What makes a cruise vacation different from all others? The fact that there are NO perfect cruises, ever. Something always surprises you. Some catastrophe will befall you. Something, out of your control, will frustrate you or a member of your family. Murphy’s law is still alive and has a bullseye on your upcoming vacation. The imperfect nature of a cruise vacation is what makes them most memorable. You just don’t think so at the time. Yet the memories are priceless.
What we all can ensure is that our next cruise, will be as good as it CAN be. This is done with due diligence on our part. The sheer nature of today’s cruising demands a new level of strategic planning. When I bring this essential aspect of cruising up on social media or even with my own family; I get the same negative comments. “You have to stop planning so much. Just live in the moment and go with the flow!”.
What everyone seems not to remember. I used to be a, “Live in the moment and go with the flow” kind of guy. By never planning and using no strategy, my vacations were expensive and, in most ways, below average. When I started to think it through a bit, the improvements were drastic. My goal from-start-to-finish; to enjoy the process and control what I CAN control. Once I have done that due diligence, I understand that, whatever happens is out of my control, “It is, what it is!”
Let’s go down the list of planning I do, have done and will continue to do in the future. In this outline I will also give my opinions, which might differ from yours. I will tell some very true stories to add some context to my overview.
Let’s get started:
· Online Check-In: All the cruise companies have a website for online check-in. You can eliminate so many hassles and planning mistakes by just using it. Consider it a cross check that you have everything you need well in advance. The greatest mistake made is not having a valid and up to date Passport (see subject below). The most important part to remember; even if the passport is valid today, it must be valid months after you came back from the cruise. Not many people know that fact and get turned down when attempting to board. Online check-in also allows for providing all the information for your guests and how their on-board expenses are paid. What is funny about online the check-in process is it seems when you get to the check-in desk, the day of the cruise, the cruise staff seem to ask some of the same question. Still it is a best practice to have completed all the information, way ahead of time.
· Make Online Reservations for Shows, Excursions and Specialty Restaurants Early: Cruising has sure changed a lot over the years. It used to be all you had to do is tell the cruise line what dinner seating you wanted, early or late? Today with specialty restaurants, Broadway type shows, excursions, go-cart tracks, laser tag and the list go on; if you want to choose your day and time; book right away online if possible. If you are staying in a suite or VIP area, you can do these online reservations before anyone else. Read the perks of your cabin to see the dates. This will allow you to know the benefits you receive with the cabin category you have chosen.
· Coordinating Dinning, Shows and Excursions: I hate rushing, especially on vacation. When I am on a cruise, I want to have a meal with conversation. If I just wanted to fill my belly, I would go to the below average buffet. After I dine, I want a drink or two. Then go to a show or the evening’s entertainment. Coordinating restaurant reservations with the shows times onboard takes some thought. Along the same lines, excursions that come back to the ship close to dinner, do not allow for bathing, drinks and relaxation prior to dinner unless you plan it that way. This category falls again on reducing stress, frustration and anxiety.
· Develop A Calendar for a Page-At-A-Glance: For every cruise, I develop an excel spreadsheet for every day, with times from 06:00 AM to 12:00 midnight daily. Everything I have confirmed reservations for are listed. Arrivals and departures of laid out daily. The flights prior and after the cruise are listed. This one document is the foundation of all the work I do pre-cruise.
· Travel and Trip Cancellation Insurance: I never considered travel insurance for 20 of my 22 cruises. Then I read so many bad stories about all kinds of things. At this stage of my live, my cruises are extremely expensive. Especially when we take our adult children to stay in our suites. Although I am quite healthy right now, I am also 62. I came to find out that when you are on Medicare; like I am currently, it does not cover medical outside the United States. Glad I found that out. Also, if you don’t book your air with the cruise line, if you are delayed or have a cancelled flight; they have the obligation to get you to next port of call. If you use Airline points for purchase your own ticket, you better have travel insurance. Stuff happens and I no longer am willing to take the risk or have the stress. My upcoming Europe 10-day cruise I used Delta Airlines points for Delta One business class seats. If my cruise come back to port two hours late, I miss my return flight. I just want my air fare in Delta One to be covered. I am thinking ahead.
