Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Cruising 101 – how to get ready for your first (or next) cruise

Travel Photographers

Hello! We just got back from our second Royal Caribbean Cruise and this blog is to share some of the tips about cruising I’ve learned. Many of the things I will be sharing are for the budget and time conscious person, but remember there are TONS of amenities on board too for those who want to go all out! I actually think that the cruise ship is designed for a luxurious experience and it’s easy to spend money if you want to… I’m just good at dodging the expenses and being frugal. Remember, these are just my opinions so you can take it or leave it :)

Cruising is great for many reasons:
  1. It’s budget friendly (to me)
  2. All-inclusive food, room & entertainment so no hidden fees (since you pre-paid, everything feels free)
  3. Get to see several new places all within one vacation
  4. Ships have lots of activities so it’s a great fit for anyone
  5. It’s relaxing to be on a boat in the middle of the Caribbean!

Let me elaborate: Cruising is a great value if you ask me. The Freedom of the Seas was built in 2006, so although it’s an “older” ship, it’s still huge and we loved it, AND it’s a better value than the larger ships like Oasis and Allure. There were 4,000 people on board and if it’s your first time cruising you will probably be amazed at the size of the boat.

I could tell you more about the ship, but it’s easier for you just to look on their website.

I booked right through Royal Caribbean online about 6 months in advance. For both Tavis and myself... all taxes, fees, gratuities and all was $1500 out the door. (it advertises $599/person, but expect a few hundred in port fees, gratuity, etc.) – This was for the inside state room. No windows, but this is actually a bonus if you ask me – it was WONDERFUL sleeping in pitch black and being able to sleep in. Also, it forced me outside my room to go out and enjoy the ship :) If you like to stay in, you could always upgrade to an ocean view or balcony! Because we fly “free” with airline miles, the entire vacation was $2300 & we got to see 3 new places plus enjoy a relaxing time on the boat. $1500 to book the cruise, $570 for excursions and drinks on the boat, $100 spending money used at ports, $100 for hotel and transportation in Florida the night before. After vacationing in Hawaii, this seems like a great value! I like relaxing knowing exactly how much I’ve spent… not worrying about how much all the charges are going to add up to.

We sailed Royal Caribbean on the Freedom of the Seas, but I know several other 7 night cruises have a similar itinerary. We feel loyal to Royal Caribbean because we know the cleanliness, staff, food, entertainment and ports will be satisfactory – we have heard from others who have cruised Royal Caribbean vs. other ships that they like RC best. Also, I felt very safe and sound on the ship. They have a great reputation and we always left our camera, phone and computer out in the open in our room and nothing was ever taken so we trust them :) (there is a safe in each room though if you’re worried about it)

Our January 23 to January 31st itinerary:

Sat. Jan 23, 2016: left Yakima, flew to Florida, stayed in hotel, adjusted to time change
Day 1 – Left from Port Canaveral, FL
Day 2 – Cococay, Bahamas (excursion taken: kayaking)
Day 3 – At Sea
Day 4 – Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas (excursion taken: St. John self explore)

Day 5 – Philipsburg, St. Maarten/St. Martin (excursion taken: Loterie farm ropes course)

Day 6 – At Sea
Day 7 – At Sea
Day 8 – Arrive back at Port Canaveral, fly home

Thoughts about the itinerary as a whole: I personally would have liked only one sea day at the end. After the excursions are over there is less to look forward to and you’re more ready to get home. Some 7 night cruises have 4 ports instead of 3 so that also would have been fun! There are lots of things to do on the ship but we most looked forward to port days.

Maho Bay / Sunset Beach by the Princess Juliana International Airport in St. Maarten

Cruise Packing list:

  • Passports
  • gum, chapstick, hand sanitizer, lotion
  • wallet with cash, driver’s license, checks
  • cell phone
  • Advil, Dramamine
  • headphones
  • sunglasses

Carry-On Suitcase:

  • Laptop & charger
  •  Paperwork: cruise reservations, flight info, extra cash
  • Cell phone chargers
  • Snacks for plane & airport
  • Underwear & socks (for 8 additional days) *long socks for ice skating
  • Comfy clothes to sleep in for Florida hotel night w/ the four of us
  • swimsuits
  • cameras and memory cards
  • Pepto, Imodium
  • Toiletries

·        Checked Bag:
sunscreen, aloe vera
casual clothes: shorts, shirts, pants, lightweight dresses (8 days worth)
Two formal wear outfits for fancy nights
Swimsuit coverup
1 light sweater
shoes: sandals, flip flops, tennis shoes *WATER SHOES
Snorkel gear
Mini backpack/ beach bag/small purse

