I was asked to contribute to an article on how to combat seasickness by ROL Cruise’s blog. That got me thinking about what other things new cruisers want to know before that first cruise, besides how not to get seasick.
What does a cruise cost?
When I was contemplating booking my first cruise, I had the mistaken conception that cruising would be far too expensive. However, the first thing that I learned was that not all Cruise lines are the same, and not all cost the same. And that some cruise lines are very affordable. When you sit down and figure out how much you would pay for a hotel stay, food, and entertainment, and then compare to the cost of a cruise, you may be surprised. Use a site like Cruise.com and compare prices between cruise lines and for different dates. I normally then book with the cruise line myself, but you can also use an internet site, or a travel agent, depending on your comfort level with those.
Carnival Cruise Lines
Carnival Cruise Lines is the most affordable cruise line that I’ve found. The upfront cost of your cruise on Carnival will include your cabin, meals in the buffet and the main dining room, and also, your entertainment. Drinks and specialty dining rooms cost extra, but we really don’t spend much on either of those. And, if you watch for specials, sometimes you can get a bonus onboard credit to spend. And Carnival cruises are good cruises.
Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines
Royal Caribbean is the next cruise line price-wise. You’re going to pay more than you would on Carnival, but it’s still affordable when compared to the cost of paying for everything separately. And the thing about Royal Caribbean is that their larger ships are so much nicer than Carnival’s ships. I was wowed the first time I sailed on Freedom of the Seas. And again, your cabin, meals at the Windjammer Buffet and Main Dining room, plus entertainment, are included in your fare.
MSC Cruise Lines
MSC is the next in line right now. Since they are new to the US, they are trying to lure American passengers with great prices. We will be sailing on MSC Meraviglia in November and they will be opening a brand new private island called Ocean Cay. MSC pricing has a number of tiers, so you can add what you want to your base price. We opted to stay with the base price for a great value. Plus, they have a military / police discount.
How to pay gratuities?
Tips are normally prepaid on a cruise, a set amount each day, different amounts depending on the cruise line. If you’re really not happy with your service, you can go to the guest services desk and adjust the amount of your tip. But please remember that the crew on a ship work for very low wages and count on the tip, just like a waitress does. We have almost always been happy with our room steward and wait staff, and we normally even give them a bit more tip before we leave. I really love getting to know the stewards and waiters. Talk to them a bit and find out where they’re from. You’ll find that they’re not that much different than you and me.
Where to go?
There are so many choices in ports to sail to. My dream is to sail to Europe someday, there are some beautiful and fantastic ports there. But so far, we have only sailed to the Caribbean. Believe me, there’s nothing wrong with the Caribbean, it’s beautiful too.
If you’re just starting out cruising and not sure how you’ll like it, maybe you can just take a shorter cruise to the Bahamas or to Key West and Cozumel. Our first cruise was a five day cruise on the Carnival Fantasy to Nassau and Freeport. And that’s the cruise that hooked us! It gave us our first taste of visiting exotic locales and meeting native people.
But there are so many interesting places to see past the Bahamas. Our last cruise was to Cuba, which was quite an experience. We’ve been to San Juan, Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, St. Martin, Aruba, Curacao, and so many other places, and they are all different and exciting. Our next cruise is to Belize, Roatan, and Costa Maya, all for the second time.
Best Months for cruising?
We always cruise the Caribbean between November and May, mainly because we don’t want to deal with hurricane season. Plus, in those months we’re leaving chilly temperatures to go into the tropics. I don’t like to be cold. You can cruise any time of year, but I’d recommend trip insurance if you travel during the summer months, just in case. We actually get trip insurance every time we cruise because of the medical insurance coverage. If you want to check out prices go to TripInsurance.com. This is an affiliate link but it doesn’t cost you more to buy from it than it normally would. On this site you can check out and compare coverages from different insurance companies.
Where to leave your car if you drive to the cruise port?
We always drive to cruise ports because we either leave out of Charleston or Florida. It’s always a problem figuring out where to leave our car. We’ve handled it a few different ways. Usually we do a Snooze, Cruise, and Park package at a motel or hotel. Some that we’ve used and liked are Red Roof Plus Airport in Miami and LaQuinta on Atlantic Ave in Cocoa Beach. What you do is drive to the motel the night before your cruise and stay there. Then the next morning you park your car in the designated area, and the motel provides a shuttle to the ship. Now, some motels provide a return shuttle, and some don’t. Check with the motel. But it works fine for us, and costs less some of the time than parking near the port.
