It's a shame to lay out $ 250 – $ 2,500 on a dream cruise vacation only to encounter unnecessary mishaps and inconveniences. So, in an effort to minimize the likelihood of a bump in the road to your perfect vacation, here are some common potholes that you can avoid.
Mistake # 1: Not Making Your Luggage Distinctive. At the end of your cruise, your luggage will be placed in a huge room with THOUSANDS of pieces of luggage, probably in some designated area based on the color of a luggage tag provided by the ship. No matter how familiar you think you are with your own luggage, it's amazing how well your bags will blend in with the mass of cargo surrounding them. Having a quick, easy way to identify your luggage will be a major relief, especially if it gets misplaced.
BUT, that is not the main reason to make your luggage stand out. You will be entering this cavernous room with a couple thousand other people, some of what stayed up all night partying. They are going to be impatient to get their bag and get out and there is a fairly good chance that their vision is not so good. If your bag looks like their bag, it could be a goner. And, if a stranger does take your luggage it could be hours, even days, before you get it back.
Do something durable and noticeable to your luggage so that it not only is recognizable to you, but also let's bleary-eyed fellow travelers know that your bag is not their bag. Put stickers on it, paint a day-glo streak around it, sew a teddy bear onto the outside … just make sure it stands out.
Mistake # 2: Not Researching Shore Excursions Beforehand. It should come as no surprise that cruise line advertising folks have the ability to describe each and every shore excursion as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Of course, no cruise is complete without shore excursions and many of them are absolutely wonderful opportunities to do things you would never do otherwise. But, be smart here. It's okay to get hoodwinked into thinking that palm trees do sway all day long and that sand feels like silk under your feet. But, it's a whole 'nother thing to be looking forward to that perfect, serene afternoon on a remote beach only to find out you have 500 friends, some with young kids, crowding around you and bumping into your beach chair while sellers hawk everything from coconut shells to t-shirts.
Before you commit, read some reviews, talk to the cruise ship shore excursion people, ask fellow passengers, do some thinking. Most cruise ships have a "No Refund" policy on shore excursions, but do not be afraid to ask for one if your experience is really unacceptable. Better still, find out what you're getting before you go. Many (if not most) shore excursions are just great and you'll be happy you went. But cover your stump and you'll be glad you did.
Mistake # 3: Runaway Bar Tabs. Unless you specifically choose a package that includes it, your bar tab is NOT included in the "all inclusive" part of your cruise. Adding to the bite is the ubiquitous 15% gratuity that gets added to every purchase you make on board a ship.
I could suggest that you drink less, but that's just plain dumb! You're on a cruise! So, pay attention to how much you drink. Those cute little umbrellas drinks that come in a stunning canary-yellow cup will cost you about twice what a basic cocktail costs. Cruise ship booze is already costly enough; you do not need to help them out by spending more for a cup that you'll stash in a closet when you get home.
Cruise ships have a policy against bringing alcohol on board, but the policy is very loosely enforced if you do not flaunt it. In other words, do not strap a handle onto a case of Budweiser and check it as baggage or load up your carry-on bag with bottles of Wild Turkey. Discreetly packed airline bottles of booze or cans of beer will probably go unnoticed. Do not try to sponsor a frat party, but you can definitely help yourself out a bit.
You are allowed to bring your own wine on board if you plan to drink it at dinner, though you are charged a "corking fee". And, you can also bring a small stash of non-alcoholic beverages (soda, water, etc) with no problem. You should definitely bring some water, especially if you're cruising in warm climates.
Mistake # 4: Ignoring the Fury of the Sun Gods. Sun Burn treatments are the fourth most popular reason that people on cruises visit the ship's infirmary. (The first three are: 1) bumps and bruises, 2) indigestion, 3) seasickness. Once you're burned, there is not much anyone can do for you except try to alleviate the pain. (My favorite treatment for that is something called "Traumeel.") You can not find it in the drugstore, but most health food places will have it.)
If you're cruising in the winter months (Nov – Feb), you do not have as big a problem. Even when you are in the sub-tropics, and even though your skin probably has not seen sun for several months, the sun is sitting you at an angle and that makes all the difference. You still need to be careful, but you have more leeway.
In the spring and summer months, when the sun is overhead, you can get burned in as little as an hour, especially in the afternoon hours. Some silly people forgo the sunscreen because they want to make sure they get a tan. Not a good idea. Start your sunbathing session with at least 15 SPF (30 if you have not been in the sun, with extra protection on your lips). As you get closer to your end time, use less SPF. Even with a good sun blocker, your friends and co-workers will still know that you've been out in the sun.
