If you missed Part 1, you can find the start of our cruising primer here http://travelonadream.wordpress.com/2010/11/30/cruising-101-part-1/. And now on to Part 2!
I left this out yesterday because there are so many different destinations to discuss and the blog was already getting very long so I saved this for today.
Pretty much anywhere you want to go in the world where there is water (ocean, large river), you can cruise. Some obviously will be very small ships or boats, but you can cruise! There are cruise lines that have cruises going to every continent on earth!
The most popular cruise destinations are the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Alaska. There are many different cruise lines and ships with sailings in these areas.
The Caribbean is a year-round destination, though fewer cruise lines sail here in the summer. It can be very hot in the summer months here. With fewer ships here in the summer though, the ports of call won’t be nearly as busy.
Alaska and the Mediterranean is just the opposite. Spring through fall are the popular times for these destinations with few if any sailings available other times during the year. The Mediterranean is a cruise destination that can be very busy and tiring for the cruiser. There are usually many ports of call, sometimes day after day. Additionally, some of the ports of call are far away from the destinations you would like to see (i.e. Civitavecchia is an hour by train away from Rome). You will be spending a lot of time off the ship in the Med.
Alaska however will offer incredible sights both on the ship and on shore. There are many options with Alaska including one way cruises, roundtrip cruises, inside passage, Glacier Park, cruisetours to Denali. We will experience Alaska onboard in 2011.
For shorter cruises, there are cruises to the Bahamas from the East Coast. These usually include a stop at Nassau and/or Freeport. Some cruise lines also include a stop at a private island. For those that want a beach day without worrying about paying fees for chairs, umbrellas, etc. this can be a great day! I’m not a big beachgoer, but I love going to the private islands!
Other destinations include Northern Europe, Asia, Australia, South America, the Panama Canal, Mexican Riviera and Hawaii. River boats will tour the major rivers through Europe and Asia with incredible views right from your stateroom! Imagine waking up with a castle right outside your balcony!
Another destination that is gaining in popularity is a Canada/New England cruise. These normally sail from Baltimore and other cruise ports north and go up to Quebec. Some are roundtrip, some one way. These are usually offered in the fall so you can experience the fall foliage.
Getting to the Port
The cruise lines usually offer transfers from the airport. There are a variety of services that can be offered with the transfers. Some cruise lines will get your luggage for you at the airport so you do not even need to go to Baggage Claim. Others will take your luggage after you have retrieved it from Baggage Claim. You usually have to sign up for this service 3 days to a couple weeks prior to the cruise to pay in advance. You may be able to purchase your transfers at the port, but should verify this with the cruise line in advance.
Disney Cruise Line offers transfers from Disney resorts to the port in both Orlando and Anaheim. You will need to make these arrangements in advance. Times for the shuttle to the port are not available in advance and you will be notified at the resort of the times. If you would prefer to get a rental car from the Walt Disney area to Port Canaveral, both Budget and Avis have locations on Hotel Plaza Blvd, near Downtown Disney. Alamo/National is very convenient in Walt Disney World, however, they are not as convenient at the port.
If you are considering renting a car to go to the port, I would recommend a one way rental rather than paying for the rental and parking while you are on the cruise. You’ll want to check out which rental companies offer drop off with no fees at different locations. Also, you’ll want one that will offer a no-cost ride to the port. For instance, in Miami, Hertz is the only rental company at this time that offers a drop off near the port and a courtesy shuttle to the port. The car rental companies with the most convenient locations in Port Canaveral are Budget, Avis, Hertz and Dollar/Thrifty. In San Pedro however, you will have to take a cab from the rental location to the port.
Your other option would include taking a taxi or using a town car/limo service. This decision should be based on which port you are departing from and how many people you have. In Miami, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale, the cost for a taxi is not outrageous but at Port Canaveral when arriving in Orlando, it is quite expensive for a taxi. Many times a town car will be lower cost than the transfers with the cruise line as the town cars charge per trip, not per person. If you have 3-4 people, it is usually cheaper to use a town car.
The other advantage to taking a town car or rental is that you can come in a day or so early and stay near the port. The transfers with the cruise lines usually will just be for the day of the cruise, unless you have a pre or post cruise stay booked through them.
