While cruise lines generally maintain the peace onboard and keep a tight watch on things, bad things happen to good cruisers all the time, and much of it is not widely publicized. From sexual assaults and disorderly conduct to cabin theft and drug use, ship security and local police authorities have their hands full. Likewise, cruisers also need to be cautious off ship; in 2012, for instance, 22 passengers were robbed at gunpoint while returning from an excursion in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Bottom line: Have a good time, but don’t leave caution to the wind.
You will be nickel-and-dimed to death.
One of cruising’s biggest cruising misconceptions is that ships are all-inclusive meccas. They’re not. While luxury lines generally include more in the tariff, mass-market cruisers will be assailed by a tsunami of extra charges -- booze, soft drinks, photos, dry-cleaning, excursions, internet, etc. Even food costs more if you dine in the lines’ for-fee restaurants, where tabs can run from about $10 to more than $75 per person (and alcohol is extra). Nothing can jolt a vacationer back into reality like a giant bar tab at cruise’s end.
Your cabin may be noisy.
The lines have to cram thousands of passengers into relatively small space, opening the door to potential aural issues. If you’re a light sleeper, select a cabin away from stairwells, elevators, major destinations (dining rooms, the spa) or a non-cabin deck above (otherwise, people will be tromping over your head at all hours, and perhaps even jogging if you’re beneath a promenade). Connecting cabins are notoriously un-private affairs, so unless you want to hear your neighbors sneeze, book a space that can’t be expanded next door.
Balconies are overrated.
Many diehard cruisers swear by them, but the cruise lines make a bundle by charging premium rates for these slivers of extra real estate. Sure, there are benefits (extra space in tight confines, a setting for alfresco meals, a spot to hide from fellow cruisers), but if you’re a gadabout who’s not going to spend a lot of time en suite, it may be a waste. Also, many balconies are duds -- obstructed by girders, open to decks above and perched directly over lifeboats. Be certain to check out a deck plan before you book, but even that won’t warn you that you’re sharing airspace with a smoker next door.
You may miss that can’t-miss port.
Ships frequently have to shift itineraries because of weather or mechanical issues; if it’s too windy, for instance, larger vessels will steer clear of tighter ports. Itineraries are also changed if there’s instability in a particular spot -- if riots flare up in Cairo, for example, your ship may go elsewhere or just spend another day at sea. Your compensation for missing that day in Monte Carlo you’ve been dreaming about? Usually nothing, thanks to the fine print in the contract you sign when you first book.
The ship isn’t going to wait for you.
Plane late on the day of debarkation? Lost track of time at Senor Frogs in Cancun? Stuck in traffic in a cab in Messina, Sicily? Sorry, your ship will cast off without you -- the captain is not going to delay thousands to accommodate your poor judgment. (If you’re on a trip-sponsored excursion that’s running late, however, you’re usually OK.) Worse still, you’re responsible for getting to the next port on your own to meet up with your clothes and toothbrush.
You won’t be alone.
Even cruising veterans are sometimes confounded by the sheer number of people they’re sharing pool space with; consider staying onboard during a port call for a little “you” time. Also, check before you sign on the dotted line to be sure you haven’t inadvertently booked a theme cruise (or you’ll be spending your vacation with thousands of Kid Rock or I Love Lucy fans). Likewise, don’t expect those “private islands” that the cruise lines love to brag about to provide much privacy -- beaches, dining halls and recreation areas become packed soon after a ship docks, and sometimes several ships share the sandy havens on the same day. Do yourself a favor and head out midday; you’ll find them much less peopled and, possibly, you’ll even be alone.
But know this: Don’t despair. For the most part, high-seas voyages are relatively calm and carefree affairs that provide you with plenty of opportunities for relaxation, discovery and only-on-a-cruise-ship gluttony. Just keep these pointers in mind, and you’ll be in for smooth sailing -- and your second cruise will be even better.