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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

First cruise: Preparations for a smooth sailing

Ocean cruise liners are big, and each ship is unique, so get familiar with deck layouts and features before you board. (Photo by Alonso Reyes on Unsplash)

By Ceylan Yeginsu

You’ve picked a ship, booked an itinerary and chosen your cabin, but even with the hardest part done, figuring out the ship’s layout and how to get a spot on a popular outing can be daunting. Here’s how to prepare for a smooth first sailing.

Familiarize yourself with the ship, even before you board

Ocean cruise liners are big, and each ship is unique, so get familiar with deck layouts and features before you board. Most cruise companies have detailed plans and videos on their websites and there are virtual ship tours by cruise enthusiasts on YouTube and social media.

Once you’ve checked in and found your cabin, go on a scouting mission, identifying key areas such as the main dining room, pool and lounge area while keeping an eye out for hidden nooks. “The crowds are fun, but there’s going to be moments when you want to escape them and find a quiet corner to relax,” said Mandy Holden, a retired teacher from Florida who takes an average of five cruises a year. “Take time to explore the ship, you don’t want to find the best spots on your last day.”

Bring a carry-on

After you check your bag at the terminal, it may take several hours before it’s delivered to your stateroom. “Be sure to pack a carry-on with all of the essentials you might need during that window of time,” said Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of cruise news site Cruise Critic, who suggested including “medication, sunscreen, a bathing suit, a phone charger and other essentials that you’ll need as soon as you board.”

Sign up for activities in advance

Popular onboard restaurants, shore excursions and spa treatments can fill up quickly so book ahead. Many companies will let you book in advance through their website or app, but if not, head to excursion and activity desks soon after you’ve boarded.

“The theater productions are incredible and produced at a very high quality,” said Chris Thompson, an avid cruiser of 35 years based in London. “You can usually reserve a seat in advance for free, but if it’s booked up, try showing up 15 minutes before the start of the show when seats often become available.” Thompson also suggests going to a specialty restaurant on the first night when there is likely to be more availability. “Most people eat in the main dining room while they settle in, so chances are you’ll find a nice table at one of the special restaurants,” he said.

Bring your own drinks

Beverages are expensive on cruises and can add up. Many lines offer all-inclusive food-and-drink packages for a flat fee, which can save money, particularly for those who enjoy alcohol, but it’s also worth bringing your own. Be sure to check your ship’s policy as the rules vary from line to line, and passengers may be limited to a quota of beverages they can bring onboard. Many cruise lines have apps where you can check on your daily charges and make sure they are accurate. Taxes and service charges are usually added automatically.

Switch your phone to airplane mode

During your cruise, you will likely be crossing through several international telecom networks and could rack up significant roaming charges as your phone automatically downloads data. It’s best to keep your phone in flight mode and connect to the ship’s Wi-Fi if it’s included or if you decide to purchase a package, which usually ranges from $15 to $40 per day.

Catch a deal during a port stop

On longer cruises with several stops, it can be worthwhile to stay on board and make the most of the ship’s offerings during an excursion day. Many lines will offer deals on spa treatments, restaurants and activities during port calls, and it’s a good opportunity to use the ship’s facilities when they are less crowded.

Know that your itinerary may change

Itinerary changes are common on cruise ships and could occur at the last minute. Factors such as weather, wars and civil unrest can disrupt what ports you leave from or stop at, and cruise lines will either substitute a stop or spend longer at the next scheduled destination. Refund and cancellation policies vary between cruise lines, so read the fine print. Even if an itinerary change doesn’t result in a refund, some companies may offer cruise credits as a courtesy.

To have your trip fully covered, consider taking out travel insurance. “A cruise is an investment of money and time and should be protected,” said Stewart Chiron, a cruise industry analyst and chief executive of the news site “Besides providing protection for cancellation, policies also cover for interruption, medical, travel delays, property loss and are worth serious consideration,” he added. “If itinerary is a major determinant, consider a policy covering ‘cancel for any reason’ in case of major changes.”

Don’t be shy

The idea of being in the middle of the ocean with thousands of strangers can feel intimidating, but it’s a great opportunity to meet new people, particularly experienced cruisers who can offer tips in real-time.

Cruise Critic has Roll Calls for guests on a particular sailing to join and chat with one another in advance. Passengers have also used Roll Calls to form groups to plan independently booked shore excursions, which can be cost-effective.

“But be aware,” said McDaniel of Cruise Critic, “If you’ve booked an independent shore excursion that runs late, the cruise line does reserve the right to leave without you if you’re unable to return to the ship in time.” She notes that the ship will wait if you’ve booked an excursion through the line.

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