By design, cruises are surpremely convenient. The ultimate antidote to our over-worked, stressed-out, uber-scheduled lives, a cruise is just plain easy. Unpack once. Ports come to you. Meals, entertainment and activities for all ages at your fingertips. What else do you need to know?
Just a few things, really.
1) Bridesmaid dresses. Formal night is the perfect time to squeeze into that sequin-y number you thought you'd never wear again.
2) Elastic. Build your entire cruise wardrobe around it, 'cause you won't be able to part with your fork for a minute.
3) Fun. Though it may feel odd, be prepared for a rush of endorphins to keep you on a perma-high. Leave your prozac at home.
And here, while we're at it, some even more useful tips.
Ditch the dressy duds . . . if you want to. Who really dresses up any more anyway? Limo drivers? Undertakers? I know I just told you to bring your old bridesmaid dresses -- which I still stand by -- but if you're morally against formalwear, you can opt out. Over the past few years, cruise lines have been adding lots of flexible dining options to their repertoires. So, while there still are formal nights on most ships, they're no longer your only choice. You can also opt to skip the whole charade and hit one of the ship's casual dining venues. Typically, dinner is offered nightly in a casual buffet restaurant, plus many have additional alternative dining outlets that don't require suits and sequins -- and that's not even counting room service and snack bars. Norwegian Cruise Line, for example, offers casual dress codes and flexible meals times in all of its ships' restaurants. Small-ship lines like Windstar, SeaDream Yacht Club, Star Clippers and Windjammer Barefoot Cruises also follow a no-jackets-required policy throughout the cruise.
First in line. Heart set on a shiatsu or seaweed wrap? If you're like me, the answer's a big yes. Despite eyebrow-raising prices of $100 to $150 per treatment (and more), I still say a visit to the spa makes a cruise complete. Plenty of other passengers seem to think so too and that's why the best slots get booked up fast. Unless you take advantage of the few ships that allow you to pre-book spa treatments online before your cruise -- including the Caribbean and Sapphire Princess, QM2 and all four Silversea ships -- you've got to literally run up to the spa first thing, before you even unpack or grab some lunch. If you poke around, the only appointments available will be leftovers like early morning and dinnertime.
Save a seat. Along these same lines, if you want to sample the fare in the intimate alternative-restaurants many ships offer for an extra $10 to $30 a per person, don't wait till the cruise is half way over to make your ressie. Make your booking on the first or second day of your cruise. Other happenings that require reservations include the Planetarium shows on the QM2; movies under the stars on the Caribbean and Grand Princess; and the ice-skating shows on Royal Caribbean's Voyager class ships.
Wrinkle schminkle. No need to schlep irons and steamers to keep neat. Like hotels, ships have laundry and pressing service available, and often dry cleaning too. It'll cost you a few bucks apiece, and there's generally a 24-hour turnaround time. For do-it-yourselfers, some ships also have self-service laundry and ironing rooms, including Carnival, Disney, Oceania, Princess, and Holland America (except on its new Vista-class ships). Don't expect irons in the cabins, though, if you want to press and steam in private, you'll have to bring along your own equipment.
Going solo. Don't assume the ship's organized tours are your best option. In places like Barcelona, Bermuda and Pompeii, hopping on a local bus, ferry or taxi is a great way to see the sites. If you do decide the ships' tours are best -- and they are in places like Alaska, where it would be pretty challenging to go dog sledding on a glacier all by yourself -- consider pre-booking your tour online. Most cruise lines offer this option for some or all destinations. You can browse tours on the cruise line websites weeks, even months, before your cruise and reserve your tours, typically up until about 5 to 10 days before sailing. This means you can skip the long lines at the shore excursion desk when you first board. Your tickets will be delivered to your cabin. And if you change your mind at some point? Most lines will let you switch tours on-line or get a refund up until about 10 days prior to your cruise; once on board you can typically do so up until about 24 to 72 hours before your tour departure, or less if the tour is popular and your spot can be sold to someone else (policies vary per line).
