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How to Cruise Like a Pro

Still on the fence about whether a cruise vacation is right for you? I feel you. I felt the same way.

My first cruise was way back when. At a time where I didn’t have to color these grays I’m getting…say circa…the dawn of the new millennium. It was a honeymoon cruise and was a special treat for the two of us just starting out on our new journey together. After our honeymoon, I took a break from travel in general. No cruises. No flights. A road trip every summer was about all I could handle between work, college, a new marriage and a toddler. And then, about five years ago, the tide began to change. I was no longer a 20-something, newlywed, college student with a toddler. I was a seasoned wife with a teenage daughter. A daughter and husband who loved boats and me, the girl who loves to travel. It was time to revisit cruising. And revisit we did…again and again. Six cruises in the past 12 months alone. It helps that we live on a peninsula surrounded by water with more cruise ports close by than we can count on one hand. But I digress. If you’re thinking of booking a cruise vacation (and I emphatically petition you to) here are tips that I wish I had known as a first time cruiser:

1. Power Strip – Put four or five family members in a stateroom and see how much jockeying for plug-in-time ensues. Or just pack a power strip. This way, mom can charge her phone at the same time that Dad is charging his camera battery, while one of the kids is charging a tablet. Problem solved. Use caution though – a power strip with six or seven electronic devices charging all at once might cause unforeseen problems. You should also consider bringing a brand new power strip (still in packaging), because cruise line personnel can confiscate a power strip that’s deemed to be potentially unsafe.

2. Cash in Empty Travel Shampoo Bottle – Most cruise lines are a cashless experience. You put a credit card on file and then charge everything to your room including drinks, souvenirs, and optional dining. You really only need your room key the entire time you are on the boat. Unless…you are visiting the casino. You will need cash if you are gambling and it’s also nice to have some while in port. Want an inconspicuous place to stash your cash? Try an empty travel size shampoo bottle. Simply roll your bankroll insert it in an empty bottle and screw on the top. You can even stash it in your toiletry bag in the bathroom.

3. Bring permitted alcohol and/or mixers on board – Cruises are “all-inclusive” vacations. That’s the beauty of them. However there are a few areas where add-on’s can really add-up. A few glasses of wine here and a cocktail here and there can lead to a big bill at the end of your cruise vacation. Check out your ship’s alcohol policy before boarding and BYOBooze. Most cruise lines will allow for you to bring at least one bottle of wine onto the ship. My husband doesn’t drink wine so he will bring his mixers on the ship and then order a bottle of his favorite spirits and have it delivered to the room on embarkation day. This method saves us a few dollars on each cruise we take.

4. Bring water shoes – You may want to throw a bathing suit and a pair of non-slip boat shoes that provide good traction into your suitcase and call yourself packed. Especially on a Caribbean cruise vacation. However, you may want to pack yourself a pair of closed-toe shoes. Some Carnival cruise ships have a SkyCourse, which is a super fun ropes course and closed-toe shoes are required. Additionally, those white sandy beaches may be rocky once you get out past the waterline. A cheap pair of water shoes will do the trick.

5. Magnetic dry erase board – I pick up one of these at the dollar store before every cruise. Most ships are made of metal. Especially the doors. Bring a magnetic dry erase board and stick it to the inside of the cabin door so that you can leave messages for your family members.  They are also fun to stick on the outside of your cabin door. We always pose a “question of the day” on the board to encourage other guests to interact with us. It’s fun to read all of the responses at the end of the day.

6. Don’t skip formal night – REPEAT: DO NOT SKIP FORMAL NIGHT! Gone, for the most part, are the days of tuxedos and ball gowns on “formal night.” There are still cruise lines that require formal wear, including sports jackets for men on formal night. However, in general, cruising has become more casual. Carnival, for example, is mostly Cruise Casual dress code in the evenings, with the occasional Cruise Elegant evening where you have the opportunity to get as decked out as you’d like. But don’t feel like you have to be dressed to the nines to enjoy that lobster dinner. Throw on a sundress and a collared shirt for guys and get your lobster on.

7. Ship is like a glorious ghost town on port days – On a longer cruise with multiple ports of call? Stay on the ship during a port day. No lines at the self serve ice cream dispenser. You might have the hot tub all to yourself. You might even get the pool to yourself! There are so few people on the ship during port days. This would be a great opportunity to read that book out on a lounge chair on Lido Deck in complete silence and take photos of the ship without anyone in your shot. I like to order room service for lunch and sit out on my stateroom balcony and people watch on port days. It’s fun to see all the families coming and going.

8. Skip the elevator, take the stairs – It’s vacation! They cook, they clean and you enjoy all the deliciousness. Who can turn down three-course meals and all night pizza and dessert buffets? Not I. Vacation calories don’t count do they? One thing that I have found that helps burn off some of those “vacation calories” is to opt to take the stairs instead of taking the elevator. You get a good cardio workout a few times a day throughout the duration of your cruise experience. Also, cruise stairwells tend to have a unique piece of artwork hung on each landing. It’s a good workout and a great way to get to know the ship.

9. Embarkation day discounts abound – Most folks are checking out the ship and getting settled in on embarkation day. Check out the “embarkation day” specials when you board. Spas most always have an embarkation day special.  Also, specialty restaurants people haven’t happened upon yet are easy to get reservations at on the first night. Carnival’s Steakhouse offers a free bottle of wine if you dine on embarkation day.

10. Pop up laundry hamper – While you’re at the dollar store picking up your magnetic dry erase board, think about picking up a cheapie pop up laundry hamper as well. They are easy to stow in your cabin closet and will keep all of the dirties corralled in a designated area. When you are packing up on the last day simply dump all the dirties into a suitcase and fold the hamper back flat and slide it into the suitcase or leave it on the ship. It was only $1.

11. Battery operated tea lights – Another dollar store find. These make amazing nightlights for bathrooms.

12. Always pay attention to SHIP’S TIME– You don’t want to be the knucklehead running down the dock as the ship is throwing off tie-lines to sail away. Ship’s time rules on the high seas. It doesn’t matter if you’ve sailed into a different time zone. Keep your watch set on ship’s time. Don’t rely on your cell phone, which may switch to local time if you are in port and take your phone off airplane mode. A wristwatch is always best.

13. Purchase an international cell package before leaving – My husband had a whopping cell phone bill after our last 8-nighter. Of course, if had he pre-purchased a Caribbean plan before we left port it would have been a whole lot cheaper. Contact your cell phone service provider and let them know where you will be traveling. They will likely offer a package to suit your needs.

14. Last minute deals – Almost every cruise I have been on has been at a discounted rate. Frequently check in with cruise websites to see what kinds of deals they are running. Last minute cruise deals can save you over 50 percent! Also, once you have one cruise under your belt you will qualify for a return-cruiser rate. If you book another cruise while you are “on” the ship you will likely get a better rate or reduced down payment amount.

15. Bring a backpack carry-on – Remember how we discussed BYOB in number 3? You are going to have to carry that on with you and not put it on your checked luggage. Checked luggage may take quite some time to arrive to your stateroom. Be sure to pack your bathing suit and change of clothes/toiletries in your carry-on so that you can enjoy the pool and have a change of clothes for dinner just in case your bags haven’t arrived by dinnertime.

This post was created as part of my collaboration with Carnival. As always, all of the opinions, thoughts, and ideas in this post are my own.