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35 cruise tips for first-timers

You've seen the tweets and Instagram photos your friends have posted from cruise ships, and you're wondering if cruising might be for you. Use our handy list of cruise tips for first-time cruisers to learn about what we think is the best vacation ever invented by man. Here are 35 things passengers should know about cruising.

1. Cruising is the best value in travel

You pay one price upfront that includes your accommodation, the voyage, dining, and onboard activities. You can pay more if you want to—in shops, at the spa, or for ship's photographs, but you don't have to in order to have a good time. Plus, the all-inclusive pricing allows you to easily budget for your vacation. 

2. Cruising is convenient

You unpack once, and your ship transports you to intriguing destinations.

3. Some ships are more all-inclusive than others

Most major cruise lines do not include gratuities, shore excursions, wine at dinner, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages in bars and lounges, dining in specialty restaurants, some fitness classes, and some onboard activities. Some luxury lines include some or even all of these things, so check before you book and compare fares.

4. Choosing the right cruise is important

If you enjoy scholarly lectures, you don't want to find yourself on a ship whose marquee activity is the hairy chest contest. If you want to party into the night at a dance club, you don't want to be on a ship where everyone goes to bed right after dinner. 

5. Book your cruise through a good travel agent

With such a large variety of available cruises and to get the best deals and special amenities, you need the guidance of an experienced professional. Your AAA travel advisor can steer you to a cruise that meets your budget and lifestyle. 

6. Expect to tip

Most major cruise lines automatically add gratuities—ranging from $13-$18 per person per day, depending on the cruise line and cabin category—to your shipboard account. The restaurant and housekeeping staffs and other workers share those gratuities.

You can adjust the amount by going to the Purser's Desk (aka Guest Services). Most lines also add a service charge (typically 15 percent) to bar tabs. Some luxury lines, such as Crystal Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, include gratuities in fares.

7. Cruising is safe

Despite some recent high-profile incidents, such as the 2012 sinking of the Costa Concordia, cruising is one of transportation's safest modes. Although the capacity of the international cruise ship fleet grew by 48 percent between 2009 and 2017, operational incidents declined to an average of 19 incidents per year in the same time period, according to a study by U.K.-based maritime consultants G.P. Wild.

In 2013, the most recent year with available comparable data, the incidence of passenger and crew fatalities was 0.15 per billion passenger miles, compared to 7.4 on U.S. highways; and in 2017, the incidence of passenger and crew fatalities was 0.02 per billion passenger miles.

8. You should still take responsibility for your safety

Pay attention during the lifeboat drill; make sure your cabin has life jackets for each passenger, and if you're traveling with kids, child-size life jackets; practice getting to your muster station from different areas of the ship. Obey the rules—don't stand or sit on the ship's railing. Also, be fire safe: Smoke only in designated areas and never throw anything lighted overboard. If you want candles in your cabin, don't use real ones; bring battery-operated candles.

9. Personal crime onboard is rare

A study of crime data from January 2015 to December 2017 by Northeastern University criminology professor James Alan Fox found that there are 31 times fewer allegations of serious crime incidents (defined as homicide, sexual assault, and aggravated assault) on cruise ships than on land.

10. Common sense increases your safety

Don't assume you can trust every fellow passenger—a criminal could be taking a working vacation. Stay sober—don't overindulge in alcohol, which will impair your judgment. Don't fraternize with the crew—it's against every cruise line's rules.

Keep an eye on your kids, and report any crew member you see serving alcohol to minors. (The minimum drinking age on most cruise lines is 21, although some allow drinking at age 18 on certain itineraries or with the consent of parents or a guardian.)

11. Take precautions when you go ashore

You're typically safer on the ship than on land, so follow these tips when you go ashore: Travel with only two credit cards—take one with you ashore and leave the other in your cabin safe. Bring only the amount of cash you'll need for each day. Never put your wallet or smart phone in a back pocket. Dress down, and don't wear expensive watches or jewelry.

12. You won't be bored

Depending on the ship, you might go zip-lining, rock-climbing, or ice-skating. Your ship will likely provide a daily activities roster that can include lectures, dance classes, quizzes, and cooking demonstrations.

Nightly entertainment can range from Broadway- and Las Vegas-style productions to shows featuring comedians, magicians, or cabaret performers. You can do as much or as little as you like, including just lounging in a deck chair, reading and gazing at the sea.

13. Don't assume you'll get seasick

Most of today's ships have stabilizers that minimize rolling. If you have a tendency toward motion sickness, choose a cabin toward the middle and lower middle part of the ship, where the ride is steadiest. Consult your physician about any medication you might need. Some frequent cruisers also swear by ginger tea.

14. You should get medical insurance

Most large ships have medical facilities where you can go for help if you get sick or injured during your cruise. These are not fully-equipped hospitals, but they are typically manned by at least one physician and nurse.

