Cruising 101: Getting the Most Out of Your Cruise Vacation

If you haven’t read my last blog post (or listened to my podcast episode) on planning your perfect cruise, I give some tips and insights on booking and selecting which cruise is best for you. In today’s blog, now that you’re all booked, I’m going to go through getting ready for your upcoming cruise, travelling on your cruise and some of my personal tips and tricks for getting the most out of your cruise vacation.

Checking in for your cruise

Usually once final payment is made you can do your cruise check in approximately 60-90 days prior to departure depending on the cruise line. If you work with a travel agent, this is a service that we can help our clients with, and what I typically do for my clients on their behalf. Check in is completed through the cruise line’s website. The information that needs to be provided to the cruise line is; your emergency contact details of someone not travelling with you or your party, credit card details to setup your onboard account (however you can sometimes setup a cash account when arriving to the port or on-board the ship), and full passport details of each traveller (you’ll also sometimes need visa information for countries you will be visiting depending on the cruise and cruise line).

If you have a cabin assignment, you’ll be able to print all your boarding passes and luggage tags right away, if you booked a guarantee cabin, usually you will have to log onto your account about a week prior to departure and check to see if they’ve given you your cabin assignment at that time.

**Pro Tip: Don’t attach your cruise luggage tag until you leave for the port. I attach my luggage tags to my luggage at the hotel right before I leave for the port, the front desk at your hotel can normally let you borrow a stapler or tape as you check out. I also print an extra tag for my carry on. This way I can see my cabin number easily on my handle of my carry on instead of fishing through papers.

Packing for your cruise

When packing for your cruise there are always a few things to keep in mind. Does your ship have a dress code for the dining rooms at night? Are there “gala nights” onboard, if so, how many? Do you know what your “wine allowance” is per guest or stateroom? What type of electrical outlets are in the staterooms? These are questions that a travel agent who is a cruise specialist can help answer for you. Most ships have somewhat of a dress code at night for the dining rooms or the specialty dining restaurants. This can range from “country club casual” to shirt and blazer for men, to no jeans or shorts. For women, again no jeans or shorts, however pants or skirts with a top and cocktail attire is acceptable on most. For shoes, on most cruise lines, flip flops are a no-no at night, some cruise lines even frown upon runners and require proper dress shoes, etc. This also comes to making sure you are booking the right cruise line for you. If you want something more casual, there are options out there for you. I regards to “gala nights” most cruise ships have two formal nights on a seven day cruise. Whilst it is becoming less popular, it’s not a requirement to wear formal wear on most ships on these nights. It is a time where most people get photos done, especially with the Captain. If you have status with a cruise line, normally if they throw a cocktail party with the Captain and Senior Officers, it’s usually on a “gala night”.

Wine allowances, so most cruise ships do allow you to bring wine onboard, however some do charge a “corkage fee” to bring your own bottles onboard. You can then consume your own wine either in your stateroom or in any of the restaurants. Some cruise lines allow you to bring one or two bottles or more per stateroom or per guest at no charge to enjoy in your stateroom, but they will charge a corkage fee if you bring your own bottle to the restaurants. If this is something that is important to you, your travel agent will be able to advise what your wine allowances are for the cruise you booked.

Electrical outlets, so most ocean cruise ships have a mix of North American and European style outlets in each stateroom. Some cabins now also have USB plugs near the beds to charge phones or I use those to plug in my Saje Aroma Roam travel diffuser.

There are some things that are a no-no to pack, if they scan your luggage and find these items in your bags, you will most likely have to go down to the “naughty room” and collect your bags without the confiscated items. Some of the most popular items that are not allowed onboard are irons (for clothes, hair straightens are okay), alcohol (wine or champagne needs to be in your carry on when you board the ship), weapons of any kind, drones (some cruise lines are okay with them or if you have special permission, again double check this as it depending on the cruise line), food products (no meats, fruits or vegetables; if you need a certain milk for your coffee, etc, it’s always better if we put in a special services request to have this available onboard or carry this on in your carry on it a sealed unopened original container), bottles of water or pop (yes some cruise lines do not allow this), candles/incense (or anything else that creates an open flame), baby monitors, radios, extension cords (those can cause fires onboard ships, also don’t leave anything plugged in when you leave your stateroom, if anything is left plugged in, expect that your room steward will unplug items if they see it), illegal drugs and CBD oils (yes I got asked this question once by a client, the answer is no) and scissors (travel size or a small pair are ok, just not a full size pair of scissors). Your travel specialist will be able to provide you with this list based on the cruise line you’ve booked with if you need this information.

