We all book our cruises and leave home with great anticipation, expecting a perfect, relaxing, and fun vacation. And most of the time, with a cruise, you're going to get as close as possible to meeting those expectations, considering that perfection in anything is unattainable.
But let's examine some of the things that occasionally might go wrong -- including what to do if they jump out and "bite you", and how to avoid them in the first place.
The growth of the Internet makes it easy to research the most current information about the ship or ships that you're considering – and it's free. Although you might stumble across conflicting opinions, keep looking and reading.
It's almost like scoring figure skating: Disregard the "top marks," i.e., posted comments about a ship that are so glowing they could be directly from cruise line brochures. Next, toss out disregard the "bottom marks" – from cynics who have absolutely nothing positive to say about the ship. Those are often from someone who had a problem they couldn't remedy, and who allowed that problem to ruin their cruise vacation; they use the Internet as a venue to vent their frustrations.
Once you have read enough unbiased and objective evaluations that you can narrow down your choice of ships, go to a travel agent. I HIGHLY recommend dealing with cruise-only agents, preferably one who has earned the MCC (Master Cruise Counselor) designation.
This means they have taken a certain number of cruises, and have personally inspected a certain number of ships, so they have some familiarity with the product. Unfortunately, many travel agencies have agents selling cruises who may have never been on one.
So you've made your choice and you're ready to book your dream cruise. Now, what can go wrong? And what can you do to prevent it?
Cruise Bookings and Confirmations
When you book and make a deposit on your cruise, use a credit card if possible. Ask the travel agent if this charge is billed directly to the cruise line. If they tell you that it‘s processed through their own agency account, find another cruise travel agent!
Before handing over your credit card number, insist that the travel agent fax or mail the confirmation from the cruise line showing it received your deposit, showing your booking number and the type (category) of cabin you booked. Have the agent's agreement to do so sent to you in writing, via fax or e-mail, before you finalize the transaction.
If that confirmation does not arrive quickly, call your credit card company and contest the charge, and find another travel agent.
Having the cruise line's booking number, rather than a travel agency's booking number, is very important. It allows you to go the cruise line web site and verify your booking information, and to fill out passenger information required before your cruise. And if any information in the booking is incorrect, it gives you the chance to fix it before it causes a problem.
Whenever possible, I would avoid booking your air through the cruise line. With one exception (which I'll discuss later), doing so means you are turning over control of flight times, airline choice, and routing to the cruise line -- and often paying more than if you booked directly with the airline. Unless you are flying across the country, or purchase a pre-cruise hotel package, you will be flying into your embarkation city the same day you are scheduled to sail. Even for short flights, if they are delayed for any reason, you stand a chance of missing the ship's departure time.
To make certain your cruise doesn't end before it begins, I recommend booking your air separately from your cruise. Whether using a travel agent or booking directly with the airline, you can choose the carrier, schedule and routing that best suits you. And if you have to fly, schedule yourself to arrive in port a day prior to your sailing date. Often the money you can save finding your own flights will be enough to cover the cost of a hotel for the extra evening.
If you feel you have to book your air with the cruise line, request "air deviation". This may cost up to $75 extra, but it allows you to choose the airline, schedule, and routing rather than just taking what they decide to give you.
If you have to fly in the day the ship sails, choose early morning flights. If something delays your flight, at least you have a time buffer to wait, or catch another later flight.
And be sure to purchase travel insurance that will cover the expense if you are delayed. It's less expensive than you might expect. Check out www.insuremytrip.com for comparisons of different insurers that cover cruise vacations.
Receiving your Cruise Tickets
Some cruise lines have begun to use e-mail for sending documents, which is pretty simple. But here I'll discuss those that still send document packages.
The cruise lines normally send out the document packages 10 to 14 days prior to sailing; they are normally sent to your travel agent, who presumably checks them for errors and forwards them to you. Though on occasion they can be sent earlier, 10-14 days prior to sailing is more the norm. But this can vary -- I've received documents as early as 60 days prior to sailing, and sometimes not at all.
Receiving the cruise documents gives us all a certain thrill. But if you have that all-important cruise booking number and have verified that you are booked, there is no reason to panic if you don't have your documents. It may add five extra minutes to your check-in process, but your name will be on the ship's manifest, and you will be able to board with relative ease.
If you arrive at the pier ready to hand your luggage to the porters, and you don't have your documents, the porters have a copy of the manifest, and will give you luggage tags to fill out noting your name and cabin number for delivery.
To this point I've supplied some tips to avoid the problems that can arise getting to the ship. It may sound like too much detail and work, but remember you are spending a considerable amount of money, and it's better to take some responsibility to safeguard your dream vacation.
In Part 2, coming soon, I'll get to some of the problems that could arise once you're onboard.