Choosing To Cruise Again
Updated: Mid-cruise April 10/15
It was time to update our cruise planning tips.
This would be our 4th cruise. Our first one was a kid-based trip to the Caribbean on a Carnival ship. It offered great and varied entertainment but we came away not sure if cruising was for us. When we started to plan a romantic trip to Europe I brought up the option of doing a Mediterranean cruise. David wasn’t sure but the itinerary from Barcelona to Venice gave us an easy way to taste test a bunch of places we were interested in. We chose to go upscale with Oceania and felt this cruising experience was more our style. This second cruise was such a success that the next year we booked another cruise – this one a tour of major ruins sites between Venice and Athens. We used our own cruise planning tips to help us get ready!
Having added a whole new set of destinations to our “must return” list, we then started to travel in Europe to go back to some of the places we had found on the cruises (see 10 Weeks In Italy).
It was the coldest winter ever in Toronto this year and we very smartly booked a trip to Bahamas for all of February. But not content with just one winter escape we had also booked a 12 day Caribbean cruise with Oceania for April when the hugely discounted flyer came into my email at Christmas. Happy with the new Caribbean destinations this cruise would give, we were presented with a hard choice when we got offered a back to back cruise to a great set of Central and South American ports at an almost too good to be true price. After juggling flights and pre and post cruise hotels, it was still a good deal. So we were now set to cruise for 26 days in total.
Cruise Planning Tips
Finalizing and getting ready for a cruise means all the normal trip preparations but there are a few things that are a little different for a cruise. Here are a few of our cruise planning tips!
Pre and Post Cruise Travel
Most cruise lines offer discounted airfare in their cruise deals. They will get you to the ship on time to board and hustle you off the ship at the crack of dawn to get you to your departure airport – if you book the transfers with them. If you choose to find a cheaper airport transfer – make sure you have left enough time! The boat might wait for the cruise ship transfers but not if you are making your way on your own.
You can choose to arrive a few days early in the starting city or leave a little later at the final destination. The cruise line will typically have a hotel offer if you want to go that route. We generally have booked our own hotels. If you decide to add days to your trip, you will generally have to pay a “deviation” fee to change your flight days (a flat fee plus any airfare difference). Generally if we are adding on more than a day to our cruise, we have chosen to not take the airfare with the cruise line and book our own flights and hotels to have much more flexibility and control over our costs. Our experience was that the cruise line had limits on how far out you could move dates (e.g. we tried for 2 weeks once and were denied).
The other consideration is when you choose to do back to back cruises. Will you stay on board at the port between the cruise sections? In most cases, you have to leave at least for a brief period for customs and/or passport control. But after you have done that, you can either get back on the ship or go into the port for a port day. Processes likely vary between cruise lines so make sure you check early so you can do your port planning if you are leaving the ship.
Book Cruise Excursions
Cruise ships offer a cornucopia of choices for excursions in all cruise ports. It is easy, if expensive, to select off the menu of options and keep yourself busy in each port. There are a wide variety of options – from cultural and historic bus tours, to active adventures (scuba, snorkel, 4x4s) and everything in between.
If you do not want to take the time to find and book your own tours, you can book with the cruise line. But you can probably find most of the same tours if you go to the dock and ask around or if you research in advance. The major downside of booking your own tours is that if you get delayed, the boat is not waiting for you and you will need to find your own way to the next port. With excursions booked by the cruise line, the boat will wait until all their tours are back.
On our cruises we have done a mix of excursions – a broad set of the cruise offered excursions, wandering just around the port on our own to explore and we have arranged our own tour (and ran for the last shuttle boat to our cruise ship!). If you have a full day in port, you probably have the flexibility to do it on your own but if it is a short stop, going off on your own beyond the port may be too risky.
Most cruise lines will offer you a discount if you pick your excursions in advance and if you do a number of excursions. On our upcoming cruise there were a lot of things we wanted to do with the cruise line and by booking in advance we saved over 25% – probably about the price we would have paid if we had researched and set them up on our own! But – if we don’t cancel before we board the ship, this set of excursions are locked and loaded with no cancellation. We better hope neither of us gets sick!
Plan For Some Downtime
It is a vacation so you should plan for some down time. Depending on the cruise line you book, there may be more or less activities on board to keep you busy. You can always sleep in, have breakfast on your patio, lie in the sun on deck or curl up somewhere and read! You should also know how many days you will be “at sea” with no port stops. These days you will likely be looking for things to do, even if it is prepping for your upcoming.
The other treat you may get is if you arrive in a port during the day (and not at 5am). We got a great narrated tour of the Grand Canal in Venice as we arrived into port one morning.
The trip along the fjords to get into the port of Kotor had everyone on deck for hours!
By the time we got our cruise itinerary, booked dinner in the specialty restaurants and confirmed our excursions, our cruise calendar was getting full. Good thing we are travel planning geeks and keep our travel planning well documented!