· Arriving, the Day Before Embarkation: Do you have travel insurance, YES. Do you like stress on the first day of your cruise vacation, NO. Do yourself, your family, your cruise partners and your stress level a favor; fly or drive in the day before. Think it is expensive, it is not. Use one of the online hotel discount services like PriceLine.com. Get a hotel near the port. This allows you to chill, not worry and most importantly to me; get on the ship early. I like getting on the ship early to explore when very few passengers are on board. I also like to get a drink immediately. For those situations like reservations that you must make on board, you are first in line. I have heard every single excuse not to arrive the day before. You have been forewarned. I must add a note here. My best friends, wife and I are going on a 10-day Mediterranean cruise in October 2020. I told our friends that I was going in the day before. The husband refused to do this because of money ($450.00). I explained, you must buy transfers ANYWAY that will cost $175.00. It is a bargain to get the pre-cruise hotel because it includes the transfers. He said the cruise line will get them onboard because they booked the flights. I shared with him; the cruise ship will leave without them. They will fly them to the first port missing the first two-days of his cruise. He still refused. Let see what happens, hope he is lucky.
· Book Your Departing Flight 12:00 PM or after: Most cruise ships get in to port at 06:00 to 08:00 AM. Unless you have a suite or priority status, getting off the ship can be very time consuming. Then getting to the airport also can be tough. Don’t cut it to close. I will give an example so you can truly see my point. I booked a European 10-day cruise. I did a “cruise only” then used all my credit card and airlines points to get a Delta One™ round trip for my wife and myself. Delta One™ is the highest level or class from Delta Airlines international flights. The cruise comes back to port on the final day at 08:00 AM in Athens, Greece. My flight leaves the Athens airport at 12:00 PM. It is a 45-minute trip to the airport. If I miss my flight, there is no other flight until the next day. I also may not have a Delta One seat if that flight is sold out the next day. I am taking a risk however I know that upfront. I also have travel insurance. Another words, I have hedged my bets on this one.
· Make a Hard Copy Binder: I print out my cruise documents, travel insurance policy, reservation for everything, airline information, and the list goes on. I can’t tell how many times I get to the ship and someone contradicts the work and preparation I have already done. Most recently it was the Canyon Spa facility. I pre-booked at 25% discount spa treatments. The onboard spa folks said it was not valid. An email from the V.P. of Canyon Spa’s doesn’t lie. This is only one example of the benefit. My Binder is now famous. I make it a bit more elaborate every cruise. I love this stuff.
· Know the Cruise Line Rules: There are a couple of rules you need to know before booking your perfect cruise. It is important to add that every cruise line is a bit different. Do your due diligence on the cruise line you have chosen.
1. Cabin Prices Do Change: The price can go down prior to you paying your full balance. If it does, you can rebook, get free upgrades as well as perks, and or on-board ship credits. Check frequently. Oh yes, I know all about the computer programs that inform you about price reductions. I tried them and they were just OK. My frequent checking is much more accurate and fun for me.
2. When You Pay In-Full: Don’t look at the listed prices online. If they went down, you will be disappointed. Once you pay in full, you can’t change, and you won’t get the extra benefits. The reason why? The cruise line dropped their prices because they had to many cabins in that category. Their need to move what will soon be dead inventory. They have no incentive to give us a deal when they have ALL our money. About now, some of you are getting very angry with me. You have had the positive experience of calling the cruise lines after full payment and gotten benefits. I on the other hand have had undue frustration of having my travel agent or discount house do this for m. My experience is on multiple occasions, the travel agent and discount houses are way more of a hassle then I can accept. Book directly with the cruise line and have direct communication when you have any needs. Back on topic, the disappointment of not saving a few dollars makes my cruise that much more unappealing. I just don’t’ look now. “You do you”.
3. Upgrade Promotions: Look for those unique promotion. They happen; when they do, you might just get lucky. One happened for me on my next Oceania cruise to Europe in October 2020. I went from a Concierge level to a Penthouse for the same money. The lesson is; once the promotion is gone, even gone for a single day; they won’t honor it anymore, PERIOD. I saved $2,400.00 per my cabin.
