, including Cunard Line's mammoth Queen Mary 2, are actually now much larger and more luxurious than they were years ago. The Cunard "Queens" still occasionally make traditional fast Atlantic crossings, e.g., between New York and England. Reassuringly, most cruise ships seldom segregate public areas or restaurants that passengers may use based on the "quality" of the cabin they've purchased, as was widely customary in the early 20th century.
The picture of cruise ship travel painted by the circa-1977 TV series "The Love Boat" isn't particularly misleading (except about the inevitable bliss before debarkation and the all-American crew), but it is rather incomplete. Due to economy of scale, most modern cruise ships carry 2,000 to 5,000 passengers. While the luxury segment of the cruise industry boasts small ships...even "boutique" vessels or "mega-yachts"...you'll probably board a small floating city. Voyages range from a few days to full circumnavigations of the globe lasting three months, while fares range from a few hundred dollars to $100,000+.
Luxury cruise lines may have ships carrying 100-800 or so passengers. Larger ships carry 2,000-3,500 passengers, while mega-ships can carry over 5,000...a virtual city on something that weighs many times as much as the Titanic. Each size has its merits, e.g.,:
Cruise lines offer widely varying itineraries. Examples range from...
Each cruise is comprised of one or more cruise segments, e.g., a 1-2 week "round-tripper" will be one segment, while visiting two or more regions may involve 2-3 segments...sometimes of an around-the-world cruise. That way, cruise lines can sell affordable "pieces" of long cruises that otherwise few can consider. Not infrequently, cruisers will buy two or three back-to-back/sequential segments to build a longer cruise, e.g., 7-10 days from Florida to the Western Caribbean, return, then 7-10 days for the Eastern, or two or more world regions when they are far away.
Your experience will be substantially affected by the cruise type you choose. On a port-intensive itinerary, except for a few sea days...
If you might prefer sea days, you can look for:
There are also various cruises for special interests — for bridge players with a few masters on board, celebrity entertainers/bands, cultural/political science/ history lectures, GLBT lifestyles, etc. There have even been Linux cruises and other geek cruises.
Many cruising regions have "high", "low" and "shoulder" seasons. These usually track with the most and least desirable times to visit the region, and times in-between, e.g., Winter for the Fjords, late-Summer/Fall for the Caribbean (tropical storms) are deemed undesirable. Expect to pay premium prices during high-season, substantially less in "low", and perhaps you'll find some bargains in "shoulder", e.g., for "re-positionings".
Many ships transfer among distant regions that have opposite high-seasons...under repositioning cruises, e.g., between the Mediterranean, Baltic or Alaska and the Caribbean, South America, Australia, New Zealand. The long distances require many sea days, often at attractive per day prices for those who like them.
While the cruise industry once catered primarily to seniors, the age of passengers has diversified significantly. The average age of Royal Caribbean's passengers is 48, many other lines appeal to 20-40 year-old couples, "party" cruises attract young adults, and Disney and others focus on families with children and teens. Cruising has turned into an enormously popular family vacation due to well-designed children's programs, even special cabin configurations.
Some itineraries and cruise-lines may attract more seniors, e.g., trans-Atlantic and -Pacific re-positioning cruises, Holland-America (it very effectively supports but doesn't just market to seniors). Reasons include cost, cruise length, numbers of days at sea, and dates that conflict with school.
If cruise demographics are important to you, read the cruise description carefully, research web sites on cruising (see "Other resources" below), and work through your travel/cruise agent to learn the probable demographics of any trip you're considering. You'll be glad you did so, or you risk embarking on a ship filled with rowdy young adults or seniors with limited activities.
If handicapped or pregnant
If you have a physical limitation, the cruise line can usually help...especially if notified in-advance. Without sacrificing personal privacy, use your agent (or directly if no agent is involved) to let them know about your needs and when they apply, e.g.,:
A cruise can place you some distance from proper pre-natal care and birthing facilities, especially advanced medical care. If you have any complication, or might be well-into your third-trimester during a cruise under consideration, consult your doctor. Then inform the cruise-line, through your agent if used. A note of fitness for travel from him/her can assuage the fears of the line and staff as you go through embarkation processing.
Many cruise lines will in fact not permit you to cruise once you reach a certain point in your pregnancy (similar to airlines). Check this with your travel agent as you might be denied boarding upon arrival to the pier if you are too far along with your pregnancy.
Booking a cruise
Once you've found a cruise that suits you, you'll want to know the full costs and terms...including port fees and taxes, often not reflected in brochure and initial web-site prices.
If your trip starts to gain complexity or substantial cost as you plan it, or you are a first-time cruiser, you should consider trip insurance. Other reasons include if you intend to go on "adventure tours" (with risk of injury), have any medical condition that could flare up and require evacuation, great distance of the trip from home, any possibility that any provider of trip services might go bankrupt, or if you've been forced to accept tight airline connections.
You usually must buy it after you have purchased your trip...shortly after is best. Its cost will basically be determined by your total trip cost, the age of travelers in your group, levels of coverage, and options for coverage requested for certain problems, e.g., treatment for sickness or injury (on and off the ship), or medical evacuation. As you purchase it, do not understate the known, fixed costs of the entire trip; otherwise, a major claim may be denied. Many policies will cover pre-existing medical conditions if purchased within a few days of booking your trip; they often will not if bought later.
Travel experts often recommend getting insurance from other than airlines or cruise lines. Coverage offered by "lines" often focuses only or primarily on their responsibilities, while a quality policy will cover your end-to-end trip, with more options for risks that apply to you, as above. Some "lines" also offer cancellation protection, but their cost can be a major fraction of those for well-purchased, overall trip coverage. You may obtain better rates and/or coverage by buying coverage through or from an association you belong to, e.g., AAA, AA.
For an in-depth discussion, see Travel insurance.
Key ships officers
The ship and your cruise depend on them. Just a few of them include:
Travel or cruise agent
As noted throughout this article, a knowledgeable agent can greatly help you obtain the best value for your cruise, and avoid many kinds of mistakes and avoidable travel missteps. He/she can/should learn your needs and preferences, and then know how to find what best fits your plans/preferences to discuss them with you before booking. Ask neighbors who travel or look near home for an agency. Be selective and you'll often find someone who can help at remarkably moderate cost... and for complex trips worth every penny.
Several web-sites provide objective information about various cruise lines, ships, cruising regions and ports, and how to choose, prepare for and go on a cruise. Many offer professional reviews, some offer passenger reviews. But because they often sell cruises through third parties, they cannot be listed here. To find them, use a good search engine, with "cruise" and "advice" or "review" as keywords among your search parameters.
Those sites and travel magazines discuss other valuable topics, e.g., "wave season" (when to book, not when to go) versus other times, understanding what's included (and not) in prices shown, industry trends that may cause prices to go down. A good travel/cruise agent will have those and other insights. Knowing exactly when and how to best book a cruise receives nearly constant attention in travel articles, and approaches being an art.
Your accommodations can range widely...usually determined by cost. Most cruise lines promote their ships as luxurious, and cabin (aka stateroom, not room) furnishings can range from quite "nice" to "utterly elegant". The less expensive tend to be quite a bit smaller than ordinary hotel rooms...space you may only use for a few hours each day besides to sleep anyway. But every square inch is usable, e.g., luggage fits under the bed to allow you to unpack many/all items and hang them in closets or store on shelves/in drawers for easy access.
Cabin grades/categories. On large ships, you'll find a number of cabin grades or categories within each cabin type. They involve location, size, quality of view, features, etc. Good travel/cruise agents have access to the codes for the nuances of features and shortfalls for each. Cabin costs will vary not only type but by those gradations/categories. For any cabin type, costs reflected in brochures and on web sites usually apply to the lowest grade.
Cabin types The basic types include:
Perhaps oddly, suites and the least expensive cabins tend to sell out first.
Some cabins and all hallways have handrails for safety during occasional rough weather...not often needed. On ships built in the late 1990s or later, very few passengers will be:
Location can affect price somewhat because parts of a ship are more desirable to some passengers, e.g.,:
Cabin water is fully potable...usually obtained by reverse-osmosis...so efficient that some large ships visiting ports with water shortages may offload potable water. Older ships may use distillation supplemented by fresh water on-loads. All ships carefully treat the water to ensure its safety. Taste in cabins may be somewhat bland or have a hint of chemicals. Elsewhere, water often receives additional filtration to assure excellent taste for use in bars, dining rooms, kitchens, and buffet self-serve drink dispensers.
If a ship offers laundromats (usually consistent across a cruise line), each usually has more than one pair of washers/dryers and one or more irons and ironing boards usable only there. You'll also find detergent and softener dispensers. Machines and dispensers usually require coins or tokens...obtained at the Pursor's desk, perhaps from a coin machine in the laundry room.
As you get interested in any cruise, ship or cabin type, go to the cruise line's web site and others (e.g., ) for more details. Again, a good travel/cruise agent can help you find the features you need or want.
The best-known destinations for cruise ships are tropical ports in the Caribbean or the Mexican Riviera, the Mediterranean and Northern Europe, but cruises can be found almost anywhere there's enough water to float a ship and cities or sites to visit. Cruise ships of various sizes visit the coasts of Alaska, Scandinavia, South-East Asia, East Asia, southern Europe, Australia and New Zealand, Oceania and New England; and various islands of the Pacific Ocean. Even the North Pole and Antarctica are now destinations, though the latter has emerging ecological questions.
In addition, specially designed river boats and barges ply navigable rivers and lakes of Europe, China, Brazil, Egypt, North America and numerous other places. However, as noted above, this article focuses on ocean cruising and ships.
What to Pack
This can vary substantially according to the region you'll cruise, e.g., clothing for cool/cold areas versus warm, conservative colors for Europe, items to cover arms and legs to enter many religious buildings worldwide. For more discussion, see Packing for a cruise, and especially the many good articles at travel, destination and cruise-oriented web-sites.
If you'll fly to/from a cruise port, see Fundamentals of flying for advice and suggestions. Many experienced cruisers find certain items necessities, e.g.,:
Any authority looking at airline tickets, boarding passes and passports will examine names carefully. TSA and other security authorities often require that key papers (e.g., airline tickets, passports) precisely reflect your full name. This applies to all persons in your travel group, e.g., spouse, children (toddlers perhaps excepted). It starts by making sure that whoever books your cruise (and any associated airline tickets) accurately enters each full name on reservations and later-generated tickets.
Passports/Visas (See Passport for details.)
Unless your ship's itinerary is confined to your home country (not often), you must prepare for a cruise as you would for any other international trip, to include passports, perhaps visas. Many countries to be visited may levy few or no visa requirements on day-visitors via cruise ship. But, check with the cruise line (through your agent if used) well ahead of time. Some lines will arrange needed visas for scheduled port visits, but also check specifically for visa requirements if you have an international flight itinerary.
