Cruise Reservations - Basic Requirements

| January 12, 2009

For beginning cruisers, here's a primer on the essentials: passports, transfers, cruise tickets and what's included in a cruise reservation.

So you've decided to take a cruise, but you are unsure about the process: What's included in your cruise reservations, and what are you required to know, bring and do in order to fulfill your cruise reservation obligations?

Cruise Reservation Basics

Before you select a ship and itinerary, make sure you have the proper documents to travel overseas.

Because almost all cruises will sail to a foreign port, you will need a passport or equivalent documentation to prove you are an American (or other) citizen. Leaving your country of origin isn't the problem -- it's getting back in when you return. So if you don't have the proper documentation, you will not be allowed to board the ship at the beginning of the cruise. The same cruise ship will be bringing you home, and it is their job to make sure you are qualified to re-enter the country.

Passport Requirements for Cruise Reservations

Cruise lines will take a reservation even if you do not currently have the proper documentation, but they will warn you of the need to get it before you attempt to board the ship. The best proof of citizenship for traveling worldwide by ship, air or even by foot is the good old passport. However, a passport is not required for many cruises originating in the United States.

Due to federal laws requiring most cruise ships to stop in at least one foreign port, you will need proof of citizenship to board the cruise ship. However, a new law called the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) says that U.S. citizens who cruise to Mexico, Canada or the Caribbean Islands can cross U.S. borders as long as they have a certified birth certificate and a state-issued picture ID, such as a driver's license.

This exception can save cruisers a lot of money, since passports generally cost more than $100 per person these days. However, there are a few caveats. WHTI only applies to people arriving in the U.S. by sea or land crossings. Arriving by air still requires a valid passport. This is usually not an issue for cruisers, but if there is an emergency and you need to fly home during your cruise, you have to go to a U.S. embassy and get a temporary passport. (Exception: children under 16 are allowed to travel with a certified birth certificate and state-issued picture ID at any time.)

A birth certificate is considered "certified" if it is issued by the clerk of the court for the county in which you were born, and it has a raised seal. No other birth certificate is accepted, including the hospital certificate with the picture of your footprints.

There are other alternatives to passports. Since 2008, the U.S. government has issued something called the Passport Card, available to people who want to travel overseas by sea or land borders, but not air. A few states (Washington) now issue Enhanced Driver's Licenses that also serve as proof of U.S. citizenship. These are accepted at any U.S. border despite the state of issuance. But you still need a passport if you have an emergency and want to return to the U.S. by air.

Cruise Reservation Documents

Once you have covered your passport requirements, you are ready to book your cruise. When you do, you will receive your cruise ticket. This is usually sent to you by mail or package delivery from your travel agent. Most of the time, you get a lovely booklet containing your cruise ticket, a brochure of shore excursions, descriptions of the ship, and luggage tags to put on your bags so they can be delivered to your stateroom.

If you want, you can purchase pre-paid transfers from the airport to the ship. If you do, transfer vouchers will be included with your cruise documents. Keep them handy so you can use them at the airport. A cruise line representative will meet you in the baggage claim area of the airport and take your transfer tickets. Once you receive your bags, put the cruise line's luggage tags on them and get on the provided bus to take you directly to the ship. The other option, which is often cheaper, is to take a taxi directly to the ship.

Once you arrive at the ship you should have your cruise luggage tags on your bags before you turn them over to the stevedore. This is the person who will deliver the bags to the ship, but he will not take them aboard and drop then at your cabin door. The ship's crew, specifically the room stewards, do that. (So do not feel compelled to over-tip the stevedores. They will say they are responsible for getting your bags to your cabin, but it isn't true.)

Only give the stevedores the bags you will not need for the next several hours. Keep your passports, cruise documents, valuables and medication in your carry-on bags to board the ship. You will need your documentation to board.

After you pass through security, you will check in for boarding. The agent will issue you keycards, which you need to get onboard. As you enter the ship, they will snap a picture of you that goes into your keycard (but only in digital form, you cannot see it). You will use your keycard for purchases on the ship, to get in and out of your room, and to get on and off the ship in port. Some lines call it a "sign & sail card."

Be sure to keep your keycard until you leave the ship (you can't get off the ship without your card, because they need to be sure you paid your final bill). Once you disembark the ship for the last time, they will give you back your card and you can keep it as a souvenir.

After you leave the ship, you will need to go through federal customs and immigration. This is the point where you really need a passport or equivalent documentation. You will also receive a customs card to fill out and show to officials, documenting what you bought during your trip and are bringing back into the U.S. The limit you can spend without paying duty is $800 per family. Beyond that, you must pay duty equal to about 16 percent of the value of your purchases. Certain items like alcohol and tobacco have other limits you should research before you buy. Each duty form applies to one family, not per person.

Summing Up Cruise Reservations

That is the long and short of a cruise reservation. Always make a checklist of the documentation you will need, and verify it long before you leave for your trip. Keep your documents in a safe place in your carry-on bags at all times. You never want to be separated from your official identification.

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