A Refresher Course for First Time Cruisers

| August 25, 2008

Kuki revisits his advice on what to expect and how to prepare if you've never sailed before.

Cabin Categories Cabin categories, and the manner in which each cruise line designates them, can be confusing. The basic breakdown includes inside cabins, outside or ocean view cabins (which means they have a window that won't open), balcony cabins (which have individual balconies), mini-suites, and suites. The cruise lines break those categories down into further divisions; their only purpose is to justify charging more for the same types of cabins within the same category. They generally charge more for the cabin types as you go higher in the ship. This is odd because the most stable cabins are generally low in the ship, but it seems people will pay more to be higher in the ship -- closer to the pool and buffet, I guess.

When you first enter your cabin, you'll ponder how you allowed someone to convince you to pay so much to spend your vacation in a closet. Unless you're booked into a mini-suite or suite, you'll find your cabin is perhaps half the size of a decent hotel room. But the cabin designers work some sort of magic to make these small spaces comfortable. You'll be amazed how much closet and storage space is built into your little cabin. In most cases, even the worst over-packer will find that there's a place for everything, and your empty suitcases can easily be slid under the beds for storage.

There's been a big movement during the last few years among most cruise lines to upgrade their beds, bedding, linens, and even towels. Many now feature different "label" custom beds, high-thread-count sheets, and duvets rather than blankets. On newer ships, long gone are the days you might find yourself with a cot and a blanket in the cabin.

When you first see the bathroom and shower in your cabin, a gasp may escape your lips as you try to visualize yourself having a shower. Though they may not be expansive, there's no need to worry; you will fit, and in many cases you'll be surprised that there's room for two.

What's in Store Sitting on the desk or on the bed in your cabin will be the ship's daily newsletter, listing all the dining and entertainment options available to you. There will be a new newsletter waiting in your cabin each night. Be sure to read them, and even carry them with you to refer to throughout the day. Many people even take a highlighter pen so they can note the activities that interest them.

Dining If you're like me and never want to miss a meal, you'll likely locate the dining rooms and restaurants quite quickly. Even without thinking, I seem to find all the food outlets on the ship within an hour.

It used to be that most cruise lines offered a main dining room, and assigned all passengers a specific table location and dining time. That system still exists, but there's been a trend in the past half decade to offer more flexible dining options. It's important to do some research and talk to your travel agent about this before booking, so you choose a ship with a dining system that matches the way you would like to dine. You have to decide if you want the same table and tablemates waiting for you each evening, or if you want to have flexibility of dining times, and even the option of selecting other dining rooms and restaurants -- and then find a ship that will satisfy that choice.

There is one benefit of dining on a ship that is not available at land-based restaurants: In a ship's dining room you can be as adventurous as you like when you order, because if you request something and don't care for it, the waiters will gladly return it to the kitchen and replace it with something else.

Do not be shy in voicing your unhappiness with regard to food or service. This isn't a restaurant you aren't coming back to, and their goal is to make every passenger happy, so speak to the wait staff or the Maitre d' to correct any problems immediately. They want to correct mistakes, but they have to know what they are, and it's your job (if you want to enjoy later meals) to tell them on the spot.

Most newer ships also offer alternate dining venues that require a reservation and a surcharge. Some have only one such restaurant, but some have two or more. Because these carry an extra cost, you can expect a higher level of service and better food. The surcharge for these facilities can run from $10 - $30 per person. It should be noted that when on the luxury lines, there's normally no surcharge for alternate restaurants.

Booze All the mass-market cruise lines forbid guests from bringing their own liquor onboard, with an exception made for wine. Most will allow guests to bring a couple bottles of their favorite wine onboard. If you would like it served to you in the dining room with dinner, they'll charge you a corkage fee (those presently run from $12 -$25).

The booze issue is a hot topic on all the Internet message boards. People often share tricks for smuggling liquor onboard. To my mind, this topic is truly unimportant. Liquor isn't such a big part of my vacation that I'm not willing to pay the going rate for the few drinks I enjoy on the ship.

While I don't want to encourage people to bring a distillery for their cabins, I will say that if you insist on bringing a bottle or two with you, there's no need for all the theatrics involved in trying to disguise it. Simply protect it against breakage with bubble wrap, or buy liquor in plastic bottles, and pack it in your checked luggage.

If the cruise lines were truly intent on policing their liquor policies, they would have the cabin stewards report any incidents of seeing liquor in the cabins. That they don't do this seems to mean they are willing to accept a small percentage of guests slipping their own onto the ship.

Summing Up As new ships join the cruise line fleets, they bring with them new options, amenities, and activities. With this article I've addressed the changes that a freshman cruiser might find helpful. If you haven't already done so, I suggest you read my first "What to Expect" articles to familiarize yourself with some of the information that hasn't changed and is still relevant. Just click here for What to Expect for New Cruisers.

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