Cruise Apps

Most cruise lines have their own apps nowadays. I am personally starting to really like the apps that they have. You can usually open them on the ship, connect to the ship’s wifi, it’s free to use (only using the app will work, if you want to use social media or internet you do still have to buy an internet package onboard). I like the apps because I can keep on top of my onboard account, manage my specialty dining reservations, see all the daily activities and even manage spa or entertainment reservations, again all depending on the cruise line. By managing your onboard account this way you’re not going to experience and “sticker shock” at the end of your cruise when you receive you bill, this will also give you time to dispute any charges as there is limited amount open on the day of disembarkation.

Arriving to your cruise

I’m going to be honest, I’ve been in this industry long enough to see a fair share of people not take my advice and fly in the day of their cruise just to be delayed and miss their ship. I always recommend to my clients to fly in the day before. Was even flying in the day before my Pacific Coastal cruise, even through it was a short flight from Vancouver to San Diego. I don’t trust that if the plane goes mechanical or any other delays including weather, I want to feel safe knowing that I will get there in time. Just another reason why it’s also a very good idea to have travel insurance.

One of the most asked questions I get is “what time should I arrive to the port to board my ship?”. That’s really down to personal choice. I like to arrive to the port as early as I can, usually by 10:00am. Most ships open check in counters by 10:30am and you can normally start boarding the ship by 11:00am to 11:30am. If you have status with the cruise line you sail with, there are sometimes “lounges” you can take advantage of and enjoy your wait. When you arrive at the port, there will be a place to drop your larger luggage, then walk inside to wait for the check in counters. Have your boarding pass and ID (passport, etc) ready as sometimes there will be a security check before you get to the check in counters. At the check in desks (this does depend on the cruise line, this is more for larger cruise lines, some of the smaller ships and on some river cruise ships you actually will check in onboard) you’ll be asked for your boarding pass, ID (passport, etc) and your credit card that you registered for your onboard account. They will either take a photo of you, or scan your passport and use that photo. You will be given your cruise card at this time.

Your cruise card is everything. This is your credit card, ID and cabin door key all in one. Be sure to keep your card safe, if you do lose it, go to guest services immediately and report it missing. Also get guest services to print your onboard account to make sure no one used your key card to make unauthorized purchases. Some people do use lanyards to wear their cruise card around their neck, make sure guest services punches the card for you, or buy a lanyard that you can insert the card into so it doesn’t become damaged.

Once onboard

I usually head to the guest services desk first and pick up a “daily”. What is a “daily” you ask? This is the daily schedule of all the activities onboard. Once I’ve grabbed on of those I head to the dining room that is open for lunch.

**Pro Tip: Most cruises will have a sit down dining option open for lunch. It’s usually much quieter than trying to fight for space up in the buffet.

Once I’ve ordered lunch, I then plan my “strategy” for the rest of the day using the “daily” I picked up.

**Pro Tip: You might have your carry on for a couple hours before you have access to your room, also, you might not get your checked luggage until after sail away. I usually keep a swim suit and a few other items in my carry on just in case it’s a beautiful day and I want to go for a swim. After lunch, I normally drop my carry on and bag into my cabin. They will make an announcement once rooms are ready, this can be right when you board or usually sometime by 2:00pm.

Once I’ve checked into my cabin and sanitized it, I put my passport into the safe along with any of my valuables that can fit in it (MacBook, jewelry, wallet (again your cruise card is your currency onboard, so you don’t need to walk around with it), etc). Then it’s off to explore.

I normally explore a ship from the bottom decks to the top. Make sure to wear comfortable shoes, it’s amazing how many steps you’ll walk exploring a ship. When exploring, this is when I’m going to refer back to my personal strategy I’ve highlighted in my “daily”, there are usually some great “taster” events happening onboard during the time of boarding to Muster Drill and into the early evening. Again this is going to depend on what is important to you and what types of activities you might be interested in. If you’re a family cruising together, this is a great time to check out the kid’s clubs onboard, fill out any necessary forms and sign them up for activities. I myself check out the spa and thermal suites onboard if I haven’t purchased a spa pass ahead of time and attend the “spa raffle”. I’ve won gift certificates for free treatments and products before, like the saying goes, you have to be in it, to win it, so I usually attend that event onboard.