Very occasionally, port officials in certain countries will require review of all passenger passports before clearing the ship for passengers to go ashore. If so, they often join the ship a few days in-advance, and the ship will announce a day or so before the port visit that the staff needs to gather all passports for inspection.
Before you leave home, make machine or photo color copies of at least the primary, facing pages of each passport...per details in the above linked article. Use the passports when instructed by authorities, e.g., going through airport, airline or customs and immigration processing, processing for initial ship's embarkation. Take them with you on the rare occasion needed ashore per ship's announcements. Otherwise, once on-board, leave them in your cabin's safe and take the copies ashore instead, along with government-issued photo identification, e.g., driver's license.
Boarding Passes and Tickets
Once booked, you need to promptly go to your cruise line's web site to "register". (Immigration authorities require that any ship leaving their jurisdiction have personal data of all passengers at least 3 or more days before cruise departure, but don't wait that long. Your agent or the line may have to mail these papers to you.) There (using your booking number), complete all details about all people cruising in your group. Data needed will include full names, addresses, phone numbers, social security numbers (or the equivalent for other countries), passport details, emergency contact names and phone numbers, how you want your shipboard account established/paid (see "Embarkation" below).
Once registered, the site will often allow you to print your boarding passes if within 60 days or so of the cruise. Others may mail them to you as noted above. You may get one set listing all persons in your group, or a set for each person. Each may also include the cruise contract and boarding instructions and times. If you've paid for flights or airport-to-port transfers, you should also find vouchers or flight tickets (or Internet links to them for printing at home). If you don't have these key papers in-hand in some usable form at least three weeks before your cruise, notify your agent/cruise line immediately.
Each person will need his/her boarding pass and passport to be processed on-board.
Cruise-line Luggage Tags
Tags showing your name, cruise ship, cruise date/identity/number and cabin number are essential to ensure your large luggage reaches your cabin.
Other Essential Papers
Flying to/from port
Cruise ships sail from an increasing number of port cities. Most people must fly to get to them. If that applies to you, you have options. They include arranging your own flights (discussed later), choosing a cruise line fly/cruise package, choosing a cruise extension, or making a flight deviation request to suit your needs/desires to/from the cruise.
For all those options, if you miss your ship's departure (actually from any port), you are responsible for joining it at it's next port of call (can be very expensive unless covered by travel insurance and you are not at fault) or getting home on your own. Some sources imply that ships will delay departure for flights their line has arranged that arrive late. More accurately, they may delay, but only if it doesn't compromise the ship's ability to reach the next port on-schedule. Accordingly...
A fly/cruise package means the line makes all arrangements for you to reach, go on and return from the cruise, including transfers...often at great convenience and confidence for first-time cruisers or those embarking at unfamiliar ports. Those packages have trade-offs...
Most lines also offer cruise extensions to distant ports near or where cruises start or end. You can opt to spend 2-3 (perhaps more) nights at/near a port city immediately before and/or after your cruise. Somewhat pricey, they are integrated into your overall trip, with flight arrangements, quality lodging and transfers covered. Meals may not be included. They may include one or more tours. You shouldn't have to pay any flight deviation fee (below) with an extension. Cruise brochures, your travel agent and the cruise-line's website will variously describe extensions available. If travel involves flying overseas, choose the number of days of any extension with intent to use at least some of the first day to rest.
Flight deviation requests. For an additional fee (e.g., $100+ per person), the cruise line will process (not book) your request for special flight arrangements. You place it through the agent that books your cruise if any...best made as you book the cruise, certainly long before its start. You can request dates, flight time windows or times, aircraft cabin class, even suggest an airline and flight numbers.
Booking your own: If you're a seasoned traveler or have a good travel agent, you/your agent may do better by booking your own flights and lodging...better economy and/or flight dates/times/routes/seating and/or a hotel you prefer. However, If you must fly to one city/port for embarkation, and return from a different one, look at both options...self/agent-arranged flights and cruise-line fly/cruise packages.
Regardless of how they are arranged, ensure you have completely adequate scheduled connection times to make flight check-ins, flight connections, the start of your cruise and return flights...to include extra time for unpredictable delays. Consider everything that might make you late, e.g., flight schedules, "tricky" connections, seasonal weather problems throughout your route, distance/time between any port and airport, ground transport dependability/availability, how far in-advance you need to check-in for flights. If you don't have fully-adequate time, choose other arrangements.
Such complexity, risk and cost again recommend that you use an agent and get quality trip insurance. And your trip insurer will expect "due diligence" from you in planning and booking transport to avoid travel problems.
Home-to-Port by Land
In contrast to flying, you might drive to your port city if practical without great effort and if the costs are right. With an adequate vehicle, you can take and bring home much more than allowed by air...quite useful for serious shoppers, family souvenirs and Christmas gift list items. Optionally, you can also visit the port area one or more days before or after the cruise. If your group is 3 or more adults or a family, you'll need a sizable vehicle for all, to assure comfort and room for luggage. If it looks tempting, examine and compare...
If you can obtain quality, convenient bus or train service (as in Europe), you might obtain similar benefits, with simplicity and savings possible over a car. Examine the carrier's costs, reputation for punctuality, schedules, locations of terminals, transfers needed and any parking costs near home, and plan your departures accordingly.
This all starts as you reach your ship's terminal. The walking distance from ground transport to on-board ship can vary from 100-300 meters or so depending on terminal design and ship size. If anyone in your party has mobility challenges, request help in-advance.
