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BEFORE YOU GO

Cruise Ship Boarding Made Easy

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Embarkation day is the best day of your cruise. After months (and sometimes even years) of counting down, the big day finally arrives and you’re ready to get your hard-earned vacation started. And while you could just show up at the terminal and wing it, we’re big advocates of having a game plan in place. A little bit of planning can help you deal with everything from arriving at the port to checking in and navigating security, all of which will get you onto the ship as quickly as possible.

First Thing’s First

Photo: Port Canaveral

There’s no such thing as planning too far ahead when it comes to making sure things run smoothly on embarkation day. The moment you’ve booked and made that first deposit, you can usually begin the online check-in process. This first step is crucial, as it’s where you could avoid the first major roadblock. As part of the online check-in process, you’ll be asked to provide information regarding everyone in your party, including passport information or other important identity-confirming documentation.

Trust us: The last thing you want is to arrive at the dock and not have proper documentation. We’ve heard too many horror stories about people who, just as their cruise is about to begin, find themselves having to deal with a lack of proper identification… which sometimes results in being unable to actually board the ship and go on the cruise.

READ MORE: Elderly Couple Left Behind Receives Dream Cruise

A few days before your cruise is set to depart, print out all of your cruise documents and make sure that everything is in order.  Do NOT put your documentation or identification in the luggage you’re going to check. Why? Because generally speaking, you will wind up handing your luggage over to baggage handlers outside the cruise terminal. Keep the documentation either in your carry-on luggage or, better yet, in a folder or envelope that someone in your party carries with them. (Honestly? Make it the most responsible person in your group. If Uncle Mike has a tendency to misplace everything from his glasses to his car keys, you definitely do not want him in charge of your travel documents.)

Research the terminal you’re cruising out of.

Photo: Port Everglades

We’re not suggesting you memorize the schematics of the terminal or anything, but the more you know about the facility, the better. Where’s the best place to be dropped off if someone is going to be taking you to the pier? (Just as importantly, where should they pick you up when you come home after your cruise? The drop-off and pick-up spots are often different.) If you’re going to be driving to the terminal, where’s the best place to park? (While parking at the terminal is definitely the most convenient option, it’s rarely the cheapest. You can usually find a nearby garage with way better rates!) If you’re sailing out of a terminal that handles multiple ships on any given day, make sure you know which of the numbered or lettered sections of the terminal your ship is going to be docked at. Even if you’re sailing a ship you’ve been on before out of the same terminal, don’t assume it will be using the same docking slip. Things can change depending on how many ships are in port that day, scheduling, and their individual provisioning/refueling needs.

Checking Your Baggage

Hopefully, you printed out your luggage tags at the same time as your cruise documents. Make sure to fill out and attach the tags before you arrive at the pier. Don’t be that person who holds everyone up because they need to borrow a pen and figure out how to attach the tags at the pier when everyone else is ready to hand their luggage over. If you’re flying or taking a bus before heading to the pier, don’t attach the cruise line luggage tags until you’re heading to the pier. Otherwise, the tags might get ripped or, worse, they might wind up confusing baggage handlers at the airport. The last thing you want is to find out that you’ve arrived at JFK, but your luggage is on its way to Hawaii. When it’s time to attach the luggage tags, make sure you secure them with some tape or pick up some plastic bag sleeves from Amazon.

Photo: flickr/Nicole Hanusek

Once you arrive at the cruise terminal, you’ll be greeted by the luggage porters. If you forgot the printable tags for your bags, they will have the ability to look up your information on the passenger manifest and provide luggage tabs. (If this happens and you have priority embarkation with the cruise line, make sure you let them know so they can affix the proper tag to your bag!)

It’s always a good idea to extend a couple dollar tip to the baggage porter.  After all, these are the people who are going to make sure your luggage actually gets onto the ship. So, I repeat, it’s always a good idea to extend a couple dollar tip to the baggage porter.

READ MORE: The Ultimate Guide To Cruise Tipping

Going Through Security 

cruise terminal operations

An empty cruise terminal.

