Saturday, January 20, 2018

Your Cruise Questions Answered

"I keep sailing on in this middle passage. I am sailing into the wind and the dark. But I am doing my best to keep my boat steady and my sails full." ~ Arthur Ashe

When I don't feel great I do one of several things. I organize something. I sew something. I write something. I'm sewing tomorrow so that has left organizing and writing. Both of which I've been doing this week.

Today's sailing topic is a question and answer chapter I'm working on. Since the first book's publication there have been lots of questions coming up. This new "Your Questions Answered" chapter is still a work in progress but here's where I am so far:

Must I have a passport?
It depends on your sailing. If you are a US citizen on a closed loop cruise (one that begins and ends in the same US port) that is traveling to Canada or Mexico or to the Caribbean, Bahamas, or Bermuda you are able to use two forms of ID instead of a passport. People without passports on these cruises mostly use a government-issued ID and original or certified copy of their birth certificate. Sailing without a passport could potentially be problematic. If for some reason you wind up having to stay in one of the ports (like because of an illness/injury or missing the ship) you’ll need a passport to fly out. If you are on an open loop cruise like from Miami to Los Angeles you will need a passport. And of course, if you are flying overseas to or from a departure port a passport is required. Check with your cruise line before departure to verify current requirements as security measures are fluid. But personally I think everyone should have a valid passport.

Do I take my passport in port with me?
But unless your cruise line recommends it, don’t take your passport off the ship with you. Unless you are traveling to one of the countries around the world that require a passport in port, your government-issued ID is enough.

What are port fees?
Fees are charged by local port authorities to go towards costs such as terminal and dock maintenance, security screening and parking. Port fees are charges in addition to your cruise fare and are paid in full with your final payment. These fees vary from port to port so the total cost charged is different, depending on the itinerary. If your ship has to miss a port for any reason you typically receive a reimbursement for the fee.

You really take only one suitcase?
Not only that but hubby and I share that one suitcase. We use one backpack for our carry-on and the one suitcase no matter how long our trip is. We no longer eat in the dining room on formal nights so we save a lot of space without having those clothes. We also roll our clothes and use packing cubes. You’d be surprised how much you can fit in those things.

We are taking three big suitcases. I need my shoes! We want to take it on and off the ship and don’t want the porters to handle it. Are we crazy?
Think of it this way - what if the airline allowed you to put all those suitcases into the overhead bin? You would take those suitcases (and carry-ons) from the car or curb at the airport to the ticket counter. Take them to security and put them on the screening belt. Take them through the terminal to your specific gate. Down the ramp to the plane and then back up the ramp when you arrive. Back through the airport to your awaiting transportation. Now do all of that without anyone helping you with your bags, no luggage cart, and no an escalator. (Personnel at the cruise terminal won’t let you go down the escalator unless you have a hand free. You’ll have to use the elevator - and there is usually only one - and it’s busy with people in wheelchairs.) Then what will you do with your bags if your cabin isn’t accessible yet? You’ll have to take those three big suitcases everywhere with you on the ship. So ask yourself the question – are you crazy?

I’d like to take a clothes steamer. Do I carry it on or do I put it in the bag that I’m giving to the porter?
More than likely neither, as it may be on the no-no list. Check with your cruise line about prohibited items. If you think you might try and sneak something in your checked luggage, think again. Bags are scanned before they are brought on the ship and prohibited items are confiscated. In some cases your items will be discarded and in other cases items could be returned at the end of the cruise. With one cruise line we’ve seen a table at disembarkation full of irons and blenders just waiting for pickup.

My friend said I should take a highlighter to mark my activities and duct tape just in case. Do you bring those items?
I used a highlighter for my first couple cruises until I realized it was one more thing being packed that wasn’t really needed. If I really want to mark an activity I just use a pen. As for duct tape, there is only one time I wished I had some. My sandal broke on a sea day and I wanted to tape it together until I could get to a store in port. Our steward suggested trying the Passenger Services desk. When my hubby explained why we need duct tape they had an even better solution. They took my sandal gave it to the upholstery department where it was glued it back together - for free. It looked like new and held better than duct tape ever could.