We’ve also parked at off-site parking areas. We’ve done this in Fort Lauderdale, and also in Cocoa Beach. You then take a shuttle to the port. You just have to check out different options and see what’s best for you. It’s more convenient to park directly at the port, but also a lot more expensive.
It’s the same if you fly in. You can get a motel with a shuttle, or you can take a cab or rideshare from the airport or motel to the port. If you fly be sure to leave enough time to get to the port before the ship sails. They will not wait for you. I’d suggest flying in the day before.
What’s the terminal like?
I’d compare a ship terminal to an airport terminal. First thing you do is give your check on luggage to a porter. It’s customary to tip them a dollar or two per suitcase. You then walk into the terminal and they compare your passport or birth certificate to your onboard documents. Next is the screening area. They will run your carry-ons through an X-ray machine and you’ll pass through a metal detector. Make sure that your keys, phones, etc. have been put into the bin that goes through the machine. Then you will stand in line and wait for an available agent.
The agent will take your documents, take your picture for your ship card, and check you in. If you check in online on the cruise line’s website, this will go a lot quicker. The agent will then either give you a ship card or tell you that it will be at your cabin door. Don’t lose this card. It gets you onto the ship and into your cabin. It’s also used to pay for any extras that you buy on the ship. I always put mine on a lanyard.
You will then either take a seat and wait till your boarding number is called, or if you’re not too early, walk right onto the ship. There are usually photographers waiting to take your picture before you board the ship. You can have your picture taken or not, depending on your preference.
What is a cabin like?
You have a few different cruise cabin types to choose from on any ship. The normal types are interior, exterior (with a window), balcony, and suite. The best priced cabin will always be an interior. Interiors are smaller, and have no window. Just be careful when booking because some interiors are tiny and have an upper and lower bunk. Unless you love tiny enclosed spaces, that could be claustrophobic.
Most cabins will have a Queen sized bed that can be separated into two twins upon request. Some also have pull down beds for extra sleeping room. There’s always a small TV, but not many channels. Bathrooms are tiny in most cabins, with a small sink, a small toilet, and a small shower. It’s adequate for a cruise. If you’re only going to be in your cabin to sleep, this is a great cabin to book.
Exterior cabins with a window are the next up in price. You can get a cabin with just a port hole, or one with a full window. Sometimes you can actually sit on the large window ledge and watch the ocean go by. These cabins are usually larger than an interior, and come with the same furniture. You may also get a sofa and table, depending on the ship. These are the cabins that I book if the balcony is too expensive.
My personal favorite is a balcony cabin. They have all the furniture and amenities of an exterior, but with a balcony. The balcony will usually have two chairs and a small table. It’s a wonderful place to sit and have breakfast. At night I will sit out there and just listen to the ocean, it’s so peaceful.
There are a number of different types of suites. We’ve only stayed in a junior suite, which is a bit bigger than a balcony cabin, and has a coffeepot. You can also find suites with a couple of rooms, but keep in mind that the price goes way up with suites. They should all have a balcony.
How does a Muster Drill work?
You’ve probably heard the term Muster Drill, and are wondering what in the world that is. A muster drill is a mandatory safety drill for the unlikely event of an emergency. It’s held in different ways, but normally before the ship embarks. I’ve seen it done two ways, but it always starts with the ringing of a very loud alarm. Don’t worry about not knowing what to do. When you first get into your cabin there will normally be a showing explaining the Muster Drill to you. Your Muster Station will usually be on your sea card, and on the back of your cabin door, along with a map. You can take a walk to find it beforehand, it will be marked, or you can ask an attendant. They are all over the place during the drill.
If your drill is in a lounge, a restaurant, or the theater, you can sit while the attendants explain the process of putting on your life jacket and what to do with your children, etc. Children will be given a wristband stating their Muster Station, and they would be brought directly to you in the event of an emergency.
The drill can also take place on deck. This is a less pleasant version because everyone will be standing on deck for a long time while they wait for everyone. Remember that the Muster Drill is mandatory, and they will come and look for you if you’re not there.