Since I’ve been cruising solo a bit recently, I also make note of any Solo Travellers Meetups onboard as well, usually the first meetup is before dinner hour on the day of embarkation. Sometimes it’s nice to meet other solo travellers for a dinner or a drink, or just to recognize people in the hallways for a quick chat how each other’s vacation has been going.

**Pro Tip: Make sure to look carefully at a map of the ship or check out cruisecritic.com and search the ship you are sailing on for “lesser known” areas of the ship. You would be surprised that there can be out of the way places to relax that most people don’t find because they stick to the main decks. 

Muster Drill

I actually get slightly entertained when it’s someone’s first muster drill, to see the reactions on people’s faces (or the multitude of quick hands over the ears) to experience the emergency alarm is interesting and amusing. I want to reiterate, do not miss the emergency safety drill. It’s mandatory and please pay attention. This is not the time to chat with your group or play on your phone. In the “daily” you will see where to find your muster station. Your muster station is printed on your cruise card. It is also found located on the back door of your stateroom. Some cruise lines require that you bring your lifejackets from your cabin to the drill, others do not require this. Please read the daily for instructions on what you need to bring to your drill.

Once you arrive at your muster station, you need to check in with your cruise card or with your cabin number to the crew member in charge of your station. Make sure to arrive on time to your muster station (5-10 minutes before the drill is set to begin is good). You will hear the emergency alarms of the ship go off. They will then go through the safety requirements and information over the ship’s speaker systems. If you are late or do not check in, you will be required to make up the muster drill at another time. Again, this is a very important emergency drill, please pay attention to the instructions and even if you’ve done numerous drills in the past, please respect that others around you might not have. 

Sail Away

One of my favourite parts of starting my cruise vacation. There are so many options for sail away and depending on which port you are leaving from there might be different advantages. For instance, if you’re sailing out of Vancouver, head to the top deck of the cruise ship on a sunny day for beautiful views of Vancouver, the North Shore mountains and of course sailing under the Lions Gate Bridge. Are you sailing out of Venice? If you have a balcony on the port side (the left side of the ship), you’ll have amazing views of Piazza San Marco whilst cruising out of Venice. There is usually a sail away party somewhere on deck, with live music to get the cruise started right. I make sure I pop a bottle of Champagne or Prosecco and toast to a wonderful and safe adventure ahead! Be sure to check the cruise “daily” for all the sail away events and locations.

Cabins/Staterooms Onboard

Whilst cabins and staterooms onboard are a bit more “compact” than a standard hotel room, the storage nooks and crannies are plentiful. One of the most asked questions I get from clients is “where can I store my luggage?”. There is usually always room to store suitcases under the bed, you can typically store at least two to three medium sized ones here. What is included in your cabin/stateroom also varies depending on cruise ship line, stateroom category and ship. If not having a coffee maker in your room is a deal breaker for you, make sure that you book the correct category or cruise line (some cruise lines only balconies and higher categories have coffee makers in the staterooms, some don’t offer coffee makers in the room but do offer room service included, other cruise lines don’t have coffee makers in any of the rooms).

Most cruise ships also have a small refrigerator in the room. I usually ask my room steward to clear out the mini bar (if it’s not included of course haha) so I have room to refrigerate my own wines, etc. For some people a refrigerator is necessary to keep medications cold, so I do make sure if this is a requirement that there is a fridge in the room, or we can request this through the cruise line’s special services department.

As I mentioned already previously, there are quite a few electrical outlets available typically in your stateroom. I bring a European adapter so I can utilize all the plugs in my cabin, especially if I’m travelling with a friend, that way no one is fighting over an outlet. I do also bring my hair tools, as they have North American style plugs onboard I can make sure my hair is styled without worrying I’m going to blow up my device.

There are tons of other tips and tricks you can find online, some cabin walls are metal, so if you want more storage I know a few avid cruisers who travel with magnetic hooks to have extra hooks in the room, however I’ve never had a problem with storage, even if I end up sharing a stateroom with someone.

You can expect your room to be tidied a couple times per day, once usually mid-morning, the last time for turn down service during dinner hours (delivery of your daily and any important notes for the next day will normally be placed on your bed or on the desk during turn down), it’s a rule of thumb to not have your do not disturb light/sign on unless you are in the room. If they see that you constantly have your do not disturb sign up they will leave a note for you to contact guest services. 

