Tips for First-time Cruisers

By Matthew and Tracy DeJong

As we crossed the Lido deck of Carnival’s Valor for the last time, we couldn’t help but feel a slight pang of jealousy.  The aquatic playground sprawled before us, complete with salt-water pools and an ascending array of hot tubs, would soon be enjoyed by more than 3000 new guests within a few hours.  They would be served by our waiter, pampered by our steward, and toast our wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling private window as the sun drifts behind the Miami palm trees.  But such envy isn’t what you’d expect.  Sure we would like to re-explore Paradise Island in the Bahamas, or have another chance to relax behind a Cuban in the cigar lounge until 3:00 a.m. However, the source of our yearning is this:  we know what we didn’t know before.

As first time cruisers aboard one of the largest ships in its class, the experience was almost overwhelming.  We would love to go back in time, and provide ourselves with some much-needed advice for our adventure at sea.

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Your Vacation Begins with the Plane

Like no other vacation, your first voyage can be sidelined by a change in schedule.  Heeding advice from experienced cruisers, we flew the day before embarkation, booking a hotel in Miami, hoping for a leisurely morning before boarding the ship.  However, a slight delay at the Buffalo airport made our one-hour stopover in Atlanta an all-night affair.  As we hailed a hotel shuttle sometime after 1:00 am, with our three year old and five month old neurotic and red-eyed, we tried to take comfort in the fact that the airline attendant mumbled they would do their best to get us on the first flight at 10:30 the next morning, weather permitting.  Of course, our luggage experienced privileged status as it was already on its way to Florida.

We learned a valuable footnote to the rule of flying the day before—if possible, take a direct flight.  On any other vacation, a flight delay might cost you an afternoon on the beach and a lost garment bag might prove a simple over-night inconvenience.  But cruising is high stakes.  If you miss first sail, you must negotiate your way on a flight to one of the ports of call, again, weather permitting. Additionally, your misplaced luggage might have to greet you at the end of your vacation, forcing you to buy novelty underwear from the gift shop, as well as several more $5.00 t-shirts than you were wanting to purchase.

Bring More Necessities, Then Split Them

     If you have those pills you can’t do without, inhalers for asthmatics, an ointment to prevent that rash from spreading, make sure you bring greater quantities than you need, then store it in more than one place. As good parents, we made sure we brought more formula than our five month old could down in a week.  However, our three year old decided to experiment by adding water to our last tin, which became contaminated after two hours at room temperature.  At sea, don’t be surprised if your vessel has every possible amenity except a common convenience store.  You may have to grin and bear several “fun days” at sea before you can breath easy at a tropical outlet.

Attend the Seminars

     While some resorts offer sales pitches disguised as information sessions, a cruise ship offers many sessions that are truly noteworthy, and some that are vital. Of the noteworthy category was the session by the professional shopper on purchasing jewelry.  After following her suggestion to specifically ask for the “manager’s best price”, we were able to save about 40-60% on a diamond ring.  The shopper actually went out of her way to personally inspect the stones before our purchase, as well as recommend companies Carnival guarantees.  In exchange for Carnival’s endorsement, such stores must live up to an expected standard of customer service and product guarantee.  For instance, if you find a better deal on a ring at the next port, provided it is the same chain, you will be allowed to make an exchange or be given the difference in cash.  As well, Carnival only deals with companies that ensure prompt and honest service if your purchase needs repair when you return home.

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As for vital, information sessions regarding customs procedures in the islands, as well as debarkation in Miami, provided for smooth transitions from sea to land.   For instance, in the Virgin Islands, non-U.S. citizens had different customs locations and procedures than American tourists who were required to stand in a much longer line and meet a significantly earlier deadline.

Know What You Want Before Booking

Like many corporations, cruise lines tend to target a specific demographic.  Carnival is seen by many as a wide-net operation, spanning young couples to seniors, and includes those who can only manage a few hundred dollars for a lower deck, inside stateroom to those who prefer a sprawling penthouse suite with a balcony.  Even the restaurants are tiered.  There is the bathing suit populated buffet and specialty foods section, and the resort casual/semi-formal dining areas, both included in the original price.  For those who want to tux it up and pay a little extra, an elegant five star restaurant awaits.

