Taking a cruise doesn't require a PhD in astrophysics, but it can't hurt to do a little homework to hedge your bets.
1. Skip the Bus Tour
Crowded buses, hard-to-hear guides, and mandatory stops at carpet and glass factories can make group tours mind numbing. Why shuffle around with a mob of 40 or 50 other passengers (groups are smaller on high-end ships) and give up your freedom, when in many ports, especially in Europe, it's a breeze (and often cheaper) to tour solo. To get from the port of Civitavecchia to Rome last summer we opted for the local train. Not only a roomier mode of transport than a bus, but way cheaper -- about $50 for four round-trip tickets compared to the $99 to $599 per person cost of the ship's tours. The ride to the Central Termini station, near the Coliseum, took just over an hour (compared to 90 minutes via bus), and was a picturesque journey through the Italian countryside and past small towns. If your ship stops in Villefranche, a classic French Riviera harbor town framed by boats and sidewalk cafes less than 10 miles from the tiny principality of Monaco, it's easy to jump on the local train near the pier and make the 17-minute straight shot (about $6 a piece one-way) to the Ferrari-choked celebrity playground. For a couple of bucks, easy-to-use local buses will take you the short way to the Prince's Palace (where the Rainiers live), the cathedral where Grace Kelly is buried, and the famous casino; it's much cheaper and more flexible than the ship's $100 (or more) version and you'll feel more like a local -- just don't forget to check when the last train departs back to the ship. While in Alaska there's little choice but to sign up for the ship's organized helicopter tours and kayaking bicycling excursions, there is some sightseeing you can do your own, including heading up to the summit of Mount Roberts, which dramatically rises up behind the town, for panoramic views and walks on marked trails. A tramway will take you to the top and you can walk to the ticket office from the ship and pay the $21.95 per person admission.
2. Bring a Guidebook
The ship's shore excursion staff can tell you about the tours they sell (for liability reasons, most are discouraged from giving out info for independent touring) and at best distribute smudgy one-page port maps and directions to the local shops the ship has a stake in. If you want more info on history or off-beat attractions or plan to explore on your own in Europe or the Caribbean (where it's often easy to do so), a guidebook, magazine articles and print-outs from websites are indispensable when it comes to information on beaches, museums, important sights, and local transportation. How else would you know how easy it was to get from the more crowded port of Philipsburg on the Dutch side of St. Maarten where most ships dock to Marigot on the more picturesque French side of the island for a bowl of spicy conch stew at a local café? Without a guidebook, you'd wouldn't know how to get to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam or that it's best to stroll around the pathway threading along the top of Dubrovnik's ancient fortified wall for panoramic views of the city's gorgeous harbor rather than join the ship's walking tour through the city's crowded streets where groups can be as large as 40 or 50 people per guide.
3. Ask for a Refund
There's no guarantee you'll get it, but it can't hurt to ask. If you find out the price of your cabin category has gone down after you've booked it and paid for it (either in whole or in part), sometimes the cruise line will make it up to you if you, or your travel agent, call them on it. You might not get a cash refund, but could be offered a cabin upgrade or onboard credit that can be used for drinks, spa treatments, tours or whatever. You'll get more help chasing down a refund if you've booked your cruise through a customer-service oriented travel agency who values your long-term business. It'll be next to impossible to reach a real person at web-based agencies and 1-800 discount agencies to help you with a refund, so in this case you'll want to call the cruise line yourself.
4. Keep Track of Your Cruise Miles
Like the frequent flyer miles you can get from the airlines, serial cruisers get perks too. In most cases, if you've cruised just once before with a line, you'll be invited to a private cocktail party with the ship's top officers, get priority for cabin upgrades, board first on embarkation day, and get 5% to 15% discounts on future cruises. After reaching big mile stones, some lines, especially the high end ones, dish out rewards like free cruises. For instance, after your 30th voyage with Crystal, they'll give you a free 7-night cruise.
5. Don't Upgrade in the Spa
Cruise ship spas are getting fancier these days -- larger and prettier with gurgling fountains and high-tech machines -- but the over-priced treatments often don't live up to their gushy brochure billing. Many are sold in $200 to $500 combination packages promising exotic-sounding milk wraps, frangipani scrubs and jasmine flower baths. I've found that combo packages often include a lot of down-time while you're basting in your wrap or mask for 20 or 30 minutes, while the therapist is off having a tea break. The rub: stick to the basics. I usually opt for the 50-minute deep tissue massage and am rarely disappointed.
6. Chuck the Tux
The days of forced formality at dinner à la jackets, ties and ball gowns sank with the Titanic, most lines have casual buffet restaurants that don't have dress codes, so if you don't mind more basic fare (like pasta, stir-frys, and broiled salmon) than you'll get in the main dining rooms, you can wear jeans and t-shirts every night if you want to on just about every cruise line out there.
7. Book an In-Cabin Babysitter
Most cruise lines offer some kind of complimentary supervised activities program for the kids throughout the day and group babysitting at night within a pre-set time frame (usually 10pm to 1am or so, for typically $5 or $6 an hour per child). If you don't want to be bound to a schedule while you're jamming in the disco and don't want to wake up poor Johnny snoozing in the kids' room at midnight to carry him back to the cabin, a few lines offer private in-cabin babysitting, including Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Crystal, Cunard and Holland America. The sitter is generally a cabin stewardesses or other female crew member. Rates are about $8 an hour for one child and in the neighborhood of $10 an hour for two kids.
8. Heed These Tipping Tips
With the exception of high-end Silverseas, Seabourn, SeaDream and Regent, lines that include gratuities in the cruise rates, crews do expect to be tipped (tips make up the vast majority of their weekly salary). Many cruise lines add tips directly on to passenger accounts, though most allow you the option of paying tips in cash directly to servers if you prefer. The suggested gratuity is $10 a day per person. Keep in mind, a 15% service charge is generally automatically added to bar tabs, so it's not necessary to tip bartenders extra. A 15% tip for spa and salon treatments is also expected; though make sure it's not already on the tab.
9. Think off the Menu
Cruise ships pride themselves on feeding passengers as much food as they can take. Not only do many lines offer unlimited pizza and soft ice cream all day long, if you're eyeballing the broiled sea bass in dill sauce and the rack of lamb at dinner, ask for both. Because your waiter's banking on a nice tip at the end of the cruise, he'll bend over backwards to comply with requests for an extra lobster tail, three appetizers or chocolate sauce and a cherry on your mango ice cream. If you don't like anything on the menu, most lines have a handful of standards they can always whip up, like Caesar salad, grilled salmon, sirloin steak and broiled chicken.
10. Drink up
If you're addicted to Diet Coke and the rest, and don't mind fountain sodas instead of cans, it pays to buy the drink packages many cruise lines offer, giving you free reign to swig as many glasses of pop as you can stomach throughout the length of the cruise. If you're a big drinker, you'll definitely save moolah this way. A can of Coke by itself goes for $1.50 to $2 a pop.
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