Booking flights: If you haven’t booked the cruise line’s air/sea package or, in the U.K., bought a fly-to fare, you’ll need to book your own air transportation to the port unless you intend to drive. When flying in, plan to arrive by noon — at the latest — on embarkation day. The day before is even better. The reason: You need to factor in possible flight delays and other transportation glitches that could keep you from getting to the pier on time. The same advice goes for the flight home — book flights no earlier than noon, just in case your ship is delayed clearing customs and you debark late.
Flight delays: If your flight is delayed, let airline personnel know immediately that you’re a cruise passenger scheduled to set sail that day so they can try to accommodate you on another flight. Then be sure to contact your cruise line as soon as possible and let them know about the delay (cruise lines offer a toll-free emergency number to call on the day of travel; make sure you have it on hand). In some cases, though not many, when several passengers are delayed a ship’s departure might be postponed. In other cases, you may have to arrange to fly to the next port and meet the ship, possibly at your expense.
Cruise documents: Be sure to read through the information before you leave, attach your luggage tags (either sent to you through the mail or printed out on a computer) to your bags and fill out any online boarding forms prior to departure. It’s also your responsibility to ascertain whether you need a visa or passport for travel, and to acquire the necessary documents prior to cruising. Hint: It’s always safest to bring a passport when cruising, even if you’re sailing roundtrip from the U.S.
Getting to the pier: You can purchase roundtrip transfers that get you to and from the airport and pier (these are included if you’ve booked an air/sea package) from most cruise lines. Note: They usually need to be booked at least 14 days in advance. Be sure to read the instructions that accompany the transfers to determine if your bags are checked directly through to the ship, or if you need to claim them at baggage claim. If you decide to drive, or take some other mode of transportation to the pier, porters will be available to help you check your luggage.
Cruise Packing 101
What to put in your carry-on bag: Unlike a hotel where people check in on varying days and at varying times, folks check in to a cruise ship en masse. As such, a ship receives thousands of pieces of luggage in a matter of a few hours, which means your bags may not arrive in your stateroom until a few hours after you’ve boarded. Carry-ons are key. Pack everything needed to get you and your family through dinner time — bathing suits, cameras, medications, sandals, sunscreen, a change of clothes and toiletries, and if you’re traveling with small children, enough diapers and wipes to get you through a day. This packing strategy will save you should the airline or cruise line lose your bag, as you’ll have many necessities on hand. If you wish to go on the pool from the first moment of getting on ship make sure your bathing suit is in your carry on! Your bags won’t arrive until likely after dinner on the first day.
Dress codes: Every cruise line has a specified dress code for evenings (daywear is also casual), which can change daily (check your travel documents before you pack; each day’s code is listed). Typically, there’s formal, which means a tuxedo or dark suit for men, and an evening gown or cocktail dress for women. Informal means jacket and slacks for men, and a dress or pant suit for women. There’s resort casual (khakis for men and flowing pants outfits or skirts for women) as well as casual. The latter means open necked sport shirts for men and capri pants and summer tops for women. Royal for 7 night cruises have 2 formal nights. Although from my experience a button up shirt and dark pants are adequate for these days. Men and ladies may wish to take advantage of dressing up though, your server will let you know what the dress code will be for the following night.
Sports and baby equipment: If you are planning to snorkel or play golf or tennis, check out the ship’s rental availability and rates to determine if it’s worth bringing your own equipment along. In addition, some family-friendly ships now offer stroller and bouncer seat rentals; however, it’s best to bring anything you absolutely need such as diapers, baby food (especially if your child has allergies), children’s medications, etc.
B.Y.O.B.: Lines have a variety of policies regarding how much alcohol you can bring onboard with you (Carnival a few years back actually put a ban on bringing water onboard; it was such a ridiculous policy it was quickly abandoned). Some do allow you to bring a bottle or two of wine or Champagne, others do not. Royal Carribean allows for 2 bottles of wine or champagne and they have to be sealed by the manufacturer (sorry no home brew). If you wish to consume them in public areas they are subject to a $25 corkage fee.
