Berlitz Cruising & Cruise Ships 2017 (Berlitz Cruise Guide) (2016)
Are you all at sea about cruise vacations, when it seems like everyone around you has taken a cruise, but you haven’t? Here are the basics you’ll need to know before casting off for the first time.
Actually, there are thousands of others like you. It’s a bit of an obstacle course, like trying to choose between different models of car and deciding on all the optional extras before actually getting the model you want. About 75 cruise companies operate around 350 ocean-going cruise ships (not to mention over 1,000 river ships) in the business of cruise vacations.
An ocean cruise can offer variety, great value for money, and an unforgettable experience, and, with a little planning, it will hopefully all go smoothly. And, after your first cruise, be prepared for the feeling of addiction that so often hits.
You’ll need to do a little planning in order to find the right ship and cruise to suit your needs - whether you are a young couple, a family with children, sophisticated and well-traveled seniors, or you want unabashed luxury and total relaxation.
Royal Court Theatre aboard Queen Elizabeth.
What exactly is a cruise?
A cruise is an escape from the stresses and strains of life on land. It is a (mostly) pre-paid, hopefully hassle-free, and very importantly, crime-free vacation, where you only have to pack and unpack once. You seldom have to make blind choices, you sleep in the same bed each night, and the ship moves the scenery for you.
Everything’s close at hand and there are always polite people to help you. A cruise provides a chance to explore new places and meet new people and make new friends. It can facilitate multi-generational togetherness, solo adventuring, or escapism for couples. And, some of the world’s most beautiful places are best seen from the deck of a cruise ship.
What a cruise is not
Some cruises simply aren’t relaxing, despite cruise brochure claims that ‘you can do as much or as little as you want to.’ For example, large resort ships carrying between 2,001 and 6,500 passengers pack lots of people into small cabins and provide almost nonstop activities and entertainment.
Reasons to take a cruise
Value for money. A cruise represents excellent value for money, considering everything that is being provided in the package. As it’s mostly pre-paid, you don’t have to constantly make financial decisions once you’re on your way, either.
Convenience. You can probably drive to your port of embarkation. If not, the cruise line can make all the arrangements, including flights, baggage handling, and transfers to and from the ship. And you only have to unpack once during the vacation!
Choice. There are over 30,000 cruises to choose from! You can cruise the Caribbean, Alaska, South America, Europe, the Greek Isles, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, the Arctic, and Antarctica. And that’s just the beginning.
Discover new places. A cruise provides you with a chance to see new places. You simply board and enjoy being delivered from one destination to the next, almost on a daily basis. Organized excursions ashore can add to the sense of discovery, too.
Comfort. A cruise ship suite or cabin is your home away from home. It can be as small as a tent (at about 60 sq ft/6 sq m) or as large as a villa (at 3,000 sq ft/279 sq m), or anything in between.
Good food. Dining is one of the greatest pleasures of ship life, and all your meals are included from breakfast through to late-night snacks.
Family togetherness. Cruising offers a safe, friendly environment, which is great for families with children. Many ships have well-supervised activities for kids, too. Cruising is also an excellent way for groups of friends to vacation together.
Learning experience. Most cruise ships have guest speakers/lecturers, so you can learn while you cruise.
Make new friends. A cruise ship provides a relaxed environment in which to make new friends - some you may keep for life.
Adventure. A cruise can be an adventure. It can take you to places that are impossible to reach by almost any other means, such as the Antarctic Peninsula, the Arctic, or to remote islands. A cruise can inspire the explorer in you.
Staying healthy. A cruise allows you to pamper yourself in a spa, although body-pampering treatments are at extra cost. And, with all the available food, learn to pace yourself, and you’ll stay healthy.
Entertainment. Cruise ships provide a wide range of professional entertainment, from spectacular Vegas-style production shows to intimate piano, guitar, and jazz bars. And during the day, there are activities, fun, and games galore - enough to keep even the most active occupied.
Europa 2, by Hapag-Lloyd Cruises.
How long does a cruise last?
