Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about cruises. You can find more FAQs here.
Before you cruise
• What’s a cruise?
• Should I take a cruise?
• When should I skip a cruise?
• How do I book a cruise?
• Should I use a full-service agent to book a cruise?
• Should I make a direct booking?
• Do I need travel insurance?
• How do I book a shore excursion?
During your cruise
• What should I do if something goes wrong?
• What’s the international cruise line passenger bill of rights?
• How do I avoid rough seas?
• How do I avoid fees?
• How do I keep the cost of my cruise under control?
After your cruise
BEFORE YOU CRUISE
A cruise is a journey taken for pleasure aboard a ship. The voyage and the ship’s amenities are a part of the experience, as well as the different destinations along the way.
You should consider a cruise if you …
Like to be at sea. Obviously, you’ll love a cruise if you enjoy being near the ocean, and like ships. That’s probably the best reason to cruise.
You’re in the cruise demographic. Cruising was long thought to be the preferred vacation for the newlywed, overfed, and nearly-dead (No, I didn’t make that up.) Although it’s on some cruise lines this demographic may hold true, cruising has become a vacation of choice with families and thirty- to forty-somethings. If you fit into these general categories, you might be happy with a cruise. (Then again, you might not, so keep reading.)
You like to plan but need a rest from doing it all. Once you’re on a ship, your biggest worry is where to have dinner, unless you want to take an optional shore excursion. Even shore excursions are meticulously planned, so that everything including bathroom breaks are built into them. You can board a ship with no plan, and have a terrific vacation. Don’t try that with most land-based vacation.
You like exotic ports of call. Once you get away from the touristy Caribbean ports, you’ll find yourself making stops in places with minimal tourism infrastructure, but with maximum appeal to visitors with a taste for the exotic. If you don’t believe me, look up some of the round-the-world cruise itineraries. I practically guarantee you’ve never heard of some of the destinations, and you’ll probably never see them on a typical land vacation, either.
You don’t like to unpack. Cruises are floating hotels that visit a number of different ports. You can go ashore or not as you choose. And you use the ship as your hotel for sleeping, dining, and entertainment. Cruising is a great way to visit more than one place very easily.
Avoid cruising if …
You get seasick. Look, if you don’t enjoy being at sea, and you get a little queasy in the bathtub, there’s no point torturing yourself by popping Dramamine and pretending you like being at sea. If it’s only a mild case of seasickness you might be able to brave the high seas in a big ship with stabilizers and by booking cabin in the center of the ship. All others, do yourself a favor, and stay on land.
You’re pregnant and you’re close to your due date or have a medical condition that could affect your cruise. Cruise ticket contracts restrict women who will pass their 24th week of pregnancy before or during the trip from sailing. The on-board medical crew is not prepared to handle an early delivery, should that occur. What’s more, it’s your responsibility to know this rule. My personal advice is not to cruise at all if you’re pregnant. Some medical emergencies can not be handled at sea and there will be a time lag before you get medical help. But I would also advise you to be in reasonably good health before embarking on a cruise. If you have significant mobility challenges or chronic health issues, check with your doctor before booking a cruise.
You have a family with very young children. Even the most family-friendly cruise ships are not ideal for very young children, by which I mean kids who are not toilet-trained. Childcare is usually restricted to kids who don’t use diapers. Your children have to be old enough to understand that the railings are not for climbing, too. Really, the last thing you want is to have one of your little ones take a dive.
You don’t have a passport. No matter what the cruise lines tell you about a birth certificate being enough, I wouldn’t dream of boarding a ship without a valid passport. I know, they say a birth certificate is sufficient, but do you have the right one? How can you be sure? With a passport, you know you can travel internationally. Not a passport card or a birth certificate — a bona fide U.S. passport. Please get one.
You have paperwork issues. If you’re not a U.S. citizen, and plan to take a cruise, you need to make sure the information about your paperwork requirements (visas, residency permits and green cards) line up with those of the U.S. State Department. It is the passenger’s’ responsibility, not the cruise line’s, to be certain they have proper documentation for the cruise. Many have found out too late that a visa was required for their itinerary.I’ve seen entire families turned away at the dock because one member had a problem with a green card. My advice? Find a travel agent who knows the ins and outs of your paperwork requirements and bring all your documentation and supporting paperwork with you. If you’re not sure about your ability to leave the country, don’t risk it.
