By Brandy Abalos


Cruises are popular with people of all ages because they allow an escape at any time of year. They depart from ports throughout the United States and have hundreds of destinations. While cruises can be fun and provide opportunities for adventure, there are some things you should know before you take off on an exciting voyage.

Book Activities and Excursions Before You Cruise
Cruises always offer certain activities for an extra cost. These may include shore excursions, spa services, specialty restaurants or shows. Reservations for these books quickly, often before the cruise even sets sail. By selecting which activities you would like to engage in before you leave home, you can ensure your spot, budget more accurately and maintain a reasonable schedule.

Arrive in Your Departure City at Least a Day Before Your Cruise
Many cruises depart in the afternoon; however, you will want to arrive several hours in advance. Additionally, you should plan ahead in case there are flight delays or heavy traffic in the city on the way to the port. If you are late for departure, the ship will leave without you. Don’t risk it. Book a hotel room in your departure city the night before your cruise takes off and leave early for the port.

Pack a Carry-On Bag
Your luggage will be collected and taken onto the ship during boarding. You will not take it with you. There could be quite a bit of time between when you board the ship and when your luggage arrives at your cabin. Pack any necessities like medications, travel documents, phone and laptop chargers and similar items in a small carry-on bag.

Turn Your Cell Phone on Airplane Mode
You may technically be in international waters during your cruise. International roaming rates on cell phones can be expensive. Even if you aren’t making calls, you should switch your phone to airplane mode. Alternatively, you can talk to your cell service provider about short-term international phone plans.

Find Out If Your Cruise Is All-Inclusive
The price of your cruise usually includes your room, meals, onboard activities and certain entertainment. You may be able to purchase packages that cover your drinks (including alcohol), internet and shore excursions. Don’t assume anything is covered unless your cruise package specifically states the item is included in the price. Even if your cruise is “all-inclusive,” you may still have to pay gratuities, taxes and port charges. Make sure you take extra funds with you to cover unexpected fees.

Expect Automatic Gratuities and Plan for Additional Tips
Many cruise lines use an automatic gratuity system. An amount of money is added to your ticket purchase and pooled to distribute among staff in housekeeping, dining and other areas that provide behind-the-scenes services. However, automatic gratuities are rarely shared with bar and spa staff. Tips are often added to services at bars and in spas. You should expect an additional 15% to 18% to be added for those services, even if you paid a gratuity amount with your ticket.

Pace Yourself with Daily Activities
Each day you will likely receive a newsletter or email of scheduled activities and events that will take place aboard your ship. There can be dozens of options, including movies, classes, arts and crafts, seminars, comedians, concerts and shows. These activities will also compete with time for meals, swimming, sunbathing and other typical vacation endeavors. Select your top choices and don’t stress trying to do everything available. You don’t want to be more exhausted after your cruise than you were when you boarded.

Keep an Eye on the Clock While on Shore
When you leave the ship at various ports, make sure you know what time zone you are in. You should have an understanding of exactly when the ship will depart. Passengers are usually required to be on board at least 30 minutes prior to departure time. The ship won’t wait for you if you’re late.

Don’t Take Fresh Foods Off the Ship
With food on the ship being free, it can be tempting to take a picnic lunch to the shore. However, that is not allowed at most ports. In fact, it’s such a serious offense that many ports have dogs sniffing bags and purses to ensure fruits, vegetables, meats and cheeses don’t make it off the ship. If you need to carry food on you constantly—like to avoid low blood sugar—you should opt for prepacked and sealed foods like granola bars.

Consider the Timing of Your Cruise
Before you book a cruise, consider the time of year you want to go on vacation. Some cruises have special pricing offers during offseasons, which can be attractive. However, you may not have as many options for shore excursions, shows or other activities during those times of the year. Other cruises may have a special theme at certain times of the year, like during Halloween or Christmas. If you don’t have young children, you might want to avoid cruising during regular school breaks. Similarly, if you’re not interested in partying with a bunch of college students, you might not want to take a cruise over Spring Break. Keep in mind, however, that a cruise ship is very large, so you will have opportunities to get away and relax no matter when you go.

Research the Ship and Cruise Line
There are plenty of blogs and YouTube videos showing specific ships that sail the seas. If you have questions about how specific cruise lines handle special requests or whether your ship has water slides, you can usually find this information online before you book. Many people have posted detailed reviews of specific ships, including information about the size of their cabins and bathrooms, quality of food and availability of activities. Do your research to make sure you will be happy with your vacation.

Have Fun!
The most important tip for first-time cruise takers is to have fun! Don’t stress about things you’ve left behind or whether you’re missing out on any of the activities. Make time to relax and take a break from your everyday life.