The popular standard length is seven days, although cruises can vary from two-day party outings to exotic voyages around the world of three or more months. For your first cruise, consider trying a short cruise to ‘get your feet wet.’ After that, the world awaits.
About the price
Price is, of course, a consideration for most people. The amount you are prepared to spend will determine the size, location, and style of accommodation you get. Be wary of huge discounts - these either mean that the product was unrealistically priced at source or that quality is reduced somewhere.
10 Questions to ask your booking agent
1. What size ship would you recommend?
2. What should I budget for the cruise?
3. What kind of accommodation would suit my tastes and budget?
4. What is included in the cruise price?
5. What is not included?
6. What is the ship’s onboard ambience like?
7. What facilities does the ship have?
8. What kind of food and service is provided?
9. What kind of entertainment should I expect?
10. What are the Internet or Wi-Fi charges?
Will I need a passport?
Yes. You’ll need to ensure that any appropriate authorizations and visas are obtained ahead of your cruise. If you already have a valid passport, make sure that you have at least six months left on in at the end of the cruise. If you don’t have a passport, allow plenty of time to apply for one. Note that in some ports (such as Venice, Italy, and all ports in Russia) you to are required to carry your passport when ashore.
Visiting the Norwegian fjords aboard Balmoral (Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines).
10 steps to a good first cruise experience
1. Find a cruise specialist. Although the Internet is a popular research tool, it pays to find a specialist cruise agent as soon as possible (note that some Internet-only ‘agencies’ with slick websites have been known to disappear without trace - with your money.)
Describe your preferences (relaxation, visiting destinations, adventure, activities, entertainment, etc.), so that the specialist can suggest what’s appropriate. A good cruise specialist agent will then find a cruise that is right for you, for the right reasons, and find the best fares available.
They can guide you through all the important details, such as choice of cabin, dining arrangements, cruise lines, and ships best suited to your needs. They should also have insider tips, as well as knowledge about upgrades, pre- and post-cruise programs, and hotel and other travel arrangements.
2. Where to? Choose where you want to cruise (Bahamas, Bermuda, Caribbean, Alaska, Hawaii, US east coast, the Baltic, Northern Europe, Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia, Australia/New Zealand, South Africa, South America, South Pacific, etc.). And when you want to cruise (Alaska is only offered by cruise in the summertime; the Caribbean may be too hot for you in summer; Northern Europe is best in the summer, although South America and Southeast Asia are best in the winter). If you are interested in a special theme, such as Carnival in Rio, Formula One racing in Monte Carlo, this will determine the time of year.
3. How long? Decide on the length of cruise vacation you can afford to take. Allow traveling time to get to and from your ship, particularly if it is in a region far from home, or during winter. The standard length of cruise in the Caribbean, for example, is seven days, although short-break Bahamas or Mexican Riviera cruises for three or four days are popular, too. In Northern Europe 12-14 days are more typical, while for an around-South America cruise, you’ll need to plan for 30 days or more. For visiting the Antarctic Peninsula, allow 21 days. Finally, a complete around-the-world cruise will take 90-120 days.
4. Choose the right ship. Size matters! Choose the right size ship for your needs. Do you want to be with 100, 200, 500, 1,000, or 5,000-plus others on your vacation? As a rule of thumb, the larger the ship, the more the cruise itinerary focuses on the ship as the destination.
Or perhaps you would like to experience cruising under sail; or with specialist lecturers; or an adventure/expedition cruise; or a coastal and inland waterways cruise; or with a large spa and choice of body-pampering treatments; or aboard a ship with non-stop entertainment and fun activities.
5. Choose the right cabin. For a first cruise, if the budget allows, choose an outside-view cabin. In an interior (no-view) cabin you won’t know how to dress when you wake up, because you can’t see what the weather is like outside, although interior no-view cabins are good if you like to sleep in a really dark room. If you are concerned about motion sickness (it’s not common, but it can happen), choose a cabin in the mid-section of the ship.
The average cabin size aboard a large resort ship is 180-200 sq ft (16.5-18.5 sq m); anything less and you will feel cramped. With limited closet space, you’ll need fewer clothes than you might think. The more space you want, the more it will cost. Today, many passengers like to have a private balcony.