Now that we’ve gotten you to the pier and made sure your luggage is going to be onboard, it’s time to make sure your bags aren’t traveling solo. Remember how earlier, we emphasized the importance of having your cruise documentation? Well, here’s where it really starts coming into play. At most ports, you’ll approach a cruise line agent and show them your boarding pass and passport (or other identity-confirming identification, such as a driver’s license and birth certificate). Once they’ve verified that everything is in order, you’ll be directed to the security checkpoints.

If you aren’t directed to a particular security line, look for the shortest. Most people tend to follow the person in front of them (and studies show that the majority of people tend to go to the middle or the right, almost always ignoring the ones to the left), but that might not be the smartest or quickest decision.

Photo: Carnival

The security checkpoint at the cruise terminal is not like the TSA checkpoint at the airport. You do not need to remove your shoes, liquid items, or electronics. You do, however, need to empty your pockets of anything that might set the metal detector off including keys, change, cell phones, etc. Also make sure that you aren’t carrying any items which are not allowed, a completely list of which can be found on the website of your cruise line.

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This is probably a good time to talk about smuggling liquor on board. Look, many people try and do it. Whole mini-industries have cropped up supporting efforts to subvert the rules. But there’s a pretty good chance that if you attempt to bring booze on board, you’re going to be caught. They will confiscate the liquor and, especially if it’s in a carry-on bag, you’re probably not going to get it back. Some lines do allow passengers to bring on a limited amount of wine, often charging a per-bottle “uncorking” fee if you want to enjoy it in the dining room. Again, what is (and is not) allowed can be found on the website for the cruise line on which you’re sailing.

The Check-In Counter

Once you’ve gone through the security line, you’ll be directed to the appropriate check-in counter. Usually, this is not a one-size-fits-all situation, in that passengers who book through the casino or who have achieved a higher status level with the cruise line will have separate check-in lines. Everyone else will generally be filed into one or two lines. (It’s worth noting that thanks to constantly-evolving technology, the check-in process is becoming ever smoother. It’s easy to foresee a future in which facial-recognition software, already being used in limited capacities by some lines, will make checking in as easy as walking through a scanner.)

Photo: Carnival

If you’re in the general boarding line, you’re likely to spend a little time there… especially if you arrive during a peak time! If you want to avoid the rush, get to the pier early. (Of course, this will often mean you just wind up sitting in the terminal after checking in, as the ship may not be ready for boarding.)

When it’s your turn to approach the check-in counter, have your cruise documentation and passport ready. You’ll be asked to fill out a passenger health form, and the person behind the counter will take a photograph which will be used to identify you each time you get on and off the ship during the trip. The person behind the counter will also help you set up an onboard spending account, which most people do via credit card. The account will be linked to your keycard, allowing you to charge items to your onboard spending account. At the end of this process, you’ll be presented with your keycard. If the ship has not yet begun boarding, you’ll likely be given a boarding number and sent to a general holding area where you’ll wait for them to call your number. (It’s sort of like taking a number at the deli counter and waiting for them to call it, but in this case instead of a pound of ham, you’re being given permission to board the ship and start your vacation.)

Boarding the Cruise Ship

When at last it’s your turn to board the ship, there will usually be one final step. As you head toward the ship, carry-on luggage in hand, they will ask to see your keycard so that they may scan it. Why? This is how they know when everyone is onboard. You’ll notice that during the course of your vacation, each time you get on or off the ship, they do the same thing.

At this point the only thing left to do is head up the gangway, take a deep breath and relax. Your vacation is finally starting.

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BEFORE YOU GO

How Cruise Lines Boost The Price Of Your Vacation

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When it comes to budgeting for a vacation, we all try to get the most bang for our buck. But over the past few years, the cruise lines have gotten incredibly good at figuring out ways to get a little extra money out of passengers… and most people willingly fall into the trap!