My neighbors came back from their cruise and told me I can’t wear my camouflage clothes on my cruise. Are they pulling my leg?
It depends on where you are traveling to. It is illegal to wear camouflage clothing and accessories, no matter the color, on several islands in the Caribbean. Camo is the official military uniform and officials take this one seriously, even for visitors. Your items could be confiscated and you could face a fine and/or arrest. While it’s okay to wear them on the ship it might be best to leave the camo clothes at home.

My cruise documents show the ship leaves at 4:00 p.m. What time do I have to check-in?
Cruises lines are required to submit their final passenger manifest at least 60 minutes before departure so you must be there before then. But don’t be one of those last passengers showing up. Be at the terminal at least a couple hours before departure.

The email I got from the cruise line said I can’t check in until 1:30 p.m. Can I get on the ship earlier? 
Most of the time. Cruise ship terminals open doors for passengers in the morning but you won’t be able to board until all the passengers from the previous cruise are off. If everything goes smoothly the first of the new passengers begin boarding before noon. In many cases your cabin might not ready until after 1:30-2:00p.m. Sometimes you can drop your carry-on in the cabin and sometimes the hallways are blocked off until the designated time. If that’s the case you’ll need to have your carry-on tag along with you until you can get there. Sometimes boarding doesn’t commence before noon..  And a significant delay in boarding occurs when the ship is scheduled for a Coast Guard inspection.

I’m trying to decide what time to have the shuttle pick me up when we are done with our cruise. What is the latest time I can get off the ship? 
Probably around 10:30 a.m. You will be assigned a disembarkation time but if it doesn’t work for you check with the Passenger Services Desk about adjusting it. A ship isn’t like a hotel with a check-out time of noon. Every cruise there are a few passengers who don’t leave when scheduled. Don’t be a straggler. Get yourself off the ship so the other passengers can get on with their trip!

When we were leaving Ft. Lauderdale there was a small boat with a big gun on the front of it circling our ship. Is that normal? It was kind of scary! 
Completely normal. It was a US Coast Guard Port Security boat. These boats are fast and can turn on a dime. While we’ve never seen them fire the gun we have seen them “go after” other boats that have gotten to close to our ship. Nothing to be worried about.

Right before we got to our first port there was a boat pulling alongside our ship and someone used a ladder to climb up the side of the ship. Who was that?
That was a local pilot climbing from the pilot boat to your ship. Ship captains are advised by local pilots when arriving and departing ports. These local pilots have knowledge about the conditions of the specific port and channel. In ports where another language is spoken the pilot can assist with communication with harbor masters and tug boat captains. After leaving port the pilot boat pulls up alongside your ship again and the pilot goes back onto his boat.

I’m planning on taking my 14 month old with me into the pool. Are swim diapers required?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have strict requirements for swimming pools regarding children who are not toilet trained. The majority of cruise ships prohibit children who are not toilet trained from using swimming pools and hot tubs. Swim diaper or no swim diaper, they are not allowed. Some ships have a baby-only splash pool specifically designed for non-toilet trained children. Check with your ship beforehand to know what facilities are available.

I want to take sandwiches and fruit to the beach for our lunch. Can I really not take food off the ship? 
It depends on the food. Fresh fruit and vegetables, meats, cheese, nuts and seeds, and even muffins are no-nos. Some ports won’t even allow a cup of coffee! In certain ports dogs check every single backpack, bag, and purse coming off the ship. Never fails that we see a pile of confiscated apples and bananas in a certain Mexican port. If you want to take snacks they have to be prepackaged and sealed by the manufacturer. Granola and protein bars, prepackaged cheese and crackers, and small boxes of cereal are okay. If you are diabetic plan accordingly.

If norovirus is a virus and antibacterial hand cleaner doesn’t work why do I need to take some with me?
Because the Norwalk virus isn’t the only germ out there. Antibacterial hand cleaner can help preventing some of the other bugs that cruise ship passengers are sharing. Even cruise ship personnel can spread the germs from cabin to cabin. We use disinfectant spray on things like door handles, light switches, and the TV remote. The steward cleans these surfaces but sometimes the stewards themselves are coming down with something. And when in port think about those hand railings and restaurant menus and the souvenirs you picked up to look at that four other people just touched.

