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Zen masters talk about approaching life with "beginner's mind" -- the state of seeing things totally fresh. That got me thinking: After sailing on eighty-some ships, could I even remember what it was like the first time I stepped aboard my first vessel (Holland America's Veendam, for those keeping score) and had no clue how it all worked?

So I did a little meditating, and shazam! I could.

So now I'm reporting back, remembering all that was foreign about that first experience and informing it with The Voice of Authority. If you're a cruise neophyte, consider this your own personal FAQ, a demystification device you can keep in your wallet and whip out when circumstances demand.

Come with me, Grasshopper, and we shall see what the floating world has in store . . .

Embracing Ship & Sea

A cruise ship is an alternate universe that combines familiar comforts with the entertainment options of a walkable "urban" environment, the relaxation of a house at the beach, and the exoticism of foreign travel. But the question remains: Why is such a big thing able to float? For the answer to that, we have to go back to the Greek scientist Archimedes, who discovered that a thing will float as long as its weight is equal to or less than the amount of water it displaces (i.e., pushes out of the way). Big cruise ships displace a lot of water but they're also essentially hollow -- and thus, they float. The distribution of weight toward the bottom of the hull allows the ship to remain upright even with many decks towering above the waterline.

Now that you're reassured, let's get aboard. But wait, do you have your passport? That's right, passport. Your ship may feel like an extension of the U.S.A., but the days when you could sail passport-free to the Caribbean, Canada, and Mexico are over. Cruise line personnel will do the old "Papers, please" on you when you check in, and they'll also ask you to establish your onboard account, which works exactly like a credit card: Anything you buy on board will be charged to it, and at the end of the week the balance will be transferred to the credit card you registered up front. Onboard cards also function as your shipboard ID and cabin key.

OK, your paperwork is in order. Now sit down and wait. Since there are so many passengers on an average cruise ship, the cruise lines have a complicated system of embarkation that usually involves numbers, color-coded tags, and maybe even the I Ching. Eventually you'll get to the gangway that leads to the ship. But, you ask, Can Uncle Bob come aboard with me, just for an hour or so? Not unless he's a paying passenger, he can't. Rules are very strict in this regard, for security reasons. Sorry, Uncle Bob.

So now you're aboard. Look! It's BIG. Yes, it sure is. Right inside the door, you'll probably find a whole line of stewards waiting to direct you to your cabin. No worries about your luggage: You'll have already checked that in down on the pier, and it'll be delivered to your cabin (aka stateroom) shortly. Just follow your guide up the elevator; down the long, long corridor; and finally to the place that'll be your home for a while. Step inside. Cute! Now, you wonder, Should I tip the steward? You can slip him a couple bucks if you like, but it's not required.

Here's what you'll probably find inside: a bed or two, maybe a couch or a couple chairs, a small table, a bathroom, a telephone, and a closet or two. The telephone's cool, because it lets you call anywhere on the ship and even phone home if you want. But don't do it! Satellite phone prices are astronomical, so just use this phone for onboard calls. Many ships today are set up so you can use your cell phone to call home, which is a lot cheaper but still no bargain. Alternatively, all major cruise ships have an Internet center where you can send e-mails. They're not cheap either (running 50 cents or more per minute), but it's a fraction of what the satellite phone would costs. For real money-saving, find an Internet cafe in port, where you'll pay a tenth what you'd pay on the ship.

Some other things to consider about your cabin: There will be electrical outlets, and yes, your stuff will probably work with them unless you're sailing with some European or other "elsewhere"-based lines. There might also be a small personal safe in the closet for stowing valuables (jewelry, your passport, etc.) when you don't need them. Most operate via temporary codes you program in. There might also be a minibar (aka a small refrigerator), and it might even be stocked with drinks, snacks, and candy bars. These are probably not free, unless you're sailing with a particularly upscale line. If you do take something, you'll be charged later. A price list somewhere nearby will tell you how much.

Somewhere in the cabin you'll probably find a daily program, which will tell you what's going on the rest of the day, and a deck plan that will help you find your way around. Yippee! You can explore. But first, there's a knock at the door. It's your cabin steward, the pseudo-butler who keeps the place clean and sees to your needs while you're on board. He'll most likely be from the Philippines, Indonesia, or eastern Europe (see explanation of "flags of convenience," below). He'll ask if you have any questions. Do you? For instance, do you need the twin beds pushed together to make one big one? He can arrange that. Later in the week, he can also spirit away any laundry you need done, for an extra charge. Just leave it out in the laundry bag that's in your closet. Alternatively, some ships have self-serve laundries on the cabin decks.