Hats are a serious plus if you are in sunburn territory. Most people do not put sunscreen on their heads, and so the part of your body that is getting the most direct rays for the longest period of time remains unprotected. Visors do not protect your skull; you need some type of covering.
Mistake # 5: No First Aid Kit. As previously noted, there are several reasons that passengers end up wasting time (and sometimes money) visiting the infirmary. You may not be able to avoid all mishaps, but you can prepare for the less blunders. By the way, all of this applications double if you're traveling with kids!
Bumps and Bruises. The largest reason people visit the ship's doctor probably has something to do with mixing booze, slippery surfaces, metal railroads and the rolling motion of the ship. For most of your injuries, the right size band-aid and a good analgesic crème will do the trick. A simple travel or camping first-aid kit will have what you need.
Indigestion. One of the drawbacks of having such constant access to all that wonderful rich food that cruise ships are famous for is that people eat it. And eat it. And eat some more. Unless you are a strict disciplinarian, you can expect to consume about two or three times your normal food quantity in an average day. Add to that the steady consumption of alcohol that is a hallmark of cruising and voila! Indigestion. Take along some Alka Seltzer, some Pepto Bismol and sum type of antacid tablet, like Tums or Rolaids. All of these are available in tablet form. Some ships stores will have some of this, but not always and if you need it in the middle of the night you're out of luck.
Seasickness. The best treatment is prevention. After you get it, well … yuck! Check out the various forms of Dramamine that are now available, including pills and patches. The directions will tell you how much lead time before you hit the waves you need to get the maximum effect. You can also get acupressure wrist bands that work really well with some people.
One of the best treatments I've ever seen for treating seasick once it hits you is Coke and soda crackers – lots of both. Some people say that 7-Up works also, but I think there is something in the caffeine in Coke that helps the whole process. If you are feeling sick, your cabin is the worst place to be without the weather topside is really bad. Being able to get fresh air and see the horizon helps to trigger the brain sensors that calm seasickness.
Headaches. We all know that booze can make your head scream for mercy, but so can sun and lots of new food. If you're not used to heavy carbs in your diet and you scarf up lots of pastries, ice creams or gourmet desserts, your body can trigger the same symptoms it does when detoxing from too much alcohol. And, if you experience bumps, cuts or sunburn a pain reliever is a good thing. Have a supply of different types of pain reliever. Depending on the reason for your pain, aspirin may not work as well as Tylenol or Ibuprofen in a given circumstance. (Do I need to remind you to read the label and follow the directions?)
Mistake # 6: What? No Camera? A Picture Really Is Worth A Thousand Words. It's hard to imagine, but some people will actually take the trip of their dreams and not take a camera. Or, they'll take a camera, but they will not keep it with them. Do not do that. If you have a digital camera, use it, use it, use it. If you do not have a digital camera, spring for about three or four disposable ones. And be sure to take you camera to the Life Boat Drill. You'll know why when you get there.
A side bar to this camera thing is the Photo-ops that you have all over the ship. There will be dozens of them on your cruise – when you're boarding, when you're dining, when you're getting off the ship, at the pool – at times it will seem like some one is taking your picture every time you turn around. You are, of course, free to decline. But I recommend that you give it a shot. Yes, these photos can be goofy, even cheesy, but they can also be a lot of fun. Plus, you just might end up with the best shot of the cruise. Some of the settings are outright elegant, rivaling what you would find at a studio. It's a great way to get a nice formal picture for your living room to send to your family, and there's no sitting fee!
Mistake # 7: Buying From Street Vendors. Where ever you go on your cruise, once you step ashore you will be approached (accosted?) By local folks trying to sell you something. I'm not talking about the shops and makeshift kiosks you may find, I'm talking about the guys selling Cuban cigars out of their trunks, or pirated CDs out of a cardboard box.
Your best bet, unless you've been there and really know the score, is to just say NO. Regardless of how appealing the offer, just say NO. Most of the products are very low quality and you have no way to check it out before you buy. I know of people who bought CD cases with no CDs inside, watches that did not work, Cuban cigars purchased in the local drugstore, "handmade" jewelry that came out of bubble gum machines, the list is endless. And this applies SIXTEEN FOLD if some local guy tries to sell you some pot.
In most ports of call frequented by American-based vessels, this street traffic is actually illegal. You probably will not get into trouble, but why risk it? Save your money for the honest locales and their little shops that are going to sell you watches that do work, they just fall apart in a few weeks.
