Basically all cruises are the same. You have an itinerary with ports and sea days, you have a cabin and a room steward who takes care of you, food and entertainment are for the most part included and plentiful, and you show up with your clothing and the fun begins. These days most ships have around 2,000 – 4,000 passengers and every conceivable activity you can imagine. There are plenty of things to see and do and lots of potential people to see and do them with.
Living in Florida cruising is easy and cheap because we are flanked with many ports and therefore many options on itineraries, cruise lines and ports all within driving distance, without the added cost of airfare, making cruising a pretty cheap vacation. The problem is the itineraries start to become very repetitive because you can only go so far in a 7-10 day span, especially if you have to get back to your point of origin too. Don’t get me wrong there are tons of islands in the Caribbean to visit, the problem is the larger the ship (of which they get larger each year) the less port options available. Let’s face it some of those islands out there hold less people than the ships and they already have their own population to deal with.
Generally speaking this is how it works. You arrive at the port with your luggage and your cruise documents. You either have with you or get from the porter on the pier, your luggage tags. You affix them to your luggage and hand it over to the porter (keeping care to take with you what you want for the next few hours or so and anything you are not comfortable leaving in your luggage, for example medications, bathing suit, laptop, camera). Then you proceed with your passport (or other accepted form of ID), your credit card for on-board purchases and your cruise document to the line for check in. At check-in they may require you to fill out a form telling them you haven’t been sick in the last 48 hours so have a pen with you so you can do this while you are online and speed up the process at the desk for you, your party and those in line behind you. When you get to your turn at the counter you’ll be asked for all the information and then handed a card key along with all your papers/cards back.
You are now “checked in” and will proceed to a security line. Here, like at the airport, they are checking for dangerous goods like weapons, but unlike the airport liquids and computers don’t need to be taken out of your bags. You go through the metal detector and claim your belongings on the other side. Please note: most cruise lines frown upon you bringing liquor on board but they do tend to have a “one bottle of wine” policy. Personally I find it easier to just put it in my checked luggage (which yes they do randomly check and yes they can find there). But if you have it in your carry on they should allow the one bottle and if they don’t they will take it and return it to you in the afternoon/evening of your last night on board so you can bring it home (or down it that night). There is usually a desk set up by the actual entrance to the ship (or in port right by security) for you to hand your bottle over to a crew member for safe keeping. Please note – when it’s really crowded and there is a huge line at that desk it is pretty easy to simply skip it and proceed with your bottle. Worst case scenario they yell at you for not surrendering the bottle and you say “oh, I wasn’t sure where I was going” or something to that affect and hand over the bottle.
From here you proceed to the gangway to board the ship. At this point they will want you and your party to pose for a picture that they will later try to sell you on the ship – I skip this line as for me I don’t always feel in the photographic mood after a day of travel and lines. Besides, I’m not going to buy it anyway so why let them waste the effort and ink for printing it. Most people, however, stop and take a picture. Then you get to the ship and again they take a picture – but this time for their records to link you to your ship card so they can identify you as the card holder. When you enter and exit the ship they will swipe your card – it will show them your photo and this way they know who is on board. When returning to the ship they will swipe it again and the picture helps them to decide that it is actually you returning (and not a stowaway who found your card on the bar at Carlos and Charlie’s while you were on the conga line drinking body shots and too drunk to notice it being stolen). Some of the newer ships or newly renovated ones even swipe your card for purchases on board and they can compare the picture to be sure it is in fact your card. Important note – your room key is also your charge card so don’t lose it. If you do please note if people aren’t checking the picture for purchases (which they don’t always do) you will have a lot of hassle to go through to get fictitious charges off your card. If you do lose your card go immediately to the purser’s desk and get a new one so they can cancel the old one and check your activity. Remember you always need the card to get on and off the ship – even the first and last day.
Pictures completed you are now on-board your vessel. Most likely there will be many smiling faces there handing out maps and telling you that lunch is available on the lido deck at the buffet. Take the map; it’s good to have, but note there are usually some hanging around the ship by the elevators to help direct you and any cruise employee can direct you where you need to go. The problem is sometimes it seems more straight forward than it really is. You can’t always go from one end of the ship to the other on every floor – many times your route is blocked by a dining room or theater. Sometimes you have to go up or down to get “through”.
If you got on the ship early then your room may not be ready yet – and they’ve shut the doors down the sides of the ship to keep you from attempting to go there early. They stand guard by the elevators and pretty much force everyone up to the Lido deck (usually deck 9 or 10 depending on the ship) where the food, pool and multitude of bars are located. So relax, go eat, get a drink and go to your room when it is ready for you. It will be clean, stocked with ice and your friendly cabin steward will show up to introduce himself. Your luggage will be outside the door and you’ll have plenty of time to unpack and get settled before sailing.
Once everyone is on board, and USUALLY before you sail or while you are still in the harbor there will be a boat drill (Muster drill if you will). Muster means to assemble formally for inspection. Every cruise line and even every ship will have different ways of performing this required drill. Some require you to bring your life jacket, some require you to put it on, some meet on the deck at your muster station (found on your room key/card) and others will meet in theaters or dinning areas on the ship. Some do a live demo, some do a video presentation but regardless of how the do the muster drill – you will be subject to attend. And you should go. Many people try to get out of it; hide in the room under the bed or in the shower or whatever but seriously folks it takes about 15-20 minutes and the bars and food services are closed anyway. It could save your life so just suck it up and go.
