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Of the many advantages of cruising is the fact that the excitement begins long before you set foot on the ship.  Cruise lines have very colorful brochures to catch your eyes and if you book early enough and look around, you can catch some bargain that will catch your pocketbook as well.


This might serve as a primer for you first time sailors.  First, what's included?  There are 2 basic types of cruise arrangements.  One is cruise only.  This means that you are getting the cruise package that starts from the time you step from the dock.  This sounds like bare bones but actually you are getting a lot.  Your cabin will serve as your hotel room for the entire sail.  Included are: ALL your food (more about this later); your shipboard entertainment. and use of the facilities (exercise equipment, movies and etc.) Now the difference between this and the "Air inclusive" is that your vacation package starts the moment you step on board the plane bound for your port of embarkation.  When you land, you and your luggage will be shuttled off from the airport to the dock.  From the dock, your luggage will eventually find its way to your cabin (which normally will take from 3 to 6 hours).  When you leave you and your luggage will be transported to the airport in time for your return flight.


What would be the advantages and disadvantages of both?  Costs are one of them.  With the total package, you will be charged (in your total ticket) a "good" rate for the air-not a great rate, but a good rate.  Unfortunately you can do better by getting your own flight from a consolidator, but then again that is extra work on your part. 


While for some, it would seem better to travel and let the travel agents hash out the details and all and just give you the bottom line price. "All I've got to do is pack..." is what they might say.  For some this fits their lifestyle exactly.  On the other hand, for those of you who are more fugal (not cheap, there is a difference!) asking a few questions, spending a few minutes on the internet (like you are doing right now!) can save you quite a bit.


Then there is as they say in Real Estate, the 3 most important things: location, location, and location.  Where your cabin is located on the ship and the size and/or accommodations will also determine the price.  Let's start at the top (literally and figuratively): Suites, or multi-room cabins are THE most expensive floating real estate on any vessel.  You can and will spend Thousands of dollars to have one of these.  They are elegantly appointed. But don't think you will get anything more or will be treated any more special.  The Suites will eat in the same dinning room and eat the same food as the "cheaper" cabins.  These cabins by the way are located on the top or upper decks. 


Now heading down the list of things, I will let you in on a secret:  On modern cruise ships other than the expensive suites and a few smaller "upper and lower" cabins (this means literally bunk bed arrangements), the balance of ALL the rest are the same size!  The difference?  Location, location, location.  Where you are on the ship will reflect what you will pay.  Do you have an outside cabin (with a window or porthole) or an inside cabin (without).  Are you toward the bottom of the ship (lower decks) or toward the top (upper decks).


This sounds complicated, but it really isn't:  Now let's get nautical the front is "Fore" and the rear is "Aft".  Looking towards the front, (fore) to the left is "Port" and to the right is "Starboard".   The ship's engine room is located in the rear at the bottom of the ship.  The closer you are to the engine room the more of the vibration you will feel.  To be honest, it really isn't that much.  But when you are sleeping, the sound is multiplied.  The more you are towards the front of the ship (especially in the lower decks) the more of the "motion of the ocean" you will feel.  This translates that the most desirable cabins are located in the middle on the upper decks.


In pricing your cabin of choice the bottom line figure will include cruise fare and port charges.  Many of the ports of call will change taxes per person, just to come and visit them.  Many countries including the US will charge port taxes for everyone on board, just like the airlines will pass along an "airport facility charge"-it's the cost of doing business.


Well now I'm on board, what else must I pay?  For one your beverages other than coffee, tea and milk are not included as are gratuities (tips).  The gratuities are for your waiter, the waiter's assistant (aka bus-boy), your cabin steward and when specially services are provided, the head-waiter, wine steward, etc.  The cruise lines will give you a guideline as to what to tip: the waiter should get $5 per person per day, the cabin steward, $5.00 per person per day, the waiter's assistant, $3.00 per person per day.  So you are looking at about $13.00 per person per day on a cruise.  It is given out on the last night of the cruise.  For the most part, your waiter will give you the absolutely very best service you will ever get anywhere from any place.  It is my experience that for the most part, I will give them more than the minimum, especially the cabin steward whom you will seldom see, but you will know that he has been around.


