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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Live and Learn: Cruising 1.28.12

Cruising always seems like something of a luxury vacation…or one that is frequently taken by seniors and college kids. When I went on my first cruise ( I do expect to go on others at some point in the future), I didn’t really know what to expect. Cruising sounded boring to me, because we like to get up and go each day of our vacation. We were actually given the opportunity for a great deal, so we picked the most interesting sounded itinerary that would sail out of a convenient (read: affordable) port. The winner was Western Caribbean that stopped in Belize, Honduras, Cozumel and Grand Cayman. Now, I can’t really give you specifics on all cruises, as we only sailed on Carnival, but I suspect that (other) cruising doesn’t always go as planned, or even turns out to be what you anticipated at all.



While you could go in blind and see what happens, this Live and Learn might be especially helpful for those of you who have never cruised or have and feel like you are the only one who had things go wonky. We combined our cruise vacation with a short trip to Orlando, in order to visit Universal Studios’ Harry Potter World, but that’s a whole other post of mishaps. Hopefully, you can take something away from the following.

There is never enough time on a cruise ship. Cruises are like Vegas…Time slips away and before you know it, it’s midnight. How did that happen? You can clearly see daylight (or lack of it) while on the ship, but somehow you’ve had breakfast, lunch and dinner and it’s already time to go to bed to start over again the next day. With so many activities available, you want to get to as many as possible, so you plan your day accordingly and then realize your day is over all too soon. Was that just me? I mean, how can one be expected to get to 2 trivia sessions, a tutorial on doing the Thriller dance, watching a magician, playing adult dodgeball and laugh at two comedians all in one day? You're not, but different people have different tastes, which is why there are so many things going on at any given time...and they also happen multiple times during your cruise.

You can’t do everything. But you want to, right? Okay, maybe YOU don’t, but I tried to do as much as humanly possible. With cruise itinerary in hand, we would go from bingo game to art auction to welcome party to trivia time. Every day I planned to use the gym the next day and then, before I knew it, the day would be over. What the? Don’t plan to do everything. Just do what sounds fun – which should NOT be an art auction – and try not to overdo it.
The weather doesn’t always cooperate. Don’t have your heart dead-set on doing something at your ports of call, because you may not even get there. Just know it’s a possibility. We were all excited to get off at Grand Cayman to swim/wade with the stingrays. Unfortunately, when we got up, there was an announcement saying that the swells were too big and the weather was really bad, so we couldn’t pull into port and had to skip this destination. Sad news, but we had another “fun day at sea” and had to get past it. Also, because we booked with a reputable company that worked almost exclusively with cruisers, we were not charged and our deposit was refunded to us, as the weather and cancellation was not our fault.


Make time to actually use the gym. I really wish I had used any of the equipment or taken any of the free classes offered onboard. Even walking as much as possible and using the stairs a billion times a day, I still gained weight from having access to so much food. This is not what you want to happen on your vacation. Skip the morning or late night activity you were planning on “because you can” and go to bed a bit earlier and get up to use the gym while other people are stuffing their faces at the breakfast buffet.
Don’t drink on the ship. Are you cursing at your computer screen? I’m sure you are. I know lots of people look forward to a week of laying by the pool with a cocktail and then laying on the beach with a cocktail at their ports of call. Let me let you in on a (not so little) secret: alcoholic beverages are marked up 300% on cruises. I’m not making that up. You know how you go to a bar and gripe at a drink costing $6-8, when you could buy a bottle and have a dozen or more drinks for the price of two? Well, the cruiselines are worse, because they let you use your key card for everything and don’t really put prices on menus. THEN they add that little line for a tip, when you’ve already been charged 18% on top of the outrageous drink prices.


My husband insisted I get at least one drink on board, so I ordered a piña colada at one of the parties and when I was given my receipt to sign, it was almost $18! On top of that, it didn’t even get me buzzed. Imagine your final total – that they will be charging to whatever credit card you put on file – for an entire week of boozing it up. If you even went slow and ordered three drinks per day for seven days, that’s almost $400. FOR ONE PERSON. Perhaps you thought ahead and put $1,000 in your booze cruise fund, but more likely you don’t even have that kind of money to waste. Here’s a better idea of how to cut your drinking total:
·         Get free drinks at the captain’s reception. Everyone’s invited, you just have to put on some clothes and look presentable.
·         Get free drinks at the “goodbye, your cruise is ending” party. Hopefully, they will be better than the ones we had, that pretty much all tasted like window cleaner to me. Lime colada? Guck!
·         Sign up for an alcohol tasting. While you still have to pay for it, it will be considerably cheaper than any of the other drinks on board. I saw a tequila tasting for $24, where you got to sample EIGHT different kinds of tequila. $3 per drink is better than $18, in my opinion. If you know any sort of math, you know I’m right. You just saved $120 right there.
·         Wait until you get off at your port to let loose. The drinks will be considerably cheaper, possibly better, you’ll get to sample some of the local cocktails and you’ll be pumping money into a foreign economy. Try not to go wild and get blindingly, fall down drunk though, because you’re still representing your country (and who wants to be known as the idiot cruiser who made all your people look like jerks?) and you should be able to find your way back to the boat, as I suggest going a bit outside of the “recommended” port merchants. A bar in port is always going to take advantage of your eagerness to start drinking with higher prices than one that may be a couple blocks away.
·         Purchase cheap or unique alcohol in ports of call. While they will take them away to store in a locker until your cruise is over, you can enjoy it at home or on the rest of your vacation, if you’re extending it after your cruise. You can also just enjoy it in that port and save even more money. Make sure to pick up some sandwiches or other food before you start in on that bottle, though.
·         If you're a non-drinker, this is easy to ignore, but if you're a  recovering alcoholic/user, you will be happy to know that you can attend AA and NA meetings on the ship. I found that to be convenient and awesome for those that needed to get away from the many drunkards onboard and get back on track, because there is SO MUCH temptation to be found on a cruise ship.


