Cruise ships

The upper deck of a typical cruise ship

Cruise ships are a means of travel with substantial benefits, and a few drawbacks. Some people love them; others don't care for them. They make it easy to visit several places in a single trip with no need to repack belongings and use a car/train/bus/plane to travel to each location. On a cruise, your "hotel" comes along with you – cabin, meals and transportation. You unpack once, and may go to bed in Cabo San Lucas and wake up in Puerto Vallarta, and so on to other destinations...to repack only at cruise end. This can make a great travel experience. Your sense of where you are is compromised only by not taking note of your itinerary and the daily ship's newsletters delivered to your cabin.

Such a sampling of various cities, islands or areas in a region can help you decide if and where you'd want to visit later for a longer time. Typical cruise itineraries limit the time you spend in each place; usually it means just a day of activities or sightseeing. They may also include one or more days at sea – paradise if you enjoy a relaxing day by the pool or other shipboard activities, but less so if you prefer more active and open exploration ashore. Nonetheless, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks for enough people to support a growing industry.

Today you can visit every continent on earth, including Antarctica, by cruise ship. Exotic destinations, such as the Galapagos Islands, are best visited by small expedition vessels. While these cruises are expensive, you'll be traveling with expert guides.

This article focuses on ocean cruising and ships. Cruise ships represent just one of multiple options for passenger travel by sea; ferries reach isolated coastal outports with no road and islands where distance or limited amounts of traffic make highway bridge construction impractical, river boat and barge canal cruising offer more in-depth, close-up looks at many countries in their interiors, while the few remaining ocean liners were designed not as floating hotels for entertainment but as practical transport vessels built for speed. For travel on smaller vessels, see Cruising on small craft.

Understand

The golden age of transoceanic passenger travel has faded greatly. The few surviving ships from the era of the great ocean liners have mostly been converted to cruising, preserved as museums and/or hotels, or are laid-up. That doesn't mean that travel across the sea by ship is gone too. In truth, modern-day passenger ships are more designed for speed and are much larger and more luxurious than they were decades ago. (The Cunard "Queens" still make traditional fast Atlantic crossings seasonally and receive use as cruise ships at other times. Queen Mary 2, launched in 2004, runs from Southampton to New York City, formerly a well-beaten path for multiple rival trans-Atlantic passenger lines.) Only under extra fees or special cabin types do cruise ships control access to small public areas or restaurants; all passengers can generally use all other public facilities and areas.

The picture of cruise ship travel painted by the circa-1977 TV series "The Love Boat" isn't particularly misleading (except about the inevitable bliss before debarkation and the all-American crew), but it is rather incomplete. Due to economy of scale, most modern cruise ships carry 2,000 to 5,000+ passengers. While the luxury segment of the cruise industry boasts small ships – even "boutique" vessels or "mega-yachts" – most ships form floating towns. Voyages range from a few days to full circumnavigations of the globe lasting three months or more, while fares range from a few hundred dollars to $100,000 or more.

Luxury cruise lines may have ships carrying just 100–800 or so passengers. Larger ships carry 2,000–3,500 passengers, while mega-ships can carry over 5,000. A mega-ship can weigh many times as much as the Titanic. Each size has its merits; for example:

Cruise lines offer widely varying itineraries. Examples range from:

Each cruise is comprised of one or more cruise segments, e.g., a 1–2 week "round-tripper" may be one segment, while visiting two or more regions may sometimes involve 2-3 segments of an around-the-world cruise. That way, cruise lines can sell affordable "pieces" of long cruises that otherwise few can consider. Not infrequently, cruisers will buy two or three back-to-back/sequential segments to build a longer cruise, e.g., 7–10 days from Florida to the Western Caribbean, return, then 7–10 days for the Eastern, or two or more world regions when they are far away.

The price of an economy cruise may be compared to staying at a hotel with small rooms but good facilities, meals, etc. Standard cabins may cost $80-150 per day per person, while the rate for a luxury cruise or expeditionary cruise to polar regions can cost $1,000 per day...yes, per person. As a rule of thumb, if you focus only on economy you may get a somewhat older, less well decorated and equipped ship; you may have to pay for meals (rare); or your cabin may have noise from the ship's engines or other sources. If you pay a bit more for essentially the same cruise but on a higher-quality or newer ship, you should get better amenities, comfort, etc.

Companies

Cruise ships in the port of Key West
See also: Baltic sea ferries, Hurtigruten

Major cruise lines, large vessel

Carnival Corporation is the giant in the ocean cruise industry. It owns Carnival Cruise Lines, Princess Cruises, Holland America, Cunard Line, Costa Cruises and Seabourn Cruises. The other major cruise lines are Royal Caribbean International, which owns Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Cruises, Oceania Cruises and P&O, which caters to the British market, and Norwegian Cruise Lines, which caters primarily to passengers on the United States' east coast with year round sailings from New York City and Miami.

Small ship cruise options

Cruise types

Your experience will be substantially affected by the cruise type you choose.

On a port-intensive itinerary, except for a few sea days:

If you prefer sea days, you can look for:

When you find a voyage that appeals to you, look at "Do" below and the ship's description (on-line or in brochure) to appreciate on-board activities.

There are also various cruises for special interests, e.g., for bridge players (perhaps with a few masters on board), celebrity entertainers, cultural/political science/ history lectures, GLBT lifestyles, etc. There have even been Linux, "geek", big band, rock and roll, and home theater cruises, some of which are annual events. A few cruise sites will help you find them. Their itineraries may focus more on on-board activities than destinations.

Cruise concepts

Ocean cruises

Cruises to Greenland are usually of the "Expedition" type

River cruises

Cruise ship on a tributary to Yangtze

The character of these cruises depend on the cities and regions next to the river. These are common on major rivers such as the Danube, Volga or Nile. Package tours to China many include a multi-day cruise along the Yangtze River including passing through the ship locks of the Three Gorges Dam.

Ships are much smaller than ocean cruisers and the entertainment on board is much more limited

Cruise seasons

Many cruising regions have "high", "low" and "shoulder" seasons. These usually track with the most and least desirable times to visit the region, and times in-between, e.g., Winter for the Fjords, late-Summer/Fall for the Caribbean (tropical storms) are deemed undesirable. Expect to pay premium prices during high-season, substantially less in "low", and perhaps you'll find some bargains in "shoulder", e.g., for "re-positionings".

Under repositioning cruises, many ships transfer among distant regions that have opposite high-seasons, e.g., between the Mediterranean, Baltic or Alaska and the Caribbean, South America, Australia, or New Zealand. The long distances require many sea days, often at attractive per day prices for those who like at sea days. On the downside, you may not see much else than the ocean during the cruise.

Here are some of the most popular cruising regions in the world:

Be prepared that bad weather or ice can change the itinerary of the cruise. Usually the cruise company has planned in alternative destinations if it's impossible to follow the original schedule.

Cruise demographics

While the cruise industry once catered primarily to seniors, the age of passengers has diversified significantly. The average age of Royal Caribbean's passengers is 48, many other lines appeal to 20–40 year-old couples, "party" cruises attract young adults, and Disney and others focus on families with children and teens. Cruising has turned into an enormously popular family vacation due to well-designed children's programs, even special cabin configurations.

Some itineraries and cruise-lines may attract more seniors, e.g., trans-Atlantic and -Pacific re-positioning cruises, Holland–America (it very effectively supports but doesn't just market to seniors). Reasons include cost, cruise length, numbers of days at sea, and dates that conflict with school.

