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Thinking about trying a cruise? Advice for first-timers

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Tuesday, March 6, 2018 2:30 PM
Celebrity Cruises’ Equinox at dock in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The ship carries 2,850 passengers, features a real grass lawn, Sky Observation Lounge and specialty restaurants like Tuscan Grille and Silk Harvest.

ABOARD CELEBRITY EQUINOX – Honeymooners Zach and Alyssa Bynum of Louisville, Kentucky, had never been on an ocean cruise until last summer when they sailed aboard Celebrity Equinox.

They were immediately enamored with this shiny ship and impressed by the overall experience. They likely will cruise again.

“We enjoyed the atmosphere and experience, including the excursions and onboard activities,” said Zach Bynum. “We have definitely talked about doing another.”

After all, what’s not to like about cruising? Ocean views, exotic ports and beautiful ships with fine food, abundant activities and great entertainment.

Today’s ships are like floating cities, carrying thousands of passengers, and each year, new and bigger vessels are launched with ever more unique features. New ships offer everything from menus designed by celebrity chefs to sophisticated fitness centers and spas, kids’ clubs and recreation ranging from basketball to water slides to laser tag. Entertainment includes cabaret, dance clubs, blues clubs, Broadway shows, comedy and circus acts.

The Bynums booked their trip after talking with Zach’s grandmother, who’d cruised before. First-timers often book on the advice of family or friends, said Peter Giorgi, Celebrity Cruises’ chief marketing officer, and those first-timers frequently come back. “For someone to enjoy something so much that they can’t help but recommend it to their friends, family and loved ones is the greatest co-sign of all,” Giorgi said. “No amount of advertising dollars can buy that.”

Zach and Alyssa Bynum of Louisville, Ky., were among several couples posing on a top deck for photos at sunset aboard the Celebrity cruise ship Equinox. The honeymooners were on their first cruise.
Joe Kafka via AP

Another Equinox passenger, Aaron Humphrey of Columbus, Ohio, was on his first cruise, too. “I was surprised by how much there is to do on the ship,” he said while basking on deck in the warm Caribbean sunshine during a lazy sailing day between ports. “I was hooked on a cruise within the first couple of hours.” His wife Megan, who’d cruised before, said they picked the trip because “we wanted to chill and eat some local food in places we hadn’t seen before, and we decided that a cruise was the best of both worlds. “

But if you’ve never done it, the idea of a cruise might be daunting. Here are some tips for first-timers.

BookingChoose cabins according to your finances. Inside cabins are cheapest, ocean view is next, then rooms with a balcony, and most expensive, suites. If prone to motion sickness, lower decks and cabins closest to ship’s center are the most stable. Peruse layouts online before picking a cabin and to familiarize yourself with the ship’s features.

Every cruise line has a different style. To book the right ship for you, experts recommend using a travel agent. It doesn’t cost extra and might save money, because agents often have access to deals.

Packing, departure, boardingPlan your wardrobe carefully, depending on itinerary and expected weather. Laundry and dry cleaning onboard are expensive.

The days of required formal wear – jackets, ties, evening gowns – at dinner are long gone, though some passengers will dress up.

Pack a power strip. Most cabins have only one or two outlets. Shampoo and soap are provided but you may bring your own – and there’s no size limit like there is for flying.

If you’re flying to your departure port, arrive a day ahead. If your flight is cancelled or delayed, you might miss the sailing.

Have reservation documents in hand when checking in at the terminal, along with required identification such as driver’s license or passport. Lines can be long as departure time nears.

A mandatory muster drill – where everyone reports to a deck for safety and evacuation information – is held shortly after departure.

It takes a few hours for luggage to be delivered to cabins.

Smoking on ships is restricted to certain areas and not allowed in cabins.

What’s free, what’s notNo need for cash onboard. Cruises provide plastic cards (like credit cards) to charge purchases to your account and also as ID for exiting and reboarding the ship at ports.

Meals in dining rooms, buffets and poolside are included with cruise fare, and you may order more than one main course or dessert. Specialty restaurants charge extra and often get booked up, so make reservations ahead.

Water, coffee, tea, juice and milk are free. Alcohol and soda are not, except for the most upscale cruise lines. Cruises sell daily or weeklong alcohol and soft drink packages that may save you money, depending on your drinking habits.

Shows, gyms, water parks and many other facilities and activities are free. Some fitness classes are free, some are not. Spa services are extra. On a budget? Avoid the casino and gift shop.

Using cellphones at sea, if service is available, is costly. Consider putting phones in airplane mode. Most ships offer Wi-Fi packages but they’re pricey, so you might wait to go online until you’re at a hotspot in port.

On top of your cruise fare, cruise lines usually suggest an amount to tip the staff, or automatically add daily tips to your bill for distribution among room stewards, wait staff and others. Tips are automatically added to alcohol.

ExcursionsShore excursions may be booked through the cruise line, or you can go off on your own in port or hire independent tour guides. Booking through the ship guarantees you will not be left behind if your tour is delayed for some reason. If you go off on your own and return late, the ship will leave without you.

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