Your First Cruise: What to Expect

Part 3: The Fun Begins

The lifeboat drill has ended. Didn't everyone look grand, sweating profusely in their orange outfits? Now it's time for the cruise vacation to really get started.

You return to your cabin, tripping three people along the way with the dangling cords from your life vest, even though you'd been warned about this at the end of the drill.

Alas, your luggage might not have been delivered to the cabin yet. This isn't surprising when you consider that they have thousands of pieces to sort out and deliver. If (as we always do) you've packed a casual change of clothes for dinner in your carryon, along with your toiletries, it won't matter. Except for very rare exceptions, your luggage will make it to your cabin that evening.

Now it's time for the sail-away, so get up on deck for the sail-away party, or crack that bottle of champagne on your private balcony for you and your loved one. Unlike scenes you may have watched on the "Love Boat," there are no streamers or confetti flying through the air in celebration. Still, there's a special atmosphere that still gives me "moose bumps" as the ship pulls away from the pier.

Now you're off to the dining room for the first full dinner of your cruise. In the past, this would mean meeting the table-mates and waiters with whom you'd be spending dinners for the rest of the cruise. But more recently, with the advent of NCL's "Freestyle Dining," and Princess' "Personal Choice Dining," this tradition is starting to change. On NCL, you can choose your dining companions and times. Princess offers this option too, along with the traditional possibility of assigned dining times and tables.

When I'm not traveling with a CruiseMates group, I enjoy meeting my new table-mates, and I certainly enjoy spending the duration of the cruise getting to know them and the wait staff. On a recent cruise that offered open seating, I requested the same table most nights just so I could enjoy the same staff. But this is a personal preference. I'm sure many others will prefer free and open seating. It's like asking which traditional dining time is better. There is no correct answer!

In the dining room, you can order whatever you like, and as much of it as you want. If you order a dish and don't care for it, just send it back and order something else. If a dish isn't prepared the way you like, send it back. This is NOT a place to be shy! From your perspective, and from the staff's, it is better to remedy your dissatisfaction on the spot than to let it build up inside to the point where it ruins your vacation.

Having said that, don't expect many cruise lines to offer five-star Michelin dinners in their dining room. You are sure to have some meals you'll think are excellent, and some you may rate very good. But keep in mind this is a big operation that feeds up to 1,000 people per seating. The food is prepared banquet style, and cruisers must take that into consideration. You do, however, have a right to expect good food, excellent service and good friends--a combination that makes for a wonderful dining experience!

When you leave the dining room, you'll normally find a variety of activities from which to choose: showrooms with large-scale entertainment, lounges with cabaret acts or ballroom dancing, piano bars where you can sing along, discos for the late-night crowd, and casinos for games of chance. There's nothing quite as romantic as a stroll on the promenade deck, watching the glistening stars and moon with your loved one by your side. On the flip side, many relationships have started just this way.

After an evening of fun in the lounges or the casino, there's always another opportunity to eat again. Depending on the ship, this can vary from 24-hour restaurants, to midnight buffets, to finger foods passed around in the public rooms, to 24-hour room service. So far, no one is charging extra for these services.

It's hard to believe all this can happen in just one day, but it does. And when you return to your cabin each evening, the bed is turned down, a chocolate is left on your pillow and a copy of the ship's newsletter listing all the possibilities for tomorrow is waiting for you.

I have tried to describe in real terms what you can expect on a cruise. But sometimes cruisers may take the cruise lines' advertising too literally and expect nothing less than perfection. Heck, even I know when I fill up my car with gasoline, I'm not really putting a tiger in my tank.

When a cruise line promises to "exceed your expectations," don't take it to mean you should raise your expectations. I believe it's more important to expect great value for your vacation dollars. Then you surely won't be disappointed.

One cruise line ad you can believe says "It's like no vacation on earth." In my view, that applies to all cruises, and couldn't be more true!

Links to: Your First Cruise: What to Expect - Part 1Your First Cruise: What to Expect - Part 2

To ask Kuki a question directly, e-mail him at: [email protected]

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