6. Dining. If the ship still has two seatings for dinner - as many large resort ships do - it could be wise to choose the later seating (typically 8:30pm), so that you have enough time ashore on the days the ship is in port without having to rush back to shower and change for the first seating, which is typically at 6:30pm.
Some ships have several dining venues, and you go where and when and with whom you like.
7. Health and fitness. If you are interested in wellness or spa treatments, ask your agent to make sure that your chosen ship has adequate facilities, space, and equipment. Note that aboard some of the largest ships, you’ll need to sign up for many exercise classes, and there may be a 30-minute time limit to use the treadmill or video bike.
It’s best to book early for spa treatments, because the appointment times go quickly. Some cruise lines with large resort ships allow you to book online, although this means planning your time in advance.
Relaxing on a deckchair on a transatlantic crossing with Cunard Line.
8. Families. If you are traveling with children, choose a family-friendly ship. While most large resort ships have good facilities, mid-size and small ships have more limited facilities. Some have none at all. Children generally love cruising, finding it educational, fun, safe, and sociable.
Conversely, if you don’t want to cruise with lots of children, avoid the main school vacation periods. For those who don’t want children around them, there are several child-free ships to choose from.
9. Dress codes. Dress codes today tend to be informal, particularly aboard the large resort ships. In general, no tux is needed, although there are exceptions to this, such as on a transatlantic crossing aboard Cunard Line’s Queen Mary 2, when dressing more formally is part of the tradition. It sounds obvious, but ships move around, so flat or low-heeled shoes are strongly recommended for women.
10. Extra expenses. Finally, you’ll need to budget for extra-cost items such as shore excursions, drinks (unless they are included), meals in any ‘specialty’ dining venue, spa treatments, gaming, and other personal items. Also, allow some additional money to cover souvenirs and other purchases. Last, but not least, make sure you have full insurance cover for your vacation.
How to get the best deal
Find out what’s available by reading newspaper advertising and checking the Internet. Then identify a travel agency that specializes in cruises. In some countries, such as the UK, they’ll be bonded if they belong to an industry association. A good agent will get you the best price, as well as upgrades and other benefits you won’t be able to get elsewhere.
Big travel agency groups and consortiums often reserve large blocks of cabins, while smaller independent agencies can access extensive discounts, upgrades, and other benefits not available on the Internet. The cruise lines consider travel agents as their principal distribution system, so they can provide special discounts and value-added amenities that aren’t provided to Internet sites.
Today, many passengers use mobiles, tablets, and laptops and expect to be able to use these devices during their cruise. But you should know the details before you travel, so you can make the best decision on how to use your digital devices.
You can’t use your mobile or tablet for embarkation check-in yet, but you can use your device aboard ship - in port. Once you leave port, however, your mobile will automatically lock into the ship’s digital network, incurring a charge. Once at sea, your mobile is out of range with your land-based carrier and locks into a ‘mini-cell’ aboard ship (Cellular at Sea), controlled by the MTN (Marine Telephone Network).
The ship’s digital shipboard system will ask you to establish a user name and password before allowing access to the Internet. Computer and tablet users should note that each ship-received e-mail arrives separately and takes longer to load than normal. Wi-Fi is available aboard many ships - at extra cost.
Some mobile phone carriers (example: Verizon in the US) have a Preferred Carrier List built into every phone that pre-selects preferred carriers throughout the world with whom they have roaming agreements - at optimum rates to the carrier.
Also, note that some ships have notices outside restaurants prohibiting the use of mobile phones.
Mobile phone tips
Turn off Data Roaming, and you won’t incur data roaming charges. Turn off Location Services, which will prevent some apps from constantly trying to update your location. Turn off Data Push, because some e-mail accounts, like Gmail, push the data to your smartphone. This will incur charges even if you don’t open any e-mails. Turn off Data Synchronization, because it consumes bandwidth trying to keep your accounts up to date.
What to expect
Stepping aboard for the first time? Here is what you need to know about a typical embarkation.
Make sure you have your passport and any visas required. Pack any medication you may need (in original, labeled containers) in your carry-on hand luggage.