Why We’re Willing To Pay Extra

When is a hidden fee not so hidden? When it’s promoted openly and accepted without question! Increasingly, cruise lines have found that people are more than happy to shell out a little extra money — above and beyond the initial cost of their cruise — months before even setting foot on a ship! And there’s more than a little bit of psychology at play when it comes to how and why the cruise lines market these extras!

In a recent interview with Business Insider, Royal Caribbean CEO Michael Bayley shared how pre-cruise spending helps boost the bottom line. “What we found,” he explained, “is that, if you spend $100 before you sail, that’s spent and gone. You don’t even put it in your budget for when you’re on vacation. So every pre-cruise revenue dollar that we generate will often generate 50% more on-board revenue for that customer.”

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If you pay for your night at Royal Caribbean’s Chops Grille in advance, you’re more likely to spend more on other things.

As Norwegian Cruise Line’s President and CEO Frank Del Rio explained during a conference call last year, “When folks have money to spend on board, they spend it in restaurants and in shops and, primarily, shore excursions. We’ve seen this wide-spread move away from buying things to enjoying experiences.” And this, he said, had led to a pretty significant uptick in on-board spending in 2017.

Shore excursions — such as the Sentry Hill Zipline on St. Marteen — are a big source of revenue for cruise lines.

How To Avoid Breaking The Bank

If you’re looking to stay within a budget, it’s important to make sure that you’re keeping track of all the expenses associated with your cruise. While it’s all well and good to get a great price on your stateroom, make sure you know exactly what’s included… and just as important, what isn’t! What additional expenses will you incur along the way? Will you be staying on the ship during all or some of the port visits, or is doing shore excursions a major part of the experience for you? Is it worth purchasing a drink package, or would you be better off simply paying as you go? Will there be pre- and post-cruise expenses such as airline tickets and hotel stays involved? Are the daily gratuities included, or do you need to factor them in separately? While trip insurance isn’t required, it’s highly recommended and could ultimately wind up saving you a whole lot of money!

READ MORE: 17 Extra Costs To Factor Into Your Cruise Budget 

While cruise vacations are a fantastic bargain, they are also a bit of an investment and should be treated as such. Just as you wouldn’t simply blindly purchase a stock in which to invest (we hope!), it’s worth taking a little bit of time to make sure you know how much you’re spending and what you can expect in return!

Do you find that you spend more on the ship if you’ve already paid for your other expenses? What are some of your best money-saving tips? 

 

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BEFORE YOU GO

Review: Day Use Hotel App Helps Cut Down Post-Cruise Airport Time

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Chances are that if you’re a regular cruiser, you also spend a fair amount of time in airports. And you probably dread doing so. Especially if you’ve just had the most amazing cruise and now your post-vacation buzz is immediately going to be killed by the fact that you have to sit at the airport for six hours waiting for your flight home.

That’s exactly the prospect I was facing recently after a great cruise out of Miami. I’d gotten a great deal on a flight home, but it wasn’t departing until 5 p.m. Since we had to be off the ship by 10 a.m., that left me with a whole lotta time to kill.

It’s worth noting that like a lot of people do, I was up pretty late the night before. So, the prospect of sitting in the airport all day was definitely not appealing. Instead of renting a car for the day or looking for an excursion, I turned to Google in the hope of finding a hotel that offers day rates.

And that’s when I discovered Day Use, a company the lists hotel properties that offer day passes. While you don’t have to download the app to use it, I prefer apps over smartphone browsers, so I opted to download the app… especially since it seemed like the kind of thing I’d get more use out of in the future.

Finding My Hotel 

While you can easily use the app to find a room the day you need it, you run the risk of nothing being available. Instead, it’s probably smarter to try and find something in advance. Once you’ve booked your flight and know when you’ll need a room, it’s a good idea to try and book your day pass at a nearby hotel if you want to make 100 percent sure that you have a place to relax.

The app is about as user-friendly as they get. Simply type in the city you want to find a room in and the date, and a variety of options are presented. They’ll typically give you the time range during which the room is available for use (for example, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., which is pretty common) and the price.

