I get a lot of e-mails from people asking if a cruise vacation is right for them. It's a fair question. After all, once the ship leaves the dock, you're pretty much stuck until the ship turns around and comes home. Here are answers to the most common questions I've received from cruise newbies in the past six months:
1. What should be my first cruise?
There are two ways to go here. Most first-time cruisers choose a short cruise with lots of port calls; they do this because they're afraid they'll go crazy if they're stuck aboard ship. While this is a good strategy if you just want to get your feet wet, I recommend looking for a longer itinerary with some "sea days." That way you can relax and enjoy the ship's facilities. It's really the only way to find out what "cruising" is all about. So, look for a cruise with some balance between sea days and port days. My recent cruise aboard the Crown Princess from New York City had a great balance: four sea days and five port days.
2. What about seasickness?
It may have all the amenities of a shoreside resort, but a cruise ship does travel on open water. Your body will register that motion no matter how big the ship is or how well it is stabilized. Therefore, if you experience severe motion sickness on land or on airplanes then cruising may not be for you.
Ordinary motion sickness can be relieved by remedies like Dramamine and acupressure bands. (If you forget to pack them, don't worry; they are always available in the ship's store.) If you're susceptible to motion sickness, book a cabin on a lower deck in the middle of the ship where motion is minimized. Even better is a balcony cabin in the middle of the ship; fresh air really does help with motion sickness. If the going gets rough, you can get a motion sickness shot in the ship's medical center, but understand you'll be charged a fee ($75 on up).
3. Do I have to get dressed up every night?
If you love dressing up, then by all means do so. But cruising has become less formal in recent years, so fancy dress is optional. In fact, many new ships offer several informal dining venues (e.g., sushi bars, pizzerias, buffets and snack bars) where you needn't dress up at all. Still, most ships continue to offer two formal nights in the main dining rooms: the Captain's Welcome and the Farewell Dinner. Formal-night attire ranges from tuxedos to dark suits for men; for women, formal dress ranges from long gowns to dressy pantsuits. More casual dress is appropriate in the dining rooms on other occasions, but most ships do not allow jeans, shorts or sleeveless men's tops in any dining venue.
4. Do I have to sit with strangers at dinner?
One of the best parts of cruising is getting to meet people from all walks of life. But if you are uncomfortable sitting with people you don't know, you can arrange a table change with the maitre d' - but you must do so as soon as you get on board. If you wait too long, the staff may not be able to accommodate you. Understand that tables for two are scarce aboard ship except on luxury cruise lines like Silversea.
5. What about tipping?
Except on a few luxury cruise ships that have "no tipping required" policies, passengers are expected to tip their cabin steward, dining room waiter and assistant waiter. Many lines recommend that each passenger tip about $10 per day, as follows: cabin steward, $3.50; dining room waiter and assistant waiter, $5.50 (shared); and bistro service waiter and cooks, $1. Bar bills are automatically charged a 15 percent gratuity for the bartender. Special service personnel such as the maitre d', deck stewards and bellmen should be tipped as service is rendered.
Some cruise lines offer to add the suggested gratuities to your shipboard account; the accounting office then distributes the tips at the end of the cruise. On other ships, you leave cash in an envelope on the last evening of your cruise. Understand that ships' crews work very hard to make your cruise top-notch. Unless the service has actually been poor, tip the recommended amount. For outstanding service, add a little more. To get an idea of how much to tip, visit Cruise Tip Calculator, a nifty Web site that lists tipping amounts for each crew member on most cruise lines.
Here's a tip from me to you: Get your cash tips in order before your cruise and have them organized in separate envelopes for each crew member. Believe me, there's nothing worse than waiting in a long line at the cruise desk on the last night of the cruise to get all your cash tips in order.
6. Will I gain weight?
Cruising is the ultimate "see food" diet — you see food, you eat it. Yes, most passengers end up with more to love after a cruise. But you don't have to become a sloth in a deck chair; there are plenty of active pursuits to enjoy aboard ship. Most ships have exercise rooms, pools, jogging tracks and fitness classes covering everything from aerobics to yoga. Newer cruise ships like Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas offer boxing, rock climbing and surfing classes, while traditional ships like the Queen Mary 2 offer walk-a-mile deck-lapping sessions and aerobics.
7. Can I do my laundry on board?
Most ships have self-service laundry rooms with ironing boards. On most mainstream and premium cruise lines, you'll have to pay to use the washers and dryers. On luxury lines like Crystal, Regent, Seabourn, Silversea and Regent, the self-serve laundry is complimentary. Don't want to waste valuable vacation time doing laundry? Then send your clothes to the ship's laundry or dry cleaner; there will be a per-item charge. During the cruise, many ships offer a "laundry bag special": For a set fee (usually $10-$20), laundry crew will wash everything you can cram into the laundry bag.
Cruising is a vacation like no other. It offers vast open seas, and the scenery changes every day. The food and service are better than in a resort hotel, all food and entertainment is included in the price, and you have to unpack only once. Believe me, once you try cruising, you will be hooked for life.
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