If you are to board a large ship, examine the cruise line's instructions on when to arrive. Consider that:
If you have a choice, consider reaching the terminal 30-60 minutes after the time mentioned by the cruise line. If you're traveling with a personal group (e.g., family), don't begin embarkation processing without all members present. In any event, reach the cruise terminal at least two hours before the ship is scheduled to sail. As above, if your agent or cruise line has arranged a flight that could cause you to reach the port later, seriously question its wisdom well in-advance.
At the cruise terminal, give your large baggage (virtually no limit on numbers, but don't pack that much), with cruise tags attached, to porters for mandatory, separate security screening, then loading on the ship. (As above, if you have no tags to attach, the porters will help using details on your boarding pass.) They deserve a modest tip. You won't see those large bags until they arrive at your cabin door...2-3 hours later, perhaps more. If you've paid the cruise line for airport-to-terminal transfers, and you have no intermediate customs processing, you may not see your checked luggage after initial airport check-in until it reaches the terminal, perhaps even at your cabin. But learn the full process and your responsibilities.
As you start in-processing at the ship's terminal, officials will examine your boarding passes and passports. Then:
Note about liquor: Nearly all cruise lines forbid bringing "personal liquor" on-board. Indeed, among some cruisers, smuggling it has become an art form. The above scanning will look for it, as will scanning of your large luggage. Any found will be "kept" by the ship until you disembark. If you've put any in your large luggage, and the bag hasn't reached your cabin within a reasonable time, check with the Pursor; it may be "on luggage hold" on a lower deck for you to personally claim...sans the liquor. Modest quantities of wine may be allowed, and hand-carried soft-drinks seldom get refused. Check the cruise line's policy before packing.
Once on-board, the buffet and casual food counters await...usually on upper decks. You'll often be instructed not to go to your cabin until 2 PM or so (your cabin steward is completely cleaning, sanitizing, and changing all linens and towels in your cabin and many others). So, after food if any, it's a good time to walk about the ship to get oriented.
Before sailing, there will be a safety at sea briefing that everyone must attend. Cruise lines and captains take this maritime law requirement seriously. You'll find instructions in your cabin, and papers and announcements will tell where and when to go. It includes learning the location of your emergency "muster station", ways to get there from your cabin, emergency signals and procedures, and how to wear your life vest. You may or may not need to take or don your life-vest...stored in your cabin. All ship's services will be closed during this time. Truants may be called to a separate briefing at staff's convenience...with evaders possibly jeopardizing permission to stay aboard. If anyone in your group has mobility problems, this is a good time to tell the staff serving your muster station, so they can pre-arrange special help for emergencies.
If time permits after the briefing and before sailing, go top-side for departure...always interesting, often scenic (take your camera if light will be adequate); a bon voyage party is likely.
The key advantage of a cruise ship is that it does most of the "getting around" for you. See "Understand (above) and the following sections for details about ships and port visits. Basically, you unpack once and then visit the ports on your ship's itinerary...only repacking at the end of cruise.
As you explore the ship, you'll note that instead of numbers, decks (not floors) may have fanciful names. You may find yourself referring frequently to the maps in the elevator and stairwell areas to figure out whether the Lido Deck is above or below the Promenade Deck. The biggest ships can be 15 or more decks deep (counting bars and whatnot perched above the pools), making even the most conscientious stair-climbers resort to elevators from time to time. Thankfully, elevators will have an outside and inside list of facilities for each deck. But they often do not indicate if any is aft or forward...back to the maps.
Only rarely does a ship fail to visit a scheduled port. This most often stems from adverse weather. If such threatens, the captain will avoid the effects of the weather as much as possible, and will make announcements explaining what is happening and if you'll visit alternate ports instead.
Some ships have been outfitted with millions of dollars worth of art and elaborate interior decor, but generally after a few days there isn't that much to see on most cruise ships. The real sights are ashore. Some ships travel to geographically interesting areas such as Alaska or Scandinavia where they make detours to view fjords and glaciers up-close. Generally speaking, the smaller the ship, the better proximity to scenery you can expect, because they won't need to stick to deep and open water. On large ships, other scenery may be too far off to really enjoy its details, though binoculars help. Depending on the region and season, you may spot whales, dolphins, or flying fish swimming nearby or even following alongside.
Lacking those benefits, the real sightseeing opportunities come as you approach and reach port, and as you take shore outings discussed below.
As you plan each day's activities, everything on-board will be based on ship's time. Depending on it's itinerary, the ship will usually change its time to agree with any time zone it has entered. This assures that you can take advantage of all activities and tours, on-board and ashore, with confidence about time. Your cabin phone will follow that change, so feel free to use its wake-up call capability to ensure you miss no event.
Large ships will have most or all of the features discussed below...mega-ships even more. Smaller ships (e.g., 600-1200 passenger capacity) will have many of them, but in fewer numbers or smaller scale.
You'll be surrounded by water you can't swim in (it's passing by at 15-20 knots or so), but all but the smallest ships will have at least one "swimming pool" (perhaps covered, otherwise usable only in warm climes) and deck chairs. The pools won't be great for swimming laps, but some new ships are being equipped with small, swim-against-the-current pools. Most are filled with processed seawater.
Without the legal restrictions imposed on land-based facilities, most cruise ships have a casino except for Disney. Expect more emphasis on gaming on ships catering to Americans than for Europeans. Don't expect table games or machines with payoff rates even close to those found in better land-based casinos; concessionaires must pay dearly for the space. It will be open for gaming only while at sea.
