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First-Time Cruisers: 11 Biggest Mistakes (and How Not to Make Them)

By Daniel Bortz
July 17, 2019
Passengers boarding a cruise ship
Angela Perryman/Dreamstime
Don’t let these rookie fumbles cost you money or make your first cruise any less enjoyable.

A record-high number of travelers are taking cruises. According to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), about 28.5 million people set sail in 2018, up 7% from 2017. Americans, in particular, are fueling the industry: 14.2 million U.S. citizens took a cruise last year.

However, many first-time cruisers make mistakes that can cause them undue stress or drive up the costs of their vacation. If you’re planning your first voyage, you don’t want to be one of them.

Here are 11 blunders to avoid on your maiden cruise.

Mistake #1: Waiting to reserve excursions till you’re on the ship

Many seasoned cruisers book land excursions far in advance, since making a reservation ahead of time guarantees they’ll reserve a spot. (Popular excursions, unsurprisingly, sell out!) Also, many cruise lines offer deals for early bookings. The caveat? Depending on the cruise ship’s policy, some excursions may be nonrefundable.

Mistake #2: Overlooking cruise line loyalty programs

Most cruise lines, including the four largest in the world—Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, and MSC Cruises—have free loyalty programs that reward customers with points that they can use to receive reduced cruise fares, cash back to spend aboard their ships, or other perks, such as priority boarding, member parties, private concierge services, and complimentary meals. Though some cruise lines automatically enroll members following their first sailing, others require travelers to opt into the program—sometimes before they board. So, find out what the sign-up process before you make a reservation.

Mistake #3: Only booking directly through the cruise line

Booking a cruise directly through a cruise line is convenient, but it’s not your only option. Plus, travelers can nab cheaper rates by exploring deals on discount websites like Expedia, Cruise.com, Priceline, and Travelocity. Another perk: if you find a cheaper price after you book a reservation, many discount travel providers will match the lower rate and refund you the difference.

That being said, it may make sense for loyalty members to book directly with the cruise line in order to receive rewards points. It ultimately depends on whether the lower fare from a third-party booking service offsets the numbers of points you’d get by booking with the cruise line.

Mistake #4: Assuming the cruise is all-inclusive

Typically, cruise fares only cover your cabin, meals, and onboard activities and entertainment. Be prepared to pay extra for drink packages, Internet, and gratuities. (Note: many cruise lines, today, use an automatic gratuity system that tacks on 15% to 20% tips) Find out what these costs are ahead of time so that you can budget accordingly.

Mistake #5: Not switching your cellphone to airplane mode

Even if you don’t make a single phone call or send a text message while you’re cruising, international roaming rates can cost hundreds of dollar. Also, you may get charged for simply receiving text messages. Thus, either turn on your cellphone’s airplane mode, or contact your carrier to inquire about getting a short-term international plan. (Turning off your phone when you board the ship works, too!)

Mistake #6: Buying trip protection from the cruise line

If you’re the type of person who likes to purchase travel insurance, look into buying an insurance plan from an independent insurance provider. Oftentimes, third-party insurance plans offer better coverage—and may be cheaper—than trip protection sold by cruise lines.

Pro tip: Some premium credit cards offer trip protections—the Chase Sapphire Reserve, for example, provides not only trip cancellation insurance but also emergency medical and medical evacuation coverage.

Mistake #7: Presuming your health insurance policy covers you abroad

Put simply, your primary health insurance may not pick up the tab for hospital treatments or emergency medical expenses while you travel internationally. That explains why a report from Allianz Global Assistance found that 67% of all cruise related “billing reasons” for insurance claims are the result of an illness or injury. The morale: talk to your insurance provider to learn what your policy does and doesn’t cover abroad.

Mistake #8: Not selecting your cabin’s location

Obviously, when you book a cruise, you choose what type of cabin you want (e.g., an interior room, a room with a balcony, a suite). However, many people don’t consider where their cabin is located. If you’re prone to seasickness, health experts recommend staying in a cabin in the middle of the ship on a low floor, where you’re less likely to feel the “sway” of the boat. Booking a cabin that’s located near an elevator—or, heaven forbid, a night club—can also sting, especially if you’re a light sleeper.

