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The Essential Do’s And Don’ts Of Cruising

Enjoy the optimum cruise experience with these tips and tricks.

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The first time I was invited on a cruise, I imagined it would be like staying at a fancy hotel on the water. What I didn’t expect was long lines at the elevators and guest relations desk, slower room service, or the sticker shock I experienced when I received my bill on disembarkation day for all the little extras we’d enjoyed on the ship. But none of these inconveniences prevented me from booking another cruise — because, in the end, we still had a great vacation.

I learned from my newbie mistakes, and with a lot of research, I carefully planned my next cruise, which was far more relaxing and organized. If you’ve never been on a cruise but are considering one, you can avoid my first-timer mistakes by listening to the advice of other seasoned cruisers.

Here is a list of do’s and don’ts they recommended to me for the optimum cruise experience:

Cruising Do’s

*Work with a travel agent to plan your first cruise. They can help you select the correct ship, negotiate prices and simplify the booking process so you don’t get overwhelmed by all the details.

*Pay ahead for all excursions, Wi-Fi, specialty dining and drink packages. You can also pay extra gratuities ahead of time so that no surprise fees are charged to your cabin card. If you need to upgrade your Wi-Fi or fix any other issues, go to the guest services desk as soon as possible — preferably in the early morning before the lines get long.

*Schedule your flight to arrive a day before you sail to avoid airport delays, traffic and stormy weather that may delay you from reaching the port on time.

*Bring a cellphone charger but turn off your roaming data once you set sail to avoid costly fees.

*Bring a carry-on bag with a change of clothes, bathing suit or any essentials for the first day. Chances are your cabin will not be ready if you board early, and your suitcases might not be delivered until later in the day. Most ships also allow you to bring one or two bottles of wine or champagne (but not beer or other alcohol) and water if you prefer to quench your thirst without paying for it at the bar once you board. Check your cruise line’s policy to be sure.

*Confirm with the main dining room soon after embarkation about your dinner reservation. If you prefer to avoid sitting with strangers, most ships will accommodate you if you request a private table with seating just for your group.

*Keep your cabin card with you at all times — this works as your identification, credit card and ticket for everything you do onboard and offboard the ship.

*Use the stairs on the ship as often as possible (it’s a great way to exercise after indulging in cruise cuisine). Unfortunately, the elevators are often crowded, and you may have to wait 10 minutes before one becomes available.

*Check the pool and gift shop hours — their availability may vary considerably.

*Plan room service deliveries in advance. Remember, a cruise is not a hotel, and sometimes room service can take up to two hours or more.

*Consider buying these must-have cruise essentials: a lanyard (for your cabin card and license), a waterproof phone case, magnetic hooks, an over-the-door shoe organizer (not for shoes but for makeup, toiletries and the like), a decorative, outer door magnet — this will make finding your room much easier (all the doors look the same down a long cruise ship hallway!), cruise-approved multioutlet adapters, towel clips (or a mini clothesline), a small fan and a travel alarm clock that lights up (cabins are very dark at night).

For a cruise packing list, go here.

For clever hacks to organize your cruise cabin, go here.

Cruising Don’ts

*Plan a cruise to the Caribbean during peak hurricane months. Hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, but the most vulnerable storm months are mid-August to early October.

*Wait until you get on board to book special classes, excursions or other noninclusive activities. It’s often cheaper to book ahead since many cruises offer early discounts, plus you can avoid lines at the guest services desk.

*Overbook activities for your trip. Yes, there is a lot to do on a cruise, but you’ll need time to relax by the pool and enjoy all the amenities rather than cramming your schedule with multiple excursions, tours or classes. If the cruise ship docks at a port you’re not interested in exploring, stay on the ship and enjoy the empty areas that are usually crowded — pools, hot tubs, casinos, game rooms, and the free buffet.

*Skip the muster drill. Every passenger is required to attend (or watch a video) and then report to their designated area. It only takes a few minutes! Do this as early as possible after boarding the ship to avoid crowds later in the day.

*Use the ATMs on the ship, as the transaction fees are usually high. Instead, pay everything in advance and bring some cash with you, especially smaller bills for tipping, slot machines and the like.

*Waste your money buying movies for your cabin. Take advantage of all the free onboard activities instead. Most offer free movies, comedy acts, games, contests and Broadway-style shows.

*Overeat. The dizzying array of free food 24/7 is incredibly tempting, but if you consume more than average, you might feel sluggish or suffer from uncomfortable gastrointestinal issues. The same goes for alcohol consumption (those fruity drinks can be deceiving!).

*Overpack. On cruises to warmer climes, you’ll be spending most of your time in a bathing suit and cover-up, so all you’ll need is a few mix-and-match casual outfits, one dressy outfit, a light-weight jacket, comfortable walking shoes, sandals, water shoes and one pair of dress shoes (if there is a “formal night” on the ship). Don’t bother packing a ton of makeup or hair products —bring only your essentials.

You’ll be spending most of your time outdoors in the ocean or the pool, so all you’ll need during the day is good sunscreen! Cruising aficionados speak from experience. If you follow their advice, you’re bound to have a wonderful, worry-free vacation!

Want to know more? Check out AARP's cruise vacation guide.

Have you ever been on a cruise? Where did you go? Let us know in the comments below.

Follow Article Topics: Lifestyle