If cruise demographics are important to you, read the cruise description carefully, research web sites on cruising (see "Other resources" below), and work through your travel/cruise agent to learn the probable demographics of any trip you're considering. You'll be glad you did so, or you risk embarking on a ship filled with rowdy young adults or seniors with limited activities.

If handicapped or pregnant

If you have a physical limitation, the cruise line can usually help – especially if notified in-advance. Without sacrificing personal privacy, use your agent (or directly if no agent is involved) to let them know about your needs and when they apply, e.g.

A cruise can place you some distance from proper pre-natal care and birthing facilities, especially advanced medical care, as sickbays are not equipped or staffed to handle labor or premature infants. If you have any complication, or might be well-into your third-trimester during a cruise under consideration, consult your doctor. Then inform the cruise-line, through your agent if used. A note of fitness for travel from him/her can assuage the fears of the line and staff as you go through embarkation processing.

Many cruise lines will in fact not permit you to cruise once you reach a certain point in your pregnancyoften 24 weeks. Failure to check this may mean you'll be denied boarding upon arrival at the pier to embark if you are too far along. Birth at sea also has some interesting but not unsolvable citizenship complications.

Booking a cruise

Queen Mary 2 in Wellington, New Zealand

You can book a cruise through several types of providers, e.g., directly with a cruise line (by phone or on-line), through an on-line travel web site (that may also offer (even bundle) flights, hotels, tours, et al.), through a web site that sells only cruises, and through travel agents or cruise agents that offer their personal advice and services. Most agents charge little for their services unless you have special requests/needs. Beyond on-line sources, ask neighbors who travel, or look near home for an agency. Be selective and you'll often find someone who can help – for complex trips, good advice and travel arrangements can be very useful...even crucial.

Once you've found one or more cruises that suit you, you'll want to know the full costs and terms, including port fees and taxes, options on how to get to and from the port easily and on-time, what the cruise contract calls for, and other details rarely reflected in brochure or web-site prices or pages. Prices shown are per person, for double occupancy in a cabin usually designed for two adults. If you have a group of 3-4 (e.g., family), the per person cost for the third and fourth in the same cabin (designed for 3-4) may be lower. Prices shown will reflect port fees, but not taxes because they vary by your home country (sometimes state/province) and other factors. Taxes will be shown in invoiced quotes of cruise costs specifically for you; if not, the invoice is incomplete, inaccurate...and possibly bogus.

You may be able to extend your cruise economically if cabins are available. Book any extension very-preferably at the same time you book the initial cruise segment...at least well before cruise start. You can ask about an extension just before or after embarkation, but you'll have little hope in high season when cruises are quite full, and virtually no hope of occupying the same cabin.

If you wish to cruise alone (e.g., in a double-occupancy cabin), you will often face a "single supplement" charge...often equal to the cost of a second person. Expect to be quoted "double" because cruise lines dislike single cruise guests in cabins (even if they pay the double price for the cabin); the ship can't earn other revenues from you in the restaurants, bars, and shops on board, as well as for other services. If cruising alone remains crucial to you, you should allow an informed cruise/travel agent to help you choose it and a cabin.

To better understand cost details, how they work and the meaning of basic cruise contracts, at least look for and digest related articles in travel/cruise web sites before you decide to book; e.g., see USA today. Many of their terms are based on international maritime law and the laws of the country where the ship is registered, rarely those of a traveler's home country. And they will favor the cruise line...another reason why quality travel insurance becomes important.

Unless you have considerable experience with choosing and booking a cruise, consider using an agent. He/she should help you considerably to understand the contract, all fixed costs, all options available and their costs and import. Before you buy any cruise or package, he/she should provide a full invoice reflecting all costs and the basic cruise contract, and will explain non-cruise arrangements needed (e.g., see "Getting to port") for your careful examination. This allows you to question details and request changes.

If you still wish to book on your own (e.g., on line or by phone with the cruise line), as you approach the "buy point", you should be offered a quoted full price (including all taxes and fees) based on all the parameters you've chosen, and the cruise contract. If buying on-line, examine (and print) the invoice and contract to examine them. Once you concur with the terms, use the same parameters to return to the offer and complete your booking. (More than a few days "examination" may result in some changes to costs, so be prompt.) Once you book a cabin, you become wholly-responsible for the many details surrounding the cruise (many explained later). You'll have to wisely arrange them on your own. All must complement each other, e.g., per "Flying to/from port" discussed below.

Travel insurance

For a more in-depth discussion, see Travel insurance

If your trip starts to gain complexity or substantial cost as you plan it, or you are a first-time cruiser, you should consider travel insurance. Other reasons include if you intend to go on "adventure tours" (e.g., para-gliding with risk of injury), have any medical condition that could flare up and require treatment or evacuation, will be a great distance from home, there's possibility that a provider of essential trip services might go bankrupt, or if you've been forced to accept tight airline connections.

To be eligible for all available coverage, you usually must buy it shortly after you have booked your trip, e.g., right after you make a deposit. Its cost will basically be determined by your total trip cost (except optional costs and obligations which can be cancelled at no cost or with partial or full refund), the age of travelers to be covered, levels of coverage, and options for coverage requested for certain problems, e.g., treatment for sickness or injury (on and off the ship), or medical evacuation. Good insurance will cover pre-existing medical conditions if purchased promptly after booking your trip...often not if bought later.

You may also obtain better insurance rates and/or coverage by buying coverage through or from an association you belong to, e.g., AAA, AA, AARP.

Travel experts recommend against "insurance" from airlines or cruise lines.

Other resources

Several web-sites provide objective information about various cruise lines, ships, cruising regions and ports, and how to choose, prepare for and go on a cruise. Many offer professional reviews, some offer passenger reviews. But because they often sell cruises through third parties, they cannot be listed here. To find them, use a good search engine, with "cruise" and "advice" or "review" as keywords among your search parameters.

Those sites and travel magazines discuss other valuable topics, e.g., "wave season" (when to book, not when to go) versus other times, understanding what's included (and not) in prices shown, industry trends that may cause prices to go down. A good travel/cruise agent will have those and other insights. Knowing exactly when and how to best book a cruise receives nearly constant attention in travel articles, and approaches being an art.

Cabins

Cabin on the Wilderness Discoverer

Your accommodations can range widely...usually determined by cost. Most cruise lines promote their ships as luxurious, and cabin (aka stateroom) furnishings can range from quite "nice" to "utterly elegant". The less expensive tend to be quite a bit smaller than ordinary hotel rooms—space you may only use for a few hours each day to sleep anyway. But every square inch is usable, e.g., luggage fits under the bed to allow you to unpack many/all items and hang them in closets or store on shelves/in drawers for easy access.

Cabin grades and categories

On large ships, you'll find a number of cabin grades or categories within each cabin type. They involve location, size, quality of view, features, etc. Good travel/cruise agents have access to the nuances of features and shortfalls for each. Cabin costs will vary not only by type but by those gradations/categories. For any cabin type, costs reflected in brochures and on web sites usually apply to the lowest grade.

Cabin types

The basic types include:

Perhaps oddly, suites and the least expensive cabins tend to sell out first.