Should I take an excursion?
And when you get to all these exotic locations that you cruised to, you can take excursions to see things you’d never see otherwise. Excursions do cost extra, the price will depend on what you do and where you go. Excursions can be booked by independent excursion groups, or from the cruise line. For your first cruise, I’d recommend booking from the cruise line. The cruise line will guarantee that they will wait for you if you are delayed getting back to the ship. Private excursion groups won’t. And the ship will not wait if you’re late from a private excursion.
We have sailed on a semi-submersible submarine, climbed a Mayan pyramid, tasted Mayan chocolate, toured a plantation house in Jamaica, and enjoyed delicious local food. Of course you don’t have to book an excursion at port. Many times we’ve just gotten off of the ship and explored the town. San Juan, Aruba, and Curacao are particularly good for this.
Is there enough food and drink?
Don’t worry on a cruise, you won’t go hungry. And it will take a lot of will power not to eat too much, because there is a lot of good food on a cruise ship, at least in my opinion. As soon as you get on a ship they direct you to the buffet for your first meal. Normally iced tea, water, and some sort of juice or flavored water are included in your fare. And of course all the food you can eat at the buffet. I can always find something that I like. The buffet is normally open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Or normally you can visit the main dining room for any one of those meals. The main dining room will have sit down service by waiters, and the food is usually up a notch in quality from the buffet. Plus, you won’t have the temptation to jump back up and get more food at the buffet. Try both ways and see which you like best.
If you want to have a special meal at a specialty restaurant, it will cost you more. We’ve never done that, but I hear that the food is wonderful. Lately, it seems that room service is also an extra cost.
Alcoholic drinks, specialty coffees, and soda will also cost extra. You can buy a package with unlimited drinks included, or buy them one at a time. Costs will vary by cruise line. There are plenty of lounges and bars on a ship also.
Can I smoke on a ship?
All of the ships that I’ve been on have a smoking area but check with the cruise line. I’ve seen ships that do not permit smoking. The casino is normally a smoking area, but Empress of the Seas was no smoking in the casino. There is usually one outdoor deck for smokers also. It’s different on every ship. There is no smoking permitted anywhere else, including your cabin, your balcony, and the restaurants.
How is the entertainment?
We’ve seen some wonderful entertainment on cruise ships. On our first cruise on the Carnival Fantasy, which is a small ship, we saw an excellent Beatles revue. I think that was one of the best shows we’ve seen. On Oasis of the Seas, we saw Cats. On our next cruise on MSC Meraviglia, we’re going to see a Cirque du Soleil show.
We’ve seen excellent comedians, magicians, and ventriloquists. Many shows are an ensemble cast that do a number of shows during the cruise. Singing and dancing are popular. There is always good music around the ship in different venues. There is plenty of entertainment to satisfy just about anyone.
Is there a casino?
Most ships (except Disney) have a casino, and every ship that I’ve been on has other means of gambling, such as Bingo. These activities always cost extra, and the ship wants to win, so be careful. Don’t gamble while drinking, because that will definitely give the ship the edge. I’ve only gambled once on a ship because I prefer to use my money at port to buy souvenirs than to give it to the ship. I won $7 at a slot machine and I quit while I was ahead. I am definitely not a gambler. I’ve heard that most of the winnings will be during the first two days of the cruise to try and entice others to gamble.
And back to seasickness
I thought I’d get seasick on my first cruise, so I was very ready. My tendency is to always be very prepared because I can’t even ride an amusement ride that goes round and round without getting sick. I had a pair of Sea Bands and I had less-drowsy Dramamine (which is the same as Bonine). I took the Dramamine the morning of the cruise and I wore the Sea Bands onto the ship. What I found out is that the Sea Bands hurt to wear, and that I didn’t get sick even when I took them off.
And now I take one less-drowsy Dramamine or Bonine the morning that I’m going to get onto the ship, and then one each night and one each morning. And I have never had a problem with sea sickness. That is…until I get off of the ship. Once I drive home and quit moving, I still feel like I am moving along with the ship. The solution to that is to take the less drowsy Dramamine or Bonine for a few more days till you get your land legs back and feel better. Check out this affiliate link for ideas. If you buy anything it won’t cost you more, but I’ll get a little bit of commission. And by the way, green apples are good for seasickness too!