You like to be in control of your vacation. If you want to go wherever the wind takes you on vacation, a cruise will make you feel like you’re on a prison barge. So for those of you who are spontaneous free spirits, you may want to look elsewhere.
A note about risks: If you’re concerned about your cruise ship sinking like the Costa Concordia, I would look for something else to worry about. Cruising isn’t entirely safe (I’ll cover that in more detail soon), but sinking isn’t a rational fear.
Cruising isn’t for everyone, but it might be right for you. If you know what to expect, it can be a relaxing and stress-free vacation.
Not so long ago, you had to pick up a phone, and call your local travel agent to book a cruise. No longer.
Approximately 85 percent of all cruise vacations are still booked through travel agents, but all agents are not the same. You can turn to a full-service “brick-and-mortar” agency, an online agency, or in some instances, you can deal directly with the cruise line, but which option is right for you?
Before deciding how to buy a cruise, you’ll need to go on a little fact-finding mission. Research your cruise online, read the reviews by other passengers, and ask friends about their past experiences before phoning an agent, or clicking on a cruise line site. Travel agents can help you narrow down your choices, but it really helps to have at least a general idea about what you want and how long you want to be away. Small ships or large ocean liners? Caribbean or Alaska? Upscale or “value”?
I’ve seen problems with every kind of booking method, so it’s impossible to ensure a trouble-free cruise by choosing one over another. The closest you’ll get to it is a human travel agent who knows you personally, and who suffers from OCD. Well, I’m half-kidding about the obsessiveness, but that person better be good with details, because there’s a lot to track. The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) has an education course for agents to become Accredited, Master or Elite Cruise Counselors. Someone with the designation ACC, MCC, or ECC has spent significant time and effort learning about the cruise industry and is a knowledgeable source of information when booking your cruise.
A human travel agent who can take the time to sit down with you and talk about your cruise options is a tried-and-true way to buy a cruise. Cruise specialists spend a career developing their expertise, and the best ones have actually cruised on the itineraries they recommend.
Benefits of an agent:
• One-on-one service and attention to detail. A good agent will make sure the cruise matches your personality type. The odds of a devoutly religious family ending up a rambunctious singles cruise under this scenario? Virtually zero.
• Special access to agent-only discounts. If the agency is a member of a larger group like Nexion, Virtuoso or Travel Leaders you’ll get deals no one else has, and they may be unbeatable. (But don’t take your agent’s word for it — trust but verify, as they say.)
• Access to possible upgrades and onboard credits. Again, these offers come by way of the relationships cruise agents have through their company or having a close relationship with their regional sales representative.
• Knowledge of ships (either firsthand or from extensive training) to know which staterooms are preferred over others for value or motion while at sea. Every cruise line has a distinct personality.
• If it’s a small shop, you may not have 24/7 support. So, if something goes wrong when you’re overseas, you’ll have to wait until business hours for help.
• Agents are not always “free.” You may be charged a consulting fee, a fee to book airfare and make other arrangements, although the agent won’t charge you a fee to book the cruise (see next point).
• Agents are often incentivized by commissions and bonuses called “overrides” from cruise lines that reward them for being loyal to a particular cruise line. (Think of it as a kind of rewards program). Although an inexperienced high pressure agent may attempt to sell a cruise solely based upon the commission, an ethical and experienced agent will make sure the client is a good match to the cruise. Travel agents can make 10 percent or more in commissions and overrides from your cruise. Top-tier commissions for the large consortiums are as high as 16 percent. That is a generally paid from a base commission of 10 percent plus overrides for volume.
Today’s travel websites try to combine the best aspects of a full-service agency with the conveniences of modern technology. Sometimes, they succeed.
Benefits of an online agent:
• You’re in control. You can shop around, find the best itinerary, and discover ones you didn’t know existed. You can also book the cruise whenever you want to.
• You have 24/7 phone support through most of the online agencies. When something goes
wrong, someone should always be there for you. “Should” being the operative word.
• Online agencies can negotiate ridiculously good volume discounts because of their size, which they pass along to you. Because they lack the overhead expenses of brick and mortar agencies, they sometimes also, when allowed, are able to cut commissions to the sales person, and can pass this savings along the traveler.