In this case, I wound up going with the Homewood Suites by Hilton. For $69, I was able to have access to the hotel room from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. which was a great deal, especially since this particular room was a suite with a kitchen, living room, and a large bedroom. My flight was at 5 p.m. and the hotel was only about 10 minutes from the airport, which meant I could check out at 3 p.m. and still get there with time to spare.

Notes on the Booking Process

  • Once you enter in the name of the city you want to find a room in, you’ll be presented with a list giving you the name of available hotels and prices. You can also click to see where they are on the map.
  • Search options allow you to look at the choices based on which is nearest, which are the site’s top picks, which are priced lowest to highest and which are priced highest to lowest. (Although really, who asks to see the highest priced first?)
  • To find out more about a specific hotel, click on it. You’ll find a lot of information, including what amenities are offered and which aren’t. For example, some will show that they have a shuttle to the airport, which is definitely a great perk.
  • If you’re picky or want to do something specific – like maybe get in a workout or sit by a pool – make sure to see if the hotel in question has the facilities you’re looking for!
  • When it comes time to book, you’ll be given the option to either create an account (which will make it easier to make future bookings with fewer steps) or do so as a guest.

It’s important to note that no credit card information is required to use the app. Once you find the hotel you want, you’ll be prompted to enter your first and last name, email, and phone number. You’ll then get a text and email confirmation.

Arriving at the Hotel 

If you poke around the site a bit, you’ll find that at most of the hotels, the earliest check-in time available is 10 a.m. If the hotel you selected has a hard-and-fast 10 a.m. check-in time, it’s probably worth staying on the ship and enjoying breakfast rather than rushing to be one of the first people to disembark. Some do offer the option of letting the hotel know what time you plan to arrive, so if you want to check in earlier, it’s worth seeing if that’s an option. But once, having gotten off the ship earlier than I should have, I tried checking into a room at 8:30 a.m. and none were yet ready.

Checking in is pretty much exactly the same as if you were staying for the night. You simply tell them you’ve rented a room for the day and they’ll look up your information.  It’s always a good idea to have the email or text confirmation available in case they don’t have the paperwork yet, especially if you did a booking on the same day as you are arriving.  They will take your credit card for incidentals. Like any hotel, they will place a temporary hold on your card and then release it a few business days later. The amount they hold varies based on the individual hotel’s policy. When I stayed at the  Homewood Suites in Miami, they placed a $75 hold on the card I presented them with.

What I Liked Most About Day Use 

There’s actually a lot to like about this app, even aside from the fact it means you don’t have to hang out at the airport all day! For one thing, the app does not require you to input any sensitive information when holding the room. In this day and age, when it seems as if we’re hearing about data breaches on a regular basis, that’s a real plus. The simplicity of them texting and emailing you the confirmation is great because it gives you what you need immediately.

If you decide to create an account on the app, the functionality improves even more. For example, it allows you to bookmark your favorite hotels, look at your past history and, as I mentioned before, it really streamlines the process the next time you want to use the app. All in all, the app (whose website can also be accessed on your laptop at dayuse.com) is one I’d definitely consider a must-have for all cruise travelers.

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BEFORE YOU GO

15 Overlooked Cruise Experiences

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The best cruising advice I often hear people give on the show is “don’t try to do everything, because you just won’t have enough time.” It’s true – there’s never enough time to enjoy every little pleasure on a big-ship cruise because there’s so much happening all at once. That being said, there are some experiences that many cruisers overlook or discount, and we’ve made a list so you don’t miss them on your next cruise.

1. Tastings

Who knew there were so many different types of margaritas?

As a sales incentive, the shops onboard the ship will often hold free liquor or wine tastings to incentivize guests to buy some products. There’s no obligation though, so why not go and get some free alcohol. You might just try something new that you like.

2. Onboard Classes

From cooking classes to yoga to salsa dancing and mixology lessons, there are endless classes available onboard for almost any interest. Most of these are free and also come with free giveaways like food or alcohol tastings, souvenirs, or other swag.

