Here’s to a great first cruise

The Straits Times - - FRONT PAGE -

WASH­ING­TON You al­ways re­mem­ber your first – whether it is a kiss, a car or a cruise – be­cause of that heady com­bi­na­tion of an­tic­i­pa­tion and trep­i­da­tion.

For a first-timer, all the de­ci­sions that come with taking a cruise – ship, cabin, clothes, tip­ping and so on – can be over­whelm­ing, es­pe­cially when you are clue­less about how a cruise works.

Here are some of the things to take note to help en­sure smooth sail­ing, com­piled by Mr David Swan­son, pres­i­dent of the So­ci­ety of Amer­i­can Travel Writ­ers, who has taken more than 40 cruises in the past six years, and Ms Laura Daily, a free­lance writer spe­cial­is­ing i n travel and con­sumer is­sues.

CHOOSE THE RIGHT CRUISE

In­stead of spend­ing days re­search­ing cruise lines and itin­er­ar­ies, “find a travel agent who spe­cialises in cruises and, more im­por­tant, ac­tu­ally takes many of them”, Mr Swan­son says. “Each cruise line and ship has its own per­son­al­ity and a cruise spe­cial­ist can find you the best match.”

There are cruises tai­lored for sin­gles, cou­ples, fam­i­lies with chil­dren, older adults, party an­i­mals and ad­ven­tur­ers.

There are ben­e­fits to both mega­ships and com­pact ones. With more ameni­ties, restau­rants and di­ver­sions, large ships keep you en­ter­tained all hours of the day and well into the night.

Small ships (fewer than 500 pas­sen­gers) can reach ports the large ones can­not ac­cess. Plus, you get to know the crew and they get to know you by your name and pref­er­ence, be it hot English break­fast tea with milk or ex­tra bath tow­els.

PICK THE RIGHT CABIN

Cabin choices are typ­i­cally sim­ple: in­te­rior (no view), ex­te­rior (ocean view with a win­dow or port­hole), bal­cony (ex­te­rior room with a pri­vate bal­cony) and suite (a larger cabin of­ten with sep­a­rate liv­ing and sleep­ing ar­eas and a pri­vate bal­cony).

Scru­ti­nise deck plans to de­ter­mine the ex­act lo­ca­tion of the state­room you are be­ing sold.

Light sleep­ers will want to avoid one un­der­neath the night­club dance floor or just above the engine room. For max­i­mum sta­bil­ity, book a mid­ship cabin. That is where you will feel the least move­ment.

PACK LIGHT

No one cares if you wear the same out­fit more than once. Pack enough wash­able, quick-dry­ing clothes for half your voy­age.

Toss in a sweater; even on warmweather cruises, ships can get chilly. Bring a cou­ple of pairs of shoes – one for walk­ing and a dressier pair for the din­ing room – plus flip-flops for warm-weather cruises.

Some ships still have for­mal nights when ev­ery­one puts on the glitz, but you do not need to break out the di­a­monds or tux.

Women can get by with a cock­tail dress or dressy pantsuit and men with a jacket and tie. If you de­spise dress­ing up, opt for the buf­fet or con­sider this the per­fect ex­cuse to or­der room ser­vice.

One more pack­ing es­sen­tial: a dual-volt­age ex­ten­sion cord. Cab­ins have only a hand­ful of elec­tri­cal out­lets and they are not al­ways very ac­ces­si­ble. A sim­ple multi-plug is all you need to charge up ev­ery­thing.

EX­PLORE THE PRAC­TI­CAL­I­TIES

Empty suit­cases are typ­i­cally stored un­der the bed, but there is no rule that they have to be empty. Let them dou­ble as stor­age for rarely used gear and sou­venirs.

Read the ship’s next-day pro­gramme of ac­tiv­i­ties, events and shows be­fore you go to bed. High­light what you want to do and carry the sched­ule with you.

You can find a quiet place on the most bustling of ships, Mr Swan­son says. The lounges, dis­cos and theatres re­main open even when there is no en­ter­tain­ment. Look at the ship’s sched­ule to find the gaps in a venue’s use.

Your cell­phone plan’s rates do not ap­ply at sea. Turn off your phone or set it to air­plane mode to avoid ex­pen­sive roam­ing charges.

Ships of­fer Wi-Fi, but it can be pricey and slug­gish. Mr Swan­son buys the cheap­est pack­age avail­able and stretches his us­age. He down­loads his e-mail and then, for any that re­quire more than a one­sen­tence re­sponse, logs off, com­poses his replies off­line, then logs back on to send.

MAN­AGE YOUR MONEY

Un­less your fee is all-in­clu­sive, ex­pect to shell out money dur­ing the cruise and set­tle at the end of the voy­age. You may be dinged for WiFi; restau­rants other than the main din­ing room and buf­fet; shore ex- cur­sions; and spa treat­ments.

Even though you regis­ter a credit card when you board, it is wise to bring cash – ones, fives and 10s – to tip tour guides, for small pur­chases and for cruise staff mem­bers who go above and beyond.

GET SOME SHORE LEAVE

Shore ex­cur­sions are the rai­son d’etre for many a cruise. There are two schools of thought.

Some ex­perts say you should sign up for those of­fered by the cruise line; that guar­an­tees you will be treated with care and re­turned to the ship at the ap­pointed hour.

Oth­ers con­tend that cruise lines work with the same lo­cal tour op­er­a­tors you can book your­self, but jack up the price and scare you into think­ing the ship will leave with­out you should you be de­layed.

One sug­ges­tion is to take the mid­dle road. As noted above, ships post shore ex­cur­sion itin­er­ar­ies and pric­ing on­line long be­fore you sail.

Re­search ports and dig into tour de­tails: How long is the bus ride? Will you see the sights most im­por­tant to you? Is there free time? Then, com­pare prices. An ex­ter­nal provider may save you money and al­low you to max­imise your time.

Small ports are ideal to ex­plore on your own, es­pe­cially if the dock is within walk­ing dis­tance. Should walk­ing not be an op­tion, most ships pro­vide free shut­tles. And there is no shame in stay­ing on board. Those who do say it is like hav­ing your own pri­vate yacht all to your­self.

PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

Scru­ti­nise deck plans to de­ter­mine the lo­ca­tion of the room you are be­ing sold.

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