• It’s an online travel agency. Many of their phone agents are located in overseas call centers. They’ve never been on a cruise. They read scripts, are timed by their supervisors, and really don’t care if you’re having a good vacation. No wonder offline agents call these operations “vending machines.” Also, they may try to steer you to the highest-commission cruises by displaying their highest-paying cruises first.
• You’re in control. When you DIY a cruise it’s up to you to assume responsibility for making the right choices and knowing the pros and cons. Online agencies traditionally do not have the same service level as brick-and-mortar agencies.
• Service, when it does come, can be slow and impersonal. It’s not uncommon to hear of
people waiting upward of an hour for help before being hung up on.
• You may feel like a number. That’s because you are a number. You’re one of a million, literally. Online agencies are a volume business, so if you like to feel special and appreciated, you might want to book elsewhere.
Cruise lines have always been cautious about offering their products directly to consumers, fearful that they might offend the travel agency community on which they depend for distributing their product. But in recent years, they have become bolder, offering cruises through their websites, and special rates on future cruises while you’re on board.
Benefits of a direct booking:
• You might get a discount, and in some cases, a price protection that assures you that if the fare drops, you’ll get a refund. However, cruise lines are reluctant to undercut an agency with a lower fare.
• You’re dealing directly with the cruise line, so the company can’t blame an intermediary for anything that goes wrong. (Not that it won’t try.) You’d be surprised at how often that happens. By the way, you can transfer your “direct” booking to your favorite travel agent before the invoice is paid off if you want, giving you the best of both worlds.
• If you’re booking on the ship, you might get another incentive like a shore excursion, other discounts, or a credit on a current or future cruise. Cruise lines are nothing if not creative with these offers.
• You’re dealing directly with the cruise line. So you have no one to turn to when something goes wrong except the cruise line — unless, of course, you transfer the booking to an agent.
• The aggressive onboard sales agents sometimes try to entice you to make a decision about a future vacation before you’re ready. It’s a high-pressure sales pitch on the high seas.
How do you buy a cruise, then? In the end, there is no correct answer for everyone. If, for example, you’re taking your extended family on an anniversary cruise, you’ll probably want to find a cruise specialist who has some experience in large groups. On the other hand, if you’re just traveling with your sweetie, and you’re flexible, online might be a good option.
Unless you’re booking a cheap weekend cruise that you can afford to lose if you miss the boat, you definitely should consider travel insurance. Although the cruise line may offer its own insurance or cancellation protection plan, it’s important to shop around to find the best policy. If you miss your cruise or cancel your cruise when cancellation penalties are in effect, and you don’t have insurance, your cruise line is unlikely to offer a refund or a credit for a future cruise.
Cruise lines offer shore excursions ranging from all-day snorkeling trips to guided tours of a local historical site. For years, the conventional wisdom was that you should only book your shore excursions through the cruise line because if, for some reason, the the excursions is late, the cruise line won’t leave you.
That’s still more or less true, although credible excursion companies have surfaced that promise if your shore excursion isn’t back before the ship leaves, they’ll fly you to the next port. Note: Shore excursions offered by a cruise line will almost always be more expensive than the independent ones. That’s because cruise lines are adding their commission to the price of the day trip.
Do your homework before going with the cruise line’s shore excursion. You can scout out shore excursions with these resources:
Cruise line websites. Even though you may not be interested in booking directly with the cruise lines, their shore excursion section is always a good place to start to get a fixed price and what’s available in the port you’re heading to.
Shore excursion companies. Well-known companies like Viator offer shore excursions that offer rates up to 30 percent lower than the cruise lines.
Online review boards. The online review boards aren’t always accurate. Like reviews of anything online, it’s important to read lots of reviews to get the whole picture. Check out Cruise Critic for line-specific reviews on excursions and to find the best deals.
Local tourism organizations. Tourist board sites often recommend a list of tours available in a port. It’s a good place to find a second opinion on worthwhile activities.
So much can go wrong on a cruise, I hardly know where to begin. Maybe here: informed consumers don’t get ripped off. They know what they’re buying, where to book it, and they’re aware of all the pitfalls that might await.