Dining times are usually categorize as early, first or main, late or second, and anytime dining, freestyle or as you wish. There are other names, but basically the same idea. If you choose early or late dining, you will have a set time for dining each night and an assigned table. Early dining generally starts anytime from 5:30 to 6:30. Late dining generally starts anytime from 8:00 to 8:30. Anytime dining, Freestyle or otherwise indicated would mean that you do not have a set time for dining and you can come and go as you please. Sometime you have to make reservations in advance, other times you just go and wait for a table. Many cruise lines that offer this flexible dining schedule will require that you prepay for gratuities. Some will add the cost of the gratuities automatically to your cruise total, while others will simply charge you onboard.
When you book your reservation, if your requested dining time is not available, you can request that it be waitlisted. If you are booking far enough in advance, waitlist requests can many times be accommodated. However, sometimes you will be assigned to the time you originally book. Once onboard, if you need to change your dining arrangements, there is usually a place where you can do so. On Disney’s Magic and Wonder, this is in Rockin Bar D or Wavebands. The dining room staff usually has some flexibility with this.
Many cruise lines will not accept a request for main dining based on certain medical conditions and you will still have to be waitlisted if not available. This includes diabetes. The idea behind this is that there are so many other dining options onboard, you do not require to eat at the early time.
The choice of early, late or my time dining is really a personal decision. Usually when you have an assigned dining time, you will be seated with other (though you can request to dine alone). You will have the same servers each night. They get a chance to know you and what you like to eat and drink. You interact more with the staff in this set up. With the anytime dining, you won’t likely get the same servers each time and you will likely dining with just your immediate party. I have done both and prefer the set dining time, even though I’m not thrilled with the times.
Should you pick early or late dining? This also depends on you and your family. I prefer late dining because sometimes I don’t want to go to the shows and just want to relax at the pool or take my time getting ready after getting back onboard from a port of call. Especially in the Mediterranean this was important as many times we didn’t get back until just before our late dining time.
For those with small children, you should decide if having the kids awake in the dining room or through the shows. If the shows are more important to you, you may want to go to late dining so that the kids can see the shows. If having family time at the dining table is more important, early dining might be the better choice for you.
This is further complicated on the new Disney ships. The theater does not hold enough guests for half of the guests to go to each show so they will have three shows. With early dining you can choose to go to the show before or after your dinner. With late dining, you will have to choose between two times prior to dinner. This is an assigned time so you will have to go to the show at the time same each night of the cruise.
If something is going on and you just can’t make it to your assigned dining time, there is no need to worry. There are usually a few other dining options for you. Many times the main buffet restaurant will offer dinner selections. There also may be a pizza or burger option onboard. There is also usually room service.
I hear from clients all the time that they do not want to cruise during hurricane season. Hurricane season is from June 1 to November 30. If you decide you don’t want to cruise during this time, you are missing out on a lot of destinations and some great deals!
Very few cruises have been canceled because of hurricanes. Some have been diverted to other locations, but even those are few. Keep in mind that the captain of the ship does not want to hurt any of you but also doesn’t want to have any issues with the ship affecting future sailings as well. They are going to make sure all of you are safe. Also realize that there are chances for hurricanes outside of the “season” and bad weather/high seas can occur at any time.
I have sailed twice when there was a hurricane or tropical storm in the area. The captain took every measure to make sure we were all safe. In one case, we altered our ports of call. In the other, we eliminated a port of call.
While it is disappointing to miss a port of call that you were counting on, it is something that can happen. You need to understand that the cruise contract you have with the cruise line does not guarantee that you will go to any specific ports of call. Basically, they guarantee you will get a cruise. It is for this reason that I especially consider insurance when cruising during hurricane season (or for that matter in the winter when I am at the mercy of snowstorms in the Midwest).
If you are booking shore excursions on your own, you will want to make sure that you can cancel them at the last minute if your ship does not make it in to the port of call.
Holidays are a great time to sail, however, remember that whenever kids are out of school, pricing is generally higher on cruises. Holidays are generally the most expensive times to cruise. The exception of course is last minute reduction in prices, but usually when you are planning a long time in advance for the best availability, you do need to be prepared for higher prices.