Filling Your Midships & Foring Your Aft

Since the whole process of getting to the pier and getting aboard may have taken a few hours, you'll be happy to know that yes, the lunch buffet is open (as, most likely, is the grill on the pool deck and maybe a pizzeria somewhere nearby) and yes, it's all free. Eat up! Free food is one of the great joys of cruising, though "free" is a misnomer. You did pay for this trip, after all. Afterward, continue walking around, exploring the public lounges, theaters, bars, restaurants, and the pool deck, where you'll notice the pools are netted over like they were caught trying to escape. This is normal. The nets will be removed once the ship gets under way. Somewhere in all your wandering, a waiter will probably offer you a brightly colored drink with a little umbrella in it. You want? You take! But remember, these are not free. General rule? If it has alcohol in it, or if it comes with a brand name (Coca-Cola, Ben & Jerry's, Seattle's Best, etc.) it'll cost ya. Exceptions include the captain's champagne reception during some ships' formal nights, and free champagne at the art auction, which is offered as an inducement for you to bid on overpriced paintings and prints. Though you don't have to bid. Wink wink.

Something else to know while walking around: Directions. Ready? When you're facing forward, toward the pointy end, the left side of the ship is called port, the right side is starboard, the pointy end is the bow, and the bit behind is the stern. Down below, the part that keeps the water out is the hull while the decks rising above make up the superstructure. Up front, at or near the top of the superstructure, the bridge is the ship's control center, where the steering is done and from which many important announcements are made.

And here comes one now:

Good evening ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain on the bridge. At 1700 this afternoon, in compliance with international maritime law, we will be conducting a lifeboat drill. When you hear the general emergency signal -- which consists of seven short blasts on the ship's whistle, followed by one long blast -- please return to your cabin, collect your lifejacket, and proceed to your emergency muster station.

You might as well go: All the bars, restaurants, and entertainments are closed during the drill (aka "muster"), and besides, they take attendance. No hiding in your cabin allowed. Instead, retrieve the orange life jackets from your closet shelf, look for the location of your muster station on the back of your cabin door, and make a beeline. The station number is marked on your jacket, too, and crewmembers will be posted at the stairways to point you in the right direction. Oh, and 1700 means 5pm. Twenty-four-hour clock, you know? And the drill's not always held at 5:00 -- by law, a ship just has to conduct its drill within 24 hours of sailing, to make sure passengers know what to do in case, well, you know.

Safe, Sound, and Sailing Away

All's well, and your life jacket is re-stowed in the closet. Now look: You're moving! Yes, that big ship really does move, and surprisingly fast at that. How fast? Modern cruise ships generally do about 22 to 24 knots, or nautical miles per hour. A nautical mile is about 1.15 times as far as a land mile, and the word "knot" derives from the knotted rope sailors used to use to measure their speed, back in sailing days.

As you're departing port, most ships encourage passengers to go up to the top decks for the sail-away party, where passengers generally stand drink in hand at the rail and watch the land recede. There are no steamers or confetti to throw. The environment, you know.

Right about now, if the water is rough, you might notice the ship starting to roll (move side to side) and/or pitch (roll forward and back, like a seesaw). You might also notice your stomach starting to do the same. This is called seasickness. If you think you might be prone to it, you'd do well to prepare ahead: Pack some Bonine or Dramamine and take them before the ship actually sails. You can also get them from the onboard doctor, whose office is usually hidden away on a lower deck. Acupressure wristbands are another effective countermeasure. But don't worry, most modern cruise ships don't move around enough for you to even notice.

Answering the Dinner Gong

Assuming you're not sick, you'll soon start thinking about dinner. Depending on your ship, you'll have different options. Some cruise lines still stick to traditional fixed-seating dining, where you're assigned a table at either the early or late seating (typically about 6:30 and 8:30pm) in a large main dining room, and dine with several other couples all week. Princess, NCL, Azamara, and Oceania offer the option of just wandering in any time you like within a multi-hour window, and sitting wherever there's space. Most ships these days also offer smaller, more intimate alternative restaurants, for which you have to make reservations ahead of time, and which cost anywhere from $10 to $30 extra per person, per meal.