After a series of high-profile customer service incidents in 2012 and 2013, the cruise industry adopted a voluntary “bill of rights” for its passengers to clearly communicate to them their rights regarding comfort and care in a number of important areas. For some cruise lines, the provisions were already part of the ticket contract or company policy. But it was the industry’s way of saying it could do better.
Here’s the bill in its entirety:
The Members of the Cruise Lines International Association are dedicated to the comfort and care of all passengers on oceangoing cruises throughout the world. To fulfill this commitment, our Members have agreed to adopt the following set of passenger rights:
✓ The right to disembark a docked ship if essential provisions such as food, water, restroom facilities and access to medical care cannot adequately be provided onboard, subject only to the Master’s concern for passenger safety and security and customs and immigration requirements of the port.
✓ The right to a full refund for a trip that is canceled due to mechanical failures, or a partial refund for voyages that are terminated early due to those failures.
✓ The right to have available, on board ships operating beyond rivers or coastal waters, full-time, professional emergency medical attention, as needed until shore side medical care becomes available.
✓ The right to timely information updates as to any adjustments in the itinerary of the ship in the event of a mechanical failure or emergency, as well as timely updates of the status of efforts to address mechanical failures.
✓ The right to a ship crew that is properly trained in emergency and evacuation procedures.
✓ The right to an emergency power source in the case of a main generator failure.
✓ The right to transportation to the ship’s scheduled port of disembarkation, or the passenger’s home city, in the event a cruise is terminated early due to mechanical failures.
✓ The right to lodging if disembarkation and an overnight stay in an unscheduled port are required when a cruise is terminated early due to mechanical failures.
✓ The right to have included on each cruise line’s website a toll-free phone line that can be used for questions or information concerning any aspect of shipboard operations.
✓ The right to have this Cruise Line Passenger Bill of Rights published on each line’s website.
If you’re at sea and you encounter a problem, you may want to invoke your “bill of rights.” Chances are, your cruise line has already agreed to these rights.
If you’re a little prone to seasickness — and who among us isn’t? — then choose your cruise carefully. On my first Alaska cruise, our ship churned through nine-foot swells in early September. The Caribbean is known to have some of the smoothest waters. But be mindful of hurricane season, from June to November, which can disrupt your journey. A longer cruise has more ability to avoid rough seas than a short cruise. For example a 3- to 5-day cruise to the Bahamas or Mexico may have no choice but to return to port through 20 foot seas in order to stay schedule and reach the dock in time.
Many of my cruise-related cases involve buyer’s remorse, which is to say, a traveler was booked on the wrong ship, in the wrong cabin, or on the wrong sailing. Wrong sailing? Oh, yes. It usually involves a family with young kids being stuck on a theme cruise where folks let it all hang out. (Curiously, I never hear from swingin’ singles who are upset that there were children on the cruise, but I digress.)
Do your homework, kids, and this won’t happen to you. But what if it does? Well, if you discover the problem beforehand, call your agent or cruise line and ask to move your sailing date. I have yet to come across someone who asked to be moved for that reason and was declined. If you find that you’re on the wrong cruise after you board, it’s really probably too late. A young couple that’s looking forward to a restful week at sea that accidentally booked a Disney cruise — not much that can be done about that. You’re partying with Mickey!
Cruising used to be billed as an “all-inclusive” experience. With the exception of some luxury cruise lines, it isn’t anymore. Cruise lines make a significant portion of their revenues from ancillary fees, of which there are many. Starting with the “welcome” drink served on the lido deck (it’s not always free), to a special request at dinner (I’m not making this up — a fee for the end piece of a roast, which is an extreme example), your cruise line is trying to monetize your vacation in ways you probably can’t imagine.
Here are a few extras you need to know about:
Government taxes and fees. Those fees are refundable if you cancel your cruise, even if the fare is nonrefundable. Also, it’s a rat’s nest of port fees, taxes and other government charges.
Insurance. I’ve heard of unscrupulous agents telling their clients that insurance is required on a cruise (it isn’t). Recommended, yes. Not required.
Mandatory tips. Most lines automatically add tips and gratuities or service fees to your onboard account these days, and depending on the line, it is difficult to impossible to have them removed or modified.
Shore excursions. They’re not usually included in the price of your cruise. Some cruise lines pay a commission to agents for pushing these excursions, so be careful.