Some cabins and all hallways have handrails for safety during occasional rough weather which are not often needed. Cabins designed for the disabled will be designed with many handrails and flat thresholds to aid accessibility and safety. On ships built in the late 1990s or later, few passengers will be:

Features

Cabin location

Location can affect price somewhat because parts of a ship are more desirable for some passengers, e.g.,:

Other

Cabin water is fully potable, usually obtained by reverse-osmosis, so efficient that some large ships visiting ports with water shortages may offload potable water. (It does not substantially soften the water.) Older ships may use distillation supplemented by fresh water on-loads. All ships carefully treat the water to ensure its safety. Taste in cabins may be somewhat bland or have a hint of chemicals. Elsewhere, water often receives additional filtration to assure excellent taste for use in bars, dining rooms, kitchens, and buffet self-serve drink dispensers.

As you get interested in any cruise, ship or cabin type, go to the cruise line's web site and others for more details. Again, a good travel/cruise agent can help you find the features you need or want.

Key ships officers

Bridge on the Norwegian Jade

The ship and your cruise depend on them. Just a few of them include:

Get in

The best-known destinations for cruise ships are tropical ports in the Caribbean or the Mexican Riviera, the Mediterranean and Northern Europe, but cruises can be found almost anywhere there's enough water to float a ship and cities or sites to visit. Cruise ships of various sizes visit the coasts of Alaska, the Nordic countries, South-East Asia, East Asia, southern Europe, Australia and New Zealand, Oceania and New England; and various islands of the Pacific Ocean. Even the North Pole and Antarctica are now destinations, though the latter has emerging ecological questions.

In addition, specially designed river boats and barges ply navigable rivers and lakes of Europe, China, Brazil, Egypt, North America and numerous other places. However, as noted above, this article focuses on ocean cruising and ships.

What to pack

For more discussion, see Packing for a cruise

This can vary substantially according to the region you'll cruise, e.g., clothing for cool/cold areas versus warm, conservative colors for Europe, items to cover arms and legs as you enter many religious buildings worldwide.

If you'll fly to/from a cruise port, see Fundamentals of flying for other advice and suggestions. Many experienced cruisers find certain items necessities, e.g.,:

Essential papers

Cruise ship leaving Miami

Any authority looking at airline tickets, boarding passes and passports will examine names carefully. TSA and other security authorities often require that key papers (e.g., airline tickets, passports, visas, ship boarding passes) precisely reflect your full name. This applies to all persons in your travel group, e.g., spouse, children (toddlers perhaps excepted). It starts by making sure that whoever books your cruise (and any associated airline tickets) accurately enters each full name on reservations and later-generated tickets.

Passports and visas

Unless your ship's itinerary is confined to your home country (not often), you must prepare for a cruise as you would for any other international trip, to include passports, perhaps visas. Many countries to be visited may levy few or no visa requirements on day-visitors via cruise ship. But, check with the cruise line (through your agent if used) well ahead of time. Some lines will arrange needed visas for scheduled port visits, but also check specifically for visa requirements if you have an international flight itinerary.

Very occasionally, port officials in certain countries will require review of all passenger passports before clearing the ship for passengers to go ashore. If so, they may join the ship a few days in-advance, and the ship will announce a day or so before the port visit that the staff must gather all passports for inspection or passengers will be processed in-person.

Before you leave home, make machine or photo color copies of at least the primary, facing pages of each passport per details in the above linked article. Use the passports when instructed by authorities, e.g., going through airport, airline or customs and immigration processing, or processing for initial ship's embarkation. Take the originals with you ashore on the rare occasion needed per ship's daily news or announcements. Otherwise, once on board, leave them in your cabin's safe and take the copies ashore (with government-issued photo identification) instead.

On your request, the United States can issue special passport cards for possible use at land borders and on cruise ships. However, in the event something comes up and you need to fly home from an international port of call, they are not accepted for international air travel.

Boarding passes and tickets

Once booked and paid, you need to promptly go to your cruise line's web site to "register". Immigration authorities require that any ship leaving their jurisdiction have personal data of all passengers well in-advance of cruise embarkation. And your agent or the line may need to mail documents to you reflecting that registration data. On the cruise line's web site, using your booking number, complete all details about all people in your travel group for whom you are responsible. If to informally travel with others, ensure they understand this. Data needed will include full names, addresses, phone numbers, social security numbers (or the equivalent for other countries), passport details, emergency contact names and phone numbers, how you want your shipboard account established/paid (an indicator, not a final commitment.) (see "Embarkation" and "Buy" below).

Once registered, within 60 days or so of cruise start, the line's web site will often allow you to print your boarding passes (see "Embarkation"). Others may mail them (and other information) to you as noted above. You may get one set of papers listing all persons in your group, or a set for each person. Web site or mail, you should also have the cruise contract and boarding instructions and times. If you've paid the line for flights or airport-to-port transfers, you should also find vouchers or flight tickets (or Internet links to them for printing at home). If you don't have these key papers in-hand in usable form at least three weeks before your cruise, notify your agent/cruise line immediately.

Per "Embarkation", each person will need his/her boarding pass and passport to be processed on board.

Cruise-line luggage tags

Tags showing your name, cruise ship, cruise date/identity/number and cabin number are essential to ensure your large luggage reaches your cabin.

Other essential papers

If travel is international, take no more prescription medications than you'll need on your trip—with convincing documentation that they belong to you and are necessary, e.g., properly labeled bottles with your name, perhaps a copy of the doctor's prescription. Leave them in and pack their prescribed bottles; otherwise, they lose their link to the prescriptions and may be summarily confiscated as you enter or transit some countries.

Avoid paying duty on valuable items you take with you. You'll be exasperated as you return home if customs officials charge you duty for jewelry, a late model camera or electronics you took with you. See Proof of What You Already Own

If you have purchased travel insurance, take at least a summary of the policy coverage and how to contact the insurer for help from wherever you will go on the trip.

Flying to/from port

Hurtigruten takes you along Norway's coast

Cruise ships sail from an increasing number of port cities. Most people must fly to get to them. If that applies to you, you have options. They include arranging your own flights (discussed later), choosing a cruise line fly/cruise package, choosing a cruise extension, or making a flight deviation request to suit your needs/desires to/from the cruise.

For all those options, if you miss your ship's departure (actually from any port), you are responsible for joining it at its next port of call or getting home on your own. (That can be very expensive unless covered by travel insurance and you acted diligently to not miss the ship.) Some sources imply that ships will delay departure for flights their line has arranged that arrive late. More accurately, they may delay, but only if it doesn't compromise the ship's ability to reach the next port on-schedule. Accordingly:

A fly/cruise package means the line makes all arrangements for you to fly to, go on and return from the cruise. This offers convenience and confidence for first-time cruisers or those going to/from unfamiliar ports. Those packages include air travel (economy, from/to select gateway airports), land transfers to/from ship, and may include lodging. Lines reserve seats well in-advance, anticipating demand by those liking the option (and for other uses). Those packages have trade-offs:

Most lines also offer cruise extensions. You can opt to spend 2-3 (perhaps more) nights at/near a port area/city immediately before and/or after your cruise. Extensions can be somewhat to decidedly pricey, are integrated into your overall trip, with flight arrangements, quality lodging and transfers usually included. Meals may not be included. They may include one or more tours. The line should not demand any flight deviation fee (see below). Cruise brochures, your travel agent and the cruise-line's website will variously describe extensions available. If travel involves flying overseas, and if you can, choose the number of days of the extension with intent to use at least some of the first day at the port destination to rest, with the remainder for exploring.