You will already have been sent your cruise tickets and other relevant documents (including immigration forms to be completed before you get to your ship), as well as luggage tags, either digitally or as paper copies from the cruise line or your travel agent.
Passengers embarking aboard Island Escape.
Checking in online
Most cruise lines now expect you to check in online to reduce staff numbers at check-in desks in embarkation cruise terminals. Paper cruise tickets and other documents formerly used by most major cruise lines have become collectors’ items. You will need to print your boarding pass at your own cost. It typically takes about 10-15 minutes to complete the online check-in process, assuming that you have all your booking details to hand.
Depending on the cruise line, there are usually four major steps to complete before you can print your boarding pass.
Step 1: Passenger information.
Step 2: Your onboard expense account information (pre-register your credit card.)
Step 3: Cruise ticket contract.
Step 4: Print your boarding pass and baggage tags.
You’ve arrived at the airport closest to your ship’s embarkation point, and retrieved your luggage. There will be a representative from the cruise line waiting, holding aloft the company’s name. Your luggage is placed in a cluster together with those of other passengers. The next time you see your luggage should be in your cabin.
You’ll find check-in desks in the passenger terminal. If you have suite-grade accommodation, there should be a separate check-in facility. (Note: don’t buy duty-free liquor to take on board - it won’t be allowed by the cruise line and will be confiscated.)
Anyone cruising from a US port who is a non-US citizen, or ‘resident alien,’ is sent to a separate desk to check in. Leave your passport with the check-in personnel, but ask for a receipt. It’s advisable to also have a photocopy of the main pages of your passport to keep with you.
You’ll go through security-screening, just as at airports. Then it’s a few paces to get to the gangway. This may be a covered, airport-type gangway, or an open one - hopefully with a net underneath it in case you drop something over the side. As you approach the gangway, you will probably be greeted by the ship’s photographers, a snap-happy team ready to take your photograph, bedraggled as you may appear after having traveled for hours. You can, of course, just say no (firmly) to this, if you don’t want your photograph taken.
At the ship end of the gangway, you will find the cruise staff will welcome you aboard, although they may or may not guide you to your cabin.
Titanic-style stairway aboard Insignia.
Things to check
Once inside the cabin, take a good look around. Is it clean? Is it tidy? Are the beds properly made? Is there ice in the ice container? Check the bathroom, bathtub - if there is one - or shower. Make sure there are towels and soap. If there are problems, tell your cabin steward.
Memorize the telephone number for the ship’s hospital, doctor, or for medical emergencies, just so you know how to call for help of that sort.
Your luggage probably will not have arrived yet - especially if it is a large resort ship carrying more than 2,001 passengers - but don’t sit in the cabin waiting for it. Put your hand luggage away, and, deck plan in hand, take a walk. If you’re hungry, head to the self-serve buffet - be warned, though, that aboard the large resort ships, it’ll probably be a bit of a free-for-all.
Familiarize yourself with the layout of the ship. Learn which way is forward, which way is aft, and how to reach your cabin from the main stairways. This is also a good time to learn how to get from your cabin to the outside decks in an emergency - these are rare, but they do happen.
Control that thirst
Picture the scenario: you’re thirsty when you arrive in your cabin. You notice a bottle of water with a tab around its neck. Be sure to read the notice on the tab: ‘This bottle is provided for your convenience. If you open it, your account will be charged $4.50.’
On deck, you are greeted by a smiling waiter offering you a colorful, cool drink. But, put your fingers on the glass as he hands it to you and he’ll also ask for your cruise card. Bang, you’ve just paid $6.95 for a drink full of ice worth 5¢.
The cost of drinks soon adds up. Aboard ships operated by Europe-based companies, mixers such as tonic for gin are usually charged separately.
The safety drill
A Passenger Lifeboat Drill will take place before a ship sails from the embarkation port. (This was introduced following the Costa Concordia tragedy in 2012.) Make sure you attend the drill, and pay attention - it could save your life. Note that directions to your assembly station will be posted on the back of the cabin door. After the drill, you can take off the lifejacket and relax. By now, your luggage probably will have arrived.