Mistake #9: Under-packing

Over-packing, of course, isn’t good. (After all, why schlep around more stuff than you actually need?) However, under-packing is also a common mistake first-time cruisers make. Many ships have formal or smart-casual nights that require certain attire (some even enforce black-tie dress codes!), so pack accordingly.

Also, pack some cool-weather clothes—a strong breeze can make it chilly on the deck at night.

Mistake #10: Parking at the port

Cruise lines tend to charge top dollar for guests to park their car at the ship’s first point of departure. To find cheaper parking, look for deals at nearby lots that are a short Uber or Taxi ride away. Plan to stay in town the night before your cruise? See if your hotel offers guests a special rate for you to park your car there during the cruise.

Mistake #11: Not packing a carry-on for the first few hours

On many cruises, especially large ships, you’ll hand off your luggage when you climb on board, and the ship’s staff will deliver it to your room a few hours later. Which is why you’ll want to pack a small carry-on bag with any essentials you’ll need during the first few hours, like a bathing suit, sunscreen, or medications.

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Bargain Cruises: Where to Go in 2019 and 2020

Just when you thought cruise lines couldn’t get any bolder, 2019 and 2020 bring more onboard innovations. Here are our top picks for affordable new cruises to the Caribberan, Mexico, the Mediterranean, and beyond, all starting at less than $200 a night. 1. Carnival Panorama (Courtesy Carnival Cruise Line) Launching in late 2019, this shiny new vessel combines California cool and Carnival’s signature amenities—on a fun and fiesta-filled itinerary along the Mexican Riviera. Sailing out of Long Beach, California, and exploring ports such as Cabo Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta, guests can enjoy the coastal scenery from both indoor and alfresco spaces. Aside from a new massive trampoline court with a recreation area (a climbing wall, a balance/jousting beam), some passenger favorites are making an encore: Guy’s Pig and Anchor barbecue joint (slow-smoked beef and molasses-baked beans, anyone?), the top-deck bike-in-the-sky ride, and a sports arena with dodgeball, basketball, and black-light glow parties. The most posh accommodations include the exclusive Havana staterooms, with tropical-inspired decor and a private pool area, and the key-carded Harbor staterooms designed specifically for families.Seven-day cruises from $539 per person; carnival.com. 2. Costa Smeralda (Courtesy Costa Cruises) Named after Sardinia’s Emerald Coast, this 6,518-passenger ship (launching in October 2019) is a tribute to all things Italian. Start with a Campari cocktail toast at the three-level, domed Colossea, before heading to one of two piazzas to soak in the panoramic views. Then choose from the 11 on-board restaurants, from a family-style pizzeria to the Laboratoria del Gusto (translation: Taste Lab), where guests can devour their own creations. The cabins are decorated with custom-designed furniture (made in Italy, of course) and photographic murals and graphics inspired by cities such as Milan, Florence, and Rome.Six-day Mediterranean sailings from $444 per person; costacruises.com. 3. MSC Bellissima and MSC Grandiosa (Courtesy MSC Cruises) For some sun and style, MSC Cruises is introducing a pair of ships where passengers can relax and enjoy, just as they do in the sun-soaked Mediterranean. Highlights on the 4,500-passenger MSC Bellissima, debuting in March, include a new voice-enabled artificial intelligence device that acts as a customer-service portal, a magic-themed