For the past five years, we have taken group trips to celebrate my younger brother’s birthday. Last year, our trip was almost marred in tragedy, after a snow mobile accident resulted in him being life flighted to Denver with bleeding on the brain and his girlfriend at the time with a broken elbow and hip. We learned a lot that trip about taking unnecessary risks, but instead of ending the birthday trip annual vacations, we just took heed of the lessons learned last December for all future travels.
This year, the plan was to travel to Puerto Rico. But when Hurricane Irma followed by Hurricane Maria hit the island in September, leaving many areas devastated and without power, we knew that our travel plans would have to be changed. For a while we waited with hopefulness that the state of emergency declared would clear, that the government would rally for the speedy restoration of Puerto Rico like the Southern states had rallied for Houston, and that Puerto Rico would be back operational before our trip, however, three months later, Puerto Rico is still trying to recover from the devastation caused to an infrastructure that was already fragile before the wind and rain ravished the island.
So, what do you do in Houston when you need a quick and affordable trip to a tropical paradise?!? You call up your favorite travel agent and book a cruise from the Port of Galveston, which is only about 45 minute away. And being that my grandmother celebrated her 82nd birthday a few days after my brother, we knew that a cruise was the perfect way to include her on this vacation, as well.
It’s been almost 4 years or maybe even longer since my last cruise, so of course, I had to consult my traveler’s bible aka Pinterest for tips to make the most of this trip. However, while perusing Pinterest for shopping lists and travel tips, I noticed that comprehensive travel guides for cruises were in short supply.
And let me also be honest and say that I didn’t start preparing for my trip until the week of departure. Between celebrating my own birthday along with the Thanksgiving holiday, studying for my upcoming Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) Exam, and balancing end of the year work stressors, I was still running around the day of my trip trying to get last minute things done like a pedicure and restocking travel toiletries.
Our 4 day cruise to Cozumel ended up being the perfect reprieve from real life and just the right balance of fun, sleep, and sun sprinkled with a mild case of gluttony.
Here is my comprehensive guide to help those new to cruising get the most of out your trip:
BEFORE THE CRUISE:
As I previously stated, I had minimal time to prepare for this trip, and there are a handful of things that I’m glad I knew or wished I would have known before showing up at the port on departure day.
Contact your cruise line and inquire about special themed nights.
Unless you usually come on vacations already prepared with afro wigs and bell-bottoms for a night of partying in Boogie Wonderland or ugly Christmas sweaters for a festive fete, it might be a good idea to call your cruise line and inquire about any themed events. While even short cruises usually have a Captain’s Ball, where you can party with the captain and crew in your black tie attire, there are usually a couple of additional themed nights to enjoy with your travel companion(s).
When applicable, pack for dual seasons.
So, I’m going to blame my lack of sleep for being genuinely perplexed when my brother asked me whether I was bringing a jacket and warm clothes aboard the ship. As I looked down in my half-packed bag, at 1:30am the morning/night before my cruise, I realized that I had not taken into consideration that the weather would not be warm until we reached the Caribbean waters. Luckily, that question was asked in enough time for me to throw a jacket in my bag, because the wind gusts on the upper decks of the ships on our first and last nights reminded me that it was Winter.
BYOB (Bring your own booze).
One of the most expensive items on your cruise are the overpriced drinks available at one of the many bars or dining rooms. But don’t fret, most cruise lines allow guests to bring a limited supply of wine on board. For Royal Caribbean, the limit is 2 (750ml) bottles per stateroom.
Tip: Signature daily drinks usually come in fancy souvenir cups which raise the price. You can ask for the same cocktail in a regular glass and save a few $$$. I mean, how often will you use that fancy souvenir glass when you get back home anyway?!?
Plan to arrive for check-in early or late(ish).
The check-in process for cruises can be extremely long, especially when the bulk of the two-thousand plus men, women, and children, are gathered by the masses to begin their tropical vacation. The best times for the shortest lines are either first thing in the morning when boarding begins or in the last couple of hours before boarding ends. When you checkin for your cruise, pay attention to boarding times and plan accordingly.
Tip: Your stateroom may not be ready until a couple of hours after departure. Be sure and pack any outfits you would like to change into within your first hours of being onboard like swimwear and any other important items like prescriptions, etc.
Be weather conscious.
The Monday before my cruise departed that Thursday, I remember checking the weather and seeing that it would most likely rain on our day in Cozumel. But somehow between Monday and my Thursday departure day, I forgot. Needless to say, our travel group ended up braving torrential downpours (until we found some cheap ponchos) to make the most of our limited time docked in Cozumel.
