From packing to tipping to going ashore, follow our expert advice for your best trip ever.
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Float Away on a Dream Cruise
A NOTE TO OUR READERS: "Cruise With Confidence" is from the July 2006 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.
This is paradise! As I sit here under the shade of a thatched-roof cabana, a warm tropical breeze ruffles the turquoise sea. I'm sipping fruity rum punch and writing postcards. My home away from home―the mammoth cruise ship Caribbean Princess―floats just offshore waiting to ferry me to my next destination.
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Cruise with Confidence
My assignment on this trip: Figure out what travelers should know about planning, booking, and taking their first cruise. Whether you're longing for a romantic getaway or planning a special family trip, cruises make fabulous vacations, and the South claims a number of convenient ports from which to sail.
Plunking down a large lump sum can be intimidating. But calculate your per diem cost for food, lodging, transportation, and entertainment. Compared to a traditional vacation, you'll find that cruising can be quite economical. In fact, with gas prices so high, it may be the best deal going right now.
We'll walk you through the basics of cruising here, but we encourage you to question friends and family who have cruised, surf the Internet for sources of information, and visit with a trusted travel agent. Before you know it, you'll set sail on the trip of a lifetime.
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Internet vs. Travel Agent
Some first-time cruisers such as Sunny Wood of Dallas, Texas, feel perfectly at ease booking a cruise online. "It could not have been easier," she claims. "We're really happy with what we got for our money."
Others use the Internet as a research tool; then they turn to an agency for expert advice. "A travel agent should be your advocate," says Becky Williams, a cruise specialist at Brownell Travel in Birmingham. "We take care of all the details. Also, because we book so many cruises, we're able to offer extra amenities such as onboard credit for the spa or gift shops."
Most important, travel agents can often meet or beat the deals online, all for a nominal fee. Becky says her average surcharge ranges from $20 to $25 per booking.
How To Choose Your Cruise
With the number of companies, ships, and itineraries available today, even sophisticated travelers have a hard time navigating the sea of options. Still, finding a cruise that meets your needs is critical.
Picking a cruise line. There's a cruise for every personality and every budget. Place these criteria―food, service, itinerary, and entertainment― in order of importance, and you'll begin to get a feel for what's a priority for you. The questions on page 25 will help you get started.
The early bird gets the best cabin. Thanks to the immense popularity of cruising these days, last-minute bargains are increasingly hard to find. Early-booking incentives often yield the best deals. Becky recommends her clients commit nine months to one year in advance. "If you wait to the last minute to book, you're gambling, especially if you're cruising with three or four people in your party," Becky notes. "Cruise ships only have so many rooms that will hold that many people. The best cabins in the best locations book up months in advance."
Buy trip cancellation insurance. This might just be the most important purchase you make. "Every spring, the chicken pox goes around, and families have to cancel their trips," says Becky. "If they don't have insurance, they've lost everything." Be sure your policy also covers serious illness, injury, and death to you and your traveling companions and immediate family.
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Going ashore at the ports of call―and what you'll do when you get there―ranks among the most eagerly anticipated activities of a trip. While cruise ships offer a wealth of exciting shore excursions, from snorkeling and horseback riding to diving trips and boat tours, experienced travelers sometimes prefer to hire a local guide and set off on their own.
Michael Crye, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines (ICCL), offers this advice. "Make sure that whoever you go with on a shore excursion is properly licensed, properly insured, and has some quality control over what they provide to the public," he says. "If you don't have the time or inclination to do that research, then book shore excursions through your cruise line."
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Shop Till You Drop
The Caribbean has long been a mecca for shoppers. You can buy diamonds, watches, tobacco, liquor, linens, and electronics, as well as items from local artisans. All cruise lines offer "port talks" on recommended stores and available items. They'll pass out maps and try to sell you coupon books.
If you're planning to shop on your trip, bring a list of prices from home, and compare them to the prices and quality you find in port. If you buy expensive jewelry, have it appraised when you get home. "Go shopping with an open mind and a closed pocketbook," advises first-time cruiser Cheryl Springer from Medford, Oregon. "It's easy to get caught up in a buying frenzy and end up in debt."
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Rx for Smooth Sailing
Waves happen. That's the law of the sea. But cruisers are often unprepared when the ride gets bumpy.
Being proactive can stop the symptoms of seasickness before they start. Visit your family doctor before your cruise, and ask for a prescription for Transderm Scopolamine, says nurse anesthetist Christina Defour, a first-time cruiser from Washington Township, Michigan. Simply apply the tiny patch behind your ear at least four hours before you set sail. Side effects may include dry mouth and blurry vision, she says, but it's worth it not to be seasick.
Play It Safe "Statistically, you are very, very safe aboard a cruise ship," says ICCL president Michael Crye.
Still, you should use the same common sense precautions you would for any trip. Lock your valuables away, either in your room safe or at the purser's desk. Set rules for your kids, and ask them to check in regularly. Use extra caution when going ashore, where most mishaps occur. If you do experience problems, report them to the cruise line immediately.