children’s program, and the HOLA! Tapas bar, in partnership with Michelin-starred Spanish chef Ramon Freixa. Meanwhile, the Grandiosa, much larger at 6,300 passengers, makes her inaugural voyage in October, with a set of never-before-seen Cirque du Soleil shows, a two-deck promenade with a massive LED Skyscreen, and the French-inspired L’Atelier Bistrot lounge.MSC Bellissima’s seven-night cruises from $1,199 per person; seven-night sailings on MSC Grandiosa from $799 per person; msccruisesusa.com. 4. Norwegian Encore (Courtesy Norwegian Cruise Line) The fourth and final ship of the Norwegian Breakaway-Plus class, Norwegian Encore (launching in autumn 2019) offers features similar to those of her sisters—except a notch above on the wow factors. For starters, the race track is larger, and part of it even loops over the side of the ship—not to mention there’s a viewing area for spectators who can shoot laser guns to turbo-boost their favorite drivers. The laser tag course, which spans a good portion of the sun deck, resembles a resurrection of the city of Atlantis, complete with sea creatures and hidden treasures. Meanwhile, the 10,000 square-foot augmented reality complex, Galaxy Pavilion, combines interactive gaming and cutting edge technology. Last but not least, the entertainment roster does nothing short of dazzle: Cyndi Lauper’s Tony Award-winning Kinky Boots takes a lively tour at sea, while UK-based group the Choir of Man performs a variety of genres, from pub tunes to classic rock to folk music, and the Happy Hour Prohibition recreates a New Orleans speakeasy with rip-roaring tales of bootleggers and retro cocktails with a modern bend.Seven-day Eastern Caribbean cruise from Miami from $849; ncl.com. 5. Sky Princess (Courtesy Princess Cruises) The 3,660-passenger Sky Princess (on the sea starting October 2019) reinvents of some of the brands’ signature experiences, bringing fresh and modern spaces and elevating the line's popular venues such as Sabatini’s Italian Trattoria, the classic Crown Grill, and the Salty Dog Pub, known for its Ernesto Burger (a rib-eye and short-rib patty with pork belly, Gruyere, caramelized kimchi, and beer-battered jalapeño). Plus this ship will debut a French bistro with an exclusive menu from Chef Emmanuel Renaut, who runs the three-Michelin-star Flocons de Sel in the French Alps. Stay tuned for more details on a cool jazz lounge featuring music from New Orleans, and the breathtaking Sky Suites, whose 1,102 square-foot balconies are the most spacious at sea—and where you can watch movies on the big screen under the stars.Seven-night Caribbean cruises from $859 per person; Mediterranean cruises from $1,289 per person; princess.com. 6. Looking Ahead... (Courtesy Virgin Voyages) There’s already been a lot of buzz about Virgin Voyages’ Scarlet Lady, even though the launch is more than a year way. That’s probably because Virgin mogul Richard Branson is behind the adults-only ground-breaking vessel—and he’s brought some big-name designers on board (Tom Dixon, Roman and Williams, Concrete Amsterdam, among others) to create thought-provoking, imaginative spaces: retro-futuristic Rockstar Suites, a Korean barbecue restaurant with drinking games, a vegan bar with bold black and white stripes, and terraces with handwoven hammocks. Cabins have mood-lighting and beds that convert to loungers—should you ever find the time to sleep.The Scarlet Lady will sail four- and five-night Havana After Dark itineraries featuring an overnight stay in Havana, Cuba; five-night Mayan Sol voyages to Costa Maya, Mexico; and five-night Dominican Daze voyages to Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. No prices yet; virginvoyages.com.

