Think a cruise is a problem-free, no-hassle vacation? Think again.
As with any uncharted waters, danger lurks below the surface. The brochures may advertise smooth sailing — after all, they’re brochures — but as a travel advisor, I know better.
Cruise lines haven’t conducted any surveys on floating vacations that head south, figuratively speaking. But I estimate that roughly one in 75 trips run into serious trouble. Most problems can be avoided with a little effort.
Here’s how not to become a statistic:
1. Know the required documentation. While the cruise line will help you out, it is ultimately your responsibility to be sure your paperwork is in order. You need visas (the immigration form-not the credit card) to enter Russia, for example. You need parental consent to take a minor into Mexico without both traveling parents. Certain nations require a passport, while others do not. Your cruise line may know most of the regulations, but it is not responsible if they change. While a trusted travel planner can be a big help with this, ultimately it is up to you to be sure you have the proper documents needed to cruise. Biggest tip: get a passport.
2. Know your costs. No one likes a last minute surprise — especially when it has already been charged to your credit card. Mandatory gratuity, what the heck is that? What do you mean the soft drinks and ice cream were extra? $300 for one telephone call home? Increase in port charges? All of these may pop up on you when you disembark the ship, leaving your cruise as nothing more than a bad taste in your mouth. You can negotiate “mandatory” gratuities. You can’t negotiate a change in port fees. You ought to know better about the phone — they don’t call these floating hotels for nothing. Certain lines include tipping, alcoholic beverages, sodas, and ice cream. Knowing what to expect is a lot easier than being surprised.
3. Investigate the ship before you book. Ask friends who have sailed her before. Check with your travel professional. Seek out those who are affiliated with a professional organization such as American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) or the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). Check with the cruise lines. And don’t forget the CDC. You want to ask how clean a ship is? What was the report card from the CDC? Yes they issue report cards. Any recurrent repair problems? Carnival just converted a Mexican cruise into a Cruise to Nowhere for a mechanical problem. Any crew issues? Norwegian Cruise Lines has had many problems with its American crew on the US-flagged ships. Believe me, there are few worse cabins than those directly below a dining room. Dining rooms are busy all night and when they die down, the crew cleans and waxes the floors until the morning — so much for that romantic pre-dinner wine and cheese date with your spouse. Oh, and might as well toss out any hope of a restful sleep as well.
4. Know your ports. While ports can always be changed (and they do routinely), you are better off knowing a bit about each one before you go. Request a destination report from your travel professional so you can be prepared to maximize your short time at the port of call. Bone up on your language skills — maybe just a few key phrases to get you through in a pinch. Do something nice for humanity and help us shed our “Ugly American” image when we travel. Smile, be friendly, make an effort to talk the language, dive in and have some fun. It will take you a long way. Learn some customs, don’t ever assume you can take a photo of a local in the Caribbean without permission, indulge in some local cuisine (yes, they really do eat that) and forego that urge to check if the Big Macs taste the same — they do — anywhere in the world.
5. Expect the unexpected. Travel is an adventure. While the brochure lays out 3,5,7 10, or more days of pampered luxury, it never goes as planned. Be prepared to be flexible — you may not like group dining, your flight may be delayed (plan ahead during questionable weather months — better yet, let the cruise lines book your air for you), you may get sick, someone may get left behind, you may lose a suitcase, they guy on the plane might be 400 pounds and have an allergy to soap. Re-accommodate yourself. You are on vacation so make it the best that it can be. Eat at the buffet or one of the specialty restaurants, be sure your flight arrives in time to get from the airport to the ship, take some basic medication with you, know what a port agent is and how to find them if someone gets left behind, do not put all your eggs (or clothes) in one basket, and as for that 400 pound gorilla, well, let’s hope it is on the flight home.
Taking these additional five steps before you head up the gangplank will go a long way to insure your cruise is everything you dreamt it would be.
John Frenaye is the president of JVE Group, Inc., a diversified company which operates the Carlson Wagonlit Travel associate office in Arnold, Md. With a background in business management, he writes about the travel industry as an insider with an outsider's perspective. or . Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting .