It’s September, the time when good deals start popping up on winter ocean cruises. The cruise lines are looking to fill their unsold cabins at this time of year, so if you like to cruise, it’s a time to look for bargains. But as with any kind of travel, it’s wise to look past the price when you’re booking your winter getaway, in order to avoid the kind of mistakes that can ruin your cruise.
Doesn’t the cruise line take care of everything once you’re on board? Pretty much, but it’s important not to let yourself get into autopilot mode a bit too much. There are some hazards that can put a big kink in your plans, and in some cases turn your good time into a bad trip.
Just to help you arrive prepared, here are six common hazards that can ruin your cruise.
Getting a bad cabin
Veteran cruisers know to look carefully at the ship’s deck plans when they’re choosing their cabin. Online cruise sellers usually provide these; if not, you can find them on Cruisedeckplans.com. Whether you’re booking a low-priced inside cabin or a more expensive balcony cabin, you can put yourself in harm’s way by choosing a noisy or high-traffic location.
First, avoid cabins directly over or under big public spaces, especially bars and casinos: ships aren’t soundproof, and you may feel like you’re sleeping in Grand Central Station. The same goes for balcony cabins overlooking outdoor patios and boardwalks on the new megaships. Also, avoid cabins right next to the elevator, for the same reason, and cabins next to big blank spaces on the deck plan – these may be service areas, where staff members bang doors and roll trollies all day and night.
Screwing up your paperwork
Nothing can create travel panic like suddenly realizing you haven’t got all your documents in order by the time you get to the gangway. Finding out that your passport has expired, or you were supposed to get a visa for one of the ports on the itinerary, can give you some more grey hairs in a hurry. Forgetting to print out the cruise documents can cause some sticky moments, too — some cruise lines use them to tag your luggage.
The way to prevent these problems is to read the material the cruise line sends you when you book your trip. Print the cruise documents right away, and the invoices too. (Don’t rely on a cell phone copy — those devices can fail.) Then, make sure your passport is good for at least six months after the trip: most countries require this. And check to see if any of the places on the itinerary requires a visa — this post about visas gives you a quick guide. Then, print out a list of essential website addresses and contact info for people you might need to get in touch with. Finally, put it all in your carry-on so you can’t leave home without it.
Missing the boat
This can really ruin your cruise, and there are two ways it can happen. The first is cutting your timing too close on departure day: if your flight gets delayed, you could end up getting left on the dock with your luggage as the ship disappears over the horizon. Bad weather, mechanical problems – it can happen all too easily. Better to fly in the night before, have a relaxing morning on shore and arrive for your cruise rested and ready to go.
The second way is taking an excursion that gets you back to the ship too late. Yes, the captain may wait for you, but only for so long: trying to make up lost time can cost thousands in extra fuel. You can avoid this hazard by booking the cruise line’s own excursions; the ship will always wait for them. But they’re expensive, so many people book private tours. If you do, research the tour company using sites like Cruise Critic, and think twice about taking a long excursion in a dodgy-looking vehicle. If you’re just walking around on your own, bring the daily bulletin so you’re sure what time you have to be back.
Everyone knows cruise ships are vulnerable to stomach bugs like norovirus. So make it a point to use the hand sanitizer before you eat, and avoid spending too much time in tight quarters with groups of people (this can be tricky, especially at the buffet restaurant). After that, don’t overdo it when you get to the buffet counters. Stuffing yourself can lead to stomach problems, especially if you’ve travelled to the home port and are already overtired. And spending the whole trip chained to your cabin can really ruin your cruise.
Also, double-check to make sure you have all the medications you normally take. Full-sized cruise ships have medical clinics on board, with at least one doctor and two nurses, so you can get medical care. But the ship may not stock your particular medication, and it can be hard to find on the Caribbean island where you land next. Also, bring any over-the-counter drugs you might need for common ailments; the ship stocks the common ones, but again, there’s no guarantee it has the one you want.
Racking up a huge on-board bill
If you’re new to cruising – and sometimes even if you’re not – that shipboard account you get at the end of the cruise can come as a shock. On ocean cruises at least, there are a lot of things that aren’t included in the price. Specialty restaurants, excursions, spa days, drinks at the bar, those fancy coffees you love, soft drinks, even bottled water – any time you sign for something, it costs you extra. Add on the $12 or so in gratuities for every day you’re on board, and the numbers on that bill can get alarming.
The first way to battle shipboard expense creep is to find out what costs extra and what doesn’t; some people are surprised to find their macchiato costs them $3.50. Then, make a budget so you know what you can spend, and check your account now and then to see how you’re doing. Also, cut costs where you can: drop in on art auctions and the captain’s reception for some free champagne, and find cheaper places for coffee and drinks when you’re in port. That’s also the place to use the internet — only buy the ship’s package if you really need it.
Not getting into port
If you’re taking a cruise that goes to the farthest ends of the earth – places where the weather can be fierce – be aware that there’s a chance you may not be able to get into some of the ports on your itinerary. On an Antarctic cruise a few years back, we barely got into the Port Stanley, on the Falkland Islands; the ship that arrived the day before didn’t get in at all.
The captain will usually try to find a substitute port, so you won’t be left sitting on the ship for a couple of days. But if you have your heart set on one destination and you can’t get in, it can be pretty disappointing. The only real way to avoid this is to plan your trip for the calmest time of year, and hope for the best. But be aware that when you’re sailing to wild places, anything can happen, so just buckle up and enjoy the adventure.
Not turning off your cellphone
If you’re getting cellphone service when you’re out to sea, you’re doing what the phone companies call roaming. That means they’re charging you top dollar — sometimes $2.50 to $3 a minute — for every call. The damage is even worse if you use your phone’s data service to check your e-mail, visit your favourite websites or use Facebook. The major U.S. phone companies charge anywhere from $12 to $20 per megabyte. In some cases, just regular updating of your apps can incur data charges.
The safest way to avoid getting ambushed by a big cellphone bill is to turn off your phone as soon as you get on board. Alternatively, you can put it in airplane mode so none of the communication services work. You can still use some apps that don’t require a connection, like games or a music player for music that’s already loaded onto your phone. And some cruise lines have an app that lets you check your account, or text others on board (make sure there’s no charge involved). You can also use wi-fi — but again, using the ship’s wi-fi service will cost you big-time, so do it on shore.
Those are some of the most common things that can ruin your cruise. But don’t let them stop you from cruising: it’s a great way to have a good time and see some of the world. Just come prepared, and do what you can to avoid some of the pitfalls you might encounter. Once you’ve done that, it’s a lot easier to sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.