Flight deviation requests. A "deviation" is used to arrange flight dates for early arrival at the cruise port city/area, en route stay-overs, specific flight dates/times, aircraft cabin class, airlines or specific flight numbers that suit your preferences. The request must be based on what's actually possible, so your prior research is essential...or your request may be fruitless. For a fee (e.g., $75–150+ per person), the cruise line will process (not book) your request for special flight arrangements. This request should preferably be placed through any agent that booked your cruise. You should formulate and submit it long before cruise start, and ensure it's understood by any agent used.

If your agent already knows of your needs/preferences, he/she may be able to negotiate minor changes to flight choices by the line with no deviation request needed or fee involved. If that fails, you may need/want a deviation. The line usually begins work to satisfy your deviation request after it has chosen/proposed initial flight arrangements, e.g., in a fly/cruise package. This may be a short time after you make full payment for the package.

Booking your own: If you're a seasoned traveler or have a good travel agent, you/your agent may do better by booking your own flights and lodging. This can mean better economy and/or flight dates/times/routes/seating and/or hotel(s) you prefer. However, if your cruise starts at one distant port and ends at a different one, look at both self/agent-arranged flights and cruise-line fly/cruise packages.

If you arrange anything on your own, keep any affected agent informed of your intent, efforts and results. Regardless of how you've gotten airline tickets, once you're booked, check frequent-flier miles you may have and if they apply. If you have enough, and "your airline" or "alliance" gets chosen to transport you, you may be able to use your "miles"/points for seating upgrades. Contact the airline directly.

Regardless of how arranged, ensure you have completely adequate scheduled connection times to make flight check-ins and flight connections en route to reach the start of your cruise...and for return flights. Include extra time for unpredictable delays. Consider everything that might make you late, e.g., flight schedules, "tricky" connections, seasonal weather anywhere on your route, distance/time between the cruise port(s) and airport(s), ground transport dependability/availability, how far in advance you need to check-in for flights. If you don't have fully-adequate time, choose other arrangements.

Such complexity, risk and cost point to the usefulness of a travel or cruise agent and importance of quality trip insurance.

Home to port by land

In contrast to flying, you might drive to your port city if practical without great effort and if the costs are right. With an adequate vehicle, you can take and bring home much more than allowed by air...quite useful for serious shoppers with family souvenirs, etc. Optionally, it allows you to visit the port area one or more days before or after the cruise. If it looks tempting, examine and compare:

If you can obtain quality, convenient bus or train service (as in Europe), you might obtain similar benefits, with simplicity and savings possible over a car. Examine the carrier's costs, reputation for punctuality, schedules, locations of terminals, transfers needed and any parking costs near home, and plan your departures accordingly.

Embarkation

Elevator on the Carnival Fantasy

This all starts as you reach your ship's terminal. The walking distance from ground transport to on-board ship can vary from 100–300 meters or more depending on terminal design and ship size. If anyone in your party has mobility challenges, request help in-advance.

If you'll board a large ship, examine the cruise line's instructions on when to arrive. Consider that:

So if you have a choice, consider reaching the terminal 30 minutes or so after the time mentioned by the cruise line. In any event, reach the cruise terminal at least two hours before the ship is scheduled to sail. As above, if your agent or cruise line has arranged a flight that could cause you to reach the port later, seriously question its wisdom well in-advance. If you're traveling in a group (e.g., family), don't begin embarkation processing without all members present.

At the cruise terminal, give your large baggage (virtually no limit on numbers, but don't pack that much), with cruise tags attached, to porters for mandatory, separate security screening, then loading on the ship. They deserve a modest tip. As above, if you have no tags to attach, the porters will help you to fill-in blank tags using details on your boarding pass.

You won't see those large bags until they arrive at your cabin door. Delivery may take 2–3 hours, perhaps more. If you've paid the cruise line for airport-to-terminal transfers, and you have no intermediate customs processing at the airport, you may not see your checked luggage after initial airport check-in until it reaches the terminal, perhaps even at your cabin. But learn the full process and understand your responsibilities.

As you start in-processing at the ship's terminal, officials will examine your boarding passes and passports. Then:

Once on board, a lounge or the buffet and casual food counters await, usually on upper decks. You'll often be instructed not to go to your cabin until their readiness is announced (your cabin steward is completely cleaning and sanitizing it, and changing all linens and towels in your cabin and many others). So, after food if any, it's a good time to walk about the ship to get oriented.

Before sailing, there will be a safety at sea briefing that everyone must attend. Cruise lines and captains take this maritime law requirement seriously. You'll find instructions in your cabin, and papers and announcements will tell where and when to go. It includes learning the location of your emergency "muster station", ways to get there, emergency signals and procedures, and how to wear your life vest. You may or may not need to take or don your life-vest—stored in your cabin. All ship's services will be closed during this time. If anyone in your group has mobility problems, this is a good time to tell the staff for your muster station so they can prearrange special help for emergencies. Truants will be called to a separate, later briefing at staff's convenience. Continuing truancy can result in being ordered to disembark at the next port.

If time permits after the briefing and before sailing, go top-side for departure. It's always interesting, often scenic (take your camera if light will be adequate), with a bon voyage party likely.

Get around

One of the long corridors on the Mariner of the Seas

The key advantage of a cruise ship is that it does most of the "getting around" for you. See "Understand" (above) and the following sections for details about ships and port visits. Basically, you unpack once, then visit the ports on your ship's itinerary and only repack at the end of the cruise. Careful consideration of the cruise itinerary and daily bulletins will eliminate confusion about where you are, what's happening, and where you'll go next.

As you explore the ship, you'll note that instead of numbers, decks may have fanciful names. You may find yourself referring frequently to the small pocket-map in your cabin and diagrams in elevators and stairwells to figure out where you are and whether the Lido Deck is above or below the Promenade Deck. The biggest ships can have 15 or more decks (counting bars and whatnot perched above the pools), making even the most conscientious stair-climbers resort to elevators from time to time. Thankfully, elevators will have an outside and inside list of facilities for each deck. But they often do not tell you if any is aft or forward, so again you'll need to look at the pocket-map.

Only rarely does a ship fail to visit a scheduled port. This most often stems from adverse weather, rarely by equipment failure or accident. If weather threatens, the captain will avoid the effects of the weather as much as possible, and will make announcements explaining what is happening and if alternate ports will be visited.

See

Cruising southeastern Alaska's Inside Passage

Some ships have been outfitted with millions of dollars worth of art and elaborate interior decor, but generally after a few days there isn't that much to see on most cruise ships. The real sights are ashore. Some ships travel to geographically interesting areas such as Alaska or Scandinavia where they make efforts to view shorelines up-close, e.g., Fjords and glaciers. Generally speaking, the smaller the ship, the better proximity to scenery you can expect, because they won't need to stick to deep and open water. On large ships, other scenery may be too far off to really enjoy its details, though binoculars help. Depending on the region and season, you may spot whales, dolphins, or flying fish swimming nearby or even following alongside.

Lacking those benefits, the real sightseeing opportunities come as you approach and reach port, and as you take shore outings discussed below.

Do

As you plan each day's activities, everything on-board will be based on ship's time. Depending on its itinerary, the ship will usually change its time to agree with any time zone it has entered. This assures that you can take advantage of all activities and tours, on-board and ashore, with confidence about time. Your cabin phone will follow that change, so feel free to use its wake-up call capability to ensure you miss no event.