However, on larger ships, Las Vegas and Broadway are the models for entertainment. They'll variously feature singing-and-dancing shows, feature singers, comedians, magicians, and other live entertainment. Shows typically follow dinner, but may precede it for those who opt for "late" dinner seating. During and after shows, other venues offer small bands, piano bars, and dancing to live music or a disc jockey.
A movie theater is found on most ships, playing movies similar to those found on airlines. There is usually a library on board for your reading pleasure but don't expect the latest novels unless left behind from an earlier cruise. If cabins have DVD players, the library may have a modest collection of titles. It may offer electronic or board games to check out. Quite commonly, you'll find an Internet cafe (discussed later). Topside you should find someone issuing equipment for basketball, table tennis and other uses.
The ship will often offer space and seating to support impromptu or organized bridge, even tournaments. And staff very often have trivia and other contests. And on most sea days, you'll see at least one large Bingo session offered.
Shopping is readily available, with shops on board. (See "Buy" below.) They'll be duty free but don't expect big bargains. They too will be open only while at sea.
You'll receive a daily newsletter with a schedule of activities...apt to mention art auctions (reportedly the "most dangerous place on a ship"), bingo, kitchen tours, port and shopping lectures, cruise enhancement lectures (by naturalists, historians, political scientists, et al), arts and crafts lessons, poolside contests, dancing classes, etc. Family-oriented cruises will have many age-specific activities geared to the kids and teens.
Most ships have a gym or health center with exercise machines. They often offer instruction programs in exercise regimes or Tai Chi, etc., some at small extra cost. Many people use the "promenade" deck or topside track. The former usually loops around the ship around mid-decks – for walking or jogging, but may have stairs that interrupt you. If so, a topside track might be better if available. Some ships find room for putting greens, golf simulator, a basketball or tennis court (enclosed by ball-catching nets) topside. Some very-large ships have ice rinks, rock climbing walls, "surf parks" and other activities.
Spa facilities are a staple of cruise ships. Everything from massages to hairdressing to exotic health and beauty treatments are available...at substantial extra costs.
Look for laundromats in ship descriptions...not all ships have them. If the cruise spans seven or more days and the ship does not offer them, you may have to pack substantially more clothes. Any facility offered will have two or more pairs of washers/dryers, detergent and softener dispensers (most taking coins/tokens), and irons and ironing boards. All ships offer laundry services, but they'll be pricey. Lacking laundromats, some folks bring detergent (e.g., Woolite) to hand wash select items in their cabin...though humidity creates a drying challenge.
You must use your cabin key card every time you leave and re-board the ship. It's how they determine if you're aboard...and how ship's security staff recognize you. Otherwise, they might leave you behind.
Research in-advance each place you'll visit. That can greatly enhance your cruise experience...at little or no cost. Many ports and nearby sights are covered by Wikitravel pages, travel web sites and books.
The ship will usually dock at a pier. If none is available, it will anchor or moor off-shore, and ship's lifeboats or commercial boats will tender you to a convenient place on-shore. Your detailed itinerary will indicate how your ship will visit each port.
Ship port visit times usually allow passengers to go ashore by 7-8 AM, with ship departure often at 5-6 PM. Earlier or later departure times can be affected by tides, distance to next port or special tour needs, while disembarkation may be delayed slightly by port customs clearance of the ship or passengers. At special stops, some ships may stay later, perhaps overnight.
The shore excursions office will offer a variety of sightseeing tours, cultural visits and organized activities (e.g., scuba, snorkeling, kayaking, bicycling)...offerings dictated by the nature of each port, its climate, time of year and time in port.
Ship's tours often cost substantially more than equivalent tours well-negotiated directly with locals, e.g., you may hire a taxi or van with driver/guide at $40-50 per hour for 4-6 people. A half-day ship's tour can range from $50-100 per person, with whole-days $125-200+. But for that extra cost, ship's tours provide:
Very popular ship's shore excursions may fill-up days before you reach port – some even before you set sail. You may be wise to research them and alternatives and sign-up online well in-advance as justified, e.g., if...
At some ports, the ship may have to dock among commercial freight operations. Walking from the ship to things worthwhile may be through unpredictably dangerous activity. Look at the ship's newsletter for port conditions and listen for port adviser announcements. At such docks, most ships will arrange a shuttle from the ship, to a terminal with taxis, etc., or even to a shopping area or downtown. If so, look for details about a return shuttle. Lacking any shuttle, you should firmly request transport that avoids danger, even if at your expense.
The UV content of the sun can be very high on any tour, especially on or near water at any latitude during the Summer. See "Stay healthy" below..
Cabin key. For both convenience and to foster a casual-spending atmosphere, most cruise ships run a "cashless" system in which you use your cabin key (card) to charge all on-ship expenses, sometimes except for gambling. Two or more cabin keys/cards can reference one credit card or cash account (deposit given in-advance), e.g., for couples and families. At the end of each cruise segment, the ship will use your credit card or cash deposit to settle the final balance of your account.
Tips on-board take two forms...the surcharges for special drinks, specialty restaurants and some services (discussed below), and (ultimately optional) tips for the ship's staff (not officers) usually levied at the end of the cruise.
Learn the cruise line's recommendations for tipping the ship's staff. They suggest "appropriate" optional amounts...a crucial part of staff income. Amounts recommended may vary somewhat by your class of cabin.