4. Passports: I brought this up earlier, yet it needs to be mentioned again. Think if your passport is valid for your trip. You could be wrong. Every cruise line has different rules on when the passport expires. Do your research so you are not left at the port.
5. Late to the Ship from an Excursion: No cruise line wants to leave you at the port. No captain wants to leave a port while you are late coming back to the ship. Some folks, not many, want to test the cruise line rules and captains’ patients. Then they complain on social media telling half the story, so the cruise line looks bad. I have been on a cruise where two-couple that were traveling together were always the last ones to arrive back on the ship late. After this happened twice, the captain warned the couples personally. They did it again. The ship left without them. The couple met the ship at the next port and were irate. The lesson here is just like hoping your airline will wait when your incoming flight is delayed, cruise ships have more to worry about then just you or me.
6. Smoking Anything: Specifically smoking in your cabin or balcony. This is a sure-fire way to be kicked off a cruise ship. The smell affects anyone near your cabin. The real issue is fire. That is what makes the issue so dangerous. Cruise ships don’t mess around with smoking in cabins.
a. Vaping: Vape is also not allowed unless it is a designated area. This rule I don’t understand, and I am sure will change in the next few years. No smell or fire. However, the rules say they are no difference between vape and tobacco. My wife Vapes. She does it all the time and everywhere she goes. She has mastered the technique of stealth vaping. In four years, no one has ever seen her smoke her vape. I hate she does that but again, in my opinion, vape is different. Just my two cents.
b. Cigars: There are many cigar lounges on cruise ships now. I know, I frequent them. There are also outside smoking area’s for cigarettes and cigars. These areas allow the smoking. Therefore, please do not go up to folks in these area’s and ask them to put out their cigars. This has happened to me and I nicely informed them I was in the designated area. They were none too pleased. All I am saying is follow the rule.
c. Pot: Yes marijuana. It is illegal. Should it be, NO. Until it is legal, it should not even be a subject or question if it is ok to smoke marijuana onboard. Seem common sense, but it is not. I can’t tell you how many times on Social Media this question comes up. I used to post back and now I just skip it. My opinion does not count if the item is still illegal. Follow the rules.
Read Online Reviews: There are lots of places to read online reviews. I use Reddit, CruiseAdiict.com and CruiseCritic.com most of the time. The strategy for best use of reviews is the middle 80%. Top 10% love every element of their cruise experience. Bottom, 10% hate every element. The middle gives a much better perspective. Don’t just take one review as the truth. Get trends and patterns over several reviews. Look at all aspects of the cruise, not just the ship itself. Let me give you my categories to consider and some examples of what I have found in my research:
1. Complementary Restaurants: It becomes clear where the best food is located on a cruise ship. In addition, what to or not to order. I focus on the Buffet, 24/7 restaurant and Main Dining Rooms. What I have learned is to avoid 24/7 restaurants; consider buffet for breakfast; consider pool grille if folks like the burgers, Etc. In my situation, I rarely go to any complementary restaurants at all. I always have specialty restaurants or suite-only restaurants. I also rarely have a complaint with my food because of my choices. If you are not in a suite, just check the reviews. They will suit you well.
2. Specialty Restaurants: You would think since you pay extra or receive specialty restaurants as a PERK, they should be GREAT. You would be wrong. The best example is on both NCL Getaway and the Celebrity Equinox. The Steakhouses were both very disappointing. On the NCL Encore, the American Diner was also rated below average. Now I review online, every specialty restaurant prior to making a reservation. I also down-load the sample menus. This increases my enjoyment of the food experiences onboard. I rarely miss now and love sharing my food experiences.
3. Excursions: I am not a classic excursion person. I have had so many bad excursions, I have learned my lesson. The online reviews both good and bad, give you an idea if a specific excursion will suit your tastes. I have a personal favorite, which I will share. The All-Inclusive Cabana/Beach Villa/Bungalow on some ports and or private islands. These little day events allow for maximum flexibility, relaxation, pampering and family time. They usually have a butler and sometimes have an unlimited bar. Everyone’s tastes are different so make your educated selection. I would like to add when free PERK is offered as a benefit. Be very careful, like with Oceania. The Free perk of excursions are standard excursions. None of them were anything I would want to do. Now the special more expensive excursions were great. I choose to take the onboard credit over the excursion package and glad I researched it.