Carnival is also one of the only cruise lines that offers programs for kids under three.  Even Disney’s ships, which one would assume has programs for every age, do not have programs for very young children. Camp Carnival, administered by ECE professionals from all over the world, is so effective that my daughter chose to spend many afternoons getting her face painted and visiting with “Fun Ship Freddie” instead of indulging her boring parents on the pool deck.

And Carnival definitely lives up to the reputation as the “fun ships”.  You are more likely to find a hairy back contest and a sun deck reggae band than, as one passenger sourly noted from her cruise on a competing line, “rocking chair” aerobics.   Every ship and cruise line has its own ethos, and wise travelers will choose an experience to meet their desires.  Even the eighty-plus year old woman who sat beside me at the blackjack table, a veteran of over sixty cruises, preferred the festive atmosphere of Valor as she played her way deep into the morning hours.

Bring Money for the Extras

Cruise ships are not all inclusive.  Though the vast majority of food is included with the original price, along with a small assortment of beverages like coffee and tea, expect to pay at least a few hundred for drinks.  At two dollars for soft drinks, and four dollars for water, your bill for a family of four can quickly climb if you don’t keep your eye on it.  Many experienced cruisers buy water and soft drinks before sailing to offset the inflated prices onboard.  Similarly, some families, trying to keep costs low on the islands, order free room service sandwiches before their excursion which can be packed away for later.

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Speaking of excursions, don’t forget to budget for the chance to make all your dolphin-swimming dreams come true ($109.00 per person).  For those who want to stick to a plan, such excursions can be priced and prearranged once you book your cruise, whether on-line or via the free customer service number.  If you are a vacationer who would rather wait and see, the purser’s desk can direct you to a host of port activities.  Minimum cost adventures include snorkeling ($45.00), sightseeing ($50-$100), and aquatic interactive zoos like not the not-to-be-missed Stingray Encounter—for $57.00, you can tickle, kiss, and prompt the tamed rays to spurt water on the back on an unsuspecting guest. Major investments like horseback riding will cost up to $416.00 for a family of four and the Harley in Paradise tour will run you about $395.00 per hog.  But time is a factor.  Some port stops can be twelve hours of more, yet shorter stops, like our 8:00am-1:00pm trip to the Nassau, Bahamas will force you to make some tough choices.  Such ventures are highly recommended, but experienced cruisers realize cruising is a relationship, not an event—do what you can afford now, knowing that you will have many years to grow into bigger and better excursions.

Gratuities are charged for anyone old enough to walk and you can expect to pay about ten dollars a day per person.  This is distributed to the entire staff except for the restaurant maitre d’.  However, you might feel like a heel if you don’t tip the waiter who consistently folded down your baby’s stroller, or leave something for the steward who left an assortment of towel animals to delight your three year old.

Other costs include the shuttle from the airport to the ship, baggage handlers, late night baby-sitting, and the twenty dollar taxi rides to the nearest beach.  And for cruisers with a little more discretionary cash, don’t forget about the on-board golf lessons and spa, or the hair salon and tuxedo rental for formal night adventures.

As we left the dock for the last time, and smiled thankfully at the monstrosity that cradled our family from port to port, we had to ask the question: was it worth it? Answer: absolutely.  Cruising can be very addictive, and for good reason.   Even with all the extra charges, a “Fun Ship” will prove to be a more economical vacation than staying on land.  Where else could you have such intimate service, yet experience a wide range of shows, children’s programs, and all you can eat dining for such a reasonable price?  On what other vacation could you sleep under the twinkling mountain lights of St. Thomas only to wake up to the warm St. Maarten waters, interrupted by a late night craving for pizza or a complimentary chocolate buffet?   Since approximately half of the ship’s guests were first time cruisers, we made the promise that this would not be a one-time experience.  And as we boarded the airline filled with silently content vacationers for our flight home, we quietly checked our watches and smiled with envy at those who were now crossing the decks of Valor.  Those who were awaiting their premier voyage would soon learn that an informed relationship with the culture of cruising could take them, happily, to the ends of the earth.