I like to drink when I’m on vacation. Is it worth it to buy the beverage package?
That’s difficult to answer. A cruise line can have a number of different drink packages. You might have the option of a soda-only package, a coffee package, a wine package, or an all-inclusive beverage package. The all-inclusive package includes alcohol but may also include bottled water, sodas, and juices. Some packages have a limit on the number of alcohol beverages allowed per day. For example, a cruise line that we frequent has a 15 drink limit on alcoholic beverages. That’s a lot of drinks for 24 hours. But the price reflects it – currently it is almost $69 a day. And with those packages you can’t just buy the package for the sea days when you might be drinking more. The cost is charged every day of the cruise, even those days when you are spending the day in port. Will you be drinking five or more drinks every single day? Only you know if you will get your money’s worth. While we’ve never used the package, we know some people like the convenience of being able to pay for all your drinks upfront and drink whenever they want without worrying about the cost later.

Do I have to make show reservations before my trip? I see I have the option?
It depends on the ship. Some ships allow passengers to reserve seats to shows for free. Some ships have paid entertainment that can be reserved ahead of time. And some ships have first-come, first-served seating for the entertainment. If your ship has the option to book ahead, go ahead. Otherwise getting a ticket may be more difficult once onboard.

What does it mean when a ship is in dry dock?
When ships go to dry dock they are taken out of service – and out of the water – for a period of time. Ships are required to be in dry dock every few years. No longer being underwater, inspections and repairs can occur on the underside of the ship. Other routine maintenance and improvements may be made, too. A ship may get new paint job on the hull, new mattresses, redesigned public spaces, and additional restaurants. While dry dock itself doesn’t affect a passenger, being a passenger on the first cruise after dry dock cruise can. Contractors may still be working in areas so you may see materials/tools and hear construction noise. One time we did notice our cabin a bit dirtier on the first cruise out of dry dock. The contractor staying in our cabin didn’t leave until the last minute and the steward didn’t have the chance to clean it up completely before our arrival. The first cruise post-dry dock hasn’t been terrible for us but we avoid it when we can.

I’ve always wanted to snorkel but I wear glasses and my prescription is really strong. How would that work?
I’m the same way. Even though I have issues with dry eyes and can’t wear contacts, I do wear them during snorkeling. The eye doctor gave me a disposable contacts sample pack (maybe of 10?) to use on snorkel days. I put them in before I leave the ship and once my snorkeling is over I take the contacts out and put my glasses on. There are prescription masks you can purchase but they are a bit expensive. Some snorkeling excursions have prescription masks and full face masks, ones where you keep your glasses on, available.

I know you said everyone has to go to muster. But do you really have to?
Yes! The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) requires all passengers attend a muster drill within 24 hours of sailing. Muster drills are something to be taken seriously. What would you do if the captain came on the loudspeaker and told passengers there was a fire in the galley and ordered all muster crew personnel to the muster stations? Would you know to get back to your cabin and dress warmly and pack a small bag with your medications like we did? Would you then know where to go to evacuate the ship? Would you know how to put on your life vest?  Every cruise we see people talking to others, texting, taking pictures, and even sleeping during muster. Don’t be one of them. We’ve sailed enough and had enough emergency situations happen on the ship to know how important the drills are.

Do I need my purse on the ship?
Nope. Since the ship operates on a cashless system there is no need to carry the purse that holds everything but the kitchen sink. If you want to have a small bag with medication, tissues, lip gloss, ship card, and book go for it but leave those big purses at home. Because of safety in port, instead of carrying a purse consider using some type of cross body bag to keep belongings close to you.