It's all connections. If you're looking for a top-shelf cruise -- a la Silverseas, Seabourn, Radisson, Crystal, Cunard et al -- then it pays to book it through a travel agency that's a member of Virtuoso. Who? Virtuoso (tel. 800/401-4274; www.virtuoso.com), a network of 310 agencies that specializes in selling upscale travel. They negotiate discounted rates for member agencies and pass on perks like cabin upgrades, free shore excursions, private cocktail parties and $100 (and more) shipboard credits you can use in the spa, gift shops or for other extras on board
Gotta have 'em. All staterooms on ultra-luxe ships will have a mini-fridge and bathtub, but your standard cabin on a megaship -- Carnival, Royal Caribbean, etc -- might not. If you need a fridge for medicines or milk for your child, and can't live without a tub, consider Disney, all of the cabins on the line's two ships have mini-fridges and bathtubs (not to mention a convenient split bathroom set-up, toilet in one room, tub in the other). Just about all cabins on Holland America's ships have tubs too; otherwise you'll have to spring for a suite. All cabins on the major lines' newest ships come equipped with a mini-fridge (empty) or mini-bar (stocked with pay-as-you-go snacks and spirits).
Pack a bag. Especially if you have kids who will need diapers or snacks, keep a carry-on tote with you on embarkation day. Pack it with anything you can't do without for the afternoon, as you may not see your luggage for a few hours after kissing it good-bye at the cruise terminal. Luggage is loaded in bulk onto the ship, then delivered to cabins by crewmembers. If you board at noon, for example, you may not see your stuff again until 3 or 4, sometimes later. On small ships carrying a few hundred passengers or less, it's a different story; you'll have your luggage in a snap.
Getting your fix. If you're hooked on diet coke, sprite or some other soft drink, don't mortgage your house to feed your habit. Most ships offer soda packages, where for a 7-night cruise you pay between about $30 and $45 for a "soda card" or special cup that you allows you unlimited refills of soda all cruise long (as opposed to paying $1.50 to $2 per can). Exceptions to the rule: you can now get free unlimited fountain sodas from a poolside station on the Disney ships, plus, all of the high-end lines, from Crystal to Silversea, SeaDream Yacht Club and Seabourn, throw in free soda and booze as part of their rates.
Staying in touch. You tell yourself you want to go on a cruise to get away from it all. But, let's get in touch with our inner chatterboxes and be perfectly honest. You know darn well you won't be able to stay from your e-mail for a whole week! And you won't have to. For a fee, just about all ships offer e-mail access, the vast majority Internet access too, and now more and more are jumping on the wifi bandwagon -- Carnival, Holland America, NCL, Princess and Seabourn all offer wireless Internet connections on board. If you're more a talker than a typer, go ahead and bring your phone if you're cruising on a Royal Caribbean, Celebrity or Costa ship, as those fleets are wired for cell phone use. Norwegian and Crystal are shooting to be wired by year-end.
Just say no . . . or not. It's true, you get a lot for your money when buy a cruise -- your cabin, meals and most entertainment and activities are included in fares that often enough dip below $100 per person a day. But then there's all that other stuff. Sure, you don't have to buy the $425 dog sledding excursion or the $9 martini. But, what if you can't resist the $4 bottles of water and a $125 massage. Fine, this your vacation, enjoy yourself for crying out loud. Just be sure and budget for the extras you'll likely encounter, cause they can double the price you paid for your cruise faster than you can say, "another round please." Consider that tips will cost you about $10 a day per person and if you want to splurge for that pedicure, budget $60 when you factor in the tip. Dinner in the intimate specialty restaurants will set you back another $10 to $30 each, and if you can't go a week without spinning or pilates, then be ready to fork over another $10 per session. The list goes on. The casino, onboard shops, florists, hair salons and other stuff is vying for your hard earned dollars. The bottom line: budget . . . and practice the words, "no thank you." That, or consider cruising with one of the ultra-luxe and more expensive lines -- namely Silversea, Seabourn, and SeaDream Yacht Club -- that are more inclusive, covering tips and all drinks in their rates.
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