Depending on the illness or injury, the physician might recommend you leave the ship for treatment, so it's important to have travel medical and medical evacuation insurance that covers you internationally. Without insurance, a medical evacuation can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Be sure to pack any prescription medicines in your carry-on luggage.

15. You needn't fear norovirus

Although norovirus is often associated with cruise ships, this gastrointestinal illness is actually more common on land—in schools, child care centers, healthcare facilities, and restaurants.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, norovirus causes an average of 19 million to 21 million acute gastroenteritis cases in the United States every year, but the illness is "relatively infrequent on cruise ships." Ships get more publicity because they're required to keep a log of all incidents. Protect yourself by washing your hands frequently and taking advantage of the liquid gel dispensers positioned at restaurants on almost every ship.

16. You can eat very well

As cruise lines respond to the public's passion for good food, dining at sea has never been better.

Several lines have partnered with star chefs: Three-Michelin-star chef Thomas Keller, for example, creates menus for Seabourn ships, and cookbook author and television cooking show host Jacques Pépin is executive culinary director for Oceania Cruises. That means dining rooms and casual buffet restaurants, where meals are included in your cruise fare, offer higher quality fare than ever.

In addition, many ships feature specialty restaurants requiring an additional fee: You can eat prime steaks in the Pinnacle Grill aboard Holland America Line ships and sample authentic Chinese and other Asian dishes at JiJi Asian Kitchen restaurant on Carnival Cruise Line ships. Most ships also offer a variety of vegetarian options and can accommodate special dietary requests with advance notice.

17. But you don't have to gain weight

Most ships provide a range of low-calorie dishes, and, of course, you don't always have to finish your plate. In addition, most ships have fitness centers, many of which are so well-equipped they rival land-based gyms. You can also take advantage of exercise classes and dance sessions, and you can walk or jog around the promenade deck or running track. And opt for the stairs instead of the elevators.

18. You can choose how to explore ports

Shore excursions can range from taking a motor coach tour of Ensenada to hiking on a glacier in Alaska. Some independent companies offer similar tours for less money, but it's best to stay with the excursions organized by the cruise line because the companies have been vetted, and if your bus is delayed, the ship will wait for you. 

19. You can enlist help for self-guided excursions

If you'd rather sightsee independently, check with the Shore Excursion Desk; they may be able to arrange for a car and driver, or hire a taxi yourself, perhaps sharing the cost with a couple of like-minded passengers. You can also do your own self-guided walking tours; the ship will nearly always have free port maps available. Note: AAA has helpful maps of some U.S. and Canadian cruising ports. Ask your AAA travel advisor for the maps you need.

20. You can stay connected

Most of today's ships offer Wi-Fi, but—with the exception of Royal Caribbean International (RCI), which has high-speed Internet service—it's typically slow and expensive. Most lines charge a daily rate per device or offer packages, such as a certain number of minutes or data for a set fee. Some provide free Wi-Fi to every passenger and others provide free Wi-Fi for certain cabin categories or if you're a repeat cruiser.

To make the most of your onboard connectivity: Log on to your email, download messages, and log off while you compose your own messages, then log on again when you're ready to send. Also, log on at odd times, such as late at night, when fewer passengers tend to use the limited bandwidth.

In port, take your mobile device ashore, because you can often find free, fast Wi-Fi in the cruise terminal. While at sea, turn off roaming on your smartphone, to prevent exorbitant charges showing up on your cell phone bill.

21. You don't have to dress up—unless you want

Dress codes vary by cruise line—each night's dress code will be indicated on the daily program. But cruising in general is more informal than it once was. Some longer voyages may designate one or two nights during a cruise as "formal" nights. You can dress up as much as you want, but typically a jacket and tie or a cocktail dress is appropriate. The dress code for many smaller ships is often something like "resort casual," and most adventure cruises are very casual.

22. You won't have assigned seating—unless you want

Most of today's ships have multiple dining options and maximum flexibility. You can often request assigned seating, if that's your preference; some passengers like the option because they get to know their tablemates and the servers assigned to their table. Otherwise, you can dine where, when, and with whom you please.

23. You can get married aboard the ship

A shipboard wedding can be a stress-free and affordable alternative to a traditional ceremony. You can wed in a lounge or onboard chapel before the ship departs from your embarkation port. Family and friends can attend the ceremony and reception, then bid you and your spouse bon voyage as you sail away on their honeymoon.

You can also get married in certain ports on a ship's itinerary, and a few lines, including Princess Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, and Royal Caribbean International, offer weddings at sea. Captains can sometimes perform the ceremony—just like in those old Hollywood movies—but more often, couples choose a wedding officiant. Work with the cruise line's wedding coordinator, who will handle the details, and study the license requirements (some destinations require you to arrive the day before the ceremony, for example).