Insider's Tip: Looking for a real bargain? In the spring and fall, cruise lines shuffle ships between ports. You'll spend more days at sea, but you can often book a "repositioning cruise" at a greatly reduced price.
Insider's Tip: Before leaving home, make copies of your passport, driver's license, credit cards, and travel documents, and leave them with a family member or trusted friend. If you encounter an emergency, your important personal information will be easily accessible.
Insider's Tip: Pack your swimsuit in your carry on. When you get to the ship, you won't have to wait for your luggage to arrive before hitting the pool.
Insider's Tip: Pack your cruise documents in your carry-on bag. You'll need to present them, along with proof of citizenship, when checking in at the cruise terminal.
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Top Five Questions to Ask
Long before you ever contact a travel agent or begin searching the Internet for great deals, you'll need to answer a bevy of important questions.
Where do we want to go? Ocean liners leaving from Southern ports will take you to the Caribbean, the Bahamas, Mexico, the Panama Canal, and Bermuda.
How long is our trip going to last? Cruises can last a few days or stretch for months, but your itinerary will determine the length of your cruise. Southern Living reader Bette Pettit of Miami says she and husband Jim booked several short cruises first because they weren't sure if they'd like it. They've since signed on for longer trips, which they highly recommend.
What's our budget? Most cruises include standard meals, accommodations, kids' programs, and entertainment in their prices. Sodas, alcohol, shore excursions, alternative dining, spa treatments, and tips all cost extra. Plan to spend a minimum of a few hundred dollars per person in addition to the base price of your cruise.
Are we planning to fly or drive to meet the ship? A number of Southern ports―Galveston and Houston, Texas; Mobile, Alabama; New Orleans; Jacksonville, Florida; Norfolk, Virginia; and Baltimore―have opened cruise terminals in recent years to service the drive-in market. Parking fees vary, so be sure to add this cost when calculating your budget. Whether you drive or fly, plan to arrive at least a day in advance, says Southern Living Associate Travel Editor Wanda McKinney. "You want to get there without being stressed out about missing your boat," she says. "The extra day also gives you a chance to explore the port city."
When can we go? As soon as you settle on the dates, you're ready to begin shopping for the cruise that best fits your needs. Be sure to check prices just before and just after your desired time frame to see if there's a significant difference. For example, prices for Caribbean cruises run highest from Christmas through mid-April, but you might be able to score a better deal if you go the week after New Year's.
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Luxury Cruise Lines
• Crystal Cruises
1-888-799-4625; www.crystalcruises.com Southern ports: Fort Lauderdale, Miami Fun fact: Caviar available upon request at afternoon tea.
• Cunard Line
1-800-728-6273 or www.cunard.com Southern port: Fort Lauderdale Fun fact: In business since 1840. Ships include the venerable Queen Elizabeth 2 and Queen Mary 2.
• Regent Seven Seas Cruises
1-800-285-1835; www.theregentexperience.com Southern port: Fort Lauderdale Fun fact: Guests greeted with Champagne while boarding. Seven Seas Mariner and Seven Seas Voyager feature restaurants operated by Le Cordon Bleu Paris.
• Seabourn Cruise Line
1-800-929-9391; www.seabourn.com Southern port: Fort Lauderdale Fun fact: Caviar in the Surf―uniformed waiters wade into the sea to serve guests Champagne and caviar.
• Silversea Cruises
1-800-722-9955; www.silversea.com Southern port: Fort Lauderdale Fun fact: All-inclusive fares cover round-trip airfare, precruise accommodations, transfers, all beverages, and gratuities.
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Premium Cruise Lines
• Celebrity Cruises
1-800-437-3111; www.celebrity.com Southern ports: Fort Lauderdale, Galveston, Miami, Tampa, Fun fact: A cruise for food lovers; culinary delights include nightly "Gourmet Bites" tastings in public areas.
• Princess Cruises
1-800-774-6237; www.princess.com Southern ports: Fort Lauderdale, Galveston, New Orleans
"Personal Choice Dining" allows passengers to select from traditional dinner seatings or open seating in the dining rooms.
• Holland America Line
1-800-426-0327 or www.hollandamerica.com Southern ports: Fort Lauderdale, Norfolk, Tampa
An industry pioneer with more than 130 years of experience.
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Mainstream Cruise Lines
• Costa Cruises
1-800-462-6782 or www.costacruises.com Southern ports: Fort Lauderdale, Miami Fun fact: Italian cruise line; trips end with a bacchanal parade and Roman toga party.
• Disney Cruise Line
1-888-325-2500; www.disneycruise.com Southern port: Port Canaveral
Fun fact: Outstanding children's programs; entertainment features "live" Disney characters
• Norwegian Cruise Line
1-800-327-7030; www.ncl.com Southern ports: Charleston, Houston, Miami, New Orleans Fun fact: Signature Chocoholic Buffet delights those with a sweet tooth.
• Royal Caribbean
1-800-327-6700; www.rccl.com Southern ports: Baltimore, Fort Lauderdale, Galveston, Tampa
Shipboard activities include rock climbing, miniature golf, and ice-skating.