Thursday, November 5, 2015

Some Things I've Learned About Cruising - Practical Advice

A blogger acquaintance of mine is tossing around the idea of whether to go on a cruise.  She asked for suggestions/tips.  As I started to reply in her comments section, the words poured out of me and I found myself composing a gigantic reply.  "I can't submit this novel length comment..." I thought.  Then it hit me - I'll compose a blog entry about cruising!  Ta-da!

Also, I need to mention this - I reference Carnival a lot in this piece, but I only do so because Carnival is the only cruise line I've ever cruised with.  I am not receiving any compensation from Carnival for this blog entry.  

An easy, breezy day at sea, somewhere between Miami and the Turks and Caicos, 2014

There are many advantages to cruising, but I will admit, it's not for everyone.  It's definitely something to consider and do your research on before jumping in with both feet and making your reservation. 

My husband LOVES cruising.  LOVES it!  He enjoys visiting various ports of call over the span of 5-7 days and only having to unpack once.  I, on the other hand, enjoy cruising but not the extent that he does.  I prefer going to an all-inclusive resort instead.  From my husband's standpoint, he is correct, cruising allows you to get a taste of several different places, sort of like a sampler pack.  I often feel rushed when visiting a port of call on a cruise, for I don't have adequate time to do as much exploring as I want to.  Yes, going to an all-inclusive means that I will only visit one geographic area, but I have more time to explore that area in as much depth as I wish.

Bottom line, it all depends on what you want out of a vacation.  If you are unsure whether a cruise is for you, but are still very interested in cruising, you may want to book a shorter 3-4 day cruise as a test run.

Some ports of call get quite crowded - Georgetown, Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands - 2006

This is completely a personal preference.  I've been to the western Caribbean twice and to the eastern Caribbean twice.  There are cruises to the southern Caribbean, the Pacific coast of Mexico, Alaska, Hawaii, cruises that take you through the Panama Canal...  And trust me, that is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of destinations. 
Freeport, Bahamas - 2006

I have only been on Carnival and the main reason for that has been cost.  Each time my husband and I have cruised, we were working within a certain budgeted amount.  So, when it came time to make a reservation, we went with what we could afford.  The money that we saved by going through Carnival freed up money for us to use on shore excursions.  Let me say this, however, I have no loyalty to Carnival.  One day, my husband and I will cruise Hawaii and it will be on Norwegian because they offer a cruise where Honolulu is both the embarkation and debarkation point (in lieu of a Hawaiian cruise that begins and/or ends somewhere on the west coast like L.A. or Vancouver).  

Also, when choosing which cruise line, remember that certain ships will attract certain passengers.  Disney will be full of kids because, hello - it's Disney!  Carnival is kind of like the WalMart of cruising, so it typically appeals to those on a budget.  From what I've heard, I don't know firsthand because I haven't been on them, Holland America and Princess cruises tend to attract an older, more mature crowd.  Do your research.  See which cruise line best meets your needs.

Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos - 2014

You know that old real estate mantra about the success of houses that sell and businesses that boom being attributed to “Location, location, location…”  Well, in terms of your cabin, it’s very important as well.    Believe it or not, the location of your cabin will affect the amount you pay for your cruise.  It may also play a big part in how well you sleep and it could be a huge factor in how well you respond to the movement of the ship (i.e. motion sickness).

Balcony Pros and Cons

My husband and I have cruised 4 times we were fortunate enough to have a balcony once.  We have always cruised within a set budget, but one time we were lucky enough to snag a great deal on a balcony.  

  1. Balcony cabins are usually bigger than interior cabins.
  2. With a balcony, you have the luxury of having your own little personal deck space just a few feet from your bed and bathroom.  
  1. Balconies are typically more expensive.
  2. You may experience more sway if the ship is swaying from side to side (port to starboard) in a balcony, which could trigger motion sickness (if you are susceptible to motion sickness or sensitive to the roll of the ocean).

Interior cabin – pros and cons

As I mentioned earlier, three of the four times I have cruised, I’ve stayed in an interior cabin.  Even though I highly enjoyed having a little bit of my own personal deck all to myself, it’s been hard to justify the additional cost of a balcony when working with a certain budget.  

  1. The more centrally located you are within the ship (side to side and front to back), the less sway you tend to feel.
  2. Without any outside light filtering in through windows and/or a balcony door, the interior of the cabin is DARK which makes for a great sleeping experience (seriously, some of the best sleep I’ve ever had was in an interior cabin on a cruise ship).  
  1. Interior cabins tend to be smaller than balconies, which can lead to storage issues and a slight feeling of claustrophobia (if you are susceptible)
  2. The absence of natural light can throw off your circadian rhythms a bit in the mornings and you may sleep longer than you want to or normally would.
There are exterior cabins that have windows or portholes, but I’ve never stayed in any of these, so I don’t really know what the pros and cons of staying in them are.