Laundry: Royal does not have a self-service laundry room, but they do provide laundry service. But it can get pricey. We recommend you bring enough clothes to last the entirety of the the trip. Also they do NOT provide irons in the rooms for safety reasons (possible turbulance with a hot iron for instance), but if you need your shirts pressed for instance, we find that hanging your clothes in the bathroom while you shower will allow the steam to take the majority of the wrinkles out.
Cabin F.Y.I.: The majority of staterooms include standard 110-volt AC electrical outlets and hair dryers (some also have Europe’s 220 volt plugs). Check your ship’s specifications to determine if you need an adaptor. In all grade cabins, most cruise lines include a mini-safe. While almost all cruise staterooms have televisions, the channel selection will vary and most, save for top suites, do not include a DVD player or VCR. Lastly, a good travel alarm is handy to pack as many cabins are not outfitted with alarm clocks (you can arrange wake-up calls, however).
Making the Most of Embarkation Day
Explore the ship and get organized: Depending on when you board, you may not be able to access your cabin right away. Instead, grab lunch in the buffet restaurant, and be sure to book spa services, specialty restaurant reservations and popular shore excursions as soon as possible. Most cruise lines now offer pre-booking options online.
Muster/Safety drill: These drills are the adult cruise version of school fire drills, where passengers and crew practice the steps they’d take in an emergency situation, such as putting on life jackets and assembling in assigned areas. The drills take place just before the ship sets sail. Your attendance is mandatory, and you should take it seriously. Be forewarned, crew members do come around to check that people are not still in the cabin.
Visitors at the pier: While friends and family are welcome at most piers to see you off, for security reasons only cruise passengers are allowed to board the ships. This applies at ports of call as well.
Check out the ship’s daily newsletter: Want to know about the port you’re about to visit, what the show times are, what lectures are being held the next day or even what the drink of the day is? It’s all in the ship’s newsletter which is typically slipped under your door each evening (for the next day’s events). A newsletter detailing embarkation day activities will be in your cabin when you arrive.
Shore Excursions: The 411
Booking shore tours: An updated list of available shore excursions are available a few months before your departure. They can also be booked by the registration deck on ship and also can often be booked upon reaching shore, please note that some have very regimented departure times that if you miss you’ll not receive a refund for not attending.
Cruise tours vs. going it on your own: The answer largely depends on the port city, and the preference of each passenger. If you want someone else to take care of transportation, meals in many cases, and making sure you’re back on the ship in time, go with one of the cruise line’s organized tours. Others find they can save money by making plans directly with independent operators or prefer exploring on their own. Last cruise my wife and I booked ourselves upon reaching the shore a snorkelling and swim with stingray excursion for about $20/person cheaper than the Royal rate, but in Jamaica some of our other participants booked a cab directly to go see Dunn’s River Falls and were almost in a panic when the cab broke down on the way back. They ended up making it back because they left plenty of time, but could have been stuck there if things worked just a little differently. Also if Royal booked excursions are running late for any reason they’ll hold the ship for excursions booked by them, not so for private booked excursions.
Keeping in Touch
Phone service: Many cabins contain phones for ship-to-shore calls; however, the per-minute charges are quite costly. Most cruise lines have now made their ships cell phone friendly; while phones typically work best within sight of land, you can connect while miles out at sea. Research your carrier’s policies, accessibility and roaming fees — before you depart. Roaming rates can be high but are typically cheaper than using your ship’s satellite phone service.
In an emergency: Be sure to leave friends and family the name of your ship, your itinerary and the ship’s phone number if you have it (if it isn’t in your cruise documents, check the line’s website or call the reservation line for the number).
Online services: There is wi-fi on the ships but they’re not free, they do offer daily rates, but expect them to be expensive and slow.
