For travelers in search of a stress-free vacation, cruising has an undeniable appeal. Instead of juggling flight, hotel and car rental bookings, passengers simply hop on board, unpack and let the crew take care of the rest. But even with the convenience factor a cruise vacation can offer, there's still a bit of a learning curve for first-timers. Whether it's selecting the wrong ship, packing too much or arriving late at your departure port, there are a few blunders – some minor, some consequential – that can have a negative impact on your vacation, and how you view cruising as a whole.
To help you avoid common mistakes, U.S. News asked experts at Cruise Critic and the Cruise Lines International Association, plus several of your fellow travelers, for their tips. With their advice, you'll be a pro in no time.
Booking the Wrong Type of Cruise
"Before you start looking for bargains and deals, you need to understand what cruise line fits your lifestyle," says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic. "Do your homework," Brown says. For example, if you're in search of a party scene, consider booking a weekend sailing to the Caribbean instead of a weeklong trip to Alaska, where the pace is slower and the focus is more on the glacial scenery and less on deck parties. For additional guidance, enlist the help of a travel agent. "The benefits are innumerable," says Charles Sylvia, CLIA's vice president of membership and trade relations, who has been on 76 cruises. As Sylvia puts it, booking a cruise takes a certain skill set. Travel agents will interview you and help you select a cruise based on your preferences. "Not only can they get you deals, but they can also provide valuable counsel," Sylvia adds.
Arriving in Port the Same Day Your Cruise Departs
You can eliminate some stress by getting to the port city at least a day in advance – arriving early is the cheapest insurance you can buy. If your inbound flight or luggage is delayed, you're giving yourself very little wiggle room to make it to the ship on time. Plus, you may even have a little time to explore before you set sail. Better yet, choose to sail out of a port close to home.
[See: The Best Cruise Lines of 2016.]
Neglecting Your Onboard Account
Thanks to the cashless payment system adopted by the industry, you'll hardly need your wallet or purse once you board. Your room key will double as a charge card that will allow you to purchase everything from spa services to cocktails. While this method is convenient, it also makes it easy to overspend. "I've seen many people get their bill the last night and realize they spent close to as much coming on the cruise as they did on incidentals," says Jeff Gulko, who has been on 32 cruises to date. "Remember: You chose to cruise because of the cost effectiveness, wide array of activities and shows, so don't blow the bank," Gulko adds. To avoid overspending, check your balance regularly. Whenever you're at a bar, the casino or a shop on board, ask the person manning the register for your balance, Sylvia says. You can also check your balance on the interactive TV in your stateroom. According to Sylvia, some cruise ships also have kiosks on board where passengers can quickly look up onboard charges.
Bringing an Oversized Suitcase
It can be easy to overpack for your first cruise, especially if you're sailing to destinations with varying climates, but you should resist the urge to bring your biggest suitcase. Your stateroom leaves little space for storage, meaning your oversized bag probably won't fit under the bed or in the closet. Instead, try fitting everything into two carry-on suitcases. Once you arrive at the port to check in, you can give one bag to the crew to deliver to your room and keep one to take to your stateroom. Remember: You have to drop off your luggage with the crew before you board. You'll have access to it only after it's sorted, which can take hours. According to Gulko, this strategy also proves advantageous on the last night of the cruise, when you're required to place your luggage outside the cabin door so the crew can sort it for disembarkation the next day. Sylvia offers another pro tip: When you're packing, save 20 percent of space in your suitcase for the purchases you'll likely make during your cruise.
[Read: The Best Cruises for Foodies.]
Forgetting to Book Things in Advance
"Take advantage of pre-booking any chance you get," Brown says, pointing to a recent Princess cruise she took in which she neglected to pre-book a spot in The Sanctuary, the line's adults-only area. By the time she got on board, all of the spaces were sold out. Whether it's reserving a table at a specialty restaurant or booking an in-demand shore excursion, you should pre-book some experiences before you board. That said, Brown also recommends leaving a little room for spontaneity to avoid feeling overscheduled.
While you're booking things ahead of time, you should also take some time to acquaint yourself with the ship. "Exploring the ships can be a fun onboard activity, but the more familiar you are with the ship before you sail, the less time you will spend walking around looking for specific locations for scheduled activities," says Scott Sanders, who created and runs the Disney Cruise Line Blog, an unofficial Disney Cruise Line news, information and photo blog. Check your cruise line's website for a map of the ship you'll be on and to learn more about its amenities.
Trying to Do Everything
With the variety of activities and amenities offered on today's cruise ships, it's easy to feel overwhelmed. But you shouldn't "view the daily program as a challenge," Sylvia says. "Remind yourself why you're taking the cruise and stay true to that," Sylvia adds. And keep in mind: Your first cruise is not your last cruise.
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