4. Cabin/Suite Types: The most important thing to remember is on mainstream cruises, regardless of your cabin/suite level, everyone is on the same cruise ship. Prices for cabins/suites can be as low as $500.00 all the way up to $6,000.00 plus per person. When I started cruising 40 years ago, we got the cheapest cabin on the ship. As cruising became more popular, the quality of the service, food, dinning, entertainment, pool lounge chair availability, etc. started to go downhill. The reason was both economics and cruise industry marketing. To drive new, current and future cruisers onboard, the prices went down, the PERK became a factor and upsells became much more common place. My wife and I started to want a better cruise experience, so we began the journey to the VIP Suite. One category at a time. Eventually we were in suites with butlers and private restaurants for suite-only guest. We now only go on a cruise in the VIP Suites area’s or with luxury/premium cruise lines at Penthouse or above. Before we book any cabin/suite, we review it even more closely due to the investment involved. Your tastes and budget may vary.
5. Entertainment: For the most part, cruise entertainment has been average, to below average, overall. Not the way it used to be for sure. Then I realized it WAS the way it used to be. I was just not going on the brand that had the best entertainment. When we first began cruising, we cruised on Norwegian (Now known as NCL) for the first five (5) cruises. The entertainment was great. Then we started to go on different mainstream cruise brands for the next 17 cruises. We finally ended up back on a large NCL ship called the Getaway. The entertainment was top notch. If you want entertainment, NCL and Royal larger ships seem to be the choice of most cruisers. Look it up for yourself.
6. Ship Renovations/Drydock: I suggest you see if the ship you are about to go on is scheduled for a Renovation/Drydock soon, choose it another time. The ship will show wear and tear. I also really feel like travel agents get some sort of incentive to put you on those older ships, even though I can’t prove it. If it just went through a drydock, wait a few weeks to months until the crew get reacclimated. I went on the Celebrity Equinox in 2018 right before it was going to drydock. Let me say the crew was rather awful, some of the venues were closed, the signs were wrong and the food, other than in the Suites restaurant, was below average. What is funny is the Equinox gets high marks on CruiseCritic.com all the time. I call it the curse of drydock.
7. Ship Layout: It matters how the ship is laid out. Especially the newer ships. With the very popular VIP sections to ships, the common areas seem to be taking a hit. The best example is the brand new NCL Encore. They took away a lot of the main pool area, lounge chairs and other common areas. In its place is laser tag and a huge go cart track both of which cost more. The upper deck where the prime viewing is now the VIP Haven Sundeck only for Haven clients. The VIBE Beach club which cost extra, is also on that deck. The cruise lines are looking for ways to improve their bottom line. To be fair, I am going on the NCL Encore in May 2020. I will be staying in the Haven and already budgeted for go carts and laser tag. Just my chose to do so. All this came with research so I will not be upset at the additional expense or in this category, ship layout.
8. Cruise Line Added Client “Pay Extra” Items:
a. Spa Treatments: My opinion, skip them. It is always way overpriced, and the quality of the treatments are average at best. The spa service is also known for the classic upsells. I literally hate all upsells. Think you are getting a bargain when you pre-book spa treatments with a quantity discount, think again. I did this on a recent cruise, and it made little or no difference. The onboard spa staff said my discounts would not work and tried to double talk me. I called the spa company while onboard on day one, prior to sailing; they called their staff to set them straight. I will never make that mistake again.
b. Thermal Spa: On this, I do recommend you consider it if you like quiet, relaxing and exclusivity in an adult only area. My only suggestion is that you do a thermal spa on a newer and larger ship where the facilities are better. You can also book a Spa Suite and the thermal spa comes with that as a PERK. If you have a few extra dollars, NCL has the Haven Spa Suite. It has all the VIP benefits of the Haven and the spa thermal suite comes as a PERK.
c. Mini-Refrigerator: The moment you get to your room, have the room steward empty all the “For Sale” items from your room especially the Mini-Refrigerator. Everyone thinks this stuff is free until you get a big bill at the end of your cruise. Then aspect of your perfect cruise is gone. The one exception is on Premium and Luxury cruises. The contents of the Mini-Refrigerator are usually complementary. They also get refreshed every day by your butler on those nicer cruises. You pay extra for this PERK, however less then what you might expect.