Cruise Packing tips:
  • Bring something warm because it does get windy on the top deck of the ship sometimes
  • Bring tennis shoes and athletic wear if you’re interested in doing the activities like rock wall or sports court
  • Be sure and pack two formal outfits for the two formal nights at sea
  • Don’t pack towels, you can use theirs (even on port days)
Money saving tips for cruises:
  • Take your own camera(s) for photos. The ship people of course are taking photos of your every move and want to charge you $30 for each print. We are perfectly happy with the photos we took on our cameras! We took a go-pro which was the perfect underwater and excursion option. We didn’t take any of the “professional” photos on the ship because I didn’t even want the temptation to want to buy one ;) All this to say – if you do want one nice photo print then go for it, it just wasn’t a good fit for us :)
  • As soon as the ship pulls out to see your phone will go to international roaming. TURN IT ON AIRPLANE MODE BEFORE THE SHIP LEAVES to avoid these nasty charges! Don’t even get curious and turn your reception back on to check your messages… it’s not worth it :) just tell your family you’ll be gone for a  week and you’ll write back to text messages then!!
  • You will most likely fly into an airport that requires transportation to the cruise port. Many transport companies offer this service for about $25 a person, but you also have to wait for them at the airport and wait for them to pick up others, drop others off, etc. Not to mention you might be stuck in the back of a smelly van. What made sense for us was to rent a car because it was a better value for 4 people! (us plus 2 friends) We stayed at the Radisson in Port Canaveral and they had a free shuttle to the ship in the morning.
  • Buy your snorkel gear at Costco beforehand and bring it with you. It will be way nicer that stuff you can rent from them, plus you can use it over and over again on your vacations like we do :)
  • RC lets you bring one bottle of wine per person on the ship. We packed our two and so did our friend so each night at dinner we had a bottle of wine to share.
  • Only drink water, lemonade, tea, strawberry kiwi water and brewed coffee that is complimentary. All other beverages (lattes, soda, alcohol) cost extra which is fine, but all the extra beverages is how they will get you in the end. Although the starbucks on board was nice I just bit the bullet and drank the brewed coffee to save the $5 each day (or $10 total with spouse)
  • Only eat at the complimentary restaurants. On the freedom of the seas there were two cafés in the promenade area that served sandwhiches/pizza 24 hours a day. The windjammer was the unlimited buffet that had set breakfast, lunch & dinner times. Then there was a sit down restaurant with 4 course meals that you can sign up for a specific time and attend or do “my-time dining” which just means you have to make your reservation time each day. (we did my time dining) They also have paid restaurants but we loved our experience just with the complimentary ones!
  • Do some self guided exploration at the ports. My favorite excursions are ones where we can be in control of the time and how long we get to spend at each place. It’s also a great way to spend money. For example, At St. Thomas we did the St. John self explore for $39, so that paid for the ferry there, and then we found our own taxi to the beach and could snorkel at our own leisure. When you spend the $80-$100 for a full tour then you’re stuck on the schedule of everyone else and it’s nice to be able to do our own thing. We still buy the excursions so we have one guaranteed thing but we saved money by not going all out.
  • On port days stash some extra bottled water and food in the bottom of your bag to save money out on the port. If you’re carrying food or beverages when you walk off they will take it, but not if it’s in your bag. You can’t fill water bottles up from their drinking fountains but you can get a cup of water and then pour it into your bottle yourself. I also ordered extra bananas on the room service breakfast so I had a snack while I was away from the ship. Sometimes they will feed you lunch at the port and sometimes not. In the Bahamas Royal Caribbean owned that portion of the island so they set up lunch, but when we were at the other islands we were on our own (you could always go back on the boat for lunch and come back but it’s a long walk and might not be worth it)
  • Each person has a seapass account, which is like a charge card. Although everything feels free just “charging it to the card” in the moment you do have to check out at the end. I kept this in mind so we didn’t overspend on the vacation. Our seapass account was $570, and that was a few excursions and a few drinks. I could see where people could easily accidentally rack up thousands of dollars on more drinks, spa treatments, restaurants, etc. etc.
  • The ship we were on charged $105 for unlimited wifi ($35/day) on one device, but if you can go without it, you can also get on wifi at some ports and check your email there (but no guarantee) Had we not left our son at home with Grandma we could have not done the wifi but I really wanted to talk to him every night! (which we did on facebook video chat. We tried skype but there wasn’t enough connection for it. For some reason the FB chat worked though!
Time saving tips on cruises:
  • Order room service for breakfast on port days. You can fill out your breakfast order the night before and tell them what time to bring it
  • Pay for gratuities in advance so you don’t have to worry about it later. When you book the cruise it will give you the option to pre-pay gratuities (gratuity is required) but that way you can factor the cost into your overall vacation budget.
  • Look at the map of the ship and choose your state room that Is by activities. On our ship, the “main areas” were floor 5 and floor 11, so we stayed on floor 3 so it was an easy walk up two flights of stairs, versus having to constantly wait for an elevator.
  • And of course with any travel, make sure your passports are up to date and you call your bank in advance so they don’t freeze your spending when they see charges abroad 
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