Cruises

European Rivers Every Well-Traveled Cruiser Must Discover

A European river cruise is a world apart, a journey along a storied waterway with frequent stops in historic ports where you can choose to indulge in delights ranging from the local food and wine scene to hands-on arts and crafts to learning a new language and, for those who crave outdoor pursuits, even hiking, cycling, and paddling. Avalon Waterways Active Discovery river cruises offer you a choice of daily included excursions that put your own personal interests front and center. From the comfort of your Panorama SuiteSM, you’ll take in unforgettable Instagrammable views of charming towns, castles, and forests, and everywhere you venture onboard or off will remind you that river cruising is all about convenience and customizable experiences as you see new things, try new things, and experience new cultures. From endless views to endless possibilities Avalon Waterways is charting a whole new course in river cruising. Here are three European rivers you must cruise in 2019. THE DANUBE One of the most famous rivers in the world is also one of the finest cruising experiences out there. The Danube river offers opportunities for “culture vultures,” history buffs, foodies, wine sippers, and adventurers to choose the best way to enjoy their time on the water and in port. Get ready to bring home brag-worthy images and stories of your time in Danube ports including Budapest and Vienna. Attend a medieval knights tournament at Visegrad Castle, indulge in the sensory and tasting experiences awaiting you at a Trappist monastery where you’ll taste artisanal cheese and beer and explore a fragrant garden, see iconic works of art such as Klimt’s “Kiss,” and even take a tour of Dracula’s castle (if you dare). Looking for a more relaxed pace? Take a guided city tour or just kick back for some local wine-tasting. Seeking a bit of active adventure? Try a canoe or cycling tour. The opportunities to discover and explore are endless, but the choices are all yours. (We think that’s what a real vacation should be all about.) THE RHINE The fact that Avalon’s Rhine cruise starts in Amsterdam should be enough to make sure you pack your camera or smartphone along with a hearty appetite. Get ready to explore history and art, eat like royalty, and witness first-hand some of the glories of northern Europe. From a classic Amsterdam canal cruise (in a separate, smaller craft) to an eating tour, Amsterdam will fill your days with lasting images and flavors, and you may decide to channel your inner Rembrandt with a painting class or, if you’re in the mood to experience Amsterdam at a different pace, take a jogging tour of the city. From the comfort of your ship, you’ll pass the jaw-dropping Rhine Gorge and enjoy local cuisine served onboard (we especially appreciate that convenience at the end of a busy day). Taste chocolate in Cologne, an array of culinary delights on an eating tour of Duisburg, and sip world-class wines in Eltville. We love that Avalon offers you the chance to see the Rhine your way. THE RHÔNE Okay, we can’t promise that cruising on the Rhône will turn you into the next Van Gogh, but we can promise that on Avalon’s Active Discovery cruise of the iconic French river, you’ll get the chance, if you would like, to participate in a painting workshop at Arles and learn to apply paint and color in the style of the legendary Vincent himself. Or create your own signature perfume fragrance in Avignon, where masters have been crafting scents for centuries. For some of us, the word Rhône is synonymous with great wine, and you can opt for a tasting in an underground cave or a cycling tour that also includes rose-tasting (for those who prefer to combine activity with leisure pursuits). Or surprise your friends back home by Instagramming a flamingo at Camargue Regional Nature Park. Visit an oyster farm, visit the papal palace at Avignon, or brush up on your own French cooking skills with class in Lyon (or if that sounds a little too ambitious, just take the guided culinary walk through Lyon, eating all along the way). It’s up to you: Chill at a charming cafe, or glide along the legendary riverbanks in a canoe. Choose the excursion to match your mood, pace, and interests each day, all while experiencing the sights, sounds and flavors of the Rhône your way. ONBOARD AMENITIES YOU’LL LOVE Of course, you don’t have to spend all your time exploring ports of call, and Avalon’s fleet helps you make downtime every bit as memorable as your onshore activities. Soak up the beauty of European villages, historic castles that look as if they were plucked from a fairy tale (in some case, they were!), and legendary forests from a scenic Sky Deck. If you choose, you can stay in a Panorama Suite with incredible floor-to-ceiling windows, or visit your ship’s Panorama Lounge to sip local wine while drinking in the views, lounging in a hot tub, playing games with other passengers, or just relaxing with a book. Stateroom options range from basic-yet-spacious to downright indulgent. With fresh, locally sourced meals reflecting the culinary cultures of the regions your ship is passing through, plus flexible meal schedules, it’s possible you’ll find yourself looking forward to breakfast, lunch, and dinner as much as you look forward to your Active Discovery adventures on land. To learn more about Avalon’s Active Discovery cruises, visit AvalonWaterways.com/active-discovery/.