d. Specialty Shows: These are shows in a smaller venue on the larger ships, that usually come with drinks and possible a meal. Some are great and other are not. Learn before you book them. I rarely will do a specialty show that has a dinner meal. I am usually in the Suites and or specialty restaurant for my dinner meals. Just does not make sense. I would make an exception if I heard the show was spectacular. Only one way to find out, research it.
e. Activities: Laser tag, Go-Carts Track, Reality Adventures and Escape games usually cost extra. Some are well worth it and others it is better to just watch folks do them. A great example is the very cool Go-Cart Track. What they don’t tell you is regardless of your reservation time; you still must wait. If you bought an unlimited pass, the availability of the track is limited during port days. Folks that stay in the VIP section have a quick pass lane as do the folks that purchased the unlimited package. The lesson here is simply knowing what to expect.
f. Frozen Vodka Bars: Cool idea, I love Vodka and I would PASS on this item. They give you a winter coat, provide you with a vodka drink and provide you with a bill that is mind numbing. Better to go to one of these bars “on land” for the full effect.
Your Attitude: Cruises are what you make of them. If you get mad at the slightest thing, a cruise is simply not for you. Make a commitment to yourself that regardless of what happens on a cruise, you will make the best of it. When I read a review from someone that complains about a steak being over cooked and it destroyed their cruise, I am saddened. Some of the worst situation my wife and I has ever experienced on a cruise are some of our fondest memories. Over the years when I changed my personal attitude, my cruise experience got so much better. My issue now that I must work on is not what happens to me. It is over reaction to what happens to my family. I feel like I must protect them. I am working on it and getting better, slowly.
How to Handle Rudeness from Fellow Cruisers: You are on a huge ship with a lot of different people. Entitlement is a huge issue on cruise ships. How you handle it will make or break your cruise experience. Here are some examples of rudeness:
1. Hall Hogs: These are the folks that take up all the space in a hall not giving you a way to pass. They stand there like they own the hall having a group conversation. They either don’t see you or don’t care.
i. Ask firmly to be allowed to pass. This solves the issue most of the time.
ii. Tap someone on the shoulder so you can get by them.
iii. Tell them off. Say, “Folks are trying to get by, take the conversation to an open public area.” This is a last resort. I have done this when all else has failed.
2. Loud Folks: Whether in a public area or in their cabin. Some folks are just loud. My wife corrected me in the thermal spa one day that my voice was too loud. I had no idea and I quieted down immediately. There are many stories about couples in their cabins fighting verbally and or well, being loud doing other things that should be private.
i. Leave a note on or under their cabin door.
ii. Call the cruise staff to act on your behalf.
iii. Just let it go.
3. Drunk Folks: I am no prude. I love to drink. Sloppy drunk is unacceptable. If this person is not effective your time, just let them have their fun. If they get into your space and you have an issue with it, they take some action. If another person, hits on your spouse, you obviously must act on this. Let’s not get tossed off the cruise for a drunken fight, not a good idea.
i. Tell the bar manager quickly.
ii. Be firm but nice to the person asking them to back away.
iii. Move to another area and don’t get an attitude.
iv. Avoid the situation at all costs, if you can.
v. If you are the drunk one, buy me a drink.
4. Restaurant Storytellers: I love to be entertained; I really do. Just not while I am having a quiet dinner, it a lovely French restaurant. One such situation happened recently. A couple started by verbally and loudly commenting negatively on every single item they were served. Then the wife started to bring in other table to tell her life story. Seems her cruise was freebee because, in her words, “She Gamble so much!” Her husband keeps rolling his eyes at her and let us know how much pain he was in all the time. By the time this couple was done; we knew their entire life story. They finally left and all the table around us let us know how happy they were, we were next to these storytellers and not them.
i. Go with the flow and consider this to be an extra show you did not have to pay for.
ii. Ask the server to discreetly move you.
iii. You can try not to engage but that simple won’t work. These folks are professionals at what they are doing.