There’s only one way to make sure you don’t get caught by these fees. Learn the word “no”, and use it often. Want a picture of you and your beautiful family? No. Care for a soda? No. Lunch in one of our specialty restaurants? No, no, no. It isn’t that these items aren’t fun to have while you’re on a cruise, but that in many cases, they’re ridiculously overpriced. Try getting wireless Internet access or making a ship-to-shore phone call if you don’t believe me.
Also, it helps to know another phrase: “How much?”
Note: If you want to see how much the cruise lines’ ancillary revenue pursuit can hurt, wake up early on the last day of the cruise, and head downstairs to the front desk. The friendly faces that greeted you when you arrived are gone, replaced by stone-faced dudes with heavy Scandinavian accents, maintaining their cool while one passenger after another tries — and usually fails — to argue their way out of a surcharge.
By the way, one of the worst money traps is your magnetic room key. By default, it doubles as a charge card on many ships. Make sure you de-authorize it before handing it to your kids — especially teen-agers — otherwise they will make your vacation much more expensive. One reader contacted me trying to get my help in removing a $400 charge her grandchildren had run up at the ship’s arcade. Kids!
AFTER YOUR CRUISE
Those slot machines are nice to look at while you’re in port, but once you’re in international waters, and the velvet rope to the gambling area falls, they’re a money trap. Unless you’re a gambler, stay away. The money is as green at sea as it is on land, and there are no refunds when you lose big at the tables. If you think you may have a problem staying away from the gaming at sea, book a cruise without an onboard casino or ask for a magnetic card that won’t allow you to access your shipboard account.
Your actual rights on a cruise are governed by a ticket contract, which is available on your cruise line’s website, and which you are required to sign — even if you don’t read it — before you sail. It’s a problematic document.
Here are some of the lesser-known “gotchas”:
Your laws aren’t our laws. The rules governing cruises have nothing to do with where you live or buy a ticket. Instead, federal maritime law, international law, the law of the country where the cruise ship is registered — typically the Bahamas, Liberia, or Panama — and the law selected by the cruise line are going to control, and all of these favor the cruise line. That’s why it’s so hard to find a good lawyer to sue a cruise line. How many maritime lawyers do you know?
Don’t hold us to the brochure. The ship may or may not keep the promised schedule. This is perhaps the most frustrating contract provision for passengers. Here’s Royal Caribbean’s: “Carrier may for any reason at any time and without prior notice, cancel, advance, postpone or deviate from any scheduled sailing, port of call, destination, lodging or any activity on or off the Vessel, or substitute another vessel or port of call, destination, lodging or activity.” What’s more, it owes you nothing if it does.
The quack who treated you isn’t our problem. Most medical care on cruise ships is perfectly adequate. But just in case it isn’t, cruise lines have a clause that say they aren’t responsible for the malpractice of the ship’s doctors. Have a look at paragraph 13 of Princess’ passage contract: “Doctors, nurses or other medical or service personnel work directly for Passenger and shall not be considered to be acting under the control or supervision of Carrier, since Carrier is not a medical provider. Similarly, and without limitation, all spa personnel, photographers, instructors, guest lecturers and entertainers and other service personnel shall be considered independent contractors who work directly for the Passenger.” In other words, when a doctor’s negligence leads to the death of a family member, the cruise line is off the hook.
Time is short. There’s a one-year limitation period to file a claim, and a six-month period to write a letter to the cruise line when the passenger has been injured. That’s a relatively short period of time, compared to the statute of limitations of most states. What if you miss your deadline? You’re outta luck.
Most cruise grievances fall under the “laundry list” complaint category — which is to say, they aren’t one big problem, but a lot of little ones. When those complaints cross my desk, it suggests either guest’s expectations were too high, or they didn’t plan their floating vacation carefully.
Laundry list complaints tend to generate form responses from cruise lines, if they merit any response at all. It’s important to focus on one grievance and to tell the cruise line what it can do to fix the problem, preferably when it happens. Many passengers wait, allowing one problem to pile on top of another until they blow their top, sending a rambling, angry email to the cruise line. That rarely works. A cruise line can fix a service problem quickly in a variety of ways (an upgrade to a better cabin, a room credit, a free spa treatment). All you have to do is ask politely.
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