Art auctions are not what they’re cracked up to be. I’m no sort of art connoisseur, but I have never heard of any of the artists these people were talking about being big deals in the art world, nor did I think any of it was worth paying hundreds or thousands of dollars for. I got sucked into the “win free prizes” element, which is all a big scam, if you ask me. I did win something…a plastic liter bottle that I could use to get a free drink at one of the ports of calls. I gave it away to another young couple who were looking to have a good time off the boat. I had better plans for my time. Also, that auction last, like, NINE HOURS! Okay, I think it was more like four, but surely my time would have been spent more wisely doing something else. Maybe actually using the gym.
Shopping seminars are a waste of time. Free is not always good. If you want free stuff, then go get it, but if you have done any research at all on your ship’s destinations, you don’t need maps and coupons to places in port that you won’t be shopping anyway. Sure, they will lure you in with “prizes!” (see post above) and “freebies!”, but keep in mind that the freebies are largely brochures and the coupons I just mentioned and then they will also try to give you free jewelry, or a voucher for free jewelry that you can redeem at merchants they want you to shop at. I found they weren’t very high quality, but if that’s not going to stop you from going “but it’s FREE!” then go get them and don’t get sucked into browsing the store and buying something else you don’t really want or can afford. I now have 10 charms for a charm bracelet I refused to buy, as well as several pairs of tanzanite studs that are almost visible.


Don’t get caught up in the gift shop crazy sales. I can’t even stress this enough. Near the end of your cruise the shops are going to have clearance sales and some will only last a few hours. If you didn’t like it enough at full price when you were there on Tuesday and Thursday, you aren’t going to like it at 75% off on Friday. Also, be aware of how much packing space you actually have. Eric got all excited about sale stuff that he bought bags and bags full of it, for Christmas gifts, mind you. Fantastic. Everyone is taken care of…and now we have bags that weigh 400 lbs. Actually, he was lucky I brought my newly purchased Travelon Pack-Flat Back Up Bag. It was its first test of strength and, luckily, it didn’t fail. In fact, I was surprised that the strap didn’t just disintegrate over the sheer heft of all our purchases. Once we got to Orlando, we ended up packing the majority of it and some of our other items we didn’t need with us into a box and shipped it home. Another unnecessary expense that couldn’t really be avoided at that point.
It’s okay to act like an idiot. I have a hard time with this usually, but this time I figured I was never going to see these people again, so why not have fun and look stupid. I mean, everyone else is doing it – which is not peer pressure, but joining in a non-dangerous activity with a bunch of strangers to make it more enjoyable for yourself. Sure, you could sit on the sidelines with your arms folded and a frown on your face because you hate the electric slide, but why ruin it for yourself and others. Go make a fool of yourself for once, even if you hate line-dancing or are totally bad at it (raises hand). Take pictures and point out how you did something totally out of your element, like played closed-eyes trivia and shook your hips like Elvis for your answer. Yeah, I did it, and it was fun.




Don’t book excursions on the boat or on the cruise line website. Either people are made of money or they have no idea they can even book their excursions on their own, but I found the rates for things through the cruiseline to be super high. Why would I pay $120 to swim with stingrays when I can get the same exact activity through a similar company for $40-50 per person? That is not a joke. I routinely found my own tours for 50-75% less through online companies. We saved a ton! You just need to make sure the company is reputable and has good feedback from travelers. Why are they so much less? The bottom line is that they get all the money. They don’t have to split it with the cruiseline, so you save huge.
Don’t tip. I am not one of those people. I’m not! If you read the fine print, you’ll see that everything that is a service to you on your cruise has added gratuity. You pay a set amount per day for your room steward and your waiters and everything else. You are charged 18% gratuity on anything that isn’t included in your package, like drinks, room service and even food in the fancy restaurants. If you add tips, you are making your expenses more for no reason. They count on you not knowing this, so you spend more.


A cruise is always going to cost more than the posted price. Sometimes double what you see. It’s true. A cruise with a going rate of $549, may end up costing you almost $1,100. It may not, but make sure you find out what port taxes and fees are before you get all excited to book and then find out the cold hard truth by the end screen just as you are about to hand over your credit card info. Our last cruise was “free” that we received through a timeshare presentation; however, we still had to pay taxes, and it still cost roughly $1,200 (and then whatever we paid for on the boat the wasn’t included, like the soda card – which saved us a ton – and onboard purchases…and our excursions). So, while the posted price may seem like a fantabulous deal, if you go into it knowing that isn’t the final price by any means, you will be less likely to be disappointed when you see the final total for just the cruise.
Have you been on a “budget” cruise? What are some of your tips that you can share from your experiences?
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