This is my second departure from the normal tone of my posts (the first is here). There will be nothing here of the search for happiness or the quest to understand, no descriptions of exotic places or lyrical flights of fancy. Just some practical advice for the independent traveler planning to take his or her first cruise (using my experience on a 5-day party cruise from Florida to Jamaica).
- Do pick a cruise with entertainment you particularly care for, instead of a “regular” party cruise. We picked a reggae cruise, which featured 17 live bands, including Half Pint, Steel Pulse, Collie Buddz, and Stephen and Damien (sons of the iconic Bob) Marley. Lying back on the top deck, looking at the stars, immersed in the live music — that was definitely the best part of our cruise.
- Do expect to be intimidated. A large cruise liner is HUGE. You think it is big, and it is a lot bigger. And there are way more people on it than you thought possible (and I speak as a person who has lived in big, crowded cities all her life).
- Do arrive early for boarding. A lot earlier than you think. You’ve probably done a lot of travel by air, and can estimate when to get to an airport: earlier than that. They are going to do an airport-style security check, but there will be many many more people than there are in the airport security line. (See #1 above.)
- Do book a room with a balcony. If you are a budget traveler, you’ll flinch at the up-charge, but think of it as the price for not going slowly mad. You’ll be stuck in a closed space with lots of people (see #1 above). When you need to get far from the madding crowd, your only sanctuary will be your room.
- Do wake up just before sunrise and take a walk on the deck. It will be deserted. There will be magic in the faint pre-dawn light bouncing off the waves; magic in the mast silhouetted against the pinkish-grey sky. You could also try a moonlight stroll, but you might bump into more than a few late night partiers.
- Don’t book a shore excursion. It will be unnecessarily expensive, and you will hate it. You’ll be herded into a shuttle, serenaded by unduly cheerful guides, and forced to go shopping in addition to whatever you signed up for. Do your research ahead of time, and figure out how to go explore on your own.
- Don’t try to be one of the first to get off the ship at your ports of call. Everyone else has the same idea, and you’ll feel like you got stuck in a stampede. Give it about half an hour before you venture out. If you have ignored my advice and booked a shore excursion, don’t be afraid you’ll miss it — it takes at least that long to organize the crowd, and they won’t leave without you.
- Don’t sign up for the beverage package. Unless you plan to be drunk the whole time, it’ll be cheaper to purchase your drinks individually. Also, the basics (water, orange juice, tea and coffee) will be free, and it’ll be a good time to break your addiction to soda.
- Don’t get over-excited about the food. If you are as greedy as me, you will end up making yourself fat and sick. Besides, having an unlimited amount of food available at all hours of the day and night palls in a few days.
- Do take the opportunity to unplug — the internet will be frustratingly slow anyway. Bring books with you, or download all your media ahead of time.
There you go! If you haven’t been on a cruise yet, don’t let this dissuade you from giving it a try — after all, the essence of travel is seeking out new experiences, and you might love it. And if you have been on a cruise, please share your story (and advice) in the comments below.