Travel 101: Cruises

Most cruisers are die-hard fans who literally never take another type of vacation. And it’s easy to see why – cruise ships are basically floating resorts where all that time you would normally spend traveling between destinations is actually part of the vacation.

We answer all of your cruise questions

But if you’ve never been on a cruise, it can seem like its own world – with its own rules and regulations and secret language. So here we’re going to lay out the very basics of going on a cruise, from start to finish and everything in between.

Do I need a passport to go on a cruise?

You may not NEED a passport (make sure you check anyway), but you should take one anyway. Besides the fact that you’re going to need identification and proof of citizenship to board the ship in the first place, a lot of ports require one and you don’t want to be stuck on the ship because you don’t have it. Plus, there are a bunch of different reasons why you might have to fly straight back home from a foreign port – illness, weather, whatever – and not having a passport is going to make to returning to the US a huge mess.

How much luggage can I take onboard?

For the most part, cruise ships aren’t like planes – there isn’t a strictly regulated amount of luggage you can take with you, and you’re not going to be charged for bringing too much. That said, keep in mind that cabin storage space can be tight. Everything, including your empty luggage, is going to have to fit inside and you don’t want to be tripping over it for your entire vacation.

If you think it’s banned, then chances are it’s probably banned. Things like guns and knives are no-brainers, but regulations vary from ship to ship about things like irons (generally a no) and hair dryers (generally a yes). Some ships allow you to bring a bottle of wine, and normally charge a corkage fee if you’re drinking it in a restaurant, but nearly all ban bringing your own hard alcohol.

What’s the process for boarding a cruise ship?

Boarding a cruise ship, also called “embarkation,” is like boarding an plane – there are regulations on when to arrive, how to check-in, and what security you have to go through. Most cruise lines have transportation available from the airport; otherwise they normally own a paid parking lot where you can leave your car.

Once you get to the cruise terminal, a porter can take your bags so you’re not dragging them around with you. The cruise line will give you a luggage tag with your stateroom number on them, make sure they’re attached when you arrive or you may be delayed filling out a blank one. If you’re flying in a day or two earlier, hold off attaching your tags until day of your cruise.

Most cruise lines will let you complete all of your pre-boarding paperwork online before you get to the pier to help speed up the check-in process. You’ll go through an x-ray machine and metal detector, just like at an airport, and then head to a check-in desk for registration.  Since cruise lines are a cashless society, you’ll also have to present a major credit or cash to cover onboard purchases like alcohol or spa services. You’ll be handed a boarding card that will literally be your money, cabin key, and identification for the duration of your cruise – make sure you keep it on you at all times. From there, depending on whether there’s a line, you’ll either wait in the lounge until your group is called for boarding or walk straight up the gangway onto the ship.

Once you’re on board, you can explore the ship, grab some food, or put in your reservations for dinners or spa appointments. Whatever you do, you’ll at some point be required to attend a mandatory muster drill to go over safety procedures for the ship.

What is and isn’t included in a cruise?

Generally your cabin, most meals and snacks, room service, activities and entertainment, ocean transport, port charges, taxes, and drinks like water, iced tea, coffee, and juice are included. Not included are things like optional shore excursions, babysitting, gift shop purchases, beauty salon services, spa treatments, casino gambling, video games, dining in specialty restaurants, drinks like bottled water and soda, and any alcoholic beverages. Tips are also not included, but you can either prepay these when you hand in your final payment or have them added onto your account at the end of your trip.

Keep in mind that since most cruise ships don’t take cash or credit cards, and you’ll be using your boarding card for all of your purchases. The only exception is the casino, where you can normally use cash for gambling. If you’re traveling with kids, ask if there are special cards with limits available so they don’t have unrestricted access to your credit card.

At the end of your cruise, you'll get a statement that lists all your purchases so you can settle up all at once.  If there’s any sort of dispute, make sure you speak with guest relations immediately. Otherwise, the cruise line will automatically charge your total to the credit card you registered with them on boarding.

What about meals – do I have to eat at certain times?

Cruise ships have basically four ways to eat meals – traditional dining, open dining, casual dining, and specialty dining.

  • Traditional dining is where you have an assigned seat at an assigned table at an assigned time. Being with the same people every night makes it easy to meet people, and helps your waiters remember exactly how you take your coffee and how you like your meat cooked.
  • Open dining is where you’re not locked into a certain time or table. The benefit, of course, is that you’re able to pick and choose when and where you eat based on how you feel that day.
  • Casual dining normally includes a buffet, and is open for when passengers don’t feel like sitting down to table service.
  • Specialty dining is by reservation only, and normally includes an extra fee.

There are also normally things like snacks, afternoon tea, or room service to make sure you never go hungry.

Will I get seasick? What happens if I do?

Most of the time, being on a cruise won’t feel any different than being on a plane or a bus. There are state-of-the-art motion stabilizers that cut down on movement, and advanced technology to make sure you’re avoiding rough waters.

If you think there’s even the slightest chance you might get sick, just go ahead and pack medication. If you forget it, you can either buy it at the ship’s general store or grab something over-the-counter when you dock at your next port.  All cruise ships also have medical facilities and doctors on staff to handle any minor illnesses that might occur.

Is there onboard Wi-Fi? Do I have to pay for it?

Most ships have internet cafés, and there are a few ships that also have in-room wireless access or laptops available for rent. You can expect to pay in order to go online, though, either by the minute or by purchasing a package.

You’ll most likely be able to make cell phone calls when you dock at a port, but like any other international trip you’ll be charged (sometimes very high) roaming charges. If you need to make an emergency call and didn't bring your phone, your ship should have a one you can use.

What happens when we dock at a port?

Your ship will dock for anywhere from a few hours to most of the day so that passengers can get off and explore or head out on shore excursions. You’ll either pull up right at a pier where you can walk directly off and onto dry land, or you’ll hop on a small boat called a tender that will ferry you over.

You can come and go from the ship as you please, but you’ll have to show your boarding card and go through security each time you board. Leave plenty of time to get back before the ship is scheduled to depart – they tend to leave exactly when they say they will, with or without you.

What happens at the end of the cruise?

The night before you disembark, you’ll be asked to leave your packed luggage (minus your carry-ons) outside your stateroom door. Your steward will provide you with disembarking instructions and either color-coded or numbered tags to attach to your bags. Ship personnel will take everyone’s luggage to the ship’s hold so it can be unloaded when the ship docks – there’s no way to retrieve your bags if you realize you forgot something, so make absolutely sure you don’t pack anything you need the next day. Once you’re off the ship, you’ll be required to go through US Immigration and Customs before heading home.

Remember, this information doesn’t apply to every cruise line. Make sure you check with your travel agent about the rules and regulations for your particular trip. For more information about cruising, you can read more in our Cruise Guide.

By Megan Ranney

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