First-Time Cruiser Checklist

April 22, 2014
Eric Anderson, MD

,
Nancy Anderson, RN

People don't usually go on cruises only to celebrate frugality, but there are ways to reduce costs if one has to. Here's a checklist for first-time cruisers.

Photography by the authors

The Miami Herald ran a story in March 2014 referring to the Cruise Lines International Association June 2011 study that says—as the CLIA always does—many Americans have never gone on a cruise. (You can download the PDF file here.) Of the total US population of 304 million, only 24% have taken a cruise and only 11% in the last 3 years, says the CLIA.

The Herald quoted Dwain Wall, a CLIA spokesperson as saying, “…if we can get them on their first cruise—they will come back, multiple, multiple times.”

He got that right: a close friend of ours hadn’t cruised until 2007. He was unimpressed when our cruise ship docked in Hawaii, and he and his wife visited us on board while they were on their own vacation. He and his wife have now taken 7 cruises in 7 years, all but one on Royal Caribbean International. The advertising slogan “Come Back New” resonates.

We’ve taken a lot of cruises, including 3 with Royal Caribbean and, similar to countless former passengers, we’ve noted how much energy cruise lines devote to bringing their passengers back for another cruise. In our experience, the better the offers get for repeat customers, the more they cruise with the same cruise line.

But there are other reasons cruise lines develop a fan base. Despite a couple of years where several cruise lines and their passengers have taken a beating with unfortunate results and for the bad publicity regarding health and mechanical issues, a cruise is still a great vacation—and for busy physicians, it’s almost a perfect one.

Here’s why: Cruising simplifies a vacation. It removes a lot of the problems associated with personal travel. You can almost take off your watch and for doctors—who live and die by their appointment schedules—this, by itself, gives credibility to a cruise.

A cruise really does save you money, especially if you watch the extras carefully. A cruise ship is there to give you a great vacation, but it’s there also to make money—and captive customers can be careless at spending, particularly when the bill doesn’t come due till the end of the cruise.

Many of today’s cruise lines now cover gratuities onboard and on shore excursions and the better (more expensive) ones, like Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, include shore excursions themselves. Spa treatments, for some reason, cost more onboard than most passengers pay at home, but the restaurant meals and entertainment make up for that. And how many spa treatments does a normal person really need in, say, a 10-day cruise?

A detailed study of a cruise brochure shows what is included and what is not.

The shops! A parade. Your waiters really are there to serve.

Passengers seem ambivalent about alcohol coverage. The more expensive cruise lines cover wine at the table and other drinks (that’s one of the reasons they are more expensive), but customers who don’t drink feel they are subsidizing those who do—and they may be right. That’s one of the arguments cruise lines make for charging for shore excursions.

They say we charge only those who want the shore excursions. Why should we give our passengers increased costs by including a shore excursion they may not want to take? That’s a weak argument: everyone wants to take shore excursions. If the reason you are on a certain cruise is for a specific shore excursion, then you should book it as early as possible on the cruise or even before—especially if you’ve chosen the cruise for its destinations and ports of call rather than the vessel or cruise line itself.

Let’s talk about shore excursions.

The cruise line itinerary will indicate whether the ship is going to tie down at a harbor or anchor offshore. If you really do your homework, then you will get an idea of how long it will take to come in from your anchorage if by jetty, and if you will be arriving for your shore visit at a welcoming place with a lot to see and do, or at an industrial harbor some distance from any local attraction.

If your cruise ties down in a passenger-friendly place such as Vancouver, British Columbia, you can probably enjoy the city on your own; it’s an easy walk to the famous Empress Hotel and its equally famous afternoon tea. And you’ve saved money by doing it on your own.

Although, perhaps, a glorious experience for exiled Brits, afternoon tea has never been good value in any establishment. Confronted by the Empress’ escalated cost of C$50 to C$60 each, we settled for its Empress 1908 cocktail on the Veranda at a cost of C$13.