Dining

Once onboard you can head to the dining reservations desk and make any dining reservations you might want to make or need to change. Most cruise lines now do dining reservations ahead of time online, however there are some that you need to make them once onboard or if you need to amend any within seven days prior to your cruise departure. Most cruise lines will not accept dining reservations for the main dining rooms, it is either set time (chosen or assigned when you book certain cruise lines) or “freestyle” (open seating), where you will be seated as you show up for dinner.

Some cruise lines are now using a system similar to restaurants where you check in and are given a buzzer for when your table is ready if there is a wait (doesn’t mean you can walk to the other side of the ship haha).

When it comes to room service, this also depends on the cruise line. Some do not charge and will even serve you your meal course-by-course, some have a set service fee and finally some have a la carte pricing. Your cruise professional can advise you ahead of time what room service fees your cruise has if any. 

Shore Excursions and Leaving the Ship

The reason I wanted to cover this is the expectations of getting on and off the ship for shore excursions depending on the cruise line you’re sailing on. No matter what size of ship you’re sailing on, this time of embarkation and disembarkation I’ve learned to pack my patience. If you’re tendering, which means taking a boat from the ship to the shore, be sure to grab your tender tickets the moment they are available for distribution (some people on larger cruise ships have learned this the hard way). Then be prepared to wait until your number/colour is called (not near the exits either).

That being said, really make sure you have a buffer time for shore excursions you’ve booked on your own or through a third party. Shore excursions booked through the ship will have priority, so make sure you have a good buffer time and be sure to leave the ship with enough time to meet up with your excursions.

Also, when you depart the ship you need to bring your cruise card with you. You will be scanned as you leave and when you return so they know who is missing if you miss the “all aboard” call. “All aboard” is typically 30 minutes before sail away, so make sure you plan accordingly. You don’t want to be one of those people running after the ship at the port (yes, I have seen this) or taking that selfie with the ship sailing away without you in the background.

Most ports will also not allowed any food or beverages off the ship (so don’t try to take that Starbucks latte to go off the ship or you’ll be forced to knock it back or leave it behind). Water is allowed, however please be mindful when refilling your water bottle in the buffet area, use a glass to fill then pour the water into your bottle, don’t refill your bottle directly under the spout.

Also, you don’t need to take your passport off the ship in every country (double check this before you depart the ship for the day), I have my Canadian driver’s license and a photocopy of my passport photo page. If for some reason you miss the ship and do not board on time, a senior officer will check your safe in your stateroom and leave your passport behind with port officials so you can make your own way to catch up to the ship. Some cruises they will actually hold your passport anyways during check in, this is so that if the officials need to see your passport you aren’t called down to the Purser’s Office at 5:30am to present your passport to immigration.

When you return from your day exploring the port, have your cruise card ready. When you arrive back at the cruise terminal you will sometime have to go through a security check point before getting to the ship. Once scanned and onboard, typically there is another security scan done (again, make sure you didn’t buy any prohibited items, or if you purchased alcohol you’ll have to declare it for them to store it for you or pay the corkage fee (if them impose one) to enjoy it onboard). 

Medical Services Onboard

Yes cruise ships do have medical centres onboard. The cost to use these services however are very steep, make sure to use them only in emergency and make sure to give them your travel insurance information. Usually this is added to your onboard account as they rarely direct bill to insurance.

**Pro Tip: If you do find yourself sea sick, guest services do have a supply of sea sickness tablets that they usually provide at no charge.

You can also find some over the counter pharmacy products in the gift shop (ibuprofen, cough medicine, allergy tablets, etc) however the gift shops are set to specific hours and are not open while in port due to laws and restrictions.

Just a bit further on health, especially with Coronavirus (COVID-19) and Norwalk Virus, be sure to wash your hands frequently. There are so many antibacterial hand gel dispensers throughout ships, we wouldn’t have problems is everyone was diligent enough to use them. I also bring hand sanitizer into the dining room and use it after touching menus. In my stateroom, I also wipe down surfaces, door handles, remote controls, telephones, etc with Lysol antibacterial wipes.

In conclusion these are just a few tips and tricks of how to get the most of your cruise and scenarios you might encounter. When you book a cruise through myself, I do offer a service to go over any questions my clients have one on one and give tips based on the ship/cruise line they are sailing on, especially if it’s a ship I’ve sailed on myself. I also do have reviews of my cruises on my blog and will continue to write these ship reviews going forward. 

As I am a travel agent who specializes in cruising, I’d love to help you plan your next cruise vacation. Please contact me for a free cruise vacation consultation via my website or by sending me a direct message on Instagram.

Until next time, safe travels and happy cruising!

Ariane

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