Adding or removing passengers can usually be done up until the final payment date without any penalty. The exception would be with a non-refundable deposit. When you cancel the passenger in a room with a non-refundable deposit, you will lose the deposit allocated for that passenger.
It is possible that the room you have reserved will not accommodate the new number of guests you would like. You may have to switch rooms or even categories to allow this. There is also the case when there is enough beds in your stateroom for more guests, however the ship, category or area of the ship has filled to capacity and you will not be permitted to add anyone. If your room will have a refundable deposit, it is always best to add the most number of guests you may have and reduce down later when you know for certain someone won’t be going.
This is hard for some to understand if you have enough beds why you cannot add someone to your room. A ship is much different than a hotel in that there is limited space for people and services. The crew onboard can only handle a certain maximum number of passengers. Additionally, if there are problems at sea and you have to be evacuated, there must be enough space in each lifeboat.
The other reason to add the maximum number of guests in the beginning is for pricing reasons. If you are able to add guests later, it usually is at the prevailing rate at the time they are added. If the prices have gone up, you will pay more for the additional guests than what you would have paid from the start.
As of right now, passports are not required for US Citizens for cruises that start and end at the same US port. However, they are strongly recommended. While you do not need to have a passport to cruise to many destinations from the US, you do need to have a passport to fly home if there were an emergency. You can probably still work it out without a passport, but it will take much more time and in an emergency time is not always available.
The passport card is not as good as a passport book and you will also not be able to fly home from a foreign country with the passport card. If you choose not to use a passport or a passport card, a certified copy of a birth certificate plus a government issued photo ID for everyone over 18 is required.
When cruising to a foreign disembarkation port or a cruise that starts and ends outside of the US, US Citizens are required to have a passport. Your passport must be valid for 6 months after your cruise ends. You will also want to know if there are separate requirements for your ports of call. Some ports of call will have strict guidelines and laws pertaining to visitors. For instance, visitors to St. Petersburg Russia are required to have a Visa, and we don’t mean the credit card. Most cruise lines will include the Visa with the shore excursions they offer. Outside shore excursion company may or may not do the same. You will not be permitted off the ship if you do not have the proper documentation.
There also may be other rules or regulations you should be aware of. Also in Russia, you cannot take Russian money out of the country. If you convert your money when you arrive, you will not want to convert more than what you actually will spend.
Just like when you go to a restaurant, certain positions on the cruise ship are paid a lower wage and are considered tipped positions. It is difficult when your food is paid for already to figure out what amount of gratuity should be given so most cruise lines have a recommended tipping amount. The positions usually tipped are your stateroom host/hostess, server, assistant server and head server. The recommend amounts will be between $9.75 per person per night to $14.00 or more per person per night. I use this site to figure out the amount recommended http://cruisetip.tpkeller.com/.
If you choose to prepay gratuities, the amount you will be charged is the recommended amount by that cruise line. You can add more when you get onboard or adjust to less if you feel the service was not up to par. The nice part to prepaying gratuities is that you do not have to fill out paperwork or go to Guest Services or the Purser’s desk during your cruise. On cruises where tipping is recommended but not required, your servers and stateroom host will not know that you did prepay gratuities until your tip slips are delivered to the rooms. On cruise lines where gratuities are automatically added or included in the cruise fare, they obviously do know that you already paid the gratuities. Some guests will argue if the staff knows that they are getting the gratuities, they don’t try as hard. I’m still undecided on this. I have prepaid gratuities a number of times with great service, but then I also have received less than excellent service on other sailings where the gratuities were prepaid.
When you order beverages onboard (when there is a charge), a gratuity is automatically included. This can range from 15-18%. Even though the gratuity is added, there is usually a space where you can add an addition gratuity if you wish. This can be confusing so double check your receipts when you sign them to make sure the gratuity was already added.
A muster drill or lifeboat drill is required by the Coast Guard within 24 hours of sailing on a cruise. Most cruise lines will do this drill just prior to sailing. In some cases, you will be required to don your life jacket and report to your muster station. Muster stations are usually noted on the back side of your cabin door and there will also be signage in the halls. On some cruise lines, you will not need to wear your life jacket. They have found that more accidents happen when people have their life jackets with them for the drill. The nice part about this is after the drill you don’t have to return back to your room to get rid of your life jacket. If you are required to wear your life jacket, the crew will request that you keep your life jacket on until you get back to your room. This is for safety reasons.