Keeping tabs onboard: If traveling with kids or a group of pals, many passengers highly recommend bringing a supply of walkie talkies, enough for each family member. It’s a great way, particularly on the bigger ships, to know that Junior’s playing basketball, Dad’s in the casino and Mom’s in the spa. There will be a limited amount of walkie talkies brought on for the group mainly for group organizers. And there will be one walkie talkie left in our gaming space so that people can always go there to get in touch with a group organizer.
Cashless system: Though cruises may be billed as “all inclusive,” let’s just say that the term is relative. There are several things not covered in your cruise fare. A few examples? Wine, beer and cocktails; shore tours; gift shop purchases; special coffees; some special restaurants; and spa services. In order to make payments easy, you’ll receive a swipe card upon check-in (which doubles as your room key) for charging various items and services to an account that can be settled at the end of your trip with a credit card or cash.
Cash and currency: All ships in the Royal Caribbean fleet have ATM machines. There is a transaction fee levied by BB&T, the owners of the ATMs, plus any other fees the guest’s financial institution would charge. Or, check the port facility at ports of call; some have ATM machines that will work with foreign debit cards (if they don’t, a nearby town or village surely will). It is best to carry a small amount of local currency when in foreign ports for taxis and for purchases at small shops and street vendors. However, keep in mind that major credit cards are accepted in numerous places worldwide. Not to mention that while on ship, your key card works the same as cash.
Onboard doctors: Medical services typically consist of a physician and nurse to take care of temporary illnesses and accidents for a fee. In most cases, those with health insurance will need to pay up before debarking — and submit their claim once they return home. Many commonly used medications are kept onboard and can be prescribed by the ship’s doctor. However, it’s generally cheaper to get over-the-counter medicines in port — or better yet, bring them with you from home. If you take prescription medicine, it’s a good idea to carry copies of your prescriptions with you in case your medicine gets lost or stolen.
Seasickness: If you even think you might get seasick, we recommend bringing anti-nausea pills.
Pregnancy: Restrictions vary by cruise line. Most lines do not allow women to sail if they will be past their 24th week of pregnancy when the cruise ends. A letter from your doctor is sometimes required specifying your due date.
Seating assignments: You will be assigned a dining time and table with the rest of our group. If you have any people in particular you do or don’t want to be seated with please contact firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get you sorted on this.
Alternate options: Even if you have assigned seating, you don’t have to eat in the dining room every night. There are usually several other places to dine from pizza parlors to the ship’s buffet and specialty restaurants. And, of course, there’s always room service, which is free on Royal Carribean.
Special dietary needs: Many special dietary requests can be accommodated; be sure to discuss them with your cruise line four to six weeks prior to your departure. That said, there are about 6-8 options for appetizers and main courses, which can accomodate most diets. Note: Low-salt or low-cholesterol food requests can typically be accommodated right onboard.
Tipping: Royal charges $12 USD per day for gratuities, if you feel you’ve gotten poor service you can contact the service desk and get it altered. If you feel that you’ve had exceptional service that goes above and beyond you can contact the service desk and also at the end you get envelopes that you can use to give extra to those that you feel deserve it.
Settling your account: On the last evening you’ll receive an itemized bill of your charges. Be sure to look it over and contact the cruise line’s purser or hotel desk to dispute any charges. If all looks good, just keep the bill as your receipt; the balance will be charged to the credit card you provided. Some lines will also allow you to settle your account in cash. It’s a good idea to check your onboard statement (either at the purser’s desk or through an in-cabin interactive TV system) prior to the last night; queues at the purser’s desk can be long on debarkation day, so if you can spot a problem and resolve it early, you will be saved the hassle of waiting in a long line.
Packing to disembark: Many cruise lines require you to pack your bags the night before you disembark and place them outside your stateroom to be collected. This procedure expedites the disembarkation process. Utilize your carry-on again for toiletries and any remaining items. And don’t forget to leave out a change of clothes for the following morning so you don’t have to exit the ship wearing your pajamas.
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