By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 2/25/2008 1:24:03 PM ET 2008-02-25T18:24:03

Plenty of things can go wrong on a cruise vacation. You could get seasick, or sleep through breakfast, or lose at blackjack, or puke over the rail. Then there are the troubles that come from too much of a good thing: too much sun, too much lobster thermidor, too much time in the duty-free shop. But there are five cruise miseries that drive me crazy — because they are often preventable. Here they are, in no special order, along with some hints for avoiding them.

Losing your luggage
There is nothing worse than being the last one standing at the luggage carousel, anxiety mounting and no bags in sight. This has happened to me on my last two cruises! You can't keep the airlines from losing your bags, but you can keep yourself clothed — and sane — over the next couple of days if you follow these four simple rules.

  • Pack smart: Before you zip up your checked luggage, print out your cruise itinerary and contact information, and put a copy inside each bag. This will help the airline get in touch with you quickly and get the bags to your ship.
  • Report the lost luggage to the airline immediately: If you flew on more than one carrier, the airline responsible for processing you claim is usually the one you flew last — even if another carrier lost the bag. When you file the claim, write down the tracking number and the airline's phone number. If the airline has set up a Web site for tracking the status of lost luggage online (and most have), write that down too.
  • Carry some essentials with you: Pack a two-day supply of clothes in your carry-on luggage, along with your tickets, cruise documents, jewelry, medication, eyeglasses, makeup, camera, computer and anything else you can't live without for a day or two.
  • Notify the cruise line staff: They can help you keep in touch with the airline about the status of your luggage. Most cruise ships also have a small supply of clothing on board that guests can borrow, and some have formal attire for both men and women to rent.

Missing the ship
If you live far from the embarkation port, get there a day early. I've heard too many stories of people traveling on embarkation day, arriving late and literally standing at the pier, watching their ship sail off without them. Padding your travel time may cost a bit more, but it pays off in the assurance of a stress-free start to your vacation.

Catching a norovirus
Getting violently sick with an intestinal virus is a misery whether you're on land or at sea. Seasoned travelers know all too well the importance of watching what they eat and washing their hands: It keeps the bugs at bay. Still, some of our fellow travelers aren't so vigilant about hand washing, and they put us all at risk.

Poor hygiene spreads one of travelers' worst enemies: noroviruses, also known as Norwalk virus and NLV, a group of viruses that can cause severe diarrhea, nausea and vomiting over a 48- to 60-hour period. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 23 million people, or 8 percent of the U.S. population, develop symptoms of norovirus each year. Less than 1 percent of cruise passengers are affected by norovirus, but you don't want to be one of them, do you?

So, remember what your mother told you: Wash your hands. For best results, says the CDC, moisten your hands with warm water before applying soap, then rub your hands together vigorously for at least 20 seconds. It is the soap combined with the scrubbing action that loosens and removes the germs from your hands.

That's all there is to it — 20 seconds of insurance that can literally save your health and your cruise.

Skipping the travel insurance
In the 18 years I've been cruising, I've seen many people fall ill and be taken off the ship in port or even evacuated by helicopter at sea. While always hoping for their speedy recovery, I have also wondered if they had purchased travel insurance. Most cruise lines offer travel insurance, as do several independent third-party insurers like Access America, Travel Guard and Travelex, to name a few.

Most travel insurance policies include coverage for five kinds of problems: trip cancellation (or interruption), trip delay, emergency medical expenses, emergency medical evacuation and lost or stolen luggage. It's important to understand that ordinary medical insurance coverage doesn't travel the same way aboard ship as it does within the United States. Sometimes coverage doesn't extend to foreign travel at all. Medicare beneficiaries should always purchase travel insurance when they cruise, because they do not have Medicare coverage outside the country.

Another consideration: medical evacuation and transportation services, which are seldom covered by ordinary medical insurance policies. According to MedjetAssist, an Alabama-based evacuation operation, domestic air medical evacuation services average $10,000 to $20,000, while international transports can exceed $75,000. If you travel more than once a year, consider buying an annual policy; both MedjetAssist and Travel Guard offer this kind of policy, which can be purchased for as little as $185 a year. I don't travel without it.

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Getting robbed in port
Last year a group of 12 American tourists from the Carnival Liberty hired a van driver to explore Limon, Costa Rica. As they were climbing out of their van to visit a beach, they were ambushed by three masked men. Two wielded knives and one held a gun. One of the tourists, a retired U.S. military serviceman trained in self-defense, tackled and killed the gunman; the other attackers fled. This group of tourists was extremely lucky, for the encounter could just as easily have been deadly for one of the passengers.

To avoid this kind of danger, follow all the cruise line's instructions before setting out on a shore excursion. Try to go out in groups and use only the recommended tour providers. And be sure to take all the usual precautions: Watch out for your wallet; carry only small amounts of cash; wear little jewelry; and don't go flaunting expensive electronics such as iPods, cell phones and cameras.

If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, then a little research and preparation can go a long way toward keeping your cruise vacation hassle-free.

Sound off! Do you have a comment, an idea, a complaint or a problem for Anita to solve? Send her an e-mail and you might find yourself in her next column. And check out her blog, ExpertCruiser.com.

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