Aboard

The swimming pool area and pool bar aboard MS Independence of the Seas

Large ships will have most or all of the features discussed below—mega-ships even more. Smaller ships (e.g., 600-1200 passenger capacity) will have many of them, but in fewer numbers or smaller scale.

You'll be surrounded by water you can't swim in (it's passing by at 15-20 knots or so), but all but the smallest ships will have at least one "swimming pool" (perhaps covered, otherwise usable only in warm climes) and deck chairs. The pools won't be great for swimming laps, but some new ships are being equipped with small, swim-against-the-current pools. Most are filled with processed seawater. Parents of infants and small children (or staff on some ships. e.g., Disney) must ensure that their little ones create no safety or sanitary problem for anyone.

Without the legal restrictions imposed on land-based facilities, most cruise ships have a casino (not Disney). Expect more emphasis on gaming on ships catering to Americans than for Europeans. Don't expect table games or machines with payoff rates even close to those found in better land-based casinos; concessionaires must pay dearly for the space. It will be open for gaming only while at sea. If you do win a substantial amount of money, ask to have your earnings given to you in the form of a check. Otherwise, you may have to carry and protect cash. (You could have the prize converted to shipboard credits, but on many ships they are not refundable at cruise end, and must be used on board or you lose them. Wisely using a very large number of credits by cruise end may be no small feat.)

On larger ships, Las Vegas and Broadway are the models for entertainment. They'll variously feature singing-and-dancing shows, feature singers, comedians, magicians, jugglers and other live entertainment. On large ships, they'll be presented in a large theater; on small ships, they'll use a lounge with stage. Shows typically follow dinner, but may precede it for those who opt for "late" dinner seating. During and after shows, other venues offer small bands, piano bars, and dancing to live music or a disc jockey. Special cruises focused on certain types of music or performers/bands will use many of the same venues.

For culturally- or geographically-important destinations or special events, ships will often offer knowledgeable lecturers. Some ships provide on-board chaplains to conduct religious observances, although this is becoming less common outside peak times, e.g., Christmas, Easter. To bolster this at other times, they may welcome credentialed passengers (with necessary accouterments) as volunteers to conduct services.

Theatre in MS Eurodam

A movie theater is found on most ships, playing movies similar to those found on airlines. There is usually a library on board for your reading pleasure but don't expect the latest novels unless left behind from an earlier cruise. If cabins have DVD players, the library may have a modest collection of titles. It may also offer electronic or board games to check out. Quite commonly, you'll find an Internet café (discussed later) offering several computers with a networked printer. Topside you should find someone issuing equipment for basketball, table tennis, shuffle-board and other uses.

The ship will often offer space and seating to support impromptu or organized bridge, even tournaments. And staff very often have trivia and other contests. And on most sea days, you'll see at least one large Bingo session offered.

Shopping is readily available, with shops on board. (See "Buy" below.) They'll be duty free but don't expect big bargains. They too will be open only while at sea.

Weddings at sea are possible on some ships, such as the Bermuda-registered Princess line, but require advanced requests and planning to be feasible.

You'll receive a daily newsletter with a schedule of activities, apt to mention art auctions (reportedly the "most dangerous place on a ship"), bingo, kitchen tours, port and shopping lectures, cruise enhancement lectures (by naturalists, historians, political scientists, et al), arts and crafts lessons, poolside contests, dancing classes, etc. Family-oriented cruises (especially Disney) will have many age-specific activities and staff, geared for kids and teens.

Most ships have a gym or health center with exercise machines. They often offer instruction programs in exercise regimes or Tai Chi, etc., at modest cost, which may need to be booked beforehand. Many people use the "promenade" deck or topside track for walking/jogging. The former usually loops around the ship on a mid-deck &ndash, but may have stairs that interrupt you. If so, a topside track might be better if available (often the sun deck is available for joggers at a certain time, usually in the morning). Some ships find room for putting greens, golf simulator, a basketball or tennis court (enclosed by ball-catching nets) topside. Some very-large ships have ice rinks, rock climbing walls, "surf parks" and other activities.

Spa facilities are a staple of cruise ships. Everything from massages to hairdressing to exotic health and beauty treatments are available at substantial extra cost.

Some European based ships may have a deck for naturist sunbathing, this is the uppermost deck in order to prevent other people from looking. However, as the uppermost deck usually has the best views, it happens that people get up on this deck with their camera. This is of course prohibited.

Taking photos

Ashore

A lifeboat from the "Pride of America", being used as a tender in Hawaii.

You must use your cabin key card every time you leave and re-board the ship. It's how they determine if you're aboard and how ship's security staff recognize you. Otherwise, they might leave you behind.

Research in-advance each place you'll visit. That can greatly enhance your cruise experience at little or no cost. Many ports and nearby sights are covered by Wikivoyage destination pages, travel web sites and books.

The ship will usually dock at a pier. If none is available, it will anchor or moor off-shore, and ship's lifeboats or commercial boats will tender you to a convenient place on-shore. Your detailed itinerary will indicate how your ship will visit each port.

The port of Saint John's on Antigua. When you compare the size of the cruising ships with its thousands of passengers to the size of the town, it's easy to understand how important cruise tourism is for some island nations

Port visit times usually allow passengers to go ashore by 7-8 AM, with ship departure often at 5-6 PM. Earlier or later departure times can be affected by tides, distance to next port or special tour needs ashore; disembarkation may be delayed slightly by port customs clearance of the ship or passengers. At special stops, some ships may stay later, perhaps overnight or multiple nights.

The shore excursions office will offer a variety of sightseeing tours, cultural visits and organized activities (e.g., scuba, snorkeling, kayaking, bicycling)— offerings dictated by the nature of each port, its climate, time of year and time in port.

Ship's tours often cost more than equivalent tours negotiated independently with locals, e.g., you may hire a taxi or van with driver/guide at $40–50 per hour for 4-6 people. In contrast, a half-day ship's tour can range from $50–100 per person, with whole-days $125–300+. But for that extra cost, ship's tours provide:

Very popular ship's shore excursions may fill-up many days before before you set sail (they're purchasable on-line). You may be wise to research them and commit to some or make advanced, self-arranged alternatives, as justified, e.g., if:

Availability of tours heavily depends on location/tour popularity. For instance there are several operators and dozens of buses taking travelers from Cancún to Chichén Itzá. You won't see this on small, and less-visited Caribbean islands. With several cruise ships in port, tours anywhere may be sold out.

At some ports, ships must dock among commercial freight operations. Walking from/to the ship may be through unpredictably dangerous activity, even forbidden by the port authority. Look at the ship's newsletter for port conditions and listen for Cruise Director or port adviser announcements. At such docks, most ships will arrange a shuttle from the ship, to a terminal with taxis/buses, even to a shopping area or downtown. If so, look for details about a return shuttle. Lacking a shuttle, you should request transport that avoids the danger, and perhaps question the Cruise Director in-advance about safety issues.

The UV content of the sun can be very high on any tour, especially on or near water at any latitude during summer. Protect yourself. See "Stay healthy" below.

Buy

Money

Inform yourself about any possible additional expenses onboard before your trip – what's included in the price and what's not. Try on-line queries for "cruise" and "advice".