For example as you go off to breakfast, upon your return, your cabin will be cleaned and straighten up.  There will be fresh ice in the ice bucket (and refreshed several times a day whether used or not)  if you need anything you can summon him and he will be right there to correct any problem that might occur.


Your waiter will seat you, pull the chair out for you, unfold the napkin and drape it across your lap, his assistant will keep your water glass full and not permit even some pepper that has gotten on your glass without replacing it (I kid you not!).  You will be pampered, fed with food impeccably prepared, and haunted with the fact that you can get what you want and as much as you want.  (most folks will gain weight when they cruise)


In addition to all of this, there is entertainment, Vegas style revues, comedians, magic shows, talent shows, you name it they will have it including gambling.  As soon as they are 7 miles out (international waters) the casinos will open with every thing from slots, to blackjack, to a shipboard lottery and a form of keno.  For children there are plenty of activities for them too. 


Then there are the ports of call, the Caribbean, Mexico, Alaska, Greece, Hawaii, and the list goes on. Count into your budget for land excursions.  Cruise lines will have their "approved" excursions at a fixed price. 


Here are some tips that I have acquired along the way:  When boarding, take with you outside of your checked luggage a change of clothes, because you will not see your luggage for some time.  There will be literally thousands of bags to be sorted and delivered.  This takes time.  Most ships now have a system called sign and sail.  This means for most purchases no cash will be taken.  Please note that a gratuity (usually 15%) will be automatically added to every check for sign and sail, so don't be compelled to give another gratuity if you don't want to.  But please remember, before you disembark (i.e. leave the ship) for the last time, you must settle up by cash or credit card.  If your flight is early (around noon is considered early), you will be permitted to be one of the first to disembark.  Luggage.  In my earlier articles, I stressed how to be realistic in packing.  For a 5-day/4-night cruise you really don't need a lot of luggage.  My wife and I have small rolling luggage (aka flight bags).  We can carry these on the plane, and there is no waiting for your luggage at the carrousel.  This also means you will have your entire luggage with you in the room when you arrive.  When you leave, there will be no searching through the all the luggage to find yours.  (N.B.  The cruise lines upon disembarkation will arrange the luggage by decks to make it a little easier) 


Booking: in general, the earlier you book, the more likely you will get what you want (and often more because they will usually bump you up a few classes).  Last minute booking can have its advantages, sometimes.  An empty cabin like an empty hotel room makes no money, and once the night has gone, they cannot recoup the cost.  Cruise lines want to sail with every cabin filled-even if they sell the cabin for much less than they advertise it for.  I have booked last minute (from a month to 2 weeks before sailing) and believe me I have had some real bargains.  In fact, I can say that I have never paid full price for what I received on any of my cruises.  Cruise consolidators are good for this type of travel, but remember this will be cruise-only and you must get your own airfare or transportation to the dock.  Trip insurance.  I have learned the hard way, get it, it is well worth every dime you spend on it.  Sailing cruise only?  Why not arrive at your sailing city a day early?  Yes, it will cost you a night in a hotel, but you will already be in town.  Transfers?  You can get them separately from the cruise lines.  They will take you from the airport to the dock and back.  Travel documents, shots and etc.  The cruise line will let you know what you need.  They will usually give you a brochure-read it as it will give you all of the info you will need for your port or ports of call.  Be sure to obtain or renew your passport in time to leave.  If you are really pushed for time, you can get your passport expedited and can receive it in as little as 24-48 hours.  Be mindful that this expedited service will cost, sometimes even more that the passport itself. 


After you have obtained all of your documents, tickets and passports, when its time to leave, it will be time to relax and enjoy your cruise.  Last minute tips:  Carry at least 1 change of clothing on your carry-on as you will more than likely not see your luggage until much later in the evening.  Carry enough personal items as these items will be more costly while on board the ship, or at your ports of call.  If you purchase "liquid souvenirs, most cruise lines will not let you take these in your cabin.  You will more than likely check these when you return on board and you will receive them the day of your arrival at home port.  The last thing is to relax, and enjoy your cruise.  P.S. you will probably be making plans for your next cruise right after you return.  So start keeping your eyes open for good deals.