I recently went on my first cruise — 11 days through the Panama Canal and South and Central America, six countries in total. That’s quite a long cruise for one’s first time (and a lot of money). It would make for a long 11 days if I decided that I didn’t like it.
But I can look back and honestly say that it was the best money spent on a vacation, and I had so much fun that I actually fell into a minor state of depression when it was all over. Being my first time, here is what I learned about cruising:
- Is the drink package worth it? Yes and no! Buying a drink package gives you unlimited drinks during the whole cruise, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. Cruises charge for everything except tap water and coffee or juice at the breakfast buffet. Wine, beer, drinks, sodas, bottled water…it’s all exorbitantly overpriced. But with a drink package, you just swipe your card and it’s done. What I mean by being worth it and not worth it are the associated costs. First, both people in the cabin have to purchase the package. Second, tax and gratuity are added to the cost of the drink package for each person for each day of the cruise. This adds as much as 25% to the cost. This means that even if you board at 2 p.m. on Day 1, you’re still charged for the entire day. Third, keep in mind that you would have to drink 8-10 alcoholic drinks per day to make it worthwhile. This might sound easy, but it’s not. If half the cruise days are port days and you’re off the ship all day on an excursion, you’re still paying for the whole day, even if you return to the ship at 5 or 6 p.m., and it’s really hard to drink that much before midnight. Trust me, I tried, and it’s not as easy as it sounds. Fourth, remember that when the ship is in certain U.S. ports (point of embarkation, Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico), and you have a “free” drink(s) on the ship while it’s docked, you will also be taxed additionally for the drink on top of the free cost. The taxes will be added to your final bill. In the end, I tallied up what I drank versus what it costs, and to be honest I would have come out the same or slightly ahead if I’d bought each drink individually. That’s the “NO” part of the equation. The “YES” part is that when you’re having fun and at the pool or meeting new friends, it’s just easier to swipe your card and get a drink and not worry about if you’re within your budget. Just swipe and drink! PS: The mixed drinks on a ship are weak af and mostly sugary, tropical drinks, so keep in mind that you’re going to gain some weight trying to get drunk. Beer and wine are good! One tip, at least on Norwegian: I could take my card and get two drinks at one time because they assume that you’re buying drinks for your cabin. You didn’t need to present both cards to get two drinks. So I was able to buy some drinks for people I met that didn’t have the drink package. Of course, you become very popular doing that.
- Free Airfare! Don’t do it. The cruise line was running a special where you got “free” airfare, in this case from Atlanta to Miami. There was nothing off the cost of the cruise if you didn’t take the free airfare, but you weren’t required to take it. I took it, but would not do it again. First, they booked a departure flight out of Atlanta on a Monday morning (the day the cruise left) to Miami a mere four hours before you could start boarding the ship. I called the cruise line and asked if I could change it to the night before, and I’d pay the hotel. They said no. I asked what I was supposed to do if the flight was late or cancelled, and she told me I could catch the ship at the first port, but she’d never heard of a flight getting cancelled. I asked her what planet she was on and she hung up on me! So besides cutting it very close that day, the first port of call was in Colombia on the third day of the cruise. So I would have to wait for two days (or go back home), then fly to another country (taxes), then catch the ship. I’d miss three full days of the cruise (and my prepaid drinks!). Besides that, when the cruise line books your flights, you don’t get free baggage. I have an American Airlines Citi Platinum card, which gives me free checked baggage, but since I didn’t book the tickets with it, it was of no use. So the “free” airfare cost me checked bag fees both ways ($90 total). One person I met on the ship had their bags lost, and the ship departed, so they went the whole cruise with just what they carried on. If you can go to the port city the night before, you have some wiggle room if that happens. Fortunately, my departing flight was on time, and by the time I got to Miami and collected my bags (fortunately they weren’t lost), then met the shuttle to the port, I got there just in time for the cruise. I literally had 60 minutes to spare, which isn’t much when you’ve invested so much money and time.