5. Lounge Chair Hoarders: This is the most famous of ALL rude people. Some folk’s think these folks do not really exist. That they are folk law. Wrong, they are alive and well. Rules mean nothing to these people. They go to elaborate means to reserve their front-row lounge chair by the pool. Custom made signs, huge beach bags, getting to the lounge chair at 06:00 am and one couple that had a towel that said, “This Chair is Reserved”. Before I give some solutions, let me say this is one where I WANT to get confrontational. It is just wrong and selfish for these folks to do this.
i. Ask the folks around the chairs if the folks have been around or are at the pool. Then move their stuff under the chair and take it for yourself.
ii. Skip the above step and simply move their stuff and put under their chair.
iii. Get the crew to move their stuff.
iv. If someone says they are reserving the lounge chair, say “I will move when your party comes back.” Then, take the chair.
v. My favorite thing is when the person holding the chairs for hours says something to me. Huge mistake on their part. My response is quick and simple, “These chairs are for using not saving. Read the rules provided by the cruise ship sometimes. If you have an issue, call the pool supervisor. I will be sunning in this chair if you want to find me.” Say this loud enough for the folks around you to hear it. I have gotten an ovation from the folks sitting close.
6. Theatre Chair Hogs: These folks are different then the Lounge Chair Hoarders. These folks were delegated by their family to save entire row of theatre chairs for their group. They are embarrassed and some of them look like they want to go under one of the chairs. In 22 plus cruises, these poor people wait and most of their family just does not show up. That is my experience anyway.
i. Don’t ask if the seat is available, just take it. If they say anything, just say, “This theatre’s policy is first come and first served.” Then order a drink.
ii. Tell a staff member what is going on and insist they address the issue.
iii. Just stay in a suite or VIP section of the ship. They have reserved seating for you for most of the show. Most folks won’t like this solution. It is very expensive to stay in those accommodations. I know that completely. The suggestion is a real tell of where the cruise industry is today. These higher priced suites and VIP sections of cruise ships are its most profitable cruiser.
7. Buffet Slobs: These are the folks that touch food and then done take them. They eat while on the buffet line. They use utensils for other items in the item in front of them. They cough and blow their nose near the food. They spill stuff all over the buffet and walk off. All these practices are completely unhealthy and unacceptable. This is a health issue, more than anything else. You must do something here.
i. Say, “Are you going to take that?”
ii. Take the item off the buffet and give to the attendant.
iii. Ask attendants to swap out utensils or clean the area.
iv. If it is someone else’s child, tell their parent. Children issues are very tricky whether on a cruise ship of not.
v. When you leave, share the experience with the buffet manager.
8. Unsupervised Children at the Pool: I left this for last because it is the most difficult to handle. It seems, some parents thank that the pool is the cruise ships babysitter. The parents seem to think this is there vacation and their kids can do what ever they want. The hot tubs are filled with kids splashing away, jumping in and out of them. Even on a recent NCL Haven VIP area, the kids were making this relaxing area a playground. I mentioned this on both CruiseCritic.com and Reddit Sub-directory. In both cases, I got yelled at for accusing all children are not well mannered. Not my point at all. The quality of my vacation could be damaged by this situation and it needs to be addressed.
i. Tell the staff if a rule is being broken. Running, jumping, splashing, ECT.
ii. If you see the child’s parents, say something. Choose your words carefully.
iii. Never address the child. That will lead to a confrontation you don’t want to have.
iv. Good luck with this one. Tough situation.
I know it seems like a lot of things to consider. Consider them ALL we must. For years, I was a professional speaker. Folks were amazed at my ability to always have an accurate and prompt answer to questions given. They were amazed that I could handle the rudest participant in a way that was non-confrontational and did not take away from the other participants learning experience. What all the observers missed was the hours, days and weeks of preparation and study it took to be in front of that room. It was not a gift; it was hard work so the event was as close “Perfect” as it could be. No event, like no cruise is ever completely perfect.
That is where my entire strategy for the Perfect Cruise Vacation comes from. Preparation for almost all the possibilities so a strategy is in place. This allows for far less mishaps and far more of what a cruise can be. I hope you enjoyed this article. Feel free to let me know if you have any question.
Always cruise well.