3. Chef’s Table

So many people pass on the Chef’s Table because of the extra surcharge to dine, but if you can afford the extra cost then it’s an absolute must-do. The Chef’s Table is more than just a 7-course dinner; it’s an experience that includes a behind-the-scenes tour of the galley, entertainment, private meet and greets with the top chefs, and carefully selected menus of mouth-watering food that you won’t find anywhere else on the ship.

4. Adults-Only Spots

Carnival Sunshine

Serenity deck on Carnival Sunshine

Not that kids aren’t great and all, but the peace and quiet of the adults-only deck on a cruise ship – plus the lack of crowds – are a refreshing change for many. Some ships also have VIP deck spaces that are both adults-only and are even more secluded thanks the surcharged required to access them, but the added privacy is worth the extra fee.

5. Staying on the Ship in Port

Although there’s always something to explore in any port of call, there’s also something to be said for staying on the ship on a port day. The ship becomes nearly empty, so you more or less have all of the venues to yourself. No lines on a cruise ship is a pretty appealing concept.

6. Star Gazing

Out at sea, away from the city lights, the stars burn brighter than ever. So don’t forget to take the opportunity to stargaze from the ship while sailing at sea. If it’s cold and windy outside, many ships have an indoor observation deck, where you’ll also find a late-night bar.

7. Main Dining Room for Breakfast or Lunch

Fun cereal french toast on Carnival Vista

The lido buffet can be one of the busiest places on a cruise ship, but even specialty dining venues can get crowded when they’re open. Many cruisers mistakenly think the main dining room is only open for dinner, but it’s usually open for all three meals, especially on sea days! Having a waiter serve your meal is much more relaxing than waiting in a long buffet line and then battling the crowds to find an open table.

8. Booking a Balcony Cabin

There’s nothing better than starting and ending your cruise days with your own private piece of the deck. In the morning, order room service breakfast and enjoy it in your PJs on your balcony. At night, grab a nightcap to go and wind down under the stars in your own room. Of course, a private balcony is nice in the middle of the day too when the lido deck gets busy.

9. All-Access Tour

Most cruisers skip the behind-the-scenes tour either because of the surcharge, or because they just haven’t heard of it. But if you have the chance to take the tour, don’t miss it. It takes you behind public areas to places like the ship’s bridge, engine control room, and main galley.

10. Buying a Spa Pass

Norwegian Escape spa – photo by Norwegian Cruise Line

For most, the main purpose of a vacation is to relax. So why not treat yourself to the ultimate form of rest and relaxation by booking a spa pass? On most ships, this means VIP access to thermal suites that include saunas and steam rooms, jetted pools, and more.

11. Using the Jogging Track

Believe it or not, every ship has an outdoor jogging track in addition to its indoor gym facilities. Why run inside on a treadmill when you could walk, jog, or run around an outdoor track that boasts open-ocean views and sea breezes?

12. Complimentary Lunch Dining in Specialty Venues

Specialty dining venues, which come with a surcharge, are becoming more and more popular on cruise ships. However, many that charge during dinner service are open during lunch hours for free. This is a perfect way to check out some different cuisine without the dinnertime fee.

13. Sunrises and Sunsets

Sunrise in Mohogany Bay

There’s simply nothing more captivating than watching the sun rise or set at sea. Even if you’re not a morning person, make an effort to get up early at least one day on your cruise to witness the beauty of a sunrise at sea. Unless it’s completely overcast, I promise you won’t regret it.

14. Meet and Greets

Almost every cruise line offers meet and greet opportunities with characters. Disney Cruise Line of course has Disney characters, Carnival has Cat in the Hat characters, and Royal Caribbean has DreamWorks characters. Disney even allows you to make reservations for a meet and greet, so be sure to bring a book for autographs for your little ones!

15. Professional Photos

Some people shy away from taking the professional portraits on cruises because of the cost to purchase the final prints. However, the cost of taking and purchasing a professionally shot and edited photograph on land is typically much more by comparison. These photos are priceless memories, and you can buy as few or as many as you’d like.

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