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Thursday, Nov. 22, 2007

Cruising 101

Answers to all of your questions about cruise vacations

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How do I book a cruise? You can book a cruise online at Web sites specializing in selling cruises, including Cruise.com, iCruise.com and CruisesOnly.com, or at all-purpose sites such as Expedia.com or Orbitz.com. However, 90% of cruisers book through a travel agent whose knowledge and expertise can help find a cruise that matches their interests and personalities.

How can I get a good deal? If you are able to make last-minute travel decisions, are traveling with a small group and can be flexible about cabin type, you can get a great deal by booking late. However, if you want certain dates, a specific cabin type, a destination with limited availability or are traveling with a large group, you need to book early. Cruise lines often have discounts for passengers from certain states or for families or other groups.

Are cruises a good value? Cruises are all-inclusive, meaning that your fare includes almost everything—accommodations, meals, snacks, entertainment and activities. You pay extra for shore excursions, drinks and specialty restaurants.

Where should I cruise? Young couples and families with children seem to prefer the Caribbean. Alaska, Mexican Riviera, Baltic, Far East and Mediterranean cruises are more popular with adults and “empty nesters.”

Does size matter? Cruise ships come in all shapes and sizes, from the 3,000-passenger vessels to more intimate ships that carry fewer than 100 people. Large cruise ships have more activities, entertainment and dining options while smaller vessels offer a casual atmosphere and give you the opportunity to visit ports that larger vessels cannot enter. And don’t forget yachts, paddle wheelers and river barges.

What is the best length of cruise? Many folks take a three- or four-day voyage the first time to sample the experience. Seven- to 14-day cruises are also popular.

How do I decide on a cabin? If you plan to spend most of your time exploring the ship and ports, you can save money by booking an inside cabin. However, many feel it’s worth the extra money to get a cabin with a veranda and “a view of your own.”

Do I need a passport? Yes, with the exception of cruises to Hawaii.

How do I pay for things? You sign a receipt for every purchase and settle your account at the end with a credit card, traveler’s check or cash.

What about tipping? Tipping is a matter of individual preference. Ageneral guideline is to tip $3.50 per person per day for your cabin steward and dining room waiter and half that amount for your busboy. Hand out your gratuities on the last night in an envelope available from the front desk. Some lines add $10 a day to the passenger’s account to cover tips, but passengers are free to adjust the amount at the end of the cruise. A 15% gratuity is automatically added to bar charges and dining room wine purchases.

How do I book shore excursions? Ashore excursion brochure will be included with your cruise documents. Most cruise lines give you the option of booking online before you go, but you may prefer to visit the shore excursion desk onboard where they can answer your questions. Options can include golf, helicopter flights, rafting, snorkeling, city tours and garden strolls, to name a few. Some cruisers prefer wandering around the port looking for bargains and souvenirs or hiring a licensed taxi or limousine for a custom tour. For families or groups of three or four, this can be an economical

Do I have to wear a tuxedo? Most large ships have a few formal nights; smaller ships do not. Tuxedos or business suits are appropriate for men and dresses or pantsuits for women. There’s always the option of the buffet, pizzeria or room service, too.

What about travel insurance? Acruise is a major expenditure, so you might want to insure against a catastrophe such as an illness or death in the family, loss of a job or the possibility you could become seriously ill while on board and need to be airlifted to the nearest hospital. Check with your travel agent to see which policy best suits your needs.

Will I have access to e-mail and the Internet? Guests can usually send and receive e-mail via a highspeed satellite link 24 hours a day. You can surf the ’Net, check your stocks, read your e-mail and send a video mail back home—for a fee. alternative. How can I avoid getting seasick? If you’re susceptible to motion sickness, you may need preventive medications such as Bonine. Some people find an acupressure wristband or the Transderm Scop patch helpful. Consult your doctor before you leave.

How can I remember which side is port and which is starboard? When you are facing the bow, port is on the left. Just remember that “port” and “left” each have four letters.

Marge Peterson is a veteran cruiser and former editor at AAAHome & Away Magazine.