Every ship has tons of activities and they print a daily newsletter detailing what is offered each day. It will tell you about the port you are going to, have emergency numbers, times for docking and sailing and other pertinent information. I suggest you read it; it is usually informative at the very least. On sea days there is much more going on; on port days most people get off to explore but still things happen on the ship to keep you entertained if you just don’t want to go or come back early. There are spa specials, sports, crafts, entertainment, games and food! You’ll easily find something to do – though keep in mind many times they include spending money (art auctions, drinking, spa etc.). Shopping is closed while you are in port as is the gambling. Art auctions usually include free champagne. Ice carving and games are free (except for bingo but at least there is a cash prize). You can even watch a movie on the deck – in the evenings this is accompanied by popcorn. There is an early show and a late show; there are free movies on the TV in your cabin; there are also pay movies. Some ships that don’t have the outdoor theater have an indoor one. Some larger ships have ice rinks, rock walls, ropes courses and indoor wave pools for surfing. If they can figure out how to put it on a ship it will be there.
Of course the main way a cruise ship makes money is through selling drinks, gambling, shopping, photography and port excursions. If you’re new at this you’ll probably get suckered into an excursion or two and even a crazy shop talk before the port at least once. Put it this way – just about anything the ship offers is available locally at a much lower cost and in a much more tailored to your needs/wants way. Most newbies aren’t comfortable negotiating their own tours and that’s OK! That’s the beauty of the cruise you can be as adventurous as you want. The more you do this cruising thing the more likely you’ll do some ports on your own. The internet will help you explore port options (but don’t do it on the ship the internet there is too slow and too expensive). There is even a site called Cruise Critic where you’ll get information from other vacationer’s as well as experts. The best prices come on the pier when you disembark at the port. There will be MILLIONS of people trying to sell you a tour (the same ones available on the ship). They are pushy and sometimes obnoxious but they are in it to make a buck so bear with them. The further away from the ship you get the cheaper the price will be. I can’t say I’ve ever gotten a bad tour by doing it this way – I usually know what I want to do and find the guy who will do it for the lowest price per person. It has always worked out. I’ve also booked things ahead of time on the internet and if your research is good that too always works great. It’s not as cheap as last minute on the pier but it is always professional and way cheaper than on the ship; added bonus it is just my group if that is the way I want it.
On all ships there is at least one elegant night. In my book the more formal the better – rentals are available on the ship if need be. In your everyday life there is little occasion to dress up so you might as well participate on your trip – it is a great opportunity to get photos taken to remember the time and, well, everyone just looks better in formal wear.
There are millions of dining options. Most ships have anytime dining where you show up and wait for a table, they have a cafeteria style buffet that is open nearly 24/7, room service is available at anytime (free but you should tip) and specialty items are set up around the ship like sushi and ice cream, pizza, deli and burrito bars to name a few. Sometimes there are pay items available as well like specialty ice cream and Starbucks Coffee, specialty pay restaurants (steak, Italian, Burger places) and then there are usually two seatings in each dinning room (early and late). Let’s face it food is in abundance so don’t worry you’ll find more than one place to eat no matter your dietary restrictions or how picky you are.
Last thing you should know is about the last night and disembarking the ship at the end of your cruise. If you want to have them take your luggage off the ship then you’ll need to pack up your stuff the last night and leave your luggage (with the provided tags) in the hall after dinner. They will provide you with tags that have a number and color on them. That is how they will tell you it is your turn to get off the ship. There will also be in your room a customs form. You need to fill that out, one per family. The next morning they’ll wake you early via the ship’s PA system and start telling you when to get off the ship.
Those off first will be self-assist people, those that didn’t put their luggage out and will now carry it off themselves – usually light packers or those with early flights trying to beat the rush. Then they start with the numbers – priority people are number 1 and then it’s sort of by where your room was on the ship and when you told them your outbound flight was scheduled for. This is not an exact science so if you need to be off first then do the self-assist. Your luggage will be found in a large hall split up by numbers after you disembark. You need your room key and your passport, plus the customs form. You’ll go to the main deck when called and be swiped off the ship with your key, you’ll go to the big hall get your luggage and head to a customs agent to hand in your form and hopefully breeze right through. Then you are out and thrown into a sea of people trying to get cabs to the airport. That part can be well run or a nightmare depending on the port – so always try to book a flight at a reasonable time so you aren’t feeling too rushed.
They always start early and want you off as soon as possible but if you don’t go when you number is called it isn’t the end of the world. Your luggage will still be in the hall (and possibly the only one left in your section making it easier to find) and you’ll still go through the same process. So don’t worry if you can sleep through the announcements or you are not done with breakfast when they call you then keep sleeping or eating and don’t worry about it. In some countries they act as if your luggage sitting around is reason for the authorities to search it. Even I have fallen for this bit myself, but the truth is they are just trying to get you off so they can get the place cleaned and load up the next group and start making money. As long as you get off before the next group loads, you’re fine.