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What you need to know for smooth sailing on a cruise
Can you cruise if you're pregnant?
Many cruise lines don't want you on board if you are or will as little as 24 weeks into your pregnancy during the cruise. They're concerned about pre-term labor. Although ships are equipped to deal with medical emergencies, an early delivery requires specialized care that most ships simply aren't prepared to provide.
Do I need a passport to cruise to Mexico or the Caribbean?
Not yet. But you will be better off having one. The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which includes a requirement that you have a passport for such travel, is in effect for anyone flying back from Mexico or the Caribbean, but the requirement for land and sea travelers has been postponed until June 2009, so technically you do not need one. Think, however, about what you would do in case of an emergency that requires you to fly back from your vacation, and you'll soon be going to www.travel.state.gov and applying for the document.
Do I really have to tip everyone on the ship?
No. In theory, you don't have to tip anyone. But these folks work hard, so if you have enough money to take a cruise, you should have enough money to show your appreciation. There are many people who resent the inclusion of the automatic tip on their bills, but there are others who feel uncomfortable handing out those envelopes. Do whatever feels right to you, but don't be chintzy.
Drinks are really expensive, so why can't I bring liquor on board?
Because you will deprive the ship of one of its sources of revenue. Some lines are very strict about bringing liquor on board; others will let you have a celebratory bottle of champagne on the day of departure. Check with the line and see what its policy is.
Sometimes ships offer an unlimited soft-drink refill for a set price at the beginning of a cruise. Is that a good deal?
If you're a big soda drinker, it is a comfortable way to indulge your thirst without worrying about that ever-escalating bar tab. Whether it's a deal depends on how much you consume in a day, of course, and the length of the cruise. I've generally found the longer the cruise, the better the deal.
Should I take one of the cruise line's expensive shore excursions or arrange my own?
The best way to answer that is to know whether you're risk averse. The safe thing to do is to stay with the line's excursions; these operators are vetted by the cruise lines, generally, and will get you back to the ship on time (or the ship will know it's running late and often will hold the cruise). On the other hand, the ship's excursions can be pricey, and sometimes you can do better by booking ashore or merely hiring a driver and going it alone.
Are Mediterranean cruises a good deal if the dollar continues to be weak?
The cruise lines are counting on it, as evidenced by the number of ships they have positioned there for the coming months. The theory is that you can see some of the continent's loveliest locations without paying exorbitant amounts for a hotel (you'll be going back to the ship) and food (you may go back to the ship). Plus you'll be paying in dollars instead of euros or other currencies. On the other hand, some of the great places of Europe aren't on the water and deserve more than an eight-hour port call.
Why can't I get my money back if a ship misses a port call?
Each ship's passenger contract has quite a bit of wiggle room, allowing it to subtract a port call or substitute another one. Here's what Carnival's website says: "The vessel shall be entitled . . . to deviate in any direction or for any purpose from the direct or usual course, and to omit or change any or all port calls, arrival or departure times, with or without notice, for any reason whatsoever, including but not limited to safety, security, adverse weather, strikes, tides, hostilities, emergency debarkations of guests or crew, or late air, sea, car or motor coach departures or arrivals. . . ."
What's the best way to get a bargain on a cruise?
Find a travel agent who specializes in cruises and knows your tastes and will alert you to specials and deals. Also, consider the off-season. Yes, I know we often tell you to consider the off-season and then the weather is rotten, but in some cases, it really doesn't matter that much. Cruising Alaska, for instance, may be imperfect in May or September, the start and end of the season, but if it's wildlife you're hoping to see, you'll still see it in all likelihood. Your pictures, however, may have a grayer cast than they would in July or August.
Which is better -- open seating or a fixed seating?
I've tried both, and I prefer the fixed seating, but only by a hair. I enjoy having table mates I can get to know; with a fixed seating, that's more apt to happen. Fortunately, I've never been seated with boors or whiners; if I had been, that open seating option -- that is, eat when you like and with whom you like -- would be like a gift from heaven.
How far in advance should I arrive at my port of embarkation?
My rule of thumb: Twenty-four hours for every 3,000 miles that your port of embarkation is from L.A. (or where ever you're starting from). It does add to the cost of your trip, but you'll have less anxiety about missing the ship. Plus if your luggage is mishandled, it's more likely to catch up with you before you sail.
Do I need a lot of cash on a cruise?
Probably not. Most everything can be put on a credit card, which is, of course, only a stand-in for cash. Never put a cruise vacation on a credit card that you're going to pay off over time. It will cost you way more than such a trip is worth.
If you could take only one book with you on a ship, what would it be?
On an inter-island Hawaiian cruise, James Michener's "Hawaii" (or on an Alaskan cruise, his "Alaska"). On a Panama Canal cruise, David McCullough's "The Path Between the Seas." On any luxury cruise, a checkbook.
I'd like to sail to Hawaii and back. Can I?
You can. Several cruise lines offer trips leaving from the Southland that go to Hawaii, cruise the islands and return. But if you want to go to Hawaii and stay for several days or weeks and then return by ship, you probably have to put together two legs of a repositioning cruise because regular passenger service, like that offered on the old Matson lines and American President Lines, no longer exists.
What websites tell us more about cruising?
I like www.cruisecritic.com, www.travelmavens.net and www.cruisediva.com.