Miami is known as the cruise capital of the world, so it’s no surprise that as a travel writer who lives here, I’ve set sail on more than 30 cruises in the course of my career. My first was back in 2004 on a now-defunct line’s 200-passenger ship, one-way to Bermuda. Several times a year I sail to the Caribbean, on whatever is the largest and newest ship. And by the time you read this, I will have just returned from a Hurtigruten cruise north along Norway’s coast to the Arctic Circle. So, it’s safe to say I know a thing or two about cruising. If you’re planning to get your sea legs for the first time this year, here are my best tips for smooth sailing.
How do I know if I’m a cruise person?
Modern ships offer as many amenities as contemporary hotels (and often more), with plush suites; restaurants galore; spacious spas; and almost endless entertainment options, from water slides to zip lines, carousels to ice skating rinks and full-service spas. In short, there’s likely a cruise ship for everyone – including you!
Travel advisers can often leverage their relationship with the lines to score upgrades and perks for their clients, at no cost to you.
How do I find the right cruise line for me?
Are you interested in a cruise related to music, food or Black culture? Finding the right cruise ship – and, equally important, the right itinerary – is a lot like finding a partner; you have to sort through a lot of options to find the right fit. And when it works, it’s heaven; when it doesn’t, you’ll be willing to swim back to shore! Although we’re all used to booking our own trips online, my best advice is to use a travel adviser who specializes in cruises. There are so many ships, so many cabin categories, so many destinations and cruise lengths to choose from that it can be hard for even experienced travelers to narrow them down. Bonus: Advisers can often leverage their relationship with the lines to score upgrades and perks for their clients, at no cost to you.
How can I get the best deal?
Again, a travel adviser who specializes in cruises may be able to get you added value (upgrades, drinks packages, etc.) once you’ve booked. But a general money-saving tip is to purchase your cruise during “wave season,” January through March, when lines offer their biggest discounts. Reserve your cabin at least a year in advance if you want to take a voyage that’s only offered seasonally, such as Alaska cruises, which run May through September. And if you’re cruising and decide that you love the experience and you want to do it again next year, run, don’t walk to the onboard advance booking desk, where you can score significant savings on future cruises on any ship in the line.
What should I pack?
In terms of how much to bring, cruisers are limited only by the amount the airline will allow (if they’re flying into the embarkation port) and how much they can carry. Still, although shoreside porters (tip generously!) will handle your bags between the curb and the gangway, once you get to your cabin, you’ll have to store those bags somewhere. My best advice: Pack your stuff in a collapsible duffle that you can stow under the bed. When it comes to what to pack, you probably know what you want to wear. But there are some cruise-specific items you may not have thought of: Bring a power strip or USB hub so you can plug in all your electronics, and magnetic hooks that you can attach to the wall to hang items that won’t fit in the closet or drawers. And if you’re traveling with a group, a small magnetic whiteboard or large Post-it notes you can put on your cabin door are handy for leaving each other meetup messages as you roam around the ship.
If your return is delayed, the ship will always wait for passengers on excursions organized by the cruise line. If you booked independently and arrive at the port after all-aboard time, there’s no guarantee the ship will still be there!
What about shore excursions?
Despite the ship’s bells and whistles, which make it feel like a destination in and of itself, it’d be a shame not to get off and explore when you pull into port. Cruise companies offer myriad organized tours – everything from sightseeing by helicopter to beach breaks – at various price points. But it’s up to you to decide whether to purchase a tour sanctioned by the cruise line (which may be more expensive, but is with a vetted provider), or to take your chance and book your own outing independently. An important thing to keep in mind when deciding: If your return is delayed, the ship will always wait for passengers on excursions organized by the cruise line. If you booked independently and arrive at the port after all-aboard time, there’s no guarantee the ship will still be there!
Related: AARP Members Can Get Discounts on Cruises, Flights, Vacation Packages, Hotels and Rental Cars
How do I avoid getting seasick?
Today’s mega-ships are so large and stable that it takes pretty rough seas to (literally) rock the boat. If you’re on a Caribbean cruise you’re far less likely to feel the sea than on a fall European cruise, but as a rule of thumb, cabins in the middle of the ship on a low deck feel the movement least. Some people find staring at the horizon helpful if they start to feel queasy. If that’s you, consider a balcony cabin or one with a picture window/porthole, so you can always see the sea. You may also want to ask your doctor for prescription-strength anti-nausea meds, but know that most ships have complimentary anti-seasickness tablets available in the infirmary.
How do I avoid crowds onboard?
With passenger capacities of up to 5,000+ people, today’s ships corral a lot of people into one (albeit large) space. But finding solitude and personal space can be easier than you think. During the day, when most cruisers are basking by the pool or socializing on deck, loners should look to the ship’s library and cocktail lounges, which are likely empty. Conversely, at nighttime, the pool deck has quiet spots (usually at either end of the vessel), and if you want to work out minus the crowds, the gym is largely deserted during dinner.