We do understand that one doesn’t go on cruises just to celebrate frugality, but there are ways to reduce costs if one has to.

The final attraction for cruises is also a double-edged sword: they are great for families. The less expensive, shorter cruises see lots of families. No wonder! Parents can unload children in ships with supervised programs for young people and not see them till dinner time.

Games room. Putting green. Rock climbing.

Not every older or romantic couple particularly wants to be around noisy kids, but the ships that offer today’s fun activities really do a good job of sharing ship space with different generations.

If you haven’t looked at a cruise brochure for some years you’ll be astonished at what activities are now offered by some cruise lines on their bigger ships. They’ve gone beyond presenting miniature golf and water parks to providing, for example, rock climbing walls, zip lines, and surfing machines.

Rock climbing. Ball park. Ice skating rink.

For the more sedentary, there is the best bargain on any cruise: the live entertainment. Then there are lectures on local culture and history; discussions on what’s coming on the next port of call; demonstrations from cooking to origami; art auctions that many cruisers say are best avoided; and recent movies that you meant to see on land but never got around to.

It’s fairly easy to lose guilt from over-eating. There are running/walking tracts on ships and as if that wasn’t enough you will find plenty of stairs. The elevators on most cruise ships are more than adequate but many passengers see the stairs as obvious ways to exercise. It’s interesting how the initial discomfort climbing stairs becomes less as the cruise continues.

What cruises are not is boring. Apparently—to the great surprise of long-time cruisers—that’s what many people who have never cruised feel might be a problem. It is the easiest concern for cruise companies to address. The biggest problem for most who love cruising is that they might eat too much.

“Welcome!” a cruise director once told us when he greeted his passengers the first night in the theater. “You come aboard as passengers and you leave as ballast!”

Stairs everywhere and on the Royal Caribbean Mariner of the Seas you can wander up them to a tribute to the Sound of Music and Julie Andrews.

Although a March 2014 Canadian review of 101 Ontario hospitals showed surprisingly little improvement with surgical checklists, here’s a suggested checklist for a friendlier subject: Cruising for first- timers.

Review the websites of cruise lines

Concentrate on the ones that are user-friendly and intuitive. You can guess if the website is a pain the cruise ships will be also.

Plan on doing a shorter cruise first (maybe one where air is relatively easy)

Bear in mind that such cruises will appeal to families, may be in the low-scale end of cruise lines, and may not be representative of what you’d care to have as a first experience.

We bit the bullet for a family member’s 80th birthday and bought 4 cabins for a Silversea cruise in the Adriatic. We paid $44,000. We wouldn’t recommend beginners do that as it would be too big an investment without looking, but we had cruised with Silversea before and knew our families would love it even if it came out of their inheritance!

Two of the 3 couples have already arranged a second Silversea cruise; they did love it.

Ask for cruise catalogues

Although, you may regret it: you will be bombarded forever thereafter.

Read the fine print

What is provided? Is air included? Can you get cheaper air yourselves? Maybe, but if the cruise requires a faraway airport and your personal flight is grounded by weather, then the ship will sail without you. You are protected if you let the cruise line handle air and transportation is provided from airport to ship—it often is not so for personal flights.

If you are using a specialized and experienced cruise travel agent (and they do exist still), the agent may get transfers from the airport to the ship covered provided your flight arrives within the constraints of flight arrivals for the cruise line air.

We often do our own air for Europe but surrender that to the cruise line for obscure or far-off destinations.

Don’t forget extra costs

Fuel supplements and taxes should be clarified upfront. If a visa is required it’s your expense not the cruise line’s: you may need a visa for private tours in Russia, and Rio may charge you $120 for a visa to get you from the airport to ship.

Requirements often vary so check.

Boring, beginners wonder? Never! Activities including those which show passengers the refinements of the kitchen keep guests busy. Things stop only at the end of the day. No wonder guests sleep well on cruises!

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.