Cabin key. For both convenience and to foster a casual-spending atmosphere, most cruise ships run a "cashless" system in which you use your cabin key (card) to charge all on-ship expenses, sometimes except for gambling. Two or more cabin keys/cards can reference one credit card or cash account (cash deposit given in-advance), e.g., for couples and families. At the end of each cruise segment, the ship will use your credit card or cash deposit to settle the final balance of your account.

Better-equipped ships may offer one or more ATMs. They are usually to make gambling more convenient. Consequently, they usually offer only the currency used by the casino. And their fees tend to be quite high compared to banks ashore. If you require "foreign" currency for a shore excursion, the "Excursion" staff may have advice about where to get it.

Account Balance Management

You'll be instructed to commit cash or a credit/debit card account to pay your ship's account balance. Charges to your account can include costs of drinks, tours, dining in specialty restaurants, merchandise purchases, spa services, etc. For many reasons, your account may receive credits, e.g., if paid tours must be canceled, or perhaps granted in-advance to frequent cruisers. Take care that you use all credits granted. None will be "refunded" as cash or charge account credit at cruise end...with the possible exception of tour cancellations by action of the ship's staff.

Tipping

Tips on-board take two forms—the surcharges for special drinks, specialty restaurants and some services (discussed below), and (ultimately optional) tips for the ship's staff (not officers) usually levied at the end of the cruise.

Learn the cruise line's recommendations for tipping the ship's staff. They suggest "appropriate" optional amounts—a crucial part of staff income. Amounts recommended may vary somewhat by your class of cabin.

Some cruise lines or cruises have a "no-tipping" policy, often aimed at the European or other markets where tipping is culturally alien and may frighten customers away if charged. In reality, gratuities are built into the price of those cruises, on which passengers also pay taxes.

Shopping on-board

Grand Lobby on the Queen Mary 2

Cruise ships take advantage of their international/at-sea status to offer duty free shopping (e.g., for liquor, jewelry (costume and precious), cosmetics, perfumes) at decent if not outstanding prices. Large ships usually have boutiques selling logo clothing/souvenirs, perhaps offering casual and evening wear (a few even include tux rentals). Other shops offer basic sundries, candy and over-the-counter drugs. Shops will only be open while the ship is at sea.

Caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) is good advice anywhere, and applies on-board. Cruise passengers are a "captive market".

For cruises in Europe: The European Union (EU) has begun levying its VAT on all shipboard sales and services (including service fees) on any ship cruise segment that departs and ends in the EU without visiting a port outside the EU (or the EU VAT area). Because this can materially degrade on-board sales, lines are (re)designing many European segments to visit "outside" ports, e.g., Gibraltar.

Shopping ashore

Shopping remains a highly popular activity, with most ports offering at least handicrafts and souvenirs reflecting the destination. Others offer wide ranges of merchandise, to include clothing, electronics, jewelry and consumables. A crude rule of thumb for "local" souvenirs: the farther you venture from the dock area, the lower the prices may be for given types of items. If there is a chance that you'll use your credit, debit or ATM card:

Cruises to certain destinations may stop at ports offering "serious shopping"...duty-free and/or highly competitive, e.g., Saint Martin and Saint Thomas in the Caribbean, and (perhaps except for "designer stores") Hong Kong and Singapore if you bargain successfully. For example discussion of duty-free shopping and customs obligations, see Saint Thomas#Buy. If inclined to seriously shop somewhere not familiar to you, on-line research should help you understand what to expect, e.g., stores, tax/duty, and what to watch out for.

The ship may have a port shopping adviser who can provide useful information and may recommend (even tout) certain merchants and brands/items. Those advisers are often employed by merchandising firms that receive large fees (even commissions) from merchants and brands they recommend. This does not guarantee (or impugn) the reputation of any merchant or brand, nor should it question the worthiness of competitors — though the "adviser" may mention a special guaranty for touted merchants. Their fees may well increase the final prices that "recommended merchants" demand. In desirable shopping locales, most merchants are quite responsible.

At other locations, take care with merchants, product claims, warranties, fixed, labeled and negotiable prices, and final costs beyond agreed prices, e.g., hidden duty or tax. Though eligible for tax/duty refunds, you may be able to obtain them only at certain places as you leave the jurisdiction, e.g., airports, and only for each purchase that exceeds a substantial amount. At the "last" port for such a jurisdiction, the port may have no "standing", nor an office offering to provide or process refunds. Getting refunds by mail after you are home can be problematic.

Such challenges cause serious shoppers to seek out cruises to truly duty/tax-free and highly-competitive locales. Wherever you plan to shop, some research should help you understand each port and its merchants, what you may see, and what it costs elsewhere.

See also Shopping and Bargaining.

Eat

Restaurant on the Norwegian Dawn

Most lines heavily invest in food quality and quantity...and they brag about it. Rarely are meals not included in the price of a typical cruise...with the occasional exception of specialty restaurants and room service.

Included offerings include poolside snack bars where you can order a burger, "dog", shake, pizza or something, and walk off without paying. It's not "free", of course; you paid for it when you bought your ticket. On virtually all cruise ships, you'll also find a buffet...usually on one of the upper decks...available during all meal times and usually offering something from early morning to late evening. On better ships, buffets can seem almost like pure extravagance. Room service is usually available at all times, except after a certain late time the night prior to disembarkation on most cruise lines. Sometimes, you may have to pay a gratuity or late-night surcharge for it.

At normal meal times, you'll find seated dining with full waiter service, usually with a multi-course menu featuring variably fancy dishes. (Damp swimwear can damage dining room chairs; don't wear it there, even under a wrap or cover, even if quite dry; you may alarm the dining room staff.) At least one dining room will offer seated breakfast and lunch (you'll rarely have a pre-assigned table). It will be open for 2–3 hours around the usual time for any meal. For breakfast, the menu may not change much each day. For lunch and dinner, the menu will change every day, e.g., for dinner usually having a section for items always available, and one for the evening's "specials".

Traditional evening dining service is at pre-set times...usually early/main and late sittings. If you choose or prefer a time and table size (best when you book your cruise), you'll be seated at the same table at that time every evening.

Table size can vary from 2 to 8-10 people, occasionally more. Round tables for 6-8 seem conducive to easy conversation among all. Unless you/your group fully occupies a table, you'll meet other guests as table mates...usually an interesting time, with repartee beyond what's possible with a new set of strangers at "open sitting" (see below). It also helps your waiters learn and anticipate important needs and preferences, e.g., kosher, vegetarian, food allergies, drink preferences and timing.

The restaurant of a smaller river cruise ship

To assure well-timed service, reach your table within 30 minutes of when the dining room opens for your sitting. Large kitchens must serve several hundred (perhaps thousands of) passengers at each sitting, one course at a time, with expectations of freshness and proper temperatures.

In recent years, to respond to some guests' dislike for scheduled dining, cruise lines have introduced freestyle, choice or open seating dining. They allow dining at any time during dinner hours. This may be offered in separate dining rooms, but menus will be the same as for scheduled sittings. As you enter, you may have to wait for a table, just as you would without reservations for restaurants at home. If it's especially busy, you have just a few in your party, and are willing, tell the Maitre de that you "will share". It greatly helps him/her efficiently use tables/seating, so may speed getting you seated.

Most ships also offer specialty restaurants, often with international themes...usually by reservation only. (If you have no reservation, you can try "will share", but don't rely on it; most diners who've made reservations there don't expect to share.) Some of them have surcharges (e.g., $20–30+ per person) for exceptional service and dishes...most well-deserved. If you normally dine at a fixed sitting but plan to use a specialty restaurant any evening, tell your regular waiter the evening before.