Wine with dinner? Only if you order it special, and pay. The exception is real luxury lines like Silversea, Seabourn, SeaDream, and Regent, which fill your glass for free.

Oh and a word about dress codes: Every cruise line approaches these differently, but most program a mix of formal nights and informal or casual nights. Formal means tuxedos or dark suits for men and cocktail dresses, gowns, etc. for women,. Informal/casual means decent pants, a collared shirt, and maybe a jacket for men, and dresses, skirts, or pantsuits for women. Some lines have gotten pretty casual all around, avoiding formal nights almost completely. Your line will let you know ahead of time what to pack. If you hate dressing up, most ships also offer a casual dinner option at the buffet restaurant, where you had lunch (and where you'll probably have breakfast tomorrow).

After dinner, it's wandering and lounging time. You can check out the big Vegas-style show in the theater (there are usually two per night, timed for early and late seatings), go dancing, listen to a band or sing karaoke, drop some cash in the casino, or just wander around to see what you can find. What's behind door number one? Go see -- unless it's marked Crew Only, of course. Know what's behind those doors? Crew.

When you've exhausted yourself, all you have to do is remember your cabin number and you're home free. But did you write it down? It's not generally marked on your key card, just in case that gets lost. Start by finding your deck. Many ships color-code the carpets on the different cabin decks to make that task easier. Some also have elevator carpets that tell you what day of the week it is, but you don't have to worry about that yet. Just find your cabin, which has been magically made up for you while you were out. There may even be a little chocolate on your pillow. If you've indulged in a little drink, here's my personal word of advice to you: Alka-Seltzer really does work, and it works best of all when you take it before you go to bed, when you're still drunk tipsy. It's true. If you haven't packed any, ships often sell it in their sundries shops.

Nighty-night now.

Two Types of Days, Eight Pearls of Wisdom

If you've made it through your first night on board, you've probably already solved most of the mysteries you'll encounter on board, but here are some you haven't seen yet:

Days at sea vs. days in port: The two basic distinctions that will rule your cruise schedule. On days in port, the first thing to know is that you'll either dock (which means the ship will pull right up to land and let you off down the gangway) or anchor offshore, in which case you'll travel to and from port in a tender, or small boat. Tender service runs back and forth throughout the day, so you can come and go as you please. Just be sure you don't miss that last boat back. Also, don't forget your money. The ship may run on a cashless basis, but the ports sure don't.

Shore excursions: Shore excursions are a way of seeing a port or having an adventure as part of an organized group. Some excursions are active (bike riding, hiking, zipping through a rainforest canopy on a rope), and some are not (touring by bus, etc.). The cruise lines push them hard, since they earn revenue from sales, but you don't have to take them. In some ports, you can have a better time just going off on your own. Check some travel guidebooks or websites before your trip for advice in this regard. If you do decide to take excursions, sign up for them as far ahead as possible, since the more popular ones often sell out. Some lines let you book them online before your trip; others make you book them when you get aboard.

Shopping: Cruisers are big on shopping, both in port and on board. The day before you reach a port, a member of the staff might even give a port lecture that's 90% shopping-related -- aiming you, most likely, at shops that have deals with the cruise line. Basic advice: Don't go nuts. Some deals at the duty-free (i.e., no-tax) shops may be pretty good, and some of the jewelry in the shop windows might be extra-sparkly in the Caribbean sun, but you still have to pay for it with real money -- and maybe pay tax on it when you get back to the U.S. (see "Immigration and customs," below). On board, all cruise ships have at least one and sometimes many shops and boutiques, stocking logo items, fashions, paperbacks, sundries, jewelry, duty-free items, and the famous "gold chain by the inch." Use your discretion. One word of advice: If you buy a souvenir magnet for your fridge, don't put it in your pocket, since it could demagnetize your key card and make it impossible to get back into your cabin. Trust me.

Why does it say "Mauritius" on the back on my boat? You may note, when leaving and returning to your ship, that its hull has some mighty strange names written on it, such as Bermuda, Panama, Liberia, Mauritius, or any of a dozen others. What gives? These are the names of places where the ship is legally registered. Even though most cruise lines are based in the U.S., the majority choose to register their ships instead in these so-called flag of convenience countries, where taxes are low or nonexistent, and regulations and labor laws less stringent. Tisk-tisk.