DURING THE CRUISE
Plan your day at the beginning of the day.
Each day while on your cruise, your attentive cabin attendants will distribute a daily schedule. Let me first say, there has to be a million things going on each day, whether it’s trivia, bingo, dance classes, liquor tasting, games, etc. The easiest way to make the most of your time is to plan out your day at the beginning of your morning (or afternoon if you like to sleep like me). Almost every activity on our cruise started on time, so don’t spread yourself so thin that you spend more time running all over the ship than actually enjoying your trip.
Eat, eat, and eat some more.
For most people, the best part of cruise vacations is that the food is usually good and plentiful. Whether its the main dining hall, the buffet, or one of the specialty dining restaurants on board, there is always a large variety of delicious food to eat. There is something about vacations that make people a little more adventurous, and even though I’m one of the pickiest food consumers alive, the garlic butter escargot served in the main dining room became a family favorite.
Tip: You can order multiples appetizers and entrees in the main dining room for FREE. Don’t be afraid to try the many dishes, you paid for it.
Watch a show, laugh at some jokes, and don’t be afraid to show off your latest line dances on the main deck.
Whether he was impersonating the lead singer of the Village People, costume and all, teaching cruise goers the choreographed routine to Thriller for a finale performance, or leading the love train through the center of the ship, our cruise director, Steve, was charismatic, full of energy, and the perfect host of every social event on the Vision of the Seas. It was obvious that every entertainment detail had been thought out in its entirety, from the hilarious comedy of John Knight to the broadway worthy performances filled with talented dancers and vocalists, the on-board entertainment is probably the next best perk to the food.
Allow your kids to live their best lives.
As a single woman without any kids, I’m always leery of vacations where the ratio to little people versus adult people is significantly inproportiante. I can’t say it’s ideal to be sipping my cosmo by the pool while a toddler is splashing my novel. Cruises, however, are perfect for family vacations, and there is a whole deck or area, on most ships, solely dedicated to your bundles of joy. The Vision of the Seas had an arcade, nursery, and teen center to keep your little ones busy.
Stock up on your favorites liquors.
My favorite liquor, Sheridan, is not available in the States, so of course, I look forward to international duty-free shopping to stock my bar. Whether it’s your favorite vodka, cognac, or speciality liquor, you can usually find just about everything on board your ship or at a docking port for a value price. And most cruises offer liquor tasting in their duty free shops to help you find liquors that are worth being added to your repertoire.
Tip: Make sure you are familiar with customs taxes and limits to make sure you get all your booze back to your residence without hefty fees.
Don’t miss the boat.
This sounds like common sense, but most cruise personnel can tell you that it’s not uncommon for there to be at least a couple of stragglers that consume too much tequila and have to fly home at their own expense. If you cruise ships says that you will be in Cozumel from 8am-5pm, that means you will be in Cozumel until 5:00pm. On the way off boat, you card is scanned not to wait on you or call your cell phone in case you’re late, but so that cruise officials will know that Tonia and her little friends didn’t make it back from Margaritaville. One of the easiest ways to make sure that you’re on time is to book a guided excursion, but since most of us had frequented Mexico enough to have done all the touristy stuff, we just all kept an eye on the time. After about 6 rounds of tequila shots, I’m sure they were very blurry eyes, but hey, we made it. I watched one man have to get carried back to the boat, by his parents of all people, but hey, he made it.
Keep track of the expenses on your onboard account.
Between drink purchases by the pool and shopping in the duty free shops, it’s easy to run up a large tab that has to be paid before you depart back to your regular life. Either keep track of your purchases through keeping your receipts, or you can check your balances at guest services each day. I don’t think there’s a dishwashing option, so make sure that you only spend within your means.
Tip: Some cruise lines charge a daily fee to your onboard account. Our fee was $13.50 per day, making my tab already over $50, before I even started adding cocktails and Cokes. Yes, even soft drinks cost on your cruise.
AFTER THE CRUISE
Complete the survey.
At the end of your cruise, you will be emailed a survey on various aspects of your cruise, including but not limited to cleanliness and service. If you had great cabin attendants or servers at dinner, the survey is your time to acknowledge their hard work and dedication to making your cruise memorable.
Have you been on a cruise? What tips would you give to newbies, and what are some of your favorite ports? We look forward to reading your advice and suggestions in the comments below.
P.S. If you would like assistance booking your next trip, click here.