- Cabins. Book at least a cabin with a view, but you’re better off getting a room with a balcony or a suite. It’s worth the extra cost, trust me.
- Do your research, Part I. I booked the cruise 45 days before departure, and since I had never been on a cruise, I didn’t know what to expect. You will find all kinds of YouTube videos about your particular ship, and there is a plethora of review sites about your cruise line. I probably read 1,000 reviews on about five different sites. One common theme I found was that most of the people who left negative reviews did so because they felt overcharged about something that they didn’t expect. So, review the cruise line terms and conditions thoroughly because you will find a wealth of information in there. You don’t want to be shocked on your last day to find they’ve charged your credit card on file an additional $600. Most of the negative reviews were about things that were clearly spelled out if they’d only read the contract. It’s boring, I know, but it’s better than getting charged for something. How to summarize it: Anything “free” on the ship isn’t free. Just remember that.
- Do your research, Part II. After all of my research, I felt like I really knew the ship really well before I even got on. These ships are massive, and I mean massive. It still took me four days before I knew my way around, despite my research. They’re also crowded, so I quickly learned that a short walk would allow me to catch a less crowded elevator. These ships are 12-16 stories tall, and a bank of elevators full of elderly people trying not to spill their umbrella drinks makes for some very slow moving. It can literally take 30 minutes to go from one part of the ship to another. And the same goes for excursion days and trying to get off the ship.
- Excursions. The cruise line will try to book your excursions for you because they mark them up about 40%. You can buy the same excursion from the locals as soon as you stop off the ship. The problem is that the cruise line guarantees that if you’re on the excursion they booked for you and it returns late to the ship, they will most likely wait for you before sailing away (you’ll be on the tour bus with dozens of other cruisers). If you book your own and it’s late, you’re SOL. But booking your own will save you lost of money. I didn’t book one excursion for the whole cruise. You will make so many new friends on board, and we just hired a van and driver where ever we went and did our own thing.
- Making friends. My god, you will make so many new friends on a cruise and meet the most interesting people. Have fun and just share a table for breakfast or lunch with someone you don’t know and you will have so much fun. Go to the various activities each day and just lighten up. I met people who are now as close as family.
- Food. There’s a never ending supply of food, but despite the pictures online, it’s nothing spectacular. You’re going to gain weight on a cruise eating and drinking, but just go with it. There are buffets all over as well as various restaurants included in the fare. Like I said, the food is good but nothing to write home about. I would recommend buying a dining package that allows you to dine in a “specialty” restaurant. You pick how many meals you want to buy and then make reservations before the cruise for the restaurant and nights you want. There are French restaurants, Italian, steakhouses, and so many others. The food was exponentially better at these restaurants. This particular cruise gave me five nights “free.” The gratuity was included (although I tipped one server extra because he was so good) as well as wine and drinks (because of the drink package). So if you are offered a dining package, get it. This is one thing that is worth the cost.
- Be nice to the crew. Your cabin steward can make or break your experience, as well as servers, bartenders, and other staff. Being polite will go a long way to getting good service. There were some real jerks on the cruise, mostly white trash who thought they had “arrived.” There’s no reason to be rude. I quickly made friends with a bartender (Ali from India). He was so nice and remembered my name by the third day and also what I liked to drink. How he could recognize me on a ship with thousands of people is beyond me, given that he is working a new cruise every week or so. The cabin steward really went above and beyond, too. So did most of the servers. But I could sense in them that they didn’t particularly like serving some people. Again, no reason to be rude.
- Cruise costs. Keep in mind that your cruise line is going to advertise a “starting at” price. This is for the lowest cabin on the slowest week of the year. When you finally find your price, keep in mind that you’re going to spend three times that cost for taxes, excursions, gratuities, airfare, and other costs.
If you’re thinking about doing a cruise, then stop thinking and just do it. Check back as I will probably update this as I think of new things.