Consider Your Electronics Load
I will start off and confess that both David and I each travel with a rolling bag of electronics – at least two of each: computers, tablets, eReaders, phones, cameras, hard drives …. so we may not be the best to give you advice on this one.
Much like the airlines, wifi service is spotty but improved wifi is an emerging trend. Wifi tends to be pretty expensive on a cruise ship although this may be the year where this changes! Do you need wifi? If you do some advance research, you may be able to find wifi at the ports that you stop at – usually for the price of a drink or coffee. If you have lots of money to burn, you could always turn on your phone from home and get internet.
Most people who want to stay connected will usually look at one of the wifi packages offered by the cruise line. Typically there are hourly, daily or full cruise packages to choose from.
You don’t need internet to use most of your electronics you might bring on board. David typically has thousands of photos to edit – so he needs his computer for editing. I do my draft blogs while travelling, although often don’t post until I return home and get insert the carefully pruned, corrected and watermarked pictures that David finally hands over! We usually opt to have our electronics load for entertainment options!
Keep Yourself Healthy
There is nothing worse than getting sick on vacation. In most cases, you are going to have to fly to get to your cruise port. This is the first infection vector that you have to survive. Then when you get on the boat, you are living for days or weeks within a fairly enclosed space with hundreds of your new best friends – the Oceania Regatta is medium sized with less than 700 guests; whereas, the largest cruise vessel “Oasis of the Seas” can have 5400 passengers and 2400 crew. If you survived the flight, you may not survive the cruise boat. I generally don’t want to take chances!
The other new issue that I have developed is a sensitive stomach. The last few times I have been in the Caribbean I have had bouts of problems. I asked George for an Imodium type product but he again suggested we build immunity instead. He recommended a strong probiotic to build good bacteria in my stomach to avoid having to deal with problems later.
Armed with my more natural products I was hoping to avoid problems but I was also not leaving home without proven remedies in case this immunity still failed. I would be travelling with Imodium for stomach problems. Once I decided not to treat the problem and after 5 days of being sick I had to leave Cuba 7 days early! Carry-on bags always contain my brand of preferred cold medicine. Having been caught in Europe twice without my favourite brand (or any idea how to ask for the core ingredients in another language), I was not prepared for trial and error until I found a cold product that would let me move through my days and nights.
Please note – I am NOT a doctor, so don’t take my medicine advice without your own research. All I can pass on is what works for us.
Packing For A Cruise
I still have not managed to pack light – despite reading dozens of blogs on how to do this better! But cruising is not backpacking so there are some things to consider that may drive you to a bigger suitcase.
The first thing to consider is the dress code for the cruise line you are on – especially for any special events or special dining venues. If you decide to skip these special events, you can generally ignore dress code requirements other than reasonable ones (e.g. shirts please when you are in any restaurant!). If you do want to go to events that require a dress code, it is generally “resort casual”. Most women find this pretty easy – a dress or dress pants works. For men, it usually means no shorts and the need for a collared shirt. But those general guidelines leave room for a breadth of discretion. Even if you can get away with a striped golf shirt, is this really what you want to wear for dinner at the Captain’s table? Bring at least one respectable outfit and wash it if you need to!
If you are cruising for more than a week, you can usually do laundry on the ship. It means fighting for a space in the lineup, an early trip to the laundromat or doing laundry when everyone else is away (e.g. on a day when you decide you want to stay onboard). Higher end vessels will do your laundry for a high cost.
The other thing that will impact your packing is the type of excursions you want to do. If we are heading south, we often want to scuba dive so we must add some of our own equipment to the packing list. Scuba diving as an excursion is a bit like resort scuba diving – so you need to weigh whether you really will be getting a great dive experience in a very rushed tour and depending on how many dives, whether it is worth dragging your gear bag. If you are heading for a jungle tour, you may want long sleeved clothing and bug spray.
Our cruise planning tips include some insight on packing.
There are now services that will ship your bags to the cruise port. The cost depends on the size of bag and the distance to ship. If you are doing a cruise in the middle of a longer trip and you need very different clothes for the cruise, this might make sense. So far, we have not really looked at this option.
New packing tips:
- Many of the ships are mainly outfitted with European electrical outlets. Our cabin had 2 North American outlets on the desk but not beside the bed. Even with the one extension cord we bought, we did not have enough outlets. Pack your European plug converters! They are much more expensive onboard and hard to find in port if not cruising in Europe.
- Your passports are often taken from you when you board the ship so that they can pre-clear the ship in each port. You should have an electronic copy or a photocopy with you in case you even had an issue in port.
A Few Cruise Planning Tips
The rest of travel planning is pretty much the same as these cruise planning tips. What destinations are you looking for on the cruise? When do you want to go? How long do you want to go? What type of cruise line fits your style best?
But once all the travel planning is done, you can sit back and relax as someone else “drives the boat” and you enjoy not having to pack and unpack for days!
What other cruise planning tips do you have for planning for a cruise vacation?