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Top Tips for Cruising with Kids

Not long ago, cruising was synonymous with partying, romance, or exploring farflung destinations, often post-retirement. These days, there's a completely different way of looking at cruise ships—not just as playgrounds for overgrown children but for, well, your children. But traveling with kids is never as simple as tossing some clothes and a smartphone into a backpack, is it? Here, we share expert advice on everything from how to pack smart, keep the little ones safe, find reliable onboard child care, and which cruise lines are rolling out the red carpet for families. PACK SMART If you're traveling with a baby or toddler, get used to the idea of schlepping your own formula, jars of baby food, and diapers, which are not among the myriad products a typical cruise ship can sell you. And don't squirrel away all those must-haves in your suitcase—on embarkation days you may be separated from your luggage for hours and you'll be able to keep your little one happier if you have a tote bag stocked with food, wipes, change of clothes, etc. The good news is you may be able to leave your baby's portable crib at home—ask your cruise line (early!) if you can reserve one in advance. "To lighten your packing load, consider planning a laundry day at sea," advises David Molyneaux, editor of TheTravelMavens.com. "Most family-friendly ships will have washers and driers in the cabin areas—check the line's website." BOOK A SAFE CABIN Yeah, we all had a collective gasp when a toddler fell off a cruise ship balcony over the holidays in Florida. Of course you should brief all kids, from toddlers to teens, about keeping off railings, but Molyneaux suggests, "Even if it's only for your peace of mind, avoid balconies until your kids are old enough to know better." You can book an interior room for the whole family, or give older older kids an interior room and take an exterior balcony room across the hall for yourselves. Many cruise lines will offer family cabins, which can sleep up to four, and deeply discount the cost of the kids' berths—but Molyneaux notes that sometimes booking two adjoining cabins on a lower deck instead of a suite can save you money and get you more elbow room. (Disney even throws in an extra "half bathroom," with a toilet and sink, in most cabins. The ship will also have its own rules about how and when kids are allowed to participate in organized activities. Some lines allow elementary school-age kids to sign themselves up for activities and walk the ship's corridors unsupervised—but that kind of choice is really only yours to make. GET A SITTER Although some lines offer so many organized activities for kids during the day that some parents actually complain that they didn't see enough of their kids on their cruise, most couples will value some alone time, especially when the sun goes down. Some cruise lines offer private in-cabin babysitting at a premium—it can run you around $20 per hour. But if your kid wrinkles his nose at the idea of being "left with a sitter," you're in luck: Many cruise lines disguise evening babysitting as "late night parties," allowing parents to drop off their kids for around $10 per hour per child. (On Disney cruises, the party goes till midnight and it's free of charge). BOOK A FAMILY-FRIENDLY CRUISE When it comes to going the extra mile to put smiles on your kids' faces, these cruise lines are tops: Carnival If your kids can imagine summer camp at sea, that's Camp Carnival—complete with counselors to supervise daily activities and meals. The line divides children into three age groups from two- to 12-years old and employs counselors who have education or childcare experience; play spaces resemble nothing less than the playroom of your dreams (carnival.com). Disney No surprises here—Disney knows how to keep kids happy. The line is famous for its roaming characters like Mickey and Minnie, of course, but it also offers Broadway-style musicals, first-run films in 3D, and port-of-call activities tailored for kids like glass-bottom boats and up-close-and-personal dolphin encounters (disneycruise.disney.go.com). Norwegian Splash Academy sets the bar high—to entertain and educate children from six months to 12 years old (divided, of course, into age-appropriate groups, with parents required for the littlest ones). Whether your kid is into low-key arts and crafts projects or adrenaline-charged circus activities (including juggling and tumbling) taught by real circus performers, Norwegian's foray into family fun goes big (ncl.com). Royal Caribbean When you're reaching out to families, it helps to have some trusted names in your Rolodex, and Royal Caribbean has partnered with Crayola, Fisher Price, and DreamWorks to offer a blend of educational and entertainment options to its littlest passengers. From quiet play groups to full-on surf simulators, climbing walls, and the first carousel-at sea, there's something for every taste. Oh, and you may want to warn your little ones that they may bump into Shrek or Kung Fu Panda onboard (royalcaribbean.com).