Recommended dinner dress in dining rooms varies somewhat across cruise lines. For details, each cruise-line explains its expected dress code on its web-site, and you should find details on web sites for cruising.

You'll embarrass yourself, your table mates, your waiter and others if you go to your dining room for dinner wearing jeans, shorts, a tank-top, or similar casual/pool-wear. You may also be denied seating.

If you have no interest in "seated dining" on formal nights (or any evening), you can use the buffet for dinner instead. Food offerings will be somewhat similar to that in dining rooms that night, but often lacking items that require complex service. Dress here includes covered pool wear. The buffet indirectly offers another benefit: if you must fly to/from port, and may too-easily exceed your luggage limits (e.g., must pack for small children or seniors and yourself), consider leaving semi- and formal-wear (and related shoes/accessories) at home. You can reduce packing space and weight otherwise needed by perhaps 20-25 percent.

Drink

Bar on MS Eurodam

Typical staples such as coffee, tea/iced tea, lemonade, and juices (at breakfast) are available at no charge. Other drinks are usually not included in the cruise price, even if the cruise's promotional brochure says or implies "all-inclusive".

Many cruise lines offer drink packages for unlimited soft drink refills, some for specialty coffees, wine, even a few for mixed drinks. Many include the service fee. But, understand the terms clearly before committing to any. Examples:

Not counting the service fee, some mixed drinks may be cheaper than you might find at better watering holes ashore, but don't count on it. However, you'll usually find drink specials mentioned in the ship's daily newsletter.

These costs prompt some people to try to bring their own. But most lines forbid bringing liquor on board, and any found (at embarkation or as you board from later port visits) will be "held for you", and returned on the last full day of the cruise in the same packaging as received. A few lines confiscate contraband liquor. Some lines will allow you to initially bring 1-2 bottles of wine per cabin, and most will allow you to bring your own soft drinks. For details, consult the cruise line web site.

Some ships are primarily party vessels, full of young adults taking advantage of bargain "duty free" drinks and (perhaps) lower drinking ages in international waters. You may identify them by their extremely uneventful itineraries: straight out to sea, stay there for much of the trip, then back to port. Their advertising is usually also not particularly subtle. If you want one, you'll recognize the signs; if you want to avoid one, likewise.

Mainstream cruise lines avoid unbridled drinking by:

Sleep

Twin Cabin on P&O MV Azura

Let your travel agent or cruise line know your cabin needs in advance to ensure your cabin assignment and preparation meets them.

Shortly after arriving at your cabin, introduce yourself to your cabin steward as he/she stops by, and discuss any preferences or needs for service not already met, e.g., ice at certain times, softer or firmer pillows, emptying the refrigerator of unwanted items. They will often have an assistant, and will both work as a team. If you brought sanitizing wipes or solution, you might sanitize key surfaces like the lavatory counters, telephone handset, TV remote and desktop...the latter often missed in cabin preparation.

For families, in addition to the bedding noted earlier, some cabins will have a pull-down bunk-bed (not appropriate for small children due to safety, or full-sized adults due to height and weight) and/or a pull-out sleeper-settee or sleeper-sofa. If you've booked as a family, your steward will "unlock" any "pull-down", for your use whenever desired. It will be made-up each morning and prepared for use each evening.

If there are more than 2 adults, your cabin steward will prepare the second bed or sleeper-sofa each morning and evening. For 3-4 adults, ensure your agent or the cruise line chooses a cabin with at least some visual privacy for sleepers. Suites usually have such privacy, and often more options. The cabin steward (or butler) will be ready to explain use of all and prepare them as needed.

If your cabin is not as described, desired or needed on arrival, resolve it through your cabin steward before you retire the first night.

Stay safe

Lifeboat on the Queen Mary II

Because of the numerous advancements in modern shipbuilding and other technology, cruise travel is generally very safe. The crew of your ship are trained to calmly and efficiently handle emergencies that may arise. Occasionally, non-trivial problems may be discovered and addressed while going completely unnoticed by passengers.

Unlike the ocean liners of yore, cruise ships are not built for great speed or unusual maneuvers. Whenever feasible, they avoid bad weather even if this means delays...in deference to security and passenger comfort.

The press often recounts public incidents/accidents — a few deservedly, that may induce unnecessary cruise-customer concern.

Aboard

In the event of a life-threatening emergency, instructions will be given on where to report (not necessarily your lifeboat or muster station designated in the pre-departure Safety at Sea muster) and what to bring with you (e.g., adequate clothing, crucial medications, your life vest and cruise ID card). You'll also learn what to do if you're distant from your cabin. Remain as orderly as you can and do not panic as you muster or are evacuated; acting out of place will only make matters more complicated and increase chances of injury...to yourself or others.

Be aware of your surroundings at all times, especially at night. Don't worry about going about on your own, e.g., be vigilant around bars where late-night, intoxicated passengers are a possibility. Keep an eye on your belongings and don't flaunt nor take them with you everywhere; leaving your iPod on a pool chair unattended while you quickly order a drink is just asking for someone to snatch it. Lock expensive items and jewelry in your cabin safe, then use or wear it only when appropriate.

Families traveling with children should be cautious as well. While family-friendly lines like Disney are "age-proofed" for their safety, other lines and older ships may not be and there are many hazards that could put them in a dangerous situation; e.g. being left unsupervised on a balcony, falling down the stairs, swimming in a pool without a lifeguard, etc. Older teenagers should be given some freedom about what they'd like to do and where they want to relax during the cruise, but you should always know the whereabouts of younger children. Some ships even offer two-way, on-board "walkie talkies" for rent for your group to stay in-touch.

Very minor fires are not rare, especially in the many restaurant kitchens on board, e.g., in fryers. The crew is trained and equipped to deal with them. There is no reason to panic just because you see a crew member with extinguishing equipment.

Piracy incidents are virtually nonexistent in the regions of the world where most cruise lines sail (North and South America, Europe, etc.). It can be a legitimate concern to cruisers sailing some waters, e.g., near a few African countries and a few locations in Asia. However, no ship has ever been boarded by pirates if going more than 17 knots...a speed easily attained by cruise ships. Ships plying those waters also have non-lethal means to "discourage" pirates.

Always report anything suspicious or concerning to a crew member; they will investigate or get someone who can to investigate the matter. Trust your instincts as well. If a situation or activity doesn't feel "right" to you, it may not be, e.g., substantial smell of smoke may be cause to activate the fire alarm.

Ashore

While you are safest while on-board the ship, this may not be the case ashore. It's useful to learn a bit about each destination you plan to visit beforehand and to act responsibly wherever you are.

When ashore, hold on to your boarding card as though it's your passport - without it you may not be allowed back on board without substantial delay. Actually, at many destinations, passengers won't need to present or carry their passport - the boarding card is enough. However, you should always carry at least a passport photocopy and government-issued photo identification as well as your ship's card.

Stay healthy

Typical pool area

Sunburn

See Sunburn and sun protection

As noted earlier, too much sun exposure (on-board or ashore) ruins cruises for more people than any other cause. Sunburns (and their pain) can last until well after you return home. For a few, they may later induce cancer or other permanent skin damage. Rather, before you'll be exposed to sun for more than a short time, take effective precautions with clothing and sunblock so that you can fully enjoy whatever recreation you choose.