Daily activities: On days at sea, your daily program will be packed with activities, from early morning to late night. Some are mysterious, such as the ever-popular horse racing. These are not real horses. Rather, they're toy horse heads mounted on poles and moved around a track by hand, based on rolls of the dice. Passengers bet on the outcome, and the end of the cruise features an "owners cup" race and best-dressed-horse show. Many people who participate will need Alka-Seltzer at the end of the day (see above). Vegetable carving and napkin folding classes are also pretty mysterious, especially for the younger generations. Imagine a dinner party in Eisenhower-era America, with an ornately carved watermelon as the centerpiece and place settings decorated with artfully folded napkins. Got it? Next! Most other activities -- like dance and exercise classes, computer workshops, nutrition and skin-care seminars, and various lectures -- are pretty self-explanatory. Do they cost? Mostly no, though some popular exercise and computer classes do.

Tipping: When the week is done and the fat lady's sung, what do you need to know? Well, there's tipping. Except for officers, cruise ship employees mostly work for low wages (a consequence of the aforementioned flags of convenience), which means much of their income comes from gratuities. Mainstream ships handle this in one of two ways, either tacking a daily surcharge onto your account or handing out little envelopes and asking you to distribute tips yourselves. Daily surcharges are usually between $8.50 and $12 per person. If you're handling your tipping in person, plan on dropping around $3.50 per day on your cabin steward and dining room waiter and about $2 for your assistant waiter. You might also slip a few bucks to the headwaiter and maitre d'. Don't worry about your bartender, since a 15% gratuity is usually included in every bar bill. If you went to the spa, the person who worked on you will probably expect a 15% tip too, which you can add right then and there.

Packing: The night before you leave, pack up your bags, attach the color-coded tags the line gave you (which both determine when you can get off ship in the morning and where your luggage will be waiting), and leave the bags outside your cabin door, in the corridor. They'll be picked up during the night and unloaded in the morning. Just remember to leave out some clothes for the next day.

Immigration and customs: Here's where that passport comes in handy again. Without it, they won't let you back into the country. You'll also have to fill out a customs form, which wants to know how much stuff you bought on your trip, whether you had any contact with farm animals, and whether you have any food or seed products in your bags. Curious, aren't they? Here's the scoop: U.S. citizens are generally allowed to bring back $800 worth of stuff from abroad without paying taxes. Any more than that and you'll incur a charge. Regarding animals, that's a disease-control matter. Who knows what's stuck to the soles of your shoes? Food is usually the stickier wicket for cruise travelers, since so many people snag apples from the buffet to eat later, on the way home. Busted! They're verboten. Sorry.

Once through all that rigamarole, all you have to do is find your bags (which should be under a flag whose color matches your luggage tags) and go home.

There, how hard was that? Now go cruise.

Glossary

Assistant waiters: Used to be known as busboys.
Atrium: The central meeting place on a ship, usually a multi-story area that contains the main gangway hatch, the reception desk, the purser's desk, and the shore-excursions desk.
Bow (aka "forward"): The front of the ship.
Bridge: The ship's control center.
Cabin stewards: The men and women who clean the cabins.
Captain: Drives the ship, or orders it driven.
Cruise director: In charge of all activities and entertainment; also acts as the MC for shows.
Dining stewards: A fancy name for waiters.
Draught: How deep the ship sits in the water.
Galley: The kitchen.
Head chef: Manages the galley and the menus.
Hotel manager: Manages all passenger services, including restaurants, bars, and accommodations.
Inside cabin: A cabin without windows.
Maitre d': Manages the dining room operation.
Outside cabin: A cabin with windows.
Port: The left side of the ship, when facing forward.
Promenade: An open deck running down the side (and sometimes all around) a ship; often used for exercise, and for lifeboat musters.
Purser: Handles the money, including your bill at the end of the cruise.
Shore excursions director: Manages land tour operations.
Someliers: Wine waiters, in charge of the whole sniffing, sipping, nodding ritual.
Stack (aka "funnel"): The smokestack on top of the ship, from which exhaust is vented.
Starboard: The right side of the ship, facing forward.
Stern (aka "aft"): The back of the ship.
Tender: Small boat used to transport passengers between an anchored ship and shore.
Thalassotherapy pool: A glorified New Age hot tub located in some ships' spas.
Whistle: The ship's loud, powerful horn.

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