Some cruise lines have a "no-tipping" policy, often aimed at the European market where tipping is sometimes alien and can frighten customers away. In reality, gratuities are often built into the price of those cruises, on which passengers usually also pay taxes.
Cruise ships take advantage of their international/at-sea status to sell a variety of duty-free items (e.g., liquor, jewelry (costume and precious), cosmetics, perfumes) at decent if not outstanding prices. Large ships usually have boutiques selling logo clothing/souvenirs, perhaps offering casual and evening wear (a few even tux rentals). Others shops offer basic sundries, candy and over-the-counter drugs. Shops will only be open while the ship is at sea.
Shopping remains a highly-popular activity, with most ports offering at least handicrafts and souvenirs reflecting the destination. Others offer wide ranges of merchandise, to include clothing, electronics, jewelry and consumables. A crude rule of thumb: the farther you venture from the dock area, the lower the prices may be for given types of items. If there is a chance that you'll use your credit or debit card:
Cruises to certain destinations may stop at ports offering serious shopping...duty-free and/or highly competitive, e.g., Saint Martin and Saint Thomas in the Caribbean, and (perhaps except for "designer stores") Hong Kong and Singapore. For example discussion of duty-free shopping and customs obligations, see Saint Thomas#Buy. If inclined to seriously shop somewhere not familiar to you, do some on-line research about what to expect, stores, tax/duty, and what to watch out for.
The ship may have a port shopping adviser who can provide useful information and may recommend certain merchants. Those advisers are often employed by the cruise line or merchandising firms that receive very large fees from the merchants they recommend. This does not impeach the reputation of those merchants, nor should it question the worthiness of their competitors. But it may increase the final prices that touted merchants demand. In desirable shopping locales, most merchants are quite responsible.
At other locations, take care with final costs beyond labeled or negotiated prices, e.g., duty, or tax such as Europe's VAT not reflected in prices...often 17-25%. Though eligible for them, you may be able to obtain refunds only at certain places, e.g., airports as you leave the customs jurisdiction to return home, and only for each purchase that exceeds a substantial amount. The last cruise port for a ship exiting such jurisdictions may have no "standing", nor the port an office offering or processing refunds. Getting refunds by applying by mail after you are home will be problematic.
Such challenges cause serious shoppers to seek-out cruises to and wait to reach truly duty/tax-free and highly-competitive locales. Wherever you shop, know what you're getting and what it costs elsewhere.
Nearly always, meals are included in the price of the cruise. This includes poolside snack bars where you can order a burger or something and walk off without paying. (It's not "free", of course; you paid for it when you bought your ticket.) On virtually all cruise ships, you'll find a buffet...usually on one of the upper decks...available during all meal times and usually offering something from early morning to late evening...again, free. On better ships, buffets can seem almost like pure extravagance. Room service is usually available at all times, except after 1:00 AM the night prior to disembarkation on most cruise lines. Sometimes, you may have to pay a gratuity or late night charges when applicable.
At normal meal times, you'll find seated dining with full waiter service available, usually with a multi-course menu featuring variably fancy dishes. Most of the menu will change every night. At least one dining room will offer seated breakfast and lunch, seldom with a pre-assigned table. It will be open for 2-3 hours around the usual time for any meal. Note: Damp swimwear can damage dining room chairs; don't wear it there, even under a wrap or cover, even if quite dry.
Traditional evening dining service is at pre-set times...usually early/main and late sittings. If you choose a time (and table size) (best when you book your cruise), you'll be seated at the same table at that time every evening.
Table size can vary from 2 to 8-10 people, perhaps more. Round tables for 6-8 seem conducive to easy conversation among all. Unless you/your group fully occupies a table, you'll meet other guests as table mates...usually an interesting time, with repartee beyond what's possible with a new set of strangers at "open sitting". It also allows your waiters to learn and anticipate important needs and preferences, e.g., kosher, vegetarian, food allergies, drink preferences and timing.
To assure well-timed service, reach your table within 30 minutes of when the dining room opens for your sitting. Large kitchens must serve several hundred (perhaps thousands of) passengers at each sitting, one course at a time, with expectations of freshness and proper temperatures.
In recent years, to respond to some guests' dislike for scheduled dining, cruise lines have introduced freestyle, choice or open seating options which allow dining at any time during dinner hours. This may be offered in separate dining rooms. Menus will be the same as for scheduled sittings. As you enter, you may have to wait for a table, just as you would without reservations at home. If it's especially busy, you have just a few in your party, and are willing, tell the Maitre de that you "will share". It greatly helps him/her efficiently use tables/seating, and may speed getting you seated.
Most ships also offer specialty restaurants, often with international themes...usually by reservation only. (If you have no reservation, you can try "will share", but don't rely on it; most diners with reservations don't expect to share.) Some of them have surcharges (e.g., $20-30+ per person) for exceptional service and dishes...most well-deserved. If you normally dine at fixed sitting but plan to use a specialty restaurant any evening, tell your regular waiter the evening before.
Recommended dinner dress in dining rooms varies somewhat across cruise lines. For details, each cruise-line explains its expected dress code on its web-site, and you should find details on web sites for cruising.
You'll embarrass yourself, your table mates, your waiter and others if you go to your dining room for dinner wearing jeans, shorts, a tank-top, or similar casual/pool-wear. You may also be denied seating. If you have no interest in "seated dining" on formal nights (or any evening), you can use the buffet for dinner instead. Food offerings will be somewhat similar to that in dining rooms that night, perhaps lacking items that require complex service. The buffet offers another benefit:
Typical staples such as coffee, tea/iced tea, lemonade, juices (at breakfast) and iced tea are available at no charge. Other drinks are usually not included in the cruise price, even if the cruise's promotional brochure says or implies "all-inclusive".