Mistake # 8: Thinking You'll Save Money "In Town". One of the charming aspects of cruising is the ritual of visiting the local markets and shops. This is truly a fun experience and you can find all manner of unique and special items, but you probably will not find any real bargains. There are bargains to be found, but you really need to know what you're looking for and what it's worth in the US. Do not be cynical about it. It's all part of the experience. Somehow, buying a wooden giraffe in Grand Turk is better than buying the same wooden giraffe at Pier 1 Imports, even if you pay a little more. Go figure.
You actually can save money when you buy liquor or tobacco products, but it might not be as good a deal as it first looks. Most ports have what are called "duty free" shops which means that there was no "duty" (ie import tariffs) paid on the products and so they are cheaper to sell in that country. The same applies to diamonds and other fine jewelry. The challenge is knowing what an item is actually worth. Just because these guys saved on the import fees does not mean they're passing the saving on to you. Also keep in mind that you are invited to declare to US customs any purchases you make in a foreign country. Duty Free in Nassau does not mean it's duty free when you come back to the US. There are certain exemptions for personal items, but if you shell out some big bucks, you might lose the saving when you pay the US import fees.
So, do not be a miserable. Spend freely. Do some Christmas shopping. Spread your money around the local economy and have fun doing it. Just remember, these guys are in the business of selling stuff to foreign tourists. They know where the money is coming from and they know how to keep as much of it as they can.
Mistake # 9: Sticky Around The Port. Yes, ships are safe in the harbor, but that's not what ships are built for. Most ports of call, especially when the call is for a day or less, are set up to provide the ships passage with a particular experience. They accomplish this by making their ports as visitor-friendly as possible. The experience of Mexico that you get right outside the port in Cozumel is decidedly different than the experience of Mexico on the other side of the island. Around the port, all manner of business are set up to appeal to a particular comfort-zone and a particular economy.
But, often, just a few miles from the port, you can have a completely different experience. If you travel to Grand Turk, for example, you can spend a delightful afternoon at the resort-like environment of Margaritaville. The beach is well-maintained, though a bit crowded. There is a huge beautiful pool with lots of palm trees and man-made waterfalls. A beer will cost you about $ 6 and a burger will be about $ 8.
But a short taxi ride to the old downtown area will take you to a much more authentic location. At least for the time being. You can stroll crowded, dusty streets; see skinny dogs shuffling through garbage cans and have a local beer and piece of fried chicken for about $ 3.75 at one of the local pubs. Sure, the pub would never pass an American food inspection and you may have to do without air conditioning. But the experience can be wonderful. You will not get that experience staying close to the port.
Of course, you want to be safe and you want to be able to get back to your ship before it sales, so keep all that in mind. But, there is a whole universe of color, sound, smells and people that do not ever get to the port and it's worth the trouble to find it.
Mistake # 10: Not Preparing For the Journey Home. Sooner or later (it will seem much too soon), your cruise will come to an end and you'll have to return to the land of making your own bed and cooking your own food. The journey home is often an irritating necessity and something to end as quickly as possible. But, if you rush back into the reality you left behind, it's kind of like a diver coming to the surface too quick after a deep dive. Your mind and body will resist.
If possible, do something fun on the way home. Stay an extra night in a hotel or visit a landmark or even a theme park. At the very least, stop at a nice restaurant for a leisurely lunch or dinner. A quiet picnic (even with fast food) at a rest area can be a perfectly delightful way to transition home.
Here's a couple of things to do to make your return less stressful and hurried.
o If you're driving, fill up with gas before you go to the port. Make sure that, when you leave, you do not have to stop until you want to.
o When you have breakfast on your last morning, take some pastries with you, or even make yourself an egg sandwich. If you thought to bring a thermos with you, fill up on coffee or juice for the ride home.
o Leave some bottles of water in your car. Many bus companies will allow you to leave some personal items on the bus when you get to the port, so include some water and a pillow.
o Find out what the weather is back home. I once stand shivering in 40 degree weather outside the airport in a pair of shorts and an aloha shirt. Hey, it was 85 degrees when I left Puerto Rico that morning!
o Take the next day off. If you are returning to port on a weekend, good. If not, schedule the time off before you leave. Or call in sick. You'll be SOOOOOOOO glad you did.
A Final Suggestion.
Keep up with all of the information documents you got on the cruise – daily ships newsletter, shore excursion price list, etc. When you get home, file all this in a folder and then use if for reference material for yourself or someone else the next time a cruise is planned. And before your forget, write down all the things you wish you'd thought of and that you wish you had known. Make a complete list and stash it with the other cruise information you bought back.