Why are some cruise travelers smarter than others? Simply put, they’ve been there, done that, and through trial and error have concocted strategies that avoid travel mishaps. Here are some tips that guarantee smooth sailing from cruisers in the know.
Los Angeles area resident Janice Williams loves to reap the sweet rewards of being a repeat cruiser. On her last repeat cruise, she saved more than $1,000 from a single coupon. That coupon was from Princess Cruises’ “Captain’s Circle,” the line’s program for past guests. Williams is loyal to Princess because she feels the line offers the best past passenger perks in the business.
Most cruise lines confer membership in a loyalty program as soon as passengers complete their first cruise. Members then receive mailings urging them to book another cruise at a special discount. On board, members also receive special treatment; perks can include gifts, upgrades, credits, cocktail parties, in-room bar set up, complimentary laundry service, free Internet, dinner with the captain and free shore excursions.
2. Plot for the perfect stateroom
One thing smart cruisers know is that picking the right stateroom is essential to truly enjoying the cruise. Laney Adams of Ocala, Fla., always studies the ship’s deck plan before booking a stateroom. “It’s the only way to prevent problems with noise along with finding a stateroom with easy accessibility around the ship,” says Adams.
Passengers with disabilities might want to book near elevators. Watch out for staterooms with obstructed views — usually the lifeboat deck and those with close proximity to noisy areas like lounges, discos, theaters, pool areas, room service and steward service areas. Staterooms midship on lower decks are best for those prone to seasickness.
3. Keep watching your fare
The cruise line will never call you if they have lowered the price of your cruise. Therefore, it can really pay off to keep tabs on the price of your cruise after you book. Just ask Scott Larsen of Fairfax, Va.
Last year, Larsen booked a September cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Enchantment of the Seas. He went for the least expensive option: an inside cabin. In July, Larsen was thinking about upgrading his cabin, so he checked the Internet for the current cabin rates. He discovered that the prices had dropped quite a bit. In fact, an outside cabin was now going for $1 less than the price he booked for his inside cabin.
Larsen called Royal Caribbean to see if he could upgrade to the outside cabin. The cruise line told him the upgrade was possible, but he would need to make arrangements through the travel agency that handled his booking: Travelocity. Larsen then contacted Travelocity and the changes were made. Larsen notes that had he chosen to keep the inside cabin, Royal Caribbean would have refunded him $200. He says, “I really prefer the upgrade and I am really happy with the outcome.”
4. Book shore excursions, spa services before you sail
Shore excursions often fill up quickly, and services like spa appointments can be overbooked in the blink of an eye. Savvy cruisers surf the Web long before they sail. When cruising to Alaska last summer Gerry Altmire booked his family’s shore excursions on Holland America’s Web site prior to sailing. “We avoided a lot of disappointment by booking early because the popular flightseeing tours sell out quickly,” said Altmire.
Advance bookings are convenient, and they make for a personalized vacation. Best of all, they save you from rushing around the ship trying to nail down reservations in the first hours of your cruise. Instead, you can actually sit back and enjoy your cruise from the minute you step on board.
5. Notify your credit card company
As credit card fraud has become more global and more sophisticated, so have efforts to ferret out illegitimate charges. Sometimes large purchases will raise a red flag, as I found out when I purchased an emerald in Cartagena, Colombia. The bank called my home to make sure I was the one using the card. Fortunately, a family member was there to let the bank know that I was indeed in Colombia, thus preventing my card from being put on hold.
A stamp of approval in advance of departure will make charging much easier overseas. If you are planning to travel to far-flung destinations, call your credit card company or the bank that issues your card and let them know your travel itinerary — both dates and destinations. Make a note of your card number and the overseas customer service number, and keep them in a safe place separate from the card. That way, if the card is stolen, you will have the necessary information to make a report.
Even with advance notification, you may not be able to spend as you please while you are abroad. Certain charge patterns will still arouse suspicion, and your card may be subject to spending limits, so you should always carry a second credit card.
6. Get to the port a day early
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. That was literally the case for Dini and Tony Saponara of Toronto whose flight from Canada was delayed due to bad weather. Sadly the Carnival Sensation sailed off without them and they were unable to catch up to the ship. Padding your travel time may cost a bit more, but it pays off in the assurance of a stress-free start to your vacation.
7. Carry-on savvy
Upon boarding, you’re separated from your luggage for an indeterminate amount of time. Until then, you’re stuck wearing what you’re wearing. “I always bring a change of clothes and a swimsuit in my carry-on bag so I can change and start enjoying the ship,” says veteran cruiser Nina Lewis of Miami. A lot of first-time cruisers don’t realize it sometimes takes hours for luggage to be delivered to your stateroom. So, take Nina’s advice — bring a change of clothes so you won’t miss any ship time stuck in your traveling clothes.
8. Don’t skip travel insurance
Robert Smith and his wife were on the trip of a lifetime. The couple flew from Arizona to their destination in Europe to embark on a cruise tour of the Baltics. During the cruise Robert injured his leg and thought things would be fine — unfortunately his condition gradually worsened. Eventually Robert needed immediate medical attention. The ship had to disembark the Smiths in St.Petersburg, Russia where Robert was quickly admitted to the hospital.
His wife immediately called their travel insurance company, Travel Guard, to inquire about their coverage for the missed portions of their trip and other expenses they incurred. Upon their safe arrival home, Travel Guard reimbursed them for missed portions of their cruise, medical bills, a hotel stay for his wife while Robert in hospital, and upgraded plane tickets for the medical evacuation home so his wife could sit by him. The Smith’s were fortunate they had excellent travel insurance coverage.
Most cruise lines offer travel insurance, as do several independent third-party insurers like Travel Guard. 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.
9. Affordably staying in touch
“I can send text messages from the middle of Caribbean!” marveled teen Amy Green, who was thrilled to have full coverage for the majority of her Disney Cruise Line voyage. Her cell phone looked normal and didn’t indicate it was roaming. Her, provider, it turns out, charges $2.49 a minute while roaming. When Green’s bill arrived a month later, her parents were horrified to see that she owed $225! Using the phone in your stateroom can be even worse as the service can cost between $2-$10 a minute. Internet access onboard is the lowest cost option to stay in touch from the ship; however, to reap the best savings you need to purchase in blocks of time — 60 minutes can cost $25 on up. The most economical way to stay in touch is when you get into port — phone rates are much cheaper on land.
Don’t be vexed when planning your cruise. If you do a little research on options and pricing you can board the ship without a care in the world. And that’s the only way to cruise.
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