Queasiness

No discussion here of any medication is authoritative. Consult your physician or pharmacist for any question or issue.

Some people experience queasiness on cruise ships. This is very unlikely on large or recently-built vessels, which consistently have highly effective stabilizers. Even so, some sensitive inner ears may react to even imperceptibly slow and gentle rocking of a calm sea, small, intense storms can make the ocean rough for a day or so, and very-occasionally major storms can't be avoided.

Staying well can be as simple as eating (and drinking) responsibly. Generous helpings of that beautiful, fresh pineapple for breakfast every morning can cause problems, as can the portions of wonderful and rich delights at dinner. Marine biologists know that the calf of a blue whale can gain up to 30 pounds per day; the next fastest weight-gaining mammal may be the cruise passenger - actually known to gain 6-7 pounds per week if he or she "over celebrates".

Care about exercise and choices of tours

If you exercise only occasionally or seldom, you may find the ship's gym tempting. "Exercise" some moderation in the same way you would with sunbathing...to ensure it doesn't compromise enjoying your cruise. Similarly, available tours will demand different levels of physical effort. Whether privately arranged or offered by the ship, understand what each demands and choose wisely.

Outbreaks

Passengers and crew are susceptible to communicable diseases (e.g., the flu, colds, Norovirus), but thankfully this happens only very occasionally due to great effort and care by the ship's staff, and by passengers who cooperate with health protections. It occurs because large numbers of people from countless places have close proximity, share facilities, forget to be responsible, and stay aboard long enough for symptoms to appear.

Prevention

Most maladies spread much in the same ways as the common cold. Stifling coughs and sneezes into your sleeve helps greatly. And ships regularly provide hand disinfectant dispensers at entrances to dining areas; use them, but don't rely completely on them. You can help yourself if you:

If you become ill

Ships that see "possible signs" of an outbreak (even several passengers with sea-sickness) may set up extensive precautions and health/sanitation protocols to limit spread of any infectious agent. This can include hand sanitizer dispensers at entry to all public areas, barriers to self-help in buffets, nearly constant sanitizing of railings, door handles and public restrooms everywhere. Use and respect those measures.

Food and drink ashore

Although shipboard food and water will be sanitary, the usual precautions for overseas travel should be taken when eating and drinking ashore.

Carrying bottled water

Few ports prohibit bringing bottles of water ashore. You'll see pricey offerings each time you leave the ship. Ask a ship's officer in-advance if sealed bottles are necessary; if not, you could (re)fill your own, with buffet beverage/water dispensers perhaps offering better tasting water than that in your cabin.

Medical staff

Nearly all cruise ships have one, with an accredited doctor. Larger ships may also have two or more nurses or even a dentist. Most will offer open hours ("sick call") in the morning and late afternoon for routine ailments, with on-demand response (even in-cabin) for injuries or major illnesses. Most can effectively render first- and second-aid, perhaps more depending on the doctor's experience and on-board facilities, e.g., X-ray. They carry basic medications and supplies typically needed for cruises. Don't depend on them to replace medications you must use, even with near-equivalents.

Physical limitations

If you have physical limitations, have your agent arrange needed services in advance, e.g., wheelchair to embark/disembark, for port visits/during the cruise, perhaps even to rent a "power chair" motorized wheelchair (usually only available for round-trip cruises).

Connect

Calling

Many cruise ships are now equipped with cell phone-to-satellite transponders, which take over automatically at sea to provide wireless phone service throughout the ship. Your cell phone works just like at home and bills its usage back to your regular cell phone bill.

Most ships offer ship-to-shore phone service from your cabin, but again at rather expensive rates. They may also levy heavy tolls on people at home who contact you by phone on the ship.

Internet on-board

On-board Internet cafés and Wi-Fi hotspots are increasingly common, but the rates also tend to be fairly steep and the speeds (usually relying on high-latency satellite uplinks shared with ship's business) can be unimpressive.

Internet ashore

If you find these cautions worrisome, you can usually find Internet cafés and WiFi nets at or near many ports, often offering much better rates and speed. You'll often find nets in modern cruise terminals...look for ship's staff. Also look for them for objective advice...they use other port cafés as well.

Anytime you use any computer while traveling, ensure that all private/sensitive portions of your sessions and data are secure, e.g., avoid doing financial or highly-personal business, use your own laptop if possible, have pro-active security capabilities installed and running, use wired Ethernet instead of WiFi if possible, set up a unique/complex password just for the trip, look for the https in networked sessions any time privacy or security is needed. See more discussion at Internet access.

Cope

Bathing in hot springs on Deception Island as part of an Antarctic cruise

Look for laundry rooms in ship descriptions—not all ships have them. If laundry rooms are available, each will have two or more pairs of washers/dryers, detergent and softener dispensers (all usually taking coins/tokens, obtained at the Purser's desk, or perhaps from a coin machine in the laundry room), and irons and ironing boards. A large ship may have a laundry room on each deck where cabins are located.

If you'll be cruising for more than a week or so, on a ship without self-serve laundry facilities, you may have to pack substantially more clothes. All ships offer laundry services, but they're quite pricey. Some folks bring detergent (e.g., Woolite) to hand-wash select items in their cabin, though humidity creates extended drying times.

Go next

This is a recap of a typical disembarkation process. Near the end of each cruise segment (not necessarily when you'll finally disembark), the Cruise Director will give a briefing that covers specific details for that ship/cruise and debarkation port, to include likely local customs and immigration (C&I) processing. His comments will also cover those staying aboard for the next segment.

Final processing to leave the ship is called "debarkation" or "disembarkation". This involves getting perhaps a few thousand passengers off the ship as efficiently as possible. You can't all leave at once. So you'll likely receive a questionnaire several days before the cruise segment end, asking what travel arrangements (if any) you have made to return home. Your answers (e.g., staying aboard, end-of-cruise tour, scheduled flight departure date/time) will determine in what group you will disembark. ("Staying aboard" may still require some form of immigration processing...on or off the ship. If so, that will also be arranged and announced.)

Some ships offer a "walk off" or "express" disembarkation option. On the questionnaire, you can choose to leave the ship early as part of such a group...receiving special, expedited C&I processing if you carry off all your possessions. If you opt for it, do not miss the call for your group to disembark or you will be directed to leave in the very last group instead. Everyone in your party should opt for it; otherwise, you'll be processed and outside the terminal perhaps 2-3 hours before the rest.

At some major ports, some ships offer special luggage handling services for passengers flying home on certain airlines. For a fee, they will provide special airline tags and take luggage (you intend to check) the last night to, perhaps through your airline check-in at the airport. Before you opt for this, understand the process and your responsibilities, e.g., all belongings in-hand to go through customs.

Typically, people opting for express walk-off, having early flights or cruise-line shore excursions and are given the earliest debarkation times.

Your last morning, you may be instructed to leave your cabin somewhat early (yes, at least one dining room and the buffet will open quite early for breakfast), and proceed to a specific public area on the ship to wait to be called to disembark.

As you walk off the ship into the terminal, you'll be ushered to a large area with masses of luggage...considerably less if you disembark in one of the last groups. Your luggage will be arranged according to your disembarkation group. You'll need to pick-out your pieces and proceed to C&I or other processing if any. Porters will likely be available to help. After any processing, many options begin, e.g.,:

Once you leave the terminal or finish any ship's tour or cruise extension, you basically have full responsibility to reach whatever destination or follow-on transport awaits.

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