Half Moon Cay, Bahamas - 2014

Choosing a deck is as equally important as choosing a cabin.  
  • Beware of cabins above nightclubs, piano bars, theaters, or dining halls, especially if you are seeking peace and quiet.  Having a cabin above those noisier areas might be more than you bargained for.  
  • As for the motion sickness I’ve already mentioned, in my experience, the more centrally located you are among the decks, the less sway you experience.  During my cruise last month, we had an interior cabin on the 9th floor (Lido Deck).  It was fantastic in terms of convenience (it was on the same level as the lido pool and lido restaurants, but closer to the front of the ship).  Being that high up, however, I did experience more sway than normal and one evening when the boat was really rockin’ (due to a storm), I was on the verge of motion sickness, something I don't typically experience.
St. Thomas Harbor, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands - 2015

Yes, your basic meals, lodging, and entertainment are taken care of, but keep in mind that the rate you pay does not include: gratuities, alcoholic drinks, soda pop, specialty dining, spa services, and shore excursions. 
  • Gratuities - I have only cruised with Carnival, so I don’t know how other cruise ships handle this.  Years ago, Carnival provided us with envelopes in which we used to enclose a gratuity for specific members of the staff.  During my last two cruises, however, the gratuities were automatically charged to our “Sail and Sign” card (in which the balance was charged to our credit card).  What's a "Sail and Sign" card, you ask?  I'll get to that in a minute.  For my most recent cruise, the gratuities were $12 per person per day, meaning that my husband and I were charged $336 for gratuities ($12 per day x 7 days = $84 x 4 people in our party = $336).  For a detailed description of how Carnival distributes the gratuities, click here.  Remember, I am not sure how other cruise companies go about this, so their methods may vary.
  • Drinks - The drinks that were included during my cruise last month were: tea, lemonade, water, coffee, and hot chocolate.  Milk was available during breakfast, as was orange juice and a mango-type breakfast juice.  During my 7 days at sea, I had two sodas and each one cost a little under $3 (yes, I know…it was highway robbery, but I was in desperate need of a diet soda).  I also had 2 fruity alcoholic drinks and each one was approximately $10-12 with an automatic 15% gratuity included.  If you really, really like your sodas and/or alcoholic beverages, you can imagine how quickly you could rack up a hefty bar tab!  I think most cruise lines now offer drink packages that you can buy that allow you unlimited drinks of certain varieties.  Carnival's soda package is called Bottomless Bubbles and their alcoholic drink package is called Cheers! (Royal Caribbean's is called Royal Refreshment package and they have several other packages to choose from respectively.)  As I said earlier, if you really, really like your sodas and/or alcoholic beverages, then looking into one of this packages may save you money in the long run, depending on how much you drink.  
  • Specialty dining - Some cruise ships offer specialty dining/restaurants for an additional cost.  Just keep in mind that not all of the dining options are included in your rate.
  • Spa services - I've never been to the ship's spa while cruising, so I don't have any experiences to draw from.  I just know that it is pricey.  They do offer packages and deals throughout the cruise, so it may be possible to get a good deal on something.  
  • Shore excursions - Activities in ports of call are not included in your rate.  
Robert feeding a stingray at Stingray City, Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands 2004

WHAT DO I DO AT THE PORTS OF CALL?  A friend of mine LOVES to shop at ports of call, so that's what she does.  She shops 'til she drops!  There are usually shopping options within walking distance of the cruise ship pier or tender dock.  

One of my husband's friends doesn't get off the ship at all while in port.  He says he loves having the ship to himself and takes advantage of the empty to near empty pool and sometimes goes to the spa.  One thing to keep in mind if you do stay on the ship, many places such as the shops and casino close while in port.  

If you want to take a shore excursion/tour when you arrive in port, you basically have two options: go through the cruise line you are sailing with or go through a private tour company.  I have done both and there are pros and cons for each.  
  • Going through a private tour company you will save money.  Excursions/tours sold through the cruise line are typically more expensive than private companies.
  • By going through the cruise lines, however, you are guaranteed not to miss the boat when it departs.  Here's an example.  When my husband and I took our first cruise in 2004, we took a cave tubing excursion through a private operator in Belize.  For some reason that I can't remember now, it took us longer to get back to the port than it should have.  We made it back to the ship on time, but we cut it very close (especially since we had to be tendered back out to the ship on smaller boats).  Had our tour operator not gotten us back in time, regardless of the reason, the boat would have left without us.  Had we been on an excursion that we purchased through your cruise line and something happened to delay our return, the ship would've waited.
  • Private excursions/tour operators tend to have fewer people on the excursions than comparable excursion through the cruise line, which can often give you a more personalize experience.  For example, in Grand Cayman, my husband and I took a snorkeling tour in which one of the stops was at Stingray City, a sandbar where friendly stingrays flock because they know they will get a free meal out of it in exchange for letting people hold and touch them.  There were 12-15 people on our boat with 1 captain and 2 crew.  While we were interacting with the stingrays, another boat pulled up and anchored.  There were at least 40-50 people on that boat.  When we compared our tour to the similar one offered through Carnival, our excursion not only took us to Stingray City, but also to two other snorkeling sites.  The excursion through Carnival took them to Stingray City only and cost twice as much as our excursion did.