Many cruise lines offer drink packages for unlimited soft drink refills, some for specialty coffees, wine, even a few for mixed drinks, but each for a substantial additional cost that often includes the service fee. Understand the terms clearly before committing to any. Examples:
Not counting the service fee, some mixed drinks may be cheaper than you might pay at better watering holes ashore, but don't count on it. However, you'll usually find drink specials mentioned in the ship's daily newsletter.
These costs prompt some people to try to bring their own. But most lines forbid bringing liquor on board, and any found (at embarkation or as you board from later port visits) will be "held for you", and returned on the last full day of the cruise in the same packaging as received. Some lines will allow you to initially bring 1-2 bottles of wine per cabin, and most will allow you to bring your own soft drinks.
Some ships are primarily party vessels, full of young adults taking advantage of duty free alcohol and (perhaps) lower drinking ages in international waters. You may identify them by their extremely uneventful itineraries: straight out to sea, stay there for much of the trip, then back to port. Their advertising is usually also not particularly subtle. If you want one, you'll recognize the signs; if you want to avoid one, likewise.
Mainstream cruise lines avoid unbridled drinking by:
Let your travel agent know your cabin preferences or needs in advance; e.g., to ensure your cabin assignment meets all needs.
Shortly after arriving at your cabin, introduce yourself to your cabin steward and discuss any preferences or needs for service, such as ice at certain times, softer or firmer pillows, etc. They will often have an assistant and will both be working together as a team. If you brought sanitizing wipes or solution, you might wish to sanitize key surfaces like the lavatory counters, telephone handset, TV remote, and desktop.
For families, in addition to the bedding noted earlier, some cabins will have a pull-down bunk-bed (not appropriate for small children due to safety, or full-sized adults due to length and weight) and/or a pull-out sleeper-settee or sleeper-sofa.
If your cabin is not as desired or needed on arrival, resolve it through your cabin steward before you retire the first night.
Because of the numerous advancements in modern shipbuilding and other technology, cruise travel is generally very safe. With the exception of some of the smallest lines (which may have a very limited staff), the crew of your ship are all well-trained to calmly and efficiently handle any emergencies that may arise during the cruise. Occasionally, even some considerable problems may be discovered and repaired while going completely unnoticed by the passengers.
In the event of a life-threatening emergency, instructions will be given on where to report (most likely your lifeboat station, designated at the pre-departure safety briefing) and what to bring with you (probably just your life vest and cruise ID card). Remain as orderly as you can and do not panic as you are evacuated; although cliché, acting out of place will only make matters more complicated and increase your chances of injury.
Remember to be aware of your surroundings at all times, especially at night. You shouldn't feel worried about going about on your own, but should be extra vigilant around bars where running into intoxicated passengers is a possibility and any altercation could escalate into a very dangerous situation. Keep an eye on your belongings and don't flaunt nor take them with you everywhere; leaving your iPod on a pool chair unattended while you quickly order a drink is just asking for someone to snatch it from you. Lock expensive items and jewelry in your cabin safe, then use or wear it only when appropriate. If you win a substantial amount of money in a ship's casino (unlikely, but not impossible), ask to have your earnings credited to your cruise account or given to you in the form of a check before disembarking, not in cash form for your wallet.
Families traveling with children should be cautious as well. While family-friendly lines like Disney are "age-proofed" for their safety, other lines and older ships typically are not and there are many hazards that could put them in a dangerous situation; e.g. being left unsupervised on a balcony, falling down the stairs, swimming in a pool without a lifeguard, etc. Older teenagers should be given some freedom about what they'd like to do and where they want to relax during the cruise, but you should always know the whereabouts of younger children.
Always report anything suspicious or concerning to a crew member; they will investigate or get someone who can investigate the matter. Trust your instincts as well. If a certain situation or activity in an area of the ship doesn't feel comfortable to you, it may not be.
As noted earlier, too much sun exposure (on-board or ashore) ruins cruises for more people than any other cause. Sunburns (and their pain) can last until well after you return home. For a few, they may later induce cancer or other permanent skin damage. Rather, before you'll be exposed to sun for more than a short time, take effective precautions with clothing and sunblock so that you can fully enjoy whatever recreation you choose. (See Sunburn and sun protection.)
Some people experience queasiness on cruise ships. This is very unlikely on large or recently-built vessels, which consistently have highly effective stabilizers. Even so, some sensitive inner ears may react to even imperceptibly slow and gentle rocking of a calm sea, while small, intense storms can make the ocean rough for a day or so.
Staying well can be as simple as eating (and drinking) responsibly. Generous helpings of that beautiful, fresh pineapple for breakfast every morning can cause problems, as can the portions of wonderful and rich delights at dinner. Marine biologists know that the calf of a blue whale can gain up to 30 pounds per day; the next fastest weight-gaining mammal may be the cruise passenger - actually known to gain 6-7 pounds per week if he or she "over celebrates".
Passengers and crew are susceptible to communicable diseases (e.g., the flu, colds, Norovirus), but thankfully this happens only very occasionally due to great effort and care by the ship's staff, and by passengers who cooperate with health protections. It occurs because large numbers of people from countless places have close proximity, share facilities, and forget to be responsible.