24. Travel insurance is a good idea

Consider trip cancellation/interruption insurance, which will reimburse you for your nonrefundable prepaid travel expenses if you cancel or interrupt your cruise because of unforeseen circumstances.

To secure some time-sensitive benefits, such as a waiver for a pre-existing medical condition, you typically need to purchase travel insurance within 14 days of making your initial trip payment. Buy from an independent company that sells travel insurance, rather than from the cruise line, in the unlikely event the line goes out of business. Travel insurance may cost 5 to 8 percent of your travel expenses; you can buy it through your travel agent.

25. Cruising is great for family reunions

A cruise is ideal for several generations vacationing together: Each person can pursue individual interests during the day; in the evening, the group can share the day's highlights over dinner. Groups booking 16 or more guests or eight or more cabins can sometimes get a discount. Check with your AAA travel advisor.

26. Kids won't be bored on a cruise

Many lines offer programs for children of different ages. In Princess Cruises' Camp Discovery, for example, young kids can play in a forest-themed center with a treehouse, and older youngsters can learn about our planet with programs from Los Angeles' California Science Center.

In Disney's Oceaneer Labs aboard Disney Cruise Line ships, children can put on plays or learn animation. These programs allow parents some free time, and kids usually enjoy them so much, they don't want to disembark. To sail with Viking Ocean Cruises and the coming-in-2020 Virgin Voyages, however, you must be 18 or older. 

27. Cruising is great for solo travelers

Cruising's safety and camaraderie make it an ideal vacation for singles, but be aware of the single supplement: Solo travelers can pay 125 to 200 percent of the per-person, double occupancy fare.

Many lines offer single share programs, where the line will pair you with a roommate of the same sex, and some lines waive the single supplement on certain sailings. Ask your travel agent to help you find one. Several lines, including Royal Caribbean International and Cunard, have single cabins on some ships; book early because those cabins typically sell out fast.

28. Cruising is an accessible vacation option

Most modern ships have wheelchair-accessible cabins, as well as devices to aid the visually impaired or hard of hearing, such as telephone amplifiers in staterooms and Braille elevator call buttons. Book early to get the cabin you want. You can also rent wheelchairs, mobility scooters, or oxygen cylinders from outside companies. Check with your travel agent or the cruise line.

29. Cruising is ideal for couples

What's more romantic than strolling the promenade deck at night and stopping to look at the moonlight reflected on the water? Or going up to the top deck to watch the sunset—or sunrise? Cruising allows you to leave everyday tensions and conflicts ashore and concentrate on each other.

30. You can pack light

If you travel with only carry-on luggage, you don't have to wait for your bags to be delivered when you board or put them out to be collected the night before you disembark. Bring color-coordinated outfits to pare down your wardrobe.

31. Cruise ships are eco-friendly

Cruising has received criticism for polluting water and air, but today's modern vessels employ environmental shipboard systems that manage waste disposal and minimize pollution: exhaust-cleaning systems that reduce about 99 percent of the sulfur dioxide generated by fuel, for example, and processes that clean waste water to a potable standard.

32. You can cruise around the world

World cruises typically depart in January and explore the globe for three months or so. Those aboard frequently enjoy enhanced onboard programming, such as art classes, lecture series that relate to the global itinerary, and entertainment that taps into local talent. Don't have the time or bank account for a three-month voyage? Cruise lines offer shorter segments that are more affordable and perhaps easier to fit into vacation schedules. 

33. You can cruise the world's rivers

River cruises immerse you in a country's culture. You typically dock in the center of a city or town and can walk off the vessel to explore historic neighborhood. Most river cruises include a shore excursion in each port in the cruise fare, or you can sightsee on your own. You can ply the waters of Europe, Asia, and even North America.

34. Know the difference between a cruise and a crossing

On most cruises, the ports are the main attraction. On crossings, you're using the ship as transportation. Talks, games, and other shipboard activities fill the days, and the voyage is about the journey, not the destination.

Cunard is the only cruise line currently offering regular crossings; the line's Queen Mary 2 sails between Brooklyn, New York, and Southampton, England, much of the year. Several other lines offer one-way and repositioning cruises, when the line moves a ship—from Europe to the Caribbean, for example, or from Mexico to Alaska; these sailings are typically short on ports and long on value. 

35. Cruising is its own reward

It introduces you to a world of possibilities. You stop in ports that give you a sampling of what a city or country is like. When you find destinations that appeal to you, you can make plans to return for a longer visit.

On a cruise, you get intense snapshots of a place, like touring the circa 17th-century BC stone remnants of Akrotiri on Santorini or dining with locals on goat water, a savory broth, on St. Thomas. But cruising is also its own experience. On a ship, you can recapture some of the glamour of the Golden Age of transatlantic crossings. Being cut off from land, with nothing but ocean around you—spotting the occasional dolphin or flying fish—is reason enough to cruise.

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