Utilizing the free public beach at the cruise center in Grand Turk (Turks and Caicos) - 2015.

Cave tubing in Belize - 2004

Remember the "Sail and Sign" card I mentioned, earlier?  You didn't think I had forgotten about it, did you?  Well, it's an all purpose card that Carnival issues each of its passengers that serves as cabin key, identification, and temporary charge card.  (FYI - Royal Caribbean calls their card "SeaPass.")  Everything you buy on a cruise, from a refrigerator magnet in the gift shop to bingo cards to drinks to shore excursions are charged to your "Sail and Sign" card during the cruise.  You can even use this card in the ship's casino!  At the end of you cruise, whatever charges you incur on your card are charged to the credit card that you have on file with the cruise line.

Just as easy as it is to rack up debt on a credit card, since you are not physically having to part with real money every time you make a purchase, the same goes for a cruise line's sailing card.  During our first cruise, we met a couple who had racked up over $1000 in shore excursions and spa services about halfway through the week and they appeared genuinely surprised by how much they had spent in such a short amount of time.  Some practical advice is to keep track of your spending so that you are not completely caught off guard at the end of the cruise when you are presented with your bill.

Carnival Liberty - Costa Maya, Mexico - 2006

  • When you arrive at the cruise ship terminal, porters will be outside to collect your luggage.  It is best to also take a carry-on with you and to carry that bag with you on to the ship.  In this bag, you will want to put any valuables, medicines that you will need, and possibly a change of clothes or perhaps your swimsuit.  Your checked bag will be delivered to you cabin within a few hours of your arrival.
  • Outlets are few and far between.  On my last cruise, we had ONE electrical outlet in our cabin.  If you have a lot of electronics, you may want to invest in a multi USB port charger or a short power strip.
  • Speaking of electronics, remember your cell phone plan will not work once you are out at sea.  I, personally, like to disconnect from the "real world" while on a cruise, so I not only turn my cellular data off once we are out at sea and in ports of call, but I also turn on my phone's Airplane Mode so that I don't risk my phone roaming. Wifi plans are becoming available more and more on ships, so if you can't fathom the thought of being without Twitter, Facebook, or Snapchat for entire week, you can always look into purchasing a plan that suits your needs.  
  • I don't know about other cruise lines, but Carnival allows its passengers to bring 12 cans of soda per passenger and 1 bottle of wine per person (who is over 21 years of age) on the cruise.  This is a helpful and way cheaper alternative to the soda card I mentioned above.  Thing is, if you are flying to the cruise ship port, you can't bring cans of soda on the plane (they can explode in your checked bags), so unless you are driving to the port, bringing your own sodas may not be feasible. 
  • Carnival, and I am assuming other cruise lines to something similar, publishes a daily pamphlet called Fun Times that lets people know what activities are happening on a particular day.  It also shares what time the ship will arrive at ports of call, what time the ship leaves, where the dress for the next evening's dinner is formal or casual, if there are any contests, etc.  This is a great resource to look over, especially during days at sea when you might be wondering, "What am I going to do all day?" 

 A crab towel creature with Carnival's FunTimes pictured in front.

I hope these tips come in handy if you are planning on cruising in the future. By all means, if you have any cruising questions that I haven't answered here, feel free to ask in the comment section below.

And, if you have any tips that I may have forgotten or didn't include, please feel free to leave them in the comments below as well.

Snorkeling with sea turtles! USVI - 2015

As always, thanks for stopping by!


  1. GIRL. this is AMAZING. I waited till I had sufficient time to read all of it, lol.
    WalMart of cruising - hahahaha. I laughed so hard. I have heard many bad things - and good things! - about Carnival and I was leaning towards them but when we looked into Royal Caribbean for a similar cruise and cabin, the cost difference wasn't that bad, and I preferred the itinerary of the Royal Caribbean, so I *think* that is what we are going with. We'll see ;)
    But seriously -what an extensive, detailed post! I am so scared of the ship leaving us behind that I don't think we will do outside tour thingys, but really, we don't want to do a lot anyway so it's not a big deal. and i think we'll get the drinks package so we don't have to worry about racking up a huge bill at the end.
    This post was super helpful :) love it!

    1. Thank you! I'm glad I could help. If you go with Royal Caribbean or any other cruise line for that matter, I'll be interested to hear all about it. My husband and I ALWAYS comparison shop when deciding on a cruise. As I mentioned above, I have absolutely no loyalty to Carnival; Carnival's just always been substantially less than any other cruise lines when it came time to book.

      WalMart of cruising... Trust me, it is! You know how you see all walks of life at Wally World? Well, the same goes for Carnival. We saw the good, the bad, and the ugly. (I do seriously think that Robert and I will try to cruise with another line the next time just for the sake of comparing experiences.)

      What itinerary are you looking at? I LOVE looking at itineraries and am always curious about ports of call.


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