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Ready to sail: How to prepare for your first cruise

Watching the wake off the stern of the Viking Jupiter on a summer cruise from Norway to the Netherlands.

NEVIN MARTELL/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

By NEVIN MARTELL | Special To The Washington Post | Published: September 27, 2019

There's traditional travel and then there's cruising — and they require decidedly different approaches. After spending years thumbing my nose at cruises, I recently went on my inaugural voyage, a week-long trip with Viking from Norway to the Netherlands. I returned to terra firma with my opinions completely realigned and the realization that a lifetime of globe-trotting had not totally prepared me to maximize my cruising experience while minimizing the costs. I made some pricey mistakes and squandered some good opportunities.

Luckily, getting the most out of your cruise is predominantly about what you do before you set foot on the ship. This way, you can spend your vacation, well, vacationing — not worrying about how much you're spending or what you're doing next.

• When booking your nautical getaway, one of the biggest expenses is accommodations. Interior cabins cost less and are a great way to save money — if you don't plan to spend much time in your room. That being said, having a balcony is pretty cush and, I believe, worth the expenditure. I enjoyed my morning coffee while watching the sunrise and would often head back out in the late afternoon to read a book in the fresh air.

• You must address how you'll stay connected at sea, or your heavenly holiday will be followed by a hellish bill. Cruise operators occasionally offer free WiFi, but they generally charge for data usage. These packages can be pricey and may not be as generous as you anticipate. You can quickly burn through your allotted plan once you start uploading photos and videos to social media, streaming Netflix movies, or FaceTiming friends and family. Then you'll have the choice of either ponying up for more data or going dark for the rest of the trip.

• You can also remain connected through your mobile carrier. Though carriers may offer an international plan, they usually do not cover usage at sea. I found this out the hard way — and racked up hundreds of dollars of charges. (Thankfully, after many hours on the phone with customer service, AT&T forgave some of my debt, but your phone company may not be as generous.) Some carriers do offer cruise-specific packages, but these can be extremely expensive and limited in scope. Read all the fine print before you buy one or you may spend more than you intended.

• If you don't want to bloat your budget for this element of the trip, you really have only two options: either take a breather from your devices (I can't recommend a digital detox enough) or seek out complimentary WiFi networks when you're on shore. Neither may be optimal, but both are free.

• It's important to check the weather in every port of call before you go. Many cruise lines share this information online, but even those listings don't usually include the weather at sea between destinations. Pack accordingly and plan for contingencies, like rain or snow, depending on where in the world you're traveling. If you're cruising for a week or longer, it's worth figuring out the laundry situation. Some cruise lines offer free DIY laundry rooms, while others charge for such usage. Additionally, dry cleaning and full-service laundry are often available — for a price.

• Speaking of clothing, take note of the ship's dress code. Some establishments or events may require certain attire, like formalwear at a high-end restaurant. On the flip side, swimsuits may only be appropriate in the pool area while being banned elsewhere on the ship. Plot out your wardrobe in advance, so you don't get side-eye for wearing the wrong outfit in the wrong place.

• While you're packing, double-check that you have adequate supplies of your prescriptions (and bring a motion sickness medicine, such as Bonine or Dramamine). Though the ship will have a doctor on board, there won't be a fully stocked pharmacy. Once you get on shore, obtaining a refill can be a difficult, time-consuming and expensive process.

• Don't forget to bring a bunch of $1 bills for tips, but read your receipts before laying down any extra cash, as many cruise lines build gratuities into their charges.

• No matter where you're going, pack your passport. Some cruises departing and returning to the same U.S. port only require you to have a driver's license. However, if you have to take an emergency flight home, you will need a passport.

• Take a moment to check out the onboard dining options. Some require no reservations (and many cruise lines offer 24-hour complimentary room service), but some restaurants require a reservation and may even cost extra. Book tables before departure, rather than when you board, so you can score your preferred dining times.

• While you're browsing the ship's profile online, glance at the entertainment and amenities. Some will be included in the ticket price, while others incur a supplemental fee. Depending on the cruise line, ship and itinerary, these will vary. Usually, there is a lot to do at no extra cost — the ship I was on had a free spa and planetarium shows — but make sure to sign up or arrive early to ensure you get a seat. If you have the urge to splurge, go ahead and book a massage or private yoga class. Just remember to select a time slot when you'll be at sea, so you don't eat into your limited shore time.

Speaking of getting off the ship, the cruise line may offer some gratis excursions, but most cost extra. Deciding whether to go on them is a matter of personal preference and your budget. These tours make transportation to and entry into attractions a simple, smooth process, which can be appealing for travelers who don't want to endure the hassle of navigating a new environment. Warning: They can be pricey. If you decide to go on any, book them well in advance; the popular ones sell out quickly. I went on one excursion led by the ship's top chefs, who took a group on shore in Stavanger, Norway, to shop in various markets. A couple of nights later, the ingredients we collected were transformed into a stellar meal that was one of the highlights of the trip.

For the most part, however, I'm not a fan of tightly controlled group outings. I'd rather explore on my own. When flying solo, do your research in advance to determine what you want to see, do and eat — and how you're going to get to each stop on your itinerary. Whenever possible, I walk. It's great exercise and you see the destination on a more granular level, which often leads to exciting discoveries that would never happen otherwise.

No matter how you decide to explore ports of call, bring a daypack with you to easily carry your reusable bottle (fill it with potable water before disembarking), camera and any souvenirs you pick up.

One last piece of advice: Don't forget you're at sea. Get to the upper decks when possible, so you can see the sunset, go stargazing or simply watch the wake as it unfurls behind the ship. After all, you're not on a traditional trip. You're on a cruise.
 

Cruise veterans recommend booking restaurant tables well before departure. Aboard the Viking Jupiter, caviar is an abundant indulgence.
NEVIN MARTELL/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

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