My sister wants me to go on a cruise with her but I don’t do well in crowds. Help!
I’m not a big crowd person, either. The biggest tip I can give is to do things either early or at off times.
•When checking in for the cruise, don’t go around the noon hour. For a 4:00 p.m. departure, show up around 10:30 a.m. or around 2:00 p.m. And have a big breakfast before leaving for the ship. That way when you get on the ship you won’t be starving and needing to head to the over-crowded buffet.
•To avoid people rushing through hallways, go to Muster Drill early. You don’t have to wait until the alarm sounds.
•On sea days if you want to hang by the pool get there early to get the spot you want. I typically find a spot where chairs aren’t on both sides of me.
•On the ship eat either early or late. Stay away from dining establishments when they first open. If you eat at the buffet, find a seat first. Then one of you stays at the table and the other goes to grab food. Otherwise you might be wandering looking for a seat while your food gets cold.
•Spend some time during the day searching out the venues that are only used at night - like nightclubs. Also look for those spots outside where you can watch the sea go by. On one of the ships we’ve sailed there is a somewhat-secret spot we found that is usually empty.
•Go to the shows early. When the show lets out, let the crowd head to the elevators while you hang back until things clear out.

I took a four day cruise to the Bahamas and hated it. It was so noisy and crowded and people were drunk everywhere. I can’t imagine ever wanting to go on a cruise again.
Maybe try a longer cruise. Because of the shorter length and lower price you might find groups of younger people on the 3/4/5 day sailings. In our experience, people on a getaway cruise with friends frequently behave differently than if someone were sailing with a spouse on a 7-day cruise. There definitely is a different vibe between the shorter and longer cruises.

I’m reading about travel advisories in Mexico. Is it safe to go off the ship?
Only you can make that decision. Some passengers refuse to get off the ship and other passengers know the area and aren’t worried about it. Just like in some big cities in the US, foreign countries have places it would be unwise to travel to. If you do decide to get off the ship, stay in the tourist areas, keep your jewelry to a minimum, don’t flash cash, and don’t wear anything with the cruise line logo on it (including the lanyard). Don’t draw attention to yourself! Years ago every time the ship stopped in Ensenada we never left the ship. But once we finally ventured out we found our fears were unwarranted. We know where we want to go to eat and how to get there. Cruise lines don’t want to put you in harm’s way. If they determine a port is too dangerous they will change the itinerary.

I saw on the news about a ship going through a hurricane force winds. Will the ship ever tip over?
Could it? Yes. But the likelihood is slim. Cruise ships have stabilizers shaped like airplane wings underwater on each side of the ship. When the stabilizer sensors detect a wave pushing the ship on one side, the system automatically pivots the stabilizer to adjust the ship to keep it from listing. Since the stabilizers don’t help when the ship is going up and down front to back (called pitching), sometimes the captain will change course so the waves hit the side instead so as to take advantage of the stabilizer. Either way, hurricane force winds are no fun to sail through.

Does the casino on the ship give out free drinks?
Your local casino may have self-serve soda station or a server roaming around taking orders. It doesn’t work that way in the ship casinos. If a server asks you if you want a drink in the ship casino you will most likely have to pay for it. If you play quite a bit and introduce yourself to the casino host you might get some drinks. But they certainly don’t flow freely like they do on land-based casinos.

We are cruising during the college bowl season. Can I watch all the games on the ship?
No. You may be able to see some of the games but there is no guarantee that your favorite team will be shown. Cruise lines have contracts regarding what can be carried on the ship. Not with one of the network like at home, but a satellite at sea network. Not all games can be contracted through that network. If the ship personnel are aware of the importance of a game, they might be able to help. But being the majority of staff is not from the US they may not understand a college football game is more important to you than a cricket match. Generally the ESPN feed is ESPN International or ESPN Caribbean. Your best bet to see any of the games would be watching to see if it is carried one of these channels.

What is your favorite part of cruising? What is the thing you dislike the most?
We love the crew! We’ve sailed enough that we run into some of the same crew members more than once. We keep in touch with our favorites and now only cruise on ships where we know they are working. I’m not sure who is more excited when we show up – us or them. They treat us extremely well and we tip them well in return. Our biggest dislike would be the behavior of some passengers. We’ve seen families arguing with each other and parents yelling at their children. We’ve seen passengers snapping at other passengers over stupid stuff and others yelling at the staff working at the Passenger Services desk over stuff just as stupid.

I'm debating whether to include anything about sports being
 on the big screen since not all cruise lines have the venue.