Cruises

Discover a New World of River Cruising

Budget Travelers have long known that river cruises offer unique experiences that deliver the value and authenticity they crave: smaller ships that feel like "floating B&Bs," frequent port stops that allow for immersive cultural experiences, and onboard dining that reflects the local cuisine. Now, Avalon Waterways is enhancing the river cruising experience even more, introducing Active Discovery, a new way for cruisers to not only see everything they want to see, but also to actually do things they love to do (cycling, hiking, wine-tasting, hands-on arts and crafts, and much more) along the way. Some highlights of Avalon’s new Active Discovery program include: THE RHINE Itinerary: An 8-day Active Discovery cruise between Wiesbaden, Germany (near Frankfurt) to Amsterdam (cruisers can choose to sail northbound or southbound) along the historic, gorgeous Rhine, known for its castle-laden landscapes, mountains, and forests.  At each stop, travelers choose their own activity from options that include an active outing, an off-the-beaten path site, or a traditional sightseeing tour. Activities along the Rhine include: Get Active: Hike near the picturesque towns of Eltville and Duisburg, climb up to Marksburg Castle for a guided visit with incredible panoramic views, participate in a reenactment of ancient Roman games at an archeological park (yes, for real!), cycle along the Rhine, and join a running tour in the city of canals, eye-popping Amsterdam. Try Hands-On Experiences: Do some wine tasting at Eltville, learn the art of chocolate making at the Chocolate Museum in Cologne, and taste German culinary delights on a tour of Duisburg. You can also bring home “bragging rights” by touring the former basalt-mining corridors in an ancient volcano, or take a painting class in the country that gave birth to masters such as Vermeer, Van Gogh, and Mondrian in Amsterdam. Take a Guided Tour: Travelers who crave a more traditional (but no less stunning) experience can tour a monastery so beautiful it was the setting of the classic film “The Name of the Rose,” take a guided walk in Cologne, a cable car ride to historic Ehrenbreitstein Castle in Koblenz, and, of course cruise Amsterdam’s canals, among other guided tour options. Eat Like a Local: Onboard dinners devoted to local culinary specialties will be a highlight for foodies, including regional dishes and wines offered in the ship’s Panorama Bistro. You can also eat your way through the town of Duisburg when you take a culinary walking tour. THE DANUBE Itinerary: An 8-day Active Discovery cruise between Linz and Budapest along the deservedly legendary “Blue Danube,” where unique cultures, natural beauty, and historic towns wait active travelers. Cruises are available eastbound and westbound.  At each stop along the Danube, cruisers will have several exploration options that include an active outing, an off-the-beaten path site, or a traditional sightseeing tour. Activities along the Danube include: Get Active: Enjoy the gorgeous natural wonders of the Danube region while exercising your body and mind when you hike along a “vintage” smugglers’ route, cycle to an ancient fortification, paddle a canoe along scenic local waterways, and take a running tour in Vienna, where Strauss composed his classic waltzes celebrating the Danube and other regional landmarks. Try Hands-On Experiences: Taste the exceptional fresh local cheeses, sip beer produced by Trappist monks near Linz, meet local farmers in the fertile Wachau Valley, attend an authentic medieval knights tournament in Visegard, and learn Hungarian during your day in Budapest. Take a Guided Tour: More traditional port activities are available, with the opportunity to watch bustling Vienna come to life on an early -morning walking tour (including breakfast at a classic Viennese cafe and a visit to Habsburg private art collection at the Museum of Fine Arts), meet an actual European count in his actual castle, and devote a day to tolerance on a visit to a WWII concentration camp.  Eat Like a Local: In addition to beer- and cheese-tasting tours, a tasting tour of Durnstein is available, along with a visit to the alluringly named Wine World for sipping local vintages. Regional culinary specialities and wines are also offered at dinnertime onboard in the ship’s Panorama Bistro. THE SHIPS Avalon Waterways’s river cruise ships serve as an elegant, contemporary home away from home, with Wall-to-Wall Panoramic Windows, headsets for guided excursions in ports, complimentary bicycles onboard, complimentary Nordic walking sticks, and much more. BOOK YOUR ACTIVE DISCOVERY CRUISE To book, or to learn more about Avalon Waterways Active Discovery cruises, please visit Avalon Waterways.

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