During the drill you will not be able to use the elevators. The exception to this will be for disabled folks who cannot use the stairs. During an actual emergency, crew members will carry folks needing assistance to their lifeboat stations.
Roll calls are taken at the muster drills as it is a requirement that everyone onboard attend. This doesn’t take very long, but can be very important. The crew will sound the alarm that you would hear in a real emergency. They will show you how to put on your life jackets. The Cruise Director or other officer will then tell you what to expect in a real emergency.
The muster drills are usually held on the deck where the loading of the lifeboats would occur. Some people will be outside on the open decks for their muster station while others may be in restaurants or theaters.
As mentioned before, the cruise line will not guarantee your itinerary and will make changes if necessary. Some cruises may eliminate or replace a port of call based on weather, crime or a variety of reasons. The best way to handle this is just to understand that changes can happen. The captain and crew are always going to do what is best in their opinion (or shore side management’s opinion) for all guests and crew onboard. They are not making changes to upset you or ruin your vacation. When it comes to bad weather, I would certainly rather they change the itinerary rather than have a horrible day in a port of call.
Itinerary changes can happen at any time. Three times on sailings we had potential itinerary changes. In two cases, the changes happened at the beginning of the cruise and continued throughout the cruise until the day we were actually supposed to be at a particular port of call. The other time, the change happened once on the morning we were supposed to arrive in port. On one cruise we were told when we embarked on Saturday that we would not get in to Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island, due to damage from three hurricanes. On Monday of the cruise, we were told that we would make it in. I know people were disappointed when we heard we wouldn’t make it, but things changed so getting upset about it didn’t do any good.
It is important that you keep your profile with the cruise line and your travel agent updated with your plans prior to the cruise for just the situation when the itinerary must be changed. Even if you only booked the cruise with your travel agent but booked a pre-stay independently or with another agent, you should make your cruise agent aware of your plans. I’ve had the situation where the cruise line changed the itinerary on the morning of embarkation since the ship was delayed getting in. While a guest on their way to a ship isn’t going to stop and go home until the ship is ready, it is comforting to know what is going on and what alternate arrangements are being made.
Most cruise lines operate on a cashless basis. This means that when you get a drink at the bar, buy photos or snacks in the theater, you will present the crew member with your room key, which will also act as your room charge card onboard. Any onboard credits that you may have received from the cruise line or your travel agent will be on your onboard account when you arrive onboard. This will act as a credit against anything you charge back to your room.
Exceptions to the cashless system would be the gift shops (many times you can just use a charge card there), the casinos (though you can also charge back to your room a set amount per day) and gratuities for room service, shore excursion drivers and operators.
If you are sharing your cabin with someone and you will each be paying separately for your onboard charges, you can each use your own credit card. This can be handled when you do online check in, sometimes at the port or at Guest Services once onboard. You can also pay with cash or travelers check. You will be given a credit limit and when you reach that limit, you will have to go to Guest Services or the Purser’s desk to apply more money to your account.
I recommend if you have multiple credit cards on your account that you make certain when you are being charged onboard that you present your card to the crew member. If not, the lead guest in the room will be charged more often than the correct person. We’ve seen that happen a couple times before. It is easy to get it straightened out, but that’s not what you want to be doing on vacation.
On some cruise lines, you can review your charges on screen on your stateroom TV. On others, you will need to go to the Guest Services to get a copy of the bill if you want to review it during the cruise.
If you have children in your room, you can put restrictions on their cards so they don’t charge for anything and everything onboard. In most cases you can only turn the charging privileges on or off. This is how Disney handles charging. Some cruise lines however, may allow you to put a spending limit on their card.
Stay tuned for our next (and possibly final?) part to this cruise primer. Topics to be included are prebooking excursions, rebooking onboard, cruisetours, customs and repeat cruiser clubs.
For part three, continue here http://travelonadream.wordpress.com/2010/12/02/cruising-101-part-3/.