Prevention: Most maladies spread much in the same ways as the common cold. Stifling coughs and sneezes into your sleeve helps greatly. And ships regularly provide hand disinfectant dispensers at entrances to dining areas; use them, but don't rely completely on them. You can help yourself if you:
If you become ill: Report it as soon as possible, very preferably by cabin phone.
Ships that see "possible signs" of an outbreak (even several passengers with sea-sickness) may set up extensive precautions and health/sanitation protocols to limit spread of any infectious agent. This can include hand sanitizer dispensers at entry to all public areas, barriers to self-help in buffets, nearly constant sanitizing of railings, door handles and public restrooms everywhere. Make use of and respect those measures.
Although shipboard food and water will be sanitary, the usual precautions for overseas travel should be taken when eating and drinking ashore.
Carrying bottled water
Few ports prohibit bringing sealed bottles of water ashore. You'll see pricey offerings each time you leave the ship. Ask a ship's officer in-advance if sealed bottles are necessary; if not, you could (re)fill your own, with buffet beverage/water dispensers perhaps offering better tasting water than that in your cabin.
Nearly all cruise ships have one, with an accredited doctor. Larger ships may have two or more nurses. Most will offer open hours ("sick call") in the morning and late afternoon for routine ailments, with on-demand response (even in-cabin) for injuries or major illnesses. Most can effectively render first- and second-aid, perhaps more depending on the doctor's experience and on-board facilities, e.g., X-ray. They carry basic medications and supplies typically needed for cruises. Don't depend on them to replace medications you must use, even with near-equivalents.
Unless your problem appears to have been caused by some condition or event that's the ship's responsibility, expect to be charged a fee for their services. Your regular health insurance may not cover such fees, but good trip insurance usually does.
Some ships have modest dialysis capability. If you need it, learn in advance if it's the type you need and can reserve time slots. If available and as needed, reserve the service/times through your agent if you used one. Check with your health insurance agent to see if your regular policy covers any or all of what will be a substantial cost.
Though the doctor and staff often wear ship's uniforms, many are concessionaires, not ship or cruise line officers. Nevertheless, for serious conditions, the doctor's decision about continuing your cruise under illness or injury will usually prevail. Medical evacuation can be unbelievably expensive, and so should be covered by full-spectrum trip insurance.
If you have physical limitations, have your agent arrange needed services in advance, e.g., wheelchair to embark/disembark, for port visits/during the cruise, perhaps even to rent a "power chair" motorized wheelchair (usually only available for round-trip cruises).
Many cruise ships are now equipped with cell phone-to-satellite transponders, which take over automatically at sea to provide wireless phone service throughout the ship. Your cell phone works just like at home and bills its usage back to your regular cell phone bill.
Most ships offer ship-to-shore phone service from your cabin, but again at rather expensive rates. They may also levy heavy tolls on people at home who contact you by phone on the ship.
On-board Internet cafes and Wi-Fi hotspots are increasingly common, but the rates also tend to be fairly steep and the speeds (usually relying on high-latency satellite uplinks shared with ship's business) can be unimpressive.
Internet ashore If you find these cautions worrisome, you can usually find Internet cafes at or near many ports...often offering much better rates and speed. Look for ship's staff that can offer objective advice; many of them use those port cafes as well.
Anytime you use any computer while traveling, ensure that all private/sensitive portions of your sessions and data are secure, e.g., avoid doing financial or highly-personal business, use your own laptop if possible, have pro-active security capabilities installed and running, use wired Ethernet instead of WiFi if possible, set up a unique/complex password just for the trip, look for the https in networked sessions anytime privacy or security is needed. See more discussion at Internet access.
This is a recap of a typical disembarkation process. Near cruise-end, the Cruise Director will give a briefing that covers specific details for that ship/cruise and debarkation port, to include possible local customs and immigration (C&I) processing.
Called "debarkation" or "disembarkation", this involves getting perhaps a few thousand passengers off the ship as efficiently as possible. You can't all leave at once. You'll likely receive a questionaire several days before cruise-end asking what travel arrangements you have made to return home. Your answers (e.g., scheduled flight departure date/time) will determine in what group you will disembark.
Some ships offer a "walk off" or "express" disembarkation option. You can choose to leave the ship early as part of a group receiving special, expedited C&I processing if you carry off all your possessions. You should find that option on the questionaire mentioned above. If you opt for it, do not miss the call for your group to disembark or you may be directed to leave in the very last group.
At some major ports, some ships offer special luggage handling services for passengers flying home on certain airlines. For a fee, they will provide special airline tags and take luggage (you intend to check) the last night to, perhaps through your airline check-in at the airport. If you opt for this, understand the process and your responsibilities.
Typically, people with early flights, cruise-line shore excursions and express walk-offs are given the earliest debarkation times.
The next/last morning, you may be instructed to leave your cabin somewhat early (yes, a dining room and the buffet will open quite early for breakfast), and proceed to a specific public area on the ship to wait to be called to disembark. (Per "Get in" above, your cabin steward must completely redo it and many others by 2 PM or so for the next occupants.)
As you walk off the ship into the terminal, you'll be ushered to a large area with masses of luggage...considerably less if you disembark in one of the last groups. Your luggage will be arranged according to your disembarkation group. You'll need to pick-out your pieces and proceed to C&I or other processing if any. Porters will likely be available to help. After any processing, many options begin, e.g.,:
Once you leave the terminal, you basically have full responsibility to reach whatever destination or follow-on transport awaits.
Major cruise lines, Large vessel
Small Ship cruise options