This is the last of this short series on cruising, specifically our family's latest one last month which I was happy to share with our readers. It was a pleasant surprise to receive quite a number of e-mails and text messages from this column's readers, and some from friends as well, who have become more curious about cruising.
Here are some simple and practical tips that I would like to share:
1. Admittedly, taking a cruise holiday for the family can be very expensive, but it is the best bonding holiday a family can have. This latest one we had was a 9-day cruise which I found rather long and, of course, more expensive. The 5-day or7-day cruises are adequate and of course cost less. Some Asian cruises are as short as three days while cruises for bridge players can be as long as 29 days.
2. For first-time cruisers, choosing more popular destinations would be more advisable. Our first ever cruise was in the Western Mediterranean which I found most enjoyable because Spain and Italy were more familiar destinations. Embarkation point was Barcelona where we had a wonderful 3-day stay in a hotel near the popular park Ramblas. Choose a hotel in the central part of the city, not near the airport which, though generally cheaper, is far from the action. Airport transfers are easy to book anyway.
Know the local currency and the exchange. US dollars are the safest, but many stores in Europe accept onlyEuros. In our Scandinavian foray though, Euros were not acceptable either. In any case, having an international credit card is safest but be sure to inform your Philippine credit card company before you leave that you are off on a trip (mention where to) or your purchases will not be honoured. This happened to us, so we learned a painful lesson, but it is a good precautionary measure against cloning on the part of the credit card company.
Also, choosing a hotel with breakfast is more convenient because late breakfasts count as brunch, so the next meal is an early dinner.
Another major consideration is the cuisine. Spanish and Italian dishes are highly popular with Pinoys and my kids together with their cousins just explored the city on foot looking for new dishes. We recently went on a South American cruise where the cuisine was mostly grilled meats which we found less exciting, less diverse over the longer course.
3. Food in the ship is overwhelming. Imagine a typical large buffet in a 5-star hotel and imagine having this for over a week, every day three times a day. Mostly, the entrees are repeated daily, so it helps to pace yourself and try out a few dishes only on a day-to-day basis lest you tire of the food. There are a number of smaller outlets that offer good selections all day for free, so it would be a good option over the overwhelming buffets every now and then. Other specialty restaurants like their French, Japanese and Italian outlets charge for their food.
4. On the ship, be sure to read the daily updates the ship gives out to know the activities for the day. There is a great variety of options that can fill your time enjoyably. We all share a passion for music so we enjoyed those nightly music sessions. Others loved the dance sessions and daily movies while many did not want to miss out on the nightly live shows in the theatre. If you have younger kids in tow, the ship has activities for them too like art and crafts lessons, magic, etc. And it would actually be a lot of fun to join some of those activities like game shows, etc.
5. The ship is huge-in this recent one, the ship was all of sixteen levels. Explore the ship. We were surprised to find new and exciting outlets nearing the end of the cruise.
6. Gratuities are now mandatory. In this latest one, it was $13.99/person/day. Bottled water is sold but drinking water is free at the buffet area, so we remembered to bring water containers to fill up for those excursions. Tipping the right service crew on your first day ensures you have a steady supply of ice and water every day.
7. If you are claustrophobic like me, it is advisable to get a cabin with a balcony, a large window or at least a port hole.
8. Shore excursions are also a big part of the cruise and you will not want to miss out on them but they really are quite costly. We chose the lesserSt. Petersburg cruise atUS$89.00 per person over the costlier US$149.00/person for obvious reasons. We intended to book all the other shore excursions so we needed to be mindful of our expenses.
Book your excursions early enough because these can get full early. Booking directly with the ship is definitely more costly than booking with private tour operators, but there is also a downside to this if you are dealing with a dubious operator. Unlike in past cruises, the cruise officials for this particular cruise made it clear that the excursions were being handled by accredited operators, not the cruise lines, and those who take the excursions are required to sign the waiver which clears them of any responsibility.
On a past cruise where our excursion was in Rome, we booked one of those vans just waiting in the dock and were lucky to find a friendly English-speaking Italian private operator who got us through the long queues at the Vatican in a breeze and brought us to a hole-in-the-wall eatery where we had a great genuine Italian lunch that was very reasonably priced.
The ship is punctual with their excursions. On one excursion, we were misinformed about the time, so we were late. A cordial ship official said we will get a refund but we were lucky because there was a hop-in/hop-out bus available (a cheaper tour) and he offered this to us for free.
If you do not wish to book any excursion, by all means, get off the boat and take a walk to explore. The long walks are invariably invigorating and good for your health after all those rich buffets. Don't miss out on the opportunity to visit a new country, no matter how short the visit is. And, of course, be sure you are back on the ship on the designated time or risk getting left behind. And, know the weather where you are disembarking so you have the proper clothes.
The best weather for us to travel is spring because the weather is pleasant and we are not saddled with thick, heavy clothes in our suitcase. On one land non-cruise trip to Germany by car a few years back, it was late autumn and we had to lug winter clothes to each city we visited. This means less space and heavier luggage with no porter to help us as we changed hotels as we changed locations. Believe me, we never did that again. But the beauty of cruising is you only handle your luggage during embarkation and disembarkation.
9. Lastly, don't miss out on those precious moments which may never happen again-take lots and lots of photos and keep the memories.
Mabuhay!!! Be proud to be a Filipino.
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